They close the train platforms in France two minutes before departure. I learned this a minute too late, standing on the wrong side of a gate as I watched my train to Bordeaux prepare to chug out of Montparnasse. I got on the next train, a couple hours later, which then got stuck in Angoulême, where my fellow passengers and I spent much of the afternoon in the sweltering heat. I stared out at the platform in disbelief over how many people still smoked cigarettes in 2015.
Eventually, an announcement was made in French. A music teacher I’d befriended translated for me: we were all going to be put on buses instead. It was another few hours to Bordeaux, then another train from Bordeaux to the tiny town of Sainte Foy Le Grande. An Australian monk in a brown robe picked me up and drove me through the countryside to Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery. It was almost midnight.
I had been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on mindfulness and meditation on and off for a few years. He often referred to Plum Village, a mindfulness practice center for monastics and lay people he had founded after being exiled from his native Vietnam. It had only recently occurred to me that this was a real place I might actually visit—and so here I was.
At twenty-eight, I was single for the first time in my adult life. Six months earlier, my girlfriend had ended our six-year relationship. We had lived together in Chicago and picked out baby names (“Lincoln” was a front-runner) and talked about where we might retire many decades from now (Santa Barbara, perhaps). She’d said maybe she’d come back one day, which only made it worse.
“Now is the only moment in which we can live deeply,” one of the monastic brothers said the next morning at orientation, as I took notes in a black leather journal. It was the sort of advice I had read and heard a thousand times, but here, I listened more intentionally. Of course! I can’t live in the past, since it’s over. I can’t live in the future, since it’s not here yet. I can only be alive now—in the present moment.
On the long downhill walk from Upper Hamlet to Lower Hamlet during my two-week stay, I passed fields of sunflowers. Their stems were taller than I was. Their brown-and-yellow capitula were each the size of my head. They turned throughout the day, in imperfect unison, following the arc of the sun. They were stunning. But my awe faded next to the feeling that what I really wanted was to share the scene with my ex-girlfriend.
I spoke about this with an aspirant, a young Vietnamese-Australian man training to become a monastic. He said dwelling on this wish was causing me suffering.
When you think of a sunflower, you are most likely thinking of Helianthus anuus. As Stephen A. Harris explains in his book Sunflowers, the genus and species were set down by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Helianthus comes from the Greek “helios” (sun) and “anthos” (flower). There are more than fifty species of Helianthus, but the most widely known species is called anuus, as it lives for a single season.
“Most people don’t realize that the thing that they think of as the flower is, in fact, composed of thousands of flowers,” the bespectacled Professor Harris told me via Skype from his office at Oxford University. When you gaze at a sunflower, “you are literally looking at thousands of flowers.” (Another fun fact: they belong to the Asteraceae family, which also includes daisies, dandelions, thistles, lettuces, and artichokes.)
Sunflowers originated in North America, Harris told me, where Native Americans used them as both food and medicine. When they were first brought to Europe in the early sixteenth century, they were treated only as “a pretty novelty.” In the late nineteenth century, the Russians revolutionized the breeding and uses of sunflowers, increasing “both the quality and the size of the plant” and “making them an economically valuable crop.” These “improved” sunflowers were then brought back to the US, and in the 1950s, sunflower production increased dramatically here and across the world. Their flowers are used for dye, their leaves for fodder, their seeds as a snack or ground into butter or featured in birdseed or roasted to create something like coffee. The seeds can also be compressed into oil, which can then be used in cooking, poultry feeding, and the manufacturing of salad dressing, soap, paints, cosmetics, and lubricant.
The French name for sunflower is tournesol, which means “turns with the sun.” This ability to turn and track the solar rays, called heliotropism, enhances the growth of the flower. It is one reason why the tournesol can grow so tall. (Hans-Peter Schiffer is the three-time Guinness World Record–holder for cultivating the tallest sunflower. His most recent record, set on August 28, 2014, was 9.17 meters, or 30 feet and 1 inch.)
Dr. Stacey Harmer, a biologist at UC Davis, is one of the world’s leading experts on heliotropism in sunflowers. Her team of researchers found that the sun-tracking movement is actually caused by lopsided daily growth. (Explaining this to me via video chat from California, she held up a pen to represent a sunflower stem.) During the day, she said, photoreceptors take in light, causing the production and distribution of a hormone that spurs growth on the east side of the stem, which then grows taller, forcing the plant to turn to the west. During the night, though, the process reverses—though Harmer and her colleagues aren’t really sure how.
Harmer has been working with sunflowers for a few years now, and she was surprised at how connected she felt to her specimens. “Here was this plant that was about the same size as me. And it had a head,” she told me. In some of her experiments, she had “to lop the head off,” and while she didn’t feel guilty, per se, she “did feel a little bad.” The other surprise of her time with the sunflowers? “They’re just really hairy,” she said. “They’re so hairy.”
It turns out that sunflowers grown indoors learn to start tracking the sun within days of being brought outside, and sunflowers brought in from outside try to track for a few days until they realize there is no longer a sun above. When Harmer’s team created an artificial sun cycle indoors with LED lights, the sunflowers tracked that, too—until the team extended the cycle to thirty hours from twenty-four, which was somehow too unnatural.
When I picture heliotropism, I picture the big brown centers and bright yellow petals turning atop the tall green stems over the course of a long summer’s day. This is what I thought I had seen in France. But it isn’t quite right. Sunflower stems reach their full height after about sixty days, at which point they bloom fully and more or less cease to turn. This is because, as they get older, their stems slowly stiffen and strengthen. The same mechanism that allows them to hold their heads high is the one that renders them less and less able to grow.
I returned to Plum Village the following summer and arrived on time, knowing better than to test the punctuality of the trains. I brought along the same black leather journal, which I hadn’t touched since the first retreat. This time, I’d only stay in Upper Hamlet for a week, as I had to get back to the States for a wedding.
I’d spent the last year, my seventh in the classroom, co-teaching a high school course on social justice with a colleague of mine named Christine. She’d joined my students and me at my request, pro bono, while maintaining her full-time workload as an administrator. (We’d already known each other for five years and been friendly colleagues, but had never before worked together closely.) We had an intense year together, the two of us leading seventy-one students in discussions about racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, which led to disclosures of trauma and more than a few political awakenings. It was Christine’s wedding I needed to get back for.
Six months before returning to Plum Village, I had seen my ex for the first time since our breakup. For weeks leading up to our Neopolitan pizza dinner in Georgetown, I’d practiced a little speech, and at the very end of the evening, I went for it. I sat in the passenger seat of her car, a car in which we’d logged so many miles and sung along to so many songs, and told her I wanted to give us another try. Again, she walked away, still promising she might come back one day.
Now, back in Plum Village, I looked over all I had written on my first retreat. Pages of notes from dharma talks and reflections on mindfulness were broken up by thoughts of her. I turned to a new page and began to write, and soon, these words flowed out through my pen: “I think—quite unexpectedly—that I’m ready.” Ready to break the silence, to normalize our relationship, to be a part of each other’s lives again—or not—“free of expectation or condition.” After eighteen months of suffering, I felt a sudden sense of clarity. It was time to let go.
As I walked from Upper Hamlet to Lower Hamlet that week, I was disappointed to see that the sunflowers had been replaced by fields of wheat. Crop rotation. Then I remembered I was on a mindfulness retreat and tried to see it as a meditation on impermanence.
Speaking of impermanence: Christine canceled her wedding. If you had told me then that the following summer, we’d return to Plum Village together, engaged, I would have said what the hell are you talking about.
Sunflowers have long consumed the attention of artists: William Blake, Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt, Allen Ginsberg, Georgia O’Keefe, all the way up to Post Malone and Swae Lee. And, of course, Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh painted numerous still-lives of sunflowers: four in Paris, in 1887, and seven more in Arles, in 1888 and early 1889. He put several of them up in the spare bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles as decorations for the visiting Paul Gauguin. It is the Arles sunflowers that have become iconic.
Gauguin’s visit, in December 1888, ended in agony, as Van Gogh cut off his own ear after an argument and Gauguin fled to Paris, never to see him again. But first, the two men painted each other painting. Van Gogh zoomed in on Gauguin’s face, an over-the shoulder view as his friend eyed an unseen canvas. Gauguin painted Van Gogh painting sunflowers.
Not everyone admired Van Gogh’s sunflowers as much as Gauguin. In 1890, a Belgian painter was incensed that his paintings would be “in the same room as the laughable pot of sunflowers by Mr. Vincent.” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a friend of Van Gogh’s, challenged the Belgian to a duel over this slandering of Van Gogh. “Bloodshed,” wrote the art critic Martin Gayford, “was averted with difficulty.”
As of this writing, there are 35,857 pieces of “sunflower art” available on Etsy: paintings, posters, prints, pendants, pillows. Helianthus has also carved out a place for itself within our most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century visual expression. The sunflower is one of only five flowers—along with the tulip, cherry blossom, hibiscus, and rose—that has its own emoji.
Christine and I arrived in Plum Village in late June the following year, a few weeks earlier in the summer than my previous two visits.
A month or so after her wedding-that-wasn’t, we had tiptoed up to the truth of our feelings for each other. That we were already so close—having weathered fights and seen each other’s best and worst exposed in our classroom—only made it more terrifying.
We had our first kiss on a sunny day before our first date, which was brunch in her childhood neighborhood in Chicago. We got engaged seven months later. We planned the moment together, exchanging engagement rings on the edge of a wintry lake a few hours from home. I finally had someone with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and someone who wanted the same thing.
We parted ways upon arrival in Sainte Foy le Grande. The nuns took Christine to Lower Hamlet, and the monks took me to Upper Hamlet. It didn’t dawn on me until we were apart how high the stakes were. Plum Village was the only spiritual destination that had ever felt right to me. It was a place I could go to practice happier living and to get answers that didn’t feel oppressive or unmoored from reality. What if I had dragged her across the ocean and raved about this oasis of transcendence and she, like, hated it?
It turned out I had nothing to worry about. Christine settled in, and by mid-week, she was asking me what parts of the mindfulness practice I thought we should bring home with us. Sweet relief. The trip hadn’t been a waste. I didn’t have to feel embarrassed. I had found the right person.
But the sunflowers, sadly, were nowhere in sight. There was no wheat, either. The vast fields were instead filled with anonymous green stalks of some kind. If last year’s sunflowers-to-wheat lesson was impermanence—nothing lasts forever—then maybe this year’s lesson was acceptance. Accept that the sunflowers aren’t here. Let go of expectations.
Then one afternoon, we were walking together between the hamlets. I looked out into the nameless fields and there, a few dozen yards in, atop their green stems, were three blooming tournesol. It was simply early in the season, I realized.
In No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh explains one of the Buddha’s teachings: “When conditions are sufficient things manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient things withdraw. They wait until the moment is right for them to manifest again.”
Christine and I hadn’t recognized them at first, just as we had not, for years, fully recognized each other. But the sunflowers had been surrounding us all along.
On a Saturday in July 2018, the emoji generation’s obsession with sunflowers caused a 7,000-vehicle traffic jam in Ontario, Canada. Lured by the promise of Instagrammable sunflower-field selfies, iPhone-armed crowds descended on Barry Bogle, whose farm has been welcoming visitors since 1969. He had to shut it down, and police had to be called in to deal with the four-kilometer traffic jam. The farm put up a scrolling banner on their website: “ALL PHOTOGRAPHY OF SUNFLOWERS ON THE FARM ARE NOW CLOSED FOR THE SEASON!”
The tourists might instead try Japan. In the Fukushima prefecture, sunflowers have been brought in to combat the nuclear radiation unleashed in 2011. Government officials, agriculture professors, and farmers were among those who joined an effort to plant sunflowers across the region. According to the chief monk at the Buddhist Joenji temple, they are “believed to absorb radiation.” A 2011 article in Inhabitant noted that the temple had distributed at least eight million sunflowers in the wake of the disaster. (Sunflowers were also planted for the same purpose in Pripyat after the Chernobyl disaster.)
Sunflowers have been symbols of resistance against smaller-scale disasters, too. The journalist Matthew Power, who died on assignment in Uganda at the age of thirty-nine in 2014, first made the New York Times because of a creative use of sunflower-as-protest.
Back in 1999, Power was living with a group of squatter-activists in the South Bronx. Opposed to Mayor Giuliani’s plan to sell over a hundred city-owned community gardens, they held a sit-in inside City Hall, complete with a group rendition of “This Land is Your Land” and an overnight lockup in Manhattan Central Booking. “A few months later,” Power wrote in VQR in 2007,
With the auction still slated to proceed, we stepped up our tactics. I came up with a scheme to climb a tree in City Hall Park dressed as a sunflower. I had built the costume the previous year, a corona of yellow petals made of satin curtain material stretched over bent coat hangers. The idea was to climb a large gingko tree at the corner of the park and not descend until the mayor came out and talked to me.
The mayor didn’t come out and talk to him, but Power did garner a story in the Times with the headline “Plant Lover Up a Tree is Pruned by Police.”
After he died, a friend and subject of Power’s wrote an obituary that included a picture of the journalist, grinning at the camera as he displayed a left-shoulder tattoo that ran halfway to his elbow. It’s a sunflower.
I asked Christine recently about that moment when I’d looked into the field of green and spotted the three blooming tournesol. We’ve talked about it so many times since then that she wasn’t sure, at first, if she remembered it at all, or just remembered us remembering it. Finally, it came to her, the actual memory: she hadn’t experienced it as particularly special at the time. She thought the sunflowers were cool, she told me. And she noticed I was really happy. But it wasn’t until we’d revisited the moment again and again that it became resonant for her, too. Sunflowers now serve as a sort of joint talisman for us, a reminder of another Thich Nhat Hanh teaching: that if you take the time to be present, you’ll recognize that there are already more than enough conditions for happiness.
But “for the most part,” Ann Patchett once wrote, “happiness is amorphous, wordless, and largely uninteresting.” So I won’t tell you about the sunflowers at our wedding, or the wedding itself.
I’ll just say that two months ago, I woke up next to Christine in Harlem. On the windowsill near our bed were six green sunflower stalks, each a couple feet tall and precariously thin. They leaned against the wall and the blinds, unable to bear their own weight. One had started to bloom, and the others seemed close. They’d been nothing but seeds at the start of the summer.
We’d moved to New York City from Chicago in 2017 to pursue new versions of ourselves: she was now a full-time middle school teacher, and I was an aspiring journalist. We were paying $1,200 more per month for an apartment less than half the size of our old one. I was working part-time in a non-journalism job while hustling as a freelancer. I was making far less than I’d made as a teacher, and had no idea whether I’d be able to chase my dream and also pull my weight in our family, which was about to grow. Christine was nine months and four days pregnant, and in a few hours, we’d be heading to the hospital for an induction.
I put on some gym shorts and a t-shirt from the high school where we met, and headed out for a quick run along Riverside Drive—my last as a father-to-be. The air was fresh and slightly crisp, hinting at the autumn to come. White clouds reached shapelessly across the blue sky above the George Washington Bridge in the distance. I passed a scenic overlook and made a mental note to stop there for a picture on my way back to our apartment. One day, I could show my child: this was the sky right before you were born.
When I came back to the spot to take the photo, I noticed something on the stone wall of the overlook. Two yellow sunflowers had been stenciled on with spray paint. They poked their heads up from a single green stem. The words “SUNFLOWER SOULZ”—the moniker of an NYC-based street artist—were emblazoned in thick letters across them. A few feet to the left, more sunflowers peeked out from behind the words of Toni Morrison, who had recently passed away. They weren’t her references to sunflowers from Sula or The Bluest Eye, but rather a quotation from Paradise: “love is divine only and difficult always.”
Our daughter entered the world late the next day, after thirty-six hours of labor, a C-section, and a fierce rainstorm. When the three of us finally got home from the hospital, all six sunflowers had opened up to greet us.