Some years ago, in my Los Angeles front yard, a surprise happened. Along the stucco wall, a rosebush with yellow flowers had suddenly popped a new cane with a single deep-pink blossom on it. It looked like what the rose experts call a "sport." Out of the blue, the leopard suddenly gets a notion to change its spots, genetically speaking. If I hadn't suspected what it was, I might have grabbed the shears and pruned this lovely chimera back into conformity.
Today, while I was wondering what to post for the holiday, I went outdoors to visit the rose that I now call "Surprise." After a week of cool rains across the Southland, all the yards in my neighborhood have their roses waking up for the mid-winter extravaganza of blossoms that we get to enjoy in this zone. The Rose Parade on New Years Day couldn't happen in a region that is friendlier to roses.
So there she was -- now the most magnificent of all the rose plants in my garden, with her silent message about surprises.
The sport part of her is bigger, sturdier, shrubbier than the original part, which is still growing there, but a little grumpy and struggling, with just one yellow rose. "Surprise's" arching newer canes had covered themselves with sprays of those electric rose-pink blooms -- each with a splashy white center and luxuriant stamens. Old and new blooms have the same tousled-looking semi-double shape, showing that they still share a genetic heritage. "Surprise" has the most astonishing wild-rose fragrance -- today, in the warm afternoon, it was floating heavily on the air along the sidewalk.
Every day that "Surprise" is blooming, around 9.a.m. and again around 3 p.m. in the afternoon, this rosebush is visited by a local flock of tiny warblers that make the round of nectar-rich flowers in our part of L.A. Later, when she sets her clusters of orange-red rose hips, the squirrels come around and have a feast.
Looking at my favorite rose, I got to thinking how life is a long series of surprises.
From moment to moment, we never know what's ahead. Sometimes the surprises are horrible ones -- like the surprise that came to World Trade Center workers on September 11, 2001. Like the one that greeted a New Orleans friend of one when he was walking home late one night in a neighborhood where he'd always felt safe, and suddenly found himself being gay-bashed. At the other end of the spectrum are the surprises that can bring unexpected delights or opportunities. Sometimes, as in the case of my rose, you just take note of the surprise and follow it for a few years to see where it goes.
Christmas holiday 2009 is turning out to be a strange one, with Americans feeling more "surprised" than ever that we are not king of the world any more -- that we are just broke and confused, even scared. The politicians are "surprising" us with their failure to consider our wishes -- with healthcare reform that isn't really reform, and other pieces of legislation that will probably make things worse instead of better. For us LGBT people, the recent human-rights reverses, and the ugly explosions of homophobia in Africa which are making that continent seem uncomfortably close to our shores, are the kind of surprise that we certainly didn't wish for.
But even in these dark times, there is always the deeply disguised opportunity -- some door to a new world that is just an inch ajar. Maybe we meet a political figure who surprises us with his or her sensitive understanding of an issue. Or we see a chance to turn a political negative into a positive. Or we find a business opportunity that seems a little weird but pregnant with possible success.
In short, the important thing about surprises is how we handle them -- what we do with them.
So this year, "Surprise" is my official Christmas tree.
As I went back in the house to finish this post, my bi rosebush was nodding her many heads on a gentle breeze, and topping herself with a flock of tiny flitting birds instead of a star.
Photos of "Surprise" by Tyler St. Mark