The Comfort and Companionship of Flowers

“The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them.”
Allen Ginsberg

Has anything ever, during all of humankind, been initiated, occurred, occluded, endured, or laid to rest without the comforting company of flowers? Walk a mile and count the flowers. Walk five paces, you’ll see floral. Whether real, wild, planted, stitched on a jacket, or transposed onto a teapot, flowers abound. We have a decisive impulse for the companionship of flowers.

American poet Allen Ginsberg longed for a place among flowers, longed to be one with them. He too sought the sun. His poem “Transcription of Organ Music,” published in 1955, is an anthem of longing for understanding, for companionship, for a floral realm:1

The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them. The privilege to witness my existence—you too must seek the sun…

We must seek the sun. We must exist among flowers. We must pull them near us, put them on us.

The flowers we keep next to our skin. Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We turn to flowers in moments of profound uncertainty, pain, and fear. It is almost like we ask them to witness our pain and speak of it in their own way. Manet spent his life capturing people, cities, social situations, but he painted flowers, only flowers, during the last months of his life. Matisse, likewise a critical painter of society, turned to flowers during World War II. Even Winston Churchill painted blooms following the Great War. America’s Founding Fathers planted gardens during both the Revolutionary War and the tumultuous creation of nationhood.

Of particular flowers, we each have our favorite. Wordsworth wrote that chrysanthemums appeared in his mind when he had a heart full of pleasure. Coleridge mused on the forget-me-not, Neruda on the gillyflower. George Washington planted flowering trees like peach and cherry (for their practicality), and Thomas Jefferson liked native plants like the flowering dogwood.2 According to my gardening magazines, British gardeners prefer bright, bold pompom-like styles of dahlias and peonies.

For my own company, gather the stalks, those tall, leggy, asymmetrical glads, asphodels, lilies, and crocosmia. Reaching sunwards, bending towards earth. I keep them nearby, precious items of meaning and power.

Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Vincent Van Gogh, who never shied from painting blooms, especially his sun-turned sunflowers, wrote to his brother in 1877:3

We passed the flower market on the way. How right it is to love flowers and the greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges: they have been with us from the very beginning.

Van Gogh wrote often of his deep love of nature and thought it was the way to understand art. He sought it out especially in cities. I wonder what he’d think of gardens today. Slowly, they are changing from being places to rest our eyes on colorful things to areas that engage our senses, overhauling them from tedious electronics and carpeted cement. Places that understand the importance of walking about.

Van Gogh would have loved the beckoning and humble landscape designs of fellow Dutchman Piet Oudolf, whose Lurie Gardens in Chicago and High Line in New York City do more than bring us flowers: they bring flowers, us.

Flowers are a safe witness to our life because flowers are life. Striving towards that sun. Abundant and thriving, satisfying our penchant for symmetry, efficiency, elegance, color. They are humble, gentle, and “open to receive.” It is fitting—like Manet, Matisse, Churchill—that we surround ourselves near death with abundant life.

Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Allen Ginsberg so beautifully, mournfully sought to exist among flowers. With a heart full of pleasure and sorrow, he finds the delight:

I had a moment of clarity, saw the feeling in the heart of things, walked out to the garden crying. Saw the red blossoms in the night light, sun’s gone, they had all grown, in a moment, and were waiting stopped in time for the day sun to come and give them…Flowers which as in a dream at sunset I watered faithfully not knowing how much I loved them. I am so lonely in my glory—except they too out there—I looked up—those red bush blossoms beckoning and peering in the window waiting in blind love, their leaves too have hope and are upturned top flat to the sky to receive—all creation open to receive—the flat earth itself.

Flowers, our greatest witness. If they spoke they’d say much, but only to passing pollinators. That we enjoy their company means little to a flower. Is that why we give them a language of their own?4

The Precious Things We Keep Nearby

“Her many belongings were precious but heavy with the weight of memory.”
Irving Yalom

In drawers and cupboards, on desktops and shelves, in pockets and purses, we keep precious items. Pencils, rocks, shells, boxes, pennies, bells, rings, and things—they are special and precious. Things we keep at home, and things we might not leave home without.

In Night, Elie Wiesel’s clear and horrifyingly true story of his evacuation from a Hungarian ghetto and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Wiesel remembers a prisoner playing a Beethoven sonata on the violin. “Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence.”1

Someone kept a violin in Auschwitz? Grace has a sinister side. Amidst humans marching to gas chambers, a violin holds a note of humanity. It’s not the violin that’s incomprehensible. It’s that this man kept it close.

When we keep things close, they catch in our gravity, sit in our orbits. We share forces like power, identity, memory. Things we cannot possibly abandon.

Above all memory. Little joggers of places, moments, and words that happened. Our past selves, other people.

I keep a small ceramic pot full of waxy orange stamp ink. It was my grandmother’s, bought it in China fifty years ago. When I was young I used to put my finger in it and touch things, spreading beautiful orange, enraging her to no end. Grandma died years ago, but the pot remained in Grandpa’s home. My grandfather died this year and I requested the pot. A childhood print was still in the ink. A witness of the past. I keep it close.

Writer Dani Shapiro maneuvers us around her nearby precious things in her memoir Still Writing:2

My desk is covered with talismans: pieces of rose quartz, wishing stones from a favorite beach, essential oils with names like concentration and focus and inspiration—the kind I might have laughed at when I was younger… All that stuff is there to remind me to stay in the present.

Precious ceramics by Isobel Egan, James Oughtibridge and Yuta Segawa. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I keep a wide orbit of preciousness.

Pictures, stones, beads, an arrowhead, dried flowers, seeds, pine cones, small mirrors, elephant-shaped paperclips, tassels, things purple. When I moved into my first apartment, my mom packed my precious things in a box she labelled “Treasures.” The movers got a kick out of that.

Since moving to England, I’ve collected a few small ceramics. Hard, smooth, always cold with achingly tender widths. They give me comfort. Touch is critical to connecting.

Precious ceramics by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My husband keeps lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) in his closet. He touches it absently while choosing a tie. It calms him, the touch and the act of touching. Connecting.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes fondly of a rock collection. Not the talismans most of us gather but specific elements of the periodic table. Minerals, like a bottle of mercury.3

I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss […] by turning to the nonhuman. […] Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.

These precious things we keep nearby hold our vast emotions with ease. They are vessels for the things we can’t carry and can’t abandon. And after we’re gone, they will speak of us.

James Oughtibridge’s ceramic maquettes. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In an emotional and empathetic exploration of the “human death anxiety,” psychiatrist Irvin Yalom urges connection as a way to overcome our fears of nothingness:4 “There is a biological fear that is hardwired into us. I know this fear is inchoate—I’ve experienced it too. It doesn’t have words. But every living creature wishes to persist in its own being.”

We are connected deeply to our precious things because they persist when we cannot. We might not know where we exist beyond death, but we know these things will persist on earth. This is all perfectly healthy and natural and human. However, we must take care these connections don’t stand in for human connections.

When French travel writer Sylvain Tesson forwent civilization to spend six months in Siberia, he formed strong connections to things, because he was missing people?5

An object that has been with us through the ups and downs of life takes on substance and a special aura; the years give it a protective patina. To learn to love each one of our poor patrimony of objects, we have to spend a long time with them. […] As the nature of objects reveals itself, I seem to pierce the mysteries of their essence. I love you, bottle…

I love you, bottle… more than I love anyone else?

Precious ceramics by Yuta Segawa. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In drawers and cupboards, on desktops and shelves, in pockets and purses, precious things we keep nearby. Requiring nothing but place, they give us memory, calmness, comfort, and infinite, welcoming capacity.

They don’t, however, give us each other.

“Darling, I now have a butter dish shaped like a cow,” Leonard Cohen announces almost wistfully in his Book of Longing.6

I too have a cow-shaped crockery. A white ceramic creamer. One of the precious things I keep nearby, a memory of something. Like all ceramics, it’s always cold.

