The Language of Flowers

 When it comes to flowers, the world has pictures aplenty: calendars, seed catalogues, seed and bulb packages, entire websites devoted to flowers, Facebook pages, artists’ canvasses, greeting cards, bookmarks, art galleries, t-shirts and sweat shirts, dresses, even jewelry—everyone who has ever had a camera in hand has taken pictures of flowers.

In preparation for a recent PowerPoint presentation, I went to the internet for garden photos and was promptly overwhelmed. I should have anticipated that: I have never walked through a public garden or conservatory without seeing at least one dedicated photographer equipped with tripod and several lenses.

Photo of outdoor gardens in Winnipeg, with a photographer about to take a picture.

 As anyone who has read this blog knows, I also carry my camera into gardens, and assiduously grow my own flowers.

Who would not want to appreciate the abundant gift of the Creator, whether or not we understand the complex roles that flowers play in all the divergent ecologies on Earth?

 What astounds me most of all, though, is the sheer, undisciplined abundance of wild flowers, many growing where human feet rarely tread, some in climates so harsh that some never grow taller than an inch or two, and flowers are measured in millimeters. While I can admire a dinner-plate dahlia or tea rose with all the awe it demands, my deepest respect is given to tiny wild flowers, such as moss campion and Western spring beauty, both native to the higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, and requiring a better camera than what I have.

Yes, the Rockies again. Get used to it. I haven’t spent over 40 summer holidays camping and hiking in the Rockies without having been forever changed by the thin air and the thin places where the soul is called beyond itself into worship.

Early in that history of following trails in the national and provincial parks, I wanted to call the wild flowers by name. I bought books on Rocky Mountain flowers, and for decades now, I’ve been teaching myself their names (their common ones, that is, not the Latin ones), trying to distinguish different varieties of the same flower, practicing my identification skills for the benefit of family members.

 It would be appropriate here to insert some photos of those various flowers who have become my friends. As it happens, even the close-up photos that succeeded often leave the individual flowers looking bereft, even uninteresting, as if color has been leached out or the background badly chosen.

The more time I spent this week browsing through my photo folders, the more dissatisfied with my efforts I became, until I realized I was missing the most important point here: flowers, like people, like animals, like birds, belong somewhere. None lives alone. If hiking the backwoods trails can teach us anything, and if reading the now ubiquitous articles on climate change can likewise teach us anything, it is that habitat is everything.

Just as who I am and how I present myself depends on where I am and with whom I keep company and how I live, so flowers are themselves in their habitat, which they share with other flowers and grasses and birds and animals. I had not understood the subconscious knowing that informed my better flower photos: flowers are loveliest and most themselves in the company of of other flowers, of stones and grasses and fallen trees and running water.

Herewith some of my favourite flower photos taken on mountain trails:

Lady’s Slipper, with bunchberry plants around them and possibly a false Solomon’s seal.
Lance-leaved stonecrop, a gorgeous bright yellow, here keeping company with purple asters, not yet opened, and white mountain avens.
Yellow arnica, rose-red Indian paintbrush, purple self-heal, and a whitish yellow flower at the top left that I haven’t been able to identify.
Sometimes I think I should have chosen this photo of wild strawberries for my home page: stones, flowers, and the promise of deliciousness.

 The language of flowers is spoken through color and texture. It is always brief, spoken on the wind, as it were, since no flower remains in bloom for long. Yet their brief presence echoes off rocks, reverberates in moss, accompanies the slow and fruitful rot of logs, remains in the tangled roots of the fallen trees. What solo parts they might be offered here and there, perhaps in a single spot of sunlight in the forest, are still performed in a theater created by other living things, not least of which is the deep, dark soil that other flowers, shrubs, and trees have died to create.

We who have been chosen to speak more articulate, distinctive languages, which carry heavy responsibilities—“words are for those with promises to keep” (W.H. Auden)—could benefit from spending more time with the seemingly silent whisperers of color. Gentleness and beauty in the midst of harsh winds, rhythms of life and death, laughter of resurrections from the humus of the earth: who would not feel comfort and gain courage from those?  

and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular, / and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, / tending, as all music does, toward silence, / and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.

Mary Oliver “When death comes

The Temporality of Angels and Friends

I dropped the angel on the floor as I was dusting my dresser. The chunka-ka-chunk stopped my breath—“please, no, don’t break!”

Conscious or not, the prayer was answered. Not so much as a chipped wing. Yet even in that beat or two of unknowing, I was aware of an unwelcome “so what?” I was tempted yet again to discount the possibility of continuing my friendship with the giver of the angel.

Dusty angel in hand, I was lost in memories, contemplating also another figurine on the other end of the dresser—two women seated, forever turned to one another in intimate, silent conversation. That too was a gift from another country, which I had interpreted as a promise that distance wouldn’t matter.

