swarming reassurances

Posted by on June 16, 2010



by Amy Clampitt

Undulant across the slopes
a gloss of purple
day by day arrives to dim
the green, as grasses

I never learned the names of–
numberless, prophetic,
transient–put on a flowering
so multiform, one

scarcely notices: the oats grow tall,
their pendent helmetfuls
of mica-drift, examined stem
by stem, disclose

alloys so various, enamelings
of a vermeil so
craftless, I all but despair of
ever reining in a

metaphor for: even the plebeian
dooryard plantain’s
every homely cone-tip earns a
halo, a seraphic

hatband of guarantee that
dying, for
the unstudied, multitudinously,
truly lowly,

has no meaning, is nothing
if not flowering’s
swarming reassurances of one
more resurrection.

* * *
In the last few days I have noticed that the predictable clump of flowers in my child’s hand was no longer uni-yellow but multi-colored, evidencing the arrival of varieties of wayside flowers other than dandelions. Amy Clampitt was originally from the Midwest, so I imagine she knew something about this. There is a lot of outdoor space here, and the space is often covered with grasses, and some of the grasses are not grasses at all. They bloom.

An old friend of mine is here visiting me now, and she is without a doubt a plant person. When we go outside, anywhere, she notices plants and knows their names. To me, unless they are something really obvious like “tulips,” they are just plants, flowers, or, if they are weedy looking, weeds. On the park-like campus of the university, however, there are no weeds. I may have mentioned before that we go walking there a lot. We suspect that the university imports its flowers from outer space. By this we mean that the landscaping is quite possibly overly perfect, overly cultivated, giving the illusion that grounds workers (aliens?) swap things out over night, lest an important donor arrive first thing in the morning and spot a singular wilted petal. Sometimes entire flower beds change from white to pink in a matter of a day. Even I, who am not particularly a plant-noticing person, never cease to find this a jolting experience.

Walking on campus recently with my friend, I received from her a miniature field guide tutorial, and realized the degree to which I normally lump all plant detail into a bushy green generalization, like the scalloped all-purpose shrubs on every page of a Hello Kitty coloring book.

On the grounds around our student apartment buildings, set off to the north of campus, no university landscaping crew sets foot, only a few burly guys on lawn mowers who come each week. Their lawn mowers are hugely imprecise and leave lots of tall stuff growing unchecked near fence edges. If a bicycle or wading pool is left sitting in the middle of the grass, they don’t move it, but just mow around it. This week, ironically, I noticed that there was an abandoned toy lawn mower framed within a perfectly circular patch of untrimmed grass in front of our building.

Anyway, my friend went snooping around our weedy peripheries and found some interesting things. I was thrilled to witness the particular emerge from what I thought was general, the detailed from what I thought was vague, and things of value from what I had dismissed. Embedded in the weedy panorama there turned out to be: wild mint, some kind of soft looking fern which turned out to be parsley of all things, some kind of other herb that has pretty little white flowers, and some kind of stem with bright red inedible berries. She arranged them speedily into a bouquet, a centerpiece for the small table where we eat. They are hardy and still look beautiful after several days. Today she discovered that oregano grows wild here all over the place.

Last night, relaxing in my comfy chair and staring across the room, chatting with my friend, full of my own words, I noticed that the herbal bouquet she had made was sitting before an icon of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr of Russia, which I had propped there temporarily. It was incidental, but once I saw them both together, they seemed rightfully connected. Elegant greenery appropriate to her had come to her.

If you have never heard of St. Elizabeth, the Grand Duchess of Russia, you should read her story. I became interested in her several years ago and tried to find out everything I could about her. I became so interested, in fact, that I even wound up reading about Queen Victoria of England, who was her grandmother, even though normally there are many kinds of boredoms I would choose over the boredom of reading about British royalty. But I was so eager to round out my picture of St. Elizabeth, to fill in as many details as possible.

She grew up in Germany (her English mother had married into the German aristocracy) but went to Russia as a young woman betrothed to the Grand Duke Sergei. She would convert to Orthodoxy and there would be an Orthodox wedding. Her heart was completely open to embracing Orthodoxy and Russia. Maybe that is why the Russian people were ready to adore her when she first arrived. Traveling by train, she was received in Moscow by crowds tossing flowers in her path to welcome her. The details of her life after all of this fanfare, after the settling in, are more scant than my curiosity would like, but reading between the lines, I would say she went on to suffer in many hidden ways. Her husband was assassinated, so there is that. But there is also some mention by historians that her husband may have been a homosexual, or was thought by some to be. Who knows? Whatever the case, whatever the particulars, she was martyred in the end, and the historical turbulence that happened in her lifetime would have by itself been extremely difficult.

By the end of her life, when revolution was happening in Russia and the aristocracy was being overturned, she was carried away from Moscow by Bolshevik soldiers. By then she had been widowed and had also founded a monastery, of which she was the abbess. Now she would be forced to take a train out of Moscow. She and several others were eventually thrown down into a mine shaft and left to die. Local peasants reported that the singing of hymns could be heard for a long time from below the ground.

When I read her story I was struck by the image of these two trains conveying Elizabeth to and from Moscow at the beginning of her adulthood, and then at the end. I coupled them together and thought they were an unlikely, and yet likely pair, a literary paradox, a real-life paradox, a Palm Sunday, a Holy Friday. I thought about Elizabeth, and what she must be thinking and feeling on these two trips. One train, a vessel of adulation, entered Moscow, bearing a young bride; another, a vessel of murderous hate, departed from Moscow, bearing a mature widow, a wizened abbess. And yet the trajectory of trains matters ultimately little. The adoring peasants, the violent soldiers fade away. Only the trajectory of Elizabeth herself, the dignified trajectory of a person, continue to matter.

