Lessons from Lavender
“The grass always looks greener on the other side.” That old adage seemed so common growing up. I heard it all the time. And I suppose for good reason too. Gratitude is not easy to practise. One imagines oneself in all kinds of scenarios — removed from present predicaments and conflicts; convinced that somewhere, far beyond this place, there is resolve and resolution, perhaps even respite. We want so desperately to rid ourselves of what is inconvenient, unpleasant, agonising — convinced that an alternative existence void of these essential growing experiences would bring us contentment and happiness. Perhaps what we often forget is that we are active, conscious participants in these scenarios. Nothing is being ‘done’ to us, rather we are complicit in the ‘doing’. The onus is on me to determine the way in which I suffer/resist/endure, for I play the leading role in the saga of ‘me’. So why isn’t the grass sufficiently green right here?
Well, earlier this week, I arrived on the ‘other side’. Beloved friends of mine invited me to stay in their beautiful countryside retreat in the South of France. Shielded entirely by a forest, their home is a haven: surrounded on either side by magnificent mountains and rolling hills and the sound of various wildlife abuzz under the late August sun.
The house was built lovingly in the 60s and has since been renovated with equal love by the family. It embodies idyllic, rural charm with all the modern amenities necessary for the survival of a 30-something woman, born and raised in urban East London with zero wilderness skills (does anyone remember anything useful from Girl Guides?)
On my first night here, my friend tells me about his grandfather who built the house. He maps out the original size of the kitchen and its awkward layout and how his parents — clearly a brilliant renovation team (only one among their substantive list of talents) — expanded the space.
I think about my own grandfather and what he imagined leaving behind in the way of bricks and concrete. He enlisted in the army aged 17 and was posted in Burma during the Second World War. After the war, he worked in Saudi Arabia before settling in Britain, the country that promised him his dues for his supposedly heroic war efforts. His ‘dues’ transpired as a nighttime security job, which he worked with the diligence and commitment with which he did everything, for the remainder of his life until a somewhat forced retirement. Suffering from suspected dementia, he insisted on returning to Pakistan to visit family. Before he left, he said this would be the last time we’d meet. Perhaps he knew he was nearing the end of his life. I wonder what he envisioned as the ‘greener side’ and whether Britain was it. He died before I could ask him.
In hindsight, the older I got, ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ transformed into: the grass is greener where you water it. And I’ve literally been watering it — every single day. As the sun began to set yesterday, I started deadheading lavender. I’d never done this before and wasn’t expecting the process to be quite so cathartic.
‘Deadheading lavender’ involves the removal of faded flower stems just beneath the tips of the foliage (disclaimer: these thumbs have never seen the colour mint, let alone green so I absolutely had to YouTube this). Early September means the lavender has pretty much run its course but its fragrance still fills the air as I bend beside the plant to begin cutting. The first cut is the hardest: I am nervous about cutting too low, then cutting too high. I don’t want to ruin the plant. Worse, still, I don’t want the plant-owner to think I have been careless or brash with her lavender. I take a deep breath, thank the lavender for its service to our collective senses and cut. I exhale only after the dead flower stem sits still in my hand.
I am amazed but I am not sure at what. That I cut the stem? Or that the stem was ready to succumb to its fate so easily? I sit for some time with my first stem. Is the life cycle of plants any better at coping with endings than we are, I wonder? Does a plant ponder whether it would be better off somewhere else, on some other land, tended to by someone who actually knows what they’re doing? Or does it lean so easily into its seasonal demise because it knows it will bloom again — better, stronger and more beautiful under the next summer sun?
I think about how dreadful I am at cutting; at letting go. Even — especially — from poisonous things. Lavender seeks to please and appease but only for so long. When its bloom has run its course; when hungry, travelling eyes are fulfilled with its majestic sight and smell, its tall stems bow to the changing winds and as the season retracts, so too does the stem’s colour: shedding its beloved purple hue entirely. There are no conditions and no considerations. There is simply no more to give.
I think about why I am not more like the lavender; maintaining faith that if I cut off what has withered, I will bloom better next season. I think about how — unlike the lavender — deeply we carry things, trying in vain to consolidate the multi-faceted contradictions of our existence. We seek isolation while fearing abandonment; we yearn for acceptance while holding tightly to the thing we cannot accept; and we claim to love without expectation, all the while shattered by each and every act of love that is not reciprocated.
Meanwhile the lavender gives what it can and when the time comes, bows out with grace — no retribution sought, no scores to settle. For truly, the lavender knows, there is no other, more greener side. There is only what is here and now. And irrespective of what came yesterday or what is to come tomorrow, it is content in what and where it is today.
Oh to be lavender…