Tulips Rising

20 04 2017

Last week a friend brought me a bouquet of flowers. There were several roses, some mini carnations, three pink tulips and some baby’s breath in the bunch. I brought the flowers home and put them in a vase on my dining room window sill.

The next day, admiring the lovely display, I noticed that it looked a little different than when I had first put the arrangement in water. Was it my imagination, or were the tulips growing? I decided it was a trick of the eye – cut flowers don’t grow. Over the next several days, though, I watched as the tulips steadily inched their way higher in the bouquet than the other flowers. Now, as the entire bouquet is wilting, those three pink tulips stand approximately 5 inches taller than the rest. Their slim stems delicately arch toward the window, the blossoms seeming to peer longingly at the street scene outside.

Turns out, unlike other cut flowers, tulips do, in fact, continue to grow after they’ve been cut! I found several online sources that say so, and though I’m still unclear as to the biological mechanism by which this happens, I find the fact of it amazing!

I look with astonishment at the tulips. I now know they not only grew, but the stems’ delicate yet decisive curve is because they are phototropic: tulips bend toward the light.

In his long poem, “The Wasteland”*, poet T.S. Eliot observes that April is the cruelest month. The wasteland he describes is the spiritual desert of modern life. This April feels particularly cruel to me – in part for the very reasons Eliot describes in his poem, exacerbated by our world’s political climate. But also this year, I am watching dear friends grappling with illness, loss, and grief. And I am deeply aware of the small windswept desert in which my own spirit is walking.

In the midst of this difficult April, I couldn’t help but think as I googled information on my extraordinary tulips, that these three pink blossoms are a perfect and lovely illustration of hope.

When we feel we’ve been cut – no longer rooted in the soil at our feet, hearts disconnected from the people and things that usually feed us, fear or grief overwhelming our energy reserves – it is easy to feel that life has deserted us. The tulips on my windowsill tell us otherwise: growth, new life, potential remain within us despite all expectations to the contrary! Growth will happen, unexpectedly, perhaps miraculously.

It is also true that deep in our hearts we carry the urge, the inborn desire, to bend toward the light. We will do it without consciously knowing, just as the tulips do. In that bending, we will eventually find nourishment – in the warm hug of a friend, in a peaceful moment of silence, in the promise of a soft spring rain.

*Click here for a nicely concise explication of Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland”





Compassion is not a virtue

14 04 2017

When I was in graduate school, like so many students then and now, I was poor. So when my lower right wisdom tooth became impacted, without dental insurance I had little choice but to go the the college of dentistry where I could get low-cost care from supervised dental students. X-rays were taken, and I was given two options for treatment: pull the offending tooth now as an outpatient procedure, or schedule in-patient surgery and have all four wisdom teeth removed at once. Of course, the second option, while the preferred one presented by the supervising doctor (not a student), necessitated cutting the other three wisdom teeth from the bones as none of them had shown signs of descending into the gums.

Faced with the choice of ending my current pain swiftly and immediately, or fixing the problem by experiencing exponentially more pain at an astronomically higher cost, the choice seemed clear. I chose the “easy option”, and the supervising doctor shrugged his shoulders and signed off on it. Laughing gas was administered and two dental students (my dentist and another called to assist him) reassuringly told me it would soon be over.

Obviously, I wouldn’t be telling this story if that were the case. At one point, I opened my eyes to see one dental student standing on the table above me, pulling at the tooth which refused to come free, using his entire body weight for leverage. The second student stood on the floor behind him arms and hands up – spotting him in case the tooth gave way and he fell backwards. The guy above me saw my open eyes and said, “Honey, trust me, you want to keep your eyes closed.”

What the x-rays hadn’t shown was that the roots of the tooth had hooked backwards, and as they pulled the roots were actually digging in deeper, like a fishhook.

When the carnage was finished, I was sent to the waiting room. Dazed and unsteady, I sat patiently waiting for “clearance” to leave – I had no one to drive me home and more nitrous oxide than typical had been administered. At closing time, the receptionist told me I needed to go to the check out window. Once there, I paid my 20% cash down and was told that, if I experienced any pain, I could take ibuprofen.

I didn’t feel at all well, having just been through what I could only describe as a horrifically barbaric experience. I drove, unsteadily, to my brother’s apartment, praying that he would be home. When he answered the door, he cried out, “Oh my God, what happened to you?”, grabbing me and pulling me quickly into his living room. He swiftly locked the door behind me, before ushering me to a seat.

