|Stop And See The Roses
2004 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt
There is a small hill—just a bank really—along an obscure stretch of a nearby highway that is covered with a purple-flowering ice plant. During the spring this creeping succulent produces luminous, flame-bright lavender blossoms, wrapping the otherwise unnoticeable patch of earth in a spectacular blanket of glowing beauty. The hill borders an exit from the highway that I commonly take to get to my grandmother’s house, commonly accompanied by my grandmother, as we embark upon or return from the day’s errands. When in full bloom, the breathtaking spectacle is impossible not to notice. Yet, despite passing by here two, three, twenty times a day, in my standard state of distraction I have utterly failed to take notice every time. Today, though, thanks entirely to my Grandmother, I am seeing it for the first time.
I am regularly guilty of indifference, of malaise, of a lack of focus, of inexplicable preoccupation, though I am not alone. Ours is a myopic society obsessed with work and personal gain. Who can say when it happened, but we have been transformed from a people who once treasured life, liberty, and happiness into a sightless throng of workaholics, wholly dedicated to riches, possessions, and individual success, success that is greatly measured by the accumulation of these riches and possessions. We define ourselves and each other less on merit and character than on the size of one’s home, the proliferation of one’s gadgetry and the cost of one’s shoes. One discordant trend is how we seem to place less value on an individual who dedicates her life to charity than to one who drives a car with terrible gas mileage. Having long since lost sight of arcane concepts like free time, rest and relaxation, we now look for the most efficient way to fill our “downtime.” I understand that ambition, dedication and positive work ethics are beneficial and necessary toward shaping a sound and prosperous society, but at what cost? Is it a mere coincidence, or an increasingly harsh reality that in more and more households the number of heart attacks suffered exceeds the number of hugs exchanged between loved ones? When is the last time you paused to watch the sunset? When is the last time you walked barefoot through the grass? Have you ever eaten a piece of fruit taken directly from the tree? Can you even remember the last time you simply took a walk?
While writing these words I am aware that I too have succumbed to the illness of material preoccupation. As indicated, I frequently pass by one of the more understatedly beautiful sights in this part of the world without giving it a thought. My grandmother, however, has never once failed to notice it.
“Look how beautiful,” she says, as she has always said, every one of the past several-hundred times we have traveled this route in the past year. As she will continue to say every one of the several-thousand times we will travel this route in the next several decades, or until I die of a heart attack. At every passing joy and surprise fill my grandmother’s voice, expressing a renewed appreciation, as if with each sighting a pristine blessing is bestowed upon her; upon us. Remaining true to tradition I don’t look. I am thinking about something else, something of monumental significance doubtlessly, something from which I cannot tear my attention, especially for...what...flowers? I hear my grandmother’s comment, and it registers in that part of my brain that is still receptive to outside noise, but I block it, as usual, absorbed as I am with whatever important worldly issues. Until she says it again.
I almost shatter a tooth at this point. More than annoyed about being distracted from my private self-absorption, I nearly drive us off the road as I turn to convey my irritation, when suddenly it happens. Quite unexpectedly, after countless trips down this same road, I am finally struck by the true beauty of the place. The colors are so bright, so striking, the whole effect seems as though it must be artificial. How can something so amazing, yes, something so beautiful, just appear here on this untended mound of dirt? The blooms leap out from the side of the hill, presenting a veritable fireworks display of crimson and purple. I am stunned to be observing something this extraordinary that has eluded me for so long despite being right under my nose, or rather right outside my window. How am I seeing it today after all this time and all the outings? Well, today I actually looked.
Why today? What has changed? Nothing. The scene is the same, the players the same, same car, same overly-impacted agenda, same stupid ice-plant. So what is so dramatically different?
The familiar incident, with a strange new ending, replays itself in my head.
“Look how beautiful,” announces my grandmother for what must have been the six-hundredth time in as many passings. My grip on the steering wheel tightens, along with my jaw. Unnecessary and inexplicable feeling like anger wells up from some part of me that I do not understand, a part which I cannot control, a part of which I am now ashamed. Rushing from one appointment to another, we have an incalculable number of things to do, and I’ve got twice that many things currently on my mind. On top of that, I am actively engaged in the latest craze sweeping the nation called “Trying-to-Keep-from-Getting-Killed-on-the-Highway,” and what I cannot have, at this particular moment, is someone troubling me with a lot of talk about beautiful flowers. Beautiful flowers?
As I relive the event, it occurs to me what is different, why I am taking notice for the first time. I didn’t just look today, I also listened. Not to the words, “look at the beautiful flowers,” I regularly hear and dismiss the words before they can even graze my attention. The words aren’t important. It’s not what Grandma says but what she means. She’s not just saying it to make polite, meaningless conversation, she really wants me to look. She sees something beautiful, and she wants others to see it.
A light comes on.
It finally hits me that there are still people out there who are inclined to noticing the beauty in the world. I am thrown by the realization that something so simple, so modest could mean this much to someone. My grandmother does not own a cell phone. My grandmother does not own a computer. She does not, and will never own a DVD player, plasma television, or global-positioning system. But she does know the names of her neighbors, remembers everyone’s birthday and regularly gives houseplants to people, not as gifts for special occasions, but because she thinks they’re pretty. She tells me, or rather she tells no one in particular—because I believe it is an impulse at this point—to look at the beautiful flowers because she wants others to see the beautiful flowers. She wants to share this glorious vision with someone, with everyone. I can now barely comprehend a time (five minutes ago) when I would become upset with this remarkable woman for attempting to draw my attention toward something beautiful. Today, for the first time, I listened to my Grandmother, and looked at the flowers.
Henry David Thoreau once appealed to the human race to
“simplify.” He advises us to cast off the bonds of an overly-complicated
and constricting existence, and embrace a simpler, more meaningful, and
more fulfilling way of life. In a world that has spawned cosmetic laser
surgery and the internet, it is very likely too late for us. We may have
sunk too far in our evolution and become too dependent on our cell phones,
laptop computers, and SUVs. I doubt whether more than a handful of us today
could even survive, much less enjoy ourselves and flourish within Thoreau’s
backwater utopia. Would any among us trade our television for an unobscured
sunset, give up our compact-disk players for the hypnotic melody of nature,
relinquish our dependence on answering machines, automated tellers and
home-delivered pizza for self-reliance? Not likely. We have lost some,
or all of our ability to embrace the incredible world that surrounds us,
though we aren’t necessarily hopeless. Despite our absurd quest for success
and excess, we needn’t be blinded toward life’s little miracles. Of increasing
importance, in the age of material and technological overindulgence, is
a need to remember what truly matters, what truly warms the heart and moves
the soul: the love of family, an awareness of, if not an appreciation for
nature, and the straightforward advice of a learned matriarch. The next
time a bird lands outside your window, the next time you pass within sight
of the ocean, the next time the sun reflects through the clouds just so,
the next time a loved one points out a flower covered hill, take a look
at it. Take, find, or make the time to honestly look. If unable or unwilling—as
we increasingly are—to actually stop and smell the roses, then may we find
the patience and good sense to at least give them a look.
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