A Beacon of Hope
so many metaphors, so little time
I am sitting at my bedroom desk, which I’ve turned to face the sliding glass door to get more light on my face. Even so, I am staring at my own reflection on the laptop wondering if I always look this tired.
“So, what are your creative outlets?” the interviewer asks.
I force myself to stop mentally shopping for under-eye concealer and manage to answer the question. The words “writing” and “photography” roll off my tongue.
“And, well, I’m an aspiring gardener,” I say with a shrug, joking that by aspiring I mean terrible but can’t seem to quit trying.
Over the summer I deleted Instagram and started watching gardening videos on YouTube instead. I signed up for a free e-course. I bought seed packets at the local nursery. I declared, again, for probably the 17th time, that this will be the year I master my own yard. Despite my track record of irresponsible plant ownership, there is something inside me that cannot let this aspiration go. I am like one of those actresses who lives in Hollywood for twelve years scraping by as a waitress, convinced my big break is going to happen any day.
For years I have bought the wrong plants and planted them in the wrong place. Too much sun. Too much shade. I overwater. Underwater. Prune too much. Forget to prune altogether. I know nothing of spacing, flower food, what plants do well in what kinds of environments. My beloved peach tree made seven peaches this year, and before I even had a chance to beam with pride, all of them fell victim to the squirrels. I was—how shall I say this kindly?—pissed. Another gardening failure, although technically not my fault. My husband says this is why we need a dog.
There are plenty of gardening experts out there to learn from, like the ones on YouTube who put ads in their videos and probably make a thousand bucks a month from dummies like me who will watch and watch and watch and still fail to implement what they say.
And yet, I try. I throw seeds in the dirt and wait with bated breath.
Which is why, a few weeks ago, when a single sunflower sprouted out of my dilapidated garden bed, I gasped.
Most afternoons I putter around my yard like a retired workaholic who has no idea how to fill empty hours in a day. I fill up the watering can and dump water here and there. I trim a few branches off the rose bush my mother-in-law planted, extra desperate to keep that one alive. I stare at the dirt. I look for ladybugs.
Apparently at some point this summer, I haphazardly threw a sunflower seed in the ground. I don’t even remember planting it, to be honest.
For the past two weeks I have checked on the sunflower multiple times a day, confirming it’s still there, still alive. As if I am newly pregnant, but need to pee on 18 sticks to really believe it.
I snap photos to capture the evidence. If you looked at my camera roll right now, there would be no less than a dozen photos of the same singular flower. Proof: that really happened. There is a stunning sunflower in my yard that I do not remember planting. And yet, there she is. In all her golden glory—standing tall, straight neck, face beaming like the sun.
The thing about being a writer is that you cannot go into your backyard and see a single sunflower stretching toward the sky and not consider the metaphor.
The problem with being a writer is that there are too many metaphors, and not enough time to write about all of them well.
My mind goes straight to creativity, of course. How this one blooming sunflower inspired me to buy more seed packets, to dig more little holes in the dirt and pray for an encore. This one blooming sunflower became my muse, my tiny victory dance, a win that nudged me forward with enough momentum to try, try again.
With exactly one sparkling sunflower in my portfolio, I confidently ask my husband to move another empty gardening bed next to it. Clearly the sun is working here. Clearly this location is capable of growing something. The YouTubers would be so proud! I return to the nursery, again, high on hope, and add four bags of soil to the cart. All different bags, I should mention, because I do not know the difference between potting soil and organic soil and soil with Biocharmax (?). I figure if I buy one of each, I can mix the whole lot into a soil stir fry of sorts. (Have I mentioned I’m also not great at cooking?)
Over Labor Day weekend, I grunt and sweat and prep an entire second gardening bed. I plant poppies and zinnias and sunflowers, all of which the Internet tells me I can still grow this late in Sacramento. Time will tell. I already have my doubts.
This is the truth: I never would have spent my Labor Day weekend filling up a second gardening bed had the solo sunflower not bloomed. This is the first metaphor that comes to mind: sometimes you need one small victory to keep going. You need one great sentence. One captivating photo. One tiny creative win to propel the next. I let that idea roll around in my head for a bit, like a lavender ball in the dryer.
There are so many other ways to write about this sunflower, though.
I could write a braided essay. Find three strands of brilliance, explore the history of the sunflower, the meaning, the symbolism. I could try a hermit crab essay, How To Plant Sunflowers, a guide that actually has nothing to do with sunflowers at all and—double whammy!—contains quite a bit of irony because I do not, actually, know how to grow sunflowers.
