June 7, 2006

Daffodils for May

1516 page13 capn my first garden I planted daffodils. I was living in Iowa then, in a duplex shared with fellow graduate students. Our home was in a residential neighborhood, and we relished the suburban vibe—the neighbors walking their dogs (and one neighbor, her cat), the kids playing in the leaves, the trash collector coming once a week.
But the three of us lived like students, stereotypically so. We found our couch on the side of the road, sawed the legs off the dining room table so we wouldn’t have to buy chairs, and left our books and papers in towering, sliding columns.
It was a big house for students, and we were grateful to have it. We particularly appreciated two features: the basement and the yard. The basement sported a washer, a clothesline, and a space for exercising on winter days. But the yard, the yard was a wonder. Poems could have been written about that small plot of land, with its two oak trees and its assortment of birds and gophers and rabbits. On warm days the three of us would study outside, pausing now and then to just be. On cold days we would sit on the floor of our dining room and watch the shadows on the snow.
In the early autumn I ordered daffodil bulbs through the Internet. When they arrived, the ground had already frozen, foretelling of a long and cold winter—my longest and coldest at the time. I remember bundling up to plant the daffodils, already regretting my purchase. Who could imagine spring amid all this bluster? I squatted on the ground, my mittened hands holding a sharp kitchen knife, which I used to dig holes in the dirt (we didn’t have a spade).1 I dropped each bulb in a hole, covered it with earth, rushed back inside, and soon my mind was filled with other things.
1516 page13In the spring the daffodils appeared, not dramatically or gloriously, but as small green arrows. I could not have been more pleased. I inspected them each day, occasionally watering them with a juice pitcher. Here was something tangible, something I could see and touch and care for. The plants were far removed from the abstract world of ideas and critical thought, of looming deadlines and a bleak job search.
In May the flowers bloomed happy and yellow. It was not an opulent garden. There were only five or six plants, and the flowers were sparse, but it was enough and maybe more. The flowers’ simplicity drew my eye and reminded me of life and hope, for both could be seen here, even in something as transient as a flower.
It had been only the previous May that I had watched my mother die a ferocious, painful death, and for all the joy I found in living, hope itself was illusive. They say that death can either pull you closer to God or push you farther away. But I felt indifferent. How could I blame God for my own small sorrow when the world is filled with suffering? How could I find solace in God when my mother spent the last week of her life praying so passionately for a miracle?
I knew the theology of death, had cut my teeth on it.
I knew that death brought rest rather than oblivion. But cerebral knowledge is different from physical knowledge. As I once told my coach, “My head knows what to do, but my feet don’t.”
How does one transfer head knowledge into heart knowledge?
Metaphor is one way. Jesus routinely used parables to make complex ideas tangible. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner,” Jesus would begin, turning a divine concept into a flesh-and-bones story.2 Nature also can be an allegory. Look to the birds of the air, look to the lilies of the field, Jesus implored as He spoke against materialism and worry.3
There in a small backyard in Iowa, I had my own metaphor, a parable of burial and resurrection. I had placed bulbs into the ground, and after a long and cold winter they rose joyful and filled with light. And for that spring, it was enough.
1 I threw the knife away, but only because it broke on the rocks.
2 Matt. 20:1.
3 Matt. 6:25-34.
Sari Fordham is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. She experienced spring this year in Salzburg, Austria, and reported that it was “glorious.”