Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What an orchid wants

The other morning I was sitting at the kitchen table when I saw Susan come up the walk carrying a beautiful big white orchid.

This unexpected gift has given me a pleasant feeling in the center of my body, a feeling that almost seems to be in the air I breathe in. It is very physical, not unlike the grief for Sherlock that arises when I come across a picture of him, or remember one of his ways. This is a more nourishing feeling, and I enjoy letting it linger.

I began to really stay with my feelings a while back, reading Lama Surya Das on handling anger over and over. His advice is to be the feeling, let it take you over. Don't follow the mind road, but just be with, the way we just sit with our breath when we meditate. In the talk I printed out, he says there are two kinds of difficult feeling, which I always think of in my grandson's terms, Want and Don't Want. Desire and aversion. This is something I want, this feeling of gratitude. It is not a preference generated by the brain, but a response from the body, where feelings reside.

And it led to a feeling/thought - how can I thank Susan? Before bed last night I wrote that question on top of my To-do list.

The next morning I knew the first thing was to figure out what the beautiful orchid needed. I had carefully placed it on the antique table in the living room, a few feet from a big west window, a natural place to show off something beautiful. But now I am reading about what an orchid likes - the environment it would naturally grow in. (That is giving me thoughts about the environment I can grow in, and what Tom needs, and Cassie, and Otto.)

I am vaguely aware that the facts about orchids are going into that stock of images and ideas in my mind, and may emerge some time in a poem . . . and I think about the studies that show tending a plant extends life for the elderly. Just tending a plant, knowing something needs your care or it will die. This is connection to living things outside ourselves, which I begin to think is the ultimate healer.

I used to fail with houseplants, buying things on impulse, because I liked them, then trying to give them enough light in a house where that was impossible, overwatering the poor things until they turned yellow and quit. I was very slow to learn how to be with a plant, not just get knowledge about it, but look at it, ask it what it needs. It's odd to think about it, but I am remembering that the houses I grew up in had no house plants. My mother liked to keep blinds, shutters, and drapes closed, claiming her windows were always dirty.

I learned a lot, I think, trying to grow African violets. I am amazed now that I ever thought I could make them grow (make them grow?) in a small dormer window that faced south - but that was all I had back then. I had six or seven violets, lovely variations. I studied them in library books (this was before the internet), labored over them, thrilled to get the least amount of bloom. I don't recall how and when they all died, but none of them came here in 2003. It's too bad; they would have liked this house.

After we moved here, I had an impulsive moment at the grocery store, and bought a perfectly ordinary purple African violet. Soon after, at Oakland Nursery, I found a ceramic pot made for violets. The plant sits in an unglazed pot that is suspended in a bowl of water, so it self-waters from the bottom, the way violets like. That and a big window where it gets southwest sun have been magic. The bloom is a spectacular purple nosegay. I do almost nothing for the plant, just provide the environment.

Orchids are even more particular than violets, desiring an environment like the tropical rain forest they come from, warmer in the daytime, cooler at night. This one wants a north window, which is a happy fact, since my study has one. And it would much prefer to be watered with rainwater. From beautifulorchids.com:
Rainwater, as it passes through the air, dissolves and absorbs many substances such as dust, pollen and other organic matter. This enriched rainwater contributes to the nourishment of the plant.
Doesn't this make you smile? I am already waiting for rain, connecting with the weather. I plan to collect it in a bucket on the patio, with a screen on top to prevent mosquitos from breeding. Susan cares deeply for the natural world, connects profoundly to the landscape. I am thinking that caring for this orchid, rainwater and all, is going to be a good way to remember her and express ongoing gratitude.

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