~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Rosemary for Remembrance

November 10, 2019
Mostly I kill plants. Especially when I bring them inside for the winter. Maybe they thrive in the dirt and the rain - despite me rather than because of me. But when the big bloom is over and the first frost nears, my plants look at me and shake their little heads.

"She'll be no help at all," they muse.

Jasmine blooms once and then withers. The lavender that looked so hale all summer grows frail and anemic, no matter what pot I use and what windowsill becomes its new home. The scented geranium, which for months appeared to be high on some sort of herbal steroid, begins dropping its rose-scented leaves. And the rosemary, whose aroma can turn an upside-down day right-side-up again in three deep whiffs, says its last goodbye.

Until last year.

For some reason, I had two plants make it through the winter while living inside with me. The spearmint survived, although week-by-week it dropped another few leaves until it languished in late winter as a leggy shadow of a plant. Then it miraculously burst back into full minty glory once April welcomed it back outside.

And the rosemary made it, too. Not just any rosemary, but a bonzai-like bush with perky green needles and the most invigorating scent I have ever known. I don't remember where it came from, but little by little throughout the previous summer it had found its footing and reached its arms up toward the heavens and never failed to uplift me with its friendly and spirited smile.

In my haphazard approach to winter gardening, I must have hit the right blend of dry enough soil and southern exposure light. Because that rosemary didn't just eke through the winter, it thrived. And that meant that all season long I was able to dunk my nose deep into its heart, inhale its intoxicating and uplifting scent, and gather enough energy to keep on my feet until nightfall. Day after day until spring returned at last. Truly, I loved that plant as a friend.

Who needs strong coffee, after all, when you have rosemary in the house?

Oddly, when I returned the rosemary to the garden in May, breathing a sigh of relief that we had both survived another Ohio winter, the bush began to wither. It grew brown. It dropped its leaves. It just looked at me and shook its spiny little head.

In the nick of time, I think, I pulled it out of the ground and plunked it back in its cozy pot. I tucked it into the garden, still potted, next to the lavender and the mint. And it perked back up with a big sigh of relief.

And now the first frost of autumn has come and gone, and my rosemary is back inside again. I'm crossing my fingers for a second winter of energy and uplift dressed in green. I'm hopeful but also trying to be realistic. This may not be a long-term relationship after all - there is impermanence and all of that to consider. (And truth be told - and please don't tell - last week I bought another rosemary plant that is busting out of its pot, as a back up. Just like my favorite acupuncturist whose mother urged her to have a second child, in case the first one didn't quite work out.)

My original, though, has been plopped by the sunniest upstairs window, in my older son's room for the time being. Every day I wander in and inhale the scent of teenage boy that still lingers, despite the fact that the room has been empty since August. My heart cringes and then I send a little love through life's imaginary telegraph polls all the way to North Carolina and straight into my son's blooming heart.

And then I wander over to the rosemary by the window and exhale, because despite the odds it is still smiling and it is still fully dressed.

If the sun is shining, I shuffle the plant one direction or another, just an inch or two, to give it fullest light. And then I bend forward, bury my nose into the scratchy little fingers of rosemary, and breathe in. I fill my lungs all the way to the bottom and back up to the top with the scent of pine, eucalyptus, Marin county, fresh air, lemony possibility, a tiny hit of sweetness, and the bright and sunny inspiration of summer in fullest glory. (Does this count as a pranayama breathing practice? I say yes!)

After a few breaths, I stand back up, always a little taller than before. I am restored by the possibility of fortitude and perseverance. I see that I won't just wither and die in Ohio's frigid winter, which has barely even begun and which still has so far to go. I sense, perhaps, that like my rosemary I am stronger than I think. I feel my own roots, my own substance, my own inner rosemary rise up just a teeny bit, even as the season turns inward.

I remember who I am and what I need to do. I commit to letting go of everything inessential, to throwing myself into the path of every ray of sun I can find, and to lifting my arms toward the light, no matter how dark or cold or unpredictable the outer world may grow.

Perhaps our best work is done when we find our roots and just keep standing - and perhaps even shining - even when the odds are against us. Maybe a little adversity really does bring out the best in us, revealing a strength and steeliness we didn't know we carried. Maybe every season of bloom needs to be countered with at least a little something rough to rub against. At least until we can head outside to the garden again, rosemary pot in hand, set free from winter's darkness and back into the glorious bloom of spring.