I’m writing this from my grandma’s home in Missouri where I’m staying with my mom and dad for the week.
I’d like to write to you about hope.
In November of last year, my mother and grandmother were admitted to the hospital three days apart. On Sunday, we drove the 200 miles between my parents home in Springfield to my grandma’s in St. Louis. The reasons for us being here are less than ideal: my mother has been diagnosed with stage III Multiple Myeloma and after two and a half rounds of chemo, she had her first appointment with a specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital; and Saturday is my grandmother’s memorial service.
I know this isn’t starting off very hopeful and, honestly, I’m struggling to feel so.
But I don’t think that is how any of this works. Hope that is. It isn’t something conjured for us by circumstance, but a thing we stitch into existence, employing the creativity of our understanding and willingness to persevere in undesirable even dire circumstances. In cold seasons it warms us and often those around us. It’s passed from dear one to dear one, like a heirloom quilt. And like an heirloom, it’s often displayed to remind us of where we came from and how far from it we’ve traveled.
2018 was rough for most of us. Rough in ways we weren’t expecting and ways we might have expected but didn’t want to believe.
Inside of, or often right up against, the disappointments of last year there were triumphs. These kinds of triumphs are almost always tucked in the silver lining.
“Me, too” we revealed to each other in friends homes, over drinks, in classrooms, on social media and to audiences large and small. Every victim that stepped forward affirmed the wounds we carried were not self-inflicted but shared. We said it to our mothers and grandmothers and they said it back. Unnamed trauma, carried over decades and through generations, were shared. A community grew as we nodded in understanding with each other; joy was not taken in admitting new members yet their company validated us in ways we couldn’t often express. Many of those who abused us were called out and held accountable. Many were not. We began to speak more about consent, equality and privilege in hope that we could break the patterns that were long established. In a power system that disproportionately disadvantages entire groups of people, gains were made. And these discussions have familiarized many of us with the concept of intersectionality and what that means for our path forward.
I’ve been back and forth, mainly back, to Missouri for the past two months and I’ve been watching my dad as he takes this in and as he prepares for his mother’s memorial. I’ve also been observing my mom. My resilient mom. She’s sitting across from me at the table helping planning meals and laughing about how she would redecorate this place. They both have maintained a comprehensive understanding of hope. For themselves and each other. They take shifts being the shoulder for the other to cry on in many different ways, often literally. When one is weak the other is strong, each always offering a reason for hope.
Unlike many other cancers, there is no cure for Multiple Myeloma and the prognosis and treatment my mother has been offered are less than ideal. No studies have been able to detect where it comes from, though there is a general consensus that it is environmental and not genetic. It might have been my mother’s early exposure to the radioactive landfill less than 10 miles from her childhood home, or the infertility drugs her doctor prescribed in her late twenties or her use of the herbicide, Roundup, in her gardens in her 30’s and 40’s. Firefighters and truck drivers exposed to certain carcinogens on the job are often diagnosed with MM. A father of my friend was diagnosed with this disease; he worked in oil fields in the 80’s and was exposed to numerous carcinogens.
In 2018, I spent a considerable time speaking to fellow florists, friends and really anyone who would listen to me about the darker side of the floral industry. In New York City, most of the materials we use are purchased from the flower market on 28th Street. I love this market and the people who work there; I’m thankful to call many of them friends. But, the majority of products sold are flown in from all over the world. Exquisite and delicate flowers from Japan, Holland, Ecuador and as far away as Kenya can be found right there on 28th Street. As well as flowers from local farmers, if it’s the season. The imported flowers are coated with chemicals to ensure they survive the long journey and arrive without any hitchhikers, though once I found a freshly hatched monarch in a crate of milkweed. We touch all these chemicals while we work; exposing the largest organ in our body, our skin, to a multitude of herbicides, insecticides and pesticides anywhere from to 2 to 15 hours a day and some of us for decades now. Oasis floral foam, the green foam too many florists still use, contains formaldehyde, carbon black, and sulfur dioxide. It off gases in the heat and causes rash and eye itch among many who come in contact with it. The foam is made of plastic which easily breaks down into micro plastics in our oceans. Due to this blitz of chemicals, none of these materials breakdown properly (if at all) in landfills and chemically coated flowers can’t be composted correctly.
Over the past decades many cut flower farms have been found to employ child labor. Women make up the largest demographic of cut flower farm employees, especially in South America. Because of the amount of chemicals they are in contact with, they often miscarry or bear children with birth defects. The farms have tried to get ahead of this problem by firing pregnant employees. Cervical, prostate and breast cancer rates have risen in these populations. High rates of sexual misconduct and assault have also been reported in many flower cut facilities. There has been a reduction of reported abuse thanks to the unionization of farm workers in the industry, but it still persists. I would like to note here that the cut flower farm lives I am discussing above are majority brown and black lives, with Kenya set to export more cut flowers than its South American competition.
Yet I have hope for my industry and the change I believe is coming. In 2018 I saw the hashtag #nofloralfoam appear on social media. More and more florist shop locally, like only using Peonies when they are in season, typically May-June in New York.
We can follow the path set out by our friends in the culinary world; they too pull from the land to compose their pieces. A decade ago the farm-to-table movement began to educate their followers on the benefits of consuming locally and seasonally and conversely, the realities of not. This changed the landscape of the industry and caused a resurgence of small farms. The world of florals is expanding rapidly and there is much opportunity to be had and much good to be done.
The silver linings of 2018 stretch into this year and all those that follow. In the years prior I’ve witnessed incredible progress made by #Me Too; the many initiatives to alter climate change including but not limited to the DAPL protests, The Sierra Club and renewable energy; Black Lives Matter; Occupy; the movements to establish both a living wage and pay equality; labor unions; Feminists and The Resistance, to name a few. I head into this new year inspired by all of you working to dismantle and rebuild a system rigged against you. You who make gains though you are disproportionately disadvantaged. You who find hope in the most dire of circumstances.
I’ve stitched all these silver threads into my quilt and it’s given me warmth through this long cold winter. The hope of Spring is coming, though it feels years away.
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark