Last month, I planted lupines–both seeds and plants–in the earth and in a concrete Italian statuary planter anchored in a new bed I’ve decided is to become a very drought-tolerant wildflower garden. I pulled the grass and weeds, turned and amended the soil, and dug a slice of earth for the edging that I hammered with stakes into the base of the trench. I planted seeds around and between the planter that I hoped would produce some spritely blue flax, mountain columbine, white cosmos, yarrow, blue penstemon, and desert marigold, and when I finished, I stood back imagining a certain fluidity to this garden… a fluidity of height and air and color that bends in a breeze and lifts to sunlight in an old-world style that speaks of joy and ease— that speaks of the simple beauty of being. That was the idea.
But then there were tornadoes and hail storms. There were plumbing problems that existed directly under those seeds for which earth and edging had to be removed and redistributed in ways that, no doubt, made perfect sense to plumbers who live by a different aesthetic—one of perfectly open, perfectly aligned sewage pipes. I am grateful for their art… and my wildflower garden is a mess.
I live in a Denver “hood.” Aurora, actually. All chain link, free-flowing weeds, plastic animal yard accoutrements, and bed-sheet curtains—not all houses, mind you, but in a ratio of approximately two to one for at least one of the aforementioned peculiarities. I moved here a couple years after my divorce, not because I had to, but because I have an aversion to debt cages and the other trappings of money and status and because I somehow imagined that a life in the hood came with a degree of anonymity; surely people here had bigger concerns than anything I might be up to on a given day, not that it’s ever much. And having lived in a couple up-and-coming neighborhoods over the last 20 years, I was over a life of good impressions and any attempt at tastely decorum. I wanted a simple space that I could make entirely my own by whatever definitions of “me” I happened to be working with. But for a number of weeks now, those definitions have rendered me a little perplexed, and a little… raw.
There was yet another break-up that turned ugly in its final hours, challenges with my seventeen-year-old son, sewage backing up in my pipes… and the U.S. Congress—its own brand of sewage—that passed Fast Track trade authority for the Trans Pacific Partnership when a handful of neo-liberals slipped in bed with Republicans because, let’s face it… humanity just hasn’t been fucked enough by the corporate greed represented in trade treaties. All ugly. So for days, I sat feeling sorry for myself (and others), scrolling up and down my Facebook feed in a mind-numbing stupor of “likes” and incompatible images (cute animals, modern-day slavery, ruthless politicians, glorious sunsets…)—my own postings a similar barrage of conflicting meanings and tones—and I speculated that there might be some calculable relationship between FB and Adderall sales… or Xanax.
Many years ago when I’d just begun teaching middle school, I had a student ask me a question about the movie Schindler’s List. Her question, relative to a tragic scene at the start of the film, was why had the director given color to a little Jewish girl in a red coat while all else in the film was in black and white. It was before I’d learned to answer such questions with Why do you think, so I poured forth with my own interpretation of what Spielberg might have been after. I told her that I imagined it was the director’s way of calling our attention to an individual. Because as human beings it’s easier to ignore or to minimize the suffering of a mass of humanity than it is to ignore the suffering of six million individuals. He called out the singular then asked the audience to multiply.
I seem to have been gifted the opposite problem. My active imagination can (and does) produce lots and lots of individuals. So, for example, when I read that the Trans Pacific trade deal (mentioned above) included a clause that would prevent participating countries from utilizing labor in countries of known trafficking, and that Obama moved to strike one of the most offending countries (Malaysia) from the list so as to allow wealthy corporations to continue exploiting those labor markets, I saw individuals. My imagination was pushed along by an image in the article of a mass grave, fresh wooden boxes lined side by side, inhabited by the bodies of Rohingya migrants. In one of those boxes I saw a mother who, the day before, yelled at her teenage son for driving too fast and running a stop sign; in another, one who’d come out late in her years and wished in the second half of her life to find love that was eternal and kind; and in yet another, a woman who longed to pass time sitting in a swing watching cosmos and flax sway in the gentle breezes of a yesteryear. Of course, those are not their stories, they are mine. But I hold this belief that until we see all of humanity as our own and stop pushing a mass of injustice into a corner we cannot see and with which we refuse to make eye contact, we only propagate the seeds of ugliness and unkindness in this world.
Their opposite value–beauty–represented by the lupines in my planter and the only plant-life surviving the plumber’s mission. The lupines were to create a purposeful contrast to the other tall and lanky stems that curl easily around winds. Lupines are squat and full, lower to the ground with a stable center of gravity and a reminder of a beloved children’s story, Miss Rumphius. The story follows a woman who travels through her life fulfilling promises she’d made to herself and to her grandfather when a child. To herself she promised to visit distant lands then come home to live by the sea. And to her grandfather, she promised to do something to make the world a more beautiful place. It isn’t until the end of her life that she imagines what that beauty might be, but after an extended illness, where she’d watched lupines growing outside her bedroom window, she birthed her plan to spread the flowers across the countryside. As the seeds bud and bloom, Miss Rumphius comes to be known as the Lupine Lady.
The lupines, of course, are metaphor—metaphor that asks me to define what it is that beauty means to me. And ever obedient to the voices that inform my life through story and song, I begin calling out the pictures that can only begin to answer that question. I know, for one, that beauty is my sons who run stop signs and forget to text when they’re going to be late; it is Eva Cassidy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and a friend who is ever present in my life to listen and to go to concerts where we lose ourselves on waves of soulful blues; it is an ex-girlfriend turned sweet, sweet friend, and a valley of wildflowers caught between ancient pinnacles and ridged contours; beauty is marriage equality and fair trade and it does not exist in anonymity, one of the ugliest lies I tell myself.
But as far as images go, I’m quite certain my most recent and vivid picture of beauty comes from an evening a little over a year ago. I was out on a date of sorts though in a group setting with my date’s friends. We sat on the patio of a Mexican restaurant with a live band and the banter of playful conversation during which the woman I was with reached out across the table to take the hands of her friend in a gesture of loving friendship. It wasn’t quick, something the group might miss if attention was drawn elsewhere; their affection lingered in cupped hands for several minutes. A gay woman and a gay man, it was bold and tender and absent of any agenda. I had hoped, of course, that this woman would become my lover, but regardless… I vowed in that moment to make her my friend. I did and she is. And as is so often the case with the powerful images in my life, the image of those tender hands grew over the year and became the beauty I wish for still—beauty that is this young girl’s promise to her grandfather… the hands and eyes of humanity reaching across oceans and continents to migrants in Malaysia and elsewhere to say, You, too, are my friend.