Before I sat down to write this column, I looked out our front window and found our hydrangeas in a state of despair.
It’s 91 degrees – a July cold snap in Phoenix, perhaps, where it’s currently 107 degrees, but here in Cleveland, it’s the temperature of wilted morale. This was possibly not true last summer, but that was when an air-conditioned dinner out with friends was one of the most ordinary things you could do on a hot summer night.
I walked out on the porch to get a better look at the row of hydrangeas and decided, deadline or not, I had to pull out the hose and water them. There’s so much wrong in this world that I can’t fix right now, but in that moment, I could lift the burden of those drooping heads. I would help them.
It’s a small production to water our flowers. I turn on the spigot and then wrestle the limp heap of hose away from the row of mint that grows every summer without invitation along the edge of the driveway. As the water fills the hose, it uncoils like an awakened snake, and this never fails to fascinate me. The things that people invent for hapless people like me. I’m grateful.
A garden flag stands in front of one of our hydrangea bushes declaring that Black Lives Matter. One day after a particularly windy storm, I found the flag toppled over onto the grass, and I repositioned it. The next day, a neighbor, who is Black, asked if someone had tampered with that flag, and why wouldn’t he think that?
No, I told him. We think it was the storm. I promised to let him know if anything happened in the future to change our minds.
I thought of him as I was watering the flowers and glanced at the flag. It hasn’t moved since that day, but every time I look at it, I think of the look on that kind man’s face when he asked: “Did someone mess with it? Did they pull it out?”
Every morning and every night now, I check the flag.
As I finished watering the hydrangeas, I thought about what it means to be a columnist these days. So much happens on any given day that topics are easy, but I worry that all I am doing is adding to the cacophony of outrage. There are so many reasons to be angry, but my reader mail tells a different story. It is growing by the week, and so many notes are updates about the state of human hearts.
Entire swaths of America live in daily fear of dying, and it is cruel to tell an informed public that this is overreacting. Until we have a vaccine for the coronavirus, there is reason to be afraid, especially when something as simple and lifesaving as wearing a mask has become a partisan issue because of a president who refuses to lead.
Older readers tell me they fear they will never again see their grandchildren, their friends, their places of worship. “I’m 82 years old,” a woman wrote to me earlier this week. “I know your inclination will be to reassure me, but please see the world through my eyes. It is very likely I will die before I ever see the people who matter most to me.”
It does us no good to speculate about so much we cannot know, but isolation has a way of unlocking the darkest corners of our minds. How do we bring the light?
We keep living, is all I can figure. We fill the space we’re in.
I’ve mentioned before how I often turn to the Irish priest John O’Donohue’s book, “To Bless the Space Between Us.” And here I am again, my coffee cup holding open the page titled “Equilibrium”: “Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, / May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul. / As the wind loves to call things to dance, / May your gravity be lightened by grace. / Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, / May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect. / As water takes whatever shape it is in, / So free may you be about who you become.”
I just checked on the hydrangea. Their faces are wide again, looking up at the sky as their petals glisten. I will join them in their reverie.
Have I read this before? I don’t remember, but what I do know is that now, regardless of past interpretations, it speaks a different language to me.