What the botanists, horticulturalists and gardeners of that time didn't know was that the "break" which produced these vivid and unpredictable variations in color - these brilliant freaks of nature which were so admired that the greatest painters of the day repeatedly immortalized them on canvas - was caused by a virus.
Eighteen years ago next week I was diagnosed with a virus. As such events usually do, this came at what would seem, from the outside, to be a most inopportune and unwelcome time (is there ever a good one?). Life had never been better: I had a large circle of friends, was financially secure (with a promising job future), and was in superb physical condition. But my spirit was slowly dying.
I fainted when the doctor informed me that I had AIDS. Not because I was so naive as to believe that it could never happen to me, but rather because I fully recognized that things would never be the same. And indeed they weren't.
At the time, I was dating a guy, handsome and sweet, who had what I secretly considered an excessive paranoia (he had a thing about not brushing his teeth just before a date, so as not to cause any micro-abrasions in the mouth that might lead to infection from kissing). When I told him I'd been diagnosed he really tried not to freak out, but (as kindly as he was able) quickly broke up with me. It hurt, but I really couldn't blame him. Life presents each of us with difficult, sometimes heartbreaking decisions, and who was I to say his toothbrush obsession was wrong? I was now broken; 'damaged goods,' as we were described by someone in a gay magazine article I'd read.
As the months and years flew by I continued to go through the motions of life: work, social engagements, all the events that mark our days. But eventually there was a reckoning that came due, and when the crash came it was not physical, but emotional. I had what was once the fashion to call a nervous breakdown.
And then my spirit found the warmth of spring.
It's been a long, slow and (sometimes) painful journey, but thanks to whatever force or combination of forces you wish to call it - fate, mother luck, God's grace, the stars - I'm still here; my physical health is pretty stable, and my spirit is blossoming like never before.
One of my favorite snippets of lyric from Stephen Sondheim's musical Into The Woods tells us that, despite popular misconceptions,
Witches can be right
Giants can be good.
And viruses can heal.
Tulip mania occurred at the same time that bubonic plague was ravaging the Netherlands, a seventh of the population dying in Amsterdam alone. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholic Spain and the Protestant North also was being waged, and a major defeat of the Swedes in September 1634 allowed more military resources to be directed against the Dutch. A Swedish victory in October 1636 also may have reduced demand for tulips by the Germans.
Disease, death, and despair all may have encouraged speculation.
Well, yes, for such is human nature. But it is also human to hope; and in my case at least, disease, death and despair have, paradoxically, given me hope, have taught me greater compassion for myself and for others, and have imbued me with a deeper appreciation for the infinite beauty and value of life. Sometimes "broken" really is better.