Everyday for the past 3 weeks, I have driven the 35 miles to work and watched this little patch of sunflowers grow on the side of Interstate 40. I am enough of a narcissist to think that the little patch of flowers is meant just for me. I know it is the work of a road crew that plants seasonal flower seeds on the sides of the interstate in North Carolina. It’s probably some government mandated beautification project. It matters not. Those were placed for me. They make me smile even when I don’t want to. Those are my sunflowers.
The minute I turned 18, I got my first (and only) tattoo. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, I just knew I wanted one. My mother gave me the money as a birthday present. My dad had no idea what we were up to. I don’t think he would have cared, but there is an awkwardness to growing up when you are a girl. You tend to keep your dad in the dark for as long as possible. He seems the most vulnerable and damaged by the relentless onslaught of womanhood that envelopes his little girl.
My boyfriend researched the place and took me to Tatt’s Taylors in Fort Lauderdale. He said it was the best. I looked through books and the endless pictures on the wall and I fell onto a lovely little image of a black and white sunflower. That was it! I wanted that one! The tattoo artist took some liberties with the simple image on my right ankle and colored it with yellows and browns and purple highlights. It wouldn’t be long until I was off to college with my sunflower tattoo in tow, like a kind of talisman of freedom.
Over 20 years later, it’s amazing how faded the tattoo now appears, the purple and yellows barely perceptible, but the spirit of the image remains. I often think that someday I need to get it touched up.
On my drives to and from work on the interstate, I watch the way the sunflowers move to face the sun. What a brave flower it is! It faces the sun! It finds the greatest source of light and follows it as it moves across the sky. It doesn’t know that most of us shrink from the sun; it is too bright, too hot, too intense. But this flower doesn’t wither. The fierceness of the sun only compels it.
I once interviewed for a residency position in Asheville, NC. If you have any experience with Asheville, you would know that it is kind of weird. Not to be outdone, the residency interview in Asheville was weird, too. From what I remember, there was a point in the interview where a group of us interview-ees came together in one room. We were given paper and pencils, markers, etc and asked to draw something that represented us. Then we had to share it with the group and explain what our art project meant. In some ways, this tactic is brilliant. It forces typical left-brained med students to flex their right-brained artistic side. I had repressed my right brain so completely by now that I absolutely floundered. I drew a sunflower and I remember talking about how it followed the sun, about how it was fearless.
Other people drew pictures of themselves helping children in third world countries during their summer break. I wasn’t so worldly or selfless. Maybe I just wasn’t quite weird enough. Needless to say, I didn’t get an acceptance letter from Asheville.
Today, as I drove past the same flowers, now standing tall against the 92 degree heat, they seemed a little more wilted than usual. The heat appeared to evaporate the life out of the bright green leaves. The flowers, however, still looked bright and yellow, staunch and proud. I wonder how much longer my lovely flowers will greet me. How much longer can they resist the oppressive summer sun before they start to wilt and become brown? What will it be like to see them fallen over, each leaning against the other trying to be supportive in their last days? Do they know their time is coming to an end?
I, too, am like the sunflower. I stand proudly, thinking I’m strong, not realizing my helplessness. I do not know my vulnerability to the blazing powers that sustain me. I am oblivious. Does it really matter that the radiation and heat will burn me from the outside in, as long as I stand my ground, relentlessly resisting until my resistance relents? It’s the stand that matters. Taking a stand. Come what may.