Every year I watch the peonies slowly rise from a patch of soil in the back yard. They don’t show new growth until long after the first thaw – after the crocuses and daffodils have had their time in the sun.
They begin as red stalks and slowly grow thigh high while the tulips are showing off. By the time the lilacs have scented the back yard in late April, the bulbs atop each peony stalk are beginning to develop. Over the next 3 or 4 weeks, the edges of the petals – bright pink in our yard – begin to show as the bulbs grow larger. And sweeter, apparently, as ants crawl all over the bulbs in the final week or so before the bloom.
And then it hits. The first couple of blooms appear one morning, each the size of a ball of yarn with a scent so strong and floral I’d never tolerate it from a bottle. Within a couple days, depending on the temperature and sunshine, the whole patch is aflame. It’s the centerpiece of a yard that was thoughtfully designed before we moved in more than 20 years ago to provide a procession of blooms throughout spring. The yard has evolved as we’ve lived in it, but my wife’s careful custodianship has retained the basic order – yellow azalea, white and yellow daffodils, multi-colored tulips, lilacs in lavender, and then a dramatic pause before the big, explosive, pink peonies.
They’re like the climax of a good jazz solo. What blooms before them is a gradual build-up – a series of flourishes that make more sense in retrospect. What blooms after is smaller, more muted – still pretty but part of a hasty winding down to summer’s many shades of green.
The blooms were generally late this year – the lilacs by a good two weeks – thanks to a hard, long winter. But the peonies were right on time. They always seem to peak right around Memorial Day and this year, while the holiday fell early, the whole patch was in bloom on Tuesday – the day after the long weekend.
But peonies, for all their splendor, are fragile. If the weather is calm and sunny and warm, the blooms might last 10 days. But I’ve rarely see it happen. On Wednesday – 24 hours after bringing the first cuttings into the house – it rained. With force. As always seems to happen.
There are lessons in this from yoga, Buddha and other philosophies:
Live in the moment: Enjoy them while they’re here.
The root of suffering is attachment: Find something else to think about once they’re gone.
Stop and smell the flowers: Don’t get so wrapped up in everything else that you miss them altogether.
Life is nasty, brutish and short: Especially for a fragile bloom in a downpour.
And, of course, there’s always next year.