catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 7 :: 2012.03.30 — 2012.04.12


Blooms, dreams, roots, wings, aging and other things

Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.

Song of Solomon 2:15

“Bloom where you are planted.”   “Children need roots and wings.”   These common aphorisms, in sharp and often tenuous philosophical balance, are and have been significant watchwords for me along the path to spiritual maturity, much like the bygone roadside advertisements for Burma Shave®.  Artistic renderings of these maxims appear to pop up whenever it seems I need a reminder of simpler times, of either principle — or both.  Just recently, as I was going through old family photographs, I came across a column written over thirty years ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer by my late godfather, Tom Fox, Jr.  The title of that column is “Roots and Wings,” as a loving tribute to my late grandmother, Ruby Walsh Fox, whose wit and wisdom helped to anchor these particular truisms in my life.

Demonstrating my deep affection for both of them is actually getting a little bit ahead of the story. This story actually begins when and where I first encountered the mystery of environmental awareness, where God whispers gently and with a wink. A brightly colored cardboard poster, emblazoned with the phrase, “Bloom where you are planted, was thumb-tacked to a corkboard strip above a bank of windows in my ninth grade religion class. Spring had arrived in New Orleans, and it wasn’t yet sticky hot, but rather balmy, and occasionally cool. An intermittent breeze swept in through the jalousie windows, rustling papers that were stacked in neat piles over the marble ledge parallel to the large baseboard heating unit in class. Break time had arrived, and not being one to enjoy getting swept up by the rush of shoved, huddled bodies in the hallway during the mad dash bladder dance to waiting in line cross-legged for the three-stall bathroom with only giggly girlie gossip to entertain, I stayed behind in the classroom, to ponder. When you’re empty, there’s much to ponder. While other students were counting the days until school would end, I was wishing for it to go on forever. Once the school year ended, I would be living with my parents again, and saying good-bye to the relative peace and tranquility of my upbringing as a paradoxical only child in my grandmother’s home. Another location, old-yet-new siblings to embrace, a new set of standards, a different family culture — it all frightened me, and I was not looking forward to the change. Most of the time, I just tried to keep it out of my mind.

But here I was, on the don’t-need-the-bathroom break, sort of daydreaming that I might not have to face the inevitable (change that is), and my eyes were magnetically drawn to the Peter Max-style poster with the pop-art cartoon flowers and bubbly balloon type-face letters in shades of electric green, teal, purple, orange and pink. The cartoon flowers sketched at the bottom stood out in stark contrast from the shiny black background, and from the sunny visage out the classroom window. I could smell the sweet aroma of azaleas, the quasi-wild kind that haven’t had the scent bred out of them in favor of other growing attributes. There was delight and amusement in seeing funny cartoon flowers, yet being able to smell flowers I could not see, and smelling the kind of flowers that some would say are incapable of even producing a scent.

Then I noticed the black on the poster. The shiny black. The sleek black. The defiant, proud black. The kind of glitzy black enamel that throws back beams of sunlight. The kind of black that you find on the most swank high-powered motorcycles, and yes, even polished hearses. I pondered the irony of the image: vivid colors and high definition art that seem to imply speed and going somewhere — fast. As I savored the words, something in my mind fell deep into my heart. Yes, I would be going places, but whether or not I thrived would depend on my own attitude.  The poster was not a prophetic prompt to dig in my heels and fight harder against the changes that were coming, but to choose to do well, despite those challenges.

Following the move, there were indeed many challenges, not the least of which were financial. Both of my parents worked, and sometimes two jobs each to keep things afloat. We lived in what had become a rough and tumble neighborhood. I learned a lot about faith, and the beginnings of the cost of discipleship when I tried to live apart from the gang-style goings on in our neighborhood. Branded a geek and a priss (long before being a geek was cause for prestige and privilege), I was marked as particularly precious prey to satisfy the malicious motives of the neighborhood gang members.

One afternoon, as I walked home from the school bus stop a few blocks away, I was ambushed.  A medium-length jackknife, poised at the hip by a cowardly enemy, was opened and flung underhand from about five feet away.  Razor sharp, it entered my abdomen with such speed and precision that I barely felt it. I wondered whether I’d been bitten by a mosquito. That was, until I heard the evil laughter and saw them, the gang that is, scattering, running away, just as I felt blood beginning to trickle down my leg and pool into my shoe. Thank God, my Dad worked nights, and he was at home when this happened. He drove like a mad man to get me to the hospital. It was during that fateful car ride to the emergency room that I gave my life — unreservedly — to Christ.

When I woke up in the intensive care unit, I was indeed grateful to be alive, but in so much pain. Just how hard did I want to work to stay alive? I knew I would have to, because I had asked for the gift of life. But, I didn’t want to go back to the hellish environment I had come from. I grieved and longed for the joyful days at my old private school where the worst offense generally consisted of things like rolling up your uniform skirt shorter to show more knee or having the audacity to wear your boyfriend’s ring on a chain around your neck. Chains were to hold cross pendants, devotional medals and the like. And necks, well, they certainly were not for “necking” — at least not with the neighborhood boys. Whereas we were instructed to read the Bible reverently and with great regularity (we even had a required course in Sacred Scripture), my ninth grade hard cover St. Joseph edition of the New American Bible might just as well have had a “do not enter” sticker placed on the first page of the book of the Song of Solomon. That, we were instructed, was for married couples only. “So why must priests study the book in seminary? They’re not married.” Wisecracks like that were considered enough evidence of sacrilege and disobedience to get you kicked out. And getting kicked out of one of the finest Catholic girls’ schools in town was definitely not my modus operandi.

While in the hospital, my m.o. had simply become keeping the faith and staying alive, as I remembered the aphorism, Bloom where you are planted. In that year, 1975, I want to say that almost everywhere I turned I kept seeing that slogan plastered on this, that or the other thing. Everywhere. Just everywhere. Almost like a Starbucks on every second corner. And just as a Starbucks on every second corner can be a grave temptation for a caffeine junkie (yes, kind of like me these days), temptation to despair seemed to be lurking everywhere, especially in the shadows of my juvenile mind.  Would I ever really make it out of the mess of my neighborhood and my life? All I really had to cling to was my old St. Joseph edition Bible, and the slogan, Bloom where you are planted. Somehow, faith was there to arise, with the conviction that soon I’d be blooming somewhere else.  Change can be good, but change and fear are far too common as bedfellows.

And that good change did come to pass: getting well, getting up out of that hospital bed, and back into the thick of life.  I still had to go through some things and recuperation from the emotional impact of the trauma was long. But after I graduated from high school, I went to live with my godparents, to attend an old-fashioned Catholic hospital diploma school of nursing. Although not without its own kind of cultural and academic challenges, nursing school was a place in which I did thrive.

And it was while I was in nursing school, that I re-encountered the adage, “Children need roots and wings.” My grandmother routinely remarked on it, my godfather (and uncle) regaled us with it, and I suppose if I hadn’t been so busy with schoolwork, I would have pondered it more deeply back then. But on a profound interior level, this message became embedded in my psyche and became part of my own ethos. And, don’t you know it, that message met me through art at so many turns in the journey!

When my grandmother died in 1979, my godfather inherited one of her favorite things: an inexpensive “dime store” plaque with a poem about roots and wings. Although we didn’t have my grandmother around to verbally remind us about the importance of such things, we could remember her, and the significance of that message — roots and wings — whenever we would look at the plaque. In the days before I left home to be married and to have a home of my very own, time was spent tenderly peering over the plaque, cherishing the memory of my grandmother, her wisdom and her many lessons, and with the prayer that I could be the kind of parent who would someday give a child roots and wings.

I was already a wife and mother when I inherited the plaque after my godfather’s death in 1989. It’s been afforded a place of honor on a bookshelf, amid other family treasures. Seeing the plaque brought me some strength and some solace during the months my son served with the Indiana National Guard in Iraq. I trusted God for his safe return — whole in mind and body — knowing that by God’s grace and through prayer, we had given him rooting and grounding in love (Ephesians 3:17) of God, family, neighbor and country. The time had come to give wings, that is to entrust his care to God alone, who would choose the right kind of travels and direction in life for him, and in whose own wings alone he would find refuge, comfort and protection (Ruth 2:2, Psalm 17:8, Psalm 91).  Let me say that prayers for our son’s protection, lifted up in abundance by so many in our community of faith, met with God’s favor, and we received our son back home, healthy and whole, upon the completion of his tour of duty overseas.

Since then, the messages bloom where you are planted and roots and wings, have been resurfacing to refresh my memory and strengthen me on this next leg of life’s journey. Soon after I found the clipping of Unk’s column, I was organizing some things in a desk drawer, and found a cheery note card with Mary Englebreit’s trademark art work on it, that says — you guessed it — Bloom where you are planted! Then, while I was out leisure shopping at a local thrift store (yes, I admit it, I like the thrill of the hunt, but for pennies, not big dollars), I found a Victorian garden motif picture frame, thoroughly modern, crafted in resin, in bas relief with three-dimensional gardening tools in muted cool pale pastel tones. Wow! My heart soared.  Here was another visual call, not to dig in with both my heels in an attempt to stay put, but a call to forage forward in faith, to move ahead in spiritual maturity, by going where God leads, and not to let “the little foxes that spoil the vine” get in the way of blooming where I will be planted next. 

“Whom,” do you ask, “are the little foxes who spoil the vine?”  Me, myself and I, or maybe you, yourself and you-who. The false trinity of the flesh likes to get in cahoots with fear, stubbornness and pride to make us yearn to stay put. Then there are those naysayers out there who want to trample on faith by saying things like, “What, at your age? Aren’t you ready to retire?” Simply put, “No!” Although I may have earned the privilege of lingering over the verses in the Song of Songs openly, in broad daylight, in full public view, without the use of a quilted Bible cover to conceal the zeal I have for Solomon’s description of marital love, not to mention the unabated passion I have for my husband of nearly 30 years.  I’m not quite ready for what so many of my age peers (the fifty-something crowd) would like to do — retire early. (Now, if we’re talking about the boudoir kind of retiring that inspired Solomon to pen those sultry verses — that’s welcomed!)

I want to take my cues from Abraham, Moses and Grandma Moses. “Come grow old with me…the best is yet to be!”  Maybe I’ll just take that slogan and create an artsy cue of my own, a work of heart to inspire another companion on the journey who fears the changes heralded by smile lines and gray hair.  Or maybe what’s needed is a Burma-style jingle of my own:

Does your skin…tend to sag…beneath your eyes…in little bags …

Don’t let fear…get in the way…you’ve just become…OLD and GRAY

your comments

comments powered by Disqus