“I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees” – Pablo Neruda
Recently I posted a couple of pictures of beautiful magnolias on my Instagram and Facebook. Several people chimed in saying how much they loved magnolia because they evoked such strong childhood memories: holidays at grandparents homes, looking out over a front garden whilst watching the world pass by etc, a neighbours garden on the morning walk to school. This, in turn, made me reminisce about visits to my grandparents in Australia and the huge magnolia grandiflora tree in their garden. Its branches used to scratch and squeak against the hard bluestone walls outside my bedroom on breezy evenings. The noise scared me until Granny took me outside and showed me the towering gentle giant of a tree with its enormous, creamy, bowl-shaped flowers. That tree was also a favourite roosting place of their ‘pet’ cockatoo, Cocky. He and a particular noisy local kookaburra, nicknamed Kooky (such innovative names!) who perched on the roof watching the world go by, used to have a sing off at dawn most mornings. Happy days.
The trees that frame most of my childhood memories are apple trees. We were fortunate to have a mini-orchard at my childhood home: six apples and one pear. The garden never looked more beautiful than when those trees were festooned with their fluffy, pale pink blossoms for the few short weeks of late April into May. But one heavy lashing of April showers, or a couple of rogue night frosts and they’d turn brown, shrivel and fall. This ephemeral nature made them all the more precious.
It’s this fragility of blossoms (or sakura) that is so celebrated by the Japanese. Families and friends gather to picnic and party beneath the cherry blossom trees in a festival known as ‘hanami’, the origins of which date back to the 5th century. These gatherings celebrate the bittersweet transience of the blossom and its symbolism for their own lives – what makes life so very special is its brevity – revel in it, don’t take it for granted. Carpe the bloody diem out of it etc.
The Japanese use the phrase – mono no aware – which loosely translates as ‘awareness of impermanence’: a wistful resignation at the passing of things and this being the reality of our lives. We must learn to accept what has been and gone and move on. Don’t waste the present living in the past. Obviously it’s so much easier said than done but isn’t everything wise and worthy? Ultimately, it is this conscious awareness of mono no aware that will help lessen yearning, anguish and pain of loss.
I’ve had my fair share of yearning, anguish and pain recently. Since my father’s rather sudden illness and death in October, my life has comprised little else, to be honest. Some days just holding it together at work until home time feels like a medal-deserving achievement. The smallest, seemingly inconsequential, things, words and images trigger a tsunami of emotions that threaten to shift the sands beneath me. Comfort comes from surreal sources: some nights I wake in the early hours to the scent of pipe tobacco, my nose playing tricks on me, convinced he is nearby. And sometimes, in the early morning, a robin (his namesake bird) lingers in the tree outside my front window and with its head on one side, peers in, watching as I sip tea and write my Morning Pages. These things make me smile as much as they make me cry. Totally la-la, I know, but oddly reassuring.
I know that grief is a process. Just as the seasons are. And in the wise words of Oasis: “You gotta roll with it”. So, like a surfer on the crest of a huge wave being pushed towards the shore, I accept that I have very little control but I do have faith – somehow I will make it safely to the beach. I know my mother, brother and I will get through this grieving process just like the garden comes through the bleakest, darkest winter. In the warming words of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.”
And, aside from precious, beautiful blossoms, that’s what springtime gives us: faith in renewal and a sigh of relief; arriving at a safe shore with the darkness firmly behind us. Warmth, beauty and most importantly, growth. New shoots, a myriad shades of green, a magnolia on every corner, swathes of bluebells, a host of daffodils and the relentless optimism of buzzing bees (who, let’s face it, have plenty to worry about). Proof, if proof were needed, that everything can and will start afresh. And if anything can help us to be more mindful, to ‘be here now’, especially in spring, it’s gardening: it engages mind and body, fills our senses and allows us to nurture, create and, most importantly, regenerate. Horticulturally and spiritually.
So, I’m off to plant an apple tree…
p.s – If you’d like to hear me waffling about all things spring, London parks, The Omen, magnolias and windbreaks with the very lovely, very witty writer/broadcaster/comedian Daniel Ruiz Tizon, click here for his podcast.