Tag Archive | Hope

The Day After the First Freeze

IMG_9610 (533x800)Today is the day after the first freeze of the season, and it smells kind of funny around here.  I am pretty sure it is not me; although one can never know for certain, I did just wash my winter sweaters when I pulled them down from the top shelf of the closet the other day for the first time since last spring.  But I step onto the back patio, and I am struck by the odor.

It is the smell of decay, and I am struck by how quickly it has set in.  It was just last night that the killing frost happened.  When I went to bed a little after 10 p.m., which is early for me, the electronic thermometer in the living room said it was still 35 degrees outside.  The freeze probably did not come for several hours after that, so a good guess is that about 15 hours ago, everything was still alive, and there was no reason other than the sterotypically unreliable predictions of the weather forecasters to expect that it would actually get cold enough to kill.  But now, the leaves on the lantana have turned almost black, and their flowers, which were vividly red and orange and yellow just yesterday, have followed suit.  The blooms that shone on the hibiscus out by the mailbox have faded from their yellow and orange and pink to brown, too, and their leaves, at least the ones on the outside of the plant, are drooping, ready to fall.  The massive elephant ears have graciously passed out, falling to the ground behind the azaleas and the heather and the mondo grass, where no one will have to watch as the water in their cells is released, making them into a soggy pile of mush.  But the bolder cannas, which just yesterday burned like torches with their bright orange and gold flowers on top of the tall towers of their stems, are now just as tall and bold in their decay, the brown hue of plant death standing in front of the bedroom windows, calling all to witness the injustice and shock of their sudden demise.

All of that death has come together to generate that smell.  There is a complexity in the odor:  it is clearly sour, and if I discovered it in my refrigerator, it would be a warning to me that whatever it emanates from would probably make my stomach turn inside out.  But there is a sweetness to it, too, and when that odor mixes with the smell of smoke coming from a neighbor’s fireplace, burning against the chill in the air to make a house feel the warmth a home is supposed to have, that odor of decay evokes autumn.

I look again at the plants which are now, suddenly, generating that odor.  They are dead now, and death always brings the feelings of grief:  of sadness at the loss of things that were once so beautiful, of regret at the missed opportunities to appreciate and tend better to those things which are now gone, of fear because death is so sudden and so complete, of anger at the injustice of vulnerability, of a simple but overwhelming exhaustion that comes from having spent an exorbitant energy on a deep love.  It is best not to rush those feelings that come with grief.  It is best to notice them when they appear, to acknowledge their presence, maybe even to greet them politely, and to endure them and even appreciate them while they are taking up our mental and emotional space.  They won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to show them the door, so we do the best we can to receive them when they show up, even though they did not have the good manners to call ahead and let us know they were coming.

But even as I look at the remains of the leaves and flowers in my garden, and even as I smell death and decay in the air, I notice and I know that there is something more going on.  The hibiscus will be left with nothing but the eerie form of sticks poking out of the ground, but in a few months, new leaf buds will form on those sticks, and they will bloom again next year.  The lantana will have to be cut back to the ground, but around the base, new branches will grow in the spring.  The cannas and the elephant ears have complex webs of bulbs and tubers at their base, just out of sight under the leaves and mulch, and those will absorb more and more water and nutrients through the coming season, so that new towers of stems and leaves will shoot out again someday.  And I even have hope that the gardenia which I bought last spring but never got into the ground, which did so well in its pot in that spot out by the bird bath, which I meant just last weekend to put into the ground to protect it from the cold air, will survive and thrive again.  Death is not the end of the story; there is still the miracle of resurrection to come; I am assured of things I hope for, and I am convinced of things that I have not seen.

Earlier today, I heard the story of a man whose mother died while he was still a nursing infant.  Not many years later, his father died, too, and he and his sister were taken into the homes of relatives.  When he was 18, he set out on his own.  In the course of his life, he traveled the world, built a career advising others in the investment of their personal finances, raised a family of happy and successful children and grandchildren, cared for his wife as she got sick, and finally died at 86 years old, having decided to give up dialysis so he could leave this world with the dignity of the ability to make choices still intact.

That story gave me hope:  hope in the ability of people to survive times of deathly grief, hope in the power of family and community to make each of us feel loved and safe and strong, hope that the sorrow of the present will be redeemed by the joy of the future, hope in the abundance and eternity of life, hope even in the smell of decay that comes on the day after the first freeze.  Because that odor is not the end of the story, but only a sign of new things to come.

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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.