‘Until we can comprehend the beguiling beauty of a single ﬂower, we are woefully unable to grasp the meaning and potential of life itself.’
– Virginia Woolf
In the concrete steps that lead up to our house, there are tiny cracks. Out of them, life emerges. Weeds and ﬂowers, ﬂowers and weeds. Who are we to determine what is weed and what is ﬂower, anyway? Determined to make a go of it, these buds and leaves and ﬂorets peek out, push through, seeking air and light and life.
After a long day Working For The Man in a windowless, airless, mostly-silent office with its ﬂuorescent lighting and plastic plants and passive-aggressive partitions and computers connected in service of a sprawling algorithmic ecosystem spawning intelligence artiﬁcially, and reality virtually, I log off and walk out the door.
Outside the tall building in which I have been entombed for the past ten hours, I look up at the darkening sky reﬂected in its windows and curse myself for not having made time for lunch, for a walk, for air. I apologise to nature for not having been one with it today. I breathe the world in, make a promise to it and to myself to do better, to take note, to appreciate. And then I begin to walk home. Past office blocks and high rises, and people and cars and trucks and buses bumper to bumper.
I walk through the city until I am up my street and outside my house, and there in the steps, sprouting out of the ﬁssures of broken stone, these plantlets greet me as a friend: Hello, they say. Welcome home.
I stop, and I sit, and I greet them in return.
They are all very wee, these weedy ﬂowers, ﬂowery weeds: the tallest only as tall as my pinky. Petals: white, purple-tipped, pink-tinged, halo little golden faces, some no bigger than the head of a pin. Their stems, thin as twine, are dressed higgledy-piggledy in green leaves: long thin leaves; short wide leaves; leaves in-between. At ﬁrst glance, these little ﬂowerlets seem frail. Flimsy. And yet here they are, these ﬂoral ﬂedglings, having pushed through the dirt and the cold and the rough concrete ceiling they were born under, to send themselves upward. Skyward. Godward.
When a breeze blows, or the wind rustles through them, their spindly bodies move to the elemental rhythm: some sway side to side and others ﬂop and bop and swirl around, their wee botanical limbs akimbo, like toddlers at their ﬁrst disco. Sometimes when the wind is particularly harsh, it batters them like a schoolyard bully, pushes them to the ground, and yet, and yet, they continue to strive for life.
I like thinking of them greeting in their enthusiastic way all those who ascend the broken concrete steps: friends, family, couriers, counters of electrical meters. I like to imagine the sweet babble of their excited, sing-songy voices: Nau mai, haere mai! Not everyone will notice their existence. Nevertheless, undeterred, the little ﬂowers speak. They say, there is beauty everywhere in this terrible, wonderful, magical, broken world. Take care to look for it! Don’t ever stop noticing: it will sustain you.
After nine hours of driving we arrive at his house, but he does not come out to greet us this time. My mother knocks, a small, strange act we’ve never performed here, never had to. A stranger opens the door. Mum introduces herself, my father, us. I’m sorry, this unknown man says. He hugs my mother, puts his hand on my father’s shoulder and squeezes, like he’s juicing an orange. He says things to them in a hushed tone.
They reply: their voices whoosh like the sea grasses in the wind at Pouawa Beach, 20 minutes from here, a place we went sometimes, all of us. Talking ceases. The stranger nods to my brother and I in solemn acknowledgement. He motions for us all to come in. We take our shoes off, and my parents step into the hallway. We trail behind them like sad baby ducks.
My parents walk toward the lounge, stand outside for a moment. My mother opens the door slowly. I hear the sounds before I see anything: haunting cries, howling. My parents’ backs straighten, their jaws clench tighter. So taut, I worry their teeth will shatter and their spines will break. I move out from behind them, and see the coffin in the middle of the room. I look around this room I have been in, played in, slept in hundreds of times before; it is now incomprehensible to me. What was once familiar is now so foreign. People we do not know are sitting around him, wailing. Do they even know him? Did I? Did any of us? The wailing goes through me like a whirling, arctic squall. I am trembling. I am numb.
