“It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”
After 16 years of marriage, J told me (in a moment of anger, which I’d learned by then to provoke in order to get honest answers) that all he really knows about me is that I like books and coffee and dark chocolate.
He was selling himself short, though.
He also knows that hydrangeas are my favorite flower.
When we got married, I wore orchids in my hair.
My bouquet was hydrangeas and orchids and hypericum berries, and some others I’m forgetting. I wore a sleeveless, scoop-necked, simple dress with no beading or train. It clung and draped in all the right places. We bought it at David’s Bridal for $400 and it was perfect. I wore light pink shoes with kitten heels and one of them slipped off so I kicked the other one away and ran up the aisle barefoot and laughing with my new husband.
I love hydrangeas. They remind me of places I grew up and places I loved as a child. I love how massive they grow, how they take up space, how they change colors, how they bloom for months, and how even in winter they hold their shape.
I also love daffodils, which my mom always called jonquils. I’ve never heard another person call them jonquils. I love brave crocuses and droopingly sweet lily of the valley. I love orchids, the runway models of the flower world. I love Queen Anne’s lace picked from a roadside ditch. I love peonies, heavy with rain or dew, peppery sweet and lush. I love eucalyptus leaves and snapdragons and all kinds of lilies and fallen tree branches and waving grasses and palm fronds. I love moss, how soft it is, how it smells like the woods.
I love flowers I don’t know the names of and I love green things living and growing and I love the cold-shocked shapes they leave behind in winter.
I love the smell of sycamore and I love the way an oak tree claws the air with its gnarled branches.
At some point in my early 20s I told J my favorite flower was a hydrangea. When he got me flowers, which he did several times a year, it was always hydrangeas.
Because he knew that about me. He knew that I love hydrangeas, and he knew that I love coffee and books and dark chocolate, and those things are true.
What is it to know a living thing?
Is it to know their name, their list of attributes? Is it to rattle off family, genus, species? Is it to memorize averages and preferences? To learn their history, to sketch their shape?
I study what I love because it helps me love it more. But studying is not loving. Memorizing is not knowing.
To know a living thing, you have to forget everything you’ve learned about it.
Listen to the creak of branches in a storm. Listen to the tone of a voice. Breathe the same air and learn the different smells after rain or under a bright noon sun. Hold someone’s hand and feel the muscles tense or relax. Notice the petals droop in the evening and wake up in the morning. Notice what makes someone withdraw into quiet and notice what makes them laugh without reserve.
It is the same with flowers, with trees, with people, with all living things.
Studying allows you to be a collector. Knowing is what it takes to be a lover.