I guess it is obvious I take these pictures where I live. Here’s the window over here; my lady-like chintz arm chair over there. I eat here and work here. In the dark early hours of Saturday morning, I curled up here and cried – and fell asleep for a while, until I was ready to climb back into bed and dream.
The window is large and bright, but there’s a limit to how much light I can wring out of gloomy skies. So, if you look close, some petals are softer and darker than maybe they should be. But it doesn’t matter very much to me. These fragments of time are just about us looking at something together. Grocery store flowers turning towards each other like a flock of red and yellow birds, flashing their bellies as they disperse into darker branches. You can see it for yourself in the window light, and know that it’s true.
The worst things happen. People leave us here without them, and time becomes heavy and real, like shoes made of lead. The hard part is how ordinary things are still waiting for us. The empty chair persists, but so does the window light. Somehow, someday, they start to co-exist. But not yet. Not today.
The world ends so abruptly. Suddenly, gravity is palpable, pinning you here, when the only answer you can think of is, No. No.
Each instance is so particular, no one else’s history is much help. But we stand here nonetheless, in the spot where gravity left us stranded as well, made us softer – stretched us out until there was another day, and another and another.
Our home ran on tea, brewed in a big brown pot, speckled with red and turquoise buds, with golden vines and leaves trailing between the dots. Brewed so dark – black as a stepmother’s heart our friend Linda used to say. For a while, I was buying the same teapot whenever I found a small one. Their round, brown bellies filled me with memories of certainty and ordinary days. Maybe all the answers went with the big teapot, wherever it ended up.
I think Marv and Barbara would know what to say – so you would know how dearly they loved you. I love you, too.
I did a few little things for you today. Braved the yuppies to buy pumpernickel at Whole Foods. Ordered some socks for decadent feet (not mine, but someone you would like, who stands all day at work.) Made tea after dinner, because you can’t start talking without tea. Coffee is fine for thinking and doing. But the teapot pours forth amber poetry by the mugful, biting your tongue with tannins, leaving traces of baked sugar behind. If you want to talk until long after midnight, it’s tea you need.
Now I know why I’ve been craving tea in the morning. You’re here for a few days, aren’t you? Oh boy, I miss you plenty – but you know that’s hard for me to show. So much of me is modeled on the person I thought you were, that sometimes it’s like you’ve never really gone. Unless I think about it.
We’re in the middle of a really bad storm, and also – there are zombies. Getting through it – I know you’d say – that’s the easy part. It’s the after when I could use you, so please – hang around, ok? Because after all this, it’s us who will have to be the solid ones. And I really don’t know how to do that.
The pumpernickel was good – dense and chewy, spread thick with butter. Apple slices and cheese, too, for dessert. But drinking tea with you, that was the best. I was going to ask for your intercession, but there’s only one thing I really want. Hang around a little while longer, will you?
The expanding dark brings its own pleasures – the reassurance of glowing windows, the cozy warmth of extra blankets, the snug nest of home – all compensations for the ever receding daylight. Really, you can’t live here unless you can find some delight in the dark and the cold. Overhead, more stars than any summer sky will reveal. The certain knowledge that, even during the deepest freezes, you will see someone at the grocery store buying charcoal in shorts and flip-flops. And, it must be said, brandy in your coffee.
I don’t want to leave my Sunday flowers behind, and I don’t want to think about how different this winter may be. The leagues we’ve travelled these seven months – and we still have a long way to go – trapped on this Ship of Fools. I don’t want to let this catastrophe shake my faith in winter. Winter drawing us into our grateful hearts, sinking us into the patient sleep that earth and every creature knows must be taken so we can do the work that only rest can accomplish.
The last rose of the season isn’t like the first one, tickled pink out of her bud by warmth and sun and rain. The last rose takes the dare of failing light and shivering nights. She blooms willfully, a determined glint in her eye. The last rose is gambler who knows she will have to fold – but plays her hand anyway, because either you are in the game or you’re not.
Winter is coming, but not today. Today, there’s still some time to feel the sun, and it’s warm here by the window, in the light.
Oh, yes, I mean that so hard. Thank youse (which is Chicago for “y’all”). For picking up my pieces by telling me your own mishaps, around our grown up campfire. For calling me back from way Up North and far out West, and just the other side of the Beltline – and soothing all my ruffled feathers back into wings that will be sky-worthy again tomorrow.
