Willow tree in bloom

Only after spring arrives and the trees burst into flower do I realize how much of the winter I’ve spent looking down. In winter, I trudge around in a bulky coat, hat, and scarf; on the coldest days, I top it all with a hood. Thus bundled, I keep my eyes down, my attention focused underfoot on the treachery of ice and snow. Like a mummy, my view of the world in winter is just a slit through swaddles.

Oak catkins and leaves

Spring sets my feet free in sandals, the sidewalks finally clear underfoot. In spring, you appreciate anew the miracle it is to walk the earth. In the spring, you don’t have to watch every step; in spring, your whole body feels as light as shirtsleeves. Walking at the end of an interminable winter feels like freedom, your ankles liberated from boots and the sinew-testing challenge of knee-deep snow drifts.

Dogwood flowers

Come summer, after the trees have finished leafing, their crowns will contain my view like a cap and I’ll look to the ground once again, searching for flowers and ground-creeping plants. But in early spring, the world’s inverted, with an ephemeral fury of flowers high overhead: blooms against blue.

Cloudy with a chance of magnolias

Between today’s classes at Framingham State, I pulled myself from my paper-piles to take a quick walk around the block, wandering into a residential neighborhood then circling back. Even during a short walk, it’s hard not to notice spring manifesting in the form of greening grass, blooming flowers, and lounging college students.

First dandelions and ground-ivy

It’s been chillier than usual this April: usually by now, I would have been besieged by students begging to have class outside, and I would have been hard pressed to say no. But so far this year, it’s been too chilly for that, and I’ve worn sandals chiefly out of principle, hating to revert back to socks, winter-weight tights, and shoes. But regardless of the temperatures, the flowers know that lengthening days mean spring, so they bloom despite the chill. After a season of snow, the sight of the earth erupting in dandelions seems nothing short of miraculous.

Emerging tulip leaves

I’m allergic to the dust, mold, and dead leaves that lie underneath the melting snow. Every spring when the snow starts to melt, my lungs react with chronic coughing and congestion. I love the liberation of early spring–a time when you can cast off coats and boots in favor of sandals and T-shirts–but my lungs do not agree, growing tight and wheezy at intermittent and unpredictable moments throughout the day.

Lone crocus

In early spring, my asthma inhaler is my best friend, giving almost instant relief every time I take a hit. In spring, I don’t venture far without an inhaler: I have one in my purse, another in a bedroom drawer, and others stashed throughout the house like nip bottles hidden by an alcoholic.

At some point later in the spring when fresh green growth has covered last year’s moldy leaves, I’ll be able to get through the day without coughing. But for now, my body reacts and rebels against the musty dust that emerges from underneath the season’s old snow.

I wrote this post during a five-minute timed freewrite in one of my Writing Workshop classes today, in response to the prompt “Underneath.”

Honeysuckle

While I was grading, the honeysuckles along our driveway bloomed, the backyard pine trees dusted my car with pollen, and the neighborhood tulips erupted in a multitude of colors. Warblers appeared in the trees, our resident catbird returned, and the backyard rabbits appeared as if out of nowhere, nibbling our finally green grass.

Honeysuckle

While I was grading, the season kept springing, the birds kept singing, and the green kept growing. Not a one of them waited a moment for me and my silly paper piles. Having submitted my last batch of semester grades, I feel momentarily dazed, as if returning from a planet made up of words, words, words. Emerging into my finally green backyard, I feel as if a heavenly hand should hand me one of those pink memo slips outlining all the important things that happened while I was out.

Peony-to-be

Every April-into-May while I’m preoccupied with the long, uphill push that invariably marks the end of the semester, something sly and subtle happens. While I’m busy with paper-piles and end-term grading, Spring somehow slips into Summer.

Honeysuckle - April 12 / Day 132

I know that the summer solstice doesn’t come until June, but I’m never fooled by what the calendar says. Something has shifted in the last week or so, with spring-green leaves ripening into a darker summer hue. The nights are warm rather than chilly now, and we sleep with the windows open. Already the leaves on our backyard hostas are tattered where rabbits have nibbled them, and our backyard tulips have dropped their petals, spent.

Wisteria

Already, in an instant, the neighborhood wisteria are hanging heavy with an abundance of blossoms, and the year no longer feels like a coil that is tightly wound, ready to spring. Instead, the season has sprung, and only a ripening of days stands between us and the fullness of summer: a transition so subtle, you’ll miss it if you blink.

Candy striped

One surefire sign of spring in the Boston suburbs is the emergence of curbside lemonade stands: something straight out of Norman Rockwell. Earlier today, J and I drove past a couple of kids who were trying to wave down passing cars on a busy street. One of them was wearing a rainbow-colored clown wig and waving a sign, but we were driving the wrong way and traffic was too heavy for us to stop. Last week I’d seen a different set of kids selling lemonade on this same busy street, but they were lucky enough to have set up their stand before a stop sign at rush hour, so they had a captive audience. But in that case, too, I was going the wrong way and wasn’t able to stop.

First rose

When we’re exploring our neighborhood on foot, though, J and I make a point to stop at lemonade stands: how can you walk past cute kids trying to sell something? Parents in our neighborhood tend to be civic-minded, so most of the kids we’ve encountered sell lemonade to raise money for charity. Over the years, we’ve sipped lemonade to raise money for the earthquakes in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, and endangered tigers in Asia. At each makeshift stand, I can imagine the conversation that led to its creation, with a kid asking Mom or Dad what they can do to help some horrible situation they’ve seen on TV, and Mom or Dad suggesting a lemonade stand as a worthwhile pursuit. Think globally, sell lemonade locally.

So this afternoon when J and I were out walking and saw a couple of kids selling sparkling pink lemonade to raise money for tomorrow’s Walk for Hunger, we couldn’t say no. Instead, we bought a couple cups, helped the kids met their fundraising goal, and walked on, the ice-cold pink beverage in our cups matching the bright flowering hue of the Boston suburbs in May.

Pink and frilly

First forsythia flowers on rainy day - April 12 / Day 102

I’m currently reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. I’m a fan of Roach’s previous books, so I bought Packing for Mars when it first came out in paperback, then I promptly stuck it on my bookshelf and never got around to reading it. Now that Roach has come out with a new book, I figured I should go back and read her “old” one, so I’m currently slow-poking my way through her tongue-in-cheek account of the scientific challenges behind manned space travel.

Raindrops on new leaves

The basic premise of Packing for Mars is that space exploration calls for absolute precision and predictability, but human beings are anything but. Rocket scientists can engineer a spacecraft down to the merest micron, but what happens when an astronaut inside that craft gets an upset stomach, needs to relieve him- or herself, or falls in love with a crew-mate? In her usual hands-on style, Roach travels to Moscow to visit the Martian Surface Simulator, a module designed by the Institute of Biomedical Problems in order to study the psychological effects of long-term confinement. Were Russia or any other country to send human beings to Mars, they’d want to know how well those humans would cope with the isolation of being locked for months inside a cramped space capsule.

Daffodil bud on rainy day

In the course of talking with various Russian researchers, Roach discovers something that doesn’t surprise me at all. Apart from the simple discomforts of being away from family, sharing tight quarters with colleagues, and eating processed food from tubes, astronauts suffer woefully from the simple absence of nature. Sitting in the climate-controlled isolation of what David Bowie famously described as a “tin can,” astronauts come to crave the things the rest of us take for granted, like grass, trees, and flowers. As Roach explains, this phenomenon isn’t limited to astronauts:

I once met a man who told me that after landing in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a winter at the South Pole research station, he and his companions spent a couple days just wandering around staring in awe at flowers and trees. At one point, one of them spotted a woman pushing a stroller. “A baby!” he shouted, and they all rushed across the street to see. The woman turned the stroller and ran.

Sprouting scilla

Although I haven’t chased any baby strollers lately, every spring I feel a bit like those South Pole researchers. Having been locked for months in the tin can called “winter,” in spring I find myself gazing in wonder at the simple beauty of fresh leaves and flower buds. After all these years, you’d think the whole “spring” thing would get old, but it doesn’t. This year like every year, I still find myself looking at unfurling leaves and blooming flowers, wondering how exactly they ever fit inside their tight buds or how those buds ever survived months of snow, sleet, and cold.

Spring green

Later in the same chapter, Roach talks with cosmonaut Alexandr Laveikin, who spent six months in the Russian space station, Mir, and now runs Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts, where Roach tours a replica of the cramped living quarters inside the Mir’s main module. Recounting her conversation with Laveikin, Roach concludes

Humans don’t belong in space. Everything about us evolved for life on Earth. Weightlessness is an exhilarating novelty, but floaters soon begin to dream of walking. Earlier Laveikin told us, “Only in space do you understand what incredible happiness it is just to walk. To walk on Earth.”

Hen and chickens after overnight rain - April 11 / Day 101

The moment I read Laveikin’s remark about the “incredible happiness” of simply walking on Earth, I thought of one of my favorite passages from Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, a joyful little book that describes meditation as being as simple as paying attention and being grateful for life’s mundane wonders:

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own eyes. All is a miracle.

Daffodils

Thich Nhat Hanh has never explored outer space, but as a Buddhist monk, he’s spent plenty of time in the isolation chamber of his own mind. Most of us would have to leave Earth to appreciate Earth, and most of us have to spend a few months in the drear barrenness of winter to appreciate spring greenery. But Nhat Hanh realizes what it took Russian cosmonauts a lengthy space mission to figure out: the biggest wonder in the entire Universe is the Earth under your own two feet.