Why Is This Woman Writing About Tulips Now?



I am at least a month late to be doing this post, and everybody sensible forgot about his or her tulips long ago.  But not me.  They were particularly astonishing this spring, probably because I planted them in such a fog of misery last fall, I don’t even remember getting them in the ground. My husband of twenty-five years, for whom I’d always had a lot of respect, had just blown up our life together in the most cowardly and cruel way imaginable.  We have three kids who are not yet grown.  To say that I was not thinking straight was an understatement.

So I suppose I numbly pulled out a credit card and bought five or six hundred bulbs, but I literally do not remember. And I suppose I dug the holes–a LOT of holes–while so defeated I could barely lift a shovel, but again, Senator, I do not recall.

Still, forgetting is pretty much the nature of tulips.  When you put them in the ground, they look like nothing.  They look like a squat clove of garlic, though with the brown skin of a shallot. They look like disappointment, bitter disappointment, like faith betrayed.

Then there is that long, long, long upstate winter that starts the second the last tulips are buried at Thanksgiving…and that doesn’t let up until April, when the crocuses and bulbous irises remind everybody that amidst the browns and blacks and icy whites, there is still an element of existence that is purple.  Finally, the tulips appear in late April and early May, and life is an utter carnival of ridiculously saturated color, big stalks and big bold flowers with wild double or lily or egg shapes.  The person most surprised at the riot?  The gardener who stuck them in the ground.

Which reminds me, despite myself, of Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard  psychologist and happiness theorist, author of Stumbling on Happiness and this semi-annoying and much-viewed TED talk. Gilbert always annoyed me because he seemed more of a moralist than a scientist.  Or maybe because the things he said about happiness did not describe my idea of happiness, which is animal happiness: sunshine, using my shovel, sex, food, wine, smelling the flowers, chatter that is the human equivalent of birdsong. That, and enjoyable work.

Gilbert, on the other hand, talks about how bad we humans are at predicting what will make us happy.  And he points to research that shows that a year after the key events, the lottery winner and the paraplegic are equally happy, because humans have a psychological immune system that allows us to make the best of whatever situation we are in.  So, in Gilbert’s view, since varying fates don’t matter to the extent we expect, we might as well be good.

The thing is, I am the paraplegic in the example above.  And Gilbert is right in that nine months after the fact, I am keenly aware that the birds still sing and good food still tastes good.  I have also discovered that I am incredibly lucky in friends, family, and kids, since they rallied around me and kept me from any feeling that my horizons had shrunk. In fact, I have discovered that the bottom of the crater is an extremely interesting place to be.

I understand now why I spend $300 every fall on hybrid tulips that will appear once, and then fade the next year into meaningless bloomless foliage.  I would never spend that much on a tree that could last generations, but I spend it on ephemera when the ephemera happen to be tulips.  I do it because the tulips are life.  We always misjudge its potential.  We always forget in the depths of winter that spring comes around in gaudy glory, no matter what.



  1. I am glad you wrote this blog. I think we all need some sort of tulips in out life, whether it is actual tulips or something else that pops out after a long, dark winter.

  2. Welcome back!! Have really missed you and your writing.Sorry for all that you have been through.

  3. This is what garden writing is all about. It doesn’t matter why one is blogging about tulips in July. What matters is that one is writing a piece that is thoroughly enjoyable no matter what time of year it is.

  4. Michelle,

    Welcome back. What a lovely posting, such exquisite writing. Thank you.

    Gardening is the most soul satisfying therapy, the moving meditation (as said by Margaret Roach).

    Would love to hear whatever you have to share – your tulips are awe inspiring! We love being inspired and awed.

  5. I had a feeling this is why we had not heard from you in such a long while. I hope you slapped him at least once before planting your tulips. Welcome back. Now onward to a glorious life filled with tulips.

    I however must stick with daffodils since the varmints will likely eat the tulips before they ever have a chance to be gaudy.