But it did.

The two ornaments - the angel and the two seated women - are placed on a dark blue pedestal against a white wall.

Suppressing an impulse to toss both ornaments into the trash, I returned to the dusting, still brooding on inevitable comings and goings of friends, the joy and pain of finding and then losing what Anne of Green Gables called “bosom friends.” In the giver of the angel and the two clay women, I had found, despite a startling disparity in backgrounds and experiences, a bosom friend. That particular bleak day, I concluded reluctantly that only in novels of yesteryear, or as clay statuettes, do bosom friends last a lifetime.

Or perhaps other women, with more propitious histories and better friendship making skills, managed what I seemingly could not.

Still life with two red roses in a vase, the two-women statuette on two books, on a simple kitchen stool.

I have written, in an earlier post, about the uncanny way books have of falling off shelves into our hands precisely when we need them. In between such incognito epiphanies, habitual readers will, of course, choose many other books, some for delight, some for profit, some out of obligation, some never finished. Of the books destined to be read, some become beloved companions, each rereading another gift.

Yet there are also books, once truly life-altering, that disappoint when picked up again years later. The right moment for the reading has passed and will not come again; the reader has herself changed in ways that have left those once necessary books behind.

So, too, I have come to believe that the universe conspires to bring together friends as designated angels for one another. Just as books can be pleasurable temporary companions while others speak to our souls at the deepest level, so friends are not all alike. Wayne Booth, in The Company We Keep, distinguishes three kinds of friendships (actual or book-friends) based on the gifts they offer—pleasure, profit, and “shared aspirations and loves of a kind that make life together worth having as an end in itself” (174).

Still life with the two-women statuette on top of two books on a stool. Beside the books are two tiny succulent plants.

In other words, some friends we keep company with because they’re entertaining or they make a given social context—dance clubs, schools, cooking classes, community groups—more comfortable. When graduation has passed or the club membership is dropped, so too do the friendships end. Friends are also useful; we collaborate with colleagues, learn from teammates, share child care, carpool with neighbours. Both these kinds of friendship—pleasure and profit—end naturally, and painlessly, when circumstances change. Unless the friendships have advanced to another level, they do not last beyond the boundaries of their making.

The third kind of friendship is qualitatively different, whether having begun that way or having developed into it. With these friends, we can “be ourselves,” yet we also know that we are, in their company, becoming better people. The interaction feels supportive, even transformative; life seems richer, more worthwhile. Abstract language here inevitably fails because what happens between “bosom friends” is warmly specific and the friendship changes as it deepens.  

The giver of the angel—let me call her Cara—and I were just getting to know one another when the aftermath of family grief and an increasing anger over my church experiences pushed me into spiritual crisis and depression. How was it that she, a colleague and an ordained minister, just “happened” to be there? That we “happened” to have grown up in similar family dynamics with equally fraught relationships with our mothers? That even early conversations rarely needed superficial hallway talk before moving into riskier, soul-baring territory?  

The friendship was not one-sided; I also took my turns to listen and comfort. There was between us a meeting of minds and hearts that neither of us had known before in quite that way (although we had, and still have, other friends whom we treasure and with whom we can share ourselves). Without Cara’s presence in precisely those years, I would not be who I am today. That I cannot, and will not, ever forget.

And then she moved to a different country. She was not a letter-writer.   

Rare visits have revealed that ours was a friendship that could be renewed in the first half hour,  the only sign of prolonged separation being the need to catch up on family news. Nevertheless, a subtle, unnameable change was underway.

photo of two red roses, one already drooping and other just reaching for full bloom.

People, unlike books, are not static, and while we may, decades later, understand and interpret a book very differently than we did at first, the book itself responds—if one may use such an active verb for paper and ink—out of its unchanging soul. Not so our friends. As our bodies’ cells are sloughed off and regrown, so we, too, change through our experiences, our decisions with their consequences, our losses, and our other friends.

There is a time to laugh and to mourn, to embrace and to refrain from embracing, says the philosopher-writer of Ecclesiastes. It follows that there is a time to laugh and weep together, and a time to laugh and weep apart. As deep as the grief may be, there is a time to let go as well. The gift that was given – and I speak not of clay statuettes, but the expansion of soul that happened in her presence – has not been withdrawn. For that, and for all the friends who have walked with me, whether for a mere mile or two or for a thousand, I am grateful.

I remind myself every now and then, such as when a dusty angel reawakens loss, to remember that a clenched hand can accept nothing besides its own tension. To receive new gifts, one’s hands and heart must be open. For the divine benevolence that grants us books and friends is always generous.

photo of angel up against a mirror that it seems as if two angels are there, back to back.

Meditation on Peppernuts

    It was time, definitely. There are those who begin their Christmas planning in July, their shopping in early October, and their baking in early November. Not I. Thanks to many years of teaching—and other reasons, of which more later—my family knew that Christmas didn’t begin in our house until exams were graded or urgency demanded it, whichever came first. The habit still lingers. But last week, as of this writing, it was time to begin baking.

Among my people, and in my immediate family, peppernuts are essential. Peppernuts (aka pfeffernüsse {German} or päpanät {Low German} or pebernodden {Danish}, etc.) are tiny, crisp, spicy – and addictive; eating only one is impossible. They’re wonderfully dunk-able in tea or coffee and perfect for keeping small children occupied in church.

photo of teapot, mug, oranges and bowl of peppernuts
Peppernuts and oranges and tea – all you need for Christmas entertaining, according to Doris Longacre, editor of More with Less Cookbook

 Making peppernuts is both labor-intensive and child-friendly. The dough itself is simple enough; its special character derives from added spices, which are variously decreed by traditional family recipes. It’s once the dough is mixed that children can be invited to roll the soft dough into thin snakes—hey, it’s like playing with playdough! After being solidly frozen, the dough-snakes are thinly sliced, and each small round placed on cookie sheets.  More fun for children. Then wait for the smell of warm spices all through the house.

 No longer having any young children around to conscript for help, I began alone, braced for inevitable memories. First, though, the pleasure of the work. Oh, I’ve heard about efforts (probably by men) to adapt a sausage machine into a dough slicer so that the work could be done more quickly. As if work is, by definition, onerous. But if I offer up the tactile pleasures of cookie dough to the god of efficiency, to what shall I give that “redeemed” time? To other work that I might likewise construe as onerous?

photo of recipe book, baking pan, snakes of dough, and the bowl with dough.
I’m still using the recipe I got from my mother-in-law almost 50 years ago, but now I’ve made it gluten- and egg-free. It still works.

 On the contrary, I would rather enter the task and make it beautiful, something of which I had already learned when I happened across Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful distinction between “washing the dishes to get them done” and “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’m not a complete Luddite; arthritic hands make me glad for a hand mixer, although I still miss the satisfaction of creaming butter using a wooden spoon. I’m just grateful that I can still roll out the dough, make even slices, and line them up on the cookie sheet, precisely the right distance apart.

 Then there’s the bits of raw cookie dough from the ends of snakes (I say fie on those who would rob me of that delight with talk of unsafe food practices), a taste of many Christmases past. And, yes, here come the memories, all of them, like a series of snapshots, from “tolerable—even warm and fuzzy” to “unbearable.”  

 Am I really the only one who anticipates Christmas with dread and joy? The season is so hyped, so elongated (it begins already with the snuffing out of Hallowe’en jack-o-lanterns and even appears, in places, in July), so stuffed with stories of plentitude and sentimentality that it raises anticipation to ridiculous levels, and provokes in me a curmudgeonly wish that Christmas be outlawed.

Then those who dwell purposefully within the sacred narrative could celebrate in secret, pondering what it means that divinity has been embodied in fallible humanity, while the rest of the population could find some other pretext for an orgy of buying more stuff and putting up more decorations. The advertising-fuelled expectations of Martha Stewart-style fabulous dinners and parties could then be held separate from the spiritual longing for redemption from pointlessness and violence and heartache.

Sure, the carols—or rather the Christmas-themed songs—do sometimes acknowledge that someone might not come home for Christmas, or that money might be too scarce for gift-giving. That’s but a token gesture for those whose families are too dysfunctional to gather over a turkey (if there is one) without some kind of bad ending. Or for those who mourn losses too painful to celebrate anything. And I don’t even want to imagine what this season of jolly commercial goodwill means in the midst of a war zone or in refugee camps or in slums.

 It’s not popular to speak of such stories at Christmastime. Try changing the conversation to world conflicts or poverty when someone in a store asks yet again, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Always I want to retort, “What do you mean by ready? Who is ever ready for the drastic upending that it would take to bring about ‘peace and good will to all’?” Indeed, what would we do if glory did reveal itself to our harried minds?

 Even as I take the first pan of peppernuts out of the oven, browned to perfection, I know that railing about Christmas demands will not solve either the vexing problems of the world or more particular family stresses. Nevertheless, I will make peppernuts—every year—and share them, with the family, with friends. I will make other favorite cookies, and, if it’s my turn to host, will cook the turkey and all the other dishes that surround it on the carefully set table with its lit candles.

a table set with good china, wine glasses, candles and decorations
Not our usual family setting, which is definitely more than four – this was, as I recall, a meeting of friends.

 We will also bring such gifts as the family has agreed upon, whether it be an in-house exchange or a charitable donation on behalf of the family. There will be pleasure in the doing and the making and the buying, if I choose to be mindful and to acknowledge the sources of my anxiety over all over all of the above. Familiar rituals give birth also to good memories. Neither ritual nor memories of whatever sort should be ignored.

 From the very first Christmas I can remember—during which I watched it all from my sick bed—to other Christmases, including one in which funeral flowers became the living-room decorations and no cookies at all were baked, I can choose to welcome the beautiful even as I learn to accept the reality of messy human experiences. Just as we revel in the diamonds of hoarfrost in the midst of bitter cold, finding warmth where possible, and giving thanks.

It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? Memories and fresh peppernuts.  

photo of teapot, napkin, full coffee mug, and bowl of peppernuts.

Wearable Prayers

Twice within as many weeks, family members asked me, “What’s a prayer shawl?” I had been working on something vividly red, and my family assumed that I was crocheting another baby blanket or larger afghan, my usual projects for those times when my hands require repetitive motion while our mouths and minds catch up on family news. I hadn’t anticipated the question, nor did I have a ready answer.

I should have. After all, I had never heard of prayer shawls until just over a decade ago, some years after joining the church we still attend. In one service, an older woman who chaired a ladies group explained to the congregation that they were crocheting/knitting prayer shawls for people connected to the church who were ill or recently bereaved. She had brought several shawls with her and our pastor prayed a blessing on the shawls.

For me, this was an entirely new practice, yet it made immediate sense. All my life, I had heard prayers spoken for others. The particular Christian milieu in which I had spent my childhood and early adult years was characterized by a strong belief in the efficacy of prayers. The prompt response to any story of grief, loss, and illness was “we’ll be praying for you,” and that was not a reflexive, clichéd “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” No, the promise of direct prayer was sincere and literal, based on the conviction that God expects such prayers and will respond to them, albeit not always in the ways that we might wish.

Connecting intercessory prayer, as it is named in devotional language, with a physical object seemed intuitively right—grief and fear often do leave the body cold. So, I thought, in this church, prayers come with hugs, some actual, some embodied in yarn. And I also began making prayer shawls, not many and, at first, designed for specific persons whom I knew well and loved.

rocking chair, shawl, cushion, plant
The first prayer shawl I made – Photo by Helma Voth

The question “what’s a prayer shawl?” asked by two different people made me rethink the whole project. Why should a shawl be linked to prayer? And if such a gift matters, why should it? It was time for research.

The seemingly recent practice of making prayer shawls was begun by Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo in 1998, with the following purpose: “Prayer shawl. Peace shawl. Comfort shawl. Mantle. . . . . These are a wearable hug crafted with love and intent from maker to recipient.”

“Shawls . . . made for centuries universal and embracing,

symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving God.

They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace,

mother, hug, shelter and beautify.”

(Janet Severi Bristow) http://www.shawlministry.com/

            So that explained all the pattern books for making prayer shawls—and the one I bought includes several blessings to accompany the gift of a prayer shawl.

red shawl in process, pattern book

But where did the idea for a prayer shawl come from? Was there a longer history here? Vaguely familiar with Judaism’s use of specific garments for prayer, I began my research in the Bible.

And yes, in Numbers 15, the prophet Moses instructs the people: “Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commandments of the LORD, that you may obey them.” Hence the tallit, which is a “large rectangular shawl made of wool, cotton, or synthetic fibers. In each of the four corners of the shawl are strings tied in a particular pattern, called tzitzit.” Before putting on the tallit, a specific Hebrew blessing is spoken, and particular actions are prescribed for the handling of the shawl. Thus, the prayer shawl is simultaneously a garment of ritual worship and a personal submission to the care of God. 

The belief that ultimate comfort comes through divine care is made real by a simple gesture of gift and warmth. Grief and illness leave most of us helpless: we cannot restore the dead to life nor can we make illness miraculously go away. Time is needed—long days of feeling lonely, managing pain, being helpless—to process irrevocable change (even should the illness be eventually healed, one does not return to what was). Hence, the prayer shawl.

It is a physical, touchable thing, made by hand, a slow, deliberate process. Every stitch has been made out of love, giving comfort and solidity to the one who wields the hook or needles, and then giving the same to the one who receives the shawl.

I shall make more prayer shawls.

“For it is the love and kindness of human hearts through which the divine reality comes home to us, whether we name it or not.”

George Merriam

Postscript: It seems that not only books, but objects fall into the right hands at the right time. I had given the red prayer shawl pictured above to our church’s supply—to be given out as need arose.  Months later, it so “happened” that our pastors gave the shawl to someone who had just been admitted to the local hospital’s palliative care ward. They did know that the individual was a dear friend of mine; they had not known that I was the shawl’s maker.

Now, in the mysterious fashion in which objects exert their influence even at a distance, I am also comforted by that red shawl, knowing on whose shoulders it rests. My fingers recall the tension of the yarn as it curled over the hook and slid through the next loop—compassion weaving itself through ache and loss toward comfort and healing.