Tag Archive | Beauty


IMG_5194 (800x533)Calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved.  When I was young, we would go two or three times a year on the four-hour trip to visit my Aunt Doris.  On the one hand, a trip to Aunt Doris’s house was something to look forward to.  She lives in a fascinating place:  in a cedar log house in the middle of a redwood forest on the side of a hill with a small creek at the bottom of the ravine.  There are even banana slugs there.  And she did everything you want an auntie to do:  she gave us little presents, she baked homemade cookies and pies, she shared her extensive collection of movies on videotape with us (it was the 1980s; this was high-tech), she let us help her as she fed the wild birds and squirrels which flocked to her deck, and she took us to interesting tourist spots or shopping centers or other fun places.

On the other hand, though, I was a teenager, and even in the most interesting and nurturing of places, I could find a way to be BORED!  One time, I started to look at the gardening catalogs in the basket next to her rocking chair.  Park Seed had the most varieties of flowers to read about.  Jackson & Perkins was fine, with good pictures, but a significant majority of their volume was dedicated to roses.  My mom already had roses, and they seemed kind of obvious and even old-fashioned.  But Wayside Gardens was the best; the photos on the pages of the catalog were larger and glossier, and there was hardly a variety listed that did not have an accompanying color-saturated photo along the outer margin of the same page.

I am not saying this was cool; I was BORED, you understand, so these were desperate times.  But after a while, I found myself looking forward to seeing what was new and different and exotic.  I was most drawn to those flowers with particularly striking colors or interesting shapes.  That is how I found the calla lilies.  They were just so fascinating.  The unique outer petal IMG_5656 (535x800)wrapped itself in a circle, but without symmetry.  It wasn’t a cup, like a tulip, and it wasn’t a trumpet, like an Asiatic lily.  It was more like a cape worn by the kind of gentleman who could ride a horse, draw a sword, and charm a lady, all without losing his dashing posture or wit.  The colors featured in the photographs were always stunning, too:  solid, bold hues of yellow, orange, purple, fuchsia, and white, with perhaps one or two varieties that gradually blushed from one color to another up the petals.  I have heard these catalogs described as pornography for gardeners, and as an adolescent, I was every bit as captivated by the beauty, the mystery, and the sensuality of those photos as I might have been by the other kind.

I am not sure why I never convinced my mother that we should order some of those calla lily specimens for our very own; perhaps I did not think they would do well in our yard, shaded as it was by four large oak trees.  But ever since I have been a homeowner, I have sought out calla lilies.  When we lived in Boston, I would carefully dig the rhizomes out of the ground each year after the first frost, dry them, store them through the cold season in my basement in a small crate lined with shredded newspaper, and then replace them in the front yard after the ground had thawed and the danger of frost was past. Although the flowers were lovely, the whole process felt like an awkward mix between an amateur scientist’s experiment and a fussy craftsperson’s new project.

Since we moved to the South, I do not have to fuss like that any more.  A few years ago, I smothered the grass around the mail box under several layers of wet newspaper and two or three inches of cypress mulch.  And one of the first things I planted in the resulting flower bed the following spring were some pink and yellow calla lilies I found at a local nursery.  I was thrilled, and I have continued to be thrilled every year since then as they thrust the tip of their first leaves above the rotting oak leaves in the early spring, unfurling them in a dramatic foreshadowing of the petals to come, then sending up their stems to reveal those gentlemanly capes of pink and yellow.

Well, almost thrilled.  A flower bed is never really perfectly arranged, is it?  Over time, the Mexican heather and gerbera daisies which alternate in a line between the calla lilies and the edge of the driveway have grown, spreading to crowd the calla lilies.  So last week, I decided it was time to dig up the bulbs of the calla lilies to move them three or four inches to the east, giving everything room to continue to grow.

And as I dug, I was amazed.  When I purchased the pink and yellow calla lilies, there were three or four stems growing in each pot.  Since they were already blooming, making them easier to sell at the nursery, I was careful to plant them without disturbing the roots any more than necessary.  And, of course, I had not seen anything of what was going on underground since then.  I suspected they had spread some, since the patches of leaves and flowers had increased in diameter each year.  But when I loosened the soil in my search for the rhizomes last week, I kept finding more and more and more.  In each place I dug, there were relatively large systems which included several nodules connected together, ready to produce multiple roots and stems in the coming weeks.  And there were even more independent little bulblets, each with its own small point on the top ready to push a tip through the rotting oak leaves and unfurl.  I kept sifting through the dirt, pulling out more and more, until I had two piles, one of the pink variety and one of the yellow, each with dozens of brown blobs ready to grow and bloom with my beloved calla lilies.

And I marveled for a few minutes about God’s abundance.  Our world was created as a place where, given the right conditions, beauty and joy can multiply over time.  Our world is a place where the asymmetrical, the dashing, and the fascinating can thrive and expand.  Our world rewards teenagers who are BORED, and homeowners who experiment and fuss, and gardeners who don’t have any idea what is happening under the oak leaves rotting on top of the ground.  Our world fosters growth by providing caring aunties, glossy photographs of bold hues, and flower beds that have to be rearranged every few years.  Our world never ceases to amaze me, and its Creator never ceases to deserve a doxology:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

I put the most complex systems of rhizomes back in the ground, alternating the pink and the yellow, in a line that is longer now, wrapping down the slope and around to the front of the mailbox.  I am not sure all of them will grow; the ground stays pretty wet as it gets closer to the street, so some of the roots might rot.  And the rest I potted this evening, reusing the cheap plastic containers from plants I have brought home from the nursery.  I watered them, and I will put them out in the sun tomorrow, hoping the tips of the leaves poke up in the next few weeks.  If these potted calla lilies grow, I will give them to the Windsor Forest Garden Club to put out at their annual plant sale at the end of next month.  Because calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved, and I want to share the abundance of beauty and joy our world produces with others.


IMG_1770 (800x533)Where I live, we’ve had a lot of rain recently, so now, we have a lot of mushrooms in our community. They are growing in all the neighbors’ lawns. Some look like perfect toadstools, with a skinny stem and a wide top, shaped so that a small mouse caught in a Disney movie could find shelter during a sudden storm. Some are tall and thin with a narrow, pointed top which are best described as, um, erect. Some are oddly shaped, with tops that are wavy and irregular and almost no stem to raise them off the ground. Many are a creamy eggshell color on the top, but others are brown or yellow or gray or green or even a dusty but vivid orange-red. Some have spots or streaks that look like shadows, while others are smooth and constant.

Every time I see the mushrooms as I take the family dog on our daily walk through our neighborhood, I feel compelled to run home, grab my camera, and retrace my steps to try to capture some photos of the neighborhood fungi. Lately, I have paused before acting on that impulse because I am not sure why I have it. They are not beautiful. Even with the best of camera settings, with high-contrast lighting, saturated colors, and blurry backgrounds to make the resulting photos as dramatic as possible, they are still just mushrooms. They are plain at best and disgusting at worst. They are certainly not the subjects for the kind of photos one would want to hang on one’s wall. So why do I feel driven to photograph them?

The mushrooms are not beautiful, but they are fascinating. I think it is the similarity between those two evaluations which compels me to get my camera, and I think it is difference between them which has lately made me pause before using up more precious megapixels. Just think about the words themselves. Both beauty and fascination are nouns, and both can be expressed as adjectives, too: beautiful and fascinating. But when you try to make them verbs, things go awry. Something can fascinate, although it will require a direct object which is willing to be fascinated. But to be transformed into an action, beauty needs a little help. Although one can beautify, it sounds a bit awkward; one would be better off making beauty, or creating beauty, and then beauty itself becomes the object and the action gets put elsewhere.

Both beauty and fascination are subjective; one person might find something beautiful or fascinating or both, while someone else may not. Both beauty and fascination are a part of the equation of beholding, but they come at it differently. Beauty is something intrinsic to the object itself: a beautiful flower bears its beauty whether someone is looking at it or not. Fascination, on the other hand, happens inside the observer: an object is not considered fascinating until someone notices it, studies it, and allows it to evoke wonder or curiosity.

Besides our neighborhood mushrooms, how else might that distinction between evaluating some things as “beautiful” and others as “fascinating” be applied? Objects in nature can be either; as a gardener, I have encountered and planted specimens in my yard that were beautiful but not fascinating, as well as ones that are fascinating but not beautiful. Visual arts have a more clear purpose which can allow a judgment of either beauty or fascination; a piece might be created to communicate beauty, but it also might be designed to communicate other messages which make it fascinating, even if the piece itself is not considered terribly beautiful. Similar things could be said about writing. But what about sounds? Music can be beautiful, whether it is from a bird or an orchestra; it can also be fascinating, although only the most academic of critics would sit through a symphony or a song that is fascinating but not beautiful. And what about food, or odors, or textures? We add other senses, so that something can have a pleasing taste or smell or feel in addition to its visual beauty. And, at the same time, its flavors, odors, textures, and appearance might also be fascinating.

So what about people? I’m not sure more could be said of the myths of human beauty and the mysteries of human attraction, so I will only say this. One of the pieces of the Christian way of seeing the world I treasure most deeply is the affirmation that all people are loved by their Creator, and through that love, every person is made beautiful, no matter what he or she looks like. As with a flower, human beauty is intrinsic, and I find that truth to be one of the most beautiful. Fascination, on the other hand, happens in the mind of the beholder, and I think it is in there somewhere that we can understand such phenomena as attraction, tolerance, kinship, jealousy, pity, empathy, and a whole lot of others.

The window of opportunity to photograph mushrooms is very small. After only a few hours of sunshine, they start to shrivel, to shrink, and to fall, and no matter what colors they displayed when they were at their peak, they all turn to a mushy, slimy brown. At that stage, I do not find them fascinating any more, and I am not even tempted to take a photograph; their value to me is simply that they will decompose and add their minerals, fibers, water, and other nutrients to the soil underneath. Still, we had some rain this evening, so when I go on my walk tomorrow morning, shall I take my camera along with me?

The Maple

IMG_9134 (800x534)I really don’t know what to do with the ornamental maple tree in my front yard.

It is in the lawn near the curb, about equal distance from our driveway and the property line, and it was put there by the previous owner of the house.  The one time I met him, he proudly explained to me that he was really a country boy at heart.  One of his chief goals in designing his landscape was to ensure that, from the house, he could not see any of the neighbors’ roofs.  In a neighborhood where each house is about twelve to fifteen feet from the one next door, that is a quite a challenge.  He was supported in this goal by his father-in-law, or perhaps it was his stepfather, who owned a nursery.  He could get all the trees he wanted for free or cheap.  Within two weeks of moving in, we had nine trees removed from the property.  There were the four swamp cypress, which shove their knobby knees up from their roots, spreading in search of water when they are not planted in a swamp.  Those knees, several friends told us, were strong enough that they could crack a driveway and even disturb a slab foundation.  Since all four were within a few feet of our driveway or foundation, they had to go.  There was the enormous holly tree planted too close to the corner of the house and the two Bradford pears behind it, all of which hung over the house in a way that was not healthy for either the trees or the structure.  And there were the two ornamental maples in the back yard, which were so close to a cedar that they were being choked in both their roots and crowns.  They were never going to thrive there, the arborist told us; besides the obvious crowding, they were a non-native species which really needed a colder climate to thrive.  So away they went.

But even after the tree people did their work, there was still a small forest of oak, pine, palm, birch, cedar, and magnolia, along with at least four specimens of that same species of ornamental maple, crammed onto our average suburban lot.  Most of those trees are in the back yard near the fence, a safe distance from the house.  Only four trees pepper our front lawn:  the old river birch, a palm on the other side of the driveway, a healthy adolescent white oak, and the poor, struggling ornamental maple.

I ought to simply take it down, but the buzz among my neighbors is that, since it is planted between the water meter and the curb, the city would object to its removal.  I do not view that as an insurmountable problem, since everyone agrees that, if it should die, I would have no choice but to remove it.  I certainly have a few ideas about how to hasten its demise, but I also have a hard time vandalizing a poor tree, no matter how out-of-place it is, to the point of murder.  Each spring, I watch all of the trees in the front yard proclaim their message of life after death.  The river birch starts the process of announcing the new season, with its leaves coming out in March and April, about the same time as the blossoms burst with their bright green pollen as they fall on my cars, driveway, and front walk.  Then, the white oak leaves unfurl, changing over a period of a couple of weeks from light pink buds to the dark green, outstretched fingers of the full-grown leaves.  By May, though, the maple usually hasn’t done much; its plain branches remain bare.  And I start to hope:  maybe this year, a hard frost finally did it in.  Maybe its roots, which are planted so shallow that I can see them worming their way through the topsoil at its base, have finally withered.  Maybe a disease or fungus or some other fatal trauma has visited the maple, which has always seemed vulnerable to such things.  But no.  Each year, by late May, when the temperatures are really becoming unbearable for the northerners who live around here, a pitiful few seed pods start to appear and ripen, followed a week or two later by some small, pointed leaves.  The maple lives again, and my hope that I could cut it down after its unfortunate but inevitable death is once again dashed.

It lingers through the summer, not really doing anything interesting, never growing or spreading as much as the other trees on our street.  I have to dodge its spindly lower branches as I mow the lawn, and every once in a while, I have to trim a branch here and there which has been snapped by some wind storm or other force.  This past summer, my son conjured up a game in the front yard which involved taking a larger stick and banging it against the trunk of the ornamental maple, pretending to fight it or cut it down, I am not sure which, until the stick broke.  I might have encouraged that game with more enthusiasm than some of the other ones he played this year, since it played out one of my own fantasies.

But then, fall comes.  Each year, the river birch is the first to litter the lawn in a shower of bright yellow in late September or early October.  The oak follows soon after Halloween as its leaves turn to a dull yet rich orange that quickly and seamlessly becomes a dry brown.  The maple holds out, waiting for a chill to fill the air and tell it to go through its own process of death and preparation for rebirth.  Since we are so temperate around here, it seems like it will never get cold en0ugh to trigger the poor thing into its necessary rest.  And then, usually just after Thanksgiving, the air turns nippy for a day or two.  And the maple puts on a display that is almost overwhelming in its vibrancy.

That display happened this week.  One morning, my son walked out the front door, and I think I actually heard surprise take his breath away.  The sun was just coming up over the enormous live oaks at the end of the street, so the air was bright with that golden hue coveted by painters and photographers.  And with the leaves on the other trees already faded, the maple radiated in front of us.  He declared that it looked almost like it was on fire, and he was right.  It was glowing.  It was explosive.  It was brilliant, in the way that I imagine the appearance of God’s Holy Spirit was brilliant as it danced like tongues of fire over the heads of the disciples fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection.  It was breathtaking.

And it was confusing. What do I do with a tree like that?  Most of the time it is in the way.  It is out of place.  It is uninteresting.  It doesn’t fit in the bigger picture of my landscape or in the cycles of this climate.  And yet, for a few days each year, it shocks me again with the power of its beauty.  And I can’t just cut it down.

Two Hummingbirds

IMG_7167 (2) (800x534)There are two hummingbirds who have been nourishing themselves on the feeder outside my living room window in the past few weeks.  One is absolutely gorgeous.  The ruby of his throat is a deep, vibrant, fire-engine jewel tone.  The green on his wings and his back match the red in its tone.  He is a little bit smaller than the other one, as if his colors are made more intense by concentration.  It seems like every time I look out the window, he is zipping around the feeder.  First he sticks his beak into the hole in the middle of one of the small, aluminum flower petals, reaching his proboscis all the way down to the sugar-water in the dish which is secured underneath the hole.  Then, he jumps back and hovers in the air for a minute as if he has to let the sweet lubricant settle into the deepest part of his being before finding his way to another of the aluminum-petaled flowers.  I am reluctant to tell him that each flower leads to the same reservoir of sweetness; I guess he will figure out the physics of it all on his own if it becomes important to him.  Sometimes he rests his wings for a minute as he drinks; most of the time, though, he remains suspended in air, using some of that intense, sugar-fueled energy even as he sucks it into his tiny body.

I would love to get a photograph of him.  If I could get the light just right, his ruby throat and his emerald back and even his pearly belly and face would practically glow.  So every time I see him taking a meal, I quickly pull out the camera and quietly head outside.  But immediately, as soon as he sees me or hears me or uses whatever sense he uses to perceive my presence, he flies away.  It does not matter how quietly I open and close the door, or how slowly I put the view finder on the camera to my eye, or how steadily, almost imperceptibly, I step around the corner to get a clear shot.  He will not stick around long enough for me to take his photo.  And he refuses to return as long as I sit there.  I can pull out my folding canvas chair, prop my camera on my lap, and sit still for what seems like hours.  Something has told him to be afraid of me, and he will not return.

But as I sit there on my patio, I am frequently able to see the other hummingbird which hangs around my feeder.  She is much, much friendlier than the other one.  She might wait for a few minutes to let me settle in, but then I hear her buzzing vibrations in the air, and she comes flitting about the feeder.  Like the other, she goes from this aluminum-petal-framed hole to that one, stopping between sips to let her meal settle a bit, sometimes resting on the edge of the feeder and sometimes continuing to let her wings beat as she takes her high-calorie nourishment.  While she sometimes prefers to drink from the hole on the opposite side of the feeder from where I sit, she will almost always spend at least some time on my side, with a clear view from my camera.  She even helpfully steps back from the feeder for a second or two so the auto-focus on the camera can capture her, rather than the feeder itself, making the photos come out much more clear.  She is the one in the photo above.

There is only one problem: this hummingbird is nowhere near as beautiful as the other one.  She doesn’t have much of a ruby throat; only one, small patch on her throat is red at all, and it lacks the vibrancy of the others.  It is a bit off-center, too, making it look more like a blemish than a feature of her complexion.  And the green on her back is a bit dull, too; it is more of a brown, really, and even the white of her chest and head seems to have a grayish tint.  So I find myself greeting her kindly, but not moving as eagerly to take her photograph.  She’s nice and all, but what I really want to capture in my lens is the other, more beautiful one.

It is hard for me to even admit this.  To say this publicly requires to admit just how shallow I am.  I assign a greater value to the more attractive one.  And I easily dismiss the other, less attractive one as friendly enough, but not really worthy of my best photographic attention.  Why do I do this to myself?  Is it simply because I put too much value on the judgements of others?  If I could just get a photograph of the prettier bird, people would want to look at my photograph; they would place a greater value on the product I produce, and maybe even a greater value on me, too.  Is it that kind of pride?  Or is it something else?  Is it some primal impulse within me that I cannot control?  Is it because I am naturally drawn to the more attractive one, as if anything that is stronger or prettier will help me to conceive a more attractive offspring, who will be more likely to find his or her own mate and carry my genetic material well into the future?  Is this some kind of survival of the fittest instinct, spilling all over my backyard?

