One of my acquaintances told me a while back that he had gone all the way to Jinhae, a rather far-off place, to see that city’s Cherry Blossom Festival. I had heard about this festival several times and wondered if, unlike most of the other savagely mediocre events in Korea, this one was somehow worth attending. “No!“, he replied, the cherry blossoms in Jinhae were just as interesting as anywhere else—Gyeongju included, presumably.
They bloom and they bleed. They burst into life one day, and they’re gone a week or two later. I remember it differently in America. Out in the New England countryside it seemed like these cherry blossoms lasted for months. Out of the mud and the rain of solmonath leaped the bright thunderous gardens of summer. One of my friends worked as a farmer out in the fields, and would come home feeling so hot, at the end of the day, that she told me she would sit and soak in an ice-cold bathtub for hours to recover in time for the following afternoon’s cinder-cooking.
Part of me does wish that this season could last all the time, as a long and cold and stark Korean winter in a snowless city is always a test of endurance. In a forest with a lot of snow I would find life easier, but part of the joy of the Korean spring is the announcement, in the form of these cherry blossoms, that the gnawing, nagging discomfort of the cold is over, at least for now. If the winter never happened, if there was nothing for us to escape from, I doubt they would be so pleasant.
It’s also easy to tease out philosophical metaphors from these cherry blossoms: half the beauty lies in the fact that we barely get to know them. They bloom and they bleed, they appear and they vanish. This was a sad time for me last year when my sister died, and it’s impossible for me to look at these trees now without thinking of mortality and immortality, suspecting rather strongly that there is no afterlife, and that the eternal, and heaven, and hell, and god and all the gods and demons and devils, are here with me only right now.
They look like frozen fireworks, like daytime christmas lights.
These flowers will fall off, but they’ll probably come back again next spring. Eventually humans will extinguish them, or something else will. The sun will explode, consume the Earth, and throw everything out into space. These materials will form new stars and planets, although much of what we are will simply remain in the cold blackness as inert dust. Maybe some of the molecules floating around on Earth will find their way into lifeforms evolving on some other planet in the incomprehensibly far-distant future. Most of them don’t seem to really care either way—the components of my own body included. The hairs on my arm don’t seem to be very concerned about the existence of god or the punishment awaiting them in the afterlife.
There is my consciousness, and my memory, both of which have been conditioned to fear the moment I cease to breathe, probably out of the illusion of biological necessity: if people weren’t afraid of death, most of us probably wouldn’t bother to live (while others might live more fully!). My sister is also dead, and I don’t want her to be, because it makes me very sad to exist in this world without her, so I want to believe that she is actually still alive, albeit in a way that I simply can’t see.
She does exist inside of me. I didn’t know everything about her, but I spent almost every day with her for sixteen years, so I can guess what she would think about this or that, and I can see what she looks like, and hear her voice—I can even feel her hugging me at the airport in Busan. But the memory of a book is not quite the same thing as holding a book in your hand, and reading it. If I burn a book, does that book go to book heaven? Is a person any different?
It’s rare in Korea to find myself constantly confronted with beauty, but here and now it really is nice and pleasant to go walk outside and enjoy the flowers in the trees—all the while trying to block out the roar of the unavoidable four-lane highways. I can even smell the flowers from a distance. They seem to give off their own radiance and their own warmth, and after the hectic assaults of a few hours in the classroom, where I found myself staining my clothes with my own sweat, it made me feel so peaceful to see them again; if only I could have held my own feelings together when I looked at the clock and saw that just a few minutes were left for me to edit and comment upon half the class’s papers.
But would these cherry blossoms be so nice if they were always around? But would I love my sister so much if both of us were immortal?