Last week, my friend Karen was looking at my Instagram feed and asked, "What's with all the flowers?"
What IS with all the flowers? I found myself wondering. Surely there are other things that will strike my eye, I thought.
So, for the past seven days, every morning and evening as I walked, I found myself looking for other things to photograph. But all I ended up taking pictures of were flowers.
I had to ask myself why.
I photograph as I walk as part of my daily practice of joy. I do this because it's so easy to get distracted. To walk for an hour or two and feel like I really wasn't present at all. Like my feet were on the ground, but my mind was someplace else altogether.
So I photograph because it makes me look deeply. I photograph because it makes me appreciate right where I am. I photograph because it teaches me how to see the beauty and uniqueness of each neighborhood or part of the country. I photography because, ultimately, all that being present keeps me present in joy.
For the past month, I have been in two parts of the country where the hydrangea have been in riotous bloom. And I can't help myself. Every time I see one of those big beautiful bushes filled with huge balls of deep petaled color, I smile! And when one strikes me as particularly beautiful in its shape or size or color, I photograph it.
Admittedly, I've taken a lot of pictures of hydrangea this past month.
In the wee hours of this morning, as I was lying wide awake alternating between trying to meditate and pray and stewing about the state of the world, I heard myself say to myself, "You're remembering how to be present in joy one hydrangea at a time."
I couldn't help but smile at that. It was so true.
Eventually I fell back asleep with visions of plump hydrangea dancing through my head.
This week, as I have been thinking about why I photograph flowers -- and why I've been so enamored of hydrangea in particular -- I realized two things.
The first is quite simple. For the past twenty five years, my home base has been the Desert Southwest. We don't have long flowering seasons of lush flowers like hydrangea. So to walk under tall leafy canopies of green leaves and be surrounded by huge bushes of brightly-colored flowers in a source of awe and joy. I photograph the hydrangea because I can't help myself. They just make me happy -- and I want to share that feeling.
I also realized that, over the past two plus years of my intentional homelessness, this has happened quite a bit. A couple of springs ago, I was in a neighborhood near here filled with the most beautiful iris. I was obsessed with those iris -- taking countless photos not only of them, but posing my poor longsuffering Allie in front of flower after flower. I adored them and couldn't help myself. Every iris brought me immense joy.
I am totally like that Iris Murdoch quote I adore -- I am mad with joy all the time to have these beautiful flowers all around me!
The second reason, I realized, is a bit more somber in origin.
My mother was a costume designer -- and she raised me the way she designed a Broadway show or a Hollywood movie: To look the part (whatever that was) and to make the most of my assets and hide my problems.
By the time I was five or six, I knew that I was high waisted with big ears and a nose that was going to become problematic as I got older. I had horrible posture that she was always trying to correct, but I did have long legs. My hair was a pretty golden blond, but it was far too thin for her liking. She taught me what kinds of clothes to wear and in what colors so I could look my best, and what never to wear or let anyone see.
I remember when I was about thirteen, my mother said to me, "Whatever anyone can say might be wrong with you, no one can say you don't have nice legs."
The net result of all this was that I was always uncomfortable in my own skin, always saw all of my flaws first and foremost, and have been self-critical my whole life.
But my mother's powers of observation weren't just focused on me. She did this with everyone she met -- and shared it with me. "She would look so much better if she just. . ." She also did it with houses, neighborhoods, and whole cities. She was a huge proponent of historic preservation, of old growth trees, and of using color schemes and materials that reflected the environment long before that kind of innovative holistic thinking became the norm. But she was also quick to criticize when someone failed.
I have gone through my whole life both blessed and cursed with my mother's voice in my head. As a designer, an art dealer, and as someone who goes out on a stage to speak in front of large groups of people, I have often been grateful for her teachings. But the darker side is that self-critical voice. For years I have struggled with my judgment of myself and of others. And that has never brought me joy.
This week, however, I realized that my daily practice of photographing what brings me joy has almost eradicated that propensity toward nasty judgment. My practice keeps me so focused on beauty that I don't look at the house that might well do with a paint job or a better color scheme or cleaning up their cluttered yard. I am too busy appreciating beauty to see anything else.
How I love that! I feel like a different person since beginning this practice. So much looser and freer and so much more full of joy and appreciation and presence.
So this morning, when I couldn't sleep because I was stewing about the state of the world, and I heard. "You're remembering how to be present in joy one hydrangea at a time. . ." -- I suddenly realized that, if this practice of appreciating beauty could get my omnipresent mother out of my head, it could certainly shift me out of the stress I've been feeling about the world.
I fundamentally and fully believe that there is a Greater Good that is the underlying Reality of all things. I forget that when I become fixated on what I read in the papers. I remember it when I become focused on the beauty of hydrangea or iris or sunflowers.
Sometimes I am tricked into believing that this is a pie-in-the-sky fluffy way of thinking. That the things of the world are far more earnest and important than mere flowers. But this morning I realized that that simply is not true.
This is summer -- and the hydrangeas are here now in all their blues and pinks and whites. I know they will not be here come winter, and so I take the time to appreciate them now.
So too, this dismal and disturbing global state of affairs is unfortunately here now. But it will not last either. I forget that. I become so fixated on what is wrong that I start worrying that this is going to last forever. It won't. The consequences of what is happening now may take a bit longer than a season to undo, but they will get undone. Good will prevail over evil. Love will always win over hate. Kindness will always outlast anger. This winter of our world will end, and the flowers of good and love and kindness will bloom again.
But only if we resist being suckered into the mentality that would have us believe that evil and hate and anger can win.
So how do we do that? By refusing to stop seeing the beauty and joy and kindness and love and good in everyone we meet, in every place we go, in every encounter we have.
By practicing joy and sharing it . . . one hydrangea at a time.