The Orchid And The Ice Tray: The obstacles to beauty in everyday life

I am very proud of the orchid I purchased for my wife on Valentine’s Day. I gave her a big box of chocolates, too, heart shaped with a velvet top. The stores were more or less across from each other on magazine Street in New Orleans — Blue Frog Chocolates and Audubon Flowers. I walked home carrying the orchid in my arms like a trophy. A big plastic bag protected its delicate flowers from harmful breezes. I had been given the choice of two sizes and prices: $45 and $75. I went big.

My pleasure in the orchid was slightly diminished a few days later when I saw a very similar plant at Whole Foods for $25 dollars. But I am prepared to support local businesses, and it was Valentine’s Day after all. More problematic is the fact that the Orchid is supposed to last. That could be a good thing. And yet.

Wasn’t I multi-purposing here? Who in our family is most enthusiastic about flowers and plants and thinks of them as key features in a beautiful life? Me.

The Orchid was already tainted by inflated expense and self-interest when I came across, by coincidence, if there is such a thing, these lines in Sylvia Plath’s poem, Fever 103:  “Hothouse baby in its crib,/The ghastly orchid/Hanging its hanging garden in the air.”

Had I given the mother of a nine-month-old baby a totem of maternal exhaustion and even revulsion? I countered this morbidity — and if you look at them in a certain mood, Orchids are kind of spooky — by recalling a great line in The Great Gatsby where an exceptionally dazzling woman at a party is described as, “an orchid of a person.” It was in this sense the orchid was intended.

At any rate my wife was very happy to get her gifts, especially the orchid, which sits proudly on our credenza in front of a window. I like it and don’t want it to die.

I was instructed on its care: few ice cubes once a week. Simple enough. Except the ice maker in the freezer does not work. For a while it made a terrible knocking sound, a bit ghostly, which I was able to stop by applying the time honored repair technique of smacking the appliance on the side several times. Eradicating the knocking seemed like an accomplishment, and there things ended.

But we had no ice. I made a mental note to get ice trays. The mental note always got lost. When the orchid arrived the matter became more urgent. I made a physical note. Still, getting an ice tray was a challenge. One week led into the next. I poured little sips of water into the orchid, but the uncertainty about quantity and rhythm was upsetting. I looked at the plant closely, wondering if it was starving. The hanging garden was still hanging, but tenuously. But then isn’t that the beauty of an orchid?

Getting the ice tray became a matter of great urgency, but only when I looked at the orchid. When I was out in the world the orchid was out of sight and out of mind, and so was the ice tray.

I was never someone who was good about small errands. But family life has taken this small shortcoming and magnified it. Not being able to get the ice tray was indicative of my inability to focus, prioritize, get things done. But then I get a lot done for the family and elsewhere, I countered. But maybe  feeding and housing the family was the extent of my energies. We would have to live without orchids or ice. But I rallied, and yesterday, on a family adventure to the giant local supermarket, Rouses, I found them. Victory in aisle nine. We brought two of them home.

This morning was the debut of the ice. I had the baby in my arms as I twisted the tray. What a fantastic sound! I used to associate it with cocktails. Now it’s orchids. The  baby’s fingers petted the glassy cold things as we walked. I pushed aside the Spanish moss, nestled in three cubes. Perhaps, I thought, the plant will live.

How much beauty am I depriving myself of in other respects, I wondered? Flowers, Plants, pottery, foods of one kind or another, delicate things that take time to prepare but make you happy. How much more could I be doing for myself and my family? So much! But it’s myself and my family that prevents me from doing it.

For now, I will savor the current triumph. It’s a bright morning. The kid had a birthday party a week ago and the birthday cake, that sprawling acreage of white and pink, has been brought out for an encore; the baby has just had his first bites of cake. He is laughing wildly, all two and a half teeth in full view.  Sun is pouring into the pink room; the daughter, watching “Word World,” has broken out in a kneeling boogie in front of the computer.

And in the next room, beneath the hanging garden and the Spanish moss, three ice cubes slowly melt and drip. Their moisture sinks down towards the roots … and the wood of the credenza on which it sits. I should get a plate to gather the over-run. But the sun is hitting me. I am lulled and inert, stunned by responsibility and a moment of equilibrium. I make a mental note.


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