Now tonight, I’ll just think about your voices, and how lucky I am to find kindness without even asking. And flowers in mid-October still reaching for light and air, beaming with confidence that whatever they need will be given, in return for another day becoming.
I bought some apples today – and more of the juicy colored dahlias still crowding the prime corner stall at the entrance to the North Side farmer’s market. It’s not a fancy market. A strip of parking lot, between the bank and the co-op, set aside for maybe 20 local vendors. The pickings are leaner and leaner each week. Still, leeks are stacked high next to the bok choy, and huge sunflower seed heads are dried and ready to fatten the birds (and inevitably the squirrels) before the snow comes.
You probably eat apples a lot – but I don’t anymore. I haven’t bought an apple in over 10 years.* But my heart melted when I heard the little – and I mean little – Hmong couple explaining to another customer that the 2 varieties for sale had grown on one tree.
He and she saw me looking at the apples in their open crates. Honey Crisps streaked with red and yellow, piled next to the deep, ancient red of the Anonymous Apple, with fruit just the size of a small peach.
“Both good, no spray!” they told me. “Same tree?” I asked. “Oh yes, yes! Four kinds, one tree!” they proudly announced. This bit of apple magic has always enchanted me – mostly, I suppose, because it tells an irresistible story of human curiosity and imagination. With a knife and slip of a bud from another tree, your young apple whip will adopt that bud as its own, and grow another, completely different apple for your pies or cider or brandy.
My farmers obviously relished the idea as much as I did. I could clearly see their smiles beaming through their masks. “Oooh!” I said, raising my eyebrows high so they could read my delight. “Four on one tree? Oh, boy! Wonderful!” I took home two Honey Crisps and 2 Anonymous Apples – my indulgence for the week.
You may have forgotten how fully an apple can engage your senses. The snap of the skin, the dark wine tang fused with a burst of sweet, creamy flesh – tender and crisp at the same time, like a perfectly baked potato. I don’t know if any other fruit has remained such a loyal and common companion to us for so long. Antique apple varieties are an edible encyclopedia of human history. Selected for hundreds of years by our ancestors, their flavors connect us to other centuries with every mouthful. But even more wonderous to me, is that any time-traveller would recognize our modern apples, and take the same delight in Red Delicious and Honey Crisp as we do in a Winesap or Red Pippin.
Anonymous Apple, you were worth it. It’s ok to leave aside some pleasures when you need to, for purposes that you believe in. But old pleasures may serve a purpose deeper than the one you’ve chosen. At once new and familiar, they invite you to a discovery at the core of every day – something so sweet, tasted again for the first time.
*I stand by this statement but last year, on the 10th anniversary of Marv’s death, I bought caramel apples for my crew, because Marv and caramel apples, you know? And my friend cut an apple in half for us to share, because sometimes it’s important to cut a caramel apple in half, and share it with someone you love. And, yes. It was as good as you remember.
It never occurred to me that my enchantment with flowers was any greater than the average hopeless romantic – city dwelling or otherwise. And this lovely question has kept me recollecting my life in flowers all week long. I certainly have needed flowers, more than ever – since the world ended this spring.
I mean that earnestly. Between March and May, the most hopeful days I can remember dissolved into more sadness than I ever imagined I could contain. After a decade of pilgrimages to the groves of crabapples and magnolias and lilacs curated at the Arboretum, this spring the petals unexpectedly lost their sweetness. Every unfurling blossom seemed to peel back another layer of my disappointment and heartbreak. The tender pink branches opened and opened without me. I had to let my ritual go, like so many other little joys I’d never thought to question. Especially on Sundays.
(Spoiler alert, my dears, lest you worry yourself. I’m really, truly fine. In fact, I might even be a little better than before. I’m actually that stubborn.)
What the flowers have made clear to me is simple. The things we are waiting for others to give us – we need to give ourselves. This is not to say we don’t need others to warm us, nourish us, help our gardens grow. I would not have hoped at all without another more loving voice, insisting I see myself through those other, loving eyes.
Still, it is up to us to un-break our own hearts. There’s no one else to do it, darling. And you can’t repair your heart with stinginess. It takes flowers and lots of them. Flowers every Sunday.
The calendar says September, but October is already washing the green off the trees, revealing the golden, internal fire they’ve absorbed from the nearest star. Marigold colored ash leaves carpet our rainy street, carried against the curb like pools of petals. The maples have just begun to turn – and there are weeks to go before they stand bare for winter.
You don’t need me to tell you the farmer’s market was full of winter squash and pumpkins, straggling corn and the last flush of tomatoes and raspberries. The stems on the late dahlias are thick as branches, trimmed week after week of their crop of neon pompoms. The sunflowers stand on thin, reedy stems that will nod down over the next day or two, dusting the table with hopeful pollen.
I loved the cheery pictures I took of my mismatched dahlias, clashing like polka dots and checkered slacks.* Their crayon-box colors radiated in the low, rainy light – lemon yellow, red-orange, carnation pink and white. Maybe it was the Bob Wills, or – God Help Me – the George Strait – but we were sincerely swinging.
But the melancholy sky needed its voice today, as well. Sometimes you just have to see things for what they are. Sometimes you know with all your heart you can’t do something. No matter how much you feel you should. No matter what it will mean to follow that inner voice saying, “Not this.” Those feelings are elemental. You can work with them, re-combine them – but you can’t ignore the places they illuminate in your heart.
(*”I face the music, I face the facts, even when we walk in polka dots and checkered slacks.” – Two Little Hitlers, Elvis Costello.)
I love the dahlias. The lipstick colors, gratuitous petals and thick, expressive stems – it’s like God gave their blossoms a boob job. I mean, you can’t help but stare. And wonder what they’d look like in your little green vase.
Buying flowers on Sunday isn’t an indulgence – although I’m not proud of that. It’s been a blessing I sorely needed, a reminder that it takes no work at all to fall in love. Fresh from the buckets crammed into the flat-bed of the farmer’s truck, their beauty is so urgent. Flowers won’t tolerate your procrastination. The curl of that lip-tender petal can’t wait until you’ve been a good citizen and vacuumed something dusty. Their light is only here so long. Tomorrow morning, the petals will already be just a little bored with putting on their show, no matter how dutifully you give them fresh water to drink.
I wish I was more useful for the people I love just now. Life has taken them deeper into her labyrinth – to places I was too scared and too self-centered to go. And their current troubles don’t have answers that can fit into a coffee cup, or a rocks glass. Even listening seems too meager a response – but I don’t know what else I can do.
This picture isn’t much help, I guess. It’s all about me and my patchwork life, scrapped together from wrong choices I’ve found a way to live with. I guess me and the flowers are looking for the same thing. Just to find our light in the late afternoon, and trust that if we miss it today, it will come around again on Sunday.
Any excuse to drive around aimlessly has always been good enough for me, but Saturday was especially good. From noon ’til 2, the student radio host on WSUM shuffled through the Springsteen song book from the late 90s and early 2000s – Tunnel of Love, Magic, Human Touch. By the time I was done at the bank, I figured I might as well drive around in the rain, listening to Bruce, as go home. I really don’t have enough responsibilities for someone my age. There’s nothing to stop me from deciding to stay gone, just so I can sing along with the radio for an hour or two.
So I escaped for a while to drive through the prairie that winds behind the Farm and Fleet in Verona. This prairie is an old friend. I went there for the sunrise, the morning after my mother died. I aired out my mind and heart many depressed days, climbing its mowed paths. After every visit, I left with more.
Still, I can’t remember any time it was more beautiful than Saturday. I felt I had never seen the clearings and the groves before. Saturated with rain, vivid green branches and golden flowers shimmered against the murky grey sky. I had to pull onto the shoulder – and just watch. Butterflies and birds came and went between the tall grass and the tree tops. With the windows open, I stared at the horizon, memorizing the curve of the hill, the space between the branches against the sky. No camera, just eyes. And all the while, Bruce. Is that you, baby – or just some brill-iant dis-gueye-eye-eyes?
I lost track of time, and the songs. Finally, I was ready to go. I had to make myself keep rolling past the further vistas of more and more sunflowers and rudbeckia, leaning toward the road, heavy with rain. I could have stopped every few car lengths.
Then, at the bottom of the hill by the huge, white equipment barn, I had to turn around and wind back up the road again. To re-absorb the plentiful sky and take in another scrap of wild prairie – just to have room to breath my heart back into my body. Because this song – Hello Sunshine (Won’t You Stay). Because this song – I got out my phone to text you, and I shouldn’t. Because this song – knows something so tender that I am not brave enough to say again. Because this song – I feel I can forgive Bruce now for “Nebraska.”