Tomorrow marks 17 years since my eldest son, at three months old, was taken into neurosurgery to reconstruct his head. Two opposing sets of soft spots in his skull had closed prematurely. He was born with intracranial pressure, aka: a nasty headache with no place for his brain to grow. The lack of malleability of his head gravely injured me during delivery. It had seemed like I was allergic to pregnancy while carrying him and the knowledge that I would not do that again still was difficult to take. My dream of a house filled with children was dim. The larger burden was seeing my child not only in pain but with an incredibly uncertain future.
Thankfully, that was not the end of the story. Enter a few years later ….. two toddlers from different countries beaming not only with love and promise but with a little piss and vinegar to boot. Add to that access to incredible medical care, the resources for years of therapy and support, and sheer American luck and you have in front of me today three incredible kids ~ THREE and each incredible.
The universe clearly has a grain to it and sometimes I feel like I am in an ongoing game of peek-a-boo to get a glimpse of its intelligent design. That design seems to be built on some sort of process that is kind of like a choose your own adventure book. Outside of grand orchestration, I have no grasp of how our multiple tragic stories could come together to make me so blessed.
A recurrent life verse for me from the bible has been, “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory adorned himself like one of these.… “
I was recently studying the metabolism of plants and the associated chemistry of essential oils and I felt like I finally could grasp both the botany and theology of this verse. You see plants have an innate ability to protect themselves. They cannot flee, they cannot itch themselves, they cannot seek far away foods that might nourish them. Each
plant with their own unique make-up, has the power to adapt to adversity and to their environment and even produce compounds to protect them from outward threats. These abilities are contained in the essence of the plant. They are called secondary metabolites. Essential oils, as well as many flavorings and recreational drugs, are made from these secretory structures which house these adaptive and protective essences of plants.
If you can tell the story of why an oil is produced within a plant, you will often have an idea of both its biological and psychological functions. For instance, it is common knowledge that trees clean our air, they are the earth’s lungs. It is no surprise to me that the essential oils that help respiratory issues are almost exclusively from trees, such as eucalyptus, cypress and pine.
Like plants that produce secondary metabolites from their botanical story, so it appears that our character is often developed from experience as well. I absolutely HATE the phrase, “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” not because it is a hard truth but because there are times of when it is false. It tritely omits realities of PTSD, depression, comas, and traumatic injuries. Mary Todd Lincoln never recovered from the assassination of her husband after the death of her son. Survivors ARE often weakened, perhaps irreparably, by certain ordeals. The saying “The same water that hardens an egg, soften a potato” should include “and scalds and scars skin.” The truth is that experience shapes us, for better or worse.
Even in my own life I can tell you of a few challenges that have left me worse for the wear. A few have taught me painful yet useful lessons and skills. I have been refined. I, frequently, say to my kids that my greatest set of trials and largest disappointment in my life FOR SURE gave me my greatest treasures, THEM.
My salty father has the most glorious roses. I knew I would love my mother-in-law when she first saw my dad’s flower beds. A daughter of a farmer, she asked him how he did it. He responded with a straight face, most likely trying to get a rise out of her, “Some chicken shit and a bit of cow shit”. In her cute sweater set – without batting an eye she responded, “Well, my dad did the same”. I love her.
Roses grow beautifully in manure. But it still stinks. In some seasons, the soil’s enrichment produces nothing for the naked eye to see. Same in life, there are no signs of glorious growth and it stinks. In spite of being rooted in crap and prickly in the middle, it is the pretty flower that defines the rose. Not coincidentally petals, like those of other of many velvety flowers when distilled make beautiful products to make the skin soft and beautiful – think rose milk, gardenia bath salts, geranium lotion and lilac facial spray.
I used to be a worrier. I have no idea when I lost that, now that I think about it. In my early adult life, I had grasped onto that verse from Matthew to work through some recurrent nervousness. I’d consider the lilies when I’d begin to fret. One of my favorite essential oils is Spikenard. It is distilled from a lily. In fact, this plant (also called nard) was the one that Mary of Bethany was said to have used in an infused oil to anoint the feet of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem in his last days. And what are the favorite and historical uses of nard? To calm and heal skin, it was used for worry and adornment.
Secondary metabolites are products of metabolism, life process. These organic compounds are not directly involved in the normal life of an organism. Unlike primary metabolites, absence of secondary metabolites does not result in immediate death, but rather in long-term impairment of the organism. Perhaps those characteristics that people who have overcome a trial walk away with are our secondary metabolites. If distilled and captured they can be used for healing, care, and growth of the individual. Unfortunately the same is true for the opposite. Those who, for whatever reason, cannot grow in the process of trial do suffer long-term impairment. It certainly seems to me the grit from experience is a human equivalent to the plant’s secondary metabolites. I wonder if that is by design?
It seems far more reasonable, to me, that plants come with the tools to survive rather than developing extraneous ones. It also seems that we should be born with all of those traits to get through life’s tests. But design involves a process. (And of course, I was not on the original create the universe committee nor consulted about its content.) I am certain that there are flaws in my amateur theology, botany and emerging aromatherapy. But you know, it makes sense to me and will help me frame hard times for my kids.
I love when I find some pattern in life. It is probably for that reason that there is no way for me to remember the fright of that hard time, without envisioning those happy faces in my home today. “Christianity and science are opposed … but only in the same sense as that which my thumb and forefinger are opposed – and between them, I can grasp everything.” Sir William Bragg, Nobel Prize for Physics (1915)