Monday, May 31, 2010

May Flowers

I’m a city girl and so my knowledge of flora is limited by growing up amidst concrete. I did live (and still do) in a wonderful neighborhood bordered on both sides by huge parks, so the greening and flowering of trees and plants are familiar harbingers of warm weather for me. Still, I often forget how powerful the attraction of blooming things is. I remember once having no luck separating my cat from a vase of sunset orange tiger lilies; a usually fastidious creature, he kept at them until his face was covered in pollen that made him look like a child who had smeared jam across his face. I marveled at the call of nature as I lifted him away time and again.
A voracious learner, I am always disappointed in myself for not knowing more about the natural world, or not feeling confident enough in identifying plants, animals, etc. The truth is that I know many flowers from their use in perfumery, a long-time love. Poppy, carnation (my first floral fragrance favorite and still the most sentimental), rose, jasmine, magnolia, mimosa, iris, lily, violet, tuberose, gardenia, geranium, orange flower… all are well-known to me in distilled or created form. Separating the scent from the other sensory indicators of flowers is an odd thing to contemplate at the brink of summer, which is to me so much about color and light. But the perfumer’s art gives us the illusion that flowers, or at least their silage, are with us at all times, not just in season, and that is a luxury that keeps some of spring’s hope at the ready.
When I was in college I was the flower child or flower girl for the Kosher Kitchen – the titles were my own private joke, but my task for four years was to visit the florist on Friday afternoon and pick the flowers for the Sabbath dinner tables. I also brought them to the dining hall and arranged them in vases. This private perk allowed me to welcome in the Sabbath and the weekend with a few moments of communing with flowers, albeit separate from their natural habitat.
A few weeks ago I toured the city with friends and we walked the High Line, admiring the wildflower landscape and the backdrop views of the Hudson. Later, as we waited for their express bus home on a quiet stretch of midtown, one friend pointed out that the hyacinths arranged primly in a large planter were wafting scent our way. We moved close to bury our noses in the crisp, cool purple floral fragrance that broke the careful line-up. Spring had come. The other day at the farmer’s market with another friend we picked up a huge bouquet of lilacs for her Sabbath table. They were almost over-run in their lushness and their perfume overpowered an Indian dinner.
So I wonder what it is about flowers that most attracts you – scent, color, shape, their audacious or delicate existence, their ephemeral quality? What most signals spring, in all of its call to life and lushness? Which flowers most represent spring and the advent of summer? What do they tell you when they appear, out of season, in the midst of your daily activities?
©2010 Leah Strigler

Monday, May 10, 2010

The First Year

I ran into a friend on the street Sunday afternoon. I had just been thinking about her, that I should send her a message for Mother’s Day, wishing her well and noting how hard it is the first year after a parent dies to experience such holidays. Her mother died only a short while ago. She had been walking with uncharacteristic fierceness, hiding behind large sunglasses (think Jackie O) and frowning. Our conversation changed her demeanor, as she lit up with wonder saying that she had just been thinking about her bad mood and realizing why she was feeling so blue. I also reminded her of how well she had cared for her mother. Smiles and good wishes followed; the sun came out and the wind temporarily died down. I kid you not, and the weather’s good timing had us riffing even more magical phenomena: rainbows and greenery and sparkles.
In Jewish tradition much emphasis is placed on the desire to do mitzvot or good deeds. In this instance the synchronicity was all but instantaneous, enough to make one believe in the Law of Attraction. I thought of the idea and the means of immediately enacting it appeared. Would that all opportunities for good deeds come rushing to meet us on our way.
Jewish tradition is wise to have mourners mark the first year after a passing, since it takes a cycle of special days – holidays of the Jewish and secular sort, seasons, birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations – to recast one’s life without the beloved but with memories of them. When my father passed away another friend, who had lost her mother even earlier, said to me that what I would miss most (as she did) was the conversations that I would not have with him. I think the same principle is in play here: the days we especially mark make us more acutely aware of the absences in our lives. We may carry people in our hearts, but they are no longer in our present and this is especially poignant at significant moments. At a baby ceremony earlier in the day I was reminded of this as well as, in keeping with Ashkenazik Jewish custom, the new arrival was named for departed family members who were remembered lovingly and with tears. There was tremendous joy too for this long-anticipated child and the future imagined for him.
For me Mother’s Day is a double whammy, since my father passed away on this Sunday twelve years ago. While the date is not his yahrzeit, the Jewish day on which I recite once again the mourner’s kaddish in commemoration of the anniversary of his passing, it is impossible to forget the connection. It was a sunnier Sunday and I was lucky enough to have a few friends who had come to the hospital to visit stay with me and my mother as we shifted into our new reality. How odd that a day devoted to one parent now forever reminds me of the sadness of losing my other parent and the power of community. Perhaps it is this experience more than the Jewish mourning tradition that makes me so sensitive to what my friend was experiencing.
There are many ways to close a posting like this, some sappier than others, but I think it is truer to its spirit to leave it, much the way absences of loved ones leave spaces to fill with spirit.
©2010 Leah Strigler