For the past ten years or so, I have been tortured by orchids. By this I mean, periodically, in a fit of optimism, I will buy an orchid, drawn to not only the impossible beauty of the flower but also to a certain quality of stillness that orchids have. Nothing terribly exotic, just Phalaenopsis, which is the most popular orchid because they’re supposed to be easiest to grow, and the flowers can last up to two months. I have them in pink, and also white, which is probably my favorite.
I love the way they hover in the air, impossibly lush and delicate, the blossoms absurdly out of proportion to their delicate stems. They seem a miracle of stillness to me, and of balance. These are two states of being for which I yearn, and so the orchid is in many ways a symbol of my own longing.
Sumi-e, as ink and wash painting is called in Japanese, is a type of brush painting where only black ink — the same as used in East Asian calligraphy — is used, in various concentrations. In this tradition the orchid has special meaning. The practice of this art form, much like iconography in Christianity, is considered a spiritual journey and the practitioners aim to capture the spirit of an element of the natural world, rather than its mere physical aspects. The orchid is considered one of the “Four Gentlemen,” which along with bamboo, plum blossom and chrysanthemum, make up the four seasons. The following is taken from “The Arts of Sumi-e”:
The Orchid represents Spring, a happy spirit, the symbol of grace reflecting the ultimate feminine virtues. The orchid is considered the Mother of Brush Painting. The beauty and grace of the orchid are fragile in form, with no violent tendencies, its fragrance is never overpowering. The wild orchid grows in what is considered the most inspirational of all places, where the mountain meets the water or where yin meets yang. The orchid stands at the gateway of Spring inviting everyone to join in the celebration of life. (You can visit their website, here, to read about the philosophy behind the other flowers.)
I used to read articles on orchids, and talk to friends who have orchids. I used to put down humidity trays, and use orchid food, and soak them in the sink for an hour or so every week and do all the sort of things orchids are supposed to like.
And yet still, their leaves went flabby and yellow, they withered, they turned a most unhealthy shade of gray, and eventually they simply (metaphorically) threw themselves out of their pots and died. I have become, if not used to this cycle, at least resigned to it. Things live and things die. Such is life. Now I do very little to cosset my orchids. I water ’em once a week and leave ’em alone.
So, you will imagine my surprise and delight when I walked into the breakfast room yesterday morning and discovered one of my plants had sprouted, seemingly overnight, a long stem on which two buds are clearly evident!
Now, it may not look like much to you, but to me it’s a, well, it’s a bloomin’ miracle. But, looking closely, for you are paying rapt attention, I’m sure, you may notice a strange figure at the left of the photo. What is that? Let’s look closer…
Egads. A flying pig. Well, pondering that, it seems utterly fitting, because up until yesterday morning I was convinced that my orchid would bloom again only when and if pigs flew. And here we are.
And being a writer, of course I take that as metaphor, and being a person
- who tries to deepen my relationship with the sacred and
- who believes the sacred speaks to us through the world in its majestic and messy complexity, which is in turn a metaphor for the mind of The Ineffable (in other words God’s language is metaphor and everything in creation is a metaphor)…
…my mind turns to broader possibilities.
I mean, this thing sneaked up on me. I had given up hope. Resigned myself to yet another few months of droopy green leaves and then the sad moment when common sense dictates I toss the poor decaying remains in the trash. I was doing nothing, aside from the most rudimentary of maintenance. I gave the plant water. I kept my house comfortable. The sun shined without my help… and yet, behold, the blossom cometh.
Now, that’s an act of grace, a gift, given without merit. I am a person prone to trying to control things, and like many North Americans I often fall into the trap of thinking that if I do all the right things — exercise enough, wear my seatbelt, don’t smoke, work hard enough, nourish the right contacts in my chosen field — all the right things will happen and none (few) of the bad. Of course, that’s utter nonsense. Bad things happen all the time and, in a year like this one just past, with alarming frequency.
(A digression — I sometimes say that time exists so that things don’t all happen at once, and space exists so that they don’t all happen to YOU. Sometimes, it seems this natural order law goes spectacularly haywire, doesn’t it?)
And yet here, without any of what I am convinced are my invaluable contributions, that which I had long given up hope of ever happening, has happened. Grace. Just like that.
I can’t help but wonder what else might happen if I just gave in and stopped trying so hard to control everything, to make everything happen as
I wish. By concentrating so much on what I want, rather than what is around me at this very moment, how many metaphorical miracles am I missing?
I find this small green shoot entirely humbling somehow, and sublimely hopeful. I can’t help but wonder if this is a small sign that perhaps, just perhaps, if I trust a little more, and strain a little less, that this year might bring more unexpected, and doubtless undeserved, beautiful surprises? It may be all wishful thinking of course, and self-delusion, but what would it hurt to believe, or at least act as if I believed, that this was a sign I am entering into a period of grace. In fact, why don’t we all act as if that’s true? Why don’t we act as if we see kindness and mercy and joy everywhere, and respond accordingly? What if we let ourselves, as C.S. Lewis said, be surprised by joy, just as I am joyfully surprised by this tiny orchid bud?
Happy new year everyone. May it bring peace, mercy, love and, yes, the splendid surprise of joy.