Even if you think the Big Bang created the stars, don’t you wonder who sent the flowers... I hope some day to meet God, because I want to thank Him for the flowers
– American writer Robert Brault (1938-)
The ancient Roman poet Ovid is credited with saying that “Little things please little minds.” It’s a put-down, of course, and there may be truth in it, if by “little” we mean trivial.
But suppose that what we mean by “little” are recurring experiences that give us thoughtless pleasure.
Those things are likely to be different for each of us.
For some, it may be savoring that first cup of morning coffee after a peaceful night’s rest. For others, it may be the enjoyment of a good book, the challenge of a stimulating conversation, the preparation of a delicious meal, or the contemplation of a golden sunrise.
As for the “big” things, take your pick: Amassing wealth or power; vying for fame and recognition; “getting ahead.”
These will always loudly demand their due, but may not be the source of lasting satisfaction, nor hold out that elusive prize we all desire: happiness.
In that context, it becomes a lot less obvious which are the important things, and which are the shining but often shallow ones.
Well aware of this, Brault urges us to “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”
IT’S INTERESTING, and oddly comforting, to discover that the small embellishments to our existence that we take for granted can engender some quite profound thoughts about what it means to be human.
Like my orchid, which has sat by our window – out of direct sunlight – since last September, when our good friends Sally and Robi carried it into our newly renovated Jerusalem apartment and set it down on the ledge. Last year it produced seven delicate, pure white flowers; this year there are 14, a source of ongoing wonder and gratification to a person whose fingers are anything but green. (“You’ll enjoy watching it die,” was a friend’s sardonic comment one time when I showed off a plant I had just acquired.) In her masterful book Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky continually contrasts the lustrous and intense beauty of the natural world with the dark misery and hardship of France under German occupation in 1940-41. Describing a country garden in late spring, she writes of “petals curling up with a kind of trembling grace... the flower’s fragility... its ethereal quality, something almost human, in the way that human can mean frailty and endurance both at the same time.
“The wind could ruffle these ravishing creations, but couldn’t destroy them, or even crush them; they swayed there, dreamily, they seemed ready to fall but held fast to their slim, strong branches....”
There’s no great wind blowing through our apartment, but as I look at my orchid, it seems to embody the above lines – its graceful blooms bowed and seemingly weighed down by gravity, tremblingly fragile, appearing ready to fall yet holding on resolutely to the green stems.
Last year’s flowering went on for six months – long beyond what I had hoped for or expected.
Doesn’t that steadfastness parallel the story of all human survival – even more impressively, perhaps, the story of us Jews holding fast onto life, marshaling our inner strength against the odds in the face of a harsh and unforgiving world? SOME SAY orchids are hard to take care of; amazingly, mine hasn’t been. A small watering every week with boiled and cooled water, not allowing the water to collect in the dish; a little plant food from time to time, and it has kept its health.
So do we humans keep ours, if we eat and drink sparingly and regularly.
Aware of the view that plants respond to sound waves, including human speech, I try to remember to bid my orchid good night and wish it good morning. I also regularly tell it how beautiful it is.
So do we humans blossom and grow when attention is paid to us and we are complimented.
GIVEN THAT the orchid and I had a genuine relationship, I was faced with a dilemma in early spring.
The instructions that came with the plant said quite clearly: “When all the flowers have fallen, cut the stems” – there were two – “down to 20 centimeters above the earth to maintain strength for next season.”
But it was already March, and the stems still held onto a flower or two. More confusingly, a whole new green stem had sprouted, with four or five healthy flower buds fast developing. Should I cut all this down, be cruel to be kind? Or would it be just plain cruelty? One of the things you may not know about Israel is that there is an orchid “hospital” belonging to Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha, about a half-hour’s drive out of Jerusalem. I have seen the sick orchids people leave there to be nursed back to health. So I called the nursery.
“Look,” I said apologetically, “I’m calling about a very healthy orchid, not a sick one...” and I explained the situation to orchid maven Miriam.
“Yes,” she said, understandingly. “I always have the same tussle between my head and my heart. Should I cut the plant down, or let it do what it wants?” Delighted to have such a sympathetic interlocutor, I decided to let my heart rule, and use my head next year.
A FEW things you may be glad to know about orchids: Their name comes from the Greek orchis meaning “testicle” owing to the shape of the root bulbs. The ancient Greeks prized orchids because of their presumed aphrodisiac qualities.
There are twice as many species of orchids as there are of birds – about 30,000 – and they come in every color but black. Some orchids can weigh up to 2,000 lbs. and have grown to a height of 44 feet.
Vanilla flavoring is derived from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid (“vanilla” being a diminutive of the Spanish vaina, meaning “little pod” or capsule).
IN HER moving and inspiring book Kitchen Table Wisdom, medical educator and reformer Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen includes a chapter called “Consecrating the ordinary,” in which she describes the 16-century Christian mystic Theresa of Avila, “who found difficulty at first in reconciling the vastness of the life of the spirit with the mundane tasks of her Carmelite convent: the washing of pots, the sweeping of floors, the folding of laundry.
“At some point of grace, the mundane became for her a sort of prayer, a way she could experience her everpresent connection to the divine pattern which is the source of life. She began then to see the face of God in the folded sheets.”
There is a message here for us vis-à-vis all the “little things” that fill our days. The more we can appreciate their value and place, the better we will succeed in integrating everything we do; and the better we will see our connection to the intricate pattern which is the source of life.
If I ever meet God, I’ll thank him for the flowers.
This column is dedicated to Jerusalem poet Ettie Aman Goldwater, and to the renewal of spring.
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