Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Flower That Killed My Car

This morning, Jenny Stevning's post, because of its use of the word "enough" reminded me of a particular event in my life from a couple of summers ago. I was going to leave a comment summarizing this event, but as I began to do so, I went back so fully in my memory to this time, that I had to pull out what I wrote about it back then. Reading through it, I was overcome with emotion, since I have recently withdrawn myself from the relationship involved. And I see that it's somehow part of my healing to bring forth this writing. So here it is:

My boyfriend Justin and I are driving across coastal Texas in Henrietta, my maraschino red Ford Escort, who was named as a tip of the hat to Mr. Ford himself. We've been camping at Goose Island State Park and are now headed to Austin. As we cruise down quiet green Highway 35, the sun is just contemplating setting. Suddenly, Justin stops the car next to a tall golden field and wanders off into it. When he comes back, he hands me a huge bell-shaped flower, tissue-paper pink with a deep crimson center and little ridges running through the petals. You could easily imagine one of Cicely Mary Barker’s fairies living inside.

While I'm admiring this flower, Justin turns the ignition and a horrible grinding sound punches from the engine. We don't know it yet, but this is Henrietta's last word, not counting the pathetic gasp that occurs when Justin turns the key again. We momentarily enter that state of denial endemic to the first moments after a death. Henrietta has faithfully escorted me for ten years, over many miles and across many landscapes, never showing signs of illness. This is the equivalent of a major stroke.

We are between two tiny towns in rural Texas during dinnertime on a Saturday. There's no answer at the first towing company. I'm elated when a warm female voice greets me at the second. She assures us that someone will be sent, but from the larger town of Victoria a couple of dozen miles away, so it will take “a little while.”

I admit, I’m not great at dealing with little annoyances. They often seem a personal affront from a god with a mean sense of humor. But when larger obstacles come along, I tend to view them as meaningful, so I'm quick to accept them. Such it is with Henrietta’s death. Justin, however, doesn’t know this about me yet, and I can see him bracing himself for my grumpiness. But I hang the flower from the rearview mirror, dig a knife and perfectly ripe cantaloupe out of the back of the car, and turn on public radio. A show called Art of the Song is featuring a young musician named Meg Hutchinson. Justin and I slurp cantaloupe and listen to this delicious woman speak of her childhood in New England, of attending a little Waldorf school with a garden. How this school gave her “a sense of the interrelatedness of things.” She performs a piece called, “America Enough,” inspired by the notion that “anything taken to its extreme becomes its opposite.” The song is mellow and contemplative, and sends a quiet thrill upon my skin, as she sings:
If there's noise enough, it turns back to silence
If there's crowd enough, it turns back to solitude
If there's pain enough, it turns back to something almost bright...
If there's time enough, there's no such thing as an hour
If there's love enough, the rest of this won't even matter.
And I understand. There is love enough. Justin's face aglow, our flower and fruit, the field, the sunset, and the warm moist air. I am not waiting for anything. Sometimes being forced to stop is the only sweet relief from going on and on. Broken down becomes whole.


It's Sunday now, auto shops closed. We're stuck in Victoria. On the Comfort Inn's lobby computer, I look up the flower that killed Henrietta:  it's a Swamp Rose Mallow. I discover at that the meaning/sentiment of this flower is “Consumed by love.” I also learn that Pliny claimed, “Whosoever shall take a spoonful of the Mallows shall that day be free from all diseases that may come to him.” Well, apparently this magic does not extend to the next day, because yesterday's joy and wonder has shriveled like the flower still attached to poor Henrietta's rearview mirror.

I've learned that the feeling of doom is fleeting and illusory, but if indulged, will bring reality into its pathetic clutches. And so I do what I can to escape it, generally by changing the scenery, getting physically out of where I'm psychologically stuck. Even if it’s just sitting at the top of an outdoor stairwell at a Comfort Inn in a gulf coast thunderstorm, fifteen feet away from the room I share with my boyfriend, who I temporarily can’t stand because he’s chosen the Sci-Fi channel over adventure. Over me.

I'm considering a line from that song - If there's comfort enough, it turns back to sorrow. Last night, when we sat in our broken down car, plagued by humidity, mosquitoes, and ants, I was more comfortable than I am now, lodged in an air-conditioned room with a king-sized bed and cable. There were physical discomforts then, but they weren't important. We had a juicy cantaloupe and great radio. And each other. Now, only partially sheltered from the furious rain and earsplitting thunder, I find more fulfillment gazing over the soggy parking lot of the Comfort Inn than lounging on one of its cushy beds.

