Hanami: What an ancient Japanese tradition can teach us about Covid-19

It had only been a few days, but the collective tension in my house was a pressure cooker about to blow.

“We need to get out,” my husband said with glazed eyes. He’s been working for the Pentagon remotely from home amid helping me homeschool three kids, breaking up fights, dolling out snacks and assembling the trampoline we ordered from Wal-Mart in the empty lot next to us we’ve invaded with our restless energy. The trampoline is our family’s flag raised on the land; it’s now conquered territory.

City living is a different level of ‘special’ in the Age of Quarantine. Most people in Washington DC live in smaller homes or row houses which feel even more cramped when you rarely leave them.

But the rain stopped and the earth was fresh and practically smiling at us to prance barefoot on the grass. We knew from social media that the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin were at their peak. The Tidal Basin was likely more crowded than it needed to be, so we packed a picnic lunch and went out in search of an isolated cherry tree.

We learned this practice while living in Japan with the US Air Force years ago where our first child was born. The Japanese call it Hanami. It’s the art of simply sitting under the cherry blossoms, or the sakuras, for a picnic or a nap, sometimes for hours at a time. This centuries-old practice dates back to the Heian and Nara periods (710-1185AD) and is still widely practiced today throughout Japan every March or April when the sakuras arrive unannounced. In this ten-day window, the sakuras perform their magic and cast a spell on each resting person in the shade of the branches. After a cold and snowy winter, grace bursts forth in the form of tiny white petals in the shape of a star that turns pinkish against a grey sky. Soon, the parks and sidewalks are littered with bits of delicate lace that begin falling from the sky like the snowfall of spring or nature’s confetti. Known for their long work hours, during sakura season, the Japanese somehow make time to drop everything and embrace the long-awaited arrival of the sakura blossoms. The fleeting beauty is embraced as sacred.

We found the perfect isolated spot near the Potomac River, took off our shoes and stretched out our folded mat. I broke out the sandwiches and chips and salsa and gathered my children in close.

“How many stars can you count overhead?” I asked them. There were too many to count; thousands of stars put us into a trance. It was a sharp contrast from the world higher above where dozens of helicopters whizzed back and forth—an unusual sight to see so many, even for DC. We imagined the urgent meetings taking place between health and government officials scrambling to make up for lost time.

 

With Covid-19 in just about every corner of the earth, the world is currently being forced to drop everything and exist in a state of stillness that makes most of us uncomfortable. For my husband and I, a lack of productivity makes our skin crawl. The cherry blossoms are an annual reminder to slow down and be present with the sacred impermanence. Even though we are realizing that practice of slowing down may continue for weeks or months.

Shakespeare wrote, “all the world’s a stage,” and underneath the cherry blossoms, we got the feeling that the curtain had suddenly been pulled in the theatre of war and world affairs. All the players were asked to take a bow and give up the jig. The time had come for all actors to face the real music and dissipate into the crowd of spectators. The masks that we all wore could now be taken off, and we’re left to be fully human, united in our shared sufferings.

The three thousand Yoshino Cherry trees that surround us were a gift from Tokyo to Washington DC under the Taft Administration in 1912, a generation prior to WWII. Japan and the US were close then, and friends now, but there was a whole generation who was caught up in the conflagration of war between our two countries, each believing the other was the enemy and wanting to cause unspeakable harm to those they’d once considered friends. I’m oversimplifying, but we were at least the kind of friends you give trees to. That the relationship has come full circle should give us hope for other affairs we have across the globe.

Things have been different in the past, but today our government calls China a “competitor” and recently threatened to “obliterate” Iran. Watching international borders close left and right and hearing about stricter travel restrictions every time you check the news, you’d be forgiven for rallying around the flag. People seek comfort in nationalism in times of crisis. The Biblical prophet Isaiah saw things differently during a time of darkness. He wrote, “The nations of the world are worth nothing to him. In his eyes they count for less than nothing— mere emptiness and froth” (Isaiah 40:17). In other words, God doesn’t care about the imaginary lines we’ve drawn. The fact that we have to close borders proves how much what happens over there affects us here. We don’t live in a vacuum. Even with the president signing travel bans as fast as the oval office printer will spit them out, half the stuff I bought on Amazon.com this week came from China. I actually yelled at my husband yesterday when I realized he brought the mail in without spraying it down with disinfectant, a full two hours after the fact.

Today, our world has a common enemy: Covid-19. If we share information on how to stop the spread, resist the temptation to assess blame and instead work on a solution, we can benefit from other countries working towards these goals too, assuming deep down everyone wants to beat this thing. If “they” figure it out and people get better, we ought to benefit from that solution, and vice versa. So shouldn’t we be cheering for China and rooting for Iran to be well? Maybe for the first time in our lifetime, we can see clearly that their health is also our health. Their wellbeing is our wellbeing. The flourishing of our “enemies” leads to our own flourishing.

The deepest dark has already begun for many parts of the world where ICU wards are collapsing and the death tolls are rising. We have a right to be angry, and pointing fingers and making threats is a completely normal human response. But this time of stillness is an invitation to expand our aperture to see us as the astronauts do: we live on a pale blue dot in the vastness of space. All our border-drawing, our hoarding, the fights and the lies we tell each other seem so petty when you can see the earth as a whole, from a distance. In short, we all have to live here.

What will happen next? Who knows? We can bet it will be messy and painful, but maybe there’s also an invitation here, if we’re willing to look for it. An invitation to evolve, or in the words of philosopher Ken Wilber, to transcend and include our level of consciousness.

Hanami season is a celebration of a sacred beauty that’s painfully fleeting and its hard not to see the metaphors. We’ve shown up unexpectedly, bloom beautifully and flutter to the ground. We can spend this momentary existence stewing in bitterness, blaming other sakuras for our misfortune, or work together to make our shared, transitory experience a little more magical. Hanami is a celebration of the regenerative power within the earth. It’s a fulfilled promise that year after year, the light returns and new things are being born. I wonder what new things will be born out of these dark days.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Carol Syers says:

    Beautiful article! I know your Mom. My daughter-in-law is alone with her daughter in Virginia Beach, and pregnant, while my son is deployed. I am sending this to her for comfort. Thank you

  2. Vicki Stone says:

    Amen

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