Human Condition: Beauty, wisdom bloom below the surface _lowres


After almost three decades of gardening in Uptown New Orleans, I’ve seen innumerable stands of aspidistra. Some folks call it the cast-iron plant. You’ve seen it, too — large, strappy, dark green leaves, usually in shady spots.

There’s so much in our neighborhoods that it usually fades into the background, its contribution to the landscape often overlooked or taken for granted.

But now I have a greater appreciation for aspidistra. It happened last week, when I was helping a friend clear out a part of her yard.

We were yanking at the broad leaves, trying to get up the sturdy roots, when suddenly she called, “Come look at this!”

Lo and behold, the aspidistra had a flower on it. We were astonished. It was a showy bloom in speckled pinks, purples and mauves that would look very much at home, enlarged, on a Carnival float. We inspected other leaves and roots and found that most of the mature plants had flowers, one for each leaf, at ground level. You’d never find them by looking at the top of the plants.

The life lesson seemed obvious: Beauty and inspiration can be found in the commonplace by looking deeply, by seeing past the top layer.

I’m trying to use that lesson, trying to observe more closely the casual encounters that, in the past, I’ve been too distracted, too busy or too lazy to appreciate.

Last Sunday, for instance, I stopped by the grocery story after church. It was a beautiful day — endless blue sky and a pleasant south Louisiana January nip in the air. Then I saw a scrawny, disheveled young man kneeling by the store’s concrete wall.

My first reaction was concern, but his companion, unworried, was leaning against the wall and eating her breakfast from a Styrofoam takeout tray. They were clearly homeless.

Was the man looking for something?

No, he had a takeout tray too, and he was knees-and-elbows on the hard, cold asphalt, eating his meal with a white plastic fork. Not standing, not sitting on the nearby ledge, but kneeling.

I didn’t interrupt him to ask why. But I thought about the aspidistra flowers as the store’s automatic doors opened to let me in.

Instead of being irritated, could I learn something by looking more closely?

Maybe when I eat I should kneel, spiritually, to exercise humility and to give thanks. For the freedom to choose what I want to eat and the resources to go buy it. For those workers who grow and clean and get food to the store.

For the physical ability to shop, to stand by a stove and cook, in a home and a kitchen of my own.

For gas and electricity and clean water. For the senses of taste and smell and sight that enable me to enjoy my meals.

For the amazing mechanisms of our bodies that transform food into fuel and sustenance. For lessons learned from aspidistra.

For all this, and more, may we kneel when we eat.

— Brown lives in New Orleans

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