The Rose

I’m one of those offbeat people who think a Christmas card isn’t complete unless you stuff a heartfelt letter or perhaps a comical poem inside. It’s been my modus operandi most of my adult life. I know it probably annoys the heck out of some of my friends and family who have a hard time deciding whether to round-file it or read it on the off chance that it might come up in conversation, but a tradition once begun is hard to abandon. A few years ago I actually did take a break. This year I’m back at it. Here’s why … and, not surprisingly, here’s the letter.

“My heart to yours. Your heart to mine. Love is a light that shines from heart to heart.” (John Denver)

The long road to this year’s Christmas letter began last spring when a fellow writer said we ought to be journaling during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic for posterity’s sake. Who better than a couple of regular gals with a gift for words to tell it like it is/was for the masses? I agreed but never followed through. The words just wouldn’t come. Now suddenly – after all the laugh-out-loud jokes about how slowly time has passed – we are actually nearing the end of this cruel year. And I finally know what I want to say.

Looking back, I fared pretty well when the crisis first made home the safest place to be. As a retiree, it was all about stocking up on food and household essentials, hunkering down with the person I love the most, and immersing myself in cherished projects. Then spring came, and the dependable beauty of my rose garden kept me going through the summer. Never have I been more grateful for every promising bud and breathtaking blossom.

Too soon, though, the garden went dormant. Every day since, I’ve felt myself sinking. The surging pandemic, the merry-go-round of hateful politics and gut-wrenching division, the extended isolation from family and friends, and a handful of non-Covid deaths and health misfortunes in my personal circle collectively beat me down into near hopelessness. Even the encouraging announcement of vaccines didn’t seem to lift me up.

But just the other day, something finally pried open the corner of my heart where despair was growing. Like little wisps of smoke from a flickering candle, the hopelessness began to escape.

What was responsible? Why, it was a rose! A rose in freezing weather. A rose as big as my hand with petal upon petal spilling into a perfect sphere. A rose so fragrant that if you close your eyes, you would swear you were out in the garden in springtime. A rose specially preserved to last for months. I never even knew this was a possibility, let alone expected to possess one.

And who was responsible? Why, the dearest friend a person could ever hope to have. I’m not sure she imagined how much the rose would mean to me, although I have no doubt she went out of her way to get it. That’s her nature – endlessly kind, unapologetically generous, spreading love as if it was fairy dust, a true angel on Earth.

Which brings me to the real point of this story. It wasn’t the rose that climbed into my heart to ease my despair. It was my friend.

I so needed this gentle reminder. A kind heart — mine to yours, yours to mine — has always been the way to survive troubled times. I forgot for a while, but I’m more of a believer now than ever.

Believe with me, won’t you? There’s never been a better time to shine our lights and watch hope bloom.

Yours Never More Truly, Laurie Samsel Olson

Have a Little Faith

When winter comes to the rose garden, you rely on faith that you’ve done enough to get your precious bushes through the harsh months ahead.

For me, that means no pruning after mid-September, raking fall debris that could harbor destructive pests, and blanketing mulch around the base and over the crown of every bush. I consider the last step essential in the high desert since the overnight temperatures dip below freezing from November through March.

It isn’t until April, sometimes May, that I know whether my efforts were successful. Knock on wood, I’ve been pretty lucky. Most years all the canes green up, new growth appears, buds form, and beautiful flowers bloom.

The faith that gardeners and farmers place in the Earth is a lot like the faith people exercise this time of year. Maybe you hand a five dollar bill to a ragged man. Perhaps you pay for the coffee the person in the next car ordered. You don’t really know the effect these deeds will have on the beneficiary. You do it on faith that the gesture will make their day just a little bit better.

This year I wanted to take that concept and go big. I wasn’t particularly interested in the typical things people do and that I happily did alongside co-workers before I retired. Christmas dinner, Christmas presents, and other seasonal tokens somehow didn’t sound as helpful as paying a medical bill, wiping a school lunch tab clean, or filling an empty gas tank. As I described it to the social services specialist I contacted, “A Christmas gesture but not necessarily a Christmas need.”

In the end, I took on a wish list for siblings whose parents couldn’t afford to buy presents. It wasn’t my vision, but I was assured it truly was the highest need. I dived in with enthusiasm and recruited my family to help. We checked off nearly every item on the list, threw in a few surprises, and included an unsolicited present for the parents.

I choked up when my husband and I delivered everything to the collection point. At the time, I couldn’t really figure out why. It was just a pile of ordinary gifts. We’ll never even know who these people are. Then it hit me.

Have FaithIt isn’t about the gifts. They will be opened, and the kids will exclaim in momentary delight. The clothes will be worn and outgrown. The treasured toys will wear out.

What will remain is the memory that someone they didn’t know helped them have a nice Christmas. Even if only the parents are aware of the secret, the underlying message will become part of this family’s story. There is good in the world. There are people who care.

Just as I put faith in winterizing my garden, I’m putting faith in our Christmas gesture. One day the effort will bloom. We may not see the flower, but I have to believe that its beauty will make the world just a little bit better.



Consistency is Priceless

In the spring of 2016 my rose garden was a mess. I could scarcely walk the paths.

Tall climbers were slumped over after their tethers to trellises snapped. Overgrown bushes were tangled in each other’s canes. Ornamental grass was snarled in the roots of two of my favorite hybrids.

I had no one to blame but myself. For whatever reason, I hadn’t given the garden enough attention the prior year.

It took days of back-breaking work to clean everything up and get on with the routine business of weeding and fertilizing. With sweat stinging my eyes, I scolded myself for not practicing a basic rule of thumb from my college days. “Be consistent.” Somewhere in my Rubbermaid bins of memorabilia, I’m sure I still have the certificate my student newspaper advisor gave me to cement the lesson.

Awarded to Laurie Samsel for Consistency in Journalism

It was a made-up prize; an inside joke that memorialized my rough start. Although I turned in a stellar human interest story for my first byline, I followed it the next week with a half-hearted blurb about the college floral program. Mr. Byrd, a fearsome redhead who once played in the NFL, quickly scared the laissez-faire attitude out of me.

“This is pathetic, Samsel!” he boomed.

Since then, I’ve practiced consistency and extolled the virtues of it my entire adult life. It has served me, and those I’ve mentored, quite well. Sometimes it’s been simple. “If you’re going to capitalize a job title in this sentence, then do it all the way through the document.” Sometimes it’s been more complex. “You can’t apply policy this way today and another way tomorrow.”

Why I slipped up in the garden two years ago is a mystery. But untangling that mess is the reason I’m writing this blog right now. Otherwise, I’d likely be tackling my last big project before Christmas – wrapping the stack of gifts hidden in our guest room.

I love the holidays. I love them even more when everything is ready. Over the weekend, my husband and I wore ourselves out getting presents ready to send to distant loved ones and personalizing cards with handwritten notes. I was so single-minded about the whole affair that I didn’t spend a moment thinking about today’s blog post. In fact, I completely forgot.

This morning we stood in line (twice) at the Post Office to send everything on its way. Afterward, somewhere in the dairy section at the grocery store, I remembered that I should be publishing today. For an instant I thought, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll skip this week or write something tomorrow.” Dual images of my neglected garden and Mr. Byrd’s fierce scowl sent me to my laptop five minutes after the groceries were put away.

After that, how could I write about anything but consistency? It’s not a value with much pizazz, but it sure saves you trouble later if you practice it now. Presents? Eh, they can wait. Consistent presence to honor your commitments? Priceless.

Consistent Gardening Saves Trouble

It’s More Fun to Give

In Giving We ReceiveEvery spring I’m blessed with the natural beauty of colorful roses, flowering trees, and fragrant honeysuckle. The greening and budding and general rebirth across our backyard is like a gift that I get to open again and again.

Now, as the gift-giving holidays surround us, I want to let you in on a little secret. I didn’t originally throw myself into landscaping the yard to please myself. I did it for my mother.

My mother lived with me the last 12 years of her life. It wasn’t because she loved the desert. She was drawn to the lush valleys, forests and beaches of the West Coast. The vast expanse of sand and sagebrush in Nevada was her final destination only because I was here and could offer the support she needed.

As years passed and she became increasingly homebound, I tried my best to grow lovely things for her to gaze at from the comfort of her recliner. When we moved to our current house and the “picture” window proved painfully small, I had it replaced with one four times the size so she could more easily see the wisteria climb up the trellises and watch the yellow finches dangle from feed socks.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the gift I created for her has become, instead, a gift for me. Countless poets, spiritualists, and deep thinkers have long strived for the perfect words to remind us that what we give eventually circles back to us.

One of my grandsons said it well. During our annual holiday shopping excursion, he and his brother were about to go over-budget on gifts for their parents. I pointed out that it would leave little from their Christmas piggy banks for themselves. “It’s more fun to give,” the younger of the two said and handed another gift to the checker.

It’s not difficult to understand why this is so. Seeing someone happy, and knowing we are responsible, is like injecting pure sunshine straight into our own hearts.

It would be easy to turn today’s musings into a tired reminder to help the less fortunate this holiday season. Fulfill a wish from an angel tree. Donate a bag of groceries to the local food pantry. Drop some change in the bell ringer’s pot.

By all means, do those things. But be aware that arm’s-length gestures won’t produce the kind of inner sunshine that makes you eager to give tomorrow and the next day and the next.

For a lasting high, I suggest planting roses. No, not the kind that grow in your backyard. The kind my mother always said popped up in your garden in Heaven whenever you spread the seeds of love. Face-to-face, heart-to-heart, give the most precious gift of all to someone who is hurting or lonely or lost. Give love. Give it generously. Your piggy bank can never run out because every measure of love you share will circle back to you in spades. Take it from my grandson, it will be fun.