Or am I really just a shallow person?

Why am I unable to look at even something as inconsequential as my hummingbird feeder and avoid getting swept up into the myth of beauty?  Why am I incapable of turning off my evaluation of physical features, even if just for a moment of lounging in my backyard?  Why does it seem like I can only direct my viewfinder toward that which is most vivacious, most sexy, most bold in its beauty?  Why do I judge like that?

I’ve been working my way through Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now:  Living in the Spirit.  It is one of those books of short pieces which you have to read slowly and savor or you will become quickly overwhelmed with introspection. In one short essay entitled “The Burden of Judgement,” Nouwen cites anonymous fourth-century desert fathers, who simply and truthfully pointed out that “‘judging others is a heavy burden.'”  And Nouwen invites the reader to imagine “having no need at all to judge anybody.”  “Wouldn’t that be true inner freedom?” he asks (p. 60).

And I realize as I imagine that I long for that freedom.  I don’t know the origin of it, but I have heard of a greeting that is shared by some Christians that goes, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.”  It’s a bit of an awkward phrase, but it acknowledges that something deep inside of each of us bears the image of God.  If I could overcome the impulse to judge; if I could look past the shallow evaluations of appearances; if I could cease putting one person or one creature beside another, or putting all creatures beside myself, in order to point out the flaws in each one, then I would be free of something which, now that the desert fathers mention it, really does feel like a heavy burden.  That freedom would open my soul to receive every person, every creature, as a unique gift which bears a reflection of nothing less than God.

I sat on my patio for almost an hour this afternoon, simply reading a magazine and enjoying what was going on around me.  With an almost-seven-year-old boy in the house, I don’t get a chance to sit like that very often; I even had to spend some of the time ignoring the scratches of our resident chocolate lab on the back door.  As I sat, I saw all kinds of beauty around me.  Blue jays flew in and out of the trees.  A young squirrel perched on a branch of the dying oak by the fence.  First one tufted titmouse, and then another, came along to get an afternoon snack on the bird feeder.  Then, a brilliant cardinal wanted a turn, but he was chased away by some other bird.  And I saw my friends the hummingbirds.  The more outgoing one took her turn on the feeder and went to a tree branch to watch for a while.  A little while later, two others flew in over the roof from the front yard, but the strangers couldn’t even make it to the aluminum-petaled flowers before the other two swooped out of the trees and chased them away.  The whole time I was out there, it was difficult for me to resist the urge to go inside and get my camera.  But because I resisted the urge, I didn’t gaze at what was going on around me through the lens of my own judgements.  I didn’t have to decide which of the creatures I was watching was more beautiful than the others.  I could simply enjoy them all, each one filled with its own reflection of the beauty of its Creator.

I felt so free that the Christ in me almost sang a doxology:  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

What My Hibiscus Knows

I have lots of photos of hibiscus; I can't believe I don't have a photo of the pink one!

I have lots of photos of hibiscus; I can’t believe I don’t have a photo of the pink one!

I think my pink hibiscus has made a choice, and her choice gives me hope.

Most people around here treat the tropical hibiscus as an annual:  once the first frost has taken away the last chance of any more big, bold, flashy flowers unfolding for the year, most people dig them up and throw them away.  Then, in the early spring, those folks find new hibiscus plants at the stores, and while they are not the cheapest plants, they are widely available and ready to bloom by early April.

But not me.  I know that I could go this afternoon to the nearest big-box store to have my pick of greenhouse-grown hibiscus, with their intense colors already fully exposed.  Maybe it is because I am too cheap, and I can’t bring myself to discard a perfectly good plant; maybe it is because I am too sympathetic, and I feel like any plant that has made it through the winter ought to have a fighting chance to show its beauty again.  But I just can’t dig up the old hibiscus and throw them away.  So I don’t mind that they lose their leaves in the winter; after the first frost, their usual verdant, green hue starts to droop, and the blossoms all close and drop.  Then the leaves turn a color which evokes the “gifts” my son often gave me in his diaper.  Once the leaves dry, they fall to the ground and insulate the roots from further frosts, leaving only bare sticks poking toward the sky.

My hibiscus plants have now gone through two of these cycles.  Last year, though, the pink one had a rough time.  Well, I say she is pink; the color of her petals is more of a hot, strong fuchsia, with a bloody-red center just like her yellow and orange friends’.  As the new stems started growing upward in the late spring, she showed signs of catching a fungus.  The disease seemed to clear up on its own, but a couple of her stems started to lean over to be parallel to the ground.  Then as they grew again, they curved to continue straight toward the sky.  She was just a little too close to the black-eyed susans in front of her to begin with, so once she lost her straight, upright form, her leaves and blooms intermingled with the spreading, gold-and-brown pile of wildflowers.  The confusion that resulted was not the high point of garden design.

Fast forward a few months.  It was February before we had our first freeze this year, exceptionally late even for our sub-tropical climate.  Before the hibiscus froze, new leaves had a chance to form around the bases of the plants.  These are the beginnings of the new stems each year.  Within a couple of weeks, the leaves around the yellow and orange hibiscus had succumbed to a subsequent frost.  But not the pink one.  I think it might have been because of her unusual shape, or maybe because she was more closely surrounded by the plants around her, but through all the other frosty mornings, she never lost the fresh, green leaves which had started coming from her base.

I expected that the pink hibiscus would capitalize on her advantage.  I expected she would use her overwintering leaves to get a jump on the season.  I expected that she would keep growing her nascent stems skyward so that she could position her leaves to get the most sunlight, before the new season’s leaves even started to grow around the base of her friends.  I expected she would strive hard to bloom first, attracting all the bees and butterflies to help her in the process of reproducing herself.  But that’s not what she did.

Instead, she waited.  Her leaves, which she developed so early, didn’t disappear, but they didn’t grow, either, until the other hibiscus had similar leaves ready to shoot up into tall stems.  I realize that the hibiscus plant doesn’t have any agency, and that there is some scientific gobbldy-gook about the light and the air temperature which explain why she didn’t grow up early.  But I prefer to believe that she purposely waited for her friends.  I prefer to believe that she decided not to get out ahead of the others.  I prefer to imagine that she chose not to capitalize on her good fortune, the gift of some leaves which were not bitten by the frost.  I prefer to think that she saw the benefits of having some companions in the process of growing and developing into full flower.

I prefer to dream about a world where we don’t exploit every competitive advantage, where we don’t strive to absorb the brightest spotlight, where we don’t push others out of the way as we try to attract attention to ourselves.  I prefer to hope that we will wait and make sure everyone is ready before we launch ourselves onto the world.  I prefer to think that it is better to have some companionship as we grow, exploring each new stage with others, discovering each step of progress with a shared wonder at what we can become.  I prefer to understand that we have a choice to make:  we can choose to trample others down while adding to our own privilege of strength and vigor and beauty and wealth, or we can choose to be a part of a community where we build our privilege together.  I prefer to believe that at least one, humble hibiscus plant in the universe chooses to share rather than compete, and I prefer to have faith that such a choice reflects the will of the One Who set the universe in motion and to Whom I pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

It is only this week that I have seen the clumps of leaves around the base of all three of the hibiscus starting to build into stems.  Within a few weeks, they will each begin to push out flower buds from the unions between their stems and the leaves.  Then they will bloom:  the vibrant yellow and orange and pink petals, with their bloody red centers, all burning hot and strong in the sultry July sun, flashing their appeal to passing bees and butterflies, revealing their bright beauty to passing neighbors who offer sufficient time and attention while they are walking their dogs.  And they will be out there together, just like they ought to be.

A Garden in Boston

IMG_0759 (800x600)I lived in Boston for eight years. As I see the unceasing chatter about the Boston Marathon bombings overwhelm all the channels people use to broadcast information and feelings these days, my mind is naturally going back there. I never attended the Boston Marathon while I lived there. God knows I never ran it, although I know people who did.  I remember the first year I was serving as the Pastor of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church in Boston. On the day of the Boston Marathon that year, I went to visit one of the members of our congregation who had come home to stay with her niece while she recovered from a broken hip. I think she was about 96 years old then. The whole time I was in their small apartment in a triple-decker in Jamaica Plain, the Boston Marathon was playing on the television in the background. I was there to remind an isolated old woman that she was not alone in the world, and the Boston Marathon was somehow part of that work.

One of the reflections I have read in the past couple of days is this blog post by a fellow Presbyterian minister, Marcia Mount Shoop. She reflects on the bad dream of her eight-year-old daughter the night after the bombing. What sticks in my mind is the way she describes her daughter’s fears and questions. The girl was not asking the “why” questions:  Why did a child have to die? Why would anyone want to do this to us? Maybe those are adult questions the little girl wouldn’t think to ask. Maybe they are questions that we do not really want to know the answer to, or maybe those questions are too cynical for some of us. Or maybe it is just too soon for any of us to ask questions like that.

Instead, Rev. Shoop’s daughter was asking “how” questions:  how could I protect the people who are supposed to protect me? How do I feel safe in a world where things like this happen? How do I keep hoping that everything will be o.k. in my life? I don’t think those are questions which only children ask at a time like this. In many ways, I think those questions are what fuels the comfort which we feel when we see that now-ubiquitous quote from Mister Rogers. “Look for the helpers,” Rev. Rogers is quoted as saying. “There are always helpers.” And those helpers are central to satisfying the thirst we all have in these days to resolve the how questions.

As I think about the how questions, those questions about protection and safety and hope, I think about the garden I planted at our house in Boston. It was not long after we bought the house; maybe it was 2004 or 2005.  I had spent all winter making plans: finding the sunniest spot on our sloping back yard, crafting the shape out of the hillside, thinking about how to prepare the soil, deciding what perennials to plant so there would be something in bloom all season, and designing the placement so the low growing plants would be in the front and the taller ones in the back up against the neighbors’ stone retaining wall.

It was March, and I was impatient. That impatience is normal for gardeners in Boston. Winter seems to last forever; the last frost date isn’t until about Mother’s Day, and the daffodils don’t even come into full bloom most years until about the time of the Marathon. But in March, the snow doesn’t cover the ground as constantly and the temperatures start to warm a bit during the day, so the shovels and rakes and garden gloves started to fill my obsessive mind. I decided I didn’t have to wait until spring to start to turn over the soil in the new garden and add manure and other amendments which would make the garden flourish.

So one sunny day off, I found my spade in the back of the garage, and out I went. I started at the bottom of the hill. As I worked my way up, I would hit solid spots here and there. Sometimes, these were large rocks. But sometimes they were clods of dirt which hadn’t thawed yet under their blanket of pine needles from the trees back there. In fact, that first pass at loosening the soil only got me a few inches deep; below that, the ground was still frozen. It would take weeks before the whole patch thawed enough for me to properly turn it over.

But eventually I got the manure worked in, and I started to plant some things.  By the next year, it was beautiful. In April, the perennials would start to emerge from the frozen ground. The creeping phlox was the first to bloom, usually by the end of that month, with carpets of light blues and pinks. The English Daisies would come up from seeds the previous year’s plants had scattered and add to the charm with their little pink, fuchsia, and white balls. May would bring my favorites:  the Dutch Iris and especially the Crested Iris I picked up from a native plant nursery in the suburbs. Big drifts of those unique blue, white, and yellow fleur de lis moved from the very bottom of the hillside as it started to increase in elevation. Later in the season there were astilbe, foxgloves, and the columbines which I planted to remind me of the years I lived in Colorado when I was a child. The Shasta Daisies bloomed in the summer. The delphinium never did very well, but that wasn’t a big surprise; you always have something that resists your efforts, don’t you?

I am impatient in the face of the Boston Marathon bombs.  I cannot yet resolve my need for assurance about protection and safety and hope. In my impatience, I want to go dig around. I know there is work to be done in my waiting: to name the bad dreams of children as well as adults, to listen to the unceasing chatter when I can, and to step away from it all when it starts to overwhelm me. I have to speak the questions that form, the whys as well as the hows, even if I can’t yet find any resolution, much less any answers, for those questions.

But I know this about Boston, and about the world we live in: despite the long, cold season, despite the clods of frozen dirt, despite the layer of still-icy soil, beauty will emerge. It will grow, and it will flourish. It will start by poking up a few shoots from the moldy leaves of before, and then a few, small flowers will emerge. Later, even more beauty will come. It will not happen when I want it to happen. Some things that were there before won’t come back this year, and it will have a few holes where things don’t emerge quite right. That is frustrating, but it’s the way it all happens. But beauty will come again. That is the how of hope.

As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  I pray for the people of Boston and for all of us who are impatient for hope.

Embarrassing Faith

IMG_5384 (800x533)Early spring is an embarrassing time for gardeners.  O.k., maybe not for all of them.  Maybe it’s just me.  If I really knew what I was doing, I would be able to time my plantings so that something spectacular would always cover the stuff that is not so spectacular, at least not yet.  The big, empty spaces where the black-eyed susans have not yet come back up would only serve to highlight the spectacular blooms of the azaleas.  The camellia blooms would linger long enough so that the spindly mess of roses would have time to leaf out and bloom.  The densely-planted pack of daffodils would distract one’s eye from the variegated liriope which hasn’t yet come back from its post-freeze shearing.  Then, the daylily greens would be up and full and ready to shoot forth stems of blossoms just in time to hide the dying daffodil foliage, which, the stern voices of the experts who write the newspaper columns warn, one ought never to cut off.  The dying foliage gathers sunlight to feed the bulb, which stores energy for next year’s blooms.  If you cut that process short, you risk a whole year of wimpy daffodils (gasp!  oh, the horror!).  So, you have to put up with dying foliage, and if you are clever, you find a way to make sure it is hidden.

I have never been that clever.  A couple of weeks ago, I started cleaning out my perennial beds in the front yard.  I usually leave the woody branches of hibiscus, the dried-out stalks of cannas, and the spindly nest of lantana stems right where they are through the winter.  Their own leaves drop and cover the ground around their bases, and they collect the stiff, brown leaves from the oak trees as they blow down the street.  Again, the experts warn against this practice; leaves can harbor diseases and hold in too much moisture, causing the roots of the perennials to rot over the winter.  But I take my chances, figuring that the leaves will also insulate the tropical plants from the freezing air which occasionally infiltrates our semi-tropical climate.

But then, in early spring, after the danger of frost is past, as the heather and hibiscus and lantana are just starting to shoot forth bright, green leaves into that brown, rotten mess, I clean things up.  I cut the heather back to the ground, and I push the oak leaves to the center of the bed so they can work their way into the soil.  I cut the lantana back to the ground, too, so its new shoots will come strong and healthy from the center of the plant, keeping its more-or-less mounded form rather than continuing to spread all over creation from last year’s branches.  I cut off the towering, dead stalks of the cannas, I remove the dead leaves of the gerbera daisies, and I cut off the clematis, leaving only about six inches of each stem from which the new growth can emerge and spread up the trellis.  I pull the clover and chickweed and dichondra which has spread into the beds, and I lay out fresh mulch where last year’s has become thin enough for these weeds to push through, being careful to see if the calla lilies and oriental lilies are poking up through the dirt to announce that they will, in fact, come back for another year.

In my mind’s eye, at the end of all of that hard work, I see the potential:  the many colors and textures of foliage and blooms that will take us through the late spring and into the summer and fall.  But to look at my yard in its present form, you couldn’t prove that any of that beauty is ever going to be real.  I have to acknowledge in this season that I may be deluding myself.  Things may not turn out as I envision them right now.  Something might have died over the winter; some of the pretty things I planted last year may not come up again.  Or worse, a few of them might come up, but others might have rotted into the soil, so that there will be awkward holes in my landscape by the middle of the summer when it is too late to do anything about them.

Faith is like that.  I was preparing for my Easter sermon the other day by listening to the Working Preacher podcast.  The seminary professors who participate in the conversation pointed out that Easter requires us to admit that faith is risky.  We believe what we proclaim, but the fact is, we may be wrong.  We may be wrong to talk with such certainty about a savior who was raised from the dead.  We may be wrong to conjure such authority when we talk about a God who loves unconditionally.  We may be wrong to say with any conviction at all that sometime in the future, as things are coming to an end, everything will work out o.k. because God is in charge.

We may be wrong because we don’t see those things right now.  We know them; we feel them; we believe them; we even experience them.  But we do not see them.  We cannot prove to anyone that the stories we tell are truth, or that the love we perceive breathing life into being is real, or that the hope which strengthens us will ever be realized.  We have to admit, if we are honest, that it is possible that we are deluding ourselves, and things may not turn out to be the way we envision them.  That is why it is called faith, not certainty or authority or any of those other, more definite words.

And I wonder if that is why a lot of people are not willing to commit to it.  It is hard to embrace something while admitting that I may be wrong.  Faith requires vulnerability.  It requires me to risk embarrassment; just like the whole world can see my naked front yard, with all its big, empty spaces and sheared ornamentals and spindly roses and dying daffodil foliage, the whole world might also see my faith proven wrong.  But for me, faith is worth the risk; my knowledge and feeling and belief and experience of God summon a courage that is enough for me, just like the beautiful colors and textures I see emerging in my mind’s eye right now are enough to take me into the next seasons of life in my yard.  Everything may not turn out as I expect; in fact, I am pretty sure I will be wrong about some things.  But that is part of the strength of vision and faith, and the reason I am willing to risk so much for it:  more often than not, even when it doesn’t turn out the way I expected, its unanticipated revelations are more lovely than I ever could have imagined.

When I cleaned out my flower beds a couple of weeks ago, I looked carefully for the calla lilies which grow next to the heather and gerbera daisies near my mailbox.  They hadn’t poked their pointed leaf shoots up through the surface of the ground.  Frankly, I was disappointed, but I made my peace with it.  Perhaps they are only supposed to live a couple of years.  Maybe an accidental tromp through the flower bed last summer crushed them for good.  But their absence would leave a hole, and I was beginning to doubt that the flower bed will be as I hoped this year.

Then, just the other day, I looked again, and there they were, just jutting the tips of their shoots about a half an inch above the mulch I had spread.  Those points will grow taller and taller, no bigger around than a pencil, and once they are tall enough, they will unfurl into sword-shaped leaves whose flat surfaces will absorb the sun’s heat and light.  And then, once they pull enough stored energy from the bulbs underground, more shoots will emerge from the base of the leaves, and they will reveal fascinatingly beautiful petals curled around erect stamens.  Calla lilies are some of my favorite flowers.

At least I think that is what will happen.  Only time will tell.