I am an amateur orchidist. More accurately, I have been gifted orchids and have just enough of a green thumb to keep them alive, sort of. Mostly, I keep their foliage alive. I have a great collection of thick green leaves growing in decorative pots.
Earlier this year, though, something exciting happened. A stalk, that for a long time I assumed to be one of those alien tentacles that sprout from the base of orchid plants, began to change. I watched with some curiosity, and no small bit of hope, as it grew straight up and arced slightly to the left. As we entered March, a cluster of plump buds appeared along the stalk. I’m no expert, but it looked as though the plant might be gearing up for the rare re-bloom.
At first I was afraid to show these developments to my family. I have gotten this far before, only to have the still-closed buds wither and drop from the stalk. But as we entered quarantine and were forced to dwell slowly and deeply in our home, I couldn’t help but alert them to the possibility. It seemed we were due for an opening.
My town is peppered with signs. Many of them read Black Lives Matter. Some of them are variations on that message: Hate Has No Home Here or No Justice, No Peace. These protest messages run the gamut from professionally printed signs staked in lawns to hand-lettered, tattered poster board salvaged from marches and stapled to porch railings.
Then there are the signs that are remnants of the first weeks of the pandemic. Thank yous to the helpers, grocery store and postal employees. Well-wishes to healthcare workers and other first responders. Declarations of solidarity: Because we are apart, we will get through this together. These signs are mostly taped to the inside of windows, facing out, and appear to be made, or at least decorated, by children. Something to keep the kids busy during the long weeks. Something to keep our spirits up.
As of the past several weeks, the most common sign in my town reads: We’re Open! These signs—many of them banner-sized—are the declarations of restaurants and stores to their former customers: come in, patronize our place, we need you back. They are nothing more than capitalism at work. But because we have been living apart, communicating largely through our signs, I can’t help but read them as some kind of general public address. To walk through my downtown is to get the existential message that, in fact, we are opening.
There is nothing self-evident about the blossoming of an orchid. One night, with a last glance at a bud pregnant with possibility, you head up to bed. The next day you come down to a shy unfurling flower. It’s magic. Despite the fact that I didn’t leave my home for 12 weeks, I never once saw the petals on these blooms move. And yet, by the end of quarantine, all nine buds had fully opened.
A blossom in the early stages of opening can look a little dicey—like things could go either way. After spotting the green buds coming apart, I remained unconvinced that we were definitively moving toward bloom. The bud could just as easily have been closing as opening. When we would first come downstairs to discover new activity, we saw as much of the petal’s green outer layer as of the potential flower inside. But when we squatted down and got beneath the plant to look up into the bloom, what we saw took our breath away.
Our orchid blossoms are magnificent. Light cream with a pinkish tint, the blushing petals, now fully opened, are shot through with bright pink veins and capillaries. So closely do the markings of these flowers resemble our circulatory system that their existence makes me want to go toe to toe with doubters of Intelligent Design. I find it impossible to look at these blossoms and not see a master plan. The protruding petal at the heart of the bloom is a deep magenta with a yellow speckled center. When the ninth and final blossom opened, the lush beauty of the plant captivated us entirely. It was, in a bleak time, a decadent thing. Something to keep our spirits up. As all nine blossoms are still clinging to the plant, we have taken to moving it around the house with us—placing it on kitchen counters and end tables, keeping it within our sight.
Openings are one part mystery, one part miracle. Who’s to say when they will occur, or what will result. Nothing obvious guarantees their success or explains their mechanics. Time and time again, during our long months inside, I went to sleep only to wake up and discover that some force deep in the orchid had been at work, and that—unlikely as it may have been in my dry, radiator-heated Chicago home—another bloom had sprung open.
Outside my walls, the world is on fire. I have watched with grief, anger, and horror as the events of the last few weeks have transpired, have tried in vain to make sense of it for my children, for myself. It’s not easy. In my best moments, I want to believe that something is opening. That larger forces are at work which may, finally, be moving us toward a place where Black lives matter, where hate has no home. But these are early days. Things feel dicey—like they could go either way. And this time there is no glimpse of what is to come.
I am trying to remain encouraged. While this is a moment of massive pain and confusion, it is also one of movement and change. None of us know what will come of it, but the alternative is to stay closed – to wither and drop. If we remain tightly curled in on ourselves, there is no possibility for magnificence. So for now I will take to heart the words I see written all over my town, say them as a kind of mantra. Yes. At last. We are open.
Susannah Pratt is a Chicago-based writer specializing in essay and review. Her work has appeared in Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and 3rd Coast Review. You can find these pieces and others at susannahqpratt.com.
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