When we first moved into our high-rise condo overlooking the park and the Philadelphia skyline, we were, along with all our neighbors, shut into our units by the pandemic. Not good. What’s more, our wrap-around balconies had been condemned by License and Inspection and needed to undergo a complete, expensive and LONG rehabilitation. Also not good. If situations like that, and worse, kind of resemble your life in the last few years, shut in and in need of rehab, you are not alone my friend.
Thank God things change! The pandemic was just recently declared over – although my son and my dear friends are fighting off Covid as I write, so I guess they missed the announcement. But things are generally better when it comes to the virus. What’s also exciting: our balconies were reopened last Spring, just in time for me to experiment with a new little farm I planted on them. I had plenty of new territory to plow. My daughter-in-law remarked at our New Year’s party, “These balconies are like extra rooms!” That’s really nice.
I have a stories that go with each of the dear plants I have been nurturing, but in the interest of time I will just mention four that seem rather miraculous, especially the two hibiscus.
It started getting cold, so I thought I’d bring the plants inside and see if I could keep them alive until spring. They looked kind of “peak-ed” (FYI – in farm territory that means you’ve wasted away with illness until your cheek bones are pointy like mountain peaks). The hibiscus were already losing leaves, like they do when they aren’t in Hawaii.
To my surprise, when I brought them into the house to nurse them over the winter, they all got a second wind! The geranium budded. The dipladenia sent out six shoots looking for a trellis. And the hibiscus leafed out and began to bloom! My wife wondered how she was going to get rid of these plants that invaded the living room. But I was giddy with delight over late-fall blooms.
You are glad you read far enough to hear this good news, right?
Lessons from bloom to bloom
I confess, I visit these plants like they are much-loved children and attend to their buds and shoots with tender interest. So they have been central icons for my meditation. I am writing to share my revelations with you.
First, I did not know my 21st floor balconies are, in fact, more like Tibetan steppes than a Narberth backyard. I thought it was a perfect place for a farm. But if you saw my tomatoes you’d know something was very wrong. The plants baked in sun amplified by window reflection. They were rocked by unobstructed wind. Storms blasted them. They got dried out faster than I watered them (and then I went to Spain). It was very stressful for them!
It dawned on me my friends and family look like they have been on the balcony for a couple of years. Like I thought of my balconies, the world kind of looked like it should be a hospitable place. But there was virus, economic upheaval, riots, new wars, all sorts of tyrants — big and small, and unpredictable weather. A lot of us have very small tomatoes, spiritually speaking, and our leaves are about gone. My plants got small and tried to survive, so did many of my loved ones.
Second, I did not know that moving the plants a few feet into my condo terrarium would create an environment conducive to a miracle. Those hibiscus did not need much of an excuse to let loose with some flowers; Lord, they wanted to bloom! And I thought the trellis I made for the stunted dipladenia looked silly it was so big. But now the tendrils are reaching up into the nothing above it. I think the farm still needs more experimentation. But I can see how resilient the plants are if they are given a chance.
My friends are like that too. I am thinking about three people, in particular, who had a classically terrible pandemic: lost jobs, went off the wagon, or went broke. But they are budding these days. One of them is starting on something that looks more like him than the other career ever did. They ended up in unexpected territory and started noticing unexpected growth. There is absolutely hope. I’m a bit shocked about how good I feel right now myself!
Rest in God’s presence
My recent guide, John O’Donohue, keeps reopening my mind to the reality that instead of frittering away my sleepless nights worrying about my friends and family, my frayed connections and threatening circumstances, I need to remain at rest in LOVE. The creation is friendly; look at it. Slow down. Let things develop. Suffer. Recover. Explore. Fail. Die well. Be resurrected.
The other night when I was lapsing into being a Christian and my spiritual cheeks began to plump up, I remembered a song we sang at my best friend’s funeral after he died in a plane crash when he was in his early thirties. My part in the funeral was to lead the singing for this very large crowd from the very large Assemblies of God church where we had worked together. I had never led such a big group, so I was terrified of looking foolish. I had said I’d do it because I’d do anything for Rick, not realizing what it would be like to lead in someone’s funeral I deeply loved (and still miss!). But the moment turned out to be a wonder, one of those thin places you remember when you need to find another one.
The other night, I needed that favorite song of his and the experience of the moment we sang it at his funeral. When we sang it then, I remember the shocking feeling of God’s presence orienting me (and surely everyone else) right into the center of the Lord’s great love. I felt, “Rick is OK. We are OK even though we feel all the things we are feeling.” It was the first hint I got that goodness and grief are not mutually exclusive.
It is a simple, might be less-than-true, sort-of-sentimental song — and that made no difference. It was Rick’s song, our song, that moment’s song and the singing of it was truer than any words could convey:
Surely the presence of the Lord is in the place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can feel the brush of angels’ wings; I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. [People still sing it.]
It was as if I’d been moved just a few feet into God’s living room. I felt the bloom coming, in spite of grief, fear and everything else swirling around in that room and in my soul.
In our DNA, spiritual and physical, love is waiting to bloom. There are not too many places or moments in which that blooming is unlikely to happen. The Spirit of the Lord is in us and around us. We are suffused with Love, even when we are sick, unhappy, stupid, or somebody put us on the balcony in the burning sun, or forgot to water us.
I may need to learn that again tomorrow, when I am surprised by tiny tomatoes. But I keep getting better at learning reality — and I at least expect another opportunity for learning to arise, just like all the other opportunities have sprung out of strange songs and unlikely situations. There are always a lot more thin places than I know about before I really need to find one. Then I stumble into one and realize again: there is absolutely hope. You’ve got some bloom in you.