Hanging on to what is
It was on a walk on a recent morning after dropping off my dog at the groomer’s that I noticed along a stretch of green next to a funeral home, a sprawling garden of daffodils. The flowers had reached their optimum bloom, stretching toward the cloudy sky, searching for sun, but yet bright in their own existence. They covered a parkway in front, at the side, and behind the funeral home. There are many types of daffodils, I would learn later. What I saw that morning, the kind with white petals and an orange center, are commonly called the poet’s daffodil.
It was a striking sight, all those flowers, all alike, a forest of them surrounding the large asphalt parking lot, softening the otherwise harsh urban landscape. And at the same time, I was feeling good. It was a crisp day and walking can be the antidote for much of what ails us. The combination of this and the beautiful growth urged me to stop and take it all in. And to commit theft.
I looked around, no one near, only a driver in a jeep coming up the side street. The driver pulled the vehicle into a parking spot near the garden and the woman sat in her car for a moment. In an effort to seem less criminal, I pretended to halt my walk for a moment, scroll my phone, and wait to see what she might do. I did not want witnesses.
In that moment, memories of a past theft came to me.
I was a young teenager killing time inside what they used to call a five-and-dime store in my neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon. Scrolling through the albums in the record department, I spotted a new one I had not yet been able to purchase with the minimal money I made from delivering newspapers. It was the first Manassas album, the Stephen Stills led band of the early 1970s. I loved Stills, his guitar playing, his songwriting. And there it was, a double-album loaded with sounds I was certain I would embrace and play until the grooves wore thin. And so, I tucked it under my jacket, and left the store.
The guilt was palpable. It lingered for weeks. It took that long to find the strength to open the album from its plastic wrapping and put the record on my turntable. Eventually, the guilt subsided enough to do so. But some level of guilt prevailed. It still does, evidenced by my memory of that day as I waited to steal again.
It was wrong, of course, to steal that album. What fully prompted it, I don’t know. Teenage defiance? The thrill? Desire overtaking right and wrong? The stupidity of youth? I’m sure it was a combination of all of this. And whatever it was, all of those emotions had returned to a small degree on a morning walk near a garden of daffodils.
The woman in the jeep exited her vehicle and walked to a small medical office nearby. When she disappeared, I plucked my first flower. I plucked a second. And a third. A fourth. I held them in a bundle, began to walk, and never looked back. When I returned home, I offered the flowers to my wife. I don’t think she questioned how I came to have a bundle of daffodils in my hand, but she may have. I simply don’t recall. And as she placed them in a small glass vase, I experienced that old guilt, a minor version of it, but guilt nonetheless. In minutes it was gone, the flowers now decorating a table in our living room, and the old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, “Our House” quickly coming to mind.
I’ll light the fire. You place the flowers in the vase that you bought today.
The next day, those flowers still blooming and holding to life, there was no more guilt. In days, the daffodils would die, but until their last hours, they had bloomed well.
I wonder if the act of petty theft is only our emotions trying to hold onto something we don’t understand, as if we are hoping to preserve a feeling, a shadowy memory, as if stealing, the odd innocence of it, is a way to capture something fleeting. When we are young, life seems it will never end, and we believe we are on a continuum that has no finish line. Later, as years pass, more often than not, we attempt to find ways to stop the clock, to hold tight to love and beauty. We realize what is finite, and that our little thefts are virtuous acts of simply trying to steal a little more time.
Like the flowers, the Manassas album is long gone. But I remember well one of my favorite songs on the record, “Johnny’s Garden.” The lyric speaks of children as his flowers. The guilt from the theft of the album has long faded, but that song will forever play in my head, and I’m not giving it back.