‘Oh, and along with the salad, could you bring some flowers for the table?” my then-fiancé asked. It was the first Shabbat we would be making “together” since my move from Minneapolis to join him in New York. Because my microscopic Manhattan kitchen was even smaller and harder to work in than his, we had divided and conquered the meal preparation.
Up to this point, I had been earnestly focused on logistics and food-related tasks. But my beloved’s unexpected request for a floral arrangement filled me with delight. It was the equivalent of asking a child if she wants to go outside and play on a warm, sunny day.
The presence of flower stalls on seemingly every corner on the Upper West Side was a revelation. Unlike pretty much everything else in the city, flowers were astoundingly less expensive here than they were in my former hometown. This almost made up for the insane rent I was paying.
From early childhood, I adored flowers. I studied the lampshade on the nightstand in my bedroom, which was covered with delicate illustrations in muted colors: violets, lilies of the valley, daisies. I would wander through a nearby field and gather Queen Anne’s lace and dandelions to bring to my mother, who gamely put them in a water glass on the kitchen table. The house we moved to when I was about nine was at the end of a road lined with 12-foot-tall wild rose bushes. I would walk along, inhaling the scent, believing in paradise.
As I grew into adulthood, I was entranced by representations of flowers in art and design. I drew and painted flowers, and used flowers in my graphic design work. And when I owned my own home, I became a gardener. I learned how to display and extend the life of cut flowers. I loved gardening for its own sake, but I also liked that I could improve the aesthetics of our small, old house while keeping an eye on my kids playing in the backyard.
Digging, planting seeds and bulbs, weeding, cultivating — it all started out as part of my optimistic efforts to nurture a family and build a dream. Then it became therapy to cope with the disappointment and sorrow of divorce, and the challenge of having to start over in middle age.
When I moved to New York, the flowers served as compensation for no longer having a garden. I paused at each display whenever I could, lingering over the colors and textures. They seemed like an offering of bliss — a hint of rapture.
Observing Shabbat also felt like a gift from heaven. As a bonus for joining the “second chance at love club,” and marrying the love of my life, my move to New York included becoming a late-in-life convert to Judaism. In the beginning, when it came to celebrating Shabbat, I felt inadequate. I’ve been told I’m a very good cook. But I can’t sing. I barely know Hebrew. And I’ve learned only the basic prayers. For a while, I watched and absorbed, taking on the role of restless apprentice.
Lighting candles feels inclusive, confirming and fulfilling. I was enthralled by the idea that Shabbat rituals should affect all of the senses: sound (prayers and songs and conversation), smell and taste (food and drink), touch (setting the table, washing hands, lighting candles, hugging) and sight (candles, a beautifully set table).
Still, as lovely as all those things were — and are — they are mostly done and experienced in public. I longed for a ritual of my own, one I could perform in private to soothe and quiet my soul, and provide a transition from regular days to holy time.
Prayer is a beautiful and obvious answer to that need. But in the middle of the hurly-burly of Shabbat preparation, it’s awfully hard to stop and just sit, to do what feels, in that moment, like nothing. There is, after all, a meal to prepare and a table to set.
Arranging flowers for my Shabbat table has become my own private ritual, one that involves sight and smell and touch. It can include sound as well, when I play my favorite Jewish music CDs while I create the bouquet. Other times, silence is what I need. I breathe deeply and take my time, creating a unique display each week. I will make no other bouquet exactly like this one again. It will last a few days or sometimes as long as a week. Then I will create a new one, made just for that Shabbat.
Making Shabbat flower arrangements had been my private observance. Then one day last year, I took a photo of an arrangement and posted it on Instagram. When that went well, I shared the images on Facebook, as a way to offer a visual Shabbat Shalom to friends and family members.
Now my Shabbat flower ritual has three parts. The first is choosing the flowers at my excellent local bodega. Next is finding that private moment to seek the quiet place inside myself, to breathe and pray, to trim stems, to take in the hint of heaven in each flower, to arrange everything in a favorite vase, a gift from a cherished friend. And finally there is the new step of taking the photo and posting to Instagram and Facebook.
Actually, there is a fourth part of the ritual — waking up on Sunday morning to look at my social media accounts and see how many people have liked or commented on my flower post. I’m touched that so many people have written to say how much they enjoy the Shabbat flower photos.
I’m amazed at the impact my invented private observance has had. It’s another gift from heaven: having my personal search for Shabbat peace provide others with some of that same delight and soul nourishment.
C.A. Blomquist is a writer, designer and arts educator who lives in Manhattan