One hundred ornamental cherry trees stand in two long lines, but you only get about a week to see them at their peak of full open blossoms. Each bud has opened its petals widest, and few have yet let go of their tenuous hold on the branch. You are surrounded by masses of frothy, soft, pink, rich, full blooms. To stand underneath is to know love or god or magic or awe or heaven, your choice.
It’s a pilgrimage that brings large crowds of people to Portland’s Japanese American Historical Plaza every spring, hoping to time it just right. A week or two on either side, and you miss that frenzied fullness, though to be sure it’s still impressive. But you can’t schedule it on the calendar; it’s the weather that dictates the trees’ behavior, and you just have to be ready.
Peak Bloom photos and announcements dribble out via news and social media outlets. It’s coming! The first buds sighted! Peak bloom next week! We think! Soon! It’s here! We cross reference with weather reports and mid-week slow times, and arrive for that rapturous perfect moment of beauty, ours for the asking. Some years I arrived to find buds still closed tight, and others, a blush of petals as they drift down in a snowfall, and cover the bright green grass. This year we got it exactly right.
Tom McCall Waterfront Park is a 1.5 mile greenway that lies between downtown and the Willamette River (to the west and east), and between the Burnside Bridge and the Steel Bridge (to the north and south). The park is dedicated to bringing the community to the waterfront, with sculptures, murals, a few fountains where kids and dogs have at it, the colorful Saturday Market, and a place where a variety of people, places, and things are commemorated or celebrated – a Navy ship, Portland’s founders, a police memorial.
At the far north end, the Japanese American community is honored – a people we incarcerated in concentration camps during WWII, people who lost homes and businesses. Some served in our military. All were discriminated against, and struggle continues. The crowds come for the blossoming trees, but then have an opportunity to learn or be reminded of the challenges of the immigrant experience, past and present.
The stories are beautifully etched in stones. As you meander the paths you learn about the specific challenges of people who loved their home here, people who struggled to be accepted, people who tried to live with ease in their own skin. It’s also a reminder of how being different in any way – race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and identification, ethnic origin or religion – is not easy in this country, even when we are not at war.
While there are many things to love about this country, we have a long way to go in how we treat people different from us. That doesn’t say it strongly enough. We have a long history of quashing whatever hope immigrants have of finding a good life. Some do make it, and many are grateful. Where else could I go so that I could have this life? they ask. But many more can never get ahead, or suffer cruelly at the hands of stupid stupid racist bullies. And not just immigrants of course, anyone who varies from the dominant race or paradigm.
Author Min Jin Lee wrote in a recent NYT op-ed that the violence against Asian Americans, which has seen an uptick during the pandemic, has been happening for as long as she can remember. She describes the pain of trying to seem “less other” by changing or shrinking herself so as not to be noticed. She writes of violence that she bore or witnessed, where no one, no one, lent a hand or spoke up.
I go back and forth these days between delight in the miracles of nature’s glory and human kindness, and anguish over the pain and suffering rampant in the world. So often I wonder how do I hold both, and keep living and breathing?
It seems to be the conversation du jour. Everyone finds their way somehow. We just do it somehow. This is what it means to be alive, to hold both, and to keep feeling and breathing and loving. Thank goodness for the memorials dedicated to not forgetting our past, for writers who find the words to help us be more aware, and for the beauty of impermanent cherry blossoms that offer a brief respite, a moment to believe that everything will be ok.
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.— Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum