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.

 

 

Never Give Up – A New Perspective

About this time last year, I wrote enthusiastically about reviving a “little twig of a rosebush” that was struggling in our front yard (Never Give Up). It had responded to my attention by producing two small, yellow blossoms. I couldn’t wait to see what heights it might reach the next season.

Alas, the little twig remained a little twig throughout this past spring. It greened up when the weather warmed, but that’s all it managed to do. It didn’t sprout new growth. It didn’t create new buds. It seemed to simply be baking in the direct Nevada sun.

I don’t easily give up on roses, and I didn’t give up on this one. Carefully, I dug it up, potted it in premium soil mix, and carried it around back to my Secret Garden. Beneath the arching vines of a Lady Banks rose, I found a shady spot for it to regenerate. If magic could happen anywhere, I thought, it would be next to a statue of Little Red Riding Hood and a stepping stone stamped with the Frog Prince.

It took some time, but the magic happened. The little twig grew into a miniature version of the bush I know it aspires to be. Then, just as summer began to wane, it produced a bud.

I debated at length whether to get it back in the ground before the weather turned. Ultimately, I decided to let it winter in our guest room. There, it basks in the morning sun that streams through the east-facing window. It continues to sprout new foliage, and I’m anxiously waiting to see whether the sole bud will finally open.

As I light-heartedly wrote a year ago this month, the saga of my little yellow rosebush reminds me of the “never give up, never surrender” tagline of the cheesy Captain Jason Nesmith in the space spoof Galaxy Quest. It still does, but the passage of time has led me to another, deeper conclusion.

That little rosebush seems to know something most of us aren’t so sure of – its reason for being here. The purpose of its life. Its destiny. To produce a flower – a short-lived thing of beauty in the span of humanity but a source of joy for those lucky enough to behold it. A source of nourishment for the bees and butterflies that seek its nectar. A source of life carried on the wings of those amazing pollinators.

Am I saying that my rosebush is a sentient being capable of understanding its purpose on an intellectual level? Not necessarily but, if so, then it’s more advanced than we humans. Our intellect actually seems to get in the way of understanding our purpose. I’d like to suggest that maybe it’s not as complicated as we think.

What if our purpose, metaphorically speaking, is the same as the rose? What if we are simply here to create beauty, spread joy, and nourish each other’s minds, bodies and hearts in all the ways we need nourishment? What if our purpose is to send a life-affirming legacy into the future on the wings of the next, amazing generation?

And what if we never, for one minute, gave up our quest to fulfill that purpose?

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.”

The Joy of Pruning

Roses take care of themselves.

That’s what I used to tell people who admired my garden. After growing these classic flowers for 17 years, I’ve stopped saying it.

As it turns out, roses do need a helping hand to reach and maintain their full, beautiful potential.

Years ago in Portland, I watched our next-door neighbor prune his roses to the crown every fall. Every spring they came back with vigor. Perhaps I should have taken the hint but, when I began to grow roses myself, I didn’t want to start over every year. I wanted my roses to grow tall and lush and fill our backyard with color and fragrance. To that end, I shunned heavy pruning in favor of trimming off dead wood.

My approach seemingly worked just fine … until now.

This year I noticed that some of my biggest bushes generated very few blooms. Most notably, my Peace rose managed only half a dozen flowers. Its descendant, Love and Peace, struggled to produce two.

When I went hunting for reasons, neglect turned up as the likely culprit. I’ve always known that roses need air circulation. That’s why there’s plenty of room around mine. What I missed was the need for air circulation inside them.

So this week I’ve been pruning with newfound passion. I looked for old wood and for canes rubbing against each other. I created space inside the bushes by trimming in a vase shape as experts recommend. In some cases, I also pruned for height. I ended up with a truckload of debris and a joyful heart.

I won’t see the end result of my effort until next spring, but I’m confident I did the right thing. I’m sure of this not only because of the research I’ve done about roses, but because of all the relatable experiences that crossed my mind while pruning.

In every aspect of life, allowing things to get out of control brings adverse consequences. Some variation on pruning is almost always the first, most logical response.

Suppose you accumulate too much debt? Something has to give in order to pay it off. Most people go straight to their budget and start cutting discretionary expenses.

Suppose you’ve accumulated so many things that your home has become a cluttered mess? When you tire of it, you’ll likely go through the house sorting things into keep, sell, throw-away, and give-away piles.

Pruning is a must in large-scale problems, too. Plastic languishing in landfills? Reject plastic bags and take reusable ones to the grocery store. Man-made carbon upsetting the balance of nature? Reduce the emissions from fossil fuels.

Virtually everything we do in the garden and in life requires us to build and prune, rebuild and prune again. What I’ve learned this summer is that we shouldn’t be afraid to do it … and do it with the joy that comes in knowing you’re doing the right thing.

(Check with your local nursery or chapter of the American Rose Society to learn about recommended pruning times in your planting zone. Heavy fall pruning is not standard in most areas where freezing winter temperatures are common. In fact, it is not typically recommended where I live, but this year I felt the benefits outweighed the risks in my garden.)

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.

Pollyanna Grows Up

When I express my almost unshakeable optimism, people who don’t know me well call me Pollyanna as though it’s a gentle joke to wake me up. I know the tone of voice and the body posture. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses, they seem to say.

What these well-meaning folks don’t realize is that I don’t want to live in a world where sunshine and roses are reserved for days that are otherwise bright and beautiful. We need them on dark days most of all.

Nothing could prove my point more than last week’s spring freeze.

It came after our weeping mulberry tree was covered in new shoots. After the roses began to sprout buds. After the lilac bush was topped with panicles of small, purple blooms and the wisteria was dripping with clusters of lavender blossoms.

We knew the frost was coming. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do about it except pray it wasn’t a killer.

Two days after the freeze, I walked around the meandering paths of our backyard checking on every tree and shrub. I was glad to see that our lilac and the bushes in my centerpiece rose garden survived with only minor injuries. The weeping mulberry and wisteria were not so lucky. Except for a few protected branches inside its umbrella-like crown, all the new growth on the mulberry had succumbed. The wisteria blossoms drooped sadly, withered and deflated from the unforgiving chill.

Admittedly, I was feeling a bit deflated, too – until I walked around the edge of the crabapple tree in the middle of our secret garden.

You’ve heard of moments that take your breath away. Well, this one did. I audibly gasped with delight and joy. Hundreds of healthy, yellow buds covered the vines of my two Lady Banks roses, and several groups of the tiny beauties had already opened in sunny splendor.

As I wrote in my November 5, 2018 post, “One Brief Shining Moment,” this rose variety isn’t even supposed to do that well in my planting zone and is quite vulnerable to frost. Yet there it was, blooming gaily like nothing grim had happened.

In that sublime moment, I felt just as glad as Pollyanna in Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 children’s book and the 1960 Disney movie. I could clearly hear her happy voice in my head.

When you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.

Certainly, I wish the mulberry and wisteria had fared better in the sudden cold. But just as certainly, I came back into the house with a smile on my face and a spring in my step because of the Lady Banks.

I was introduced to Pollyanna at the age of 6. I loved her immediately, probably because I already saw myself in her. Today I’m grown up. Very grown up, in fact. I’m 65. But I love Pollyanna as much as ever. And I’m never going to stop hunting for the glad things.

Pollyanna? Yes, that’s me. So glad to meet you!

Lady Banks Roses 5.5.19