A New Strain: “Last Gasp” Morning Glories!

When my gardening neighbor planted the vines on the other side of the trellis shared by our patios, I was delighted. The quickly climbing green leaves made no distinction between thine and mine. They clambered through the lattice to my side as eagerly as they climbed on hers, softening the hard white plastic, and bringing an unaccustomed anticipation of flowers for this non-achieving gardener.

“Are they morning glories?” I asked in a hushed voice. (I ADORE morning glories.)

“Yes,” she said. “But I bought them at a farm stand — I usually grow them from seed — and I don’t know what color they’re going to be.”

“Oh, I hope they’re blue!” we exclaimed in unison.

Blue morning glories are the very color of heaven. The color of the sky on a perfect unclouded day, limpid and pure, the essence of blue. Oh yes, I hope they’re blue.

The vines grew and flourished and rambled and twined.

Buddha overseeing vines ---

Buddha overseeing vines —

And grew and flourished and twined some more, until they were so luxuriant they began to look like they would engulf both patios! But there were no flowers, blue or otherwise. It seemed as if our vine was like a disappointing baseball prodigy, all field, no hit.

The days passed. And more days. Weeks. Still vines only, no flowers. The sands dwindled swifter through summer’s hourglass. Still no flowers. We looked at each other, my neighbor and I.

“Do you think they’ll make it before the first frost?”

“I don’t know. I hope so!” she said.

It was weeks now since the vines had begun their Jack-and-the-Beanstalk act, and still no flowers, not blue or pink or even, heaven help us, white!

Then, at last, with October and the first frost nearing, this greeted me early one morning:

Blue, by heaven, blue!

Blue, by heaven, blue!

Blue! By heaven, blue! Even if it’s only one. The next day:

Sky Blue

Only in the nick of time, it turns out. The vine leaves are already turning to autumn yellow:

At the Last Gasp

It had come through. But why all this angst and delay?  If I had planted the vine, black thumb that I have, it wouldn’t even have made it to the green twining stage. But my neighbor is a skilled gardener. She was unhappy. She asked questions, and made a discovery.

Turns out that morning glories come, not only in more than a single color, but more than a single blooming habit. This variety was a late bloomer, a “hairy stem” or something exotic like that. Not a variety to be planted in New England, where frost comes early and hard. But true to the stubborn nature of New Englanders, it had come through. At the last gasp, yes. But it had come through.

We now had our own name for our shared plant. It would officially be (at least to us) the Last Gasp Morning Glory.

Posted in Autumn, Buddha, Challenge, Color, Flowers, Nature, Pioneer Valley | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Not My Circus?

This morning, on fellow blogger Stef’s Daily Delights, I encountered this Polish proverb: Not my circus, not my monkeys!

Oft-quoted Polish Proverb Well! I promptly decided to adopt the proverb as my mantra-of-the-day. Enough of the silliness, enough of the small stuff (I thought we agreed not to sweat it, didn’t we?). People want to hang on to the nonsense and carry on like a bunch of monkeys, let ‘em!

And I felt really good. There’s lots of ways to take that proverb. One is, don’t sweat the small stuff (see above).  Just because everybody around you is going nuts doesn’t mean you have to.  For me, it’s a call to let go of grandiosity: do I really think I’m qualified or capable of solving the problems of the world?

But then I did something dangerous. I started to think more about it. For the first time in our lives, we’re living as part of a community, not solely individuals on our own. So far that’s felt really good. It’s meant unaccustomed support in adversity, a source of strength and comfort and companionship. That’s the good stuff. But then — what about the nonsense?

There’s always nonsense. People in any group larger than one get involved, embroiled, carried away. I get really impatient when that happens, say, at community meetings. (Heaven knows it happens in families all the time!) My immediate instinct is to cut out, mentally if not physically. What a boost for me the proverb is! Not my circus, not my monkeys.

But what if it is? Sometimes it actually is, isn’t it? My circus, my monkeys, my family, my community. My political party. My country. What then?

There’s the uncomfortable part of belonging to something more than oneself. Things aren’t so simple anymore. What’s good for me may not be good for all. What I want might be the opposite of what you want. What I need might interfere with what you need. It gets tricky very quickly, when we’re all under one Big Top together.

As for the monkeys — Well, I’ve got my wild and crazy side just like you do. My irrationalities, my stubbornness, my mischievous energy. My restlessness, my boredom, my impatience. Much as I’m loath to, I’ve got to claim some of these monkeys as my own.

The proverb, then, is sometimes right, but oftentimes tragically wrong.

The world is the way it is (oh, today’s headlines! these terrible headlines!) because the circus is out of control. The monkeys have taken over, and all the ringmasters have disappeared.

So what do we need? We need some grownups. (Heaven knows there are more than enough monkeys to go around!) What we need are grown-up human beings with the capacity to reason as well as feel emotion.  With self-control enough to be flexible.  With humility enough to value compromise.

And maybe some of us (I’m looking in the mirror here) need reminding that sometimes it IS our circus, and it IS our monkeys, and — for better for worse — it’s up to us to do something about it.



Posted in Challenge, Doubt, Personal Essay | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Today’s Portrait: FIREFIGHTER

No, today’s portrait isn’t a flower! It’s occurred to me that other objects besides flowers can emanate presence and personality. Can demonstrate QUIDDITAS, the quality that Aristotle meant when he wrote of “thatness,” or “whatness,” or “what it is.”

When I was painting still lifes, that was the quality I was always trying to capture. The quidditas, the essence of the thing or things.

Admittedly it wasn’t what I had in mind when I offhandedly snapped this photo. I didn’t really have anything much in mind beyond, Hey, I wonder what the camera will do to this. And then, to my amazement and delight, there it was. There HE was.

The Firefighter

I can see him clear as anything, his silver helmet, his sturdy right arm ready with the hose. Not simply a fire hydrant down the lane, but The Firefighter!

Well, maybe it is isn’t quidditas. Maybe it’s another Greek concept. Maybe I’m dealing with metamorphosis. Whatever it is, it’s mythic, and it startles and amuses me. Maybe it will startle and amuse you too —

Posted in Art, Photography, Wonderings | Tagged , , , , , , | 23 Comments

TODAY’S PORTRAIT: Flowers of War and Peace

Who would have thought that this dreamy camellia would rouse thoughts of war and peace for me?

Camellia Pink

Her photo is only one among the many I snapped at the Spring Bulb Show at Mount Holyoke, and — I would have said — one of the least of them. A hundred flowers had more presence than this one, brighter color, more exotic form. But something about her kept my finger away from the delete button. The softness of the flower? its almost translucent quality? the gentle roundness of the petals?

Descended from Asian ancestors, the quiet, unassuming camellia has become a quintessential flower of the American South. It is the state flower of Alabama. It doesn’t get more Heart of the South than that! And what is more emblematic of the American South than the Civil War? Or the War Between the States, as they prefer to say down below the Mason-Dixon line.

People of my age, wherever in the US they lived, shared one formative experience about the South and the Civil War. The towering Civil War film epic, Gone With the Wind, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, first opened in 1939. It ran a staggering 238 minutes, and held viewers riveted every instant.  Although I would have seen it later on in my pre-adolescent years, and probably missed much of its adult meaning, I was already old enough to be profoundly moved by the love drama of its main characters.

Anyone who knows about it will immediately identify Scarlett O’Hara, that stunningly ineffable egoist, as its heroine. You’re certainly supposed to do so. All the publicity and hoopla belonged to Vivian Leigh as the predatory Scarlett:

Lawsy, Miss Scarlett!

But I’ve always had my own, perhaps more boring, more conservative preferences. My heroine was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, friend and foil to Scarlett O’Hara. Melanie was played by a quiet, demure Olivia de Havilland.

Sweet Melanie

See, her dress even looks like a camellia! The intentional contrast is made clear in this still from the film:

PInk and Scarlet(t)

Here’s the gentle pink of the camellia contrasted with the glamorous red of the Scarlet(t) woman. In the same way, the forceful and dashing Rhett Butler of Clark Gable is meant to overshadow that consummate Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes, portrayed by Leslie Howard. My mother, along with thousands of American women, sighed over Clark Gable. Me, true to form, I pined for Ashley.

So you see how many long ago emotions were stirred by the photo of the camellia, especially when I hunted through my archives for a flower that might represent Melanie’s predatory rival. And here’s what I found:

Prize-winning Cattleya

Showy, glamorous and expensive, this cattleya orchid took first place at the Amherst Orchid Society’s show a while back. My tastes haven’t really changed in all those intervening decades, though. To me, the prize winner is gaudy and vulgar and predatory, just like Scarlett O’Hara. Give me the camellia any day!


Posted in Memory, Personal Essay | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments


I don’t think I’d ever seen a purple rose before this bouquet arrived from the florist one day. Not only was the color regal — “born to the purple” describes a status as well as a hue — but the very set of this flower seemed regal to me.

Born to the Purple

The confident angle of the rose jogged my memory. What does this remind me of? Of course! The bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. If a rose is the floral icon of the eternal feminine, the bust of Queen Nefertiti is its sculptural icon:


The Great Royal Wife (and sister) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, Nefertiti is 3,300 years young. She was crafted in 1345 BC, probably by the sculptor Thutmose, and she is unquestionably one of the most famous women of the ancient world.

The Hub and I saw her in her current home, the Neues Museum in Berlin, some years ago. I had been afraid that, like many other much-heralded works of art, the thing itself would not live up to its publicity. (The Venus de Milo doesn’t do much for me, nor does the Mona Lisa. No doubt my failing, not theirs, but still.)

We found her in a small room all by herself, in a glass case. The room was dark, the case was spot lit, and I — was mesmerized. I could not take my eyes off the regal face. I walked around and around, drinking her in from every angle. Even the milky empty socket of the left eye could not detract from her radiance. Simply put, she is perfect. Every inch a queen, every inch the beautiful woman. We spent a long time together that longago morning, she and I.

And once that memory had been jogged, the purple rose in my bouquet recalled that royal form and meaning for me. The rose itself is now long wilted and gone, but the photo remains to remind me of Nefertiti, and of a marvelous truth. Roses may live and die. So do human beings. But there is beauty that exists  beyond life and death, and when we glimpse it, we too — for a moment at least — share in the eternal.

Posted in Art, Flowers, Life and Death, Memory | 29 Comments


And now for something COMPLETELY different — La Hibiscus!

Look at that hibiscus go!

Talk about in-your-face!  No shrinking violet she. Her philosophy is, If you’ve got it, flaunt it! A hot-blooded lady from the tropics, our hibiscus is right out there. In her gorgeous color, her glamorous pose, her whole exotic demeanor, she reminds me of a floral Carmen Miranda.

You’re mostly young things out there, I can hear you now:  Carmen who?

Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian Bombshell, the lady in the tutti-frutti hat — still doesn’t ring a bell, does it? She was a Brazilian singer and dancer who was popular from the 1930’s until the 1950’s on Broadway and in Hollywood. In 1940, she made her first Hollywood film, “Down Argentine Way“, with Don Ameche and Betty Grable. Her exotic looks, flamboyant clothes, Latin accent, and outrageous hats heaped with fruits and vegetables became her trademarks. And, like the hibiscus flower, she was a real charmer.

Wikipedia reports that in 1945 she was the highest-paid woman in the United States. Her dazzling, dizzy song and dance numbers provided much-needed relief during the hard years of World War II. 

I remember her from the movies in the 1940’s, when I was just old enough to clutch my quarter and head off with friends to a Saturday matinee. (Those quarter matinees, by the way, included two movies, both the feature and a B-movie to go with it, a newsreel, a serial, and several cartoons. Not bad, huh.) Because I haven’t seen or thought of her for decades, I went to Youtube to check her out. After all, things can play brilliantly in memories of long-ago that, seen again, fall flat in the present. 

But not in this case! She really was a star. There are lots of Youtubes I could have picked to show you. It was a tough choice. But I think I’ll go with this one, and if you like what you see, you can try some others yourself. Here she is, as brilliant and outrageous and charming as a hibiscus flower:

The movie is Week-end in Havana (1941), starring Alice Faye and John Payne. (Don’t remember them either, I suppose!) As in most of her movies, Carmen Miranda appears as her starry self in a night club scene (or two or three) to entertain the lead actors in their romantic drama. They don’t make movies like this any more! Just as well, perhaps. Nevertheless, maybe you can see why the brilliant flower makes me think of this brilliant performer —


Posted in Color, Flowers, Memory, Music, Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 35 Comments


Shrinking Violets

In contrast to cheery Johnny Jump-ups and bold-faced pansies, there’s an introverted branch of the Violaceae family. Violets, true violets, are modest and demure. They shelter underneath their heart-shaped leaves, and even great masses of them never seem to call attention to themselves. Unless you really look, you don’t realize quite how beautiful violets are. They shrink from the public eye, the origin (I suppose) of the descriptive phrase, “a shrinking violet.”

Lucy's Violet

But there have always been some who have valued the reticent beauties.

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky. 

Does that have a familiar ring? It’s from a poem by William Wordsworth, the English nature poet, and it begins “She dwelt among the untrodden ways…”  The poem is one of five that collectively are called the “Lucy” poems. In them, the poet tells of his  unrequited love for an idealised girl, Lucy, who died young. Whether or not there ever was a real Lucy, or she was simply a poetic device, no one knows for sure. But since a romantic story trumps a poetic device any day, there is much speculation about who she was, and the circumstances of Wordsworth’s loss, if there really was a loss.

In the world of the poem, no one noticed Lucy, just as no one notices violets. They hide wherever they can, even in the grass.

Violet, Alone

No one noticed her, except the poet who loved her. And when she was gone, still no one noticed. Except the poet. Just three stanzas of limpid simplicity, with a final line that is one of the most moving in English lyric poetry. You can read them here. Better still, though, for those of you who love poetry, you can hear Sir Andrew Motion, an English poet, novelist, and biographer, who was Poet Laureate of the U.K. from 1999 to 2009, read it aloud, with an intelligent and enlightening discussion that, for once, doesn’t detract from the poem itself!  Here’s the Youtube, if you have the time and inclination:

And in the springtime, all of you, when our fancies sometimes turn to thoughts of love, don’t forget to look out for the beauties that dwell, unnoticed and unsung, among us.

(I wonder: is there something you love in the same way in which Wordsworth loved Lucy?) 



Posted in Art, Life and Death, Mindfulness, Nature, Personal Essay, Poetry, Quotes, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments