Memories of Peonies
All I know of peonies is a memory: I am young — not tall enough to see over the silver backyard fence separating our backyard from our next door neighbor’s, so I squeeze as much of my face as I can into the octagon spaces of the coiled iron to watch the ants crawl on the tight fists of the peonies. My next door neighbor told me a few days ago, when I ran to her to tell her that ants were all over her flowers and offered to hose them off, that the insects help the peonies bloom. The ants loosen the knots so the petals open up like cupped palms holding treasure and waiting for us to see what’s inside.
About 24 hours before the state of Michigan would declare that we can gather outside in unlimited capacity, I asked two of my friends if the morning run we were planning on could take us to the peony garden in Nickols Arboretum.
“I heard they were opening up,” I told them. I wasn’t thinking of the ants or my childhood memory. I was thinking that I am weary. I am exhausted. I was thinking that I feel fractured and that the phrase “opening up” feels scary.
I didn’t think the peonies that bloom just outside a troll and fairy forest would somehow settle me, or maybe I did and was afraid to admit that to my friends. Already I’d lamely apologized to them for being high maintenance. “I know it would take extra time,” I said. “I’ll drive us, because it’s my idea,” I offered. “It’s okay if this is too complicated,” I said.
It is easier for me to pass myself off as hyper-sensitive, high-maintenance, and dramatic than it is to say — even to my good friends — “I’m having a difficult time.”
Nevertheless, they agreed, and when we got to the garden one of my friends stopped clocking our mileage because she insisted we walk and take our time.
The three of us, like all the others that came to the opening, leaned in as close as we could, and it was then that I remembered my childhood memory. “Are these the flowers that need the ants?” I asked.
“Yes,” one of my friends said.
I pulled out my phone to take pictures.
“I can see you writing an essay about this,” one of my friends said, lifting a peony that had dropped because its petals were so heavy. “Look at this one,” she said, holding a pink puff with faint white ends that made the flower look like it was flickering with flames. I snapped a picture and ached a bit for a thing whose beauty was so heavy it drooped.
Other peonies flaunted light pink petals like wings, and in the center were shredded pedals the color of sweet cream. In the center of that was another pink blaze, again, not moving, but looking as if it could move if it wanted.
Not all of the peonies were in full bloom. Several were loosening up, their petals losing their grip on the beauty that wanted to get out. I noticed that the petals opened in a spiral and was reminded of Tania Runyan’s explanation of the sestina, and how the phrase “spiraling out of control,” doesn’t actually make sense because a spiral is a controlled form that allows us to slow down and maybe even pay attention to things that we normally move too fast for.
Later that day I was listening to a story on NPR about the upcoming opening and people’s reactions to it. Many cannot wait. Many of us are afraid. Many feel both anticipation and apprehension. I listened and I thought about the peonies, my friends who came with me to see them, and my proactive back-outs I offered to save them from saying, “No, we don’t want to do this. This is a dumb idea.”
I think I am always telling those close to me, “It’s okay if…” making excuses for how I am or how I feel. I think I am confusing opening up with being okay, that one precedes the other. If I’m okay, than I can open up.
I cannot think of a time when this has ever been the case. In fact, it’s in the opening, in what it is I’m revealing, that I learn that I’m okay. I suppose it is reckless to open and reveal what flickers and flames within, but the peonies can’t stop it. I’m grateful they cannot.
And I am grateful for the beings that help them bloom and for those that hold them up when their beauty is too much to bear.
This week write a poem of opening. What is waiting to be revealed? What has grown? What has changed now that we begin to step into the world again?
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If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.