Transplanting Surprises

A few days ago, I unlocked my red front door and nearly dropped the bags I was juggling as a flutter of wings brushed through my hair and into the twilight.  It seems the blue and white hydrangeas of my artificial door wreath had offered a bird a tranquil resting place that day.  It took a moment to regain my own inner peace; I just wasn’t expecting it.

Some surprises are delightful, and we adjust accordingly.  Another bush in my garden, yet to be identified, has blossomed strawberry sherbet colored flowers.  Other surprises are disappointing, and we adjust accordingly.  The purple irises have wilted in a week’s time.

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Still other surprises, like the bird in my wreath, are so unexpected that they put us off balance.  When I drove home to write again for the first time eight weeks ago, I believed that if I could just get to my computer, I would type my way to a grand epiphany that changed everything. Admittedly, I was afraid that I would discover I had already seen the best version of me and lost her long ago somewhere between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Nashville. In reality, while one night of writing didn’t evoke a life-changing thought, the cumulative act of writing and self-reflection over the past month and a half has awakened my perception.

This weekend, that resulted in a rather surprising break up. Unlike so many long-distance relationships, my New York boyfriend and I had flourished despite the miles with daily phone calls, nightly Skype dates, and Tom’s to Virginia every other weekend. I suppose we had always been at different places in our lives, but we were so incredibly happy together that I pushed the thought out of mind. When we first met, it was he who had cultivated me like a dying rose branch snipped and replanted in a potato to take root until ready to be placed again under rich soil. With every sweet word and romantic gesture, Tom showered me with restorative rain that planted seeds of hope along with it.

In essence, it has always been more of a symbiotic relationship. In a ceramic pot of our own making, we grew together, nurtured one another, and pruned away dead wood of past wounds.  Above soil, we were visibly blossoming. Beneath soil, our roots were extending. But some plants grow faster than others. Through my weekly writing binges, I’ve discovered I am ready for the next stage of my life – the marriage, the kids, the house with the white picket fence, and the front porch swing. Nearly five years my junior, Tom’s not quite there yet.

A seedling that established its existence happily in a pot will see immeasurable growth when replanted. As the roots become too tightly packed, the seedling will suffer with nutrient deficiencies, stunted growth, and wilted flowers. If denied the opportunity for transplanting, the promise of greater life will wither along with the seedling itself.

This week, my friend Angela offered me a rose bush of hers. Still an amateur gardener, I rely on research to aid me in my endeavors. As I investigated the process required to put her potted bush in my garden, I uncovered the concept of transplant shock, and I made a personal discovery that is just as shocking. I didn’t realize that transplanting seedlings that before they are ready will result in some of the same life threatening outcomes as those of one kept potted when its outgrown its containers.

While Tom and I have seen the blooms together above ground and celebrated them, my writing nights have forced me to look below the surface and identify our surprising predicament. The harsh reality is that I’ve outgrown our little pot, and Tom needs more time for his roots to fully develop. If we stay in our comfortable relationship, I resign myself to stunted growth. If we take then next step, he resigns himself to the same ill fate. It’s no fault of our own. We’re just at different places in our growths.

Some surprises are delightful, others are disappointing, and still others, like this one, are so unexpected that they throw us off balance. Just one week after toiling in the dirt to prepare my garden, we were sitting here in the same spot on the porch that I now write, while we decided to end our relationship. I was looking back and forth between Tom and my azaleas questioning my own sanity. Who in her right mind would break her own heart? Why had I initiated a dialogue that would see the demise of a beautiful partnership? And why was he agreeing with me?

My answer came in the garden. Tom isn’t a weed that needed to be ripped out in order for me to flourish — he is a seedling that would experience transplant shock if he made all his major life choices right now just to make my dreams come true. It was honest recognition of the dilemma of our roots that brought us here and a selfless parting on both accounts. He wants to see me with a son or daughter of my own as much as I do, and knowing that my biological clock is counting down, he would see himself sacrifice our relationship rather than halt the realization of my desires.

