Tulips and Sex — Writing as If Everyone I Know Were Dead

Two deep pink tulips bloom at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA. Photo by BF Newhall

Deep pink tulips at their peak — just opening. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I want to write about tulips today. I don’t want to write about sex. The trouble is, for me, writing about tulips means writing about sex: something about their juicy curves brings erotic metaphors to my particular mind.

I thought that once my mother — and father — were no longer alive and reading over my shoulder, I’d be able to write my heart out. I’d get merrily, carried-away passionate about the curve of my husband’s chin, the stars on a summer night, God in God’s heaven, and . . . tulips.

Yellow tulip tinged with orange blooms at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA. Photo by Bf Newhall

My faorite tulip moment — just before the petals open. Photo by Bf Newhall

My mother’s gone now and so is my father. The trouble is, my kids are still alive. Very much so. And they read this blog.

Back in the olden days of print journalism, when I wrote a weekly newspaper column for the Oakland Tribune and its tens of thousands of readers, I felt free to spill my guts about my children, my husband, my job, the Meaning of Life. Total strangers – thousands and thousands of them – read weekly about my every misstep and self-doubt.

But they didn’t count; they were total strangers.

The people who really mattered? Not a problem. Jon, himself an old news hand, didn’t care what I wrote as long as it sold newspapers. My mother and father lived thousands of miles away; they saw only the columns I chose to clip and mail to them. As for the kids, they read Roald Dahl; but newspapers, not so much.

Anne Lamott, I think it was, once advised memoirists and novelists to “write as if everyone you know is dead.” It’s a great writing tip, but one I’ve never mastered. Probably because most of the people I know just aren’t dead yet.

Which brings us back to tulips. Tulips are my favorite flower, and right now they’re blooming like mad over at a local cemetery. They were planted in January to bloom in late March, so yesterday

White tulips with red streaks bloom across street from tombstones at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA.  Photo by BF Newhall

Tulips are planted in January to bloom late in March at Mountain View Cemetery. Photo by BF Newhall

I grabbed my trusty point-and-shoot and headed over to the graveyard, drove through the cemetery’s wrought iron gate, and parked my car . . .

Anyone who knows me can stop reading right now.

Purple tulip bud about to open at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA.  Photo by BF Newhall

Not Curves. Photo by BF Newhall

. . . Sure enough. There they were – tulips and tulips and tulips in all their lusty glory. Pink, red, purple, orange, yellow — all voluptuous and phallic with their ovoid curves and upright stems.

I had planned to spend an hour here. I spent two. I bent over. I squatted. I kneeled in the wet grass. I propped my elbows on my muddy knees. I took 267 pictures. I went home happy.

Ha! You cheated. You read this through to the end. But I cheated too. I wrote it like everybody I knew was dead. But since you’re not, I toned it down. A lot.

Note to self: Next week write a post that doesn’t have the word dead in it.

Note to readers: For more stories about the writing life, go to: “The Trouble With Daffodils,”   “Writing Tips From Jasmin Darznik”  and “Splitting the Infinitive — How to Boldly Go There.”

If you’d like to get regular email updates you can subscribe by clicking on the box at the top of the right hand column. Or, you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter by clicking on those icons.

A pink tulip past its prime has been eaten by insects at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA. Photo by BF Newhall

A blousy, fully opened tulip — complete with insect nibbles. Photo by BF Newhall



  1. I told my parents never to read my column. Now I send them links only to the articles that wouldn’t offend their delicate sensibilities and make them ask where they went wrong in raising me. It is worrisome, for I would like to write a book someday and explore some more “adult” topics. This is something writers have been struggling with for centuries if not millennia.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Go ahead and write that book as if everyone you know were dead, including me, your Auntie Barb.
      Then, and only then, figure out what to do with it. I know your parents well, and odds are, they will eventually appreciate and admire whatever you do because you’re you and you’re smart and you’re loveable . . . I notice that there is something about intergenerational discussion of sex that seems to be taboo, even in our supposedly very open-minded society. Interestingly, as she got older (and I did too) my mother got more and more open about that topic in her conversations with me . . . As for you, Lindsey, just write! And send me some (carefully vetted) links.

  2. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    My friend George quotes an African poet who writes, “The dead are always with us.” Hmm.

  3. gorgeous (and even those who know you wouldn’t mind if you ramped it up).

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thanks, Ginger. Coming from my SF Chronicle editor of yore, that means a lot. Maybe I could be one of those ladies who writes raunchy stuff under a pseudonym.

  4. Sharie McNamee says:

    We don’t even get that far because the deer are on the watch and eat them the every day a bud appears.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      I wonder how the cemetery folks keep the deer away from all those tulips. We are having an epidemic of wild deer — and turkeys — around here.


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