Every year I have a moment, usually around this time, where I start to genuinely despair: will winter never end? It’s been cold and dark and wet for what seems like forever, and those summer clothes in the back of the wardrobe seem to be mocking us. But just as I think I’m trapped in this forever-winter state, it happens again: I’ll be walking down the street and suddenly notice that some tiny pink flower has sprung forth on bare branches. Cherry blossoms!
It gets me every time: the cherry trees launch into their assault on the senses, covering every branch and the ground beneath, with pink and white petals. Blink and it’s there, seemingly from out of nowhere. Isn’t it wonderful.
I’ve always loved cherry blossoms. They’re a promise that nature has its own rhythm and it’s something we can rely on, but as a metaphor it’s pretty good in general too: it’s a reminder that even if you’re about to lose heart, life will come back. This was my thinking as I was planning out my latest tattoo – I wanted to go big this time, with an idea that not only looked good but also had a powerful personal meaning. Scouring tattoo Instagram I came across the rich, elegant style of Roxy Velvet, the proprietor of the Velvet Underground tattoo studio in London, and immediately called her for a consultation – would she draw me some cherry blossoms?
Cherry blossoms capture the imagination. You can find them all over the world, but Japan has a particular affinity for them: “sakura” is the flower symbolising springtime, renewal, and the fleetingness of life. The Japanese “cherry blossom watch” is serious business, detailing the expected timing of the 200-or-so varieties and where you can find them. After all, the cherry blossom season is short: it arrives suddenly, peaks in a fantasy of petals, only to be gone within weeks and then it’s all over until next year.
I booked my tattoo appointment for March 2020 to coincide with the cherry blossom season, not realising it would also line up with something else: the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. No one knew exactly what would happen but a significant change felt inevitable, so that March I made a point of enjoying things a little more than I probably normally would: I celebrated my anniversary with an expertly made classic cocktail in a bar, wondering when I’d be able to do that next. I took the underground during rush hour, squeezed up against other people, wondering if we’d soon become too worried to do that. I got my tattoo, etched into my skin from ankle to knee by Roxy Velvet for four hours solid, while we chatted about the pain we choose versus the one that’s inflicted upon us. This was on 4th March 2020 and I remember feeling lucky to have got this tattoo done while I still could – who knew how long it would be before we could do things like this again?
As lockdown arrived and my flowers scabbed over, driving me to distraction with itch, I remember trying to soothe myself with assurances it would be worth it: “This might be the biggest ‘life comes back’ moment of all.” The flowers have long-since healed and they are big, bold and beautiful, a reminder of all that stuff I always intended them to be – how life comes back. But because of the events of that spring there’s a secondary meaning too now, and I think about this all the time: how you can fully know that something is going to be painful, and yet, there’s no way to prevent it.
It’s nearly a year later now and we’re still in the pandemic, and the cherry blossoms will be here again soon. For me they will be a reminder, like in that Mary Oliver poem that I love, that “whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting”. Fleetingness is bittersweet, and there’s a sharpness to the beauty of the cherry blossoms that I’d never really appreciated before now.
It’s been a hard year. I hope we will come out of this having learned something, but so far it’s mostly just been really difficult. I think a lot about how we’re going to remember this, but it’s too soon to know and the only way out is to go through it. But the cherry blossoms will do their thing regardless – I always try to catch them in Kew Gardens, but I honestly think the best way to see them is to come across a tree by chance on a walk down a random street. They’re so flamboyant and unapologetic, and no matter how many times I come across a cherry blossom tree, it’s always a surprise. It’s here for such a short time, exquisite and intense, and a little volatile. It’s here today, and tomorrow all the petals will be on the ground. But for a brief, incredible moment, it will be spectacular.