As I write these words, the memory of him sitting beside me only days ago, kissing away my tears while we reminisced on our incredible growth together brings me comfort. We packed every day full of laughter, joy, experiences, and adventures. I need not ask another unanswerable why when it comes to this ending. It carries with it no regrets or failures. Magnolia blossoms fade and azalea bushes bloom. Trees die and their wood provides warmth in fires. Irises wither and new bushes bud. The stages of our lives change in much the same way.

Tom and I have lived carpe diem. He is to be credited with the breakthrough that I did not lose the best version of myself on the streets of Nashville. His nurturing love, gently tending my brokenness, fostered my growth into a woman I believe is far more than the one I lost. He knew that there was beauty in me when I could not see it myself, just as he knows that future growth demands separation from our comfortable, little pot. Tom would make an excellent gardener.

Now, give me a moment to regain my own inner peace; I just wasn’t expecting it.

Counsel and Clovers

After consulting with Kathy at Home Depot, the bushes that frame my front porch are azaleas, which turn out to be my grandfather’s favorite.  The 75 degree sunny Saturday just past found me on my knees in my garden beds wrenching out weeds.  Though I had spent hours carefully researching and buying plants for my first garden, it took twice that time to prepare the beds.

Weeds should be easily discernible, I had thought naively, until I uncovered hoards of bulbs beneath the dark soil.  Having never seen my rented home in the light of spring days and witnessing the rebirth of the purple irises, I wondered if what I was pulling up was a perennial that had not yet broken earth.  There were a few unknown, tiny pink flowers, after all, so I snapped some photographs on my smart phone and headed back to Home Depot to revisit Kathy.   She had guided me through the selection process, offering advice on color combinations, warning me away from flowers that had already bloomed this season, and counseling me on the difference between mature and starter petunias.  “Still here?” she asked, then her gaze moved to my dirty elbows.  “No, you’re back again.  How’s the garden coming?”

I showed her the images, and Kathy instantly stated, “Clovers.  They are weeds.  Yes, they do grow some pink flowers, but they will spread and take over.”  She explained further, “Someone well-meaning once thought they would make for a nice seasonal plant at St. Patrick’s Day, and they would have if kept in little pots, but now the weeds are everywhere, stealing nutrients from the other plants in people’s neatly kept gardens.”  After thanking her, I returned to my knees and kept digging.

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With the warmth of the sun on my back and the cool of the soil under my calves came a peaceful pensive experience I had not expected.  As I worked silently, I considered the countless clover bulbs I was eliminating all because some weeds were unassumingly passed off as seasonal plants.  The two small garden beds I have were so inundated with the latent clover that it took six hours to uproot them.  Clumps of grass and vines pulled up easily, but the bulbs were a few inches beneath the surface and it took tilling and digging and ripping to unearth them, not to mention energy and sweat.

When I first met my ex-husband, it was his music that captivated me.  His powerful voice singing a Brian McKnight love song as his fingers played the piano keys took my breath away.  At Thanksgiving a few years later, his aunt warned me that he was just a little boy playing house and that he wasn’t ready for marriage, but I had fallen for the little pink flowers.  Given almost a decade to grow and multiply, every aspect of my life had been squelched of nutrients by this weed that I had not identified for what it was.  He was a good man, but four years into our marriage, he was just a little boy playing house.

As I labored in the earth, uncovering chunks of bulbs, I imagined I was weeding out my own life in these garden beds.  It’s harsh, I admit, to turn my ex-husband into a weed analogy, but honesty warrants consideration of callous conclusions.  To the seasonal buyer searching for something unique to spice up St. Patrick’s Day, he would have been the perfect choice.  I, however, was looking for a perennial that would know its place and serve its purpose year after year.  At Home Depot, I choice Salvia for its steel blue panicles, showy display, and medium height to offset the towering irises and soil-hugging impatiens.  Kathy had steered me in the right direction; I had not been so responsive when I shirked off his aunt’s advice.

After a break to usher one of my student’s through a rite of passage by styling her updo for a military ball, her mother Angela returned with me to attack the weeds once again.  My friend Angela has had experience gardening and knew the difference between roots and vines.  As we worked, I traded stories for her weed wisdom, and we laughed and toiled until the darkness forced us to quitting time.  While her daughter was dancing in a gown fit for a princess with a young man in dress blues close enough to a prince, we were digging out the dirt from under our fingernails.  I wouldn’t have traded places with her; she was, no doubt, the most beautiful girl at the ball, but I have become a woman who prefers to attend responsibilities with the same passion as a teen at a soiree.

Sunday afternoon found me once again back in the dirt to finish the job begun the day before, my purchased plants still in their plastic containers from the store.  Even when the rain began to dampen my soiled sundress, I was determined to see my garden finished.  Two more hours of weeding and turning the earth and it was time.  In truth, it took about an eighth of the time to dig holes and plant than it had to prepare the beds.  And in my second day of peaceful pensive meanderings, I could not ignore the new analogy begging to be birthed.

I had styled my hair in much the same way as my student’s some fourteen years ago when I attended my first formal, long before my ex-husband was in the picture.  But the strands of hair matted to my face after a meaningful undertaking that now gives me something new to look forward to when I pull in the driveway is somehow more beautiful. Because it’s real.

Preparing the soil takes time, but it’s necessary to ensure that the garden that’s planted has what’s necessary to take root and blossom to its full potential.  My ex isn’t the only weed that I’ve needed to eliminate.  There were vine-like friendships stealing nutrients that had to be ripped out and chunks of fruitless pursuits to be yanked out.  Like with my first garden, it’s taking longer than expected, but I’m all in.  Perhaps a decade or two might find me laboring in the soil, but if that’s what’s required to create the foundation of a blossoming, fruitful future that may be planted in a fraction of the time, then I’m contented to stay on my knees.

I am not waiting for life to begin.  I’m learning to heed wise counsel.  The next aunt will not be ignored.  The next little pink weed disguised as a flower will not mislead me.  I’ll enjoy pensive moments preparing the soil for the momentary peace they offer, no longer so impatient I can’t recognize them for what they are – a gift of new life, rebirths, planted promises of blooms to come.

As it stands, the dappled pink blossoms of my magnolias wouldn’t have provided the cover to shade my impatiens that their thick green leaves do.  The dead wood of my grand oak tree, finally collected to be distributed, will be put to a different use than when it stood tall in my backyard.  I’m finding purpose in life can be exchanged, and so conclude there is hope for me yet.

Marrying Hindsight and Carpe Diem

The magnolia trees were bare when I returned from Greenville.  I’d snapped only one picture, planning to take more when the lighting was right and the trash cans didn’t line the curb.

My first thought was one of disappointment.  Did they really only bloom for a couple of weeks? The second was one of disillusionment.  How could the magnolias return us to the barren state of winter?  The third was one of regret.   Why had I waited to take more photographs instead of seizing the moment as it was, perfectly imperfect after all?

I suppose if I had known the reality of a magnolia’s bloom cycle before I left town, I would have acted more intentionally.  But I didn’t know.  As they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty.  Is that two two-syllable numbers or one four-syllable word? If the latter, I should write it in number form.  One of the reasons I cherish the English language is because of the rules that dominate it.  There are rarely gray areas, as the movement from Old to Middle to Modern English brought with it exception clauses for every linguistic debate it could anticipate.

Nevertheless, the movement could not anticipate the lackadaisical attitude of the average human towards grammatical correctness.  In disputes over the usage of later verses the text message abbreviation l8r, many Americans argue that as long as the abbreviation doesn’t interfere with understandability, the alternate spelling is acceptable.  The shift to Early Modern English in the 1500s could not have anticipated the emergence of mobile devices that would necessitate such abbreviations five hundred years later.

I prefer traditional spellings just as I prefer routines and predictability.  Just when I was beginning to incorporate magnolia-gazing into my homecoming routine each evening, the pink blossoms disappeared.  I could not have anticipated their short blooming season.  I would have preferred they stay in full bloom all year long, in which case I would have had ample time to enjoy their beauty.

But then I wouldn’t have needed the photographs.

As yearbook advisor (ignoring the debate over advisor verses adviser usage), it is my responsibility to ensure that my staff captures the memories of the year to preserve them for ages to come.  Now beyond my own ten year reunion, I can appreciate the value of quality photographs that made still-frames of some of my own best years.  I teach my students that anticipation is at the heart of photojournalism.  Having spent many years behind the camera myself, I wonder now if my inclination is more to preserve memories than to participate in those moments being captured.