My mother is the ﬁrst to go to him. She steps between the people, excuse me, sorry, excuse me, she says. She kneels beside him, eyes down, folds her hands into her lap, breathes in, smooths out her pants, breathes out. She is ready. She turns to regard him. I watch her, to learn how to do this. A lesson in stoicism maybe, courage deﬁnitely. She leans in close, touches his forehead, whispers unheard words to him: an admonishment, an apology, an ‘I love you’ – I do not know. She kisses his cheek, then she stands, turns and walks away.
She comes back to us. She says, ‘James?’ No reply. The wailing winds have frozen my father. Turned him to icy stone. ‘Tash?’ I nod. ‘It might be a shock,’ she says.
I go to him next. He is in a suit. I have never seen him in a suit before, only t-shirts and shorts; a shirt and long pants occasionally if we were going out to dinner at an adult restaurant with a dress code. His blue jacket has wide lapels, a retro artifact from a time when he was happy. Blue has always been his colour: ‘brings out those baby blue eyes of yours Ian,’ they would say; ‘such beautiful eyes,’ they would say. Eyes closed now. But even when they were open, they had stopped seeing beauty. Chest still now. He wears a light blue shirt with a criss-cross pattern and a very high collar: a futile attempt at distracting us from the horror around his neck. Thick vines, veins, viscous vicious marks left behind.
There are ﬂowers all around the room, whites and blues and greens. Roses and freesias and delphiniums, lilies and chrysanthemums. A huge bouquet rests by his feet. Flowers for him, to say we love you, we’re sorry, we’re here, hold on – joy is coming. It is the ﬁrst time he has ever been sent ﬂowers. But he is not here to receive them. The ﬂowers are too late.
‘Human beings leave / signs of feeling / everywhere, ﬂowers.’
– Louise Glück
In 1881, on the ﬁfth of November, more than one thousand five hundred colonial soldiers invade Parihaka, a settlement symbolising peaceful resistance to the conﬁscation of Māori land. Children greet the forces and present them with ﬂowers grown in the rich soil of this village between the mountain and the sea. Tangata whenua sit quietly on the marae and the children sing songs of aroha. Unmoved by the offerings, the troops seize Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, the prophets of Parihaka. The troops rape the women. They forcibly expel the sixteen hundred Māori who live gently on this land. Buildings and crops, they plunder and destroy. The prophets are later imprisoned without trial.
One hundred and thirty-six years later, agents of the Crown return. They come not to rape and pillage this time, but to offer te whakapāha, to apologise and sow seeds of reconciliation. Again, children greet them. Again, they sing songs of aroha, and present ﬂowers grown in the rich soil of this village between the mountain and the sea.
Three hundred Jewish women, prisoners in Auschwitz, tend to ﬂowers for Nazi officials who want pretty living things with pleasant ﬂoral scents to take home and enjoy, after a busy day harvesting pain and cultivating death. The ﬂowers are known for their quality and longevity, for the care given to them by women condemned to die.
In the village of Bilin, a Palestinian woman collects teargas canisters ﬁred by the Israeli Occupation Forces, and grows ﬂowers in them. Vivid shades of red and purple and orange and yellow and pink blossom out of vessels of war. In a contested region, with water shortages and power cuts and the violent seizure of ancestral lands and of lives, she is a midwife to beauty. Out of the tools of colonisation and oppression and death, to honour loved ones lost: her son, her daughter, her neighbours, family and friends, she brings into the world vibrant, resilient new life.
Deep in mud, high on hills, in arid sands, on stolen lands, in homes, war zones, in villages between the mountain and the sea: no matter where they take root, what a thing it is that ﬂowers can just keep on ﬂowering. How brave they are. Braver than I. So resolute are they in their ability to bloom, so steadfast, their very existence is a deﬁant act in defence of beauty. Tiny freedom ﬁghters armed with petals instead of weapons, seeking air, and light, and life.
‘the ﬂowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air,
their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
– From Peonies by Mary Oliver
I crave ﬂowers. Yearn for them in the visceral way I need a coffee in the morning, or want soup on a cold day, or a burger and large fries when hungover, or a custard square, just because.
