I nipped off the huge yellow leaf quickly and dropped it into a plastic garbage bag. Over the past week or so, it had been slowly shifting shades from dark rich green to pale loden and finally the edges had turned mustard. This morning I noticed it had splashed its big ochre silhouette in the middle of my garden grabbing all the eye’s attention for itself.
It was a dying leaf. It had to go. It was ruining my garden.
So I clipped it off.
Then as I turned away and walked back into my living room, I glanced down at it. Even away from the blinding glare of sunlight, it shone a luminous gold from the depths of the bag. I took it out and looked at it. It was still fresh and unwilted with a delicate network of slightly raised amber veins embossed on the surface of the ornately curved lobes. As I held it up, the colors seemed to shift and vibrate, moving from dark burnished gold to the color of melted butter.
It was beautiful.
Why had I cut it? It was certainly as lovely as any of the flowers I so carefully coaxed into bloom. And none of the other glossy dark leaves of the Monstera from which it had been clipped could compete with its splendor. In terms of sheer beauty, even the pale cream and rather innocuous blossoms of the mother plant weren’t even in the running.
It reminded me of the maple leaves we so loved in Canada. As a child I remember the gradually decreasing daylight hours would suddenly perpetrate their own magic spell on the trees, transforming plain green foliage into a spectacular palette of colors. The transformation was quick and brief, often accomplished in only two or three short weeks. Then the leaves would dry and curl up as they fell from the branches.
Every fall as soon as the first tinges of yellow began to appear on the trees in our neighborhood, we would plan our annual car trip to the Laurentians to “see the leaves”. We had to choose the weekend which would ensure a maximum display of colors, so there was often a lively debate over whether it would be the first or second Sunday. Once decided, we’d set off with a camera and our picnic basket.
The display was truly awesome. Caught up in the miracle of this last display of color before the long winter months swept in to neutralize the landscape under a shroud of snow and ice, we pushed the fact that the leaves were actually dying to the backs of our minds. Slowly the nourishing sap was being cut off as the cork cells at the base of each leaf steadily increased and thickened, preparing for the day when the leaf would drop off. The spectacular colors were actually leaves in their death throes.
But we only saw their beauty.
Now as I looked down at the yellow Monstera leaf in my hand, I felt myself being tugged back into a life lesson. A remedial lesson. Which was all the more embarrassing for me since I had felt so secure in my carefully cultured indifference to “indoctrination”. I included all advertising, most religious tenets and political pontifications and particularly anything “popular” … whether fashion, food or music. I was a free-thinker and determined to remain so. Or so I thought until I stood there looking at the golden Monstera leaf.
Even my most ordinary everyday choices were free of outside influences. I never go on shopping trips with friends. I don’t need their input and don’t want to be put on the spot, either by ignoring their opinions or by giving in to their feelings and buying another hideous brown blouse with shoulder pads. I eschew gourmet restaurants and patisserie shops. I don’t want lobster stuffed with some concoction of aged goat cheese from Peloponnesus and acai berries. I hate asparagus. It’s slimy. And so are oysters. And whoever came up with the concept of gourmet chocolate flavored with sea salt … or even chillies, was clearly scraping the bottom of a barrel for inspiration which should have remained buried in situ.
I have managed to avoid being overwhelmed by other people’s opinions by firmly insisting on my own. And realizing from a very very young age, that my eyes definitely did not see what other people’s did. And that what we see is arbitrary. And too often dictated by the social and cultural values of our times.
If a dandelion were a rare blossom appearing only once in five years when the temperature reached exactly 72.5 degrees fahrenheit at an altitude of 1000 feet above sea level, there would be studies conducted, plant propagation labs set up, endless glossy coffee table books emblazoned with the hardy weed and people would find every possible way to incorporate this humble flower into their lives as an iconic image. A movie star bride carrying a bouquet of dandelions would make the front cover of Newsweek.
But I’d had an advantage too. Because I lived in so many different cultures at different times in my life and had an irresistible tendency to leap into every one of them. I piled exotic food preferences from one country onto dietary restrictions in the next. Haute couture met national costumes from the Far East and lost out to all of them. I adopted every religious festival I encountered until my calendar overlapped with festivities. December became a particularly busy month with five religions represented.
So with a smörgåsbord of choices, I became more and more confident that I could choose what truly resonated within myself. I understood and aspired to what Mahatma Gandhi wrote.
“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Now I was standing in my living room and holding a large fading leaf in my hand and wondering how many other things I was automatically devaluing. As a child I had gathered big bouquets of dandelions every spring, delighting in the tufts of delicate petals, the pungent perfume and their long almost translucent stems. My mother had insisted they were weeds. I had insisted they were flowers. But she had always capitulated with an empty jam jar filled with water, even if she could not quite extend herself to providing me with one of her fine vases.
Now of course, I know they are weeds. But I’m still technically unsure why some flowers are weeds and others are, well … flowers. It seems quite arbitrary when you gather an armful of trilliums or assemble a small nosegay of violets or wild roses harvested from the forest. They are all beautiful. And even today when I inhale the familiar odd odor of a dandelion, I am suddenly standing on a lawn dotted with them under a pale Canadian sun trying to encourage Spring.
I turned and looked back at my garden remorsefully.
The Monstera, relieved of its dying leaf, was now a rich fretwork of lush leaves in a myriad of greens. Emerald and jade and peridot. No jarring flash of contrasting yellow and not a single leaf in any stage of decay. Picture perfect.
But as I stared at it, I was slowly aware that something was missing. That even the glossiest and freshest of the leaves was somehow muted and lifeless. That the startling beauty of that glorious yellowing leaf had somehow transferred beauty and energy to the entire garden, even as it moved towards its death.
And that it was perhaps a metaphor for what we too often value at the expense of truth and beauty.