Seeing All the People (and God, Too) in the Cherry Blossoms

The Jefferson Memorial.
The Jefferson Memorial.

This is what it’s like to be in Washington in the spring, punchy, yelled at, bowled ever, embraced, cajoled, and awed by history almost everywhere you go.

If you come here to see the sites and sights, history is purposefully and permanently here in all the monuments, past, present and soon to be erected.

If you come here to be in the nation’s capital and ingest the atmosphere of what’s on the nightly news you may get lucky and get more than you bargained for. If you came here to let your passions burn out loud, your feelings spill into parks and streets, your face on television as an army of many on the very same nightly news, well, here and there you are.

And if you want to be a part of something enduring and fragile, all at once and steeped in history, well, there’s that, too.

All sorts of history was going on over a Washington weekend and is still going on. On a Saturday, you could catch a large group of demonstrators at Freedom Plaza, many of them young black men dressed in hoodies to protest the death of as 17-year-old unarmed Florida teenager shot to death nearly a month ago by a self-appointed member of a neighborhood watch in a gated community. The voices were loud, impassioned and as clear as an open wound, even if the larger issues were not so easy to decipher.

You could go over to Capitol Hill (and to the Department of Health and Services) and see the preparations as the country’s highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, prepared to take on the landmark Health Care legislation, called ObamaCare, passed more than two years ago and now under question on constitutional grounds. Tea party demonstrators were already here, demonstrating at HEW, while other folks prepared to get in line for the limited seats available to spectators.

Down at the Tidal Basin, on Friday, history was being honored again -- in that unique way that is both immediately, beautifully, sweetly, mysteriously, in the here and now and firmly rooted in the commemorative past.

The cherry blossoms, first presented as a gift to the United States from Japan 100 years ago were in full bloom. And they were early. And there was a storm coming, a “monster storm,” a “huge storm” as told by hyper-ventilating, vibrating weather people and television news in apocalyptic tones who expressed an uninvited opinion that the cherry blossoms were in serious danger.

As if anybody needed that kind of panic-inducing encouragement, everybody showed up. It’s fair to say they showed up in the thousands, on a sunny, brilliant, warm day as far removed from sturm und drang as you can possibly be.

I went to see the cherry blossom with my colleague Robert Devaney. I, too, felt some panic at the dire predictions. So, I feared that my usual penchant for procrastination might have dire results. The cherry blossoms might be gone, for all I knew, something that could not be said about demonstrators for justice or lines at the Supreme Court.

And so, for the first time since I moved in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, I went to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms in full, fabulous, fantastic bloom. Regrets? Boy, do I have a few. Ashamed? I certainly am.

Because the cherry blossoms themselves, and the festival that has evolved out of the gift and the flowering of white and pink blossoms, and that ballet-like swirling dance they do, making you blissfully blinded by the white, as they twirl like bashful multiple twins to earth, is one spectacularly good reason to be alive.

I’ve always seen the pictures, items on the web, accounts by word of mouth, local TV segments, and I have gone to National Cherry Blossom Festival events, such as parades, exhibits, shows, kites, and all things Japanese in America. The festival that has sprung up gets bigger every year until it runs the hopeful course of the coming of the buds, the blossoms and the dying of the light blossoms, a process that will perhaps be a bit shorter this too-sunny and warm year, although the festival will not.

But, as the song goes, "Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby."

I feel, after all, blessed by blossoms, and the spirit that they so lightly carry. We walked past the Washingtonia of the still slightly wounded-by-earthquake Washington Monument and the future site of the Museum of African-American History. And, as the poet Walt Whitman so sung of ourselves: the world’s humanity arrived pretty much all at once. They jostled for walking space, laid out blankets, kissed and made up, let their hot dogs drink, maneuvered their baby carriages, managed their canes and fragile bones.

All of us walked in splendor.

Across the paths to were the site of where the first trees were planted, you could see the thousands, and the packed blossoms straining successfully to be a vista edging up to either side of the Jefferson Memorial. Choppers in the sky — black ops? — paddle boats on the river, a dangerously flirtatious female duck making her final choice among four or five male admirers who appeared to be trying to drown her. Tough love indeed.

Everybody posed. Everybody clicked the age of the digital camera click — up for the blossom closeup, back for the larger world view, snap, snap. Get the girls lacrosse team, the park cop on her horse, the children running or sleeping.

And there was the group that had laid out a picnic cloth, friends, neighbors, acquaintances and an artist painting. One was a couple who live in Paris: he, American, a retired TWA pilot who once saw a biplane land in a field near his town and never forgot it; she, his instant French love-of-his-life.

Perhaps influenced by his surroundings, he said, “I got to say it. I’ve had a wonderful life.” He hushed my expressions of worry about getting older. “You’re an amateur,” he said. He was 91.

This is the way it was on a Friday in Washington, in the sudden peak time of the cherry blossoms and many other things. There are, I’m sure, very good and always mysterious reasons for believing in God, a deity, a creator, a higher being. The atheists or non-believers among us who were also gathering in Washington this weekend had found none.

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Thu, 22 Jun 2017 23:31:46 -0400

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