The first week when the world unraveled I went for a run as if it were any other March day. I pick up the bike path where it intersects with my favorite, go-to café. This was back in the care free days when our governor was restricting gatherings to 50 people or less. The café was open with a lot less life inside than there would be on a typical weekday morning. Just passing by, I could feel the tentativeness of the people inside, uncertain about what it meant to be doing something as ordinary as grabbing a cup of coffee while funnel clouds collected on the horizon.
Mid-March in New England can be a mean stretch of days. It’s not unusual to keep the snow boots by the door and the shovels within reach until April. That particular day felt pretty typical in that respect. It was grey and raw with a damp, gnawing chill impossible not to take personal regardless of what was unfolding in the world. I was still clinging to familiar routine, performing my own magical thinking: If it’s business as usual for me, the rest of the world will follow and maybe tomorrow we’ll go back to arguing about how to pay for health care and hate-watching The Bachelor in Paradise.
About a half a mile in, the path bends around two soccer fields, one on either side. A magnolia tree stands in the crux of that junction. For eleven months of the year it blends in with all the other trees near by with its ashy trunk and soft crown of green leaves. But for a few precious weeks each spring, the tree bursts in a squall of luscious white petals. It’s a narrow window to catch these show stealers, and if it’s really rainy, that window hinges close even faster.
I was guilty of passing the tree by without really seeing it for the first year I was jogging on the path until one day that spring when I rounded the corner and was met with a shock of white against the blue sky. I felt sheepish as I stopped and stood staring up through its clouds of blooms. The brown paper wrapping never tells the whole story.
Magnolias look delicate, but they are incredibly rugged, surviving for more than 20 million years. Over the course of centuries, horticulturists have bred and spread different kinds of magnolia from more temperate climates, where they originated, to more challenging environments like New England. These trees are not messing around.
It was way too early in March for magnolias to bloom. But as I came upon the tree that day, I saw that it was dotted with fat buds. Maybe we were all out of sync, but nature was keeping her faithful rhythm. A new season was getting ready to arrive. I stopped and walked around her. A few buds were gingerly loosening, the hint of white petals opening like palms coming apart after prayer. The rest of the tree was a twisted riot of branches and nodes, order masquerading as chaos. Like now.
If there ever was a time to stand nose to nose with the truth that we have so little control over (checks notes) not a damn thing, it’s now. The man-made world has jumped the tracks and a different reality will inevitably take hold. We can’t know what that will look like or how it will feel, but I hope our humanity plays a bigger part in it; I hope our compassion, empathy, and creativity will form the helix of its DNA. I rested my hand against the cold bark of the magnolia as if to say, “hang in there,” but then again she doesn’t need any encouragement from me. This ancient being is a pro at doing what matters: evolve, adapt, persist, and eventually flower. Nature is schooling us right now and we’d do ourselves a favor to pay attention and take notes as a new season gets ready to arrive.