You have to stop for the flowers they won't stop for you

June 18, 1996|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- The lilacs have gone by. I take note of this with an unexpected snap of regret as I take my morning commute from the kitchen to the driveway.

The flowers had made their annual appearance on the bushes that stand beside my back door. For two weeks, they had permeated the air with a seductive promise as perfume wafts into the atmosphere of a department store.

I planned to take up their offer, to spend time in their company. But now the last of the blooms has turned a crusty deadhead shade of beige. And I had paid only the most transient of visits, enjoyed only a contact high, a small whiff of their possibilities.

This morning, it is the absence of lilacs that finally stops me in my tracks. I brake belatedly to pay the toll of attention to what is now missing. A year's worth of lilacs, an entire life span of flowers.

I repeat the phrase in my mind: The lilacs have gone by. It is what gardeners say. But in fact, the lilacs stayed in one place and I had gone by them, hurrying, on the way, on the move.

Behind me in this small city garden irises bloom now. Peonies are on the way, the ants already feasting the sweet sap off their buds. They will be followed by day lilies and black-eyed Susans, by asters and fall. I run down the perennial calendar and in a wave, become nostalgic for the summer that has yet to officially begin.

Is it seasonal, this consciousness of the racing pulse of daily life? Is the awareness of flowers ''going by'' more than a banal metaphor for transience? Is it, rather, some alarm coded into our DNA as if it were a clock?

The days are still lengthening, but lately my friends have been wistful about time, the common currency of their lives. They talk of spending too much time on what are dubbed essentials. Too many hours seem to be taken out of their week, as if the week were a paycheck, too much withheld before they get to some small luxury, a moment of discretionary spending.

At lunch last week, a woman not given to maudlin cost accounting had figured out on her actuarial table that she has probably 30 more chances to see the pink ladyslippers in the woods. Thirty is a lot said the woman who is approaching 50 herself. But it is also, suddenly, finite.

The other day, an economist who jet-lags between cities and seasons, stopped to talk about the lupine he was leaving behind on his way to Singapore. Why couldn't the geneticists manipulate the bloom dates for our convenience the way politicians move presidents' birthdays around for the benefit of a long weekend? In his mockery, there was longing.

This morning, dangling out of my briefcase is a plastic bag of excess black-eyed Susans that I dug up in a rush last night. Flowers for a friend. On the phone last week, we talked about channel-surfing through life. Work, click, kids, click, parents, click, errands, click. With split-second timing it was possible to cover everything -- but only if we stay on the surface.

Life becomes a list

What happens when life becomes a list, we asked each other? When even the pleasurable things become items to check off? What happens when we are getting through the days? What are we getting through and to? But our thoughts were interrupted by call-waiting.

What times we live in, time-deficient times, an era of high productivity and low sensibility.

A working woman on the television news the other night talked longingly about wanting time off to see her child play ball. Every day in the paper there is a story about downsizing, right-sizing. There is growing pressure and pride in efficiency. Some are running scared, some are running to catch up, and others just running.

Maybe this speed trap is not so clear in the taupe sameness of winter when one day stretches endlessly like another. But sometimes, standing in a garden, a season can seem as short as the life-span of a day lily. Sometimes, you catch a glimpse of something in human nature that longs to spend time lavishly. To relish as well as to produce.

On a late spring morning, there is a wistful reminder in this natural datebook. How quickly things ''go by.'' Life and lilacs.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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