Monday, August 8, 2016

“Bloom Where You're Planted” as a Thought Stopping Cliche

I'd heard that phrase before, but even now and even with my positive experience with the concept many years later, the phrase still connotes something negative for me. 

The last post detailed my very good experience with the sage advice of determination to bloom and grow, even if it's not where you want to be or the conditions are not that favorable.

Even so, my mind still goes back to a discussion at Maureen's pretty little Cape Cod in Brooklyn Park when she leveled it at me. She doesn't even live there anymore, but a tiny part of me still finds itself in that place as my first flash of an image when I hear that phrase. In many ways, I think of it as just one of the parallels that my church used to the Fundamentalist Mormon imperative for women to “keep sweet.” We were no different, really. The expectations for women were very much the same, but we just didn't go to the same lengths as the FLDS to enforce that saccharine. It wasn't really sweetness anyway, just like Sweet and Low – a fake imitation of something else. It even speaks of being low(ly and humble). Oh, so appropriate.

And oddly, during that same visit, she asked me if I'd been partaking of too much sugar so as to dismiss my growing angst. That was an attempt at at least a triple whammy shaming tactic. First, my concerns could be dismissed as mood swings from sugar highs and lows if it happened to be true. My concerns and accusations of spiritual abuse from church leadership could be blamed on the white death. The next question concerned whether I was taking enough B-vitamin supplementation, as they are needed to help the body use carbohydrate regardless of your intake of refined sugars. There was potential for a second sin which gave way to a third sin – a verboten one.

I also knew well of the discussions among women of Watchman Nee's idea that if you know that if one behavior causes you to be given to sin, you're doubly guilty. What do you do if you're short with your children because you were up with them while they were sick the night before? Following Babywise in the right way was supposed to fix all of that, so someone must have missed a chapter about how to keep yourself from sinning even if you're tired from doing all that you need to do. Was I sinning by working strings of twelve hour shifts in a row? I remember that implication in one discussion and what I thought about it. I half wondered if the person who asked me about it was suggesting that I should quit my ICU job.

Spiritual Leprosy

Sins of self-neglect become worse if they cause you to grumble and challenge authority like Miriam who contracted leprosy for challenging Moses. I had been told that a few weeks earlier – that I had spiritual leprosy for challenging the elders. It's far easier to dismiss a mere, unsubmissive woman who is high on sugar, is a poor steward of her health by neglecting to take her Shaklee vitamins sold by an elder's wife, and is “sowing discord among the brethren.” (In my case, it was among sisters, though. “The men with the men and the women with the women. That's how we do things here.” That's what I heard all the time.) 

I was like the crafty culprit who deceived hapless women in their homes while their husbands were away, unable to protect them from the marketplace of ideas and critical thought. When was the last time I'd made a recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook? (Maureen's was so well worn that she took it apart and put it in a three ring binder – a true sign of a godly wife!) Was I neglecting my Titus 2 duties? Didn't I grind my own wheat for bread? I definitely wasn't coming across as sweet, so there had to be some sin in play somewhere, right?  "Bloom where you're planted" was meant to shut me down and shut me up.  It was just one of many platitudes and automatic statements we rehearsed and heard rehearsed, subtly but effecively.

I loved Maureen. I still love her. I didn't know how she did it, though, and I thought that perhaps she had some sage wisdom to help me. She married the son of one of the original members of the original church. As much as I loved her, I could barely take her husband. I find it funny (strange and interesting) that one of her kids married one of the kids of another couple at church who were very similar to Maureen and her husband. Both men had great potential to be rude, demanding hotheads. I'd heard over the phone and witnessed both each husband publicly shame their wives more than once. I heard Maureen's actually say, “Submit to me, woman!” just before she hung up the phone with me one afternoon – more than twenty years ago. I can count on one hand how many times I've talked to her over the phone, and longest conversation took place a decade after we left that cultic church and moved away.

