Title: Bouquets I have received
Date: 2020 and before
Provenance: Gifts over the years
Is there anything more sumptuous and life-affirming than a bouquet of fresh flowers? They can transform a room. They are luxuriant and fragrant and ever changing with their tight blossoms that open into lush blooms that eventually fade. They cast shadows on the walls and reflect light off their colorful petals and shiny leaves. The seemingly arbitrary combinations of shapes and colors somehow exude hope itself—life itself.
What a perfect way to recognize a birthday! I still remember the beautiful bouquet of pink sweetheart roses my parents sent me for my seventeenth birthday. I hung them upside down to dry when they started to fade and tied the stems together with a blue-and-white checked ribbon. The dried flowers stood in a vase on my bedside for a year or two, reminding me of the cold February day when the delicate blossoms softened the flat winter light of my bedroom.
This year my dad sent me white and pink and red roses to mark the turning of a new decade. (Gulp.) We read what we want into things, I suppose, but I see the sweetness and freshness of my younger self mixed in with a dash of life’s heartaches and a touch of hopefulness about the future. Don’t you see it?
As I look forty in the face, I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned about life is that it’s essential to hold onto some core idea of yourself or else those aforementioned heartaches might just sweep you away.
After all, it’s so easy to get confused about what is essential to who you are. To get fully consumed with whatever version of yourself you’re crafting. When I was in high school, for example, I sometimes lost my sense of identity inside of my role as avid dancer and girlfriend to a certain boy. Later, in graduate school, my identity became tethered to my academic pursuits—my ability to distinguish myself for interesting research or a facility with languages. Or with being a New Yorker. But—and I lost sight of this at times—none of those labels defined me. They didn’t get at the heart of who I was.
We get so wrapped up in our identities as professionals, as parents, as spouses. Don’t we? As wine snobs or devotees of Russian poetry or baseball fans? As whatever it is we give our attention to at a certain time in our lives? But being a wine snob is not a core identity, of course, nor is being an academic or being in a romantic relationship. As much as these things can enrich us and change our perspectives, they ≠ core identity.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my mother shortly before one of my graduate exams—oral exams for which I felt ill prepared and terrified. I was telling her about my deep anxiety, an anxiety that was approaching personal crisis. My mom had a way of cutting through all the BS and getting to the heart of what was really troubling me. She simply said, in the tenderest and most sympathetic way, “You’ll still be you, Ellen. It doesn’t matter.” And just like that, a massive weight was lifted from my shoulders. Though I remained anxious, my mom articulated for me that if I were unable to sound off about Renaissance art and history, it would not change my value as a person. Duh.
As I’ve faced hurtles and anxieties going forward from that moment, I’ve tried to carry the essence of that conversation with me. I can stumble. I can fail. I can stop being a certain “type” of person. What matters and what keeps me from descending into a panic at times of crisis is the very simple notion that I’ll still be myself no matter what happens. It’s so simple and obvious I guess. But it’s also not obvious at all, because we so often let ourselves become defined by our successes and failures.
I like to think of our core selves as a lot like those vibrant bouquets of flowers I get on my birthdays. They are honest and connected to something transcendent. It’s so easy to get lost in the chaos of being the best this or the most distinguished that. And so I try to take a lesson from the flowers on my table and just be. They are lovely for their distinctiveness—their scalloped edges that differ ever-so-imperceptibly from flower to flower, their subtle gradations in hue, the different slant of each of their stems.
Flowers bring together the grandeur of the natural world and the frank beauty of the small and intimate. They help remind me of what matters. The big picture and the small picture are brought together.
For a little while at least, all the nonsense and the detritus fade away.