Lately, on Tuesdays, I start the morning with an early drive along the Chagrin River, winding through county lines before arriving at a small café hidden from typical Chagrin Falls traffic. Before grabbing an espresso beverage, my sister and I chat on the phone interim her two jobs in North Carolina. I then settle into work emails and editing for my afternoon writing class at The Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. Case Western Reserve University has an educational endeavor meant to enable community members access to higher education courses. I had signed up for a creative writing class, hoping to finally learn some writing skills. My class is made up of mostly retired professionals and Jewish folks who have been meeting as a group for years. At the start of the semester, they already held unspoken rules and comfortable familiarity as I fumbled through the first few weeks, like an attentive Anthropologist trying to learn the culture. Through the weeks, I’ve witnessed stories of times when one could travel Europe on $5 a day, or how parents’ deprivation in concentration camps near Hungary resulted in an eating disorder for one classmate. I take in the vibrant scenes of farming in Ohio, house fires in the 40’s, and this season’s tapping of maple trees in Moreland Hills. I listen in horror as women in the group share how they broke barriers or faced sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. I’m learning nothing about writing, but I continue to attend because it’s like visiting a dozen grandparents who enrich my week with delightful antics; stories of times before I existed. The group is, to my surprise, crassly humorous, which I justify under the umbrella of Self Care.
For class, we’ve been reading Goat Song, a non-fiction book written by novelist Brad Kessler. In the book, Kessler lays out his experience purchasing a farm in Vermont alongside his wife (who seems always to be pinning her hair back or pulling her boots up before going out to face some farming crisis). Kessler whimsically explains the process of husbandry, includes daunting journal entries on dairy farming, and details his studious breeding of goats. After reading through a section of pastoral observations, I noticed one of the writing prompts for the following week.
“Where does the fragrance of lilacs take you?”
I tune inward – a quick sensory scan to recall what lilacs even smell like. For some reason, I’m seeing a bundle of forget-me-nots. “No, that’s not right,” I think, digging again into images of flowers, hoping to trigger an appropriate smell. I suddenly taste Lily of the Valley. Lilies have such potency. “Still not right.” What comes up next is an overpowering floral fragrance of lavender. It brings me back to my wedding and the days leading up to it. In preparation, I had ordered a bundle of dried lavender from an Ohio lavender farm. How I delicately pulled each piece apart as homeopathic aromas filled the room. A cluster of hard stems in my hand clinging to pungent buds as they fell into my lap and rolled onto the floor.
Lavender had for dozens of years been my favorite scent. Before going out with friends or as an invitation to calm, I’d often rub oil on my neck or between my wrists. Aside from the soothing medicinal benefits, I loved the way lavender looked on its long thin stem – the way its crown bends forward as it becomes heavy with bloom. How it dances in the wind when a breeze comes rushing through.
I am remembering a tiny kitchen in my mother’s duplex. My friends and I are sitting around her dining room table, streaming honey into small glass jars. I had dumped handfuls of dried lavender buds into a pot of honey to infuse for party favors on my wedding day. At the stove, my friend Miriam and I poured 5 gallons of local honey into a large pot filtered by cheesecloth and pinned down with wooden spoons. I stood on a chair hovering over the pot while we laughed and stirred – my arm becoming heavier with each circular motion. I cut a pile of square cloth and made little tags meant to be tied around the lids. I had hand-drawn botanical plants on one side of the tags. On the opposite side, I printed: “Rachel & Paul, August 15, 2013”. Four months later, on a friend’s farm near the Pennsylvania border, our guests would find little jars of lavender honey sitting at each plate. We’d laugh, dance, and I’d cry as my groom ground us in prayer – making false motion toward love and integrity which would soon become injuries of verbal and emotional abuse after we moved in together.
Eight years later, I found myself in Miriam’s kitchen, squatting down while staring at a small jar of honey held by the tips of my fingers. She would be the one getting married the next day. Miriam had been a bridesmaid at my wedding. Here I was, returning the favor. After driving to Wisconsin from Ohio, I was searching her cabinet for a natural throat-coat to soothe a soreness caused by running in the cold of snow. I’m staring at this jar of honey she saved with its cloth lid and my artwork held on by a stiff string. I’m remembering the day we poured from that batch into this tiny jar. How naive and hopeful I was, unknowing how broken I’d be or how long it would take to escape something I had been so excited to enter into. “Did you find it?” she asks from behind my shoulder. “Yes, I found your 100 jars of honey,” I say with sarcasm. “I can’t believe you haven’t opened this!” I hold the little jar above my head for her to see. “Of course not – it’s special,” she replies. Trying not to shift the focus of her wedding weekend onto my own grief and regrets, I smile and go back to that day in the kitchen – the smell of lavender and honey – the safety with friends. I notice a tug of surprise mixed with grief; relief, sadness, doubt, and confidence as I reflect on how much change has taken place since then.
As I sit in class listening to the many stories, it occurs to me; life is like flying a kite. Though I attempt to move towards desired outcomes, elements outside of my control pull me in different directions. No matter what appears on the surface of another’s life (the stability, the whimsicalness, the purposeful demeanor), everyone has their unique challenges. While I often feel waves of regret, these stories remind me how to stay where I am. With awareness. With appreciation. With both intentionality and also flexibility.