Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring, Sprung

Before, we were just on the cusp. Now we’re full-on. Finally. Each new day brings a new kind of tiny flower growing in the grass along the side of the roads. Or maybe there will be a new tree in blossom, in a color I hadn’t anticipated. A few weeks ago the soft yellow Mimosa emerged, looking like fuzzy muppets growing in and around Nice. Then cherry and apple blossoms burst forth gorgeous on all these new trees that I had never really noticed before. Suddenly a willow tree announced its existence to me, covering itself in just two days with that first fleeting green that Robert Frost calls gold.

Today the newest addition to the blossom Olympics were some trees that probably have a nice French name, but just might be those old, familiar redbuds: trees whose thin branches looked as though they had been encrusted overnight with small blooms, or maybe bright white mollusks.

I say that these flowers and these trees are “new,” as though they’ve never bloomed before. Of course they have – presumably for hundreds of years here in this deeply cultivated landscape. It’s just that they have never flowered for me before. And perhaps they never will again.

I never really knew that rosemary plants bloomed – with these gorgeous blue-purple flowers that smell incredible when you crush them between your fingers. But the next time the rosemary plants bloom, I won’t be living here anymore.

We just bought our tickets for the return trip. I pushed the purchase button at Expedia just before the equinox, and we will leave a few days before the summer solstice.

Right now we’re living in the last season of a “someday” we dreamed about for twenty years. We actively planned for over eighteen months. The someday is still today. But soon it will be our yesterday.

I got an email last week from a friend back home in Brooklyn. He took a picture of the tree growing in front of our house, a little dogwood with all kinds of unruly watershoots growing up around it and a funny, awkward shape. “You know it’s spring,” he wrote, “when your tree starts blooming.” The tree is no great shakes, really – other than being pretty much the first one to bloom in our whole neighborhood, mid-March every year. And for that, it is worth its weight in just about anything I can imagine.

More to the point, it’s the tree that marks the moment of each year when I stop white-knuckling my way through my life and re-emerge as a person. I looked at that picture, with the white blossoms beginning to unfold, and I started to cry. I had been missing home so much – yet I had pushed that homesickness down so deep that I had managed to forget. I was taken by surprise by how my throat tightened and my eyes filled up just seeing the tree – and thinking of the friend who had sent the photo. The tears hurt, like they sometimes can when they’ve been held back way too long.

Spring means a lot more to me than just another season. As I start to feel the sun warming things up enough so that I can drive with the windows down, I relax and start to breathe again. The muscles in the back of my neck start to untie themselves. The sunshine starts to win its battle with the chill in the air, and suddenly I want to move my limbs around. After a few months of being frozen into myself, I want to feel.

We traveled thousands of miles from home to get to this place. It has a whole lot more sunshine than Brooklyn generally provides. But in terms of the rhythm of the seasons, this year was like any other, just without the blizzards, shovels, or intense cold.

Unlike a the winters of my childhood, which could start in late October and occasionally stretch straight through to May, winter here seems to hew quite strictly to its proper boundaries. It was still plenty beautiful and warm right up until we left here just before December 21, with a last few roses blooming in the garden and the herbs pushing up out of their pots. When we landed back here, in early January, the ground was covered with the lightest coating of snow, but the trees and shrubs looked deeply chastened by a few weeks of deep cold. The cold moved inside our stone house, (you should see the heating bills we neglected to anticipate) and has only recently begun to recede.

The living landscape here never really died back fully, and the walls and lanes and fields stayed green all winter, even if they didn’t add on any new foliage. I learned this winter that olive trees do not lose their leaves. They stayed silvery green, clinging to their branches. I can’t tell you how deeply I have fallen in love with these olive trees, with the way the tops and the bottoms of the leaves create a texture that looks like soft velvet. I’ve taken to wishing that somebody could make wallpaper like these leaves, so that I could turn my house into an olive grove. Now, when I take my walks, I’m already starting to feel nostalgia, already trying to figure out how to bring home what I’m going to miss. (The best/worst part of the nostalgia is knowing just how fruitless this longing will be. As much as I fantasize about finding that wallpaper, or about importing cases of olive oil, I know I never will.)

Last week, I saw a farmer out by the trellised hills of olive trees I walk past every few days. He was hacking away at an olive tree, doing such violence to the limbs of the trees I almost wanted to call the gendarmerie. It looked as though the olive trees (his of course, but somehow mine) were being massacred.