The fact that I waited to take more pictures of my magnolias evidences proper training in photo composition, and the fact that I missed out on the opportunity evidences a failure to anticipate.  What concerns me is that rather than preserve the grandeur of the trees, I opted to hold out for a perfect moment that never came… as I’ve done for the majority of my life.

I was featured in a photograph for “Most Flirtatious” in the senior superlative section of my own yearbook.  While some might have mistaken friendliness with the opposite sex as flirtation, honesty demands an admission that I was always on the hunt for my happily-ever-after with my knight in shining armor.  My first years of college echoed that search as I was confident I’d earn my MRS simultaneously with my BA.  While my friends in high school and college were building life-long friendships through sleepovers, make-over parties, and girls nights out, I was always primping for, pining after, writing about, or going out with my current Mr. Right for Right Now.

And since hindsight is twenty-twenty (or 20-20), I realize that I missed out on making lasting friendships because I was dreaming of my perfect future.  Somehow, I was convinced that life started after college when I was married and had a family of my own.  I wasn’t contented to gossip in the dorms with my roommates when my husband was out there somewhere beyond its walls.  Admittedly, my commitment to the premises of Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye lasted all of two months.

Honest soul searching reveals that even after years of disillusionment in loves lost and a marriage failed, the false belief that life hasn’t started yet still owns me.

Pulling into my driveway tonight, my first realization was that in a week’s time ignored, my magnolias now boast lush green leaves.  The second was that the bushes in front of my porch have bright purplish-pink flowers.  The third was that between bushes, I have purple irises.  My beloved pink magnolia blossoms might be gone, but Spring has seen fit to bless me with three new vegetative darlings in their place.

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I can regret the skipped friendships and photographs, the present moments overlooked while I was waiting for my perfect future moment.   I can continue in counterfeit existence, navigating through days with the phony notion that life has not yet begun.  I can cling to predictability, routine, and grammatical correctness.

But those “cans” cannot anticipate what emerges from the changes in the natural ebb and flow that pushes life forward.  They cannot offer a suitable substitute for the delights of carpe diem that undermine disappointment, disillusionment, and regret.  They cannot see the purple irises that will come l8r.

When Why’s Lack Faith

I miss my magnolias tonight as I gather my thoughts to compose on a veranda off the kitchen of my oldest brother’s Italian villa style house in Greenville, South Carolina.  Spring Break afforded me the opportunity to visit David’s family, play school with my niece and nephew, and exchange thoughts with my sister-in-law and my brother.

When I opened the door and entered the house a couple of days ago, the familiar scent of their home sent me back like a time machine to a season I try hard not to remember.  It was in this house in David’s man-cave with theater seating and a big screen that I first seriously considered leaving my husband.  It was here that I came clean with my family about the problems in my marriage and came clean with myself about the depression I could no longer manage alone.  In the safety of my brother’s wisdom, I was able to face a reality that my mind could not process otherwise.

I remember spending a day at a children’s museum with my niece and nephew, watching them play grocery store.  At that time, daily tasks no longer made sense, and the absurdity of children practicing for the future responsibility rendered me practically incapacitated.  We eat, we sleep, we dream, we shop, we school, we play, but why?  Why? The question resounded regarding every action that now seemed trivial and meaningless.  Years before, having children was my greatest desire; now, I watched the kids playing and could only question the act of reproduction.  Why do we keep furthering generations?  I did not want children.  I did not want anything anymore.

I had come to obsess over the meaning of life.  Having long before adopted theologian John Piper’s revision to the catechism that the chief end of man was to glorify God by enjoying him, I had lived with that aim at the forefront.  During this particularly dark winter, I devoured book after book attempting to derive the purpose for human existence to begin with.  Sin entered the picture not with man, but with the angel Lucifer who rose up against God, Angels could not die, so in order for God to defeat sin, He needed to create a species in His image that would sin, so that He could send His Son in their image to die and therefore defeat sin, and with every answer I found I had only more of the same question: why?

