Time is not kind to roses. A week ago, this one was Valentine’s-card red, making the cup I used as a makeshift vase feel unworthy to be in its presence.
And now look at it: crackling, crumbling, stained and tattered and dry.
As I swept the wilted yellow leaves off the table and reached to throw it away, I smiled…then paused. Why? Why had I done that? There was no good reason behind my sudden urge to take a picture of the dead rose, to be happy instead of disappointed at its faded petals, to call it beautiful.
Then I remembered. Ah, but there was a reason.
It was a short little poem I read my sophomore year of high school. One that made a bored, browsing fifteen-year-old stare at the anthology and read it again. And again.
I went back and searched for it, needing to read the whole thing, not just the one line I’ll never forget. Here it is:
Sonnet on the Death of the Man Who Invented Plastic Roses
By Peter Meinke
The man who invented plastic roses is dead.
Behold his mark: His undying flawless blossoms never close
But guard his grave unbending through the dark.
He understood neither beauty nor flowers.
Which catch our hearts in nets as soft as sky
And bind us with a thread of fragile hours:
Flowers are beautiful because they die.
Beauty without the perishable pulse
Is dry and sterile, an abandoned stage
With false forests. But the results
Support this man’s invention; he knew his age:
A vision of our tearless time discloses
Artificial men sniffing plastic roses.
“Flowers are beautiful because they die.”
It stuck with me, that one line. I didn’t know it had, but I look back and I can see the change after I discovered that simple phrase and took it up as a motto.
It’s why I gave the book of Ecclesiastes a chance, and how it became one of my favorites. “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
It’s why I was recorded on the dorm quote board for this perfectly serious assessment of aging: “I’m looking forward to deterioration.”
It’s why I was able to love people my senior year of college, even knowing that I was going to leave and never see most of them again.
It’s why I make fun of plastic poinsettias and love antiques and write letters and decorate cupcakes that are just going to be eaten and pay money to go to orchestra concerts even though the music fades with the last applause.
I’ve tried to explain this concept to others when they ask why I do this or that. “Because it’s worth it.” “Because even temporary relationships matter.” “Because making things that are beautiful is just as much a part of being made in the image of God as making things that work well.” “Because I want to, that’s why!”
But each time the answer ought to be, is, “Flowers are beautiful because they die.”
I turned twenty-three last weekend. I’m florist-shop new. But someday, if I pass several decades’ worth of birthdays, I will be old and faded and dry. And then I will die, and that will be beautiful too.
I’ve never really understood the way our culture celebrates youth and glorifies the newest and latest and best and tries to look young for as long as possible. We were not meant to be plastic roses, unchanging and perfect in waxy beauty.
But we weren’t meant to grow old and die either, not in the original plan. But in a world of decay and hurt and loss and all of the things that are not as they should be, death is also a reminder that these things will end. That there’s something better.
So, for now, here on earth, I hold these in tension: “Flowers are beautiful because they die.” “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
And then, someday: “Behold, I am making all things new.”