2 weeks ago

Girl Offline: Flower School Taught Me a Language of Composition

6 MIN READ SAVE

I posted pictures on my Instagram grid of flowers, close-up so that some of them looked like faces, every day of the short, intense introductory course at Kay’s Flower School. I was too scared to post the things I had made, in case somehow the internet gave way to their imperfections. And they were imperfect. Perfection hadn’t been the point, anyway, of starting this training. It was supposed to be about the real, not the unreal: and now that it’s over and I’m back in the roll and toss of my regular life, I miss how undeniably real it was. How challenging and satisfying and a whole garden of new to get lost in.

I know less than nothing about flowers and that is the first thing I learned at flower school. I barely know how to hold one correctly, let alone wield a scissors in a way that doesn’t look like I’m about to do permanent damage to my hands or whoever has the misfortune of standing next to me. I can’t curl a ribbon. I don’t know the names of anything – so when Janette, the bright and charismatic expert who was teaching the class spoke, I wrote everything she said down. I drained an entire pink gel pen in four days scribbling down what felt like secret knowledge: a glimpse into the world of florists. What they do: a world of cold water and bleach and roses wrapped in paper, of midnight deliveries – of geometry. Of eucalyptus leaves, of star-shaped fatsia. Of funerals, and weddings, and births. Of the precision required at every turn – knitting wire down the spine of leaves to bend them to your will.

Needless to say, I overthought every single move I made. Surprising absolutely nobody. I’m still overthinking it, and the course ended a week ago. I feel like I’m learning things in the echoes of those hours spent in that neat white studio, crowded around a long island, up to my elbows in green.

How constructing a beautiful thing from flowers and greenery should be simple, and how easy it looks in the hands of someone who is fluent – but is actually a silent mathematics, a kind of architecture. I haven’t made anything with my hands that isn’t food, or a paper zine, since I was in school: I was again and again paralysed by the likelihood of destroying these beautiful objects, long green stems and shocking petals. Slow at composition – until the third day, when something confident picked up in my wrists and I stood, placing pink blooms into a wet block of floral foam in a basket – and felt like for a second I understood what I was doing. Like the recipe had clicked into place for me, like that moment of standing over a stove and realising that last teaspoon of sugar was just what that dish needed to elevate it into something other people would enjoy. Something good.

I had learned to make something, and that made me happy in a way I don’t think I’ve felt – so easily, so without cost or need for performance, in a really long time.

There is a clear moment from that day which I probably won’t forget for the rest of my life – though it isn’t in my jammed notebook, though it isn’t written in pink pen. I was placing tiny sprigs of sea lavender in amongst the arrangement, like tiny clouds of pink just outside the coronations and roses and lush green foliage – and I realised I was smiling. I don’t know how long I was smiling, spontaneously, without clocking it, without even feeling the goodness well up somewhere in me – just being taken over softly by it. By how pleasing the basket looked, by how the sea lavender brought it all together. By how nice it was going to look in the middle of my kitchen table. I had learned to make something, and that made me happy in a way I don’t think I’ve felt – so easily, so without cost or need for performance, in a really long time.

I make things with my hands all the time: I write every single day in some shape or form. I type hard and heavy into my keyboard – I fill up word documents with thought and structure. But that barrier between the digital and the tangible is what this column has been exploring: what joy is there to be found outside of the aggressive lens of social media, and a high-productivity oriented culture? It was hard to realise that I wasn’t immediately able to arrange flowers beautifully, or even correctly: the world I’ve been living in is one of text and letters, and floristry isn’t that. It’s practical, and focus-oriented, and one of the most absolutely fascinating and joy-making things I’ve ever done in my life. My left-handedness and poor co-ordination came back to haunt me but I wanted to beat that clumsiness: I wanted to learn how to get better. How to become skilled from the ground up.

Under the warm and bright supervision of the sisters who run the school, by the end of the week I felt like I had learned the basics of a new language. Two languages, actually, including the business of running a flower shop – the world behind the bouquets and wreaths and arches and baskets. My kitchen is bursting with blooms in different shapes and sizes still, some buds opened later, only showing their true selves after the class had ended. I listened to the other women in the class talk about long careers in retail and how they had found themselves arranging flowers – they made it all look easy, effortless. I cast eyes to their work in the hope I could pick up even an inch of their confidence with the stems. How remarkable a thing to be in a classroom and feel so clueless at first, but feel the clues dropping in, bit by bit.

I didn’t want to compose long threads of tweets or missives on Instagram attached to carefully angled photographs of my arrangements, though the impulse was there the whole time. I wanted to share what I had learned: or perform my learning. But I stopped. Paused. Satisfied the need by shooting the flowers up close. Found myself delighted at the experience belonging almost entirely to me: sharing too much about it would be letting the air out of it, slightly. Even writing this feels a lot: a little premature. I was left with a bright glow from four rich days and a run down pen and a notebook full of learning, five full and glorious – if slightly wonky due to my own inability – flower arrangements in my kitchen. The course left me with a genuine curiosity for more knowledge and a certainty that this isn’t over: that maybe I’ll never run a flower shop, but that I want to understand more about this language of composition. That I want to practice it and get better: feel like it belongs to me a little more. I think this might be what logging off feels like. Like stems. Like being bad at something. Like foam giving way to arrangement: to something beautiful.

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