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Archive for September, 2007

Chicory

August – September 2007

The first thing that happens at our house in the morning is that the dog gets a walk. Mind you, Rose is perfectly capable of going out and doing her business all by herself. But this is our morning ritual, her on one end of the leash, me on the other. We walk as far as the hairpin turn on the dirt road down to town, where we stop to look out over the lake and then head home.

Recently, it’s been hot–forest fire hot, with dry scorching days and searing winds. The vegetation by the roadside has turned grey and dry and dreary. I have been feeling a bit dreary, myself, from the heat. All year long I’ve used this early morning walk to watch for hidden beauty-bright moss fed by the spring run-off, the first leaves on birches, wild cherries blossoming, purple lupine spikes, crimson thimbleberries against perfect verdant leaves, sudden masses of wild daisies, the orange berries fattening on mountain ash–but now it seems there is nothing worth looking at.

I have been feeling dry and dreary on the inside, too. Instead of the quiet summer I had planned, I found myself driving the long miles between New Denver, BC and Portland, Oregon, three times in seven weeks. My mother–dear, complex, thoughtful, and 87 years old–has been rapidly failing. And on this last trip, when I helped move her from her apartment into assisted living, I brought home a raging heartbreak to match the forest fires burning just down the lake. It’s hard to lose your mother, whether she has died or just changed into someone else.

So I was surprised, the next morning, to see the chicory when I took Rose walking.

Now chicory is a weed, and it grows, I’m told, damn near anywhere. If you cultivate it, you can eat the leaves for salad and the root for coffee substitute. But mostly it’s a weed, hardy, scrawny, invasive, superfluous. Most of us walk or drive by it without ever noticing; farmers and gardeners notice, but usually just to curse it.

I don’t know exactly what combination of light and temperature coaxes those perfectly blue flowers open, but I know that when I came down that dry dusty road with my dry dusty heart, someone had scattered little pinches of sky among the dirt-grey foliage. So blue I could see through it; so blue it made the air vibrate; so blue that it cracked me open and made me weep.

I immediately made plans to dig up plants and bring them home to my garden. I wanted to domesticate that clear-eyed beauty; I wanted to manufacture openheartedness on cue. I dreamed I might figure out how to get more flowers on the stalks, bigger flowers, even flowers that would stay open all the time, just so I could drink in that blue.
When I told a friend of my intentions–a friend whose partner is an organic farmer–she laughed and said, “To some people, planting chicory in your garden for color is like pouring sand into a bag of rice because you like the sound.” Okay, I thought to myself, I get it. But it’s not a weed to me. It’s a gift, an opening, an icon, a window into the soul.

Yesterday when I called my mom, she was joyful and energetic. She’s recovering from the move, I thought: she’ll be back to normal soon. I felt more cheerful than I had in weeks. Then she said, “I just said goodbye to your daughter.” “Oh Mom,” I thought as my heart plunged, “I’ve never had children.”

Today, I’ve made a decision about chicory flowers. I will let them stay by the side of the road, at least for now. I won’t try to domesticate or cultivate them. I will let them be a surprise. In the same way, I am going to try to recognize the reality of my mom. The weeds may be playing havoc in my mother’s brain; it may break my heart that her true self is so absent. The desiccating winds may be carrying off her dried up memory. But I have decided that whenever I can see the bits of sky, the clear joy, any glowing, vibrating sense of delight, I am going to drink it in and thank God. I am going to let my heart crack in grief and joy and beauty. I’m going to take her, and the chicory, as they’ve been given.

Copyright © 2007 Mary Therese DesCamp