Amateur Hour

Sometimes, a rose is more than a rose

I am an amateur gardener, a hit or miss tiller of the soil. I may talk the talk about bone meal and mushroom compost, but don't quiz me too closely. My successes are more likely to be accidents than the result of careful cultivation. The shoulder-high phlox and burgeoning loosestrife in my small perennial bed grew tall under their own steam. At the nursery, I head for the aisle marked "foolproof" or "never fail."

So when a green-thumbed friend brought me a trunk full of Lenten Roses thinned from her own enviable garden, I had my doubts. She showed me how to separate the thick clumps of roots and assured me that while the plants would look droopy for a while, they would eventually revive and flourish. Keep watering, she said. And don't lose hope.

I do. I haven't. Yet. The foliage is still looking tired, curling at the edges. I check the transplants daily, willing them to thrive. Some mornings, they look green and promising. Other days, they look like a mistake. They seem to know that they are in the hands of a beginner.

There's a metaphor here. Maybe more than one. What is a transplanted Lenten Rose? Why, it's the spiritual life, of course. A generous gift from a loving friend, but a gift that requires work. You have to turn over the soil. You have to be bold enough to cut a whole plant in two and believe that it will grow. You have to face a lot of brown-at-the-edges, flattened-out days. You have to acknowledge that you don't really know how to do this, and that you may have to start all over again.

And come to think of it, it's a metaphor for parenthood, another free gift that comes at immeasurable cost. The poet Gary Snyder observed that having a child in your house is like living with a Zen master. If you're paying attention, you learn patience, compassion, and selflessness. If you're not, there are other, less welcome lessons. What parent has not faced the consequences of leaving the weeds untended or failing to water the struggling shoots? Without encouragement and daily care, they wither before your eyes. The good news is that they are resilient. Given some wholehearted remediation, they can bounce back.

These Lenten Roses are surely the ultimate metaphor for the creative process. If you want results, you have to dig. You hit stones, and then you have to dig in another place. It's tiring. Your back hurts. Your mind hurts. Other people are better at this than you are. You sit down for a while in the shade and fantasize about the end product, the finished chapter, the lush blooms, the preening satisfaction. You imagine how it will be when you finally get it right, and you wonder, for the millionth time, why inspiration so often comes at the price of steady plodding.

And then one February morning, you wake up and walk out to get the mail and glance at the straggly bed under the juniper tree. And you stop short, because—against all odds—there are roses in bloom. Pale, faintly pink and white in the winter light, their leaves stand green and hardy against the surrounding frost. They were a gift on the April day you planted them, and they are a gift today. You kept watering. You didn't lose hope. Because of you, and in spite of you, they have come through.