To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.
Spring in Michigan (the snow forecast for the last April weekend notwithstanding) is particularly welcome this year after such events as the polar vortex and bomb cyclone.
One of my favorite indicators that the seasons have finally decided to turn, turn, turn is the rebirth of my forget-me-nots. They are a beloved annual reminder of those who are heart of my heart.
In winter months when the ground is often covered in snow for weeks at a time, it’s hard to believe they’ll ever come up again. But the harsh conditions are no match for the fidelity of these delicate flowers, once the ground thaws. As miraculous as the perennials are, at least they lay dormant below the surface, avoiding the brutal winter conditions out in the open.
Magnolia buds aren’t so lucky. This travesty happened a full four weeks after the first day of spring this year.
In Michigan, one learns to be more ready than not—knowing that winter often busts back in and hollers, And another thing! long after the calendar says it should be silent.
Magnolias accept the challenge with a seeming naiveté that defies logic. Until you realize they come better prepared to fight than it appears.
My sidewalks and driveway are currently littered with the discarded armor they wear into battle—weatherproof insulators known as bud scales that fall off when the air warms and the buds prepare to blossom.
The bud scales are small but incredibly durable. Protecting the delicate buds as vigilant guardians, it seems appropriate they look angel wings. The outside is covered with soft hairs that resemble a fur coat, while the inside is tough and reminds me of a pistachio shell.
Once the scales fall away, all bets are off as the buds appear. Tender, delicate, vulnerable, there is an in-between space where the coats have been shed and the buds are on their own. Unlike most Michiganders who don’t put away winter coats until late May, the magnolia buds have no other option than to brave it out.
It doesn’t take long for the buds to fully open and their lifespan—even in perfect weather—is incredibly short. It almost seems as if the buds are out one day and on the ground the next, as evidenced by this photo from two years ago. The day before, not a single petal had dropped.
A few weeks afterward, the blossoms are but a memory as thick green leaves sprout and it becomes just another green tree. Even as the petals decay into the ground below, another timer has begun. One that waits for cool days, shortened by the lower-arching sun, when the now supple leaves will dry and turn brittle. They take a pass on turning into the showy autumn colors of their maple neighbors, and settle for an overall look of weariness. Besides, they couldn’t compete with the spectacle of the spring blossoms so why bother?
Arguably being in the autumn of my life now, the seasons take on a deeper meaning. I think about all the ways I still maintain a protective layer over the vulnerable spaces below the surface. It isn’t so much the vulnerability that bothers me; it’s wondering how people will re/interact with the whole of me. I have compartmentalized parts of myself, such that many people know a limited version of me.
I believe with my whole heart in the importance of normalizing conversations about grief, loss and mourning—in my case, specifically about infertility, pregnancy loss and being childless not by choice.
Over the course of the five-plus years of those experiences, it was only natural that not everyone knew what was going on. Walling off certain aspects of that life was vital to my sanity and ability to function day to day. Now that I’m compelled to write about that time, it’s finally more exhausting to keep pretending than it is to just let it all go and say, Hey, this is who I am, and these are my experiences. If you get it, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. Good, bad or indifferent, I respectfully don’t really care how you feel about it—or me.
Grieving miscarried, much-wanted babies—and all the complexities therein—is a part of who I am but it is not all of me. Not even close. But it is one of those up-close filters through which much of my life is experienced, and no bud scale, no protective armor is going to change that. I’ll never be over it, but I’m not stuck in it. That’s grief, in a nutshell.
If you’re breathing, chances are very good that you’ve lived in that nutshell at some point. Maybe you’re a mom who’s lost your own mom and so a Mother’s Day brunch is as much painful as it is lovely. But how do you tell people you’d really rather pass? I mean, they went to all the trouble of making reservations and gathering the whole family together. You don’t want to make people feel bad, right? Besides, people don’t really talk about those things so it’s probably best just to keep going and not think about it.
Or perhaps you long to be married as you see one friend after another walk down the aisle. Of course, you’re happy for them. What kind of friend would you be if you admitted feeling sadness and disappointment at the same time you’re half-hoping/half-dreading that you’ll catch the bouquet? A normal friend, that’s who. It’s entirely possible—and I argue, emotionally healthier—to allow space for both of those things to occupy your heart at the same time.
Feelings of sorrow and grief can—and often do—live side by side feelings of joy, gratitude and peace. A time to dance, and a time to mourn may each come within the span of a few minutes—again and again and again. Failing to acknowledge the time to mourn robs some of the joy from the time to dance until each becomes a watered-down experience that never truly connects with the depth and authenticity of our emotions.
What would it look like if we could honestly, seamlessly acknowledge those moments when they occur? Then, when a time to dance contains a small pocket of sorrow, we take a moment amid the joy and sit with the fact that there is also a sense of sadness and loss. In the middle of brunch when someone says, This day couldn’t be more perfect! and tears spring uncontrollably to your eyes, it’s healthy and it’s real to take a moment to recognize the sadness of not having your mom with you. To honor her presence and the fact that it is a painful moment in an otherwise joyful day.
One does not take away from the other—unless one of them—dancing or mourning—goes unacknowledged. Then each is diminished for the gifts they contain.
Yes, joy comes in the morning. And as crazy as I would’ve thought someone for saying this, joy also comes alongside the mourning.
God’s Spirit is especially near in times of mourning, as He keeps track of all our sorrows and collects all our tears in His bottle. (Psalm 56:8 NLT)
Unlike magnolias, though, we only get one go-round at this life cycle, you and I. Gratefully, renewal doesn’t just come in the spring. As Christians we are constantly renewed by the gift of God’s grace.
The ill-fitting protective cover I cling to now pinches more than it protects. I can continue to wrap myself in this self-made shell another season, avoiding certain harsh conditions. Or I can let it fall and brave the elements in all my vulnerability, knowing that my choice guarantees me pain and suffering but also brings forth greater joy and beauty, as a result of being freed from my armor.
Given those choices? Honestly, I’d rather blossom.
Pete Seeger attempted to improve upon Solomon’s ending by adding a final line to the lyrics, and I think he got it right.
I swear it’s not too late.