Like a sunflower.
Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna, Virginia is a beautiful sanctuary near Wolf Trap Farm Park (itself a wonderful performance venue). It was closed for several months due to the pandemic, but has since opened to the public. A great place for a walk, with gently rolling trails, three small ponds, flowers in the spring and summer months.
My favorite episode of Star Trek is “The Inner Light.” Star Trek has always been a show about what it means to be human. Yes, it has a lot of flashing lights, special effects, green aliens, esoteric worlds, starship battles and journeys to countless planets and stars. And yet for all the glitter, the show, at its best, is a grand exposition of the human condition, the human experience. In “The Inner Light”, Captain Picard is thrust upon a life totally different from his own. Instead of commanding a starship, he was a man with a wife he didn’t know, on a planet slowly dying. He didn’t want to be there, but there was this woman he didn’t know who nevertheless tended to him, nurtured him, loved him. Slowly, the fantasy became a reality and in a scant twenty minutes, Picard experiences a life he had never known. A love he had never known. A wife who adored him, children who loved him, needed him and in the end, taught him that being a parent elicits emotions ranging from worry, consternation, disappointment, pride. All the by product of the most basic human emotion of all. The ability to feel and to give love.
It is a masterful story and when I need to find meaning in my own life, I watch this show again and remember that all that glitters is not gold. Kamin was not rich by any means. His family was but one of many families in a village being ravaged by drought. Yet the life he was living seemed so much more complete, so much more fulfilled than the life he lived as the dashing captain of a Federation flagship. And when the illusion ended, when he realized that what he had thought was his life was actually a mental recreation, he did something extraordinary. He took a flute, sat by a window, gazed at the stars, and he began to play.
We can go through life and be dazzled by the success that we are taught to go after. We can go through life looking for the next star, hardly stopping to even look at the world that we are in. We can go through life and experience ecstasy, the heights of fame, the allure of power, the spoils of wealth and yet feel empty, broken. When we look outside ourselves for validation, we allow others to judge us from their point of view; to tell us that in order to be happy or successful, we must follow someone else’s dream, live the life that someone else envisions. Is it such a surprise that a life that always looks outward misses the simple joys that life can bring. A fluttering butterfly. A cool breeze on a warm day. A sprinkle of rain blurring one’s view of the world, for an instant. So many small moments that can bring meaning to a life. Do we spend the time looking at the world in its own terms, feeling the infinitely small breezes of fluttering wings, feeling the hair on our forehead dance, just a little. Do we look inward and in our heart find that inner light, the one true beacon that can bring meaning to one’s existence?
It is like the nondescript houseplant pictured above. Green leaves on a pot. These leaves have a secret. They are the leaves that will bring sustenance to this plant, that will eventually provide the nourishment for flowers to bloom. These are the leaves of a sampaguita plant. Jasmine. Beautiful and sweet. A flower, that to many, symbolizes purity and humility. It is, in many ways, ethereal.
So as the year ends, I think of this special Star Trek episode. And of a beautiful flower. And look inward and see the beauty that the inner light reveals. It is within all of us. And when you find it, share it. Be kind. Be gentle. Be generous. In the grace that the beatitudes bring, we experience the greatness of all creation.
Years ago, while vacationing in Cabo, I decided to drive to La Paz, Mexico. I didn’t have a GPS and I was adventurous enough to attempt to go across Baja California with a rudimentary map that I printed from the internet. I wanted to see the clear waters of Balandra Beach. So off I went, on my small rental car, driving between fast moving, close passing cars and trucks that seemingly were only a second or so away from colliding with me. When everything seems like a close call, you just learn to go with the flow. A few hours later, I was in La Paz.
After a quick lunch and a visit to the beach, it was time to go back to Cabo. There was only one problem. I only mapped out the path going eastward. I had no idea how to get back to Cabo. I was driving around in circles. Every once in a while, I’d ask somebody for directions on how to get back to the highway that would take me back west. There were so many helpful people, but it was readily apparent that my inability to speak or understand Spanish was a major liability. People tried to help me by drawing pictures of the roads that I needed to drive to. That only lead me to different circular paths. Flustered, I stopped by a gas station to try to get directions.
Once again, I didn’t have much luck getting directions to Cabo. I was panicked. And then, something miraculous happened. There was a beat up car parked in the gas station. A man came up to me and told me that he can show me the way back to Cabo. Follow him, he said. He will take me to the highway to Cabo. I did as he said. I started my car and followed him as he drove through streets that were unfamiliar to me. We reached a highway and he pointed to a certain direction, a sign telling me that I have finally found the road home. I waved at him to thank him. He smiled and in what seemed like an instant, he was gone.
I sped through the highway, heading westward. A few hours later, I was back at Cabo. Relieved. Thankful.
The thing is, there are many beautiful things to see and experience in Cabo and La Paz. Great food, great beaches. And yet. The thing that I remember the most is the kindness of a total stranger. I was lost; somehow, this stranger found me, and set me back to the right path. I could think of a lot of religious allegories, but I really want to say something about how many of us, including me, lead our lives.
All of us, in a multitude of ways, are attracted to beautiful things. A beautiful person, a beautiful car, a beautiful whatever. How many times do we ignore the things that seem common, the things we deem unexceptional. We look up and see the bright lights. And we gravitate towards the brightest of these lights. We forget (truthfully, we neglect) the other lights in the world. Why is it that we choose to ignore so many things that can bring us so much happiness, so much joy? I can’t even fathom how much I have missed in life by not paying attention to the things that really should matter the most.
We can spend endless amounts of money trying to stay young, to become more presentable, in the hopes of being likable enough for people to pay attention to us. We surround ourselves with things to make us look comfortable, as if the look of success is somehow enough to impress everyone that we seek. Somehow, we have allowed the constant bombardment of messages extolling wealth and beauty to distract us, to make us forget what is really important in our lives.
I am so glad that I got lost in La Paz. This unfortunate happenstance lead to one of most life affirming lessons that I have experienced. In the midst of nowhere, a man in a rusty old car extended the hand of friendship to someone he didn’t know. He didn’t ask for any compensation. It was enough for him to give help when help was needed. He didn’t ask me who I was. He didn’t care that I didn’t speak his language. He just helped.
I need to remind myself of this lesson every day. Beauty comes from the heart. Love freely given, without any expectation of getting anything in return, is the most beautiful thing of all. Remember to be kind. Remember to listen. Be of service to others. Expect nothing and in so doing, gain everything.
For millennia, as far back as the ancient Egyptians and perhaps beyond that, flowers have been part of the human experience. What is the first gift that a child gives to his or her mother? A flower, perhaps a rose, perhaps a dandelion. Something from the garden or maybe the sidewalk. A gift of beauty, an act of love.
Flowers of every shape and color stir our imagination. From the simple drawings of a child, to the masterpieces of Monet, to the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, to the photographs of Weston, to Mendel’s experiments in genetics – flowers have sparked the creativity of untold millions throughout human history.
Color, shape, dimension, form. Family, Genus, Species. We observe. We study. We categorize.. Everything is given an attribute. Flowers are a complex thing, we say. That may be, but we also know the immutable truth. A flower, you see, is simply beautiful.