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The optimism of flowers

Flowers at the Masterton mosque. Photo/Greg Dixon/Listener

Placing a bouquet at a site of sadness is a primal and reverential act.

The week was lost in a fever. I was submerged. I couldn’t eat or, worst of all, drink. Fevers give you dreams that take place in inhospitable foreign lands. My lands were desiccated, desolate places, where, when you tried to breathe, red dust clogged up your throat. I dreamt of the garden dying. I couldn’t swallow – in the dreams, or awake in my hot bed.

I had a lump in my throat: an infected tonsil. How ridiculous; a child’s complaint. Greg caught whatever bug had caused the fever. We holed up.

When I emerged from my fever, there was a message on my phone. It was from my oldest friend, who has lived in a dry place, Perth, for decades: “WTF is going on in Christchurch?” I thought, of course: “Oh, no. Not another earthquake.” Another message followed: “This is not NZ.” Everyone was saying the same thing: this is not New Zealand. I had emerged from one fevered, foreign place into another.

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On Saturday, we took a little jar of zinnias – those most optimistic of flowers, the sort kids like to draw – to the local mosque. We didn’t know what else to do.

We didn’t know there was a local mosque; we had to google its location. The mosque is a converted aluminium garage. It is not in the posh bit of town, which is another country still. There was a cracked window. It looked as though it had been cracked for some time. You hope the crack had been made by a kid happily kicking a ball.

A card read: “To our Muslim whānau.” It included a cellphone number and an invitation to call for any reason, if any help, at all, was required. Perhaps we Masterton whānau could raise a little bit of money to repair the window. Because, what else to do?

There were other flowers outside the mosque. Some snipped, like ours, from the garden; a bunch of beautiful woven flax lilies; elegant bouquets from florist shops. They were autumn flowers: early chrysanthemums, late roses, stoic gerberas; the last of the peruvian lilies. They are flowers that came, originally, from foreign places, but we have taken them to our hearts – or at least our gardens, which is the same thing.

The mosque has a glorious garden with not a weed in sight; rows and rows of eggplants and beans and pots and pots of chillies. There is a little loquat tree. Whoever tends this garden is an optimist; all gardeners are. There was a cheerily yellow deckchair, placed just so, for the gardener to sit back after a day’s digging and admire their labours of love and dream of a future involving eggplant curry, perhaps.

I wasn’t sure why we had taken flowers. I’d always thought such a show of condolence for people you have never met to be meaningless. But now I get it. I am a bit slow.

My friend the Artist, who is not, emailed to say: “The act of picking and placing them is a primal response, and reverential. Why else would we have been doing it since time began?”

When you plant something, a zinnia, an eggplant, you are putting their roots, and your own, into the place you live. You are planting a stake in the future.

When you move to a new place, a foreign place, you are planting for a new future. You hope your plants will grow and that you will grow in your new community.

When we moved to the country, we worried: would we be accepted into our new community or forever be seen as other? You hear that about small, country communities – that you can live there for 30 years and never be regarded as locals.

While we were holed up, ill, Miles the sheep farmer was out in the paddocks drenching the lambs. Whenever Miles is in the paddocks, I go out to do what I call helping, but which really means getting in the way. The doors and windows of the house were open, the car was in the garage. But there was no sign of us. He was worried. He returned to check that we were okay. I thanked him the next day and he said: “That’s what neighbours are for.”

I had a lump in my throat.

This article was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.