(From the book in progress, “Where Flowers Grow” – All Rights Reserved)
Being the typical active child growing up in sparsely populated Dana Point, California, I scampered through the boondocks at the end of our street at every possible moment, often ignoring any danger and seldom thinking how my actions might impact the area around me. Together with a local gang of kids, I would engage in day-long adventures of pirating, playing space-cowboys, or having shoot-outs at the O-K Coral, but when it was just my brother and I, pirating was the Spanish conquest; space-cowboys was the Mexican Revolutions; and the O-K Coral was Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Of course back in those days a gang of kids meant something completely different than it does today.
Back then Dana Point was still relatively pristine and unpopulated. The untouched area at the end of our block, where we used to play, was literally an oasis of sand dunes stretching for miles in all directions. Today the dunes are gone, replaced long ago with concrete jungles and asphalt rivers; old swimming holes were filled in to make way for community shopping centers and retirement villages. Today, when one thinks of California, sand dunes are not at the forefront of one’s mind, yet despite human intervention California is and has remained a living desert full of surprises.
One such surprise came during a particularly heavy rainy season in the latter half of the 1970’s. We had just returned to the United States after visiting friends and family back home in Mexico. As young children do, I set out to explore the neighborhood to make sure nothing had changed while we were gone. Rain be damned – I was going to have fun and before I could get halfway down the block I was already barefoot and stripped of everything except shirt and pants.
It’s funny, but as I look back, I remember not caring about jackets or getting sick – I just wandered around having fun. Puddles became oceans and muddy depressions became quicksand. Wonders abound when a child wanders and my mind raced! It all depended on the mood at the moment. Aside from jackets and shoes, I also didn’t much care for hand washing before snacking on sunflower seeds – eating in the middle of a mud field was the same to me as dining in the finest of restaurants.
Returning to the United States that year was important because it meant we moved out of our family home in Mexico and were finally settling down in the United States. Of course we would go home to Mexico now and then to visit, but the United States, specifically our home in Dana Point, was now our permanent home. Prior to settling in the home my parents just bought we lived for a year in an apartment complex in the same neighborhood so for the nine or so months we lived there my brother and I fully familiarized ourselves with the area.
But that special day, just as the rains let up and the sun shared its warmth with the world, I wandered down to the end of the block like I had done so many times before thinking only of the carefully dug watering hole made at the end of the previous season. My only want was to be floating in the middle of what would eventually become a great ocean ready for all sorts of great adventures.
As I approached the top of the embankment, I stopped dead in my tracks and fought to catch my breath. There, stretched out as far as I could see (which in truth wasn’t that far), was the most incredible sight any child could imagine – giants! Before my eyes stood the most spectacular display of giant sunflowers, their faces smiling in my direction as if thanking me, though I hadn’t a clue as to why.
Of course, as children often do, I had completely dismissed that I often feasted on sunflower seeds during my previous banquettes on the mud. I must have spilled (or was it thrown at my brother) most, if not all of my raw sunflower snacks in the area where now stood those incredible stalks.
At some point I must have convinced myself I purposefully grew those magnificent giants and being the pride-filled child I was, I slayed (uprooted) several of the giants (largest sunflowers) and struggled all the way home with my booty. It again didn’t matter that I could barely see over my prize. NO! It only mattered now that I had to show off my accomplishments to what in my mind was my patiently waiting parents.
My mother’s shrieks, in my mind, were trumpets of triumph. In reality she was mortified, not at the giants making their way through the front door, but that my prized treasures were dropping hunks of sandy mud all over the front entry of our new house.
Remember, kids seldom pay any attention to life’s finer details. It was more important to me that I show off my booty than it was to wash the wet dirt from the roots of the sunflowers before presenting the golden riches to my parents. The entry, living room, and kitchen each had remnants of my accomplishments strewn about as if a modern artist had flung paint from his brush.
And I was incredibly happy.
One never knows what the rainy season will bring. Back then, and still today, surprises were always just around the corner. That usually meant having to be willing to see the splendor of a single blade of grass (which in the hands of a child can be transformed into a deftly wielded sword!) You never knew if you would come across a field of lemon grass, fox-tails, or giant sunflowers, and you never knew into what those things would transform.
I haven’t thought about those days for a very long time and it has been even longer since I’ve drawn upon the childhood images of giants and bounty, but every now and then I find myself strolling through memories of simpler times. Now and again I smile as I pause to remember how wonderful it is to see life through several sets of eyes: as a child filled with awe and wonder, as a person on a journey of discovery through life, and as an aged man reflecting on the lessons learned from the past.
It may not seem like much – a field of sunflowers and a careless child, but there is one other thing about this story not many people think about: those giants were growing in a desert, not a typical growing area for sunflowers. Today, Californians can grow just about anything anywhere they choose, but back then we were limited by what grew naturally or by what fell out of an active boy’s pockets, and so we had to make due with what little existed in the natural landscapes.
If flowers can grow in the strangest of places, then surely I can grow beyond any limitation in my life. In so doing, maybe I can allow myself to see the beauty of the lessons I have learned so long ago and apply those lessons to events yet to cross my path.
To me, the flowers are a metaphor for the thoughts we share with those around us, and even those we hold for ourselves. They are the spurts of growth we meet daily; they are us as we wander through the sacred in our lives.
The flowers, then, represent our lives. Cherish them – they’re fleeting and die far sooner than we’d like.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.