In the Dahlia Garden by Ann Kendall

“The Amen of nature is always a flower.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

As I’ve walked through the gardens of my life, I usually come back to the same ones – well-loved flowers, paths and benches for which I need no driving directions. The familiarity gives me comfort and at the same time, because the stones there no longer challenge my feet, my mind finds it easier to study treasured elements nearest to me. My walk to find faith is mirrored in those gardens – for it is there that I most likely wonder if I shall ever find a home, a place for my heart to rest when it is most weary or filled with the greatest joys. I cannot look skyward and I cannot delve inside under a constructed roof; my mind is clear that given the damp climate in which I live, each moment that it is possible to be outside is a moment to relish. The search cannot be spent inside, looking at a cross or gazing out through crisp hues of stained glass is merely a waste of time. It is only outside, in the midst of the green, gray, mist and sun that glimmers of a life beyond that the earthly mind may exist.

My roots are weak – I’ve spent most of my life as a maple seed twirling and picking up the next breeze fueled by fires real and imagined. These fires send me on my way, ideas may germinate but the tendrils don’t grow into the earth – I’ve been immune. In my seed state I’ve traveled and when I seek solace from the journey, the dahlia garden is the place where I most often come to rest, draw and see. There are no symbols, no urgent messages – just petals, twisting and turning toward the sun. It is inside of the flowers I seek, to analyze and document with my lens the shape and color that broadcast to the world, look here and see what you can see. By looking inside each flower’s whorled or conical shape, I can see the knowledge that I seek. Each color melds to another, hues to the light from tint to shade each petal rests amongst its peers – not alone, but together, nestled – not competing. Each strong stalk grows tall though it will never reach the sky; it merely exists to hold its bulbous head high and open. While the petals grow and stretch at different rates, each seeks the rays of the sun while the stalk carries nutrition to its burgeoning leaves.

In this garden, a mirror of community grows in glorious colors from deep violet to the softest pink meld together in delicate spider-like shapes, as if they are neighbors seeking the same sustenance. The marine air of summer leaves droplets some mornings that fade as the sun makes its later afternoon debut. The dahlia is a mirror of faith that awakens slowly and while there are clear paths between the rows of stalks, each flower itself proves different, glowing and worthy. My faith– like the dahlia is sometimes speckled and fresh with a ripe new discovery after the dew yet sometimes faded and browned like the flower that is nearly done in. The dahlias understand their season and their caretakers lovingly groom the ground for their time on the earth.

My time in the garden is often in bits and broken pieces, minutes here or there, nothing really takes hold in such fits of time. Ideas remain glimmers that cannot be completed. When I develop the photos I’ve taken I can look at each as though I am looking at a thought from my visit; sometimes clear and sometimes not. Each magical petal tells a story, but none bears a cross – clarity comes from the beauty of the petals as they naturally merge and sway, not from conditioned response. The dahlia in its earthly know-how provides the context to hypothesize on belief – where is it that this flower shall lead me? If it is true that I cannot find meaning inside the walls, perhaps the meaning lays clearly here within the labyrinth of petals?

It seems natural that no matter what the road taken, faith in the flowers is pure and complete. What greater act of faith could there be than to see the dahlia, from sprout to sturdy stalk to bursting flame of color – it gives forth the gift of birth and beauty, and then renewal when it is time for the petals to drop. Next year, it will return, stronger. This lesson of the dahlias I have the most difficult time understanding; I want to know the lesson, I crave to understand – how can I be more like the dahlia? How can I grow and find the path that I seek? The dahlias have taught me that there is no right path, varietals encourage an introspective speculation – but I always want to know the result, where will the road take me – even though the dahlias are clear that beauty is the fleeting moment to be enjoyed.

My walk to find faith is never clearer than when sitting with the dahlias; when I am away from them I try and try to understand the choices around me, but I feel nothing but a painful ambiguity where I deem most of what I see in the world of faith as mimicry at best and farce when I am most keenly frustrated. The gates that bind through the requirements of mainline faith, do not block the entrances to the dahlia garden – there the soft grass and cedar trees call out an open invitation to come, sit, and watch – to be with the earth as it shows its possibilities to all that would consider them just as they are – magnificent and glorious. While my walk passes though the celestial garden just once, my place with the dahlias I can visit without end.

My visits to the sanctuary as deemed by others will be infrequent; but to the garden I will come often – it is only here in nature that a true amen will come forth for me, for it is here that I am grateful, humbled and in awe of my surroundings – it takes no admonition, no direction – it is complete with an unbounded joy that cannot be replicated anywhere else. The colors, the light, the flip of the wind as it catches my hair are all beauty; free and exposed – a place where faith blossoms and does not hide or cower. A faith that is awash with the spectrum of color and light that in its earnest intent, abides the heart to open.

When Holmes spoke to the Amen of nature, I ponder to which version of Amen he considered – whether he thought mostly as an end to a prayer answered, an assurance of hope or more of the notion that nature has the final word. Did the flower represent the final word then, as a culmination of a faithful undertaking whose result is petals open to the sun and sky? Unlike my maple seed self, the dahlia’s symbiotic nature starting with its tuberous form, sinks deeply into the ground to grow its thick stalk and dense blooms. For the dahlia, the Amen of each flushing blossom represents not merely the finale of the growth cycle, but also the assurance that the next season will come. As the dahlia matures, each cycle represents a prayer answered, perhaps not a spoken prayer, but one of grace, toil and dedication. No dahlia grows alone, no stalk produces just one flower – it is their togetherness and reliance on nature and human that produces splendor. The dahlia’s gift then is splendor split open by wonder.

A maple seed has a generally short life. Each seed, no matter the adventure, must eventually come to rest. It is the lucky seed that is allowed to choose its spot on the earth; most never take root, disintegrating before they have the chance and all that flitting about tends to be wearing. The luckiest of maple seeds will land near the dahlia garden, perhaps on a soft pillow of untended grass where it may take root and feel the soft sprinkle of dew each day. The dahlias may cast shadows over the maple seed to protect it from a wind; all together the dahlia garden is a formidable foe – it will protect the weakest among its own ranks, and the hapless visitor who stumbles in for a rest.

I first came to the dahlia garden as a high school girl; in my mind I see myself in a plaid skirt standing near the statue in the center of the garden with my giggling friends. There to study our horticulture text, we really knew nothing of gardens – we did not understand the difference between annual and perennial beyond book definitions. Then we were simply on the cusp of the garden’s beauty and strength, we did not see how it might extend our lifetime joys or buoy us in times of sadness. The dahlias, in their perennial act of faith, stood then as they do now – open and reverent. They bloom regardless of audience, seeking no applause — reveling in the simple act of opening. My footfalls may stumble and grow weak, perhaps veer back to the spiral of the maple seed, but the dahlia is forever in my heart. Amen.

The Amen Dahlia – arms open to the sky.

*Previously published in the Thought Notebook Journal 12/2013

BIO: Ann Kendall is a freelance writer (creative and nonprofit/grant writing), adjunct English faculty at Heritage University in Toppenish, WA and Managing Editor at Faith & Form Magazine.