It is the day after Mother’s Day and the unseasonably warm weather has made the peonies on the dining room table prematurely stretch all the way open. Last night I refilled the water in their vase, making sure it was icy cold before putting them to bed. But by morning I could tell by the faint curve along their feathers that they were on borrowed time.
My family would not be sorry about this. For even though they know peonies are my favorite flower, they complain wildly about the smell. As I take a deep whiff of their honeywood rot and savour the brightness of their yellow pollen centers, my daughter wonders aloud how we are even related.
“How can you like a flower that smells like rotting trash?” she asks in the serious tone of an eleven year old.
The truth is that I relish their ugly fragrance. They may be show-off flowers but at least they smell honest. Because in a world where everything is bred to be utterly blank or sickeningly sweet, I want something filthy, something real. Where have all of these smells gone, in the flower-shop rose, the unnaturally huge strawberry, the winter tomato, the all too perfect, frilly tulip? I crave something less predictable now: the lemony pucker of sorrel, the salty brine of fermented carrots, the seaweed depths of my morning cup of matcha, the gracious earth of shiitakes, and the licorice musk of wet red-flowering currant in an April forest. This kind of forest is sprung alive while wet. The bark of each tree and the veins of each leaf hum, swell with moisture like a bosky aphrodisiac.
What happens when your idea of beauty is altered forever? I want a redo on beauty, on ugliness. For the crooked krummholz trees along the ocean paths and mountain cliffs tell a story of resilient elegance. All of the hours, days, years they have spent in the embrace of erosion, going with the flow, bending without breaking. They are shaped in persistence, impossibility still alive.
My life is also bending, shifting, and I feel the angle of my elbows, the sharpness of my shoulder blades, the sticky-outy bumps of my knees transformed into the shape of one of these trees. The winds have been blowing hard lately and I have been suddenly, unexpectedly, without work for the last eight weeks. There are mouths to feed and beauty now seems overtaken by the maw of fear. It feels strange to have flowers in the house right now, like they dance with delight through the dark halls of survival. I am twisted and turned, but also somehow softening down and more willing to be curious about this discomfort. I have a sense that my roots have grown thick and gnarled like my branches and that they stretch to my deepest reservoirs where they find the juice, the roiling lava, the dense source of my being. Oh, this is who I am.
My cravings grow stronger for what smacks of truth. I want all of the flavors in life, not just sweet. Perhaps for a long time sweet was all I thought there really was. The human tongue has taste buds for every flavor but can we tolerate, search out even, the sour, the astringent, the bitter, the herbaceous, the pepper’s heat and the sea water’s tang?
When I check on the peonies the next day, their wilting has accelerated. The shoulders of their petals shrug forward limply and I know they have given up now. I think it has been only two days that they have lived in this vase. And the soft ache of their delicate transience rings of the briefness of my own short time. I feel sad but also a little less afraid.
In my world “flower” is its own unique element and should be honored in the same way we cherish fire, air, and water. Each flower reminds us that there is nothing usual about any of it. No ordinary day, no ordinary world, no ordinary life. Definitely no ordinary flower. I think their job on this planet is to break our hearts wide until they refuse to close again.
Honestly it is ridiculous how nature spoils us in abundance. Flowers are her handmaidens of absolute extravagance. At times I feel almost a little embarrassed for how they lavish us with a rapture of color. How many do we walk by everyday, their glory missed on us entirely? I wonder this often, but then remember that there is no way to ever be sufficiently grateful for all we have been given. There does not exist enough awe to match the whole wild jubilation of nature.
Photo: Gayatri Malhotra