When we got married, Mark and I went to Japan for our Honeymoon. We were so lucky to be able to travel to this amazing place, and fell in love with it immediately. Something which especially spoke to me is the beautiful sense of presence and celebration attending daily life. The rubber stamps at every JR station and cultural institution; the comforting warm towel with which hands are cleaned at the start of a meal; the magnificent ways in which everyday food and drink are presented, ceremonially… and of course it was incredible to see, in person, the discrete acts of commemoration that are Yumi Shimada’s gorgeous stranded colourwork swatches.
We travelled in early February and up to Hokkaido for the Sapporo Snow Festival.
This deeply moving festival seemed to really honour, elevate and celebrated snow, and the seasonal fact of the Winter itself. Drinking hot sake in the crisp cold air, slipping about on the ice, and moving in crowds infused with an atmosphere of untainted wonder, I kept welling up because everything was just so joyous.
There were many such moments on our Honeymoon. And almost as soon as we got back to the UK, we began planning our return to Japan.
Happily, we learnt that not too far from us, in The Harris Gardens, stands a glorious collection of flowering Japanese Cherry Blossom trees known as The Cherry Bowl. The trees are planted in a circular clearing, and all the different varieties represented showcase the range of flower shapes and colours to magnificent effect.
At the end of March/beginning of April, there’s nowhere in Reading more lovely than the paths beneath these trees, looking up into the pink.
Every year we go, and every year I take ten million photos – the exact same photos I took the previous year – and it doesn’t matter because I enjoy taking these pictures every year just as much as before, and because every year the beauty of the blooms feels brand new.
Trying to bring the same joy, wonder and presence we felt for snow in Sapporo to cherry blossoms in Reading has become an annual tradition; our own small practice, if you will, of the world-famous Hanami – (花見, “flower viewing”) – of Japan. These quiet, floral pilgrimages felt particularly important through the springs of 2017 and 2018 when my hands were seized up and inflamed with arthritis, and the new medication I was on was knocking me sideways for two days a week… or when my mental health has been fraying apart at the edges. I’m forever grateful to the trees, the gardens and the people who manage them, for the solace they provided at these times.
When I turned 40 and Mark turned 50 last year, we wanted to mark our collective age of 90 by returning to Japan for Hanami in Kyoto. We planned our trip and I started learning how to speak Japanese. We were going to fly out today.
Obviously, in the face of everything that is going on in the extraordinary times of the covid-19 pandemic, our cancelled trip feels completely unimportant and are the least of anyone’s problems. Priorities have shifted so much in the last month that now when I think about Japan, all I want is for our friends there to be OK; for everyone to be protected from the spread of the covid-19 virus; and for the cherry blossoms to bloom in crowdless parks.
But I mention this here because I’m trying to process how my world – like many of yours – has shrunk. A few weeks ago, we were planning International travel and booking up hotels. But today I am putting a stricter plan in place for myself, following advice from my local GP surgery. The same drugs that were wiping me out a few years ago also mean that I am in an extremely vulnerable category and have been advised to stay in my house for the next 12 weeks, cocooning from potential infection. I’ve been going back and forth over the evidence, the articles, the government advice; and then balancing this against my management of my mental health – for which walks are a vital part of my self-care. Up until this weekend, I’d been going out for a walk to a favourite place once or twice a week, carefully and usually wearing a face mask and gloves. But out on such a walk at the weekend, the stress – by which I mean the social anxiety of trying to maintain social distancing for mine and others’ well-being, combined with an acute sense of viral vulnerability and larger numbers of people doing the same thing – vastly outweighed any mental health benefits to be gained. I’m not going to be doing any more recreational outings for the next 12 weeks; I’ll take my exercise in the garden where the darling chickens will benefit from my constant presence and OMGMEALWORMS. Hello, beauties!
I have a carefully-considerd plan in place which means I can still operate my business safely, but any other outings are out of bounds for me, for now.
So no more cherry-blossom appreciation trips for me.
Happily, I took a million photos at the weekend.
Blousy, various, shamelessly gorgeous, profuse, bright, resilient, many-petalled beauty.
They are as lovely as ever. Knowing they are blooming out there in The Cherry Bowl fills me with joy as I potter in my garden; bake bread; work on my online KNITSONIK bullet-journaling course and count my (very many) blessings. What my friend Kate wrote here resonated so deeply when I read it yesterday; the deep sense of gratitude and the usefulness of that feeling is something we need very badly, right now. The cancelled trip, the staying in for three months – none of it matters. What matters in these new days is a beautiful sense of presence and celebration, attending daily life. I feel it all the time, now. I’m thankful for our kind and messy home which – like so many times in the past – wraps itself around us like a blanket. I’m thankful for Mark, and for our marriage and our shared years, and for his kindness and for how he makes me laugh. I’m thankful for the amazing NHS workers who are working so hard to keep everyone alive and to keep everything going; and for the compassion of the doctor I spoke to yesterday who answered all my questions with patience, and who warmly told me to stop saying sorry for taking up her time.
Instead of going out for walks, my new mental health regime incorporates beautiful mornings where I tend to the little things, try to breathe properly, and avoid social media and the news. I refresh the hand-bathing station beside the kitchen sink; water the seedlings (also there); fetch in the eggs and say hello to the chickens. Admire my fuzzy little succulent. Plan meals from the cupboard contents and bake bread, soak beans, knead dough, peel things as necessary. I feel so lucky to have these things – to have flour and a warm house and beans and eggs and chickens and a messy, lavish, life-filled garden. I am looking forward to the onions coming up later this year – it would be such a thing of wonder to grow an onion from seed.
Twelve years ago at around this time of year, I had surgery on my feet to correct bunions and a lot of wonky toes bent out of shape by arthritis. This morning I looked back at the photos from that time and found a journal entry I had made, meditating on the amazing support and staff at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre where this surgery took place. I was off my face on Tramadol when I wrote this, but it made me smile today and it reminds me of how I feel about the entire NHS right now.
My other photos from this time are all of seedlings; of things in the garden; of things I was knitting and – in classic foolish Felix style – a collection of foot-shaped cheesy scones that I baked in honour of my operation.
There’s something deeply comforting about the inevitable return to the same healing sources that have always helped me. Like a sheep hefted to its own place in the hill, I find myself returning to the medicine of bread, breathing, bones, beans, butter, eggs, flour, seeds, water.
From the little reading I’ve done about Hanami, the appreciation for cherry blossoms is as much about cherishing and mourning the intense but fleeting beauty of our lives as it is about admiring blooms for their own beauty. In these strange times when I can’t leave the house to go and see the trees twenty minutes’ from here, let alone experience firsthand the glorious bounty of the Kyoto cherry blossom parties, I nevertheless feel that this spring may offer, yet, our deepest experience of Hanami. As I stand in the kitchen in the morning, giving thanks for the lovely sound of kidney beans pouring into a pan, my heart is as full of thanks for life as when gazing up at the prettiest flowers.
Too, maybe that I can’t get out again to see the trees blooming later this spring makes the ten million photos I took last weekend feel that extra bit precious. Happy Hanami, friends, even if we can’t gather under the trees safely this year, isn’t it a comfort to know that they are flowering anyway? Please, please, may as many of us as possible return next year to celebrate their blossoming again.