An old boyfriend once said I expect too much from daily life. It's true. I want moments of magical transcendence and communion to define my days. This is deeply connected to my desire to travel. In moving from place to place, everything is extraordinary, fluid, and thus primed for moments of transcendence. But just taking a trip is not enough. As Paulo Coelho has said, “God is always hiding hell in the middle of paradise.” Traveling with loved ones inevitably reveals roadblocks within the relationship, the self. And this is a special kind of hell because there are less channels of escape when you're sharing a small hotel room. The swings between transcendence and pettiness get closer together and more distinct. It's alarmingly easy somehow to go from sharing awe over a sunset to cold positioning on opposite sides of a king-sized bed.

After three tense days of coming to terms with Henrietta's demise, we board a bus home. The last leg of our journey is by train, and as I'm gazing out the window another train passes. The view becomes a rapid and chaotic alternation of train, landscape, train, landscape. And a voice inside me says: Don’t strain to see, just let it all pass before your eyes. Let it all be there, and all roll away. I think back over the past few days, about how in relationships, as in travel, it's necessary at times to give up the itinerary and creatively face roadblocks, seeing in them the opportunity to expand limits and face fears. What travel acutely offers is the opportunity to surrender to movement, accept and even embrace unpleasantness in the context of a larger joy. If there's love enough, the rest of this won't even matter. It suddenly hits me that this shift in perception is the true movement of travel.

I reach for the hand that picked the flower that killed my car.


  1. OH, MY!! Goosebumps abound!! They even hurt a bit under my clothes.
    I adore this line: The swings between transcendence and pettiness get closer together and more distinct.
    And your very last lovely!
    Haha! I can see now why your comment needed to become a whole new, beautiful post for yourself.

  2. Thank you, Jenny. You have become such a daily inspiration for me. I had no idea that reading your blog this morning would lead to something like posting this.

  3. It sure beats me how you manage to tell such beautiful stories, and make them so enlightening to boot. Even when the subject matter, on the face of it, isn't beautiful, you kick through every time with a (literally) marvelous lesson, poetically delivered.

    Well done.

  4. Gorgeous story, fantastically told, and I loved the song too. I need to go check out Meg Hutchinson now!

  5. I read this and immediately thought of you. I think you might appreciate it.

  6. Eryl - Thank you! Meg Hutchinson was definitely a great find.

    Postie - Thanks! I can definitely see why that made you think of me. I've been amazed, actually, at how many other bloggers know about such things.

  7. Wow! What an incredible story. All the dots connect here, every one of them. Thank you for this, so much!

    Perfect for Valentine's Day weekend, especially. Wow.

  8. Thanks Reya! Wow, you're right - I hadn't even thought about Valentine's Day, but it is a good fit.

  9. Nice story! Happy New Moon Day.

    As Paulo Coelho has said, “God is always hiding hell in the middle of paradise.”

    Do you know if he said what is equally true?

    "God is always hiding paradise in the middle of hell."?

  10. Thanks, Dan. Happy New Moon Day to you, too. And Happy Chinese New Year. And Happy Valentine's Day.

    I don't know if he said it directly, but the concept definitely appears in his stories.

  11. the greatest thing about being your daughter is that I got to read this twice before you posted it. I think this is my favorite of all your writings.

  12. This story is silky and smooth. It is beautifully written and such a joy to read. I imagined you in each descriptive detail, feeling the environment around you and then around myself. I enjoyed reading how you moved within the environment to research your yearnings as well. From the computer in the lobby, to the passing of the trains, in tune...WOW. This story creates a desire of AWARENESS. WOW! SUPERB, absolutely superb.

    I did it feel to write this? How was the writing for you in terms of fluidity? Did it flow for you much the same as it did for me as a reader?

    Thank you for sharing yourself. I am enriched always because of this!

  13. Thanks, Jennifer!

    I wrote this when I had just decided to start writing again, so it had a freshness for me. Parts of it I actually wrote while I was sitting on the stairs during the thunderstorm. It was liberating. And yes, very fluid. I didn't change a lot when I put it all together and edited it, although this is much shorter than the original version, which is about that entire trip.

    This is actually one chapter of a book I was working on involving travel and significant encounters with flowers. I haven't done much with it for a while, but I'd still like to. The title of the book is The Frequency of Flowers: A Pilgrimage, and I have two pieces written for it already, including this one.

  14. Emmuh - I never knew that before! Thanks!

  15. Great piece. A pleasure to read, so much in it. So moving in a quiet and sunny kind of way.

  16. "The Flower That Killed My Car"- so I'm thinking, what can this be about? I have not known a flower to kill a car. Lack of oil changes, yes, but not flowers. Unreplaced timing belts; but not tulips.

    You are truly a deeply complex and utterly compelling woman, Susan. I would venture to say that Justin won't see the likes of you in anyone else ever again.

  17. Claire - Thank you very much. It's nice to see your smiling face here!

    Yeah EC, come to think of it, it probably WAS an unreplaced timing belt.

    Thank you deeply for that intense compliment (and for Jennifer's second).

    "Deeply complex" doesn't always fare well for relationships, unfortunately.



Related Posts with Thumbnails

Search This Blog