In this Easter season of celebrating resurrection, the natural world teaches about the paschal mystery. Visiting Washington DC this week for my first-ever Cherry Blossom Festival I learned the Japanese word hanami, which literally means “to view flowers” but usually refers to the viewing of cherry blossoms. For more than 1000 years, the Japanese have revered the cherry blossoms. Their practice of hanami consists of picnics with family and friends beneath the branches, and each spring they eagerly monitor blossom forecast maps to be ready for the all too brief season that lasts no more than two weeks.
The first gift of 3000 cherry trees from Japan were planted around the Tidal Basin area and other sites in 1912, and an American version of this tradition has evolved here in our nation’s capital since 1935. For several weeks in late March/early April, the festival includes tours and programs related to Japanese culture as well as cherry trees, live performances, a parade and a street festival. Images of the iconic flower proliferate throughout the city, from stickers affixed to bike rental stands and house windows, to shops selling magnets, water bottles, t-shirts and more, to theme banners on public buildings.
Now I understand all the fuss. The actual trees truly inspire awe! Joe and I strolled partway around the Tidal Basin on Wednesday, and chilly, cloudy conditions did not obscure the beauty of the blossoms. Peak blossom time is occurring this weekend, and the sense of anticipation was palpable along with the growing crowds.
In contrast to such outward frenzy, hanami beckoned quietly. “Practice viewing cherry blossoms.” On Friday we heeded this inner voice, rising early without stopping for breakfast or even a cup of coffee to walk several blocks to the Tidal Basin, past the Washington monument where there are also cherry trees, on another misty, chilly, overcast morning. Exquisite beauty rewarded us! Compared to our previous visit just two days before, we noticed some trees completely in bloom, to amazing effect. Their soft snowy fullness embodies piercing vulnerability as well as graceful abundance. A sign of spring re-birth, unflinchingly they witness to the fleeting nature of life.
In the 9th century, Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira captured this realization in just a few lines of verse.
If this world had never
known the ephemeral charms
of cherry blossoms
then our hearts in spring might match
nature’s deep tranquility.
To embrace such loveliness in full knowledge of its short-lived nature is to be forever changed by death and loss, he seems to say. Friday morning as we came full circle around the Tidal Basin, our son texted that college basketball player Lauren Hill had passed away from the brain cancer that afflicted her since late 2013. It seemed fitting to remember Lauren, who impacted the nation with her courage and in the process helped raised more than $1 million for cancer research, in a place of such contemplative splendor. “What a life she lived,” I texted back. We returned to the hotel and ate breakfast in the restaurant while a tribute to Lauren played soundlessly on ESPN. Later these three quotes from her grabbed my attention via Facebook:
“It was a dream come true to play on the college court. And it was so thrilling to get there and be able to put my foot down and feel the roar of the crowd and the vibrations of the floor boards and I love it so much.”
“I’m spreading awareness and also teaching people how to live in the moment because the next moment’s not promised. Anything can happen at any given moment. What matters is right now.”
“What’s happening now is not going to help me and it’s not going to help everybody else right away. But it’s going to help in the future, and it’s eventually going to make something happen.”
Like the cherry blossoms, Lauren Hill embodied a too-brief burst of beauty that is transformative and unforgettable.