Off With Their Heads! Deadheading: a Generative Life Lesson

My good friend MB moved to another state a few years ago, leaving behind a rich but recently less-than-fulfilling life built here in Cleveland over several decades. She has found new opportunities elsewhere – though not without challenges – and is blossoming professionally in ways that she could not do while here. Always an apartment dweller, M had never before had the chance, or the inclination, to have a garden.  She still lives in an apartment, but it has a small balcony, and she’s taken up gardening in pots – mostly flowers.  Every time she emails me an update on her life, it always includes photos of how her flowers are doing and some tidbits about the joy this small pleasure brings her.

I have a hanging basket of royal purple Petunias on my front porch.  The way the molecules on their velvet petals catch the morning sun and sparkle with miniscule ruby and gold highlights, delights me. The petunias have been growing and glowing for weeks and weeks now, because I have been diligent in deadheading the spent blooms.

Two days after I bought the overflowing basket on sale at Home Depot and hung it on its hook, there was a storm during the night.  The next morning, not a single bloom was left. I was devastated.  Then I remembered how my Grandmother, who lived with us my whole life and who loved petunias, was forever going out to pick or cut off the dead blooms from all the flowers in our yard. This was a morning or evening ritual for her and she carried a pair of scissors and little pail to collect the deceased. My friend M, too, talks about how she deadheads her balcony garden and how she is rewarded with continuing bloom. So I did the same with my basket.

I was surprised how easily the withered flowers came away – not a single complaint or bit of resistance; though the recently withered were a bit slimy from the rain.

Within a few days I had a glorious crop of new petunias. I don’t know where they came from, because I saw no evidence of new growth when I plucked the old ones, but maybe I did not know what to look for.  Anyway, I have been plucking with abandon and the petunias have rewarded me with continuous bloom ever since.  Have you noticed how sweet they smell, especially early in the morning, with the evaporating dew carrying their scent up and through the air?

Interestingly, petunias got their name from the aboriginal ‘petun’ which means “a tobacco that does not make a good smoke”- although they are not a form of tobacco.  They belong to the nightshade family.  This might explain one of the flower’s symbolic meanings: anger and resentment. It is suggested you present petunias to someone with whom you have had a heated argument.  Which in a strange way might suggest the other, quite opposite symbolic reference to petunias, as representing a desire to spend time with someone because you find their company peaceful and soothing.  So – maybe a ‘make-up’ flower?

All this reflection on the continuous proliferation of my little pot of petunias leads me to note how much ‘deadheading’ I’ve done in the garden of my life in recent years. I’ve let go, even aggressively put aside or thrown away, so much. And so much has bloomed anew for me.

After more than 50 years as an activist, working publicly in the arts, I’ve let go of it all. This opened space for new work on more private projects, and made room for dramatic shifts in the direction of my interests.  I am gratefully reaping the bounty of a continuously blooming series of new and different ways to learn and places to grow.

So, a life lesson from M, my Grandmother, and me: deadhead the spent flowers of desires that have passed their prime. Wake up to the surprise of new passions that have blossomed in their place.

Touchstones and Bridges

Some years ago, after what I thought at the time was a major life disaster, I bought a small green juice glass from an estate sale to mark the start of a new beginning. Salvaging something beautiful that had survived another’s lifespan seemed important at the time. DSC00498-001 Last week the glass slipped from my hand and shattered, scattering emerald shards  across the white porcelain of the sink.

I’ve broken many glasses over time; crystal wedding gifts, acid-etched water glasses thin as paper, fancy stemware from my menagerie of antique-store orphans, bottom-heavy Dansk tumblers from an old boyfriend who didn’t like to drink his beer from my fancy Pilsner flutes. But somehow this mishap left me more distraught than all the rest.

I am not a particularly sentimental person. In my earlier life as a working artist/potter I lived quite acceptingly with the regular shattering of cups and platters, casseroles and teapots. Perhaps the fact that I could make them – or similar things – again, removed their preciousness and I had no problem letting go. I have let many, many things go over the years – things that gave me great pleasure or were important at one or another stage in life. Still, there are a few things, the loss of which continues to resonate wistfully and on occasion, painfully.

Things come into our lives and some aquire a value far beyond their intrinsic selves. They become symbols, carrying great weight of meaning. And when they go missing or are destroyed, they seem to take a piece of us with them.

Thirty years ago I lived in a small apartment in the inner city. It was an exciting time of independence and enormous personal growth, when I felt I was doing and being just exactly what and who I should. While away for a week-end, the apartment was burglarized. Expensive stereo equipment and some other quite valuable things were stolen. But the only thing I really miss from that time (still) is a small black leather jacket. That jacket fit so perfectly. It made me feel powerful and protected. In an odd way, the jacket was me—the me of that time and place. It had become a touchstone for an important transition into a new and joyous phase of life. Perhaps I remember this now as I face another transition, from a long, productive cycle of service to others, to retirement and all the questions of “what next?” that are before me.

When I broke my little green juice glass, my lucky charm, my touchstone for bridging the gap of a critical past life transition, I felt the need to replace it as I face the next. Foolish, perhaps. One can’t create a lucky charm. Still, I went right out and found a small, green, hand-made chased-glass tumbler in a local antique store. DSC00500But it’s not the same. It is lovely, and I will enjoy using it. But each time I do, I know the memory of the other, and all it symbolized, will arise and I will feel a pang of loss.

I can’t know what might become the touchstone for this transition into the next “who” I will be and “what” I should be doing. The bridge to the next landing site is still being built. It is a process; uncomfortable and scary at times, exciting at others, still early in its construction.  Perhaps I’ll pick up a new touchstone as I make my way across that bridge.

 

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