You Shall Plant Bulbs: Thoughts on Beauty and Healing

You Shall Plant Bulbs: Thoughts on Beauty and Healing

When we were temporarily homeless these bulbs arrived which I’d ordered in the spring. We made a trip back to our house to plant them. An act of making and hope for spring in a dismal autumn of darkness and distress.

I woke up this morning with a phrase from my dream burning in my mind and needing to be written down: You shall plant bulbs.

And suddenly, like an explosion, a whole bunch of things I’ve been pondering for a while have come together at once.

Most recently, a meme that some of friends were discussing, it said: “It takes years to recover from burnout. Not a day. Not a weekend. Not a week.” Which isn’t wrong. But then it went on to advise: “Whatever you do, don’t continue to work through it.” And while there may be a kernel of wisdom if you’re talking about burnout from a job that’s a terrible fit and IF you have the option and the economic freedom to be able to move to a different, less stressful job, then certainly that’s not bad advice. I have quit a job when it was wrecking my health– I was young, unmarried, had savings. I could afford that luxury.

And yet. And yet. Many people don’t have the option to walk away. And what if the job that you are burned out from is the care of your family, the tending of a sick or dying relative, the raising of children? The essential “jobs” that we cannot abandon. In the end, I concluded, the advice to stop working is exactly the opposite of what those burned out people must really need. But then what DO they need? What does healing look like? How do you survive when you feel like you are a burnt out shell and have nothing left to give?

Gold in the Broken Places: Art is the Answer to Trauma

Last night I was watching a video conversation between poet Dana Gioia and artist Makoto Fujimura about art and trauma. Makoto Fujimura says that art is the answer to the greatest of life’s questions: Why live? And finding beauty, making beauty, is the answer to trauma.

He talked about kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken things and filling in the broken areas with gold, making the broken things more precious than before they were broken. And how before the mending happens, contemplation happens, you behold the fragments, pay attention, see them. Beholding precedes repair and healing. And the broken places are made into the most beautiful. Art allows us to consider things that would be intolerable without the consolations of beauty.

And I thought of my friend whose life has exploded in her face– parents dead, marriage broken, children in crisis– making jewelry, making necklaces named after wronged women. Art allows us to contemplate our woundedness and to make the broken places beautiful. Artemesia Gentileschi painting pictures of wronged women fighting back against their oppressors was how she dealt with the trauma of abuse.

Build Ye Houses and Dwell in them, Plant Ye Gardens, and Eat the Fruit of Them

There’s this Bible verse I’ve been pondering. I’ve been pondering and contemplating and wondering why it is haunting me. Jeremiah 29: 4-7. It’s a verse that has come to me several times in the past few weeks in various forms: offered as a verse for lectio divina, discussed on podcasts about gardening and contemplation. (The Anselm Society’s Imagination Redeemed Podcasts have been feeding my creative soul.) Essentially, when the people of Israel are ripped away from their land and sent into exile God commands them to build houses there and to plant gardens and to marry and raise families.

And I’m realizing now why it keeps coming to me. God’s answer to the trauma of exile is to tell his people to not be afraid to put down roots there in the land of exile. Not to be afraid to build, there, there in the city of their captors, in the place of their trauma– even though they know that this is not their final homeland, even though they are mourning the homes that have been ripped away from them. Be makers, God says to the refugees and exiles, to the slaves and the conquered, to the abused and traumatized. Make homes, make gardens, tending them. And I think this also implies all the daily and seasonal rituals of planting and harvesting, of cooking and eating. The tasks of homemaking and cultivating. These tasks are the proper tasks of the traumatized. Because making is healing.

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

Making Is Healing, Making is Civilization and Culture

Making– making art and making homes and making gardens and making families– this is the bedrock of culture, of civilization. And it is also the only answer to the most critical question of all: Why live? Making. Making beauty.

Making is the way that humans heal from trauma. Making families, marrying, having children, watching your children grow up and marry and start their own families. This is how we heal from trauma.

