Every spring, the Japanese cherry trees bloom. It’s a ravishing sight really. People travel from across the world to witness this brief spectacle. The trees are heavy and dripping with luscious, pale pink blossoms, the accumulation of which paints like an explosion of down feathers. Cast against the blue sky and lush green grass, it’s pretty much as heavenly as it gets (or at least the way I envision heaven).
The landscape is soft and tender. Utterly peaceful and serene. It is poignant and provocative and still and awe-inspiring. I liken it to walking through the gates of heaven, to the embrace of not only God himself, but the tranquility of the Sakura, the sweet, sheer aroma of blossoms everywhere, a perfectly and divinely orchestrated pathway home.
However, and perhaps tragically, as quickly as the cherry blossoms bloom, they fall to the ground like delicate snowflakes, ebbing and flowing with the wind and accumulating on the ground in a dainty display of petal snow. What was once a tender and magnificent display, lies wilted and lifeless on the ground. The season is remarkably brief. If you blink, you might miss it. It is a quick crescendo and an equally quick, but bravado finale.
Much of the intrigue and mystique and beauty and delight behind the blooming of the cherry blossoms can be understood through the brevity of their life. The awareness that the blooms are vibrant and alive for just a short time brings a certain urgency to experiencing them. This is the reason so many people flock to Japan for the brief two-week period that the blossoms are in bloom, an eager and excited resolve to witness and experience the raw, unadulterated beauty of something so transient and fragile.
Even more beautiful than the majestic blossoms themselves, is the meaning behind the Sakura. This meaning is embedded deep within the Japanese culture and is celebrated every year during Hanami. The Hanami celebration, also known as the cherry blossom festival, is a long-standing Japanese tradition of welcoming spring. It is an intentional and mindful reminder of the temporal beauty of nature, and thus life. People show up in hoards to admire the blossoms and celebrate communally with others through food, drink, and songs.
Sakura are believed to be the embodiment of beauty and mortality within the Japanese culture. They signify the transience, virtuosity, and fragility of life. They perfectly capture the beauty and brevity of life and the notion that if you blink, if you are not paying attention, if you get distracted or lose focus, you will miss them. Or you will become so engulfed in the tragedy of the end and miss the beautiful season of blooms, the spectacle of life. It serves as an exquisite metaphor for the human existence, and truly one that only God could manifest.
It was 1993, and I was a predictably awkward, agonizingly anxious, developing 14-year-old girl—precocious, sassy, painfully shy and fully convinced that I was nearly an adult (at least that’s what I told my mother). I was a garden-variety farm girl from Kansas who dreamed of blissfully galloping off into the big city sunset.
At 14 I had finally graduated from the dark-rimmed spectacles I had been known to wear and into contacts. My hair, which had a life of its own, had finally settled into long brownie-colored ringlets and away from the I-think-she-just-stuck-her-finger-in-a-light-socket look.
Dare I say, I was almost pretty, a far cry from the previous years. Thanks to my parents, I had inherited striking blue-gray eyes, which could now be seen out from beneath the coke bottles I had worn for years. People even started to notice, which was good for a reforming nerd’s ego. The “future” at this point consisted of what I was wearing to the next day of school and whatever homework was due. I might have been looking ahead to the next big holiday. I was certainly unaware of my mortality, as most 14-year-olds are.
My father was a tall, lean man, few on words, slow to anger and trenched in simplicity. He farmed because that’s what he knew. His hands were weathered and worn, the skin thick like aged leather and stained with oil and grease. A bar of Lava soap was kept next to the bathroom sink so my father could scrub his hands clean before supper. (The gritty, pea-green bar was a staple of my childhood.)
His hands were marred with scabs and scars from long days—years rather—of hard labor. Morning would come early, with a cup of coffee thick and dark as diesel, dirty blue jeans with pliers holstered and a sweat stained hat. He’d head out for the day to tend to the ‘chores’. As a child, that is what I thought his job was. Chores. And I didn’t like them much. Chores kept us from ever straying too far from home and pretty much eliminated any possibility of vacation.
Despite his quiet nature, my father would occasionally have moments of deep thought that, perhaps unknowingly, would escape as words. He was deeply introspective, though you might not ever know. It was as if he was intimately aware of life and yet equally unphased by it.
On one occasion, he muttered the words, “The older I get, the faster time goes,” as though he was watching a panoramic replay of his life and had become agonizingly aware of how quickly the passing of time occurs. It was as if, in that moment, the reality of his mortality was settling deep within his spirit and the very thing that gives life its meaning had become real. It was profound enough that I noticed and never forgot. In that moment, and perhaps at many others to follow, my farmer father was aware of the Sakura, though he certainly never thought it as such.
Such is the nature of life: Deceivingly short. Desperately urgent, or at least it should be. Transient. Full of lessons and beauty and tragedy. Spilling over with feelings and experiences. Every day, every moment. Some are sweet, others tart, yet others utterly unbearable.
Life as we know it is meaningless without death. It only gains its significance when the brevity of it is acknowledged. A bit like the Sakura, I’d say. Unfortunately, the transience of life remains unrecognized until well into it, for most anyway.
Often, it is not until or unless we’ve experience profound loss, pain, or trauma that we become aware of our own short timelines. We remain blissfully (albeit ignorantly) unaware of our own fragility and transience. Everyone knows that one person (or two or three or ten), who lives on the edge and in fear of nothing, who believes himself (or herself) to be untouchable, unbreakable, indestructible and invincible.
Why don’t we marvel at our own passing time on earth with the same joy and passion? Why do we allow fear and self-doubt rob us of our days? Why do we live so small and fail to revel in the joy of a child’s laugh, the smell of fresh rain, the exhilaration of a new challenge, the taste of new flavors on our tongue, the sight of unfamiliar landscapes and the excitement of taking a prayerfully considered risk?
Cherry blossoms remind us that it is time to start paying attention. The time is now, not tomorrow. Because who knows, I may not have tomorrow. You may not have tomorrow. Cherry blossoms prompt us to live with intention, passion, and purpose today.