Bog Flowers, Nut Armor, and the Paradox of Precocity

Cattail in swamp foregroundSeeds germinated. Burial makes life possible two-thousand years later: bogged-resurrection, the wait that moves life forward. Ending and beginning are impossible as opposites before they have fused together in one moment. Something is dissolving in me: let me set the scene…

My dearest is a botany teacher; I will call her Apricot from now on. She suggested we go to the Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens, here in Washington, DC. Look East of the Anacostia on a map to find them, nowhere near the National Mall nor the affluence of the Northwest quadrant. Tucked near marshes that bear a vague sheen of pollution is a series of submerged beds brimming with exotic plants. We have a quirky, sweet love — nerdy, too. She peers knowingly into the pores and gills of capsized mushrooms. We share a compulsive curiosity for the aboriginal world and the interwoven ribbon of human culture. She relishes books but her PhD is in Plant Pathology. I hungrily read pop-science articles but my BA is in English, my MA in International Education. Accidentally, we studied to be partners: the consummate biologist and the nascent intellectual — the writer to be.

Sacred Lotuses, dozens of themApricot and I prowled from the garden gate to the marsh boardwalks behind, among hundreds of ‘sacred lotuses’. They might have seemed common to me by morning’s end if not for their enormous, pale-green leaves and quinceañera-pink blossoms. Yet as we prepared to leave we noticed an ancient jewel in a murky bathtub. An unburied treasure resides in the concrete basin behind the green-house: lotuses cultivated from seeds that were 2000 years old. The revelation surprised me less than it impressed me but, that morning, I had not fathomed the depths of its significance.

An opening blossom next to a seasoned seed podShe read an autobiography by respected female scientist Hope Jahren, a fellow plant-lover. It is called “Lab Girl” and Apricot regaled me of a part from the middle, one long weekend. I considered the book ‘spoiled’ but more than a month later she insisted I should read it. I am simultaneously nibbling the posthumously published “Letters from the Earth (Mark Twain writing in the voice of Satan), taking regular doses of “Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity”, and big gulps from a book of Thomas Merton excerpts (”Echoing Silence”). Each is thought-provoking but, one long weekend, I started Jahren’s book in hungry need of a story to follow.

Lotus seed-podsWhen I told Apricot excitedly about the third chapter — the one about seeds — it was elementary to her. She is a plant scientist: she enjoyed connecting to the author in the discipline they both love. She knew seeds were alive all along… all along. I cried, of course, because I connected to the stories of seeds! The idea that an embryo was already alive, already waiting, waiting for just one chance to grow, still alive when the muck rises (the decades too), ready to split safety asunder and begin when the conditions are right — it all seemed an epiphany to me. The lotus pods sank into Chinese peat bogs and neither died nor flourished for millennia: they waited. It should not have been surprising yet I was deeply impressed. I thought about armor-clad black walnuts — and the jacket of bitter green material around their nuts, too. Miraculously, the walnut embryo can stay alive and suspend its arboreal ambitions until that thick, pungent ball of impossibility finally wears away. Apricot nodded and smiled over her tea, adding, “it can travel a long way, too.”

A large, glistening dew-drop on a leaf“This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. …I wonder where it is right now,” Jahren muses. I saw its contemporaries well into their growth, their glorious residency in the concrete basin at the Kennilworth Gardens. “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

Giant amazonian lily-padsI told Apricot, “whatever it is I’ve been desiring, I’m going to have to let it go,” in so many words, to favor germinating as myself — primarily a writer. My seed-coat could be made of precocity. As a child I was possessed with not only curiosity and originality but a pernicious precocity. I really thought my place at the front of the parade was assured and I would adapt and excel quickly at each juncture of my vocation. Instead of accepting short-falls as lessons from experiment and exercise, I felt them as holes missing from my self. Precocity’s opioid is the delusion of an instant opus, a redeeming work with no basis in trial. In lieu of excellence I dreamed of significance, a budding desire to play my role in global society. I attempted to cultivate bulbs of justice or else gild my own suffering, trying to hammer the shape of my own significance onto the surface of the pervading Internet. As I scrolled I became both partner and thrall to the addictive tapestries of “new media” and cocooned myself there, with the masses. I could not forge myself faster into something greater (precocious) but I ache to create meaning, still. Still, I am alive inside. The shells of my dissatisfied adolescence are not predictive of my deeper essence; the inner-child and the nascent elder are continuous (weirdly eternal!) and tend to muse rather than accomplish, to complicate as much as resolve — qualities that create existential drag but also eddies of provocative writing. I can accept the long processes of growth and discovery, if my protective coat of precocity dissolves in the promise of generative praxis.

