Sunday, May 22, 2011

RSVP Peonies

The story of my life can be traced through flowers. Whatever my favorite flower was at the time illuminates my journey, I think. My grandmother’s lilacs of my childhood (still my favorite scent), carnations of high school dances, roses of romantic adolescence, daisies as I came into my own in college, sunflowers as I learned to stand tall, irises post college as I tried reconcile my yellows and purples together…and once a flower became part of my heart’s language, it stayed a part of me.

Last June, just a couple of weeks after moving into my new house, I looked out of my kitchen window, shocked to see two gaudy, pouffy pink blooms in the middle of scruffy, overgrown, unkempt back yard wilderness. It turned out to be a peony, absurdly petaled, fragrant, and determinedly growing untended and unnoticed in this very neglected yard. I clipped the blossoms, almost offensively pink, and put them in my equally offensively pink Athenaeum, and stared at them through the long weekend last June of grading my students’ Portrait Projects, the culmination of their year’s work in my 6th grade class.

Throughout this capricious, chilly, rainy spring this year, I have watched over those peonies, hoping for their return. I pulled the weeds around them, raked out the leaves that choked them, and sang to them my very favorite song. (“Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” in case you’re, you know, new.) There’s a line, in fact, that says, “RSVP peonies! Pollinate the breeze! Make the queen of bees hot as brandy…” (Ironically, I’m actually singing that song in public for the first time ever at a festival this weekend.) Anyhow, I have taken a keen interest in these flowers that grow so surprisingly and in spite of me in this backyard that I have yet to even get to know. I kill every plant anyone has ever given me, no matter how treasured (evidence the bonsai tree from Craig), and Patrick calls me Kelly Black Thumb because of the way that plants keel over and die when I even get too close. These peonies, however, have sparked my interest, represented a heart-gift one year ago, and I feel fiercely protective of them.

It was that protective spirit that brought me into the yard this afternoon, rake in hand. While Patrick pulled out dozens of scrubby little saplings by the roots, cut unhealthy limbs down from pines and oaks with a chainsaw (super sexy) and reassembled pieces of rotted fence, I raked and cleared all around my peonies and sang my fool head off, cleaning out a happy little patch of previously untended world. I had no idea that could be so satisfying. My yard is full of rhodendendros, which barely bloomed last year. Today, I caressed and coaxed them, and with a little sunshine on my side, I hope to see them burst within the week. We also found two hydrangeas, five other peonies, a holly tree, a lilac, and a pitchfork. (We sang to the holly, too, just to get it going.)

I am not the yard-work kind of person, partly because when we bought our last house, while Patrick was tending to the yard, I was…well, breastfeeding, doing laundry, and otherwise caring for two very small babies, and the division of labor sort of settled in as the inside being mostly mine, and the outside being mostly his. I never really reevaluated that pattern until this new house came into being. I feel far more responsible for this house than I did for the last one, partly because I feel very much like I manifested it into being with sheer will and belief, and partly because just the having or a Room of My Own in this house has done so much to improve my mental health that I feel obligated to give back to its care however I can.

I have a friend who got some terrible news this week, the worst news, and I am racking my brains to figure out what I can do to be helpful, to support her through what is just going to suck, plain and simple. I have a vision of a little quiet nook in my yard, flowers and birdfeeders, and a swing where she can retreat for wine and girl-talk, or for journaling and crying, or just to sit. My mom gave me a swing, and it is sitting in a box in my garage. I wanted, today, to clean out a space for that swing behind one of the lush rhodenendron bushes, isolated, but not really. A quiet corner where she can feel at home, but not have to be home where it hurts to be. So I raked and sang, and Patrick and I fixed the pretty split rail fence, and realized that it’s going to be quite muddy back there, without the rotting leaf cover and without any grass. “I would love to get some flagstones to make a little path from the yard to the swing, so we won’t get muddy,” I said to Patrick. “Yeah,” he said, and I heard…where will that fifty bucks for flagstones come from? One moment later, one sweep of the rake, and I laughed aloud. “Look!” Buried under five years worth of rotted leaves…twenty flagstones, discarded in a pile, path-ready.

And that, my friends, is further proof that the Universe loves me.

This has been a very intense few days. I am praying hard for two miracles for people that I love, and thinking about life and death and what makes the whole trip worthwhile. I have no great illuminations, other than being sure of what I have known all along…that today is the only day, and that you should measure your life in daylights, in midnights, in sunsets and cups of coffee…measure in love.

In the past few days, I loved. I extended myself in love to my girls, and to my husband, my friend, and to my parents-in-law, and to my home. I hope, always, for a long and industrious life, but if I am hit by that proverbial bus tomorrow, I will have no regrets. I would be sad to not be able to raise my girls, but I will know that they’ve had so much of me, and that I’ve left so much of myself behind for them to keep and hold and know in trunks full of spiral notebooks. I will know that I have loved passionately, though not always wisely, and that the people who matter most in my life know just how I feel about them, not just because they “know,” but because I tell them. All the time.

You never know what will happen from one day to the next. One minute you’re at the mall, buying a book, and ten minutes later your whole entire world shifts on its axis. Completely. It can happen to anyone, anytime. To say, “But she was supposed to live a long and happy life” or “He’s such a good person, how could this happen?” It’s all futile. Whatever the reasons are for why things happen, they happen. We can’t know. But we can control what we do with the time we have. We can decide what to do, today. So today, I tended my little garden and sang to the peonies, with my sweet husband and my girls beside me.

And if, tomorrow, my world shifts on its axis, I will have had today.

Peonies, waiting to bloom.

The five NEW peony plants that waited to be discovered. (Hard to see, but they're there.) The rocks stand sentinel.


  1. You are such a wonderful friend. I know first hand how lucky, whoever it is you speak of, is to have you... If I ever needed a quiet space to feel safe with a friend, your space and with you, would be just what I needed.

    Peonies are lovely flowers, they were in my wedding bouquet with the Calla Lilies.

    May paving stones continue to appear for you to lay down in your path.