  6. Welcome back, and thank you very much for your courage in sharing this beautifully written post. It reminded me of the many times my garden has saved my sanity without my actually realizing it was doing so. Once I think my garden may have saved my life. Whatever the costs, gardening is still less expensive than-and possibly as effective as- psychotherapy. Your amazed delight in your tulips made me smile and think to plant some this year. May you equally enjoy all the surprises to come – gardening and otherwise!

  7. I love this sentence: “the crocuses and bulbous irises remind everybody that amidst the browns and blacks and icy whites, there is still an element of existence that is purple.”

    My tulips are tomatoes. For some years I’ve been planting about 30 tomato plants, in as wide a range of colors and sizes and shapes as I can find, mostly varieties I’ve never grown before or, in some cases, never heard of. When they start getting ripe, I’m eager to taste each one. And each time I go to one of my gardens, the ripe fruit is the gardener’s reward.

  8. Wonderful tulip, garden writing.

    Yes, it is for the miracle of new life that we garden.

    Congratulations on making your life work, come whatever.

    I look at the photographs of my tulips, which I can only have in pots all year round. It is my most successful gardening!


  9. The tomatoes this year are looking pretty miserable….it’s been raining almost every day for 2 weeks here, in Upstate NY.

    The tomato post here is intriguing, can we have some of your favorite tomatoes, please?

  10. Yes, welcome back! I’ve missed your posts. The gardening helps you rebuild, I know, I’ve been there…

  11. Oh Michele, your writing makes my heart sing the way tulips bloom. I wondered how you were. I’m saddened by your story of loss, but I am glad you blooming again. I know we only met once, but I so enjoyed talking with you over a French meal in Buffalo. Hugs from Oklahoma.~~Dee

  12. Onward and upward, Michele! I was once in your situation, so I get it. I think I’d have fared better if I’d had the garden to disappear into. Beautifully written and photographed, but especially written. This really resonated with me. Good luck to you.

  13. You go Girl! love the writing, hate the story (condolences), wishing you all the best for a great future.
    Note to Christopher C in NC – plant some garlic cloves in with the tulip bulbs as you plant and the chipmunks and pine voles mostly leave them alone and you can have the miracle of pink red orange purple in the spring too.

  14. Hats off to you, Michele, for moving on and for your wonderful piece. Onward and upward!!

  15. I’m so glad you’re back. I missed your posts. I went so far as to bug Amy Stewart as to your where abouts when she was here for a book signing.

    Beautiful tulips.

  16. I loaned your book to a friend who was telling me just two nights ago how much he liked it.
    Great to read your excellent post. Am very sorry about your situation and wish you the strength to come out the other side with a new appreciation for all the people who are there for you and a new recognition of who you are. It sounds like that is happening. I look forward to more posts from you. Your take is always thought provoking and well written. You have been missed and we are all glad you are back.

  17. Welcome back!

    I’m sorry to hear your (unfortunately) very familiar story. I went through a similar episode, but my girls were much younger. Gardening makes your soul sing like nothing else.

    Enjoy making your new life what you want it to be! My life is much fuller, and happier. I have tried things that I never would have done before. I am a role model to be proud of for my children.

    Good Luck!

  18. Wow! This is one of the best things I’ve read in a while. Passionate & pensive & utterly riveting. I’m grateful you write, & glad life is a little less painful for you. Please keep gardening, & writing…I happily await your next offering.

  19. Love your writing and am so glad to see this post. I wish you all the best as you garden your way through the adventure that is Life. I believe that as long as you continue planting tulips, you’ll be all right, and actually, you may discover that your life is more wonderful than you’d ever thought possible. You may, in fact, consider starting some perennials from seed just about now. Delphiniums do well where you live. Foxgloves are magical. At a time of intense grief, I found it healing to touch the bark of trees in my yard, to really focus on the different shades of green and the various colors of blooms, to watch the changing light from dawn to dusk. And children keep things real!

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