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On memories and flowers

First love / late Spring

Art by Sonya Thai

The seasons have recently turned from a cool winter to a windy spring that sprinkles freckly light across Victoria Park at dusk. The arrival of spring heralds a time of new beginnings. I’ve recently spent a lot of time pondering the way that certain flowers embody emotion, knowledge and healing. And while some flowers may not be in and of themselves symbolic, they can be the homes of many ordinary treasures.

Take white clovers for example. Although they are considered weeds in our gardens and parks, white clovers have much to offer us. Four leaf clovers are believed to bring good luck. I don’t think I’ve ever found one, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not so much the clover plants that I love, but their flowers.

As of late, I’ve spent many afternoons sitting in Victoria Park with my friends, whether we are caucusing or unwinding after a droning day of class, and waiting for the school children to grow tired of the flying fox. We have laid in the patches of white clover that cover its lawns. My friend Jazz will sit quietly while we talk and laugh around her, weaving chains from the white fluffy flowers that emerge from seas of green clover, cloaked in the soft darkness of the fleeting few minutes after sunset. She weaves a flower crown for us, and places it on our heads. We pass around our crowns of clover, each to each, and take pictures of each other with our lopsided wreaths. My camera roll is full of these little moments of ordinary beauty and peace.

Each flower brings a different host of memories, some of which aren’t as pure as those of the white clovers in Victoria Park. When I was in kindergarten, we did an experiment where we dyed frilly white flowers with drops of food dye. I was mesmerised by the way the dye dispersed in the water, giving the glass an ethereal glow when it hit the light. But this kind of childhood innocence is tarnished for me when I consider the pilot episode of Jane the Virgin. Jane’s abuela crumples a freshly picked peony and tells Jane that this is what virginity looks like when it is spoiled. This floriography has somewhat sullied my memories of peonies. 

Flowers are often used as metaphors for virginity, and I wish this weren’t the case. Virginity is often spoken about as a material and tangible thing that can be taken, given or destroyed — but it’s not. It is a social construct that is used to police our bodies, and enforce shame, misogyny, and heteronormativity. It puts power in the hands of heterosexual men, keeps women down and ashamed, and denies the existence of non-heterosexual people altogether. We should not be made to feel guilty for taking back our own sexuality, and we should not be made to think that we are destroying something that doesn’t exist in the first place. It makes me sad that the beauty of flowers has been co-opted for such a destructive purpose.

Having said this, I remind myself that not all flowers are as delicate as we would like to believe. While roses are a popular symbol of duality, their wistful fragrance and velvet petals are tempered by razor-sharp thorns, so I think that bougainvillea is a far more fitting muse. Its thorns are hidden beneath glossy emerald foliage, and they are perhaps far more dangerous because they grow wildly, carelessly. Bougainvillea spectabilis may be a beautiful vining plant with delicate papery blooms, but to me it is also a brambly protector of home.

I grew up with a wall of sprawling bougainvillea that I could see from the window in my parents’ room. I would sit on the cool wooden floor, holding my pink and purple copy of Shirley Barber’s Fairy Stories (with CD), in warm pools of golden afternoon light. I loved fairy tales and stories of the jolly Little Folk; my three-foot something self found a small kinship with these imaginary gnomes and pixies. Looking at the bougainvillea, I could imagine myself as a newly freed Rapunzel, her hair vining around her like a silky chrysalis, looking up at the brambles that had once kept her captive. I sat underneath its thorns and built little fairy houses out of rocks, twigs and grass, hoping day after day to catch a glimpse of the Little Folk, to hear snatches of tinkling laughter or the pitter-patter of tiny feet on pavement. Of course, they never came. But its purple paper flowers brought me many such dreams, and they guard them still.

I still believe in fairies. I like to imagine that the brambles hide this Fairyland of gossamer wings that Shirley Barber writes about, and maybe I’ll find it one day. This year I got my first tattoo, two bougainvillea flowers on my wrist, that will be there for as long as I live.

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