You who set these snares,
Release me, flower-shaken
Heart drowning in light.
You who set these snares,
Release me, flower-shaken
Heart drowning in light.
Fall is here again. Season of spare and paring things down, of cutting ties, and letting loose. Season of discards, castaways, parachutes. Of trees performing mass exorcisms. Fall is here again. Lean stray dog, stripping things down to the bone. No furnished rooms for let. Its offices austere, its intentions monastic. Fall does not wish on stars or live in hope. This is what it looks like to divest dramatically. Let the chips fall where they may.
Thoughts take on a patina in this time of verdigris and vine. Nothing is as it once was. Everything is susceptible to tarnish. Even you. Who can feign innocence in fall? In Spring we are wide-eyed children learning our mother tongue. By fall the world is crowded with words, and we’ve all tasted forbidden fruit. Unforgettable knowledge blooms in the body. The flavor of freewill. All lanes are memory lanes in fall. All beauty is bittersweet. Desolation and delight hold each other’s pinky finger, swear they will never be separated.
There is a clamoring glamour to these days. Honking geese cause a small traffic jam in your heart. The wind shakes the trees and your confidence. The new moon feels like an abandonment. One must practice self-reliance in spring and summer — in fall one falls upon inner resources. It is too late to build reserves. If there aren’t any then, then there aren’t any. The stringency of this is grounding. All laws of nature are.
Lamp light is poetic in every season, in fall it is also phantasmic. Walk down an unfamiliar sidewalk in that deep blue triangle of life between dinner and dreamtime. In that surreal soundscape of slow cars, brisk dog walkers, and the struggling notes of a valiant middle-school musician, look for curtainless windows. Ones through which you might catch a glimpse of a staircase curving out of view, or the polished corner of a dining table. Maybe an oil painting on the wall, or a fiddle leaf fig by a desk. You do not need to try to fit yourself inside these bright tableaux. You are already implicated. Everyone leads imaginary lives in other people’s homes. There you are. Invisible and standing at the casement window, trailing fingers in the sink, or curled up in an armchair. Lost in a book so old and worn, the lettering on its red spine is indecipherable.
Fall nights lift the anchor, make it easy to drift under the stars into the sea of someone, somewhere else, to belong to other worlds without purpose or premeditation. For brief moments, on such nights I walk without name, or personal history. I walk without thought of tomorrow, without thought of past grievances or blessings. Moving as woodsmoke moves, lifting out of a narrow chimney and discovering its belonging everywhere.
In this season of not-yet-winter, I slip my hand into your warm one. Am suctioned sweetly back, into the outline of my skin. I feel my feet on the ground, and stretch inside, like a cat. Ready to lie down at the glowing hearth of my heart. Ready to enter its dream.
In fall, perhaps more than any other season– I remember.
How good it is to be home.
Fall tips the bottle
Flowers open fading throats
One last swill of sun.
In late summer there is little left of lushness here. Spring’s pretty florals and prancing greens have given up the ghost. The tall grasses are the hair of a wandering crone, bone dry, wind-matted. Snarled branches of scrub oak mutter incantations. Silver buckeye skeletons filigree the canyon. Even thirsty, delirious, and going to seed, these burnished hills are beautiful. This is what longing can look like. Wild-eyed, bereft, and bursting with the crackling pods of future fruit.
Walking a narrow dirt path, your gaze snags on a small patch of ground. It is misted with a haze of white flowers, the only ones anywhere in sight. Kneel down to meet them. Such tiny, starry faces. Seen close up, a geometry of sacredness is revealed, invisible to all who stay standing. Rays of miniature white petals fringe pale green centers flecked with black-tipped anthers. Such elfin integrity, precision, and eloquence. Language, all language, suddenly feels coarse, and approximate in comparison.
Tarweed. I suspect whoever named you was a person of considerable laziness and limited imagination.
The flowers are borne on tawny stems that are seemingly delicate, surprisingly strong. Stems that branch with painterly perfection in all directions. Sticky with exudate that some say reeks of turpentine. I say one could possibly bottle this scent, and sell it expensively. Fragrance notes: citrus, cedar, amber, candor and sunshine. Struggling with the world’s indifference? Simply spritz your pulse points, inner wrists, behind each ear– and be rendered instantly alluring to some, repugnant to the rest. Apathy will no longer be an issue.
Perhaps this is why I love wildflowers so much. They disrupt my disregard in welcome ways. They untether my senses from the familiar, compel my gaze below, beneath, beyond, invite me to breathe in the bewitching, musky, pungent, and sometimes offensive, incense of this world, to touch its stickiness, investigate its purpose, to seek even in revulsion– revelation. I genuflect frequently now. I walk with more curiosity and care. Their feral, anything but sterile presence thrills me, spills into my settled pools of domesticity, untames me by slow degrees, acquaints me with holy minutiae and the longing of the waiting, wild-eyed crone within. The one who will one day go to seed. Hopefully with earthpraise on her lips, and tarweed in her hair.
When one considers the facts, it appears undeniable that the human capacity to earn affects the human capacity to yearn. Purchasing power renders us prey to the sales pitch. And sales pitches befuddle the soul’s longing. Animals have no purchasing power. They cannot easily be manipulated into yearning for things that are not aligned with their essence. This is why advertisers leave them alone. Animals are not susceptible to billboards, Google ads or product placement. In their world, Twitter is three or more birds on a wire. An influencer is anyone to whom you might be love-interest, or lunch. Animals do not have to untangle their aspirations from trendiness and the shimmering maze of mass marketing. They excel at following Mary Oliver’s counsel, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” For humans however, with our ticker tape, telemarketers, hyperlinks and one-click orders, it can be challenging to locate the wild and tender being who lives deep within our bones. The one who is penniless, barefoot and rapturous. The tangle-haired vagabond who never stops singing.
The trick then, is to train your senses like an animal’s. To become increasingly aware of, and responsive to all the unearned pleasures lying in great swaths around you. The quid for which there is no quo. Like amethyst sunsets, alabaster moons, and Amaryllis Belladonna… Are you unacquainted with the latter? Let me introduce you. But first, “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. And no one answered. Reader, just because he was a bard it does not mean all his questions were rhetorical. What’s in a name? A great deal of poetry if you’re lucky. Because in days of yore (ie before we lost the intuitive genius of imagination, and started churning out prosaic epithets like modem, credit card, and chairman,) we had a gift for summoning up the spirit of a thing through its christening. Names were cast like spells through the air, and the world’s entities were instantly vivified, summoned into brightened states of being by precise vibrations. Call a rose a skunk cabbage, and it will, almost certainly, die a little inside.
Amaryllis flowers are well-named. Derived from the Greek, the word means to sparkle. Like many things Greek, it can be traced back to a beautiful nymph. Beautiful Greek nymphs fall neatly into two categories — the be-sought, and the besotted. Amaryllis was besotted– with a disinterested shepherd. She turns, as the spurned in Greek legends often do, to the Oracle of Delphi– that dispenser of non-linear advice, who excels at keeping things interesting. Oracular wisdom suggests Amaryllis adopt a 30-day regimen of piercing her heart with a golden arrow while standing at the cottage door of her crush. She complies, and on the final day of this rather risky business, the crimson drops of blood splattered on the ground are transformed into ruby red flowers. The theatrical alchemy of it all melts the shepherd’s indifference. As he embraces his self-harming sweetie, Amaryllis’s pincushion heart happily heals on the spot, and the slender-throated, newly sprung flowers become her namesake. Not all Amaryllis flowers are blood red however.
Our Amaryllis are the aforementioned Belladonna variety (Belladonna meaning, ‘beautiful lady.’) They are a pearl pale pink. Technically they aren’t ours. Or anyone’s really. One day we woke up, and they had surrounded the perimeter of our home, like a glamorous army. If one must be besieged, then may it always be, by a floral militia. One whose heads tilt so prettily on brown and leafless stems, one whose petals curl so gently at the tips, you forgive them their trespasses now and forever.
Because their tall stems are absent any shred of leafy apparel, and because their scented multi-blooms are frilly-faced and feminine, they are also known as Naked Ladies. If this sounds scandalous to you, remember the life of every flower relies on scandal, on secret trysts in velvet chambers, and all manner of comings and goings. It does not behoove a flower to be prim or proper. Arguably it does not behoove anyone to be prim and proper. Ask a whirling dervish if you care to be set straight (or set reverently giddy,) on this point.
If you think the Amaryllis arrived right before bloom time, you would be wrong. They were there long before you noticed them, first hidden deep in the ground as gloriously lumpy, misshapen bulbs, then emerging in late winter, disguised as emerald assemblages of strappy green leaves. Sprightly and promising — but promising what? The leaves betray nothing, and before any blathering Springtime buds appears, the propitious leaves abruptly wither, die, and disappear. All that green hype, and now — just bare earth. So much something, come to naught. A letdown of sorts. And this is where an error in perception begins. The blunder is understandable given how much of our lives are conducted like a negotiation. In negotiations transparency and concreteness are key, one does not settle for ambiguity unless one is exceedingly gullible. The clever do not say, “I will give you my blood, sweat and tears, and you give me — a surprise.” No. The clever will hammer out clear terms and clauses. But mystery– mystery always deals on its own terms. Mystery will always have the last laugh.
And sometimes it laughs in the trumpet-shaped flowers of Amaryllis Belladonna. Flowers that escape the tight clasp of their buds, buds held aloft on erect and determined stems, stems that rise from bare earth like holy resurrections, long after you have given up all hope. For years (years!) you do not connect the dots. These yawning pink beauties rise from the graves of those disappointing green leaves. The discovery has all the shock of a divine revelation.
Absence is a misinterpretation– of invisible presence. In this very moment, hidden immensities are being transfigured in the dark. There is no keeping tabs on life’s endless love affair with the sun. So stop scheming for trifles dear heart. You’re not a bounty hunter, you’re the motherlode. Stop with your drudgery dear mind. You’re a wellspring, not a grindstone. Beloved Friend –enough of your frenzied industry. Try a different way.
The flowers don’t earn the seasons. No river deserves its way to the sea.
Neha is the recently-turned-eight-year-old across the street. Every encounter with her is an edifying experience. A few mornings ago she skipped over with her grandmother and our share of homemade Divali sweets. I was en route, basket in hand, to our back yard, to gather morning flowers. “Pavithrakka can I also come? I am loving flauv-ers very much,” says Neha, in her fun, formal, not always grammatically correct, but unfailing expressive English. “Of course,” I say, and we head towards the Coral Jasmine tree out back- a tall, slender trunked beauty that all year round rains fragrant white blossoms with bright coral stalks onto the grass each night. Gathering these flowers each morning is a ritual of enchantment. Magic is born in the presence of such unreasonable, unravished beauty.
I wish I could say that such a poetic start to the morning renders one invincible to all the daily demons of impatience, and indignation, of I-ness and My-ness and My-Soul-Is-A-Squashed-Tomato-ness. But apparently you can’t buy that kind of invincibility with a basketful of flowers. It takes a modicum more diligence, more vigilance than that. But what gathering a morning basketful of flowers can provide is- a sort of sacred space to set the tone of the day. There’s a Tibetan phrase for this that I learnt recently– penpa tang. And I have found that setting that sacred space does make a difference in how I live my day- or at least in my awareness of how I live my day. Or perhaps I’m just trying to dignify my self-proclaimed vocation, of, à la James Kavanugh, being born to–
“(…)catch dragons in their dens
And pick flowers
To tell tales and laugh away the morning
To drift and dream like a lazy stream
And walk barefoot across sunshine days”
Either way, I am here now with Neha, under the Coral Jasmine tree. When it rains at night, this tree pours. And it is monsoon season now, so the ground beneath the tree is carpeted in white and orange. Drifts of blossoms, so deep they can be gathered by the careful-not-to-crush fistful. I reach over with both hands, and shake the trunk gently. Neha tilts her head and looks up, watching the white sudden swirl of blossoms, blossoms falling like stars, falling like snowflakes. Her expression one of perfectly mingled awe and delight (my day is made in that moment.) We both bend in unison to the sweetly-scented task at hand. I find myself wondering, with a faint twinge of apprehension and amusement, what Neha is going to say next. I am loathe to let the lyricism of this moment veer into the prosaic. As ridiculous as it sounds, I find myself wanting to shield the sacredness of the space from small talk. This is because I have momentarily forgotten that 8-year-olds do not do small talk.
