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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Lessons in a flower

by John Brummett | June 9, 2021 at 3:22 a.m.

Maybe today's change of pace will connect more broadly than politics. Maybe the late-winter arctic blast in Arkansas performed a hit-and-run on your gardenia bushes too.

This is the parable of the freeze-browned landscape blight.

We have large gardenia bushes anchoring two corners of our backyard. A couple of years ago, I posted on social media a photograph showing them laden, literally, with blooms. I reported that an obsessive person also living here had counted 300 or some such number on one of them, not including the dozens inside the house in vases and the couple nestled in her curly hair.

So, there was the night of a low of zero followed by a day of a single-digit high. And it wasn't that different the day before and day after.

We'd covered the hydrangeas. They have expressed their appreciation in a purple and powder-blue bounty. But it would have required a baseball infield's tarpaulin to cover the gardenia bushes. They stood bare naked against the cold.

They spent the spring in a drab, sad, ugly dormancy of brown. I, always living in fast-forward, pronounced them dead.

The experts, including one residing here, said not necessarily. The brown-bearing branches didn't snap and there was green inside, she demonstrated.

Yet the bushes stayed drab, sad and ugly through April and May. Jungle-like growth took place otherwise all around them. The hosta plants grew to man-eatingly large. We lost the beagle Roscoe one day as he napped under one.

I accepted nature's fate. "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact," the poet Springsteen sings.

I pondered how long it would require to take down these expansive bushes when the inevitable truth got faced by naïve others, and whether to put new gardenias in their place.

That's not to say such decision are remotely mine alone, or at all. It's just the way I am--ever-ready to attend expeditiously to reality, always thinking of what needs to be done because time is ever-wasting.

But then, as May turned to June, flecks of shiny little leaves began to appear on both bushes. She said, "See." And I thought, yeah, we're going to have big bushes 90 percent drab, sad and ugly and 10 percent dotted with green.

But then, each day, the shiny green dots became more pronounced. On Saturday, I peered from the deck and proclaimed--acknowledged would be the better word--that these were again full and active gardenia bushes.

So, on Sunday morning, I put down the newspaper and walked toward the gardenias. On one, I saw more than leaves. I saw a bud. A little white strip was trying hard to free itself. I proceeded to the other bush. I did not see a bud. But then I saw, on the back side, nestled against the fence, a flower, a mere heroic single where once had been--and maybe will again be--300 or so, or even more.

The lessons are many.

There is the one about the virtue of patience, which I have never had and have often considered counterproductive to accomplishment. Four newspaper columns a week don't get written by patience, I'd always liked to say. How are you supposed to live with the passivity of patience while planning responsibly for the future? I always liked to ask that also. Still will, probably. Any personal reform forged from this parable will be at most incremental, I suspect.

There is the lesson about the beauty of resilience and regeneration and of getting better after severe wounding.

And maybe--just maybe, at risk of going too far--the freeze-browned gardenia bushes can represent American politics and culture.

I've been about ready lately to give up on that, too--to its too-far-gone polarization, misinformation, tribalism, resentment, demonization and hatred, and to its seemingly irreparable dysfunction.

It has seemed about time to cut down American politics, dig it up by its roots and discard it to the alley for the yard-waste pickup.

But American politics is a reflection of the people, and maybe the people as branches aren't yet brittle. Maybe there's American life inside the drab, sad, ugly brownness of America's governance. Maybe there's resilience and regeneration within us. Maybe we can rise from these wounds to produce flecks of life in our nation and its political institutions.

There might even be something in this parable about our souls.

I'm not saying a spiritual force was speaking to me through a gardenia bush Sunday morning. But, in case it was, I'm going to try to listen.

"But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." That's the rest of the song lyric.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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