Loveable, Lovely Mountain Laurel

I grew up on a wooded lot, and my mom always said that we couldn't grow much because of the shade and our acidic soil. When I married and finally moved to a place where I could plant some annuals, I worked crazy hours and didn't pay much attention to the conditions where I planted things. I quickly remembered that certain plants couldn't take full sun, and how some couldn't take a lot of water. My first venture in Maryland when we rented a house allowed my wishful thinking to show through, too. Instead of watching the pattern of how much sun a certain spot took, I planted a whole flat of phlox in a spot that had far too much shade throughout the day. It only had full sun when I had the opportunity to look out the window in the morning. It didn't last very long.

I moved to Texas in winter, and by springtime there, I was settled in enough to be very attentive to the native plants that grew so well there. Things that I considered to be houseplants grew well in that climate as ground cover, and the types of things that grew well in the moist soil of the woods certainly didn't do well in the hot, dry, alkaline soil. I quickly took notice of the amazing Texas Mountain Laurel (sephora secundaflora) which bloomed early in the spring. The deep purple blooms were amazing and hung like clusters of grapes, reminding me of wisteria blooms in a way. Even their seed pods were interesting, and they turned into very nicely shaped trees if properly cropped. The very fragrant blooms smelled like grape soda, too, and so much so that you could catch their scent from a good distance away from them. The locals were quite proud of them and had stories to tell about their very poisonous seeds, too.

Not only did the flowering trees make a great impression on me because of their beauty, they also caught my attention because of their name. In Pennsylvania where I grew up, our State Flower was also called by the common name of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latiforia). They were beautiful things, like flowers of lace that grew on evergreen shrubs that remind me of a rhododendron. None grew near my home, but there were many that were planted along the highways, and I'd love it when family would point them out to me as we drove by them. The place where I would learn about them, though, would be with my grandparents. More of them grew in the wild in the mountains in their part of the State. Some of them grew in a patch up over the hill in the meadow near their home, but as much as I loved picking flowers, I thought of them as sacred.

They were precious, and there weren't many there. They were so unique that I didn't want to disturb them. And perhaps I don't remember, for I may have been scolded for picking them when I was too little to remember the details. They grew far enough away from the houses of friends and relatives there that I didn't feel comfortable going there alone. I do remember those who took me with them to see them would drag me away from them. The shrubs always grew at the edge of a wooded area in at least half shade, forming a border between woods and meadow. I have read that they are pretty tolerant of the sun, but I never saw any just growing out in the open as a stand alone shrub. They were like nature's lace, far more so than Queen Anne's Lace ever seemed to me.

What If You Can't Bloom Where You're Planted?

The same common name of such different plants, both of which were so significant to the two locales that I called home set me thinking. Those Texas Mountain Laurels were not the real ones to me – but they were so beautiful. Yet so were the Pennsylvania ones. I wished that I could brag about them to my new Texan friends, but not only were they not interested, there was no way that I could ever grow one there. I thought of how wonderful it might be to get one and grow it just to show visitors that there were multiple types of the plant bearing a common, common name and that they were both equally beautiful. But it could never happen.

I'd already become enchanted with Crepe Myrtle when I first moved to Maryland, and I purchased one and planted it in my parents' yard in Pennsylvania. It's much colder there than in Maryland, and the woman who sold them to me told me that they really don't last much further north of Philadelphia. I was overjoyed that it lived and made it there, thanks to my dad wrapping it in burlap for the winter. It didn't grow to be very big, but it did come back every year and would bloom for a few years until a terribly cold, long winter finally claimed it. I thought of how wonderful it would be if that Texas Mountain Laurel could survive in Pennsylvania, but I'd pushed fate far enough with just that Crepe Myrtle. And it would be cruel to take such a beautiful thing to consign it to a place where I knew that it wouldn't live and could never thrive. Hmmm.