Sometimes when I am lucky enough to have a bunch of ﬂowers at home – peonies or lilies or tulips or dahlias or hydrangeas being my favourites, peonies especially – knowing they are here for a good time, not a long time, I embrace the short time we have together. I rise early, before the birds, and I tip-toe down into the lounge, or the kitchen, or the dining room or wherever it is I have placed them. I want to see how the ﬂowers look while still half asleep. Their forms will be fuller than they were yesterday; not as full as they will become today. I want to capture them in the quiet now-time before the sun has touched them and sent them burgeoning.
Sometimes when they have awoken, I make my family gather around the ﬂowers and we praise them like a church choir, so joyful. I say, look! Look at them! Aren’t they beautiful! They give me life! My lovelies, do they not spark joy! And they say yes mummy, yes honey, to me, humouring me perhaps, but that is ok. We are here in this moment, looking into the faces of ﬂowers, hydrated and thriving. We are breathing in the heady scent of hope and of care and of comfort. In unison we are noticing, appreciating, giving thanks.
Throughout the day, I take time to look at the ﬂowers; they continue to open themselves, petals outstretched as if in ecstasy, taking in more and more of the world and giving more and more in return, and a tiny part of me wants to stop time so I can have all this forever: my ﬂowers, my husband, my children, my parents, my dog, my friends, all of it.
Right now, purple tulips in a glass vase sit on the kitchen counter. The ﬂowers are withering. A fallen petal, with edges curled like ruffles, makes a small, soft sound as it lands. Golden pollen dust falls: if I rub my ﬁnger through it, it will leave a ﬂoral graffito on the laminate surface and on my skin: ‘We waz here’. Their riotous violet hue has turned a translucent lilac, like my great-grandmother’s skin before she died. The ﬂowers are dying; soon to return to the dirt from where they came. In this golden light of the evening, they are a vanitas painting, the art form symbolising the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, ephemerality, death. Except that these ﬂowers make the case not for the futility of pleasure, but the very importance of it.
The impermanence renders the noticing, the appreciating, the bearing witness to, essential.
I did not grow up with ﬂowers in our home or garden: my parents having neither the time to grow, nor the money to buy. Flowers were a frivolous extravagance we could neither afford, nor fathom. Working all the hours God gave to pay for the roof over our heads, for bills, for schooling, and for food on the table were what mattered. There was no time to smell the roses, or the peonies or the lilies or tulips or dahlias or hydrangeas.
Perhaps my ﬂower hunger is in part, a tiny rebellion against that. I do acknowledge the inherent privilege of being able to speak of such things. Sometimes I feel guilt for talking of and writing about ﬂowers when there is so much going on: injustice and inequity, bigotry and greed, climate change, suicide, and sexual violence, poverty, people dying in Gaza and in India and in Colombia and Syria and all over. What is the point of ﬂowers, when there is so much pain?
But perhaps it is precisely because so many of those who do experience pain, who encounter violence against bodies or land, know that the noticing, the appreciating, is what sustains us. Beauty is the point. Comfort is the reason. Resilience is the outcome. It is in the noticing that we can ﬁnd the fuel we need to continue to live and to make life better for others. As Rebecca Solnit wrote, ‘Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism’. When faced with something that seeks to make us fearful, alienated and isolated, ‘joy is a ﬁne act of insurrection’. Joy and beauty are in conversation with comfort and care. What are we here for, if not to offer that to ourselves and to others, to advocate for it? Petals, those cupped hands, open themselves to us; ready to receive. Here, they say, let us take some of what you carry, let us lighten your load a little. Hold on, they say, joy is coming.
We can learn so much from them.
There is a word I learned a while back that even when I just say it in the softest of whispers to myself, I feel within me what I read Ross Gay refer to as a ‘genuine bodily opening on account of this delight’. This delight being the word, the concept: poiesis – the act of bringing something into being. To create; to bring it forth, to let it bloom. It is emergence; life calling to life. Life yearning for more. Like those little buds and leaves and ﬂorets emerging from the cracked broken steps leading up to my house, ﬂowers, the very embodiment of poiesis, tell us, over and over and since forever, there is beauty everywhere in this terrible, wonderful, magical, broken world. Take care to look for it! Don’t ever stop noticing: it will sustain you.