One winter, when the new leaves weren’t even poking out of the ground, I became obsessed with the poppy. I scheduled a few days off from work way out in the spring, trying to predict bloom time. I liked the gambling aspect of it – who knows, in the dead of winter, which days to take off to see this tiny, unreported miracle? Something felt reckless about it. I know, total thrill seeker. Planning to use vacation time to do nothing but sit in a chair in the garden. And wondering, could I actually do it? It was like a weird mix of a nature outing, and a Zen retreat.
The week approached. My daughter saw the dates marked off on the calendar.
“What’s that, Mom?”
She thought for a while. “I need a clue.”
“Okay. I’ve taken a few days off to see something I’ve wanted to see for a while.”
She groaned. “Oh, Mom. Does this involve moving a chair out to the garden?”
This young person knows me so well.
“Couldn’t you just watch the garden, and call in sick or something when it gets close? It seems so embarrassing for you to tell the people at work about this.”
She didn’t know everything about me. She didn’t understand that it’s not just seeing the poppy pop, but the planning ahead, looking forward to it for months, imagining that I could schedule time in my busy life for a tiny little miracle. If it actually happened on the day that I guessed it would, well, wouldn’t that mean something, something good? My kids got used to the idea. I think they saw it as a victimless crime: their mother was a freak, but no one was especially damaged by it.
A friend asked me, “Is it more about the metaphor of the poppy opening? A symbol of new life ahead?” I thought about that for a minute, and realized, no, I’m not that complex. I really just want to see the poppy burst, watch it transform from a nodding stem with a sturdy closed hairy pod to a fully opened delicate crimson blossom. I wanted to know if it made a sound, I wanted to know if the pod cover shot off wildly, or dropped gently to the ground, I wanted to see the color of the freshest new petals, and watch them unfurl.
Another friend asked, “How likely is it that you’ll actually see a poppy burst?” “Well, if I sit right by it for a few days,” I started to reply. She looked pitying and protective as she said, in the gentlest way possible, “Oh Betsy, you mean there’s only one poppy?”
I thought about something that I’m occasionally obsessed by: Can you just pick things to care about? Is caring just a decision? I find this alternately comforting and alarming. Could I have decided to care about a mosquito hatch, or a dandelion turning to fluff? Or is there something innate about the object of the caring that demands my devotion?
For whatever reason, I had become fixated on seeing the poppy. And I find that for me, it’s hard to stop caring about something once I begin. I know this from having been married, and then stepping off the conveyor belt I’d been on for years, where I knew where I was going, what to do, and then, once off, reeling, spinning, looking for the horizon line so I would stop feeling so dizzy and nauseated, sick. Wanting to form a new life, but realizing there is no new life, just this one, and that I couldn’t exactly stop caring, it didn’t work that way. In fact, it seemed that my new job was to find the pieces of caring, the bones of what I used to love about my ex-husband, and polish them tenderly, guard them like I would my last tiny candle on a long dark night, because this is what we have left to raise our children by. We had hoped to build a huge warm hearth where our kids would know tenderness and love, and we couldn’t do that together, but maybe we could apart, if we didn’t throw water on the last few tiny dim embers.
But back to the poppy, with its nodding little pod, bent towards the earth. Would there be a sign when it was close to opening? Would the stem start to straighten up, reach towards the sky, or would that lightening occur after it opened? How long would it be between the time that I could see a tiny stripe of color peeking through a crack in the pod, and when the poppy would actually pop? A day, an hour?
A few days before my vigil, I took the kids out of town overnight to Leavenworth. This ersatz Tyrolean village, with its trinkets and cuckoo clocks, is my image of hell what hell would be, if I believed in that. I felt disoriented, wondering what I was doing here, why here, of all places, when the poppy was so close. But cancelling a trip because a flower might bloom at home seems to cross over the line from quirky in a harmless way to dysfunctional.
We arrived home after our trip to find a stripe of red peeking through a slat where the pod had spread open just a bit. I measure it with my ruler: 9 millimeters. I didn’t, as it turned out, have much patience for sitting still, which came as no surprise. I dashed around, doing various tasks, and running back to the poppy every so often to look, and to measure. Not really to enjoy, but to gather data. I thought that if movement were measurable with my plastic ruler, I should stay and watch, but if nothing seemed to be happening, I could run around and do things, and just check on the poppy every so often. Exactly like a Zen retreat, minus the meditative calm quality. Zen on meth.
At 10:30, I went to bed, after one final check. Still nine millimeters. I slept restlessly and dreamed of the poppy. I woke at 4 am, ran downstairs, and crept outside with a flashlight. Still closed. I crawled back in bed, but couldn’t sleep. At 4:30, I went out to check again, like some strange poppy midwife; it was dusky out, and bats were everywhere, returning to their daytime roosts. I felt like I was part of a dream, naked in the early dawn light, ice cold dew on my feet, bats swirling around, checking to see how labor was progressing for the poppy. Pod still closed. I went back to bed. This time, my feet ached with cold in a delicious way; the rest of my body was warm and relaxed. I felt like I’d waded across a cold mountain stream on a hot day. I fell into a sound sleep, and woke at 7:30. When I ran outside, dressed this time, I found the poppy fully open. I prowled around underneath the plant and found two of the three pod parts. I suspected that the pod had popped gently, allowing the remnants to drop carefully below the blossom. Forensic Zen retreat. Minus the patience.