Beauty in Decay

When the calendar turned to April, two weeks into the shelter-in-place order that had become the new normal, I decided to take a break from work and leave the house for something other than a walk around my neighborhood or the weekly trip to the market. I would visit one neighborhood over, and I would drive.

Simply starting the car and backing it out of the garage were revelatory activities, behaviors from another life. There was my winter coat, in the back seat, where I’d left it. There were my notebooks and reusable grocery bags. I briefly rolled down the car window to breathe the fresh spring air–and then wondered if I should put it back up in case I ran into a neighbor from whom I was unable to stay six feet apart. I felt skittish driving, anxious about any encounters.

I drove to a stand of tulips I knew from over the years to be in front of a neighbor’s house. To my disappointment, they were largely gone. True, great splashes of color remained, among the thicket of bare stems. But they were frail and bent, far past peak, sun shining through their delicate crevices.

I was disappointed, of course. I’d stayed inside my house, in my neighborhood, for two-plus weeks and missed the whole show. Now I had the proverbial setback of having to “wait until next year”. I parked and walked over to the flowers anyway.

From close up, I could see the erratic, faded petals, frozen in mid-curl, the pistils and bits of pollen. The midday sun exaggerated the tulips’ veins where petals met stems.

The flowers were beautiful and dying and somehow fitting for this time. They fit the grief I had felt in the car, the grief and awe from merely being in a different neighborhood, a neighborhood right next to my own, where I used to go all the time and which now seemed newly fraught with danger in each set of approaching footsteps, as people walked around me with dogs or on phones, and kids skateboarded in the empty streets. Even as the April sun blazed and the world appeared especially peaceful.

I became absorbed taking pictures, something I used to do avidly at least weekly, often more, which I hadn’t done in almost a month. It felt good to be out in the world, even if still in my small corner of it. Even if the whole world had changed.

As I continued to shoot, new layers of decrepitude revealed themselves, my lens ever closer, as if I might be saved, at least momentarily, by focusing on increasingly small things that were within my control. A particular rotting husk, a translucent colorful thread, the way a furl of a petal could recall a woman’s scarf. In noticing those tiny things, for a devoted period of time, the world slipped away just a bit.

If we’re lucky, we live most of our days without thinking much about life’s fragility, about our own mortality, yet lately those things had become foremost in the news and in our minds. In the flowers, those ideas were made visible, yet also hopeful–even in their decay, the tulips were majestic, and even they would ultimately be reborn.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

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