Grandma’s lesson for our time

1969ish Flossie & NJC crop

My grandmother, Flossie Egan Craig, and I in 1969.

Fifty-three years ago, my mother watched news coverage of the war zone her hometown had become.

My grandmother, in her 70s, lived alone in the same house there on Cruse Street. Detroit was burning with arson fires, July heat, and years of anger stoked by injustice and fear. Mom was hours away in Indianapolis with a 6-month-old baby (me). I don’t know how long it took before she knew Grandma Flossie and the rest of our family and friends were safe in a city that suddenly and frighteningly wasn’t theirs.

Flossie Craig in front of 16260 Cruse copy (1)

Grandma Flossie in front of her home on Cruse Street in Detroit in the mid-1940s.

Over five days, 43 people were killed, 1,189 were injured, and hundreds of buildings were burned.

Only later did Mom learn that while the worst of the action was happening outside her door, Flossie played hymn after hymn on the piano, singing at the top of her lungs.

Her African American next-door neighbors, who were under their beds, could hear it.

Flossie was the only grandparent with whom I shared any earth time, and then only three years. The memories I do have of her, family stories such as the one above, and her abiding faith continue to inspire me.

Civil unrest is perhaps a poor comparison to a global pandemic, but I think my grandmother would handle it in much the same way. In a threatening situation, she offered her all to God, creating a bright sphere of protective energy with her music. That energy expanded with every note to surround her modest brick house and those nearby.

We humans have always known the power of sound and song to heal and unify. Whether it’s a lullaby, a protest song belted through tears, or a national anthem sung in unison, music raises our vibration and creates a powerful energy. Does it kill viruses, stop bullets, alleviate shortages, or put out fires? No. But it sure can change the atmosphere that produces and responds to all of these.

I don’t know if “How Can I Keep from Singing?” was one of the hymns my grandmother sang during those trying days. But I think it fits for ours, so I include the Enya version below.

May we, in today’s tumult and strife, hear and join in that “real, though far-off hymn” — with enough strength for the neighbors to hear.

 

Saying it with flowers

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Does a peony mean “anger,” or does it mean “shame”? (Photo courtesy Foter.com)

It’s one thing for a modern young person to develop a knack for growing things under the direction of a parent, grandparent, teacher, or other important adult. It’s quite another to also become versed in the meanings of specific flowers — rhododendron (“beware”), white poplar (“time”), snapdragon (“presumption”), mistletoe (“I surmount all obstacles”), and more. This is the the language of flowers, which in Victorian times was used to convey a surprising range of sentiments.

1431616332717These are the gifts with which Victoria Jones goes forth in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers (Random House, 2011). On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria ages out of the foster care system and is turned loose in San Francisco to figure out the next step. Isolated and mistrustful, she does little to help herself — but she does plant a garden. She eventually finds work with florist Renata, who is quick to recognize the young woman’s gift for helping people choose flowers for the people and special occasions in their lives based on their meanings.

Her work in San Francisco’s floral world reconnects her with flower farmer/vendor Grant, the nephew of her former foster mother, Elizabeth. Vineyard owner Elizabeth had been Victoria’s mentor in horticulture and the language of flowers. She also wanted to become Victoria’s adoptive mother. This is where the chapters begin to alternate between Victoria’s present-day reality — her work with Renata and her developing relationship with Grant — and the 10-year-old Victoria’s time with Elizabeth. You know something drastic is coming, because Victoria ended up back in foster care; and plenty of changes are unfolding in the here and now that are going to bring those old chickens home to roost.

Such as: the annoying tendency of any language, even the language of flowers, to not remain static and free from contradictions. Victoria visits San Francisco’s Main Library more than once to pore over every volume she can find on flower meanings. She has either been presented with a flower whose meaning she cannot decipher or is looking for a precise botanical response to Grant, who is also flower-fluent. The books are old, crumbling, tucked in between the Victorian poets and gardening books, but it doesn’t take long before she is confused and frustrated anew by multiple, often contradictory definitions of a single flower. She had given her caseworker peony to convey “anger,” but now she finds the flower also means “shame.”

“If peony could be misinterpreted, how many times, to how many people, had I misspoken?” Victoria wonders. Soon, she and Grant begin working on a flower dictionary of their own (it’s included at the back of the book).

Though I was fascinated by the way this young, contemporary character employed the Victorian-era language of flowers to express herself and, ultimately, to help herself and others, some of her behavior is inscrutable, even considering her history in foster care. I also felt disappointed and angry with Elizabeth, who was supposed to be the grown-up. But maybe there’s a reason the foster care system is the setting for stories like this … the actual as well as the fictional.

 

 

Listening to the birds

29868587Birds bridge the ordinary and the unknown as few other creatures can. In Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, novelist, essayist, and children’s author Kyo Maclear details a year of urban birdwatching and life shifting in her home city of Toronto.

While coping with her father’s illness, the married mother of two young sons happened upon the photography of a musician and urban birdwatcher, and was riveted. “These birds lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity,” she said, but the message in the photos was not one of environmental sins, but of love for “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.”

The musician (as he is known throughout the book) became Maclear’s guide on a number of bird walks throughout the year. As so often happens when we take up something new, ostensibly to distract ourselves, the insights that emerge bring us right back to face the music, if we are willing.

Accompanying the musician to his father’s aviary of finches, for example, and feeling like a “galumphing invader” among the tiny, captive creatures, sparks reflection on the quality we most associate with birds: freedom. We are all captive in some way to something, Maclear said — such as the cages of ego and habit we may or may not recognize. A small birdwatching excursion to a marina on the edge of the city not only teaches her how to distinguish among trumpeter, mute, and tundra swans but becomes an almost meditative experience of simultaneous waiting and experiencing.

As she began to talk about the subject of this book, Maclear was surprised by the number and diversity of people who shared their own bird stories and passions — rich hobbyists, former POWs, people who traded the bottle for binoculars. “They had lost something, hoped for transcendence, wondered how best to live this life. Birds spoke to their irrevocably blue parts, their hopeful parts.”

The birders she encountered in books and in the world shared little except this, she concluded: “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”