Consider the lilies, he says.
Look at how they grow.
See how they neither toil nor spin nor press their fingers to their neck, checking for the blood-beat that proves they’re alive.
But it’s difficult to find lilies in a city of concrete and artificial light. How the Q train, hurtling downtown through the black tunnels, offers nothing to rest one’s eyes upon, certainly no flowers to ponder. Glass instead of green.
Almost four years ago, I moved to New York City craving metal. Having tasted nothing but the slow syrup of southern living, I grew an appetite for industry, for sharp corners and buildings and sidewalks crisscrossed with subway grates. That first year, I wandered up and down numbered streets with no agenda, pulling myself down and across and through the island like a thread and needle. The sounds of the city held me; sirens became lullabies at night in a way the cicadas never were. I carried the wonder of it all in my chest until it outgrew my body and spread like an ache, like a homesickness for the place where I already was.
How quickly we lose our first love. How easy to tip over from enchantment into resignation, then, like all long-term relationships, into something that tastes like resentment. It doesn’t take long to have a grocery store and a place to pick up prescriptions, for routine to displace awe and for sirens to show themselves for what they are: talismans that pierce the night, reminders of how close we all are to death.
Fear began to shape my vision. Shadows grew longer down avenues; I became unmoored on the edges of subway platforms, feeling trapped and far from my body all at once. I stepped on covered sinkholes down 46th street, wondering if one day I might fall right through, Alice in Wonderland-style, never finding the bottom, always dropping, dropping, down, down.
Time has softened the edges of this anxiety, but I still don’t know where to retreat when it whispers it's refrains. When fear prickles my neck, or pride rears its green head, or my insides howl for affection, I try to remember what he says: to consider the small things dancing in a field. So now I draw a lily on my thumb. Smeared pen crawling down the underbelly of my wrist, ink-rivers converging with the mouths of veins. Flowing back to the heart, always to my heart.
I rub my finger on the lily when all I have is glass and brick, storefronts and taxis. This touch becomes a prayer. I fix my eyes on ink-petals and remember that writer who said trees are apostles of light and hope that maybe hand-flowers are too. I envy the careless faithfulness of the lilies. Their ability to stay. I draw a ribbon around the stem and call it grace because perhaps grace is what ties this whole thing together. Grace is what keeps.
On one of those nights when it’s all closing in, when the city I love feels so suffocating, I stop at the bodega on my walk to dinner. I find a bouquet of lilies by the door and pick up a petal that has fallen underneath, pocketing it like treasure. Maybe there is no place where I cannot consider the lilies, I think. I begin to wonder if it doesn’t even hinge upon the lilies; it’s the field, after all, that is dotted with blooming life, that receives the glory and care of its maker. It’s the city and the subway and the bodega and the skin on my wrist that is seen by God, covered by God.
So I pause at the streetlight with the lily in my pocket and on my hand, covered like a field, and as the cars honk and rush past my feet, I sway like a lily in the wind, sure for at least this moment that she is free.
Cover image by Annie Sprout.