Sometimes the ice on Lake Michigan is at the water’s edges, clinging to the shallow, jagged places of its body. But on other days, the ice is in the distance, pulled way from the shore, no longer accessible, mere breaks in the color at the horizon.
At some point this morning – late morning, after coffee and some errands – I realized that I would like to buy myself some flowers.
That I would buy the flowers myself.
And that, furthermore, this outing should take quite a long time.
I pick the store with care. I not only want a proper floral shop, but I want a good one. I want to pay “too much;” I want this moment to carry that pain, to mark it as something outside of the off-hand, afterthought purchase I sometimes make while buying groceries. I want to take something substantial back home.
I step into this store – the windows are so heavily lined with plants and the interior so dark that, approaching, I almost think it’s closed. I find the door open, however, and step inside, and immediately: the heavy, slightly sweet, incredibly distinct smell – not of flowers, but of good soil, or of mulch. And I’ve arrived.
There’s a woman busying herself with a few flowers, moving from bucket to bucket and, having made her selections, pulls one stem at a time and tucks them gently into one hand. At first, I assume she’s another patron. Until, after a moment, she looks up at me and says hello.
“Hi,” I say back, lingering a bit just a few steps in. “I’d like to buy some flowers.”
“Okay,” she says, coming closer. Her gray hair falls in waves around her face, and she’s holding the few flowers loosely in one hand, and I find her more beautiful than she probably realizes. “What are you looking for?”
I glance over at the buckets, run my eyes over this tiny world of color and texture and shape, and say to her, as though to myself, “I’m not sure, really.”
I look back at her; she’s waiting. And I’m debating what else to say. I know I can still duck out here; I can still get out of this. I can give her the word “roses” and move on. And let her do the same.
I don’t, though. I go on.
“I need something… certain. Flowers that are neither trite nor dismissive; neither too somber or serious nor too silly or too fun. They have to hold their own, in the room. Uphold me, I suppose. To be frank. Something substantial; something with presence. Something that can hold space.”
And then I add, because I realize: “I’m asking a lot of these flowers.”
And then I stop, and look at her. And she just sort of stares back at me. And there is nothing at all but our silence.
And there’s a sort of heartbreak in that.
Maybe I put too much on her, expecting her to understand what I mean when I say things like this. I know it’s a matter of personality – perspective – and not a matter of expertise. And because I know that, I can forgive her this.
And maybe all or some of this would have happened.
If she really had ever looked up at me and looked at me in these ways and then asked, “what is it, exactly, that you’re looking for?”
But in reality, she never did.
In reality, she looked up from her work only briefly, with what I perceived as a slightest grimace of interruption, and said to me, “let me know if you need anything.” And then went right back to her work.
And that was that.
I thanked her, fell silent. Let me know, I repeated to myself. Let me know.
There is no opportunity there, really. It’s an un-invitation. A passive, disinterested statement. An offer without really being an offer. Just… let me know. How can one ever approach someone with the sort of things I had and try, somehow, to “let someone know.” So I remained silent.
And set myself to the task of translation alone.
I will find flowers that are substantial; that hold space.
There are walls of flowers, shelves of flowers; it’s a tiny store, and it’s tightly packed. Buckets of flowers, from tables and on to the floor; huge, towering plants lining the walls. And I suddenly just want to be here, and yet am filled with a sense of anxiety. The proximity offers both comfort and dismay. I want to nestle into the flowers without touching them; want to run my hands over them without bruising; want to move through the store, bucket by bucket, but do so cautiously, so as not to brush against the stalks.
The roses are immediately discounted. They’re far too boastful; far too presumptuous – beaming from their own section in the store, a brilliant array of reds, pinks, whites and yellows, as though to say “we are the obvious choice; we are everyone’s idea of ‘beautiful.’ You would be fortunate to have us in your hand.”
But no, not today, roses. Almost never, really – I don’t love you the way that so many others seem to. But definitely not today. You are too grotesque; too obvious. You have your own seriousness, but no seriousness whatsoever for the task at hand. No… not quite that. You do not yield enough for the task at hand; or perhaps are not discrete enough for the task at hand. Bringing you home would mean bringing home little more. No seriousness, I suppose, for my agenda – my needs – over your own. Buying roses means subscribing to them, and right now I’m needing more.
Tulips are every bit as obvious as the rose, except far less boastful; more demure. Their downfall, really, is that they smile “springtime,” and for the moment, I am not sure they’re up to the task.
Then there are these huge, stalky lily things – massive, towering beasts – stately things, really, and unabashed. Their downfall is my own – I simply do not really care for lilies.
Hydrangea, I actually like, but today feel is too delicate; too playful. This bunny-nibbles adorable of a statement flower – a flower with a sense of humor; a giant snowball composite of tinytiny petals.
And then, the orchids. I nearly go home with the orchids, which I don’t typically like, but ultimately get turned off by their delicate nature. I’m looking at these petals and I’m thinking: “I’m not even sure you’d get home. And it’s probably best, to be honest, that you stay here.”
Thankfully, there is no baby’s breath. Has baby’s breath, at long last, gone out of style? One can only hope.
There is, however, eucalyptus. Dried, even. And I eye it and think to myself: “for pete’s sake, will this never die?” I, for one, do not care for the dried eucalyptus. It’s a disaster of a bouquet “ingredient;” a stem that all but sabotages the enjoyment of anything, flower or otherwise, in its near vicinity. A thing that washes everything in the room in a heavy dated-ness; something 1980’s, potpourri.