Making poetry, songs and stories, telling the stories of our wounds, telling the stories of our exile from the homeland we long for, telling the stories of our trauma. This is how humans heal from trauma.

Making clothing, making jewelry, making pots and dishes and utensils– this is how we respond to our traumas. By carving stone, shaping clay, working metal, working fiber, smithing words– by the works of our hands, this is how humans have always healed from trauma. Not by avoiding work, but by doing the work.

By making the images of our wounds and contemplating those images, by making the things we need in our daily lives, not only the utilitarian, but the beautiful. Above all by making beauty. Beauty is the human soul’s triumph over trauma. Whether it be a song, a lullaby sung to a baby by a refugee mother on a boat, leaving the only home she’s ever known. Or a crayon drawing done by a child in a refugee camp. Or Odysseus telling his stories, or Odysseus weeping as the poet recounts the story of the war. Art therapy is the most ancient form of therapy.

All of our greatest art is a response to some trauma or other: to grief, to war, to exile, to heartbreak, to death. We go on because there is no other choice. We make art because it is in the making that we triumph. That is what it means to be human. It is what we are at root, from the beginning, in Genesis: namers, gardeners, makers. Co-creators.

Healing in the Garden, Contemplating Creation

But not just fine art and crafts. Beauty and contemplation of beauty in the ordinary and everyday is also healing. One doesn’t need to be an artist to be a maker. And one doesn’t need to be an artist to contemplate beauty and to be healed by it.

So I come back to planting gardens. Planting bulbs. A bulb is such a hopeful thing. It says I believe there will be spring again. Weeding, cultivating, preparing soil, getting dirt on our hands and under our nails, this is how humans respond to trauma.

In my dream the Israelites were returning to retrieve a cache of bulbs they had buried, stored by the shores of the sea after the crossed it, after they witnessed the deaths of Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers. After escaping with their lives, they made a store and later they returned to retrieve the bulbs so they could plant them in their new homes. Yes, I know this isn’t how the Bible story works, it was a dream. But it felt real and important.

And I think what is important about a garden isn’t just the plants we plant and cultivate. It’s emblematic of our contact and communion with the natural world. A garden isn’t only a place for work. It’s also a place for contemplation and healing.

We heal by beholding beauty, by paying attention. By seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Beauty arrests us, connects us. Contemplation of beauty is the beginning of art, the delight and instruction and consolation and remembrance of beauty. By naming the beauty that is around us. Learning the names of trees and flowers, birds and animals, weeds and rocks and dirt and dust, of stars and mountains, rivers and streams and ponds and clouds and of the various kinds of precipitation. Seeing and naming and weaving ourselves into the story of our local, here and now. This is both the beginning of art and the beginning of healing.

Everyday Making: the Liturgical Poetry of Making a Life

Doing the laundry, making dinner, making shopping lists, sweeping the floor, bathing your children, washing their muddy feet, these are all tiny acts of healing, of bringing order to chaos and hope to the hopeless. One foot in front of the other, crossing things off the to do list, one at a time. This isn’t drudgery– not if we have the right narrative: it’s creative work too, it’s making a home, making a family, these small acts of beauty and creativity right here under our fingers every day. They can be beautiful. They can be meaningful. They can be healing.

And finding ways to embellish our lives. Whether we sing as we work, of even compose new songs, or tell stories, we find ways to make art, to beautify that which we touch. To pick flowers and put them on the table. To mix perfumes. To look at sunsets. To stop and contemplate the beautiful. To put it into a painting or a poem or a blanket we are knitting. We make beautiful quilts not just to keep our families warm but to push back against the darkness, to give our children something beautiful to contemplate as they fall asleep or as they lie in a sickbed playing imaginative games in the land of counterpane.

