So Many Ways

It’s National Poetry Month! I know you’ve been waiting all year for the return of the Everybody Can Love Poetry Series. It has arrived.

For those of you who started following the blog more recently, last April I posted a couple of poems each week in hopes of convincing people that there are wonderful, meaningful poems that you can understand without a degree in English. Welcome to round two.

One of the wonderful things about poems is that they are beautiful, the way a piece of music or a painting or a sunset is beautiful. I walked to my neighborhood grocery store this week right after it had rained. One of the neighboring houses was surrounded by poppies, which always display their most gorgeous side in profusion. Another house sported a few well-trimmed, carefully placed flowering bushes, and I thought, there are so many ways to be beautiful.

I think about this sometimes when I look at my cat, who is quite handsome. We think cats with all different types of coloring are cute. Black and white cats, like Tux, can have four white paws or only a couple; their faces can be all black or a little white or half white with a big freckle on the tip of their nose, and their owners think they’re adorable regardless.

But sometimes we don’t extend the same generosity to ourselves. We face ourselves in the mirror and wish this or that looked otherwise. We look at how we’ve lived our lives and how others have lived theirs and find ourselves wanting, yet if we expected a poppy to look like a rose, we’d miss its beauty.

Here’s a poem from Mary Oliver that I think speaks to how we might recognize our own beauty.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

From: House of Light




In Praise of Flowers

An incredible row of bearded irises in more than the colors of the rainbow is blooming along the path between the van drop off and my office. Every day my vanmates and I walk by them, we comment on their beauty. Every day, there’s a new facet to notice, a new color opening up to the world. It must be the best way to start the day.

purple irises

A few amazing things about flowers:

Amazing thing number one: irises come in more than one color—burgundy, a purple so deep you can almost taste it, combination packs of dusty red or violet with yellow, a bloom that starts off the palest purple and turns white as it unfurls.

Amazing thing number two: the whole furling business. These large petals start out all folded up in a neat little package. How do they do that?

Amazing thing number three: this is only one kind of flower! We have yet to celebrate the bright orange poppies along the side of the road or the jasmine whose scent is filling my patio with honeyed air or the delicate cherry blossoms that look just as beautiful falling off the tree as in full bloom.

Amazing thing number four: you don’t have to do anything except plant and water them. You don’t have to cajole them or pay them or promise them fame. It’s just what they do.

Amazing thing number five: flowers use their beauty to help support all land-dwelling life. Without flowers, we would be in big trouble.

The richness of these fifty feet of ruffled, life-giving color is too great to comprehend.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is a poem about what comes after the flowers.

From Blossoms
By Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Roses Are More Than Red

When I need to escape at work, I go to the rose garden. It sits on the edge of an area where beautiful spots congregate. It seems a bit unfair that the spots don’t spread out, especially since they surround the College of Business, as if to show that money really can buy happiness.

Last time I was there, I saw a man with a hoe inspecting the flowers and thanked him for his work. Turns out he has been tending that part of campus for thirty years and created not only the rose garden but also the cactus garden across the lawn, not to mention a sheltered dirt path that always feels as if you’ve found a secret place none of the other 20,000 people on campus know about.

So did I ask this person who created one of my favorite spots what kind of connection he’d forged with the piece of earth he’d tended for thirty years? What it feels like to know a location so intimately? Why he decided to plant a rose garden? What his favorite flower is?

No. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it resembled “Sure is warm today, isn’t it?”

I used to hate small talk. My answer to the weather question was “Yes.” This approach did not help me at parties. Then I realized that small talk isn’t evil and vacuous; it’s useful and vacuous. It puts many people at ease, and in a world where so many of us spend so much time wondering what we’re doing wrong, providing a little mind balm is not necessarily a bad idea.

But it’s a shame to make such a habit of it that when you meet the man responsible for a particularly beautiful corner of earth, you can’t get beyond thank you. I hope I get to see him again and get another chance to learn something real about this place and the person who cares for it. In the meantime, I am going to assume that his favorite rose is the same as mine, the orange and yellow one that somehow manages to bloom in at least three shades at once.