I am absolutely honored to host Karen Maezen Miller on the blog today. Her writing never ceases to dazzle and inspire me.
They don’t make it past spring, the camellia flowers, but oh, what a beautiful spring. Their blooms appear in one energetic burst, when the winter’s color has dulled to gray. They arrive when it’s dark and cold, and you’ve ceased to believe in the promise of April or May. They pop up when time has frozen and you have turned blue, yes blue, with the sad certainty that nothing ever changes around here. You see a wink of color, and turn to see a lady dressed in red. She tosses off her beauty in the hour of its perfection, and the flowers carpet the ground where you walk.
Flowers are love’s perfect offering. They do not ask to be appreciated. They expect nothing in return. They just let go.
I don’t have to do anything in my garden and yet there are flowers appearing all the time: azalea, jasmine and wisteria in spring; water and day lilies in summer; camellia, bird of paradise, and orange blossoms in winter; floribunda roses and gardenias nearly all year long. Even the dandelions count. By some mysterious and unerring hand they all appear right on time. They seed the fruit. They feed the bees and butterflies. They sweeten the breeze. They are subtle and selfless, here and gone, appearing and disappearing, part and parcel of life’s perennial display. By this definition everything is a flower; by this lesson, all is love. Life is indeed love, continually pouring itself into itself—for my benefit and delight, I might add—but by my egocentric thinking I can be blind to the gift.
Love is abundant, but if you’re like me you may live a good part of the time thinking otherwise. That’s because love doesn’t always fit your idea of love. It doesn’t feel like you think it should. It doesn’t go your way. When I move through my own full house and go virtually unnoticed by my distracted co-habitants; when I set a meal on the table and no one answers my call, takes a seat or applauds; when I hang up someone else’s clothes, rinse someone else’s dishes, straighten someone else’s mess, and fix someone else’s mistakes, leaving no one the wiser; when I cry for someone else’s pain and sweat someone else’s small stuff; when the neighbor doesn’t invite me over, and the party goes on without me; when the critics are brutal and the fans are slow to muster; I’m rather convinced that I’ve gotten a raw deal from love, that I’m party to an uneven exchange. But that’s wrong-headed. This is my universe, and all the love in it is mine. If I detect a shortage, it’s because I’ve been picky, close-minded, or stingy. Can I love a little bit better and give a little bit more? Considering that I’m the only one stopping me, well yes, I can.
When she was about six years old, someone asked my daughter what it was like to have a mom who was a Zen priest.
“She screams a lot,” she said. It wasn’t the answer they were expecting. There were polite chuckles all around.
I can comfort myself with the fact that children only remember when their parents scream, not when their parents don’t scream. Silence, after all, is a non-event. No matter what I was hollering about, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to let it go. I wish I’d dropped my rage, fear, frustration, or despair: whatever illusory part of me I was cherishing at the time. I wish love could be my legacy instead, the way a camellia launches its blossoms into the oblivion of time without causing a quiver of pain. No one ever notices when a flower has fulfilled its purpose in life, just as no one ever regrets a moment lost to love.
Day after day, the flowers give me a good look at what I hold dearest—myself. It’s what I must let go of completely before it’s time to go. Then this one life will have flowered into something beautiful. Love.
Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest and teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. She is the author of Paradise in Plain Sight, Hand Wash Cold and Momma Zen.