Sunday, June 1, 2014

Compost Pile Reality

June 1, 2014 

Dear friends,

If I were more technically skillful I would send you two pictures from my Plant ICU at Lilac Place. Since I do not know how to do this, you will have to make your own virtual pictures from the words that I send. In some senses, while a limitation, I suspect that this may also be a good thing.

The present condition of the Lazarus Plants is astonishing. Each bulb as you may remember emerged from its garage grave showing life only as some sickly-white, distorted leaf-like growth leaning helplessly against the edge of the pot. This morning all of them are vigorously displaying at least five inches of standing green leaves! Four of the six bulbs are showing as well some delicate new growth emerging from the crown. 

I plan to move the Lazarus Plants tomorrow from the ICU in the shelter of the lilac bush to the shelves on the west porch. The porch is less protected than the Lilac ICU. It is, however, a semi-safe place where I can keep a watchful eye on them while the Lazarus Plants pursue their own life processes with minimal help from me.

Sounds like a success story, doesn’t it—the kind of story we like: LOTS of danger, great risk, but, at last, a happy ending in which life triumphs over death. 

Because we all (myself specifically included) like stories with uncomplicated happy endings, I was tempted to write today only about the remarkable recovery of the Lazarus Plants.  But I think you readers expect me to be fair—or at least as fair as I am able to be—and in the interest of full disclosure, a fair report from Lilac ICU requires two pictures.

There is the Lazarus Plant portrait of Life Triumphant. But there is, however, the second picture, that of the seriously ill begonia. Unlike the Lazarus Plants, the tide of life for the begonia, so to speak, is moving out, not in.

The begonia is near death. All remaining leaves have fallen. The slight green tinge once apparent in the central trunk has steadily turned brown. The stems themselves have begun to shrink and dry. The begonia's beauty has gone, and, following it, life itself is now going away.

On Monday I will move the Lazarus Plants to the west porch shelves in their journey of life. On Monday I will pull the begonia from its pot, and deposit the remains in the compost pile.

Most of us have a strong preference for cheerful thinking. This preference contributes to resilience, and is a good habit related to hope and survival. 

Humanly, we prefer to think about the Lazarus Plants, then stop thinking on the note of that happy ending. Thinking about the begonia and the compost pile is certainly less cheerful (at least initially). And, further, thinking only about the Lazarus Plants happy-ending story is much easier than the complex task of thinking about BOTH the Lazarus Plants AND the begonia together in the same space. We often vote for the easy-and-cheerful over complex, Easter-shaped reality. But in this incident, limiting thinking to the cheerful Lazarus Plant story risks losing another epiphany that is simultaneously present in the Lilac ICU.

In addition to the Lilac ICU, there is a warm spot on my kitchen counter where diffused light floods through the sheer material that curtains the window. Tucked out of sight in that corner from time to time I place a vase in which plant cuttings, given time, water, and light, form roots, and, with my assistance, eventually move on into life and bloom in a pot of good soil.  

Cuttings from the dying begonia stem are in that vase in the kitchen. I can’t tell yet if these cuttings will root or rot. Monday’s tasks for me include consulting the plant doctor at my local nursery. Perhaps begonia cuttings require sand for rooting rather than water. Plants, like people, have different requirements for sustaining life.

As I partner with my plants in their journeys, I am often aware that at best I have insufficient understanding of their needs. But at times I also know that what I am experiencing is a tension related to the ebb and flow of life itself, and is not about my competence. With the begonia, for example, I experience something like being nurse both to the parent dying in adult ICU, and, simultaneously, attending to a premature baby struggling to live removed from the mother's life-support system. 

As the Old Teacher reminds us in Ecclesiastes, wisdom understands human existence as life and death. The very structure of life itself makes either-or thinking a rather absurd denial. We cannot experience life clear-eyed without seeing the compost pile.

However, living in gentle peace with the reality of the compost pile requires that we hold the Easter reality as well in both its forms. Life is powerful, and defies death; we need to see and trust the reality that the Lazarus Plants teach. But we need to see too death's parallel savage reality--there is also the begonia and the compost pile. 

People who are Easter folk at heart see both realities with unconflicted clarity. But they do so because they know something that can't be seen from the porch: the begonia cuttings are already sprouting tiny new leaves in the kitchen window light.

Thinking with you today that we are likely to experience more epiphanies if we reduce our insistence that they appear in an easy simple form.

See you next week.


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