This is a major theme in poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s beautiful memoir, A Ghost in the Throat. The daily litanies of making a list and crossing it out interwoven with the contemplation of art and beauty, of a poem. A poem which is a lament, a woman’s grief over the murder of her husband. How do we go on after tragedy? We sing, we work. We keep house, we lament. The two threads twine together until they are inseparable. Grief and grieving doesn’t require separation from daily tasks– well, yes, it does for the period of mourning immediately after death, for the keeping watch, the wake and the funeral– but after that period, it weaves itself into the rhythm of life. At first it appears as breaks. We collapse, we cry, we can’t go on. But then we gradually learn to work and cry at the same time. We lament, we mourn. Our grief begins to take form, to become a work of art. And that work becomes a part of the liturgy of daily life.

The Shield of Achilles

And finally I think about a lesson I learned thirty years ago, reading the Iliad as a freshman in college. I return to it and find the same meaning and yet it is so much deeper now. This is the Shield of Achilles, an object of ridiculous, superfluous beauty in the midst of the horrors of war. What is it doing here, this well-wrought image, this image of civilization and culture?

Made by Hephaestus in response to Thetis’ grief over her son’s wounds, it is art’s response to trauma. There is far more in Homer’s description than I can believe would fit on any shield. But perhaps that is my own failure of imagination. First, we see the glories of the heavens, the stars in their beauty. Then two cities, the city of war and of peace. We see the wedding feast, the bride led out, the matrons watching. We see a legal argument in the marketplace, the judges judging between two men who are quarreling. We see the city besieged and the defenders preparing a surprise attack. We see spies waiting in ambush and shepherds going to the water unaware of the trap. We see the wounded and the dead. And then we see the ploughman plowing a field, we see a field being harvested. We see the harvest feast. We see the vineyard. We see the procession of those carrying the fruits of the harvest to the sacrifice. We see herds of oxen. We see the hunt. We see flocks of sheep. We see youths and maidens dancing. And finally we see the ocean circling all.

The shield of Achilles is a microcosm of all of human society, placed between heaven and earth, bounded by the sea. All human labors, all the natural world and the civilized world, in beautiful harmony. Why does this microcosm intrude into bloody war? Because this is what we are fighting for, certainly, but also because this is what will heal the wounds of war: the restoration of cosmic order. We behold peace and war and see them in balance, we see all of life, and in beholding it, we are knit together again and made whole.

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  • Beautiful reflection, I strongly agree. I also find Isaiah 58.6-14 deep wisdom and consolation especially v8 ‘your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your wound will quickly be healed’ and v11-12 ‘you will be like a watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never run dry.
    Your ancient ruins will be rebuilt,
    constructed on foundations from generations past.
    You will be called the rebuilder of broken walls
    and the restorer of ruined streets and dwellings.’
    Also Ezekiel 47.12 ‘For its waters will go forth from the sanctuary. And its fruits will be for food, and its leaves will be for medicine.’
    Tending gardens and being in the natural world is healing, from the plant oestrogens that enliven us to the awe we experience at the cycle of seed life and the sweep of the seasons. The nature of God is creator and when we create we better align ourselves with God’s purpose in us. And it gives us peace. And joy.

    • I like those!

      “and your wound will quickly be healed” speaks to my heart.

      And: “You will be called the rebuilder of broken walls
      and the restorer of ruined streets and dwellings.’” Oh that sings. Thank you!

  • this is lovely and so packed with interesting ideas. have you read achilles in Vietnam? I also have Ethics of Beauty which I think you would appreciate. it has a lot to say about the connection between trauma and beauty.

  • I think you have thoroughly covered the richness of life. Mothers and homemakers are particularly blessed to have their lives filled with “chores” which are actually moments of creation.

    If we flee from those activities that create, that take effort, due to laziness, we risk being dissipated, depressed. I suspect that those women who hands-on beautify their homes, gardens, are not compulsive shoppers.

    The limitations of age cause us to feel useless because we have an innate need to build, mend, serve. The Little Sisters of the Poor have their residents help prepare their own meals, chatting happily together, useful again.