Be the Old Man

When I shared the first roses from this year’s garden on my social media page, a dear friend posted a comment that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. Call her a gardener. The seed she planted has germinated and is about to bloom right here on this page.

Referencing the beauty of my photographs, she said simply, “The reward for years of hard work in your garden.”

Well, yes. Hard work usually does result in a reward. In my garden, it’s roses. In my writing, it’s a book or blog that touches a reader. In my efforts to be kind, it’s a grateful smile on someone’s face.

Simple, right?

Well, it was … until my friend’s words began to mingle with a recent declaration made by someone else I know.

At the end of a rather long conversation, we got around to comparing our respective purposes in life. I explained my intent to make the world a better place by being a positive force. He thought that was nice and all. A pebble tossed in the middle of a lake eventually produces ripples that reach the opposite shore. But it wasn’t enough for my conversation mate. He has visions of making a bigger splash. Ideally, the pebble he tosses will be more like a boulder.

While cleaning out flower beds this week – an exercise that inevitably sparks rumination – I thought about the different ways each of us impacts the world. Some of us are content if our ripples encircle our family and friends. Some seek opportunities to improve their community. Some would love to see their name in the history books if only they could come back someday and take a look.

Wait.

What if we could come back someday?

Before you dismiss the possibility, here’s my disclaimer. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation or an afterlife. Or that aliens might whisk you away and later bring you home to a planet that has aged while you haven’t. Or that time travel is possible.

The theory of how it might happen doesn’t matter. All you have to do is imagine you’re here, let’s say 80 years in the future. What do you want to see? How do you hope to live? What do you envision is different?

Maybe your heart’s desire is to finally see the natural wonders of this planet. Maybe you want to live in a world where cancer doesn’t claim the people you love. Maybe you envision great leadership that brings people and nations together. Or maybe you just want everyone to have enough to eat.

Close your eyes for a minute and think about what would make life great in the 22nd Century. It doesn’t have to be something from my examples. There are a million other things you could choose. The only caveat is that your vision must be something that benefits some or all of us and harms none.

Got it? Now imagine you have the power to make it so. How? By planting the metaphorical seeds that will grow your dream.

You want to see the natural wonders of the world? Work toward preserving them. You want cancer to be curable or, better yet, nonexistent? Support cancer research. What about great leadership? Be an example of great leadership now or lend a hand to organizations that nurture future leaders. Food? The ways you can impact the availability of food are virtually endless.

Don’t spend a single second fretting that you’re just one person. Only a lucky few have ever changed the world single-handedly. Remember, in this exercise, we have 80 years for our visions to unfold. Eighty years for my ripples of kindness to merge with other ripples and become the gold standard. Eighty years for great leaders to mentor greater leaders. Eighty years for your heart’s desire to materialize.

Of course, it would be magical if all the good we collectively want could appear before our eyes right here, right now. But shouldn’t we be working toward the world we desire anyway? Shouldn’t we want future generations to enjoy the fruits of our labor?

You’ve heard the Greek proverb. “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” The unspoken message is that someday someone else will enjoy the shade.

Imagine you’re the someone else. Then be the old man. It’s that simple.

 

You May Say I’m a Dreamer

Spring in the garden is rolling out just as Mother Nature intended.

The daffodils, crocus, and tulips were the first to emerge from their winter sleep, dotting the landscape with pastel splashes of hope. As they took their last bows, the crabapple trees and lilacs burst onstage with showy displays of pink, magenta, purple, and white. Today the moonlight and lydia broom are happily hosting honeybees in their cheerful, yellow blossoms. Perhaps tomorrow the roses will bloom.

Every year I watch this gradual awakening in amazement. Every living thing in the garden knows its purpose and its time. It’s the most harmonious thing I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of a fine orchestra playing a classic symphony. The woodwinds, strings, percussion, and brass all have unique parts in the arrangement but somehow manage to blend together in consummate crescendo.

I’d like to say that this picture brings pleasant music to my heart and my lips – perhaps Pete Seeger’s 1962 Turn, Turn, Turn or John Denver’s 1971 Sunshine on My Shoulders. Normally, I think it would. But today it makes me sad – sad that the same sweet harmony I see in my garden is not likely to ever roll across humanity and push society forward in a way that benefits all.

All the hate and fighting that has tainted our world for centuries is finding fresh, new battlegrounds every day. Whether the issue is politics, religion, disease, natural disasters, power or money, humankind uses it as fodder for more division, more blame, more discord. It seems there is no appetite in this world for peace, or at least there is not enough hunger for it.

Even I – a self-described Pollyanna – am having trouble seeing a way out of the darkness that’s enveloping every corner of the planet. Each day it gets harder to look at the bright side of life, harder to share the joy that can still be found if we care to look for it. It’s disheartening, to be sure.

And yet, I persist. Because that is my purpose. I’ve spent most of my life trying to make the world a better place by helping others, writing stories laced with lessons, and otherwise letting my light shine. When God assigned me to this Earth, He put a pen in my pocket, a smile on my face, and a kind word on my lips. This is no time to throw away my tools and give up.

Like the plants in my garden and the instruments in an orchestra, I will continue to play my part. I can only hope that what I do – and what others like me also do – brings some measure of peace to this troubled world. Even if I write only one story that inspires someone, share one smile that comforts someone, or say one kind word that encourages someone, it will be worth the effort.

Maybe I’m ready for a song now. With thanks to John Lennon … “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

Love Is Contagious, Too

In the garden, caution is sometimes the only strategy to keep your rose bushes healthy.

The best example involves pruning. You don’t prune one rose bush and then move on to the next without sanitizing your shears. If you do, a virus that has covertly infected one bush is almost sure to spread through the entire garden. Certain viruses like witches broom (officially known as rose rosette) are so insidious that removing diseased bushes is considered the only recourse.

Knowing this, when health and government authorities told us all to repeatedly wash our hands, diligently sanitize surfaces, and stay home as much as possible to interrupt the spread of the corona virus, I wasn’t inclined to argue. Self-quarantine of individuals who’ve contracted the disease, but aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized, also made sense.

But what does this mean once you’re actually surrounded by the same four walls and (if you’re lucky to have housemates) the same faces day after day?

Despite what the calendar says, spring has not arrived in the high desert of Northern Nevada so, even on mild days, there isn’t a great deal of work to do in the garden. Saturday night dinner with the kids and grandkids is not an option. Television loses its luster when there is almost a constant stream of bad news and you’ve watched all the new episodes of programs you like.

So here’s what we’re doing in our household.

Every day we try to limit our daily intake of the bad news. Instead, my husband and I check in with family and friends via telephone calls, texts, email, and Facebook. Not only does that keep things in perspective, it helps us feel less isolated from the people we love. We can’t physically go through this crisis together, but we can go through it together emotionally.

Every day we spend time working on projects that normally we only wish we had time to do. For me, that means I’m suddenly making rapid progress on the historical novel I started two years ago. Rewrites I thought would take months are taking days or weeks instead. And what a joy it is that someone who regularly critiques my work is now my partner in isolation and can make suggestions in real time.

Most importantly, every day I try to think of something positive I can do for someone else. Admittedly, there’s not a lot. The last time we went to the grocery store I made a point of cheerfully greeting everyone I saw (from a socially safe distance, of course). In addition, I resisted the urge to buy more than we really needed so other shoppers could buy what they needed, too. A few days ago, I checked on our older-than-us neighbors and made sure they had our telephone number if they should need help. Yesterday, I left a “thank you” sign on the door for the UPS driver who continues to make essential deliveries while the world goes crazy around him.

Perhaps as we get deeper into the pandemic, it will become more challenging to tolerate isolation, be productive, and stay positive. But I’m personally going to try with all my heart and soul to persist. I invite you to join me in that mission. Collectively, let’s do everything we can to interrupt the spread of the corona virus and, at the same time, make sure patience, kindness, and love spread unchecked all over the world.

One Beautiful Thing

George Burns is a lovely, striped rose my sister bought for me a decade ago during one of her visits to Nevada. At the time, she wanted one for herself as well. That is, until the owner of the local nursery said the bush wouldn’t produce the same colors in Oregon.

This past season, George Burns was among the first of my rose bushes to recover from a late freeze and produce a bloom. I almost missed it since the bud formed in a sheltered niche among some low, leafy canes. I spotted it on the 7th of June just after it burst.

To my surprise, the flower was not the splash of red and white I’ve come to expect from this bush. It was red and yellow – the colors the nursery owner predicted for Oregon growers.

It didn’t take long to figure out the reason. It was the rain – lots of it – that came to the high desert over the winter and early spring. Mother Nature changed the pigment of the petals much like an artist adjusts the pigment of watercolors by adding more paint or more water to the canvas.

I don’t presume to understand the science of how a flower reacts to moisture in such a stunning way. All I know is that it clearly does. When I looked at the same blossom after 12 days of clear skies, with only our drip system sustaining the bush, the yellow had given way to almost pure white.

Whether one prefers red paired with yellow or paired with white on a George Burns bush is of little consequence in this story. Rather, it is the simple understanding that what any living thing receives in the way of sustenance will surely color its existence.

Knowing this puts a profound burden on we humans, don’t you think?

If we understand that what we consume plays a big role in determining our health, doesn’t it follow that we should choose what we eat and drink carefully? If we understand that words and deeds make a difference in how we feel and whether we thrive, doesn’t it follow that we should be kind to ourselves and, likewise, speak and act with kindness toward others?

Yet, too often we don’t behave in a way that reflects this understanding. We don’t treat ourselves or those around us with the care we should. The upshot is that we don’t live the best life we can, and we miss opportunities to lift others up so they have a better chance of living theirs.

It’s not a failure per se. It’s human nature – especially when a thousand random things in a fast-paced, complex world affect our actions and reactions.

Still, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could slow down, if only for a little while each day, to make sure we do at least one beautiful thing for ourselves and one beautiful thing for someone else?

Like the colors of my George Burns rose, the result could be stunning.

 

 

Be Kind, Show Love

Some of the prettiest roses I’ve seen in my neck of the woods aren’t in my backyard. The Carson-Tahoe Cancer Center in nearby Carson City has dozens of bushes.

Many circling the hillside complex are polyantha roses – compact puffs of landscaping fillers that faithfully produce small blooms all summer. Because all of them are red, I like to imagine that the designer thoughtfully chose a particular variety named after the character Happy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Other bushes placed in a special garden and in beds near the main entrance comprise a pleasant mix of low-growing floribunda and taller hybrid tea and grandiflora roses. There are no name plaques but, in my walks around the complex, I’ve pondered how the different colors represent a range of warm emotions – love, sympathy, friendship, appreciation, joy.

You may think this is a surprising place to find comfort and peace – in this landscape surrounding an institution where very sick people come to receive sometimes very unpleasant treatments – but I’m not surprised at all. Every square inch of the property was intentionally designed to nurture hurting souls.

The building itself was designed that way as well. Patients receiving infusions sit by a semi-circle of picture windows looking out over the city or woodlands. Strategically hung birdfeeders provide hours of entertainment – because that’s how long some treatments take. Huge stone fireplaces in comfortable waiting rooms generate the best kind of warmth on chilly days.

And, most important of all, kindness circulates in the hallways, offices, and waiting rooms like the soothing smell of your grandmother’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.

I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly enamored of the place the first time I had to visit after receiving a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer. In the two years since, I’ve come to appreciate my visits and have willingly spent extra hours inside the building and wandering the grounds while supporting others on their arduous paths through cancer.

The lesson I’ve learned there is that, no matter how fundamentally dreadful the purpose of a place might be, it can still be surrounded by and filled with the best humankind has to offer. The question I’ve come to contemplate is why can’t the best of humankind be replicated in every home, every community, and every place of business on earth?

For a shining period in my 50s, I worked for an organization that was led by the most empowering leader I’ve ever known. He set an example of cooperation, teamwork, mutual support, and simply being kind to one another that was unmatched in my 37-year career. His primary rules for the office were “no mean, no loud, no negative.” His parting words (when the Governor wisely asked him to come and run his office) were “be kind, show love.” The fact that his approach worked was evident in the volume and the quality of our outcomes. Hands down, I did my best work there. I ended up transferring and then taking early retirement when his successor took the polar opposite approach to management.

Circling back to the question that sometimes keeps me awake at night, why does an inspiring environment have to be as rare as the mythical Brigadoon? What stops us from regularly bringing our best selves to our marriages, our parenting, our interactions with neighbors, and our careers? Why is it ever OK to be mean, loud, and negative? I honestly don’t know. But here’s what I do know.

If a fundamentally dreadful place like a cancer center can create an inviting atmosphere – one that exudes peace and compassion – then it can’t be that difficult anywhere else. I have the power. You have the power. We all have the power to fill our homes, communities, and businesses with the very best humankind has to offer. It’s not up to anyone else, and it’s as simple as my former leader’s parting words.

“Be kind, show love.”

Bloom Even If No One Is Watching

In the spring when I walk through my rose garden, I often feel overwhelmed with the abundance of blooms and explosion of color. I raise my arms in joyful awe while uttering delighted oohs and aahs that must make my neighbors wonder what’s happening on the other side of the fence.

This time of year the experience is much more placid.

The bushes are drifting off to sleep. The smattering of late buds tease me as they take their sweet time to open. I watch them daily like a mother bird waiting for eggs to hatch. Typically, I know where each and every one is incubating, and I’m poised to greet them when they burst into breathtaking splendor.

Despite my tender devotion, twice in the last week I walked right past hidden jewels.

On Monday, I was taking a second lap around the garden when a bright splash of red deep in a Sedona bush caught my eye. Two days later, as I was evaluating my George Burns for fall pruning, a white and red blossom tucked into the canes near the crown surprised me. In both cases, I whispered sweet nothings to the flowers and stroked the soft petals as though they might be the last I would touch in my lifetime.

If I had never seen them at all, it would have been a shame. But, I realized, only a shame for me. The roses may have basked in the shower of my adoration, but they quite obviously didn’t need it to bloom. They did exactly what they were born to do, and did it remarkably well, without so much as a glance from the gardener.

I wondered. Do I have as much humility? Would I spend time writing a blog and a full-length novel, growing flowers and taking pictures of them, if I didn’t expect someone to appreciate the result? Is it all about attention and approval? Or, as some say, is it really the journey that matters?

After deep reflection, I’m convinced it’s about the journey.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good pat on the back as much as the next guy or gal. I feel fulfilled when someone is moved by something I’ve written. The point is, though, I wouldn’t stop doing what I do if no one was looking.

In the hierarchy of life’s hallowed purposes, embracing our unique gifts is second only to sharing love. In fact, in its own way, exercising our gifts is an expression of love. Love for the source of the gifts – whatever you believe that source happens to be – and love for the singular soul you are.

Every word I write, rose I nurture, and picture I take contributes to my growth as an individual. I understand myself better, have more insight about the reason I’m here, and feel more at peace. With all that as the reward, I would truly be content to bloom unseen for the remainder of my days. In so doing, if I touch someone’s heart, all the better.

Thanks so much for reading.

Trust the Gardener

“My roses seemed oblivious to the drama.”

I made that observation in my last post (Keep Calm and Carry On) while describing my unfortunate encounter with fungi in the garden this summer.

Today, while continuing my work to treat the problem, I also continued to wonder why the roses were blooming so beautifully despite the attack by an enemy I’ve nicknamed unscrupulous slime balls. Unbidden, the words …

Trust the Gardener

… suddenly floated across my thoughts as if the whispering voice from Field of Dreams dropped in from Iowa. Just like the astonished Kevin Costner character, I spent the rest of my morning trying to figure out what exactly the voice meant.

Are my roses blooming because they trust me to worry about and address the nasty organisms assaulting their foliage? If so, I’d like to think they’ve put their trust in the right person. I love each and every one of those bushes in equal measure and would do just about anything to help them thrive.

But then, I thought, what if the voice was not answering my question about the roses but talking to me? Advising me?

I was raised in a Christian household, although I can’t say we consistently attended church or knew a whole lot about what’s in the Bible. I wouldn’t call our family religious then. And I’m not religious now.

What I am is someone who passionately believes in a higher power. Whether it’s the universe, the collective unconscious, the force, or the Good Lord Himself, there is a sacred, spiritual energy that connects everything. Love and goodwill run through it like currents in a river, and it grows stronger when we link into it through prayers and positive thoughts. I have faith that it’s there because I feel it.

Maybe the voice among the roses this morning was reminding me to trust this higher power that I so strongly believe in. Trust that I’m not alone in my struggle with the fungi … or in any of the struggles in my life … or even in coping with “the overwhelming level of ugliness that exists in our world today” (as I wrote in my last post).

Interestingly enough, for someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about the Bible, one verse I do know is this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the Gardener” (John 15:1). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it came to mind this morning not long after the voice whispered in my ear.

There really is a great deal of comfort in knowing that someone’s got your back. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve got my roses’ backs. Spiritually speaking, the Gardener has my back … and yours.

Trust the Gardener

Keep Calm and Carry On

Powdery mildew. Black spot. Rust. These are not conditions a rose enthusiast wants to see in the garden. They’re all forms of fungal disease and, unfortunately, my roses were hit this year.

I’d like to say that the first thing I did after discovering there was a problem was to identify the source and fix it. You know what they say about any kind of hole you want to crawl out of. Stop digging, for crying out loud.

Alas, my first reaction was to literally cry out loud.

When I collected myself and did my due diligence, I realized we needed to reprogram the entire drip system. The roses were getting watered in the early evening along with everything else on the property that likes a little drink before bedtime. Roses prefer their brandy in the morning, thank you very much. It turns out, evening binges leave them with a nasty hangover and vulnerable to any sleazy fungi loitering around looking for an opportunity to stake their claim.

Reprogramming the drip system probably sounds easy-peasy … if you’re high-tech savvy. When I was a kid, adjusting the water meant moving a sprinkler from one side of the lawn to the other. Now it means entering numbers into something that looks like a bomb detonator. You have to know what sequence affects which drippers and whether to include said sequence in Program A, B or C. One mistake can foul up the whole thing.

For a 65-year-old who’s still trying to figure out how to stop text alerts after 9 p.m., the prospect of reprogramming the drip was paralyzing. Here’s where I pause and extend a thousand thank yous to my husband who did battle with the blasted thing for me … twice!

Arresting the source of the problem was only the first step, of course. Then I had to play surgeon and remove the diseased foliage. Next I tapped into my inner fireman and sprayed the bushes with some healing mist (an organic brand that promises not to kill bees or animals or humans along with the sleazy fungi).

All the while this was happening, I couldn’t help but notice that my roses seemed oblivious to the drama. They calmly continued to produce new foliage, grow new buds, and take my breath away with spectacular blooms. They continued to live their beautiful life despite the ugliness that threatened them. It was like they inherently knew what we humans must see repeatedly in memes and on coffee mugs, posters, and t-shirts before we realize the genuine wisdom embedded in it.

Keep calm and carry on.

It might seem impossible to live a beautiful life with the overwhelming level of ugliness that exists in our world today. I don’t need to waste space here to list the maladies. You know them by heart.

The question is, can we also teach our hearts to memorize the goodness that surrounds us? Can we still grow, learn, and bloom despite the drama? Can we spend every day spraying our personal healing mist on those around us to make their world just a little more beautiful?

I’d like to think we can.

All Part of the Experience

During the blooming season, posting pictures of the most stunning roses in my garden is an almost daily task. It’s like keeping a diary, and I admit to enjoying the compliments from friends and family.

Yet, I sometimes feel a little guilty. Deceptive maybe. Rarely does anything with a less than 90% perfection rating (on my personal scale) ever make it to social media.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love each and every bloom in my Garden of the Rocks and Roses. It simply means that my admirers see only what I choose to share.

Recently, a swath of new and aging roses on my Pumpkin Patch bush captivated me so completely that I posted pictures of it more than once. Friends responded with thumbs up and flattering comments. What they didn’t see, in close up, were the imperfections on some of the individual roses.

I see the imperfections daily but, to me, it’s all part of the experience. I learn from every flaw. Why are the edges of those petals black? Why do these leaves have dark blemishes? What should I do? Figure out the problems, resolve them, and keep moving forward, of course. Not surprisingly, the flaws make the near-perfect flowers seem even more miraculous.

Like so many lessons in the garden, it’s the same in the whole of life.

My husband and I celebrated the 45th anniversary of our first marriage on July 6th. You may think that’s an odd way of describing our annual commemoration, but it’s accurate. We were married on that day in 1974, divorced on Christmas Eve 2001, and married again on August 16, 2008.

When I announced the milestone on social media, I didn’t explain all that. I focused on the highlight, not the lowlights. My post began, “45 years ago today I married the love of my life.”

Sitting on our patio, chatting with visiting relatives around the time of our anniversary, someone asked whether we also celebrated on August 16th. Or, he wondered, have all the years just merged together.

Merged, I said. Most years I don’t even remember the August date.

Like all marriages, we’ve had wonderful stretches of nothing but smooth sailing and full hearts. We’ve also had periods of acrimony and hardship, and differences that threatened to end us forever.

Yet, even when we went our separate ways, the love was never really gone. We were on a Ross-and-Rachel-esque break that gave us both an opportunity to explore the world on our own. I won’t speak for my husband but, once I got over the initial shock of the split, I grew and flowered in life-changing ways.

Looking back, I wouldn’t trade anything about our relationship, nor would I wish for a do-over. I’m grateful for every thorny problem that needed to be resolved as well as every moment that rated 90% or better on my personal perfection scale. The flaws have truly made the near-perfect moments that much more miraculous.

It’s all part of the experience.

Grow Old With Me

Not every great picture of a rose needs to look like a tulip just beginning to open.

I ran across that observation when looking for tips about the kind of photographs the American Rose Society might want for its 2020 calendar. It stuck with me because, for the last 10 years, I’ve repeatedly roamed my own garden with digital camera in hand looking for exactly that.

After ruminating on this for a few days, I browsed through hundreds of rose pictures online. Some of the most striking shots were of roses that were nearly spent. In fact, I found myself strangely drawn to the older blooms – perhaps because I’m older myself.

It turns out I’ve made a grave mistake when I’ve passed by roses whose petals were fully open. The center stamen is absolutely stunning with its thread-like filaments tipped with bulbous anthers covered in golden pollen. If you want to photograph bees happily at work, that’s the time to pay attention.

Once the pollen is gone and the bees move on, you might think it’s time to deadhead. But you’d be so wrong. With a little patience, you’ll be treated to miraculous changes in color and texture. Rio Samba, a yellow and orange rose in its youth, turns red in adulthood and pink in old age. A Queen Elizabeth that looks smooth and stately when it’s first opening turns into a pink splash of delightful ruffles as it hits that familiar middle-age spread.

After all the petals have scattered, the green sepals that protected the original buds resemble five-pointed stars in a sea of green. But even that’s not the end. Rose hips – the bulbs that hold the stuff of future bushes or a hot cup of tea – are fascinating little vessels in their own right.

It’s certainly not a stretch of the imagination to liken the life of a rose to our own life cycle. Humans go through essentially the same stages, although we’re so slow about it that we have plenty of time to agonize over each change.

I’m my own best example. I look in the mirror and can’t see any sign of the skinny teenage girl who swam for the high school team, sang in the choir, and chased after skinny teenage boys. My long, blond hair morphed years ago into a short, white style befitting my age. My teeth, once perfectly straight thanks to two years of braces, are crooked again in a couple of places. I’m shorter, rounder, more ruffly, and less nimble.

Intellectually, I know I’m just as beautiful at age 65 as I was at age 16. Yet, vanity or ego or some other irksome quality in my psyche thinks I’m not picture material anymore. I pose for my adult kids when they want a shot of me for posterity, but I warn them they better not post them on social media.

Maybe it’s time to change all that. Maybe … just maybe … not every great picture of Laurie Samsel Olson was taken 50 years ago.