Take time to smell the (plastic) lilies

Take time to smell the (plastic) lilies
PHOTO: Mak Mun San

I parked the car, killed the engine and tried to muster the energy to get out.

The evening had been long and tiring. I had been teaching essays to working adults at a three-hour seminar, and the drive home had been filled with thoughts on how better to draw the quieter students into class discussion.

We had talked about first-person narrative point of view, versus second- or third-person, and I now found myself wanting to inhabit another person's skin, to walk in their shoes and feel what they feel, to borrow their lives. Anything, really, rather than open the door, leave the driver's seat, climb the stairs to my flat and confront the reality of my own existence.

What was waiting for me? Junk mail and library books cluttering up the living room. Myriad home repairs. Possibly two insomniac young boys clamouring for bedtime stories.

Mundane concerns, no doubt, and nothing terrible. Yet, somehow, this particular night, I didn't relish giving up the cocoon of my sedan.

I looked out the windscreen and saw the lit window of my neighbour's ground-floor apartment. In that window, framed in a perfect rectangle, was a vase of lilies, sitting on the dining table. The calla lilies stood tall and proud, like a fountain in stasis: their white petals giving the effect of fishtail gowns.

The bouquet looked as though it sat in a spotlight. As I gazed at it, I felt an ache brought on by loveliness. There are seldom flowers in my own home. I used to buy $5 stalks of orchids from the supermarket and stick them in a bubbled glass cylinder for the bookshelf, but stopped when my sons' indoor football and cricket games constantly threatened fragile ware.

Growing up, I had associated fresh blooms with good times: My mother took flower-arranging classes and created artistic floral tableaux for us, until financial troubles and other more pressing family issues crowded in and her interest dried up.

Looking at my neighbour's lilies, I felt a bittersweet admiration for this woman. She was a good friend - the wife of an old buddy of mine. When I first bought my flat, she had been one of the first people I called to break the news. Excited, she had looked for a similar unit in the area and moved in a few months after us. We had dinner at each other's homes and partied together at champagne-fuelled nights out.

I knew she had a full-time job, a young daughter, a pet maltese dog and taught Sunday school in church. As women and mothers, we were not all that un-alike. Why was it that while I felt I was struggling to get by, from one day to the next, often feeling like something the cat dragged in, she was able to find the energy to buy fresh-cut flowers to decorate her well-kept home, surrounding herself with beauty? What was her secret?

The thought took the wind out of my sails, and I trudged home wearily, where I went on pretty much as before - except, a little sorrier for and less satisfied with myself.

Over the next few days, I tried to psyche myself up, so that I, too, could do something about making sure I had objects of beauty around me. With the help of the Supportive Spouse, I got round to making a few small repairs around the home. I finally framed the posters I had bought but left unpacked in their cardboard tubes, even though they had to be left propped against the wall on the floor until I figured out how to drill holes and install hanging hooks.

Still, I decided, we had better not attempt having fresh flowers in the house. It was a time and monetary commitment I was not ready for.

Then, a couple of weeks later, my friend and neighbour of the lilies messaged me.

"When are we going to have dinner again?" she asked.

We swiped through our calendars and decided on Thursday. Then, on a whim, I told her about the night I glimpsed her lilies. How lovely they were, I said. (How they made me wonder why I was not more together as a person, I did not say.)

"Oh," she replied. "They're fake. $4.95 from Ikea."

The penny dropped. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Insert other cliches here, but I basically felt like a fool. The view from the outside is almost always never the same as that from the inside.

I turn 38 tomorrow. And I think it has taken me more than three decades to learn to be happy with myself and what I have. My birthday wish is that I will not waste another 38 years more not loving myself thoroughly and wishing I were someone else.

In a few days, I will be having dinner at my inimitable friend's. I will make sure to sniff the non-scent of her plastic lilies and be thankful for the beautiful people who surround me - free of envy and self-doubt.


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