I move on.
There are endless other flowers I consider but don’t know the name of. I consider each one on basis of color, of shape, of size, of overall presence. I step through each bucket, lingering on those I’ve never seen, coming back to those I’ve seen before, giving each one a once-over.
And then… the protea.
Oh, the protea...
The protea and I have an understanding. We get each other, this flower and I. The first time I ever received one was all but love at first sight – the gifter, it should be said, took a real risk with the investment, admitting it was done on whim alone, made on intuition of my “me-ness” while eschewing all intuition on “what flowers are.” One of my oldest friends, a writer herself, worked in a floral shop, and told me that the protea is often considered, at best, a “masculine flower,” often added to arrangements intended for men.
And, well. That certainly fits.
It is an anti-flower. A slap in the face of a flower; a sculpture and a boldness of color (except, ironically, the king protea, which is all sculpture and no color, massive but faded and muted in a mere hint of a pink.)
Problem is, she doesn’t have my protea preference in stock and this bugs me – I want what I want today, after all, and had she had the “right ones,” this whole flower-buying endeavor would have been all too easy. Instead, she’s got pincushion and king – at $8 and $15 a stem, respectively – and what I think she’s missing is the true “artichoke” shaped one – the princess, the queen, the pink mink or pink ice. But these are here and, for what they are, aren’t bad looking. So I note this; continue on.
I make a round over each bucket what seems like several dozen times. I am probably in this tiny store for over thirty minutes, moving no more than a few feet from side to side, simply weighing each stem by its parts and then again as a whole; compromising on perceived shortcomings and yielding, boosting each flower into the best version of itself, all the while, this evaluation, maintaining the framework of what I need: something certain; substantial. Something that can hold its own and, just maybe, something that can sort of hold me. Or, short of that, hold space.
I do this all the time, the thing I am doing here with flowers.
I describe wine in this way, too.
I inadvertently isolate others – or myself from them – when I take a sip of something and then say something like “this is an older woman. She wears a lot of jewelry – but it’s real pearls and tastefully done, not heavy costume baubles.” And that’s important, because other times, it’s the baubles. And other times, it’s not an older woman, but someone else altogether – a clean-shaven younger guy (almost too prettily-kept) or a girl obsessed with baking. Or whiskey, it’ll taste like a memory I’ve never shared and instead chalk up as “that old-school licorice; the stuff that’s pink.”
I think of this thing that I do – this connection between flowers and wine and so many other things – as I start to pull some stems, dripping, from their buckets.
I finally do commit to the tulips. They’re friendly enough, and they mean well, and they can hold up the more substantial flowers I will ultimately pick to uphold me. I also grab some greens – greens really make the arrangement, for me.
And yeah, I do go with the protea. The pincushion, not the king, because I simply cannot handle the wash-out today. But I cannot leave protea behind- this is a day for the protea; this is the sort of moment he’s called on, and so, of course, he has to come.
And then I add a few others; grab a vase, and approach the woman to get rung up.
She takes the flowers from me, and goes to wrap them. “Did you find everything you were looking for?” She asks, bundling my flowers in a huge sweep of paper.
I’m silent, watching her wrap them.
I don’t know how to answer this.
I cannot know what answer to give, because she’s asking without asking; scarcely knows what she is asking; merely making conversation. Should I acquiesce; give in? Answer the question she’s asking; offer a non-answer, an answer that means nothing? An answer that does nothing for me and, almost certainly, near-nothing for her?
Or do I dare offer the real answer? The answer of, quite simply and yet probably infuriatingly ambiguous: “I don’t know. I won’t know until I get home.”
Because I don’t know. I don’t know whether I found what I’m looking for, and so I don’t know how to answer.
And I’m weighing all of this and moving through it, deliberating, still silent and thinking when I suddenly realize that she’s realized that it’s gone on too long, when she glances up, looks at me watching her, with a look on her face that reads: “could you be more rude?!”
And then I panic a bit, startled and still hurt, and offer, in condolence: “yes. I did.”
She nods; looks back down. Finishes the wrapping. Runs my card, and then I’m gone.
I have heard that, in being good communicators, we should seek first to understand rather than to be understood. But if we take all of life to be one giant conversation – if all this, our every day – is taken as one ongoing dialogue, and if we always give of ourselves to understand the other, is this enough? I mean… when’s your turn? Must you rely on someone else to someday stop and ask, “what is it, exactly, that you’re looking for?” Must you simply suffer in silence?
One of my aunts is from Thailand. Her first and only language, up until well into adulthood, was Thai. When she first moved to the states, I saw her struggle through and then break down the language barrier, picking up and adopting English and her one and only way with words. And yeah, she eventually got along just fine.
But one day she ran into a fellow native Thai speaker – another woman, close in age, who, similarly, had moved to the States only as an adult. And for all of the years my aunt had spent mastering English, there is no way to describe the ease and lightness she expressed in setting it down and stepping into that better-fitting garment she’d long ago left behind.
Because there is nothing quite like the sparkle that a speaker takes on when conversing in his or her native language with a fellow native speaker, especially after that speaking has been suppressed by lack of an able-eared listener. When he or she finally, actually feels understood. And the struggle (the weight; the paining) before you are.
And I think to myself, as I leave with my bundle of stems, that this is a bit how I feel.
How it feels, to be frank, to buy the flowers myself. The feeling of being not quite understood.