'Impressionist' photo of a lily-pondMillions perish in a season, yet thousands of embryos retain viability, waiting for the right conditions to make one (only one) attempt to grow or perish. The paradox of the seed-coat holds me in suspense. Seeds get kicked to sunnier places, survive being eaten, float from coast to island — or wait on their parent tree until a raging fire melts the seal on their cone. The lotus’ coat entombed them in the bog — intact. Yet a seed might lose viability before its chance: split open on pavement, shat into a sewer, sunken in sediment to be fossilized, or imprisoned in cones on Mackinac Island where brush-fires are quenched by human authorities. So goes, also, my viability as an artist. Just over a year ago, a gardener about sixteen years older than me invited me to the U.S. Botanic Gardens to check-out an enormous corpse flower. To love and be loved mutually is a liberating condition. All of my gushing is distilled to one sentence: my ‘sweet apricot’ is the fire that opens my cone and, after this love, the cone cannot be resealed. Rather than patching the holes in myself, I sense they are necessary for my destiny to unfurl. My pungent, overwrought shell is cracking and the loam enveloping me is warm and wet. This soil is acceptable and my shoots and roots declare that emergence is NOW.

“Yes, we have to learn to write disciplined prose. We have to write poems that are “Poems”. But that is a relatively unprofitable and secondary concern compared with the duty of first writing nonsense. We have to learn the knack of free-association, to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely. Rather than making an intellectual point and then devising a form to express it, we need rather to release the face that is sweating under the mask and let it sweat out in the open for a change, even though nobody else gives it a prize for special beauty or significance.”

-Thomas Merton, “Why Alienation is for Everyone”, 1968
(emphasis mine)

'Apricot' stands on the boardwalk

Love wears a purple rain-jacket and walks with me on misty mornings.

Like all towering trees, I will begin in near insignificance and make sugars in the shadows. The canopy is far away. As Hope Jahren indicates later in her book, some lucky little trees have the benefit of being in symbiosis (with fungi). Someone established is nestled close to me, sharing in the journey upward.


[A post to “Sibling Share”, copied & pasted]

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...Since I am having trouble opening-up, let alone writing eloquently, I decided to complain to my sister (the almost-librarian):

There isn’t much doubt that I have been fretful about my career since I was fifteen or sixteen, back when I could not decide if I wanted to be a biologist or a musician. Many people do not know this but it was actually John T. Madden, the director of the athletic bands at MSU, who told me in an audition that my application was well-written and that he would rather see me get any degree at MSU (especially an English degree) than have to go to a lesser institution. That was a confusing day, Molly…

I meant to blog about these thoughts last week. Most of last Wednesday, I was feeling depressed and shameful after my visit to the therapist. Somehow, that all came out in my music (I still practice every day that I can) and started to fill my head with the idea I could have ‘made it’ if I had just practiced with the right attitude for enough hours of the day instead of, you know… making-out with my girlfriend like a teenager. I wonder if it will always be the same way with my writing: if I would have dedicated myself with the right attitude for enough hours a day, I could have at least developed a manuscript. As of right now, I have a messy constellation of poems, blog-entries, and old short stories. Yet, if I can have a good day playing the trumpet then it stands to reason I could have a good writing day — I just reached a point with trumpet where I recognized I loved it whether I was ever going to be great at it or not.

–and I still love Jazz more than most other things in life–

Reading advice from ‘successful’ writers online gives me mixed feelings — part of my self-thwarting is to avoid them entirely. John Green (who I would like to read) was probably the most helpful ~ he just admitted that he didn’t do it all on his own but also, yes, that he did work late into the night on his first book and make connections in the publishing industry. A friend forwarded me an article by another writer (whom I had never known before) and I read his list of 33 unusual tips. When I researched further, I found out that he had worked for years and years, suffered through a divorce and lost fortunes, and read religiously. After all that, I saw he had produced books on self-help and a blog of personal essays that were not that much better than mine (in other words, I have no desire to read him). So… John Green must be right: work hard, have friends who help, get lucky… but still read extensively!

In my youth I worried about reading the ‘right’ things and bought several books because I thought a well-rounded person needed to read them. I never made it through A Tale of Two Cities — and never plan to. The Canterbury Tales are in my book tub, along with several other books I have no interest in reading. I wasted so much time convincing myself I wanted to read this kind of literature when I know very well the kind of literature I want to read — experimental and post-colonial. I have Jorge Luis Borges by my bed; he’s my standby. I would really like to read whats-his-name that wrote The Kite Runner and such. World literature is what I prefer, not the English classics. There is almost nothing like that in my book tub right now. This time, I’m not going to try convincing myself that I want to read anything there…

That leads me to my conclusion: I want to go ahead and study post-colonial thought through literature. I don’t quite know how or if it will lead to great success in my life but I feel that, having lived with neocolonialism in real life through my experiences in Bethlehem, that is probably the best starting place for me as a would-be author and possible professor. Do you think I could be a teacher? Do you think I could direct a writing center? Wouldn’t it be funny if we both became WC grad-consultants (or tutors, excuse me) at the same time? Maybe before you finish, I’ll be back in school…

The main reason I want to is simply because I want to be immersed in that kind of literature without losing touch with history and current events completely. At the same time, this would mean giving-up on conflict resolution as a main career choice. Somehow, I might be able to keep incorporating activism, development, and peace studies into my work but my heart was leaning away from that so I could get back to being a word-nerd.

–which is not to say that I stopped being a music nerd or a science nerd. You know very well that I watch as much Sci-Show as I can stand. I also don’t know what I would do without music in my life, even though it competes for time with other things. I’m wondering right now…

…what I have to sacrifice in my life to finally make a commitment to someTHING instead of someONE.