The Fear of Being Interrupted

“I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up. I let the cabin get very cold, and I rejoice in my good fortune. Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.”
Leonard Cohen

Nurturing hard-earned disinterest in the superficial, abandoning our immediate needs and finding scope in what Mary Oliver calls “the eternal,” takes enormous effort. We must abandon pressing needs, ignore threats, and generally suspend our self. But the reward is glorious: time slows, and we melt into true emotional comfort and creative flow… perfection.

In this wondrously creative but indeed vulnerable state, even the slightest interruption feels like an attack. A force barraging down on us, yanking our soft self apart.

The interruption is so great even the fear of it primes anxiety. Like standing too close to the train tracks, an engine rattling in the distance.

London Underground, Notting Hill Gate Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I first heard of this “fear of being interrupted” in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s estimable memoir Ruined by Reading.1

I contracted a phobia for which there is no name, the fear of being interrupted. (It may also be why, as I grew up, I came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.) Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand I do something. Of course, I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is beside the point. The spell will have broken.

I underlined these words so firmly I tore the page. Schwartz put words to feelings and visualizations to fears that I and other writers, thinkers, and ponderers have long felt. Poets Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke. Writers Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, and Annie Dillard. And, of course, Canada’s most famous monastic, Leonard Cohen.

In “The Luckiest Man in the World,” Cohen writes2:

Saturday night really is, as they say, ‘the loneliest night of the week.’ I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up… Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.

A spider threatens our thoughts? Why are our thoughts so fragile? Because they aren’t real? Don’t memories and thoughts exist whether we access them or not?

London Underground Tracks, Earl’s Court Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps not. Recent neuroscience research argues that memories are not (as we imagine) file cabinets; they are actually formed anew once we call them up. Not only does this mean memory distorts truth, but it also means the effort to have a memory is rooted in creativity, not in rigorous thinking.

Creativity requires safe soil. This self, the one that floats sublimely free from immediate needs… we are vulnerable, angered, even disoriented. We form hides and protective walls. And most dangerously, we fear. Schwartz continues on her interruption:

The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic itself is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

We interrupt ourselves, indeed. In John Steinbeck’s Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938–1941, the fear of interruptions, specifically people needing him, unnerves him completely:3

Irritated today. People want to come see me next Monday. Can’t be. Just want to sit. Day not propitious. […] I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now. It’s just like slipping behind at Stanford. Panic sets in. Can’t organize. And everybody is taking a crack at me. What time, want to use me. In aggregate it is terrible. And I don’t know where to run. Ought to go into the wild somewhere but I am needed here. Got to calm down.

What Steinbeck sought, French travel writer Sylvain Tesson achieved: complete solitude in the “wild” to explore his own mind and being. During his self-imposed isolation in Siberia, Tesson seeks solitude, gains it, and, in a moment of rage, loses it.

From his diary The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga,4 that moment of interruption happens when his sanctuary, a lone outcrop on the lake’s edge, becomes the place that “Russia’s nouveaux riches fawn like groupies.” Specifically, snow mobiles. Tesson is devastated, embarrassed, and angry: “What I came here to escape has descended on my island: noise, ugliness, testosterone-fueled herd behavior.”

Devastated. How resonating. Being interrupted is more than losing thoughts or to-do lists. It can feel like we lose a part of ourselves. Or worse, that part is destroyed.

London Underground Tracks, Perivale Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When I began writing, I had to explain to my husband that the slightest chirp could pull me down from my thoughts and land me hard on the ground, creatively broken. I can’t ask him for silence in our own home, but I can ask him to not need me during certain times. He tries. But even now, I see him turning his head to get my attention, wanting to talk…

It seems unreasonable, and at times it is, but this need from others will stunt many of us who long to connect with unspoken parts of ourselves rather than freely given parts of others. My introversion is a sort that I don’t mind being around people—in fact, I love it—I just can’t be needed and creative.

We can relocate to the woods (Oliver, Dillard), the mountains (Cohen), Siberia (Tesson), or a cramped studio in Notting Hill (myself), but the intrusive world is beyond our control.

What we can control, however, is how we regain focus once lost. Right? That perfect uninterruptability.