Updated: May 27, 2020
We have passed the halfway mark from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice — the longest day of the year. Mother Earth has given birth once again — flowers up from cold ground, leaves out from wizened branches, warm sun down from winter’s chill air. Spring is busting out all over.
We feel like busting out as well. Especially since the winter of our discontent turned out to be more discontented than usual, we’re eager for release. We want to cast off our late-winter gloom and get on with the business of normal life once again — whatever that may now mean.
It’s easy to see why the rhythms of human life are attuned to the seasonal rhythms of Mother Earth. The earth is the source of all life, including human life. Its plants and animals provide the sustenance on which we depend completely. It’s also the final destiny for all of us — the ultimate form of democracy. In every way and in every season, Mother Earth is both our source and our destiny.
But our lives as individuals turn out not to be seasonal or cyclical. The prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible likens us not to the sun or the stars, or even the moon or the earth, but to flowers and grass. “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field,” the prophet says. “The grass withers, the flower fades… Surely the people are grass.”
We should feel honored by the comparison. While there may be few things more ephemeral as flowers, there are few things more beautiful.
Even so, this spring has presented us with an unsettling juxtaposition. The promise of new life in springtime has overlapped fully with the winter of our coronavirus discontent. We careen between delight and despair. It’s hard to attend properly to both feelings at the same time.
This clash reminds me of Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet “The Rite of Spring.” Musically groundbreaking and politically prescient, the ballet premiered in Paris in May of 1913 — just a year before the start of what came to be known as World War I. The ballet begins with a bucolic springtime ritual: the adoration of the earth. The music, however, is anything but bucolic. As Leonard Bernstein once said, “The Rite of Spring” has “got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.”
The ballet also subverted the idea that Parisian ballet was the epitome of civilization. As the ballet continues, the pastoral adoration of the earth descends into the primitive violence of human sacrifice. From civilization to savagery in thirty minutes flat — a path Europe would tragically follow in the next five years. Scandalously then, but not surprising in retrospect, the premier of “The Rite of Spring” ended in a full-scale riot.
Whether on the ballet stage or in the natural world, the rite of spring is an opening up, a peeling back of the hard husk. Sometimes we like what we find, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes opening ourselves to the truth about our lives reveals ugliness and dissonance, and sometimes it reveals beauty and blessedness. The goal of living, in springtime and in every other time, is to accept ugliness as part of the ebb of life, but also to seize beauty as part of its flow.
There’s nothing more fragile than a butterfly, or a flower, or a breath, or a life. At the same time, there’s nothing more beautiful than a butterfly, or a flower, or a breath, or a life. There’s nothing more ephemeral than beauty — nor more durable. Even amid what’s terrible, and especially then, experiences of beauty sustain us.
Rita Dove’s poem “Transit” was inspired by the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, who survived a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. In the poem, Dove writes: “Let it be said/while in the midst of horror/we fed on beauty — and that, my love, is what sustained us.”
We should do the same. Let it be said of us that, even in the midst of horror, we fed on beauty. We paused to see budding flowers and emerging leaves. We listened to heartbreaking songs and stirring symphonies. We tasted bitter greens and sweet berries. We feasted on the beauty of life.
Let it be said that we feasted on the beauty of a helping hand, an encouraging smile, a listening ear. We helped turn the tide on what is terrible in our lives and our world by embracing what is wonderful and beautiful.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Make the most of it.