Just outside our front door I have planted two camellias plants that I never would have thought could have thrived in the mercurial climate of East Tennessee. My sister, Lisa Stanley of Stanley’s Greenhouse, (and an expert on plants that will grow well in our climate), assured me the camellias would grow, and they would “bloom in January when nothing else is blooming”.
Well, I can confirm Lisa is right: nothing else (aside from the winter-hardy pansies and violas) is blooming in the gloom and monsoon season we have been enduring here in Knoxville. But the camellias are blooming in the wintry cold with drops of rain on their faces.
January is the hardest time of the year for me–and many of my friends. Bleak, dark, nothing much going on, depressing.
And then the miracle–for that is what it seems like every year–of white camellias with their roselike bloom.
I assumed camellias were tropical flowers that could only be seen in equatorial climes–or over the ear of Billie Holliday in that classic photo of the peerless Lady Day, the most unique and finest Jazz singer of them all. The way she phrased a song, ever-changing and ever new, was second to none–except perhaps the sublime Nat King Cole who makes every note a revelation.
I read Billie’s biography which, even though it was written with her participation, has been dismissed as having little relationship to the realities of Billie’s life. No matter what the exact details of her too-short life, Billie undoubtedly lived her songs, you can see it in her eyes, you can hear it in her voice.
She bloomed in a time when even the most famous and talented black musicians were not welcome in the restaurants, hotels, public restrooms, or parts of town frequented by white folks. Unconscionable.
But to my mind, some of the most wonderful, lively, amazing music was created in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When the Great Depression slapped people down and World War II brought unspeakable misery and oppression to most of the world. The millions who died quickly in battle were perhaps the lucky ones, certainly luckier than the poor souls in concentration camps: the Jews, Poles, academics, homosexuals, and anyone who tried to help them.
In my experience, the best art seems to flourish in hard times. And people who have known hard times carry it always somewhere inside. People who have truly lived the bleakness of winter of the soul, can bring it forth when they sing or write about love, heartache, farming a few acres and a third goes to the bank, or the deaths of tiny children or women in childbirth. But the art from the hard times lives and breathes.
For me, it’s hard to get through January, February, March, and (what they say is the cruelest month, perhaps because it raises your expectations, then dashes them) April, so I reprint here 10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy, from the Winter 2009 Yes! magazine.
- Savor everyday moments that you would normally hurry through
- Avoid comparing yourself to others and instead focus on your own achievements
- Put material things low on your priority list; their satisfaction is fleeting
- Have meaningful goals since we require a sense of meaning to thrive
- Take initiative at work or home; it makes life more rewarding and you feel more in control
- Take the time to invest in close relationships and treasure your family
- Smile even when you don’t feel like it; happy people see possibilities
- Say thank you as if you mean it, write notes, express gratitude for people who have made a difference in your life
- Get out and exercise; it can be very effective in treating depression
- Give it away; give it away now! Do whatever you can to help others, and you get more health benefits than exercise: listen to a friend, help a neighbor, celebrate the successes of others, pass on your skills, donate to a cause you believe in
I would add that we should dance and play because there is far too little of that!
But I am no Pollyanna–although I did read the book when I was a girl. Not everything works out, life is hard, people can be cruel, difficult, and impossible to understand or navigate. But I find meaning and happiness living with an open heart to the people I care about, with gratitude for the good and beautiful things and the small, wonderful things, and I try in every way possible to make a difference in the lives of others.
This way of living gives my life meaning and helps me to, as John Irving so eloquently put in in his 1981 novel The Hotel New Hampshire (as well as the movie that followed three years after), “keep passing those open windows”.
My aspiration is to be gracious as Lord Tennyson writes in the final lines of his poem The Lady of Shalott and as the incredible musician and Celtic-song-goddess Loreena McKennitt sings in her song of the same name:
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
I ask for Grace in the New Year–and all the years thereafter. And aspire to always bloom out of season.