what the flowers told me: on beauty in pain

You belong, among the wildflowers.
— Tom Petty

Living in Scotland, one gets used to gray skies and rainy mornings. On the cusp of adulthood, I discovered there that I was a closet introvert. I tend to live with everything I’ve got thrown out in the sun, engaged from head to toe. The Latin roots of extrovert explain the word suggests one who is turning outward, and I spent the first half of my 40 years doing exactly that. I constantly turned outward, to adventure, to relationships, to thrilling fun. I laughed hard and lived loud.

Then came the rains of Scotland. Walking often alone in Edinburgh, I discovered I liked the quiet. I loved to think and read and eat alone. Gray rainy days gave me the gift of my self. Nature has a way of teaching us how to be in the world, if we will only pay attention. 20 years later, my blood pressure drops a few notches when the rain comes. Rainy days wash forgiveness over us, giving all an excuse for being late, a reason to cancel plans, a lowering of expectations. Rain reminds me that enough is okay, that accomplishing less might be more enjoyable, that we should all just slow down.

For a productivity addict, the calming effect of rain provides a necessary pause. The rain reminds me there are lessons to be had if only I will pay attention. It remind us that the way we live is not the way we must, that our patterns might not define us. We withdraw, we hide away, we indulge, we rage, we distract ourselves, we pretend like we are fearless. When the pain of life delivers us at the end of ourselves though, those coping skills often seem inadequate. As the rain of Scotland exposed the beauty of turning inward and slowing down, I find myself looking again to the natural world for advice on how to survive the times that hurt and try us.

Yesterday I spent a lovely morning with a dear friend in a field of wildflowers. She is a pursuer of beauty, a chaser of wonder, and it is good to be in her presence whether I am happy or sad. As we drove through small towns, past barns and rolling fields, we began to learn the lessons Mother Nature offered up. Here are a few:

Consider the sunflower. Big, bright and beautiful, she is iconic. The deep brown center, the flaming bright petals, she stands tall with a stern stem. Today I observed her, and noticed the sunflower seems so sturdy, but those yellow petals are quite frail. The stem is thick, straight as a backbone, the brown center large and open, but the leaves, which provide the color for which the plant is known, are rather tiny. We love sunflowers for the brilliant contrast of the yellow and brown, for the large center, so stable, so open. I tend to minimize my frail parts, wanting to hide my fragility from the world. But the sunflower is the sunflower because we see the frail parts, because that flash of yellow is such a gift around the orb of brown. The sunflower teaches us to turn ourselves toward those who give us life, exposing our fragility and trusting others to call it beautiful. Could we learn to know we need to face the sun, that we must turn inward or outward toward those people and practices that give us life? Could we learn to bring our full selves, stable or fragile, toward the light, toward that which will carry and comfort us? Is it possible that our hurting, broken places are actually the most lovely? That our weak parts are made beautiful when seen alongside our strength? The sunflower has much to say if we will listen.

As we walked through the fields we also saw butterflies, fireflies and bees. Everywhere fluttering and buzzing, reminding us of the grace of rest, the freedom of flight and the necessity of nourishment. Ubiquitous, I found such pleasure in watching them dance. I saw there a beautiful reminder that perhaps the best path is not a path at all. Fully existing in a moment might require us to flit about, finding nourishment or rest wherever it is provided, unsure from where it will come. Don’t stop the journey because the rest ahead is unclear. Fly anyway, enjoying a reprieve whenever it appears. Perhaps the best paths meander.

Amidst the gorgeous bright sunflowers were also wildflowers of every shade. They were wild and bushy, mostly messy green with small pops of color. Lovely all the same though. Step back and survey the mess of life, looking for the precious color within. Might we trust that in every disaster there are moments of peace, that in every mess that is fleeting beauty? Some of the sunflowers looked like they were dying, but their burnished leaves added such depth to the sea of gold. Look for beauty in the dying, in the mess. No heart can bear only bad all the time. Allow yourself the gift of beauty if you stumble upon such wonder.

Buried beneath the flowers, we learned, would soon be tulip bulbs. Burrowed deep for the winter months, they will break through the ground in the spring, bursts of color growing toward the sun. In the beautiful wonder of our created world, cycles of life abound. God created this world to live and thrive and decay and die, only to nurture and grow new life. I am learning to face each death I encounter, knowing that in God’s baffling and cyclical economy, some gift is being deposited for the new life to come.

The natural world is a wild and lovely place. It is helpful, when the path ahead feels riddled with the traps of pain and despair, to remember that we were made to live as observers and partakers of the world around us. There are gifts of comfort and lessons of wisdom hidden within the plants and bees and rain and sun. Although we live our lives in a line, we grow in cycles large and small, as grace and pain somehow work together to teach us how to pay attention.

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged - keep on - there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.   
— Walt Whitman