In the months that followed that trip to Greenville, I announced my intention to divorce my spouse, moved to Syracuse, and lived in my old bedroom.  I use the word “live” loosely, because more accurately, I was only existing.  I ate, slept, dreamed, and eventually started going to the gym.  Without a job or home or family to care for, it was often my only obligation save for weekly visits with my psychologist, Dr. Bogin.  Running into old acquaintances there only heightened my awareness of the nothingness that was my being, and with the support of my parents, David, and Dr. Bogin, I shored up enough courage to apply for my dream job in Greenville as a Technology Facilitator.  I would be doing what I’d gone to graduate school for: working with teachers to implement technology and media in their classrooms.

The last time that I was here, I interviewed for the position.  In the car, my then five-year-old niece prayed for me.  “God, please give Auntie Laura Joy this job so that she can read me Amelia Bedelia books every night,” the child pleaded before I went in the building.  I had prayed fervently for this job.  My parents’ small group had prayed.  Even my niece had prayed.  It was on the flight back to Syracuse that I received the email thanking me for applying and explaining another candidate had been selected.

My obsession on why and purpose then shifted to the function of prayer.  We had all prayed so hard for my fresh start at my dream job in a new city, but the prayers were denied.  At first it seemed an unkindness – I had gathered all the courage that was left in my bones to take this risk only to have my tiny hopes shattered.  Was it my will verses God’s will, His divine will and permissive will, the desires of my heart verses God’s will?  I became entangled in a web of my own making that found me unable to complete a simple prayer without a schizophrenic inner dialogue akin to, “God, I really want… well, I want if it’s what You want… well, I know that you give us the desires of our heart, so this is the desire of my heart, but You already know that desire, so do Your will, but You will anyway, so…” Why pray if the outcomes were already determined?

It was after that last trip to Greenville that I stopped praying, and not long after that I stopped opening my Bible at all.  The words no longer spoke to me or gave me comfort.  I tagged along with my parents to church, but I felt nothing when lifting my voice in songs of worship that used to bring me to tears.  I recall one session with Dr. Bogin where I admitted that for the first time in my life I was questioning the fact that I’d hinged my entire existence upon the death and resurrection of a man that lived over two thousand years ago.  Jesus seemed foreign to me.

In essence, it has been nearly two years since Jesus seemed real.  I went through the motions of attending church for a dual purpose: to please my parents and to experience an epiphany.  Ultimately, neither was achieved.  Upon learning the truth of my divergence from faith, my father was enraged that I had given them and God lip-service for so long.  Absent an epiphany, I elected to stop trying altogether.

The sun has set and I cannot see beyond the bars of this veranda, and the imagery that dances behind my eyelids is that of my own backyard in Virginia.  The man who chopped up the wood never returned to collect it, so there is firewood littering the entire backyard.  While I’m grateful to only pay the lawn boy for the front yard this week, the dead wood still concerns me.  Will he be back?  Should I gather it myself and sell it or give it away, and how would I find people who need it now that winter is but a cold memory?

Perhaps my faith is like that wood, once alive and thriving, now still and silent, its future in question.  Yet, these logs have more potential than the branches discarded on trash day – there is still a chance that something useful will become of them in time to come.  It occurs to me that I could ask why this grand tree met its demise, but what’s the point?  A dozen unanswered why’s from two years ago brought me to my disbelief.  Why ask why at all?

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Why do humans walk the earth?  Why do flowers bloom?  Why do we procreate?  Why do we need sleep and food?  Why do we play sports?  Why do we work jobs?  When I stopped asking why, I rejoined the living.  I took a job in Syracuse, learned how to golf, made new friends, and found enjoyment playing Candy Crush Saga on my smart phone.  I took a chance on a teaching career and landed in Virginia.  Countless nights helping my older brother with his infant twin girls leave me feeling useful.

Two years ago, I had no desires left for a family of my own, and though I may have lost my faith in religion, I have regained so many other parts of me.  If I am a Peony, I’m still newly planted, and I cannot expect the vibrancy of a fourth-year plant from a mere seedling.  I’m teaching, writing, laughing, and dreaming again.  Perhaps I will regain faith in year two or three.  For today, it’s enough to know I’m living again and not consumed by the why’s that once debilitated me.