I decided not to take a plot in the student community garden this year. I know it was the right decision because every time I walk past the garden fence on my way to get our mail from the mail room, I feel no regret when I see my neighbors working in their plots, but genuine relief that I am exempt. But despite this, I am an expert at finding ways to second guess myself, to feel inappropriately guilty, to be haunted by a limitless variety of self-imposed shoulds, to imagine that there is some standard I am not living up to. So at some point I did indulge in a few moments of false regret and dejection, telling myself that I must be unfit to care for plants, and that having two children under three is not a valid excuse for not being able to swing a vegetable garden, when plenty of people around here manage to do this, and so forth and so on. These and other desultory thoughts were coming to my mind and I cannot even remember if I exerted any effort to send them packing.

Some time after that I was sitting next to a neighbor outside while our children played in a wading pool. I barely know her, but she turned to me and said: How would you feel about plant-sitting while we are gone for six weeks? I said that I would feel fine about plant-sitting. The next day, another neighbor, whom I also barely know, popped in and asked if I might watch a plant while they are out of town all summer. I said of course and he brought up a gorgeous thing planted in a white basket. It was uncanny–unbidden plants coming under my care. I have never been asked to plant-sit, much less twice in the same week. And now our bedroom is like a conservatory. They adorn the room; they are what the room lacked before. I gaze at them when I wake up and when I go to sleep.

And, not at all surprisingly, they are still alive. I am perfectly up to the simple task of keeping plants alive. It is totally irrational to think otherwise. Why, then, is there often an irrational voice in my head always telling me the otherwise side of things?

Perhaps this general waffling and inexplicable collapses in confidence explain why, when I first became interested in St. Elizabeth, I found her simultaneously fascinating and alienating. Hagiographies in general can themselves be elusive and saccharine. Saints never seem to waffle or doubt themselves. Hagiographies present them as immutable and heaven-sent from start to finish, as if ultimate holiness was an in-born trait or a foregone conclusion. It is difficult to get a sense of a real person struggling with inconclusiveness along the way. I’ve gotten used to this though and it hardly bothers me. I find hagiographies edifying, no matter what.

But some versions of Elizabeth’s story are like this. Maybe because she is a more recent saint it feels as if she should be more accessible. But in fact she was born into a world I cannot imagine, into a level of privilege I cannot imagine. She was moreover bred for greatness even in her childhood, and in adulthood universally admired for her striking beauty and charitable works. It goes without saying that there is little to nothing here that I can identify myself with, holiness aside. And yet, something motivated me originally to seek her out.

We bought her icon since she is Elsa’s patron saint but I have not otherwise given Elizabeth a lot of thought in years. Only lately, and unexpectedly, the other night, I felt a slight inkling of connection to her– more than I ever did when I was in the process of reading about her. I felt as if I caught a glimmer of something, a glimmer of a spiritual maturity that was, in fact, hard-won, by struggle and suffering not completely dissimilar to my own struggles.

I am glad that I don’t have the burden of a vegetable garden this summer. I have absolutely no interest in taking two incredibly curious children ages three and one to a patch of dirt and trying to keep them out of trouble while I weed and water. The last time I checked you could still buy vegetables at the grocery store. And God sent me some very nice plants to look at without even getting out of my pajamas. Internally, I feel as if a lot of particular little plants are presenting themselves to me from what had been just a solid panorama of undervalued green, which I am in the habit of dismissing. I am talking about the panorama of my own life, my own soul. There is an inner life to work on. I thought it was all just a blob of color but it turns out that there is a self which deserves to be developed and arranged into a design, not dismissed. There is plenty to hold my interest.

This is for Poetry Wednesday.

  1. Jenny Schroedel
    June 17, 2010

    Oh Julia,

    You must tire of me tossing roses at feet, but again, you captured so much for what I feel, so beautifully. I love that you felt you could not tend a vegetable patch, and yet in the midst of your own self-doubt, your friends kept bringing you plants. I love how the generalized green comes into focus in specific flowers. I am like this too, and I miss you.

  2. Julia
    June 17, 2010

    Not true, Jenny! I never get tired of your comments. They are always encouraging and I treasure them. I miss you too. Thank you.

  3. amber
    June 17, 2010

    Ah, Julia, reading your blog is one of the great joys of my life. We've been in the process of moving this week and last, and only now have I had time to sit down and read. Your post was so beautiful, so Julia–I admire the way you weave together so many things so gracefully. Your friend the plant-identifier, the Notre Dame landscape, St Elizabeth, community gardening vs plant-watering, and the slow process of spiritual maturity. The post brought tears to my eyes. What I want to see, at the end of it, is a photo of the toy lawn mower left in a patch of high grass.

  4. Molly Sabourin
    June 17, 2010

    This is so, so good, Julia! Just an exceptional piece of writing (I totally loved your shout out to the "Hello Kitty" generi-shrubs!). Visiting your blog is always such a treat for me. Thank you!!

  5. Kris Livovich
    June 17, 2010

    Being a flower lover, I'm glad your friend brought some into your house, and am glad you have the chance to care for some relatively guilt-free. So nice to be able to give them back.

    Your post, as always is wonderful to read. I don't know how you are able to seamlessly put it all together, but your thoughts are fascinating and your writing is wonderful.