From Optimal to Needful Conditions

It was one thing for me to think of my desert blooming like a rose when reading it as an encouragement, and it was yet another to hear someone use the “bloom where you're planted” platitude in the way that Maureen did. How sad that it became such a watershed moment for me about how we were all trained at that church to shame one another into compliance through comparison. But they wielded the Bible in the same way, so why should it catch me by surprise.

The examples of the Mountain Laurels became a life lesson for me that I would later connect with my experience when working with a trauma therapist years later. Apart from a strictly controlled environment, it would never be right to try to grow Sephora secundaflora in Pennsylvania. It could never be right to try to grow Kalmia latiforia in the Texas Hill Country. If you're discussing hearty and tenacious crabgrass or dandelions, the bane of golf courses everywhere, perhaps it's a good thing to encourage them to grow where they're planted – but it's not a black and white rule for every plant in every condition. The platitude to bloom where I was planted came up for me more than once in my healing process as it does now. Nothing could make enduring abuse tolerable, and placing a person in an abusive situation and expecting them to thrive within it is untenable. It's as crazy as expecting the acid loving cold and shade loving Pennsylvania State Flower to grow in the alkaline soil and heat of South Texas.

When I think of that morning at Maureen's house, I wish I had the example of the mountain laurels on the tip of my tongue as an example. I wish that I'd had the courage and knowledge and confidence and belief then to point out to her that she'd taken a lovely idea that could be used to build me up and had exploited it to tear me down. But it wouldn't have mattered, for she believed that she was saving me from my sinful self so that I could get back into line. The phrase became a thought stopping cliché that would be forever burned into my mind. She believed that she was helping me cope with a situation that she didn't understand and couldn't ever admit was a type of abuse. I think that too much of her life would unravel if she did. Her marriage depended on it. Her family depended on it. She believe that I needed to depend on it, too.

The Paradox of the Spiritual Abusive Church

Spiritually abusive churches make a fine mess of good and evil, disguised in such a way that it doesn't all seem so terrible at the time. I could live for awhile in that place in my mind. There were controlled means of support and community there, and I think of how much I pondered and questioned that I actually grew spiritually while I was there. In many ways, I grew for the better and for my benefit. How could I grow under abuse? But I did. It just didn't last. The good was very, very good and sustained me for a time. The bad was detrimental and horrid. And perhaps I was just more sensitive to it than others might be. (It wouldn't be the first time for someone to question my genus and species. Ha!)

A Texas Mountain Laurel could not grow in Pennsylvania, but a Mountain Laurel from the North could survive for a little while in the Texas heat. If I planted it in the shade and kept enough coffee grounds heaped up around its base, and if I doused it with enough water, the plant would grow for a time. It would not die overnight. It would cease to bloom. It's leaves would hold up for a time. And in time, the heat would get to it. It's roots would tap into too much limestone, and it would drink in a lethal dose of it. It would not thrive. Part of it would die back. It would exist, and then it would eventually stop. It would die.

When healing from trauma, I have been surprised over and over again when my heart realizes that the goal of healing is never a process of learning how to cope with abuse so as to tolerate it. That is survival. It isn't living life, it isn't healthy, and it certainly isn't living an abundant life. I've grown and I've even blossomed and bloomed in non-optimal conditions...for a time. And for a time, I suppose that it was okay. But we all deserve safe places to heal with safe people who seek our good and their good together in mutual support.

And what I've learned in this revisiting as I wander back through the maze of remembrance on my path to deeper healing is that it's perfectly okay and is needful to play to my strengths and to seek a place to grow that does more good for me than it does harm. It's a good thing to figure out what kind of mountain laurel I really am and to be planted in a place where I can grow and bloom and thrive. And sometimes, that takes us a bit of time to learn. And the next time that I must realize that I've wandered into a non-optimal place, I'll realize it and take care of myself that much quicker.  Self-care doesn't always come so easily.

For further reading until the next post: