Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

The Melancholy of Tender Green Leaves

I’ve always thought that autumn was the most melancholy season with the its dying flowers and falling leaves, weeks of sweeping rain, and the ever plummeting temperatures but over the last few years of my life, Spring has stepped forward as a possible contender.

There is something brutal in the racing green, the tender spring flowers leaping forth before they’re smothered by the emerging foliage of tree and brush overhead. Birds and animals are racing too, hurrying to carve out territories, find a mate, build a home. Rainstorms and occasional snowstorm cause the river to overflow its banks and  the parks flood, ducks go floating by in puddles turned to ponds. Spring is the rush season.

Over the last few years as I’ve struggled with chronic joint issues, Spring has been a merciless time, it’s hurling push more like a joke than anything else. In the beginning years of unrelenting joint pain, I shut myself away, ignoring the season and reading instead. But even under the weight of immense pain, being locked away became boring and unbearable and so I sat outside last Spring, unable to walk but content to look and listen. I settled into my chair every early morning and watched the treetops, noting the first emergence of light green, the tiny buds unfurling, and finally the spread of a gorgeous green canopy, all the more momentous because I had watched it emerge every day over the course of weeks. I listened to the birds too noting who was new, local, or just passing through. At last came the buzzy bumblebees, ponderous and loud, like dizzy helicopters on a mission to gather pollen.

This Spring I graduated from sitting in my backyard to walking through my neighborhood, joint pain eased over time due to correct diagnoses, correct treatments, and my own on-going work with drawing boundaries and practicing self-care. I take walks in deep gratitude, admiring the greening grass, the children and dogs passing by, and my neighbors’ tulips, daffodils, and blooming magnolias.

But as Spring works hard to cover-up winter’s pulverizing blow, I find that I cannot forget the past. Time is passing and each day shoves us forward whether we’re ready for it or not. Some go forth happily but for many, going forth is complicated, complex, and more painful than easy. And so there is a melancholy in the soft green leaves backed by the dark bark of trees, in the bright tulips springing forth out of the dank heavy mud, and in the cold breeze that causes magnolia petals to fall just after blooming. Already everything is passing, clearly illuminating the transient nature of life which sometimes is sweet and other times too painful to behold. Holding both of these emotions at once is the place where poetry emerges and who better to linger in this in-between state but Li Qingzhao, the great immortal poet from China’s Song Dynasty. Below are a few of her ci poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. 

The Day of Cold Food

Clear and radiant is the splendor

Of Spring on the Day of Cold Food.

The dying smoke of aloeswood incense

Floats above the jade burner.

My dream is broken and hidden

like my flower hair ornaments

Buried in a pile of cushions.  

The swallows have not come back

From the Eastern Sea, but already

People are gathering wild flowers and herbs

In the meadows. The plum blossoms by

The river are gone. Catkins

Appear on the willow branches.

And then—in the orange twilight—

Fall widely spaced drops of rain.

 

浣溪沙·淡蕩春光寒食天
朝代:宋代

作者:李清照

淡蕩春光寒食天。玉爐瀋水嫋殘煙。夢迴山枕隱花鈿。
海燕未來人鬥草,江梅已過柳生綿。黃昏疏雨溼鞦韆。

 

 

I Gave a Party to My Relatives on the Day of Purification

 

Tranquil and serene, the night

Seems to last forever.

Yet we are seldom happy.

We all dream of Ch’ang An

And long to take the road back to the capital,

And see this year again the beauty of Spring, come with

Moonlight and shadow on the new flowers.

Although the food is simple, as are the cups,

The wine is good, the plums sour.

That is enough to satisfy us.

We drink and deck our hair with flowers

But do not laugh,

For we and the Spring grow old.

 

蝶戀花
  
   上巳召親族
  
  永夜懨懨歡意少,
  空夢長安,
  認取長安道。
  為報今年春色好,
  花光月影宜相照。
  
  隨意杯盤雖草草,
  酒美梅酸,
  恰稱人怀抱。
  醉里插花花莫笑,
  可怜人似春將老。

 

Fading Plum Blossoms

 

Spring is hidden in my studio,

Daylight locked out of my window,

My painting room is profoundly secluded.

The seal character incense is burned out.

The shadows of the sunset

Descend across the curtain hooks.

Now that the wild plum I planted myself

Is blooming so well this year

I do not need to climb the waterfall

Seeking wild plum blossoms.

No one comes to visit me.

I am lonely as ever was Ho Sun in Yang Chou.

I know that although my plum blossoms

Are lovelier than all others

The rain will soon scatter them away.

The sound of the horizontal flute fills the whole house

With a melody of dense sorrow.

I will not feel badly when their perfume dissolves

And their jade snow petals fall.

When they have all been swept away

The memory of my love for them will remain.

It is difficult to describe the beauty of their shadows

Cast by the pale moonlight.

满庭芳
  
  小阁藏春,
  闲窗销昼,
  画堂无限深幽。
  篆香烧尽,
  日影下帘钩。
  手种江梅更好,
  又何必、临水登楼?
  无人到,
  寂寥恰似、何逊在杨州.
  
  从来,
  如韵胜,
  难堪雨藉,
  不耐风揉。
  更谁家横笛,
  吹动浓愁?
  莫恨香消玉减,
  须信道、扫迹难留。
  难言处,
  良窗淡月,
  疏影尚风流。

Comments (3):

  1. Liumx

    April 30, 2019 at 5:50 pm

    The day of cold food
    浣溪沙·淡蕩春光寒食天
    朝代:宋代

    作者:李清照

    淡蕩春光寒食天。玉爐瀋水嫋殘煙。夢迴山枕隱花鈿。
    海燕未來人鬥草,江梅已過柳生綿。黃昏疏雨溼鞦韆。

  2. Liumx

    April 30, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    Fading Plum Blossom
    满庭芳
      
      小阁藏春,
      闲窗销昼,
      画堂无限深幽。
      篆香烧尽,
      日影下帘钩。
      手种江梅更好,
      又何必、临水登楼?
      无人到,
      寂寥恰似、何逊在杨州.
      
      从来,
      如韵胜,
      难堪雨藉,
      不耐风揉。
      更谁家横笛,
      吹动浓愁?
      莫恨香消玉减,
      须信道、扫迹难留。
      难言处,
      良窗淡月,
      疏影尚风流。

  3. Catherine

    May 2, 2019 at 10:13 am

    Thank you so much for the Chinese originals. I appreciate you sharing them.

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Winter in the Time of Climate Change

There is a stream near my home and I walk along it nearly every day; I know its moods and seasons nearly as well as I know my own. We are family and our connections are pure: we’re both made of water.

Every day brings more distressing news about the environment. Big changes need to happen but whatever change that does happen is so slow. Global warming is now being felt by everyone, some more than others. I go out and walk along the stream when the news and all the unfortunate future unknowns press in too hard. Right now, it is running fast. This winter has been a series of freezes and thaws. November hit hard with a heavy, deep freeze and I expected this to lead to a  white Christmas but instead, it’s been a muddy, wet winter, full of more temperate days than frosty ones. The thermometer rides up and down, every day propelled by a bouncing ball rather than a steady progression of tiny fluctuations.

The stream locks and then unlocks. It accepts each freeze and thaw with inestimable grace. After reading the news, it is hard to know what is near or far, here and up in the sky, in the mind or in the present moment. But the stream is always present, it knows no other moment. It lives in eternity; as David Hockney said, “It’s always now. It’s now that’s eternal.”

The creek is still here, I think to myself whenever I see it, it is still living. It runs forward through this strange January, sometimes under the ice and sometimes not. Patches of green moss dot the banks nearby, beyond that the nearby plants are broken, brown, and dried. They are asleep, listening to things I cannot hear, dreaming of things I barely know of.

The Tale of Genji: A Timeless Novel of Messy Relationships

“Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.”

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

I read through The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu over the course of the summer and autumn, and I finally finished last week. I’d read it in the early morning with my first cup of tea and cat in my lap. The cat becomes upset and depressed if I don’t hold her for a little while in the morning so it was a good fit to settle in and read as much as I could from the 1200 page novel before moving into the rest of the day, accompanied by one happy cat. Now when I get up, blearily make myself a pot of tea and settle down, it’s a strange sensation not to reach out for the massive, multi-generational novel.

Set during the 11th century in Ancient Japan, The Tale of Genji spans three generations and is loaded with all sorts of characters, locations, and religious observances. It deals with the relationships between people, nature, the arts, and the gods. Emotions are celebrated in waka poetry, seasonal changes are closely noted and cherished, religious observations of Buddhism and Shintoism dominate daily life, and people’s lives change due to the current Emperor in power. At the center is the story of Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji) and later on in the novel, his descendants. Despite having a father as Emperor, his mother was a low-ranking consort and as such, he has commoner status– but for all that, lives a wealthy, fabulous life. Added on top of this is his intense, near-otherworldly beauty and grace, acknowledged by both men and women. Loaded with money and charm, he seduces and sleeps with many. Hundreds of pages are devoted to his thoughts and feelings on his lovers (to whom he sends piles of poetry and presents) and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of his lovers are revealed privately to the reader. Nearly every woman who comes in contact with him (and a few men) has deeply conflicted feelings about Genji and his behavior.

Noble women’s lives in the Heian Era are so delicately arranged that any mere whim of Genji’s can affect their futures deeply. The women live entirely at home, tucked into the deep recesses of their houses. They rarely even stand—though if a noblewoman does get up and walk, life is about to get spicy. To express their sadness and depression over Genji’s cavalier behavior, they watch the seasons change through a veil of tears, lie face down on the floor, refuse to talk to him, or can’t stop sending him messages. Whatever their behavior, they ultimately have accept his treatment of them. It is not an easy path to walk. They find consolation in the surrounding world: by reading, writing, playing music, observing the seasons, flowers, and birds, caring for their children, and talking to other women.

Seasons, religious observances, and rulers flow by and the main characters change too, from Genji and all the people surrounding him, to his grandsons and the women they love. There is a possibility that different author wrote the story of the grandsons, Kaoru and Niou. The style is different, somewhat smoother, and the characters’ thoughts and motives are revealed in more depth. I like to think that it was Shikibu’s work, a return to her great story after many decades of refining her craft.

“The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

The final third of the book centers on a succession of autumns, and a melancholy light flickers through the last few hundred pages. Genji is remembered but in passing—little of him is left except for his great house and his descendants. Kaoru, Niou, and three sisters that they love are on center stage. Genji’s grandchildren live in much the same way he did and though their personalities are different, their lives are just as fleeting and as frail. People make many of the same choices as the previous generation; the circle of life wheels around and around as the seasons flash by. The story has no neat conclusion: the book ends abruptly with protagonists still navigating their lives and affairs. I imagine Kaoru, Niou, and Ukifume out there in another dimension or time, wrestling with their lives, emotions, and circumstances, trying to make do with the choices available to them.

The Tale of Genji is an immersion into another life and era; it is an ancient gift that has survived for nearly a millennium. It is a book of shadows and barriers, a world that exists in lamplight.

“In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

It is miracle that so massive a book, copied out by hand year after year, decade after decade, century after century, then at last into print, should survive into the modern era. Due to its venerable age and old language, many translations of The Tale of Genji have been written: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s in Japanese and Edward Seidensticker’s in English are among the most well-known. I read Royall Tyler’s translation, occasionally dipping into Arthur Waley’s and Seidensticker’s earlier ones. What comes through strongly, regardless of the translation, is how incredibly easy The Tale of Genji is to read despite being nearly 1000 years old. Part of this is Shikibu’s very modern skill of weaving plot points in and out of characters’ motivations and thoughts. Shifting narrative perspectives and stream of consciousness prose both play a part; but an even bigger contributor to the story’s strength is its centering of relationships. If readers love anything, it’s hot, messy love affairs, tangled family and friendships, and all the accompanying emotions that go with them. Genji, full of tumult, even ghosts and possessions, is ultimately about human nature and all the triumphs, frailties, and failures that come with it.