“Do you like Mother Teresa?” Neha’s question asked in the micro-interval between one handful of blossoms and the next, is matter-of-fact and sans preamble.
“Y-yes,” I answer, somewhat startled, but also intrigued by, her choice of conversation starters.
“I also am liking her very much. She is helping all the people who are suffering from This and That. Nobody else to help them otherwise. All the people in the world say she is very kind. And then she died.”
The small heap of flowers in the basket is growing. Fresh, soft white flowers today. Dried brown brittle ones tomorrow.
“What did you say?” I have to know whether I heard the last part of this little impromptu speech correctly.
“She died,” says Neha, all of eight, “End of story.”
“End of story,” I echo.
“Pavithrakka look at this,” she is pointing to a fern under the tree, a fern that is now strewn with small white flowers, “It looks like the flowers grew there, no?” A thought I’ve so often had.
“Yes it does. Neha– what do you want to be when you grow up?” And in my head I have already framed her answer– she will want to help people suffering from This and That, like Mother Teresa.
Neha looks over at me for a brief moment, then–
“I think I will also be a Flower Collector,” she says.
To meander is a natural form of movement, uncontrived, unhurried. Rivers and roving butterflies are adept at meandering. And we were too, once upon a time– before we developed a preference for traveling in straight lines, perhaps because of Euclid, who told us a straight line is the shortest distance between two points (for the record he was not entirely right about this.) Regardless of length, a bend in the road will always be revelatory. A straight path seldom holds any surprises. In other words efficiency and epiphany do not typically travel together. This is largely because efficiency deems as irrelevant, so much that is important. For instance, the most efficient way to travel from point A to point B will take into account toll booths, traffic patterns and the time of day. Whether or not the wayside California buckeye tree is currently in bloom will be deemed irrelevant. This is wildly ironic because stumbling upon a California buckeye tree in full bloom can transport you in an instant, but only if you aren’t trying to get somewhere. Efficiency is always trying to get somewhere. This is why it does not gallivant, daydream, linger, or lounge. Unlike Walt Whitman, efficiency has never been known to ‘lean and loafe’ at its ease observing a spear of summer grass– or a California buckeye tree in bloom. No. Efficiency is ever-preoccupied in getting you from here to there. For it to work you must be firmly tethered to space-time, not lifting veils, traversing realms and hitchhiking with eternity (things liable to happen when meandering or being Whitmanesque.)
For most of our lives, whether we know it or not, we are shepherded along by unconscious habits of efficiency and selective attention. This is why passing a California buckeye tree in full bloom without noticing it is shockingly easy to do. Like entirely missing the gorilla-suited personage in the Invisible Gorilla Experiment. While I am eminently okay with not catching sight of people in gorilla suits who wander into my field of vision, I very do not want to miss the sprawling California buckeye tree in late spring, waving its bright five-fingered leaves like so many small hands, covered in fanciful, fragrant wands– each an inflorescence up to eight inches long, studded with scores of tiny white flowers, that burst out of faint pink buds, freckled with delicate gold-tipped anthers, sweetly scented as white grape juice, intriguing from a distance, dazzling up close. Nor do I want to miss it in summer, when it preemptively drops its leaves in anticipation of thirst, a model of voluntary simplicity, or in fall when its large, leathery, pear-shaped pods hang from leafless branches, splitting open to reveal a lacquered seed that bears a striking resemblance to the eye of a buck. And I certainly would be loath to miss it in winter, when its silvery bark is laid bare, and the impressive mind map of its branches rises into view, like a floating labyrinth, a lovely skeleton, a slumbering legend.
Now I am finally undoing the unconscious conventions that control my attention, that push me towards chronic productivity. I am reclaiming my peripheral vision, my wandering soul, my capacity for wonder. I am realizing that what I thought were the footnotes of my life are actually where the fruitful stories are being told. The text in the middle of the page almost entirely misses the plot.
I am learning to love, like Thoreau, ‘a broad margin to my life.’ Priming myself for the buckeye, and all the beauty that lies just beside-the-point, just around the bend in the road.
Pick a pomegranate. One that cannot conceal its blush or merriment. One that is this close to bursting into ruby throated laughter. Let it sit in the nest of your palm like a flightless crimson bird heavy with gravity and hidden gifts. Call attention to that festive, sharp tipped calyx crown. Feel the shape of its ribs underneath the leathery red, roundness. A globe with subtle angles. Consider for a moment that these wonders grow on trees. On trees! Festooning them improbably as prima donna leaves pirouette into autumn mists. Great pouches filled with garnet gems. Yes — filled!
Split open a pomegranate. See how its gleaming cargo spills. A jeweled honeycomb, dripping sweetness. Arils like tiny pendants, so many sun catchers clustered in a cavern. It is clear whoever packed these purses was unacquainted with the notion of scarcity. Whoever packed these purses was giving hand over fist from a mythic mother lode. Were we slightly less preoccupied by calendars and petty calculations we would be perpetually dumbstruck by the magnitude of this miracle. We would not rush past our unclaimed inheritance, but would stop instead and fill our pockets with lucky pennies. Dawn to dusk our footsteps would sing a coppery chorus.
But wait. You say I am mixing my metaphors. I have called this fruit a ship, a sack, a bird, a bequest, a cave, a mine, a honeyed hive, a carrier of crystal. To you I say, this fruit is the stuff of legends, and legends defy consistency. They traffic in transubstantiation. Straw will be spun into gold overnight, blood will birth flowers, at the wedding feast water will turn to wine. And so it is with the tumbling scarlet prosperity of the pomegranate. It will render you rich as an emperor if you let it. Quicker than a con-artist’s promise, and ever more lasting.
You will of course need a key. Something to spring the lock, something to cry out at the cave’s mouth that will conjure the boulders, roll them mightily out of your way. A sign that establishes your legitimacy and authenticates your claim. You do know what it is don’t you? Or maybe you don’t. In the stories the protagonist is always slow on the uptake. Always spends two-thirds of the tale wandering in desperation and self-doubt, before the kindness of strangers and tribulation-kindled insight reveal what was there all along. Then the wicked fairy’s one-hundred year spell collapses like a house of cards, the sword slips out of the stone, and the Earth greens with growing things again.
Is it still sitting in your palm? The pomegranate? A thing alive and almost electric with givenness? Look at it again. You can, but you don’t have to speak the words aloud. The feeling might perch in your eyes, gentle as mourning doves inhabited by a wondering, plaintive softness, even that is enough. Or maybe it rides into your chest and lifts the roof off your heart uncovering a canopy of stars and dizzying you for weeks. This works too. But if it must be sounded, then perhaps it vines into your throat and pulses forth a series of small buds amidst green tendrils. Bright flowers shaped like delicate trumpets. Then all you can say or sing amounts to the same thing:
A thousand times a thousand times — Thank You.
There are encounters that leave you sloshing and unsettled– like a very full glass of pond water on a rickety table that has been jostled. A moment before you were self-contained, now your inner being is flustered and expressive — full of erratic movement you do not intend.
The jostler has long since vanished but you are still unquiet within. Across the stadium of your stomach a loosed stampede of bat wings, bull horns and hapless ballerinas. The sensation is not painful–nor is it pleasant. In such times it can be useful to recognize that you are a woman of independent means — financing this residual tempest with the hard cash of memory and the loose change of muddled emotion. There are better investments to be made. By far.
It is not easily arranged, but after such encounters if one can persuade a hawk to fly low overhead as one walks a narrow residential street, one might experience what feels akin to a comprehensive internal reset. A refreshment of being the equivalent of one thousand nights of dreamless sleep. Of that instant you are no longer a container of whirling sediment and liquid agitation, but a glass filled and stilled, quietly brimming with the crystal cold headwaters of a mountain spring. It will happen with a rapidity that defies explanation.
You remember the upward glance, and the preverbal register of a remarkable wingspan, a copper colored velocity, a grace that splits the sky like day time lightning. Electric and unbound. You do not recall the perturbation being poured out of you like stale tea from a teapot. The conversion is work that locates itself outside clock time. What has transpired is not so much substitution as it is alchemy– by hawk. The transformation of a base and volatile substance (your inner landscape) to one that is– at least temporarily– golden and inert.
It helps if the hawk calls out to you repeatedly while circling high overhead. Her voice commands the sky, corrals your wayward tendencies. Her wheeling, invisible calligraphy blots out any lingering reasons for dismay, any last recollections of dissatisfaction. And you are seized by an intimation of grandeur, a power vast and sweet and gloriously indifferent to our cramped labels of good and bad, a freedom so complete it does not require approval– or even understanding, and an awareness so piercing and acute, so borderless and far-reaching it leaves you with a paradoxical sense of how small you are—and how utterly seen.
If you are in a position to pull on cosmic strings and orchestrate this process further, it would serve you well to recruit between one hundred and one hundred and fifty additional hawks. Have them soar across your line of sight in ones and twos and threes and sometimes sevens over the next week. Have them perch unusually low and in view. Have them spur you to google “Unusual number of hawks in neighborhood this summer,” and accustom you to looking up frequently (because who wants to miss sighting a hawk?) Until their presence is undeniable, their message unmistakable.
Then let the hawks fly into your dreams, and with their alternating rhythms of muscular wing flap and spiraling suspension, begin to shape a shadowy sense of what it means to house an immense perspective, what it means to travel fearlessly between this terrestrial realm and the blue beyond, what it means to combine vigilance, with elegance and self-possession, what it means to expend effort, then effortlessly release, what it means to abandon petty stories, swoop down instead on what is essential, revolutionary– grasp it talon tight. And not let go.
I never notice agapanthus before she blooms. This lack of awareness allows for yearly ambush. A blue bombardment, like so many miniature firecracker displays in freeze frame, they seize the sidewalks, fully formed– their delicate globes fashioned from white or lavender bluebell blossoms, balancing perfectly on very tall stems. Agapanthus rises above it all, as sublime beings do, transcending a close-to-the-ground commotion, a happy hubbub of green leaves. The perfect spheres of their heads seem poised to take leave of their lithe bodies, as if at any moment they might elegantly decapitate themselves, lift off lightly, a synchronized indigo flock of crystal balls.
Ethereal guardians of summer gardens, parks and parking lots. Undiscriminating. I’ve even known them to stand gorgeously outside the dry cleaners, lending an air of nobility and charm to an otherwise nondescript neighborhood. Agapanthus from agape. The flower of love.
The ancient Greeks knew there are at least as many kinds of love as there are directions on the Earth. There is eros for instance, love that flies on a trickster deity’s arrow tip, generating all manner of mischief and delight. There is storge, the instinctual love that binds parents and offspring together be you penguin, person, orca, or otter. And there is philia, love like a hearthfire that draws minds close around the warming glow of friendship. But agape is love that drops your jaw, makes you stand agaping.
Agape is love without reservation. Monsoon love, juggernaut love, love that cannot be staunched like a wound or undone like a hairdo. Love that cannot be pulled like a plug, diverted like traffic, dammed like a river because its beginningless quality is suffused without end in everything. Agape is the Infinite’s love for the finite — and vice versa.
Does the asymmetry of that astound you? Then we are a pair. Our unsuspected birthright– to balance on this small ledge of life and love on equal footing with Eternity. Why were we not properly informed? And who will answer for the sins of omission?
But wait– Look! Summer’s chariot hurtles across the sky. Purple bobble headed flowers recite old poems with perfect enunciation in scriptless tongues. The seasons are a floral tradition, an oral tradition, perennial and precise. They whisper in our ears a thousand times a thousand times a day withholding nothing.
But am I paying attention? —