The farmer was clearly out of his mind with his chopping. How could the trees possibly withstand so much cutting back, with so much dead wood and silvery leaves strewn around the base of each tree? (As though I know enough about trees to have opinions on how assertively an olive should be pruned.)

The ground was covered with branches, but as I looked more closely, I saw that his method was even-handed and perfectly sane. He had chopped expertly and sensibly, opening up the very center of each tree to make way for more growth. He hadn’t just given it a trim, cutting off its edges and leaving it bushy inside. He had made space right at the core, right where the tree had gotten crowded, and where room to grow was needed the most.

I also noticed, at the very base some of the trees, that their trunks were actually relatively tiny branches growing out of the edges of much wider, rounder stumps. The trees I had been walking past for months, the trees I had taken for old and wizened – they were all brand new growth springing out of an ancient source.

In contrast, my blooming dogwood back home is in its infancy. Imagining it to be the voice of the seasons, the wisdom of the years, I have organized my little life around its rhythms, allowing it to remind me to emerge back into life every year. It’s like I’ve been looking for life advice from a newborn.

A tree grows in Brooklyn, in fact lots and lots of trees. My dogwood, and all the others, will be standing guard there for me until I return. My friend who took the picture will be there too. The broad, wide tree trunk of my life so far hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s the base from which new growth will emerge.

Last spring, I had more second thoughts about this trip than any sane person could imagine. I imagined that I was chopping my life to bits. I panicked, even though Bill and I had both so freely chosen this – had elected to carve away our jobs and peel ourselves away from our friends and our hobbies and everything we loved. Last spring, even when the dogwood bloomed and urged me to get on with living my life, I stayed pretty much frozen up inside. Bill rushed around hiring the movers, opening up foreign bank accounts, arranging for a rental car, planning the year to the last detail. But I went to work, I came home, and then I sat on a doggy-smelling brown chair and played Sudoku online for hours at a time. You could say that we weren’t exactly on the same page.

I knew I would have to go, but I got awfully cold feet. It got to the point that Bill had to promise me that if things didn’t work out over here, we could fly straight home. I can’t believe, in retrospect, how patient and kind he remained in the face of all my foolish fear of change. (You don't have to read this blog too long, however, to see that this is often his role.)

Pretty much as soon as we landed here in August, touching down in Nice then driving to the Var, I saw what a ridiculous and short-sighted idiot I had been. This overwhelming new world opened itself wide to each of us, giving us a place to empty out the old stale air and fill up with something so completely new to all of us.

Last spring, I was so fearful and frozen. Now I see that my life was clearly just overdue for a pretty massive pruning. We sold one house, rented another, moved all of our possessions into storage or the basement, shipping over just six big cardboard boxes to sustain us through the year. Our kids left the only school home they had ever known. That old life went dormant, but somewhere deep inside all of us, we’ve been gathering strength, getting ready for the next phase.

At my old school job, spring break was always the last two weeks of March. Kids and teachers would slog out the door mid-March, then return sixteen days later. But somehow those sixteen days would fast-forward the kids into the next grade. Our first graders, who had looked to me like kindergarten children most of the fall, would suddenly arrive on April first looking ready for second grade. The fourth graders would suddenly go from being graceful little-big kids to proto-awkward fifth graders ready for their first pimples, cellphones, and crushes. (I know it sounds awful, but really their transformation was also beautiful in its way.) I looked forward every year to watching the kids make this leap – there is almost nothing I like more than watching other people develop.

The trees are blooming. The flowers are growing out of every nook they can find. On the lane between here and the school, an entire apple tree is growing out of the long stone wall. This week and last it has been blooming, and now it is dropping its petal confetti on the lane. Recently the stones, loosened by a winter of freezing and thawing, are being pushed aside by the tree trunk. They are falling down on the ground in a little pile. The tree is bursting forth, knocking the wall down around it. It's not just the little baby flowers, but even us big old trees, that can push time aside and find a new way towards the sky.

Time to thaw. Time to stretch. And, ready or not, time to grow.

1 comment:

  1. Cold feet. Warm heart. Cliche, I know, but also true. Your cold feet marched you through frightful, challenging moments, and into a new season in a new place with a newly warmed heart and open soul. Happy spring to you, dear.

    I am sooooooo glad to hear that the white-knuckling of winter is over and that your hands are now open and arms extended to receive the many blessings that these weeks of spring are bound to pour into your life. Yea for you, Launa. Yea for you.