The Pie Was a Final Draft: Lilacs

By Michaella Thornton

Because I’m a plant-obsessed dork, five years ago I wrote an Instagram ode to a Miss Kim lilac bush in my backyard:

[In 2016] this lilac bush was felled by a neighbor’s dead tree, which fell on our back porch, too. The tree ruined our fence, and, I thought, my beloved lilac bush, which smells like heaven and reads like a Walt Whitman poem for a short, short window each spring.

The bush, now the size of a small shrub, [hasn’t] bloomed for the past two springs. It was conserving energy, it was healing, and it was not fucking ready to put on an olfactory show for anyone else’s benefit. I dig this resilience and self-care about nature. This lilac bush took care of itself. It needed time and space.

And here we are three years after the trauma, and the lilac is blooming again. It smells like warm honey and floral bliss, tenacity, and strength.

All of this is to say, if you’re not blooming right now, that is more than okay. Neither am I and neither was this stubborn little lilac bush. Give yourself grace and time and a chance to heal. Be kind to yourself and know your worth is not inherent in your ability to make anyone else happy.

This tough little lilac bush, now eight years out from surviving the tree fall, has returned to her full-figured floral glory. Cue “Eye of the Tiger” or that Waxahatchee song. Nowadays, my lilac bush produces so many lavender-colored blooms and perfumes the whole backyard with her irresistible, short-lived scent.

Lilac is a smell my daughter will hopefully remember from her childhood. At the very least, my child will remember her weird mom burying her face in the long-awaited blooms each spring as I carry in the groceries, before I mow the lawn, or en route to the hammock to linger in the sun with a book.

For me, lilacs represent what’s possible after tragedy. In my case, a quick triptych of modern-day disaster: a lay off, a divorce, and then figuring out how to reassemble my life and return to writing in a way that felt, feels, more authentic, creative, playful, and free.

As Jack Gilbert wrote in “Failing and Flying,” (one of my favorite poems about divorce):

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better.

I understand, especially as writers, our innate and collective weariness and suspicion of didactic, happily-ever-after tales.

Boring! Presumptuous! Predictable!

Yet, as a romantic, I crave resurrection. I want to read more stories and essays about characters and people coming back from the brink, not to simply feel good, but to learn how to survive, how to possibly bloom again.

When I first started writing essays twenty-plus years ago, I wrote almost exclusively about pain and trauma with some dark humor thrown in for good measure. Give us Icarus falling from the sky, and give us death!

But as I grow older, I want to know what characters and writers do after the fall (if they live to tell the tale).

Who helps us pick up the pieces? What motivates us to do so? Or if we stay with our grief, what are we learning about ourselves and the world around us? What does loss mean and how does surviving help us “come back” to ourselves more fully?

When I think back to where I was six years ago in May, jobless with a one-year-old daughter and a disintegrating marriage, sobbing in the unemployment office in downtown St. Louis, no intentions or energy to make art let alone calling myself a writer, I think about the woman who held my hand and consoled me through my panic attack, who told me where I was right now was not my ending point, to keep going. I think about my therapist who told me she would see me pro bono until I could afford her again, who even now sees me at a reduced rate despite my pride and, yes, shame. I think about my dear friend Julie sending me the most gorgeous indigo-colored hydrangeas at work and reminding me there would be, eventually, a light at the end of this dark, dark tunnel. I think of all of the people I cannot even begin to name here who bolstered me and loved me until I could support myself and my child.

Navigating loss, grieving a life I no longer had, helped me articulate what I did want: a light-filled, art-filled home “with two cats in the yard.” I wanted to return to my writing practice and a deep and unending sense of peace and possibility and, yes, joy. I wanted my child to know and experience a happy and loving mother.

Aren’t we all a little like Homer, trying to return home after a long, sometimes arduous, adventure? 

For me, that is one of the key features of art: to imagine another path, to have the courage to live (and write!) a life we wouldn’t have charted otherwise.

Michaella’s Playlist: Lilacs

Read Michaella’s other work at Reckon here.

Michaella Thornton
Michaella Thornton

Michaella Thornton learned how to bake at the hips of her mother and her grandmother Anna Lee. A lifetime ago, she baked professionally before realizing baker’s hours require early mornings. Kella’s prose has been featured in Brevity, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, Reckon Review, New South, Southeast Review, among others, and her writing has been nominated for a James Beard award and Best of the Net. Many moons ago, Kella received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter.