I like to read multiple books at once. I’ve been doing this since I was a child, checking out a tall pile of library books and carefully bringing them home on my bike, titles jolting out off the basket whenever the tires hit a bump. Those few blocks were a slow and careful journey home.
Out of the pool of current reads (doubled due to last spring and summer’s reading drought: I’m still catching up!), I picked the ones that most remind me of spring, this time of fitful sunshine, rain, and snow time; packed with flowers and (sometimes) floods; a burgeoning moment towards summer and deep green; sometimes tragic but more often abloom.
A Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings by Bashō, trans Sam Hamill: I came across Shambhala’s pocket library edition at my favorite local indie bookstore and couldn’t resist. And so began my journey with the Japanese poet Bashō (and Sam Hamill, one of my favorite translators). Page by page, we walked through mountain passes and villages, meandered along beaches, sailed coasts, met fellow poets, stopped at temples, hot springs, and historical sights, all the while scribbling down poetry to note different occasions of being. Spring marks the time for travels, leaving home and going somewhere new after the long dark winter, be it long distance away or a beloved spot nearby.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I started Walden last summer for bookclub and thought I’d finish it quickly as it’s a slim read. To my surprise, I’d read a few pages at a time and then spent days afterwards pondering Thoreau’s views, philosophies, and observations. This is one of those rare books that is intensely thoughtful and joyful. It pairs well with Bashō, two artists who looked closely at the natural world and wrote deeply about it.
How to Know the Ferns by Francis Theodora Parsons. I came across this exquisite book while browsing through the Sterling Library, a tiny library at the Morton Arboretum. Parsons’ guide book contains the usual identification points for keying out ferns but also includes beautiful illustrations drawn by her friend, Marion Satterlee. The best entries center on Parsons’ personal experience on hunting for certain ferns, entertaining moments with fellow fern aficionados (both fern hunting together and arguments included) and some beautiful quotes by Thoreau. Parsons was a naturalist in the 1890’s and one of my heroes—she tramped everywhere in upstate New York, identifying plants and trees and delighting in nature. She shared her love of nature through her massively popular books and made a living this way as well. Her books were coming out around the same time that Elizabeth von Arnim (Enchanted April) published her first book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a memoir on gardening, which skyrocketed her into popularity as well.
Orphic Paris by Henri Cole. I picked this up during one of NYRB book sales, started reading it last spring, put it down, and have returned to it once again. It is a travelogue of sorts, one that comes from walking the streets of Paris while also journeying through the mind. The two are joined through Cole’s act of writing, so that they cross, diverge, and meet up again. He visits Baudelaire’s gravesite, considers Oscar Wilde’s last days, recalls his own mother’s life and last words. His walking continues: he visits friends, contemplates monuments, films, parks, and memories. A deeply melancholy tone pervades the book but it doesn’t feel out of place for Paris or spring; life is everywhere but also mortality too.
Another book about walking through Paris but from a completely different point of voice, is Violette Leduc’s The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. This was one of my last orders from Book Depository (RIP, BD! You are missed) and so far one of my favorite reads for this year. We follow an unnamed woman, elderly and close to destitution, as she wanders the streets of Paris, starving and alone. This could be a story of absolute despair but under Leduc’s brilliant and empathetic hand, it’s not—the nameless woman possesses a brilliant and glowing imagination. Resting against a post, she becomes a peasant woman from a hundred years ago, taking a breather before she goes on to the market to sell her horse. From time to time, the pain of starvation forces her to huddle down, but she revives once more and carries on. Remnants of papers and oranges in the train station’s waiting room become little gifts left just for her and she chooses to take a train ride and skip her daily meal instead. I’m half way through but I’ve already decided to read all of Leduc’s translated works. She is not to be missed.
The Music at Long Verney by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Lolly Willowes was the first book I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I was completely captivated by Warner’s droll humor and witchy sensibilities, coupled alongside a deep empathy for nature and human beings. The Music at Long Verney is a carefully curated collection of her short stories and the perfect follow up to Lolly Willowes. It has that same humor and empathy but also showcases her other moods too. Her imagination, compassion, and sarcasm are a joy forever. I look forward to reading more of her work.
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.
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.
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.
Japanese anemone flowers open blush pink petals in the park. Their tall, delicate stems hold up the tender flowers, and in the centers glow tiny pistil-laden suns. Furry carpenter bees buzz in a frenzy, adoring the tiny suns. Like all true worshipers, they circle round and round the yellow centers, smearing themselves in joy and pollen.
I also circle a center, but the object of my adoration is the park itself. As the path guides me around and around, my body, full of the usual tensions and distresses, takes the cue, finds the beat and the measure and walks to it.
The English Romantic Poets of the early 19th century were great walkers and believed that walking was essential to writing to poetry. With the body busy, the mind can walk freely, investing in its visions and tunneling down into what were previously subterranean thoughts.
This small park is my open field, my verdure, my ramble through hill and dale. My feet move on, sometimes slowing to a near pause, other times hurrying, suddenly propelled by a new and vivid notion.
About the fifth time around, a sort of mesmerism occurs and I fall under the trance of the day. The circle becomes a mantra uttered by my feet—knees, hips, shoulders, and arms follow along and we head down the path. I must walk, I must keep walking, I must continue to walk and the resolution becomes a reassurance as a cool breeze fills my lungs; I am alive and refreshed.
I pass under the oaks and dodge their falling acorns. Sometimes I entertain the notion that squirrels are hurling them, but when I catch sight of their small triangular faces they look as startled as me. It is the oaks themselves that are throwing the acorns down. I momentarily consider bringing an umbrella, opening it when I walk under the oaks, but this an old consideration that I’ve been contemplating for years of autumns and I’ve never acted on it. Instead, I dodge and the squirrels stare hard.
Finally I have to go but the revolutions and bees in the park stay with me even after I leave, continuing with their wheeling. They pass through the days and nights, rapturous and serene, monotonous some days and a miracle on others, and on most days both. They exist in the circle that is sometimes opened, sometimes closed. Within the circle, everything changes and nothing changes each time we pass through.
A favorite film of mine, The Taste of Tea, centers on an eccentric family living in the Japanese countryside. They spend a great deal of time sitting outside, sipping tea and staring into space. They sit as a family, alone, or in a small group and no one talks. They just stare out into the deep green that is the summer. And then they get up and go on walks or go off to work.
The first time I watched The Taste of Tea, I was shaken and delighted that the film gave space and respect to one of my favorite pastimes: sipping tea and staring into space.
When spring grew warm enough, I was inspired by the film to sit outside and stare into my backyard in the early morning. The Taste of Tea had given me a sort of permission to leave stress behind and take this time for one of my deepest desires: to enjoy and contemplate nature while sipping tea.
I named my new practice “Sipping Tea and Watching the Grass Grow.” I felt ridiculous whenever I mentioned it to anyone but that hardly mattered. I was doing what I loved so much, watching plants grow, watching the birds and small animals moving through it all, and sky glowing blue and serene over us all.
Grass grows slowly, imperceptibly but after each rain, it leaps up by inches. The violets came in May and they lasted for weeks. After that the dandelions bloomed and I lost a little bit of my heart to them. The wind picked up their seeds and sent the white fluffs floating into the air in sweet, downy clouds. After that, small wild strawberries, glowing like fierce red gems, appeared in the lawn. Now at the end of June, a luxurious, emerald green covers nearly everything. It reaches up from the ground, covering fences and stones or it high overhead, green leaves moving in tall, imperceptible breezes.
The heat has settled in so now even in the mornings, I pour sweat while drinking my tea. On some mornings the birds are noisy and busy and on other days they are not. Sometimes a great big bumblebee comes tumbling along, droning in that low, hazy buzz as it investigates every surface and flower. And then sometimes it does not come. Some days the clouds are like fluffs of cotton, other days there isn’t a cloud in sight. Each day brings a new configuration, nature is never still. I watch it all and at other times, I close my eyes and listen to my breathing. I’m not alone, never alone, a part of a whole.
I walk past a window on my way to get a glass of water and note the snow falling outside. As I fill my glass at the sink, my thoughts have already turned back to my work on the computer. I’m wrestling with the household budget, when I’ll fit some reading in, how to get on with my writing work, when I’ll exercise, when I’ll catch up with email correspondence and the list goes on and on.
Anytime I stop my work and look up, past the chatter in my mind, the snow catches me off guard as if it’s the first time I’m seeing it. I debate whether I can put off the grocery store to avoid driving in the snow.
This is the world of the everyday. It’s full of a thousand petty cares, some essential to living, others not as much but all in a lump group, tugging us along.
But there are times my mind needs something more refreshing, and it’s time to take a break. And that’s where music comes in—as powerful as Circe creating a circle of magic with her staff. I pick out music without words (or words I don’t understand). Today is Rimsky-Korsakov, tomorrow might be the film Phantom Thread’s soundtrack, or a piece of jazz played by Lucky Thompson.
As Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden starts, the circle opens. I come out of the everyday world and enter somewhere extraordinary, where beauty converges with life and cares and worries exit for a time. And all it takes is a little music, a little snow, and entering the moment that is now.
I watch the snow falling, noting the wind direction as the snow blows southeast and then drops and then exhales again southwards. I note the density of the snow, how it’s light and sparkling and then downy, heavy, and wet. My thoughts finally still and I turn off the music. A heavy relief passes over my body and mind and I am still, watching the beauty of the world.
This winter has frozen and thawed. And then frozen and thawed once again. With the most recent exhale of cold, fog rises up from the melting ground and wraps my town in a trance.
It softens the ragged tops of trees and transforms the dead yellowed grass into a carpet spreading out into unseen lands. With foggy foreshortened vision, the world becomes finite and in the smallness, my wonder grows. Trees become gloomy gods, bushes hunch over like mysterious beings with secrets hidden in twiggy souls. The sky blurs out and the land rises up to meet it and everything is reformed or brought down to its most basic form. It is easy to become lost and confused.
I walk the perimeter of my neighborhood park. We become redone together. The playground becomes enchanted, strangely unknowable as the slides and swings soften and distort.
The ballpark’s high chain link fence however, becomes more sure. The metal darkens and braces and holds against the diffused white light. I stare at it through my camera lens, delighted by its ferocity while everything else around it wavers and melts.
A train passes over the hill and I can see nothing, it has been whitened out, but I can hear the busy clack of the iron wheels running on steel rails.
Geese fly overhead for a minute and then vanish.
I press on and the mist parts as I walk and so we walk together, softened, softening with the night closing in behind our steps. The night takes everything behind us, rebuilds it like it wishes and then I step into my home and close the door.
Rain falls a few hours later and the fog mounts up, gently pressing at the windows but by morning, it is all gone and only little bits of ice remain on the walkway.
There was little snowfall this winter. When there isn’t a snowpack to melt in the spring, there is drought because the melting snow fills the rivers and creeks and creates spring flowers. So I thought this spring would be sad. It would be sad just like this election had been sad, the healthcare system in this country is sad, the state of the mental health of this nation is sad and so on and so forth. It would be one more thing.
But no one can predict the weather. It rained and rained at the start of this spring and the miraculous happened: flowers bloomed in a frenzy (it’s been a month and I’ve got the same tulips blooming still), trees let out baby leaves before I could blink and the grass roared to green life.
It is one of the greenest springs I have ever known. And now that it’s been going strong for a month, things are happening. The rain has not stopped and now blooming bushes are pulling down fences, sidewalks are disappearing under green and mud, lawns are growing faster than people can mow and the birds never stop singing.
During a walk, I passed by a young tree packed with chickadees. My husband thought the chickadees were cute (they were). I told him they were vying for territory, their cheeps filling the air with lust for power, trees, and land. And as I said these words, I thought of the few things we know about the Celtic pagan past and that this time of year was not a just sweet time but a pulsating, racing, hungry time. Nobody was full of food yet, that wouldn’t be until later on in the summer. The sun was coming back and people obsessively followed, traced, and urged along her every movement.
This is a season when the continuation of life hangs in the balance. Will the sun come back? Will the green come back? Will the birds come back? Will we survive into the next season? Will there be plenty or starvation ahead?
I sit down to eat breakfast and look out the window. In the garden, bleeding heart flowers cascade from slender green stems. Birds disappear in the riotous lawn only to reappear again as they wing upward and away. The maples unfurl their leaves in the sun while the red oaks are more steady, slow, and cautious. A faint, tender green line the tips of their branches. A small squirrel inches to the end of a slender tree branch and places maple tree helicopter seeds in her tiny cheeks.
The holidays have taken a back seat to the sky.
I peer up at the sky every chance I get, noting clouds, colors, and motions. The leaves lie forgotten in the ditches and without their leafy apparel, the tree branches spread overhead like crones’ fingers in the sky. I see through the fingers.
Summer is a claustrophobic time and winter is the great opening. We’re all exposed now, to the sun and wind and elements. Gracious green canopies no longer spread out in umbrella formations, bestowing dappled light and easier breathing. No, it’s time for sullen scolding winds and scudding clouds.
I position my fingers on the trunks of trees to hang on while I view skyward, nearly whisked away by the drama overhead. The great burr oaks are the best for holding. They have seen centuries and still chose to linger on in this world. They’re rooted vast and deep. While I hold onto one, burr oak reminds me that time is like a spool of thread and the spool can be wound or unwound. Time backward or forward. The clouds overhead whisk by on wings of dark intent and their colors etch into my eyes and race to the brain. We are grey together, sometimes closer to white, other times to blue.
The spool unwinds and I am younger and back on my parents’ farm and the clouds are racing there too and I am turning away from them while standing at window. I turn my head and my body follows and I crawl into bed under the quilt/or turn up Winter by Vivaldi/or listen to Tess Wiley’s electric guitar solo/or write stories about an insane family I invented but might as well be my own.
The spool winds and I am back in my town and I am back with the oak. There are no birds flying, the wind is too strong for that, but there are squirrels in the trees, chomping fiercely and their backs and tails are as grey as the sky.