Our neighbor Ed has a tree in his front yard that I love. It’s always one of spring’s earliest to bloom—bursting with heavy dollops of white flowers on delicate branches, the world around it still barely green. If I had asked Ed, he would have told me its name: a Royal Star Magnolia. He would have pulled his palms from the soil, sat back on his heels, and squinted up at me with a smile. He might have even invited me around back his little yellow house to see the brimming garden I know is there.
But I didn’t ask.
I gave my polite Midwestern greeting of a half-nod and mumbled “good morning” while my small dog and I continued on. Down the sidewalk, past Rafia’s nearly-ready tulips, the pristine square of Jim’s freshly-cut lawn, and the scraggly hedges at the edge of our own yard. The screen door slammed behind me as I stooped to let the dog off the leash, his nails clicking across the vinyl floors as he ran for the water bowl. I then took a seat at my desk, opened my laptop, and typed into the web browser: tree with big white petaled flowers.
Pressed enter. Scrolled until I found flowers with petals that curve long and soft like a fountain.
Royal Star Magnolia.
I realize, now, just how often I play that game. My friend sends me a text about how happy she is to see the crocuses in bloom. I search crocus to see what they look like, to see if I’ve seen them too—I have. Type my response: I love the crocuses! Happy to call them by name, to know them better now.
Last summer, our first in Iowa, I learned of violets. My dad sent me a picture of the field in front of his church, back in Kansas, completely covered in yellow dandelions. I thought of you. I smiled. Told him later, over the phone, that I’ve seen some dandelions here, but not as many as the small purple flowers I’ve seen covering the corners of lawns. They’re probably violets, he told me.
Once I ended the call, I searched the internet for a picture, taking my phone with me to the backyard where I could lay, belly-down in the grass, to compare. Yes—violets. They’re easy to know by the flower color, but I studied their small cupped leaves too so I could welcome them in early spring before they bloom, in late summer once they’ve gone.
It is a joy to know the world around you. To know it by name.
Violets and crocuses and daffodils. Red Maple with its helicopter seeds showering the lawn. House finches on the hanging feeder and juncos hunting for the seeds that have fallen below.
I know that the world doesn’t care if I know its names. I won’t pretend that the magnolia tree can feel as full as I do when my ears hear the song that is my name. That sweet pang of heart when I visit family in Texas and someone greets me with a rich and rolling, Riley Beth. Or, in Oklahoma, when my grandma says my name as she always does—long and sharp, like “rally.” When my husband whispered my name between wedding vows.
It’s a feeling that reaches deep, to the marrow of your bones. It’s what I imagine Mary must have felt when she heard the word that rolled off of Jesus’ resurrected lips:
No, the world doesn’t care, doesn’t feel like we do.
But still, God wanted it named.
A few days later, I walked past Ed’s yard again , returning from an evening stroll with my husband and dog. Hand in hand, we smiled down at the lilies just beginning to climb out of the soil in Ed’s yard, the white magnolia petals sprinkling the ground. We slowed as we arrived near Rafia’s, where she was tending to her tulips. They were gold and orange and a brilliant red. Her husband shuffled beside her, dragging his leg with each step (a stroke, other neighbors tell us), and their grown son stood nearby.
“Your flowers are looking beautiful,” I said to Rafia, holding the dog’s leash tight as he strained to greet them. She beamed.
Her husband mumbled something about the near freeze we had last week, and we laughed. The only things you can count on for an Iowa spring are not being able to count on it and at least a dozen conversations like this one—smiling as you make eye contact with the trees instead of your neighbors, shrugging shoulders, and sentences that trail off into sighs.
Rafia’s son joined in on the chiding, and I smiled again before noting that I didn’t believe we had met before.
“Maher,” he said. “M-A-H-E-R.”
“Maher,” I repeated, and my husband crossed the sidewalk to extend his hand.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Ben,” I said sharply, gawking at him. He took a step back from Maher and looked at me confused, before realizing.
The two men simultaneously offered apologies and embarrassed smiles. Of all the changes the global pandemic had brought to our world, our walks around the neighborhood had felt untouched.
“I guess I haven’t met anyone new since this started,” Ben said. “It’s just second-nature.”
“No worries,” Maher replied, his hand waving away any tension that might still be lingering in the air.
Now back on the far end of the sidewalk, we talked and laughed some more. The weather came up again. The annual tulip festival in Pella that we were hoping to finally go to before it was canceled. Maher’s new job here in town. Where he lived before here.
“Do you want to join us for dinner?” Rafia asked suddenly. “We have not eaten yet. Ramadaan.”
Her eyes and hand lifted to the deepening sky behind her. Ben and I looked at each other before stumbling over half-formed excuses about the meal we just ate, the late hour on a weekday, the social-distancing guidelines. Rafia nodded, still smiling, and Maher looked at the ground.
“Another time,” I finally called out. “To be honest, we’re not much for spur-of-the-moment things like this. But let’s plan for another time. Maybe we can have you over to sit on our back patio one evening.”
Agreement swept across the group, we changed the subject to regard the beauty of the tulips once again, and then began taking slow steps down the sidewalk as we offered our goodbyes.
“Do you know Rafia’s husband’s name?” I asked Ben, climbing our front steps. He thought for a moment before answering, pulling open the screen door and holding it for me.
When I think of Adam naming the animals in Genesis 2, I always revert to my Sunday school perception of the scene: A smiling young man sitting on a stone, a well-placed animal covering his naked lower-half, the strange variety of creatures gathered in a semi-circle around him, and his arm extended as he calls out a name for each one. Fair-skinned, clean-shaven, chiseled-chest Adam. A scruffy lion looking for a scratch behind the ear with a bird perched on its back, a bunny peeking out between its legs.
As I grew older, it became one of the many stories I questioned. Did God really ask Adam to name the animals, or is that just a nice story we tell ourselves? And surely he couldn’t have named all the animals? Did they really line up—Noah’s Ark style—awaiting their christening, or did Adam name them as he happened upon them in the world?
And, even more, my struggle with the naming of Adam and Eve. Adam, in Hebrew, is just “human.” It feels like an afterthought, really. And for their entire time in the Garden of Eden, Eve wasn’t even “Eve.” She was just “woman.” She wasn’t Eve until the end of Genesis 3, after the Fall and the cursing.
Who was she without a name?
In a world where names mean so much, this is hard for me to imagine. In a world where forgetting someone’s name is an embarrassment, where I have a list on my phone of all the names I might like to give a child, where one does not exist until their name is printed on a piece of paper, where our Muslim neighbor feels the need to spell his name for us because he knows that he is foreign.
Last spring, after seeing a gorgeous scene of tallgrass rolling in the wind across the creek from me, I eagerly came home and began my routine of consulting the internet to find its name. When none of the images I scrolled through seemed to fit, I found an online picture key for Iowa grasses. First distinguishing factor:
A. Unbranched flowering head
B. Branched flowering head
There were drawn examples of each. Look closely at the flowering head to see if it branches. I grew frustrated, knowing that I did not look closely, and clicked blindly to see where it led. More options:
A. Flowering head with finger-like branching
B. Flowering head narrow (columnar)
C. Flowering head wide
I clicked. Awns, bristles, or long hairs? Click. Are some awns bent or only straight? Click (and scroll) searching for what I had seen. But nothing seemed familiar.
I bookmarked the webpage so I could come back to it again, after looking more closely.
At a local seminar on prairie ecology, I filled my journal with smeared ink sketches of the plants I saw flash across the screen, accompanied by a scrawling list of phrases that I heard: daisy fleabane, little Bluestem, Henslow’s Sparrow, Loess Hills, stability through diversity, Kelso Prairie, grazed to gravel, Broken Kettle, abandoned fields, late July, invertebrate conservation.
A few months and pages later, I wrote in large capital letters: THINGS THAT GLORIFY GOD. The list was long, and mostly full of actions: the finding of the lost sheep, prayer, song, turning the other cheek, generosity, offering, loving our neighbors.
Later, when I flipped my Bible open to Psalm 19, I realized how much I had missed. How much I focused on me.
The heavens declare. The skies proclaim.
Over the many, many years between the Garden and now, we have somehow come to believe that by leaving the creation of man for last, God was deeming it most important. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been deceived. Yes, the account of creation in Genesis is building toward something of paramount importance, but it isn’t us.
So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
No, we are not merely animals. But we are not God either. A bit of both really: made of dust as well as in the image of the Creator.
Adamah. Adam. Elohim.
“So you want to see my garden?”
I smiled, awkwardly bent at the waist to hold the dog back with one hand and open the screen door with the other. I didn’t recognize the man walking up my front steps as my neighbor at first. Then again, I had never really conversed with Ed more than in passing. In his hand, he held a scrap of yellow paper with my handwriting on it. I had left it in his mailbox after a few anticlimactic episodes of mustering the nerve to knock on his front door only to be met with no reply.
“Let me get my shoes on,” I told him.
Together, we walked past the scraggly bushes, Jim’s neat lawn, and Rafia’s now-wilting tulips. At the corner of his own yard, the Royal Star Magnolia only had a few sleepy blooms still clutching to the branches, which were now brilliant with green leaves. We made our way past Ed’s rusting pickup in the driveway and past a side door to his yellow house, which he pointed to.
“Anyone who knows me knows to come to the side door. I don’t answer the front door. If you’re knocking there, it means I don’t know you.”
“Good to know,” I replied. He waved his hand in a beckoning motion and started toward the backyard.
“Alright then, let’s start in the back.”
A few days later, I came home from a trip to the grocery store to find four small plastic pots on my front porch, each filled with still-moist soil and a bristled green plant about half a foot tall.
There was no note, but I knew immediately where they came from, whose hands had taken the time to dig them up from his own garden so they could find a place in mine.
Cover image by Maria Teneva.