Lilies of the Valley
The first time someone tried to seduce me, I was twenty-one and so shy that I didn’t realize a seduction was happening until I was right in the thick of it. I’d gone for dinner at the house of a man I’d met at a religious studies class—his wife was an English artist, and I liked to spend time with them in part because their accents reminded me of the English green I’d so recently left behind. But when I arrived at their house I realized that the wife wasn’t there—she’d gone back to England for a number of weeks and her husband was home alone. He pulled out a chair and offered me wine.
I refused. Politely. We sat down to dinner and talked about school, about the class we both attended, about the magazine I often dreamed of running. Then he asked me if I masturbated.
“How do you feel about your sexual health,” he said.
“How would you feel about dating an older man,” he said.
“If you and I washed up on a deserted island,” he said, “how long do you think it would be before we started having sex?”
“I don’t know,” I said. We’d just started eating our chicken. “Maybe… a few weeks?” Perhaps, if we were the only people left alive. Perhaps I’d want a touch that badly.
“What would you say if I told you it would probably happen that night?” He was in his sixties; he was soon to be a grandparent. I so badly wanted to not hurt his feelings.
“I… don’t know,” I told him. “I don’t know what to say.”
Lily-livered: adjective. Meaning weak and cowardly. First recorded use in 1605, from the Medieval belief that the liver was the seat of courage. Synonyms: chicken-livered, chicken-hearted, yellow-bellied, afraid.
My great-grandmother’s name was Lily. She was born before women in Ontario could vote. She had six children, five of whom survived into adulthood. She lived in a nursing home for as long as I knew her—my great-grandfather, ten years older, lived in another nursing home in a separate part of town. My mother once said that she suspected my great-grandmother was angry later in her life: angry at a husband who hadn’t provided for her like she’d thought he would; angry at a man who’d saddled her with six children while they hopped from farm to farm, scrounging for work.
I wonder now if the lilies-of-the-valley that she planted in her garden smelled like disappointment; if they spoke to her of the family and home she loved while also whispering an echo of the life she might have had, the things she might have done, instead of the life that she had to have, being a woman at that time in the world.
Five years later, while traveling from Glasgow to Edinburgh, a man in his fifties sat beside me on the train. I’d smiled at him at the station because he’d held open a door for me; once we boarded he came back to find me in economy class, then sat down and spent the next forty-five minutes asking me about my life—where I lived, what I did, who I was dating.
I told him that my boyfriend and I had been living together in the city for some time. At one point he put a hand on my knee and inched his fingers up my thigh. When I wiggled out of reach, he asked me to spend some time with him at his Edinburgh hotel.
“We don’t have to tell your boyfriend,” he said. “It can be our secret.”
Once again I found myself with nothing to say. Instead I stopped talking and stared out the window until the train pulled in to the station.
I did not have a boyfriend—at the time of the train incident, or at any point during my time in Scotland. I didn’t have a boyfriend when I had dinner with the man from theology class. I had crushes, male and female, and for a brief span of time during my undergraduate degree I was sort-of-but-not-really involved with a woman who was and remains a dear friend, but other than that I only had stories. Stories I told myself, stories I told people who unnerved me on the train. A bulwark against being alone.
The lily of the valley is a woodland plant, renowned for its sweet scent and tiny white flowers. When I was growing up, my mother transplanted a cutting from my great-grandmother’s garden and moved it with us from house to house. It was the scent of my grandmother’s perfume. It was a scent that reminded me of home.
But I liked roses better, so I didn’t think too much about these smaller flowers other than to smell them and stuff them occasionally in a bouquet. They were beautiful, but they were quiet. They were said to convey sweetness and humility. These were good, Godly things, and while I wanted to be a good, Godly girl I also wanted to break hearts the way that roses did. Rose was my middle name and I wanted to live up to it; I wanted to be deep and red and sharp and beautiful, a flower one never forgot.
The dinner with the first man was almost fifteen years ago. I left as soon as I could, even though he tried to get me to stay.
“I won’t try to seduce you,” he said.
“Keep in touch,” he said as I went out the door. His wife was away for two more weeks. Maybe we could have dinner again. Maybe he’d take me for coffee.
I walked home alone. It was dark out, and late, and I probably should have taken a taxi, but I felt safe as soon as I stepped out of his apartment, and the feeling did not go away.
The rose, in contrast to lily of the valley, is overtly a flower of passion. It has at various points symbolized the blood of Christ as well as the intensity of romantic love and desire. Black roses are a symbol of hatred; yellow roses whisper jealousy and betrayal. Roses have thorns and speak of impossible triumphs. The power of love to overcome all other things.
And yet, of course, there are those thorns. The Rose McGowans of the world, in their beauty and their messiness and their stubborn refusal to hide anything about what they are. How incandescent. How terrifying.
What does it mean, to be afraid of something? Psychology suggests that fear is a primal emotion—an emotion that elicits, even more so than worry, some kind of physical reaction to the world. The eyes widen, allowing the world to become crisp, the dangers apparent. Decisions fueled by adrenaline and survival instinct, so fast they’re almost superhuman.
In medieval times, the teaching of the four humors—a theory wherein phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile comprised the four liquids that governed the body—held that adrenaline and survival instinct fell under the purview of the liver, since blood was held to be the fluid that governed courage. A brave soul was one whose liver flushed dark red; a coward, by contrast, had a liver that was lily-pale, and thus does Macbeth bequeath the lily-livered insult onto a cowering, nervous servant. (Lily, here, refers to the valley’s taller, more striking cousin—when the comparisons with cowardice wore away, the lily regained status as a symbol of innocence and purity. A different kind of humor altogether.)
Anxiety, by contrast, occurs in response to the uncontrollable. (In medieval terms, anxiety might have been ruled over by phlegm, an overabundance of which was thought to make someone sluggish and cowardly.) Things over which I have no control might cause me anxiety, might cause me to lie awake at night, but they are not supposed to make me afraid. If I was afraid, I would be running as fast as I was able. I wouldn’t wiggle out of hugs, or stare out the window and wish for a moment to be over. I would be angry, loud, and sharp, and I wouldn’t care who knew it, so long as they saw me and understood that I was not going to be sweet and humble, not on your life, not today.
I am afraid of many men, these days. I am anxious about the fact that I’m alone.
Lily of the valley is a symbol of sweetness and humility—in much the same way as the rose is a symbol of passion and love—in large part due to the language of flowers, a millennia-old method of communicating via flower arrangements that reached the height of popularity during Queen Victoria’s reign and still, in some circles, continues today. (Meghan Markle carried myrtle in her bridal bouquet, as did Kate Middleton, because it’s thought to symbolize love and marriage.) Polite Victorian society did not allow for overt expression, and so people would send flowers; roses for your love, heather to someone you might admire. Flower meanings would vary culture to culture, but the spirit behind the gift remained the same.
I want to speak, but I don’t know what to say to you, so here’s a bloom.
What happens, then, when you don’t know what to say and there are no flowers for your anger? How many of us choke on our own rage when left alone?
When I think about it now, I think that the encounters with these men unnerved me a little, but not in the way that they should have. I was uncomfortable because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, because I didn’t know what to do with these clumsy and fumbling seductions, because I was disbelieving of the idea that someone would want to seduce me at all.
I wasn’t the kind of girl that anyone seduced—too quiet, too plain, too much of something that melted into the background. Unremarkable. Boring and timid and lacking adventure. A girl who wasn’t Victorian but still lived in her own type of polite society, choked by expectations of what it meant to be a good girl, a Godly girl, someone sweet and pure. A girl who most definitely did not live up to her (middle) name.
After that first dinner I went home and locked my apartment door and didn’t come out for the rest of the weekend. Weeks after that first encounter I told a friend about it and watched his face twist in outrage—it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I wasn’t wary of the man so much as I was wary of myself, of my inability to navigate the world and see these things for what they were.
I’d been a kind of rose to that man from theology class—the same way that I would, five years later, be a rose to the man on the train. Someone who was fascinating and intoxicating in ways I couldn’t fathom, someone who perhaps, in those moments, was even deep and dark and beautiful. And yet being faced with their interest had not left me empowered—instead I felt guilty, and ungrateful, as though I’d squandered the very thing that I had wanted all along.
Hadn’t he been nice at the dinner? Hadn’t he been polite on the train? Wasn’t it nice, after all, to be wanted? Wasn’t that what I longed for? Wasn’t that what I dreamed about, day after day?
Years later I learned what it meant to gaslight someone. To turn the world around using someone else’s fears and worry. It was like someone had flicked a switch beneath my heart, flooding my ribcage with light hitherto hidden, boxed away. Gaslighting was something that lurked beneath the surface—something that you couldn’t believe possible under such a pleasant and innocent veneer.
We were just having a conversation. It’s a compliment that he paid you the attention. Aren’t you overthinking things? You’re probably uncomfortable because you’re just a prude.
Anyway, you’re the one who’s lonely, right? Beggars can’t be choosers.
What does it mean, as a woman, when you gaslight yourself? When there is nowhere for your anger to go because you’re the one who’s bought into this idea of femininity and demure female expectations time and time again?
I had wanted to speak then, back in my twenties, but I both did not know what to say and felt myself unworthy of saying it. Fear was too much, anxiety too little. In both cases I’d been uncomfortable but not in immediate danger; I’d been paid a compliment, and the fact that I wanted to run away from it felt somehow silly, immature.
There were no flowers for this kind of feeling, this sense of suddenly being confronted with womanhood as a thing that others could seize and take at will, or in the absence of taking still make known that it somehow was theirs to ask for, theirs to pursue. I did not know what to say, and so I said nothing.
Despite its beauty, lily of the valley is highly poisonous. Every bit of it—from its small belled flowers to its bright green stems to its dark red berries that children are so apt to love—can cause abdominal pain, reduced heart rate, rashes, and blurred vision. Perhaps even death, if quantities are large enough.
I didn’t find this out until years after that first dinner. It seems like something that might have been useful to know at the time—this idea that someone could be at once sweet and deceptive, filled with a danger that would only become apparent if someone got too close. What freedom, knowing that that poison lurked just under the surface! Be careful, lilies-of-the-valley were saying. If you try to take what isn’t yours, you’ll be sorry.
Roses, by contrast, are not poisonous—but then there are those thorns. Tricky. I wanted that beauty but did not want people to be afraid of me, or to call me a bitch, or to seem, heaven forbid, like I was ungrateful for the attention someone was paying to me, especially as attention was something I’d been taught my whole life to revere. It seemed—still seems, sometimes, if I’m honest—impossible to have one without the other.
Anger is another primal emotion, though its evolutionary impact isn’t quite as clear. General consensus links it to awareness of impending threats and a need to dominate. The heart rate increases, blood pressure spikes, adrenaline courses through the blood. Some theories have postulated that anger arises as a response to fear—to disguise it, to overcome the threat ahead. To make oneself, through sheer force of rage and will, larger than one might otherwise appear.
I never saw either of those men again. The man from theology class was involved in a car accident a few weeks after our dinner and broke both of his legs; he left a message on my phone asking if I wanted to go for coffee when he was well but I never returned it. (Karma? I think now, a decade and a half later. Perhaps.)
The man on the train wished me a good night as we both left the station and that was that. The encounters were uncomfortable, but they could have been worse. The fact that I escaped them by being polite and evasive is a luxury I am only now beginning to comprehend.
Still—I stopped smiling at men at the train station after that, the same way that I stopped striking up conversations with strangers after class. The same way that I stopped looking at men in general and instead only sought to make myself smaller, non-threatening, when they were around. Better to avoid these kinds of situations altogether than risk being uncomfortable and rude again, or something even worse. Better to spread low, better not to call attention.
Over the years, disappointment better sums up what I’ve come to feel about my encounters with these men. And also, yes, afraid. Disappointment in them, surely, but also disappointment in myself—perhaps in the end for undergoing—or maintaining?—the lily of the valley transformation I’d longed so hard to escape in my teens. I wanted to be sharp and to stand out from the crowd but I let silence claim me every time it was my turn to speak.
I should have said fuck off to these men but I did not. Instead I spread myself over the ground and kept my words sweet and demure, and what poison or anger I might have had was buried under the fear of using it, or the fear of not being able to use it in the right way, or perhaps under the weight of not understanding that many things can all be true at once—that one can be angry and also sweet, or humble in a way that has nothing to do with sticking close to the ground.
Now I want to speak, often. These days I’m filled with rage and sorrow—a rage that has been building the way that lily of the valley covers ground, or the way that rose thorns settle into their tangled power the larger a rosebush becomes.
But I’ve been taught all my life to be polite and quiet. Perhaps not explicitly, and perhaps politeness and silence are things I’ve been predisposed to anyway, but still the education was there—in the way that women who wear low-cut tops are asking for it, in the way that a girl’s impulse in the face of an older man trying to seduce her is to protect his ego at all costs. In the way that women must be like men in order to get through the world and then are torn down and punished for being too manly, not girly enough, and so many of us opt to be quiet, to aim for less, in order to survive. In the way that a man can kill ten people because he thinks the world owes him sex but the fact that I, a woman, haven’t dated in almost four years means that there’s something wrong with me.
Here is what happens when you gaslight yourself: You begin to believe that you are polite and quiet not because it is in part a defense mechanism, not because you’re angry at a world that told you how to behave but then refused to reward you for that behavior. You are polite and quiet because you have nothing worthwhile to say.
There is a point at which fear becomes a kind of poison. But when you are used to operating out of fear—or anxiety, its smaller, paler cousin—that poison doesn’t taste like poison anymore. It only tastes like practicality, like survival, like learning to get along in the world.
The power of men to envision a better world has also been attributed to the lily of the valley. Wikipedia, citation unknown.
Call me cynical, but I have grown skeptical of the power of men, specifically, to envision a better world. Those men who made me uncomfortable were perhaps far removed from the kind of person who might, for example, shoot an ex-partner or plow a van into a crowd, but the root is the same: a sense that men deserve better, that the world owes them, that women should listen to them.
Where do you begin to build a better world? In humility? In rage? I have spent so much of my life listening, only to discover that so many don’t bother to give women space to speak. I have two nieces now, tiny humans both in the act of unfurling. I want them to stand tall but also spread low to the ground—to understand that it is okay for them to speak up when they’re uncomfortable, but also to know that they do not have to be loud all of the time if that’s not what they want to be—that the world will listen to them either way. To understand, also, that it is okay for them to feel all of these things—to struggle and be lonely while also independent and careful of the way they move through the world, or to be not careful at all, bright and big and loud and complicated while also recognizing that every little bit of this is okay, is more than okay, is in fact a perfect way to be.
It seems simple enough. But as women we are punished for these things again and again and again. Too loud, not loud enough. Brash and vulgar, or too timid. Learn how to stand up for yourself. Don’t be a wallflower—put yourself out there, take what you want. But be careful—no one will listen if they think you’re a bitch. Over and over and over.
Sure it’s silly to draw us in the light of two extremes. I am not only a lily of the valley; you are not only a rose flush with thorns.
Here we go again.
Despite its toxicity, lily of the valley is often used in herbal remedies. The plant has a number of cardenolides—compounds that increase the output of the heart and decrease its rate of contractions—that have, among other things, potential cancer-fighting properties. I like to believe that this is where the better world comes in. The power to transform even the most poisonous things into something of use, something of beauty.
I want to sew thorns onto my clothes so that they’ll prick a man if he gets too close. I want to make a syrup of red berries from these white flowers that spread low and feed it to the men who thought, once upon a time, that they were giving me a gift. Here is my gift to you, I’ll say. Not to poison them, no—only to show them what this fear is that I carry, what it means to operate in the world with privilege and opportunity and also still a gaping sense of not being good enough, not being smart enough, not being confident enough as a woman to stake my claim and take it.
I also want someone to notice these thorns without being hurt by them—to recognize that one can be polite and quiet but also a soul to be reckoned with, a thing sweet and demure and also threaded with power.
Here’s the thing: Lily of the valley grows best in the shade—but it can also take the sunlight if you help it adjust. We do not always have to be one thing or the other. The world can expand to include many ways of being.
Lily of the valley is also a perennial, which means that theoretically it can grow back after the toughest of weather. It likes cold climates the best, but can also adapt. It can be invasive. It’s infamous for taking root in shady gardens where nothing else will grow. The flowers are tiny, but the fragrance is huge—much stronger than you’d expect from something so tiny and delicate. There is a lesson here, one which I’m slowly starting to uncover.
We give flowers when we love and grieve, when there are no words left to help us. But sometimes, words are necessary. Just as the very act of planting is hope—that a next day will come, that these flowers will put down roots and then grow up toward the sky—so too is the act of speaking up, or speaking loud, or letting your rage join with the rage of others so that your voices become like a long bed of fast-spreading green. The thorns, the slender stems.
All of it a reminder, in the end, that even the gentlest beauty has its edges.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.