Tuesday, January 28, 2014

F is for Flowers, and the Figured Bass

Friends’ Meetings in England often have rotas for people to sign up to provide weekly floral arrangements in the Meeting House. Although I lived in England for two years and participated in a Meeting there, I had forgotten how seriously English Quakers took flowers until a year or two ago, when one of my English FaceBook friends remembered at the last minute that she was due to provide a bouquet that Sunday. It was the dead of winter, but the local farmers’ market would no doubt have just what she needed.

When I was in England, the Young Friends were responsible for doing the flowers once or twice a year.  The woman who set up the rota asked me if I would take the Young Friends’ slot that first year. She had a large flower garden and would be more than happy for me to take a look round on Saturday. She had no idea that, in comparison with my British contemporaries, the average North American young person —especially those from a cold climate— had little training in floral arrangement. However, my mother was an exception (perhaps because of various family names or a genetic endowment that has somehow eluded most of the rest of us), and  I picked up just enough knowledge to avoid total humiliation.

Since I am an American and it was spring, I used the first lines from Walt Whitman’s poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” as inspiration. Walt Whitman had a Quaker background, after all. I set up the requisite three arrangements —a large one in the Meeting room and smaller ones by the entrance to the Meeting room and near the guest book downstairs— and went away feeling quite smug about it. I was feeling so good that I almost forgot my mother’s dictum that anyone arranging flowers needed to turn up early the next day in case something was not quite right.

Fortunately, I had only almost forgotten my mother’s advice: I arrived at the Meeting House early enough on Sunday morning to rectify the situation when I discovered that the lilacs had consumed all the water overnight and were hanging limp. The replacements, retrieved via a sweaty bicycle ride to my own living quarters, a graduate student house with a substantial number of flowering shrubs, were more than adequate as far as I was concerned, although I could never quite shake the idea that my English hosts would have preferred more peonies.

That was the first and so far the only time I have tried my hand at floral decorations for Meeting. When I read on FaceBook about the English Quaker dashing off to find a worthy contribution for the flower rota, I had a flush of nostalgia. “Maybe,” I suggested to another Friend who had lived in England, “January would be more pleasant at the Meeting House if we had a flower rota like the ones in England.” I saw a pair of furrowed eyebrows pointing in my direction. “What flower rotas in England?” “English Quakers take having flowers at Meeting almost as seriously as tea and biscuits.” “That they do. I had forgotten that Friends took turns to provide the arrangements. But the best of British luck to you, as they say.”

The best of British luck, indeed. For starters, I would have to be a one-Friend rota. More to the point, few of the flowers available in the northeastern USA or eastern Canada in January are ethically sourced. Even if I could obtain some that would meet reasonable standards, whether ethical, fiscal, or aesthetic, there was the question of getting them to a Meeting House thirty minutes away, in a car that had sprouted frost inside and out. To warm up the car enough to transport them would contribute more to climate change than I wanted to contemplate — but never mind. That Saturday I found a high-end florist near us who sold me some Canadian-grown flowers of a species whose name escapes me. What happened then? You guessed it: they got exactly as far as a vase in our dining room at home. The Meeting room had the same house plant in the corner that it has always had, and that plant does not blossom.

Of course, lots of cold-climate North American gardeners take cut flowers or flowering house plants to Meeting, but most of them do not have the temerity to try it in January. Then again, what would I know? As much as I enjoy roses (I have planted a few Abraham Darby climbers and three or four other David Austin roses around the yard), I have never been able to handle our invasive plant problem. Needless to say, I did not inherit any flower genes from my mother.

Maybe I should phrase that last sentence somewhat differently: I did not inherit any talent for Sitzfleisch (one of those useful German compound words, in this case referring to the ability to sit on one’s derriere until the work **GOT DONE**) from my mother, father, or anyone else. There is a reason I was given the boot from piano lessons at the age of ten, and piano lessons are a lot more enjoyable —to me at least— than briars, goutweed, and sheep manure. For that matter, although I am confronting the demon of the piano lessons, I am still watching my eyes glaze over at that music theory book with the lesson about how to figure out a figured bass. I know about the history of the figured bass, but to construct a figured bass line? Now that requires work and maybe signing up for an exam as a way of instilling discipline. It’s an even question as to whether I would rather pull weeds for an hour. It is certain, though, that mulling over the issue for an hour in Meeting for Worship is much easier than doing either.
An Abraham Darby Climbing Rose by the southern wall of our house ©Kristin Lord 1998


  1. My mum was great gardener and my cousin (not a Quaker) is skilled flower arranger and teacher of flower arranging. She creates extraordinary displays for her church. But, ofhdear, maybe I'm not a typical British Quaker. I recognise grass, it's shorter than flowers and green. Flowers are taller than grass and often have brightly coloured blossom. Shrubs are taller than flowers while trees are bigger than shrubs. And that's it as far as I'm concerned. With much effort I have learned to tell a dandelion from a daffodil (though both are inconveniently yellow) and a rowan tree from a scots pine. But I thrill to wide open desolate landscapes of rock and furze (gorse) and water and sky. There is something deeply moving about a high, wide open moor that I don't find in a garden.

  2. Ah - not all Quakers or Meeting Houses take their flowers so seriously. A local church rang to ask 'the ladies of the Congregation' to arrange a display for their Centenary Celebration and Service.

    I replied, slightly apologetically, that our flowers were arranged by a wide variety of people but often were just a small posy in a jam jar - and I was fairly certain that this wasn't exactly what they were looking for...