Spring brings with it a kind of happy sadness. Ferns beginning to emerge.
And yet the air is cold, endlessly.
We’re still looking at the downed trees in our front forty, felled during Sandy. Our neighbor took home a dozen planks from one, and it is pretty great that he could use them to build raised beds for a garden this spring. A happy eventuality.
Still, I’m thinking of the haiku by Kobayashi Issa, who wrote in the early nineteenth century:
The tree will be cut
Not knowing the bird
Makes a nest
The bird will surely build another home in another tree, happily, but here this tree lies, fit only for planks.
In our woods, you now see the moss, there all winter but offering up its soft coat in spring as though you’d never seen it before.
My friend Josefa told me that in Virginia, when spring came, she thought about planting moss in their yard, which was too shady for grass. She was informed by local experts that the ladies of Richmond made their guests put on ballet slippers before treading on their moss. And that they fertilized it with buttermilk. Beautiful images. Yet she was sad in Richmond, even in spring, so sad she had to move back north.
Happy sadness in spring. Poets do it best. (April is National Poetry Month.)
Walt Whitman, an aside in “Song of the Open Road.”
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them; and I will fill them in return.)
My old delicious burdens. The piercing, pleasurable misery of April. The weight of death, of debts to pay. In the clear sunshine.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
In that poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot also talks about how, In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing/Over the tumbled graves. It was a happy day, beginning in the nineteenth century, for families and lovers to take their leave of the gritty city and visit a graveyard.
The landscaped acreage offered a garden and an art museum all in one, you could stroll or take a carriage, and whatever sadness you might feel was mitigated by your joy at being outdoors in the air, with the pristine green grass spilling over in the spring sunshine. Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York, saw half a million visitors a year in the 1860s.
Matsuo Basho gets at the bittersweet flavor of such a foray.
the whole family
all with white hair and canes
In the woods above the Cabin, we have tiny green leaves emerging out of the dusky litter of winter.
“Little Green,” Joni Mitchell’s saddest song, carries within it happiness as well.
Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
Like the nights when the Northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow
The song, written in 1967, talks about a daughter that the 19-year-old singer gave up for adoption.
Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed
Little green, have a happy ending
The comic Louis C.K., who manages to be soulful and raunchily hilarious all at once, gave a recent interview in which he talked about how he gets by in this world.
I don’t mind feeling sad. Sadness is a lucky thing to feel. I have the same amount of happy and sad as anyone else. I just don’t mind the sad parts as much; it’s amazing to have those feelings. I think that looking at how random and punishing life can be, it’s a privilege. There’s so much to look at, so much to observe, and there’s a lot of humor in it. I’ve had sad times, I’ve had some hard times, and I have a lot of things to be sad about, but I’m pretty happy right now.
To achieve happy sadness, we could all be more like animals, who so often mix emotions in their expressions. Yes, there are people who say not-humans lack emotions. But I look at Oliver, the pit-hound in him tuckered out after chasing the white flag of a deer’s tail through the spring brambles. The look across his features.
And I think of Edith Wharton’s journal in 1924.
I am secretly afraid of animals…. I think it is because of the usness in their eyes, with the underlying not-usness which belies it, and is so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off and left them: left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? their eyes seem to ask us.
Dogs do sometimes have that look in their faces – if I wasn’t so satisfied now I would cry. With Oliver I could imagine a particular happy sadness. If I caught that deer today I couldn’t chase it tomorrow, so all is well.
The Japanese christened the unique flavor called umami, something we only understand because of L-glutamate receptors on the tongue. Along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter, the names we all learned as we grew up for what goes on in the mouth when we eat, it’s one of the five basic tastes, identified by scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. But it’s almost impossible to describe. It’s savory or “brothy,” found in dried bonito flakes or shitake mushrooms.
Soy sauce. Parmesan cheese. The thing about umami is that it offers a mixture of sensations that together become pleasurable on the tongue. Intense, saliva-stimulating. A powerful paradox.
Just like spring.