Or, you know, I could write a handful of poetic sentences and throw them in a Canva graphic. Put that on Instagram with a swipe right photo of the sunflower itself. Post and ghost as I am prone to do, then come back to the app several hours later for a quick hit of dopamine to find that, as expected, 18% of the people who follow me actually saw it.
The problem with being a writer is that there are so many ways to write, and so many places you can put your writing, and still so many metaphors for that dang sunflower, it’s almost impossible to know which one is right.
This morning I woke up at 3:47 with tears in my eyes. I am carrying pain on behalf of someone I love, which is consuming my thoughts and prayers. As I laid awake in the dark, staring at a blurry ceiling I can’t even see without my contacts in, I prayed and prayed and prayed one of those bold prayers where I am asking God to do the impossible.
God, I know you can do this.
God, why won’t you do this?
And then, quietly,
God, help me believe you can actually do this.
At 4:11am, I turned on the coffee and took an ice roller to my face and read a book called How To Stay Married and cried some more.
When the sun came up, I went outside to check on the sunflower. I considered all the things working against her. The old splintery container in which she was born. The persistent weeds. The blistering sun. The stupid squirrels. Her dummy caretaker.
In spite of it all, there she is.
Strong and beautiful.
This is where the metaphor either falls off a cliff or comes together. On second thought, I might need to tuck this into a hermit crab after all.
Here’s what you need to know: the sunflower is going to be okay.
When I came home on a Monday afternoon in March with a fresh tattoo on my arm, Brett said, “You’re going to get more, aren’t you?”
I laughed and nodded, Probably.
He asked what I had in mind and I threw out a few ideas.
“I don’t know exactly how to do this one,” I said, “but I’d love to get a tattoo of flowers growing in the cracks of a sidewalk.”
This has always been my shorthand for what it means to be an artist: a person who notices something beautiful growing in something broken.
But there’s another meaning, of course, because when you’re a writer there’s always another meaning. So many meanings, so little time. (Gosh writers are an exhausting bunch.) For example, flowers growing in the cracks of sidewalks could also be shorthand for a miracle.
How did they grow there? Who is providing for them? I think of the hours and hours I have spent on Pinterest and Google and YouTube trying to get one damn seed packet to come to life—all the while in a deserted parking lot, in the middle of nowhere, in cracked cement, is a free bouquet waiting to be picked.
“Mom, you’re not going to BELIEVE dis!” Presley tells me emphatically.
“What is it, babe?” I ask, my curiosity piqued.
She tells me to close my eyes, and grabs my hand.
“Don’t look,” she instructs, pulling me across the yard.
We get to the planter box and she tells me to open my eyes.
I gasp, as if I’ve never seen the sunflower before, as if I have not checked on it multiple times a day the way I’d check on a sleeping newborn, as if there are not 14 photos of said sunflower in my camera roll right this very minute.
Presley oohs and ahhs with me. We are both aghast. Astonished. That something this lovely could exist, could be in our own backyard, could grow right here, in this.
Here’s where I’ve landed: that sunflower blooming in my yard does not represent a muse. It does not represent a small victory, although I could have easily spun the tale that direction into a creative pep talk with a quippy “buy my book here” at the end.
Today, in this moment, that sunflower in my yard represents a beacon of hope.
It is hope I am clinging to in the midst of sadness and grief and helplessness. It is a reminder that beautiful things can grow in busted old containers, not because of luck or chance or because a terrible gardener happened to watch the right YouTube video, but because God himself made the soil, the rain, the molecules and air and sun that can cause a flower to burst out of the ground and stretch its face toward heaven.
After I water the sunflower and the second gardening bed (and the tiny pot where I planted cilantro because I was on a roll), I opened Substack and read these words from my friend:
But it’s also hard to believe, when you plant a seed in the warm earth, that it will ever grow out of the soil and be something good. Not every seed will, after all. Especially in the hands of an inexperienced gardener like myself. But not every seed has to grow to make a beautiful, life-giving garden. You only need just enough.
You only need just enough.
You only need just enough.
You only need just enough.
The problem with being a writer is that sometimes I write things and think my work is terrible, so I pick, and pick, and pick the sentences to death, like an overbearing stage mom fussing with her daughter’s makeup.
These sentences, though? They flowed out of me like a river. I do not care if they’re terrible. I do not have time to pick. I am letting these words fly into the abyss—for me, for the sunflower, for the friend who will know what all of it means. This is all I have to offer. Just enough hope. Just enough belief that everything is going to be okay.