Friday, January 15, 2016

Small Rituals

January brings promise. In the chill of winter we are warmed by the hope of a fresh start. and that's the key: just start and keep starting again and again each day. It eventually adds up. I have been making small crowns of seasonal flowers for my garden Madonna for years. A few decades ago on a trip to Thailand I was entranced by the custom of placing a small handmade daily offering, an arrangement of flowers on the threshold of a home or business.  That gesture, along with my childhood Catholic school memories of the crowning of the Virgin in May combined in creating my own simple ritual.

I consider it an offering for the health and well being of my garden. It is something I do after spending time on chores, weeding or sweeping leaves. It's a final quiet moment when I walk around my small backyard city garden finding just the right flowers for braiding into a tiny crown. 
  The cement statue is only about 18 inches tall and the crown of her head is about the size of a ping pong ball. The challenge is not only to get a harmonious arrangement of colors and textures, but to find blossoms and leaves on stems delicate enough to weave into a diminutive circle, yet strong enough to hold together. The process is meditative yet purposeful: I pluck branches of thyme or narrow grass-like leaves to form the basic braid while choosing a variety of more fragile flowers to add to the crown. Part of me is focused on the task at hand but my mind floats. 
  Since last year I have been photographing the crowns. The meditative state of the repetitive action in the weaving of the crown morphs into the more focused creative state of framing and capturing the crowned Madonna. Crouching close to the small statue to get just the right angle has given me a new perspective. The mass produced concrete virgin, bought at a roadside stand, has, through the lens of my iphone, taken on an anthropomorphic visage that I never experienced before. The play of light and shadows on the mottled surface of her face, combined with various camera angles, can give one the impression of subtle emotional expressions.
  I have not been as diligent as the Thai shopkeepers with their daily flower offerings. Days, even weeks might pass before I am in the garden again. The crowns I make dry out and shrivel, falling from her head to circle her neck. The dried fallen crown and the virgin's bare bowed head struck me one day as particularly poignant and so I began photographing that as well. Sometimes she looks like a stylish young girl with a scarf or stole and the crowns themselves suggest a grand Victorian hat, something I would love to wear in the Easter parade. 
I have photographed her through the four seasons, from spring through a summer harvest and winter snowfall. I'm not sure how much longer I will continue to photograph my crowned garden Madonna, but I know I will always be making a crown for her. It is something insignificant and ephemeral and I don't really believe it brings me luck or prosperity. It just makes me happy, it is very calming, to take the time to make some small beautiful thing for it's own sake. It makes me feel like I am part of the garden, part of the cycle of life.