My wife is a beautiful, virtuous woman who has many talents. Horticulture is not one of them. Houseplants in her care have a survival rate equivalent to ebola victims. But she’s had one plant, a Christmas cactus, that has stuck around for decades. Its survival technique is simple. Other plants grow pale and limp when mistreated but when this cactus has been forgotten, neglected and is on death’s door, it suddenly bursts into full crimson bloom.
That’s usually all it takes to get the attention it needs and water and fertilizer are hastily applied.
I don’t know why the cactus does this, since, in nature, it would seem like a waste of resources to get all blossomy on the branch when the roots are close to death. Still, it reminds me of a pattern I see in people. This pattern doesn’t involve death exactly. It involves deadlines. I work in journalism and I dabble in theatre — both intensely reliant on deadlines. Now, I confess, I’m a chronic procrastinator, but my experience seems to be common. There is a moment just before a complex task MUST be done when all seems lost. The story and photos will never arrive in time, the copy will not get proofed, the actors will never learn their lines, the dancers will never get their cues. The smell of death is in the air. Then something magical happens. The curtain rises to applause, the whole magazine goes to press — the dying thing blooms.
Sometimes, lately, it seems like the whole world is on a deadline and the prospects of completing things on schedule (or at all) seem pretty dim.
Naturally when the economy is suffering limited funds tend to get channeled to the most practical needs, often leaving programs that are more aesthetically oriented to fend for themselves. For example, when schools are under pressure to cut costs, the art departments are usually the first to go on the chopping block.
It’s not just the state that operates this way. After all, when family finances are in a tightening vice, we probably don’t go out and buy musical instruments and art lessons for everyone. But maybe we should.
The magic that turns a horrible dress rehearsal into a night of great theatre or turns a deadline crunch into a readable publication is not a calculation, but a creative spark. It’s the same impulse that turns a blank canvas into a painting or notes into a song.
But the lesson of the Christmas cactus is not an appeal for more state funding of the arts, it’s a reminder that beauty, imagination and inspiration can still be bountifully produced when resources are scarce and the money is gone.
Regarding poverty, a famous teacher once said: “Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow.” His lesson concluded that, working with nothing more than dirt and light, simple flowers outclass someone wearing expensive designer clothes.
Allow me to put my own creative horticultural spin on that teacher’s sermon: When times are tough, remember the lesson of the cactus: Don’t swoon, just bloom.
This article appears in the May 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine