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Transactions with Beauty.
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- Shawna

 

 

Literary Geraniums and Teaching Yourself Joy

Literary Geraniums and Teaching Yourself Joy

When you start to notice a thing, suddenly it seems abundant. I’m not sure when I started taking note of geraniums in literature. Or in life. They were the flower that everyone planted when I was a kid. They were cheap, hardy, and you could take slips and grow more. They could be overwintered if you had space for them in a windowsill. Back then they were either bright red or bright pink. When I had my own garden I vowed to never plant anything so dull and ubiquitous as geraniums. 

As it turns out I rather love them now. I remember seeing them in Italy on our honeymoon 25 years ago, and being surprised, that such a beautiful and refined place would have such mundane flowers. I know better now. 

Here they are in a passage from a Barbara Kingsolver essay:

“In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.” 

― Barbara Kingsolver from High Tide in Tucson

I love the idea that it is the geranium, a “single glorious thing” that teaches joy. 

And there are geraniums in some of my favourite books. You’ll find them in Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector. And here in Marilynne Robinsons’ incredible Lila

“She thought, if we stay here, soon enough it will be you sitting at the table and me, I don't know, cooking something, and the snow flying, and the old man so glad we're here he'll be off in his study praying about it. And geraniums in the window. Red ones.” 

― Marilynne Robinson from Lila

 

geranium

I’m sure we’ve all wanted to sit in a flowerpot at one point or another in our life. 

“Let me sit in a flowerpot,
The spiders won't notice. 
My heart is a stopped geranium.”

– Sylvia Plath, from “Poem for a Birthday” 

Quite some time ago, I bookmarked a poem by Kate Northrop, because it’s both about a single pink geranium, and about looking at things, and the way we can measure ourselves against such things, such moments. 

It begins: 


How can you stand it—looking at things?
For example, the geranium

out on the patio, the single pink
blossom in the sun? Or stand the sunlight
moving through it,

illuminating, holding the flower open like a high
clear note, an ecstatic
widening

which arrives, arrives. What
do you do with it?

{you can read the rest of the poem here}

 

geranium

Lastly, there’s the Theodore Roethke poem called, “The Geranium” which probably maybe wouldn’t get written in today’s world. And maybe it’s worth looking at for that reason alone. Roethke’s geranium is a she, and a badly treated one at that. We can read her as both geranium and woman, and then there’s the speaker of the poem to consider vs the author of the poem. It strikes me as very real. The horrible way the plant is treated, tossed out, regretted. We wish the geranium to have more power, we wish for it a kinder windowsill. 

It begins like this: 

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine--
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer...

 

{continue reading here}

I’m sure there is much sadness attached to the literary geranium, but there are also so many lessons to be learned from their steadiness and perseverance. In their very persistence and brightness. 

My question for you today, borrowing words from Kingsolver:

Why not teach yourself joy by looking at a single glorious thing? 

Endless Small Adjustments of Balance

Endless Small Adjustments of Balance

Your Work is a Thread

Your Work is a Thread