Of Peonies and People

These days, I have the opportunity to live nearly every moment with children in trauma and transition.  The Sunday School classrooms at River City Community Church, the R CITY after-school programs, my own kitchen table: everywhere I am these days is a place that welcomes children from and in hard places.

It is easy to think that this is the sole issue: the hard place.  Simply move the child from the hard place, bring them to church or counseling or community center or auntie or grandma or new family, pour in a little love and safety and all is well.  And yet the children at my tables are not always flourishing–and sometimes far worse.  And while I know this not to be true and necessary, today in the garden amongst the peonies, God taught this once again.


You see, I have these peonies.  Two sets of peonies, really.  One beautiful, spacious, protected bed that blooms gorgeously every summer in berry pink and clean white and every shade in between.

But last week, I found another set, nestled under the concrete of our parking pad in a thin row of dirt that generally collects chip bags and drug bags and condom wrappers blown in from the alley.  I hadn’t realized there were peonies in that strip–they haven’t bloomed in the three years we’ve been there–but sure enough there they are.  A whole line of little sprouts.

Since they had neither bloomed nor grown year after year, I decided to move the peonies to a space of sun and nourishment.  I hoped it would be fairly easy; perhaps, in a place like this, they were barely rooted.  I got to work moving the first.

In short, the peony did not want to.  I dug and dug, hearing the little tearing of roots, like the tissue holding a loose tooth, hoping I had dug deep enough to move and not just obliterate the plant.  I pulled and dug and sawed.  Earthworms, perhaps a whole colony, emerged from the peony, some halved by my shovel.  Do earthworms regenerate?  Finally, the plant looked free.  I tugged.  Still stuck.  Next move.  In the dirt, eye to peony.  So many more roots, right up against–no, into–the cement.  It had grown into the wall itself.  It was, truthfully, a very large part of the peony that came off in separating it from that wall.  The wall: the source both of the plant’s stability and its detriment, crushed, shaded, and covered as it was in that wall’s shadow.

I moved three peonies in all.  The second, a young one barely rooted to the wall, came easily.  The next one more like the first.  Parts came off, and I am not sure if those parts will regrow.  In truth, there is a mystery to all living things, and it is not certain whether any peony–much less these ones who have lost much–will flourish.

It will take time.  They will bloom later than my other flowers–perhaps not this year at all.  Could I have left them there?  Yes.  Should I have left them there?  Impossible to tell. Would it have been better to move the concrete?  Yes.  Could I move the concrete?  No.

But they are peonies.  They are strong peonies.  They have lasted in the dark and the trash, but they are meant to bloom.  They are meant to root broadly and widely and fully.  They are meant to feel the sun and collect the rain and rest in fall and regenerate in spring and grow tall in summer year after year after year.  They were made for this.

And so I plant with hope and patience and grace for myself, because what I offer is not a perfect solution.  It came at a cost.  It will require strength and growth and more work on these peonies’ part than any other peony has to put forth.  But their lifespan with their Creator is many years, and someday, people may walk by them, tall and green and bright, and be amazed at their beautiful strength shining through.

Elizabeth Galik co-directs R CITY, serves as a short-term guardian for children in transience, and recognizes that this post draws only simple parallels to the complex and culture-influenced world of children leaving trauma.