Bud emerges into hostile world
I read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh because I was interested in gardening and the ways in which Victorian lovers communicated through gifts of flowers. But the novel gave me insight into more than the secret messages that a garden emits. It taught me what it must be like to parent oneself as an adult emerging from the foster care system – a system I am tangentially a part of.
I’m a volunteer on my county court’s foster-care review board. Every month my panel reviews cases of children in foster care, talking with parents, caseworkers, attorneys, and children. Each month we report on these cases to the juvenile court judge. Many cases involve children who have grown up in the system. Never adopted, these children “age out” and become independent adults at 18.
Our panel often wonders about our children’s preparation for the adult world. Will they receive the training they need to get a job? Do they know how to parent the children they have or children yet to be? We are painfully aware that from an early age, many children in the system raise themselves and sometimes care for their own debilitated parents. Despite independent living training offered to teens in the system, the situation feels hopeless to me. I have a sense that the children who age out of the system can easily become homeless, criminal, or even mentally ill. And there is not a lot I can do about it.
Flower blooms despite setbacks
In the story, Victoria has grown up in the foster-care system, developing an adversarial relationship with the caseworker who has been her only constant in 18 years and with the many foster parents who have deprived her of nourishment in the figurative and sometimes literal sense. Only one foster parent, Elizabeth, loved Victoria, but at a crucial moment she failed as a parent, and the child was plunged back into the system. At 18 Victoria emerges from a group home stunted, guilt ridden, and unable to trust anyone, not even herself.
Victoria ages out of the foster care system with only the Dictionary of Flowers and Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers to guide her. Her only skill is knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers taught to her long ago by Elizabeth. She uses her skill to finagle a position with a florist and to communicate with those people she comes to love. By the end of the novel she is slowly learning how to love others and trust herself.
The author, herself a foster parent, gives us a glimpse into life for those who age out of the system. Having raised herself with not much help from adults, Victoria possesses an Artful Dodger’s sense of survival. She knows how to steal food and hide it on her person, on the presumption that she may not eat for a long time. She attempts to live in a San Francisco park but soon realizes the personal risk and finds a safe (not necessarily comfortable) place to live. A self-taught reader, she learns how to use what she knows to make a good living. Throughout the story, though, she shields herself from human interaction, finding solace only in flowers.
Bloom recovers from blight
Recently the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth issued a report on the peril that “toxic stress” puts on children who have experienced abuse, poverty, hunger, and abandonment in the foster care system. The report suggests that children who age out of the system experience life-long physical and mental problems. Older children in foster care sometimes have children of their own, and the cycle is perpetuated.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh, though, thinks that cycle can be broken, that abandoned children can make a successful transition into the adult world after emancipation. And she put her money where her beliefs lie, using earnings from The Language of Flowers to establish the Camellia Network (camellia network.org). This organization helps young people transition from foster care to the world of education and work. Camellia means “my destiny is in your hands.”
Diffenbaugh believes that if society stops thinking of recently emancipated foster children as “those kids” and starts thinking of them as “our kids,” such children can become viable members of society.
Victoria learns that just as people are complex, so is the Victorian language of flowers – each flower can communicate multiple emotions. She creates a dictionary of flowers, poring over old books on the subject, determining what each flower means to her. Diffenbaugh says she did the same thing to come up with Victoria’s flower dictionary, which she prints at the end of the book.
This novel gives new meaning to the term “Flower Power.” No matter what their meaning, flowers give Victoria a way to emerge into adulthood, a way to connect with others in meaningful relationships, and a way to forgive herself and others.
In future blogs I will discuss the meaning of the flowers in my garden. I probably won’t experience significant self-discovery like Victoria does, but I will have a way of sharing the power of the flower.