In Praise of Prettiness

Spring officially arrived yesterday! My favorite nursery is opening next week! Can you tell I’m excited about getting out and digging in the dirt?! 

Last week I was talking with a young friend about gardening, she is an avid one growing all variety of herbs, medicinal plants, and veggies. I asked if she grew flowers too. She said, “No. I don’t want to grow anything just for prettiness. Everything I grow has to have a purpose.”

This young woman is a gifted craftswoman. She sews, knits, and crochets beautiful things, and she draws and paints so I know she appreciates prettiness. Yet even in all her workings of beauty, everything she creates is utilitarian. I’d agree – if you’re going to make something useful, why not make it pretty as well?

But her answer still saddened me a bit because with gardens and flowers, I think simply being pretty can be their purpose.

Daffodils are the first flowers to show their faces in many places, along with crocuses and hyacinths, and seeing their green tips poke up – sometimes even through snow – brings immediate joy. These are some of my daffodils from this year. Every time I walked out the front door I was hit by their scent and I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve not cleaned up the winter debris yet because I don’t know what wonderful bugs and butterflies might still be resting in there, but the bright pop of yellow and white was even more impactful against all the brown. My friend Linda says she waits eagerly for daffodils because it means spring is coming and it lifts her from the winter blues. She lives in Ohio so the winters are bit drearier than here in South Carolina.

How many times have you driven a back road and come across an old homestead, and the only way you know it’s an old homestead is because there’s still a chimney standing, even though the house is gone, and there are clumps or rows of daffodils marking the area like cemetery flowers?

I grew up in the Midwest where it seemed everyone had flowers, even if not huge beds, around their homes. Little plots, borders, pots were kept just because the flowers were pretty – their purpose to brighten a dark corner of a house or the porch.

One of my earliest memories is of flowers lining my grandparents’ walkway. I suppose they were marigolds of all different colors, an easy flower to grow and use for a border. This particular grandpa also grew tulips. After they moved into an apartment, the upstairs of an older home, he still had a small patch of tulips in the small backyard. There were so many colors, like a rainbow had pooled in that spot. He grew different varieties so some opened like a tiny pucker of a kiss; others were ruffled like a feather duster.

My other grandma grew a screen of deep purple clematis next to their side door. This was the door everyone used, well, except for Halloween trick-or-treaters who used the front, so we saw it every time we visited. The tangled, matted screen was filled with blossoms so thick it provided shade and privacy for the door. I don’t have a picture of those vines, but here’s one of Mark Blum’s purple one so you can get an idea of the color, and one of my friend Linda’s white clematis so you can see how full my grandma’s screen was.

When I think of home in Ohio, certain flowers always come to mind. Peonies for one and my parents had a couple plants in the back yard. I was thrilled last year when mine finally bloomed here. Another one is lily-of-the-valley. Mom and Dad had those too. One of mom’s favorites was the bleeding heart; she had one near the front door that spread wide with its delicate spines and tiny hearts hanging like charms on a bracelet. She also grew morning glories that she trained up strings on the patio fence, and I think for a couple of years on the back of the house. Even after Mom died, Dad kept a pot or two of flowers on the patio table. He could see them from his recliner and he was tickled whenever a new petunia opened or some other flower blossomed. One of the last things I did the spring before he got sick was to take him to the local feed store so he could buy some flowers. And a couple tomato plants.

A definition of beautiful is ~ the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. I love that part of exalting the mind or spirit.

Flowers brighten people’s hearts, not just their porches. My friend Jose is an avid flower gardener and he does it just to bring some beauty into the world. Mark is a certified master gardener and his yard rivals the yards of estate homes like Kingwood Center in Ohio and Biltmore in North Carolina – though on a much smaller scale! The rose bud is Mark’s, the others are from Biltmore.

We bring that prettiness into our homes too for those same reasons. The year before I went to college I worked at Cedar Point, an amusement park on Lake Erie in Ohio. One of the things I bought each week was a bunch of fresh cut flowers for my apartment. Carnations were a favorite with their cinnamon-y scent and array of colors. Years ago when my family first moved onto the land where my son and his family now live, I planted daffodils throughout the woods. Last week we were there celebrating our Grand’s 4th birthday and on the counter were daffodils in a mason jar. As I write this I think of how often little hands bring in dandelions, violets, and other small flowers because there is such overwhelming excitement in finding them.

In 1999, then Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to artists. In it is a section on the service of beauty. He quotes Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.” The Pope continues,

“The theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art. It was already present when I stressed God’s delighted gaze upon creation. In perceiving that all he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well. The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathia, or beauty-goodness. On this point Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful.”

Not all of us have the time or inclination to garden, but we all have the ability to bring a bit of prettiness to the world, or appreciate it when we see it. Without denying what’s going on around us, maybe moments of beauty are what we need right now.

“Remember the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless, peacocks and lilies for instance.” John Ruskin, Scotch-English writer, 1819-1900

May you take a few moments this week to be outside and experience simple prettiness.

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