This year, I launched my wedding flower business, Poppy, into a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic that drove weddings and events to a screeching halt. 2020 has been Poppy’s first full year in business.
Back in March, when we thought this whole thing might blow over in a couple months, we launched a new product called Poppy At Home in a bid to keep our fledgling business alive. It was just Rachel, my sole employee at the time, and me. We were willing to try anything to keep the lights on.
I didn’t want to send people bouquets. They could buy bouquets from a number of other online florists, or from the grocery store. I wanted to give people an experience — the experience of creating something beautiful, from the natural world, with their hands. The magic of flowers is what I hoped to offer people, during a very dark, uncertain, and surreal time.
10 years ago, I discovered that magic for myself when I started receiving a monthly “arrange-your-own” flower subscription at my office, ironically, from H. Bloom, the first VC-backed, high-profile flower start-up of the 2010s that went on to fail in spectacular fashion. 10 years later, I started my own high-growth flower startup. (H. Bloom founders, if you’re out there, thank you for planting that seed.)
"Those flowers changed my life."
I was a newly minted adult, working in crisis and corporate communications. Every other week there was another company causing chaos we had to clean up. I lived in a dingy studio apartment, and I started to wonder if this was all adulthood had to offer.
As a child, then teenager, and in college, I was creative. That creativity expressed itself in acting, and in poetry. I started publishing my poems in high school and then in my college’s literary magazines, and my senior thesis was a collection of original poems. My peers from college poetry workshops went on to earn MFAs in poetry; I took a different path. I was afraid no one would pay me to write poetry. I was afraid of not making enough money.
A couple years into post-college life, I was flailing. The creativity that had flourished in me during college through poetry workshops and literary magazines was being crushed under the weight of daily social media reports and hedge fund proxy wars. I took an LSAT class and quit after one session. I was diagnosed with ADHD and depression, and prescribed Prozac and Adderall.
The idea of living that way for years to come felt…bleak. But I couldn’t afford to stop working and become a starving artist, there was no trust fund for me to fall back on.
Then, I found flowers. They found me.
“You must change your life.” — Rilke
I would stay late in the office after everyone had left and it was quiet, and I would do my flower arrangements. The stress and worry and frenetic pace of the day would melt away as I methodically cleaned and cut my stems, and let my imagination guide my designs.
It was one of my first experiences of what psychologists call “flow” — getting so completely immersed in your task that you lose track of time. After months of malaise, I finally perked up in my therapist’s office. I told him I was going to become a florist! He said, slow down — are you sure? Why don’t you volunteer a couple hours a week in a flower shop, and see how you like it?
A year later, I was working in The White House drug policy office. I liked the work, but it still wasn’t filling up my soul. Working in policy communications can feel so abstracted — it’s so hard to tell if anything you’re doing is making a difference. I think most modern white collar work, particularly in early and mid-career, might feel some version of that way. It’s so antithetical to what makes us most human: the tangible, the real, the immediate.
The office sent me to a professional training for government workers, where they asked us to write on a post-it the thing that woke us up each day. We were supposed to write something related to our agency’s mission, but I couldn’t stop my hand from writing, “Beauty.” Looking around the room, I saw how out of step I was with the other government employees.
The words of Rilke echoed in my ears: “You must change your life.”
Then, I cold emailed the Chief Floral Designer at The White House, Laura Dowling, and asked if I could volunteer in her shop, just as my therapist had suggested. She said yes, and introduced me to a world of artistry I never knew existed: sugar-spun flowers melding into intricate floral designs, a cooler stuffed with blooms from all over the world, preserved magnolia leaves in patterns across giant swaths of the East Wing hallway. And more, Laura introduced me to master florist Gregor Lersch, and we traveled to Bad Neueunahr, Germany, to study with some of the best florists on earth.
Every Saturday, I would drive to the local floral wholesaler and shop their cooler, stacking bunches of flowers in my arms and spending the entire day experimenting with new designs in my living room. There was something so gratifying about spending hours focused on a task, improving my abilities, and seeing the outcome right in front of me.
The entire process brought me so much peace, and awakened the creativity that defined my younger years, and had been missing for so long.
Covid has changed the way we live. It’s forced us to ask: what is essential? I suggest that whatever makes us feel alive, whatever puts us in touch with ourselves, whatever satisfies the most innate human desire to create — that is essential.
Yes, flowers die. They don’t last. They are ephemeral. That is also part of their beauty: because we know they won’t last, they force us to be present, to pay attention, to notice the details. To wring the most we can out of the moment we are in.
This year, I have needed flowers more than ever. I hope that what my company offers — the joy of flowers — has the same effect on you as it has had on me.