Mar 14, 2011

Every year, Japanese cherry blossoms known as sakura blanket the entire archipelago starting in Okinawa in January and ending up in Kyoto and Tokyo around the end of March. It is a pattern that has often been seen as analogous to the vitality of the Japanese people. These blooms also symbolize clouds, due to the fact that they appear together in fluffy clusters, last a brief time in beautiful, shimmering fragility and then fade quickly with petals falling like rain. It’s not surprising that the cherry blossom has come to represent the ephemeral nature of human existence.

This understanding of life’s fleeting beauty — so deeply ingrained in Japanese culture — is often associated the Buddhist concept of mono no aware which literally translates to “the pathos of things.” This term is often used to describe human beings’ soulful understanding of impermanence. It has come to express the wistful sadness we feel when we realize the transience of things. Of people. Of ourselves.

Cherry blossoms are in full bloom in South Pasadena right now. When I look at one, in light of the tragedy in Japan, it is my object of soliloquy, my totem of reflection. For centuries, the Japanese have met under blooming cherry trees to sing and dance, to celebrate life in the moment. But today in Japan, there is devastation and tragedy beneath the famous flowering branches. Today, a traumatized nation meets beneath them to mourn the loss of loved ones who have fallen too soon, like the petals of those beautiful, short-lived blossoms.

Many of you know my multifaceted connection to Japan. My father was an Army Air Corps officer who was stationed in Okinawa during World War 2. He spent long, arduous months in a B-24 following the horrific commands of war. After the fighting, he spent months in Tokyo during the occupation where he saw the Japanese trying to rebuild, and an entire country trying to be reborn. I spent many hours as a teenager asking him questions, and one thing he said always stuck with me. “I had never seen a people as tough or as resilient as the Japanese,” he said. “I also had a feeling that in a few decades we’d all be sitting down to drink Saki together because when you take the politics out of things, and the generals and the emperors stop jockeying for first place, what you have left are the people. We’re all just people.”

We did more than drink Saki together. Many years later, I fell in love with Jon and married him. Jon’s grandparents had come to Southern California from Japan in the 1920s to start a new life, and a family. While my father was flying raids over Japan, Jon’s mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents were held in Poston — one of the first of the ten Japanese American internments camps.

After the war when Jon’s grandfather started anew, he was known for his beautiful garden. I’m not certain, but I suspect it contained at least one cherry tree.

Life is transient and ephemeral. Things change, enemies become friends, new ideas are born and old grudges die. But in the midst of all our growing and evolving, huge and unexpected horrors cut short our blooms. I think we all look for reasons when tragedies happen. Wars, natural disasters — we want to know why. We want explanations and narrative conclusions that give resolution and meaning. But the only things we seem to latch onto are symbols.

The cherry tree is a symbol of my own wistful realization of impermanence, of fragility and transience. Distant cousins of those Japanese Sakura bloom here, in yet another part of the world resting upon a fault that, at any moment, could turn paradise into rubble. It’s a terrifying thought, one made more painfully real by images from Japan. But I believe that no matter what catastrophe nature brings, hope will prevail. And because of that belief, the cherry tree symbolizes transformation. Despite the recent tragedy, Japan will bloom again.

“Live in simple faith…” Buddhist priest and poet Kobayashi Issa once wrote, “just as this trusting cherry flower blooms, fades and falls.”
For a list of excellent (and easy) ways to help Japan in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, Mashable has a helpful list right here.

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