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Bleeding Hearts

Flowers and I have a complicated relationship. I'll start with that. Growing up, I was taught they were important. Houseplants had import, too. My mother had a rose garden, spent entire May weekends transplanting annuals in bursts of red, white, and pink. She had a room in the house dedicated to kept houseplants, too. A space full of giant glass windows and sunshine. Walking into it felt like one of those old Victorian Solariums, just light and warmth and green things.

But as a young girl growing up in the nineties, never feeling whole or accepted for safe, I associated flowers with things I was running from: femininity, conformity, beauty standards I could never achieve. I was not a rose of a little girl. I was a bleeding heart.

Bleeding hearts grew around my mother's garden. They also grew in the alley near the trash can. They weren't intentional, or cultivated. They showed up on their own. We didn't have the variety that looks identical to a cartoon heart, we had the Van Zyverden's variety, (which should have been called a bleeding udder, honestly). They were cheerful but more homely than those bright annuals and stunning pink roses. They were low to the ground, often confused with weeds, and fine hiding in the shadows. They were dramatic and determined, too. Often returning the next season and not having to be replanted. I am not sure if they're true perennials or just stubborn, volunteers. But I respect their moxie.

When I was finally on my own in the world, out of college and living in different states and working different jobs around the country, flowers never came to mind. There were a few standouts. The Black-eyed Susans outside my house on Luttrell Street in Knoxville. Mountain wildflowers on trails in Idaho. The sunflowers that were sold for a dollar in a small wooden stand in Sandgate, Vermont I'd pass on the way to work... but I felt about flowers the same way I felt about love: not for me.

There was nothing wrong with flowers. But they felt like bridal boutiques and Cosmopolitan magazine, the baby aisle at Rite-Aid: items for a different type of girl. I grew up wanting to be the women in the LL Bean catalog, not Cosmo. I wanted to ride horses and shoot bows and be thought of as tanned leather and campfire smoke and maybe... just maybe, lavender. Herbs I associated with folk magic and prayer, and the flowers were just a means to harvesting ingredients for ritual. But flowers for the sake of being flowers? Who has the time? The money? All that effort for something that dies in a few weeks? Please.

When I dove into homesteading, which started in my mid-twenties, I couldn't fathom growing anything I couldn't eat. Gardening meant a lot to me, and while I appreciated the snowballs on the tops of onions, the yellow squash blossoms, and the white petals on the potato flowers but that's as floral as I got. Flowers were a necessary part of the process of making dinner, a means to an end. We needed the apple blossoms for the apple pie, and focusing on this temporary part of the process felt silly. Girly. Frivolous.

As I reached my mid thirties, flowers started to show up more. My friend Miriam is the type of person that rarely shows up without flowers. Not anything fancy, usually a simple cellophane wrapped bouquet you could grab at the grocery store of cheery carnations, but to have a friend just hand you flowers because they were thinking of you? It's like being handed a poem.

That's what flowers are right? A few verses, a passing moment created by light and a promise. And I started giving myself permission to like them. I looked forward to them, even.

When I was in my last relationship, we as a couple worked so hard to make this farm more beautiful. One spring we went to my friend Sara's ceramic studio during an open house and Sara had some flowers for sale in small pots, ready to transfer. We brought home morning glories and my then-girlfriend planted them at the base of the dead beech tree. I expected the geese to rip them to shreds or the chickens to eat them, but for some reason those morning glories persisted. I watched the small trumpet flowers curl and wind around that dead trunk like a celebration. I saw hummingbirds feed off them, and smiled every single time I passed, because she made something beautiful out of a broken ugly thing.

After that relationship ended, I still planted morning glories the next May. They were planted in a 5-gallon plastic bucket in the kitchen garden, too close to the tomatoes. All the pink and purple flowers got confused with the little working class yellow tomato flowers, in a riot of wild beauty. I still liked seeing them. I was happy I tried. I couldn't bring myself to plant them under the dead tree. I didn't want to pass by them and cry, instead of smile.

This winter, when things were the worst and everything was cold. I dreamed of flowers. I didn't want to live without them anymore. And I told myself this year I would plant more. Not as gravestones to people I lost, but as celebrations of them. And some, hell some I'd plant just for me. I'd plant so many that people would drive by and stare. Just wonder out loud how one woman could handle so much beauty.

I have planted a lot of flowers this spring. I hope a lot of them make it and thrive. I have sunflowers in buckets and dahlias started by friends. I have planted annuals in pots and watched perennials return. I have calendula to move out front, and cosmo seedlings. I kept watch over the daffodils and lilacs, bringing them inside to fill the house with their light. Now I am awaiting peony blossoms big as dinner plates and wild Lillies near the road. There's moonflower seedlings in an old yogurt container, and more seeds to plant. What the hell, life is short and if you can surround yourself with beautiful things, why not make the effort? Why not choose poetry?

I've upheld a decent grief for the women I lost, in all types of relationships, and I think the flowers are a part of moving on. Not planted in some milestone of forgetting, but as living memories. I plant annuals for my mom, and scattered wildflowers for Idaho, and I planted sunflowers on my friend's birthday. Because we do lose people, and flowers do die, but that doesn't mean you can't see something beautiful because it's temporary, not in spite of it. Maybe I'll plant bleeding hearts here just for me. If I do, I'll make sure some are near the trash cans.

And I have planted morning glories again, in the garden bucket but also under the dead tree. And I hope that by the time July comes this place is so beautiful that I can't stand it. And I know when I pass by the vines blooming under that trunk, I will smile. Because sometimes a flower can be an answered prayer, and I'm nothing if not a sucker for metaphor.

I guess we'll see.


I was asked to write about flowers. Thank you, Jean, for suggesting it.

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