When I tearfully told him about the traumatic experience I had just been through, he sat back, visibly relieved. “Thank God!,” he exclaimed. “I thought you had been mugged or something!!”, which explained the swiftness with which he had locked the door behind me. We went down the hall to his bathroom, so I could see myself in the mirror. My face was swollen, bruised, and covered in dried blood and saliva. I was astounded, and angry. Not one person at the dental college had blinked an eye at my appearance, nor had anyone suggested that I should stop in the restroom and wipe the blood off my face before leaving.

My brother drove me home, made sure I was able to safely clean up and get into bed, then went to the grocery store. He came back with soft foods that were on the list I’d carried home from the dental college. And ice cream – he brought me plenty of ice cream.

Throughout that horrible day, I was vulnerable. First, because I was in pain I was vulnerable to suggestion. I knew that the supervising doctor had more experience and made his recommendation for surgery based on his superior knowledge and experience. But the dental student offered me an easier and less painful option. I took it, although in retrospect, both the student and I regretted that choice.

After the tooth was pulled and while under the influence of the anesthesia, my grogginess and growing pain made me vulnerable. I docilely followed the terse instructions I was given, assuming that those staffing the clinic had my best interest among their concerns. It never occurred to me that they would just leave me sitting there, unattended and unwashed. Or that they would send me home with insufficient medication for the trauma I had just experienced. Or that they would allow me to drive myself home, if it were unsafe to do so in my state of dazed confusion.

When I knocked on my brother’s door, I was a vulnerable mess. I was in serious pain, I was exhausted, and I was already feeling that I had made bad choices. I was fairly certain I was, at that moment, incapable of taking care of myself.

All that day, I interacted with people who ought to have been both aware of and compassionate toward my state of vulnerability. People who by virtue of their roles might have been expected to be concerned about my well-being – or at least worried enough about their own professional liability to see to my safety. Of all the people I had a reasonable expectation of care from that day, the only one who responded with concern and trustworthiness was my beloved brother.

I’ve been thinking about this long ago day quite a bit the past few weeks. It sticks out in my life experience because, in general, the people I interact with, whom I expect to be trustworthy by virtue of their roles or jobs, actually do behave in a trustworthy manner. However, every evening’s news contains at least one story or reminder that this isn’t always the case. And for those in my community who don’t look like me, the possibility is greater that they will experience disinterest or even cruelty when compassion might reasonably be expected.

Brene Brown has said, “Compassion is not a virtue — it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have — it’s something we choose to practice.” I’d like to think that compassion is a commitment and a practice that I choose regularly – and not only toward those I already love. I like to think that I am especially compassionate toward those who are experiencing unsought-for vulnerabilities. But I wonder: how often have I just wanted the girl with the swollen face to go home already? How often have I purposely given the impression that my busyness trumped someone else’s need? How often have I done the barest minimum for the vulnerable person standing in front of me?

I want to be the kind of person who tucks someone into bed, then runs out to get them ice cream.

 

 





Anticipation

7 04 2017

“If you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Last night I had dinner with my friend Molly and her two daughters, Kate and Anne. After a somewhat chaotic time together at the table, Molly and Anne wandered away to do dishes and instigate mayhem (I’ll let you guess who did what), while Kate and I stayed at the table for a few minutes of chatting.

“I have two things I’m excited about for tomorrow,” said Kate (my 6 year old goddaughter). “Science club! And making my bumble bee punch-out with Miss Paige.”

After a brief silence, she exclaimed, “Wait! I have three things I’m excited about for tomorrow!” Counting on her fingers, Kate enumerated, “Science club, making my bee, AND baking cookies with Aunt Candy!” She smiled almost triumphantly, her eyes sparkling and her cheeks rosy with sheer happiness.

Later, on the drive across town to my apartment, I tried to think of three things I could be excited about for the coming day. “I’m excited this honking rain might stop” was about all I could come up with. It wasn’t exactly the vibe I was going for; I wanted the shiny-eyed anticipation Kate displayed, not mere relief that something depressing would cease.

The thing is, I know I’m the only one who can make that happen. Excitement and anticipation come pretty naturally when you’re a kid; you have to choose them as an adult. So I’m experimenting with choosing something to be excited about each day. And if there isn’t already something planned that fits the bill, I’ll pencil something special in – an afternoon walk, pick up some flowers at the grocery store, order a new book of poetry (Rising to the Rim by Carol Tyx, Brick Road Poetry Press is a good buy!), etc.

I’m not sure where the experiment will take me, but I can tell you this: when I woke up to sunny skies this morning, it was a lot easier to imagine exciting things were about to happen!