The Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land…
“The Waste Land” T.S. Eliot

I’m no literature scholar. I don’t know what Eliot meant by these lines, or the long and complex poem they begin. But that first phrase clings to me on days like this, and I have my projections about what he may have meant by it.

April is the cruellest month, he said. But he didn’t live in northern California…if he had, might he have written that March is the cruellest month instead?

March (even the second half of February, but definitely March) is when spring explodes around here. The hills are carpeted with soft green grasses; the fruit trees are flowering, and the roadsides are dotted with mustard flowers and the first golden poppies.

What’s cruel about that? Shouldn’t this be a time of happiness? Don’t many people suffer depression in the darker times of winter and feel it lifting with spring?

I don’t have a good answer, but I know that, for me, spring hurts when my depression is heavy. Everything beautiful I see makes me aware of how little I have done to savor past springs; how I’m not doing enough to savor this one before it passes. Roses make me miss my old back yard and writhe with regret about losing it. Green hills taunt me with the hikes I’m not taking and the years I barely spent time outside at all.

The world is draped with a colorful mosaic of new life, but the darkness in me perverts it into Roses of Regret, Snowdrops of Shame and Forsythia of Failure scattered upon the Green Hills of Guilt.

Apologizing to Roses does a good job of explaining part of this; the part about regretting my inability to appreciate beauty fully.

I would like to become much better at living in the present…I want to revel in the spring. I want to spin in circles like Maria in The Sound of Music and sing about the beauty of nature around me. Why do I think I’m not allowed to unless I can do it all of the time?

Why does beauty hurt? Why does feeling good, or happy, or fully engaged with the world, hurt?

Every spring, multitudes of people journey to certain temples in Japan to view a breathtaking array of cherry blossoms. In some places, these flowers exist on the trees for a mere three days per spring. Some people come on the first day, when the blooms are fresh and newly budded. Many come on the second day, when the flowers are mature and at the height of their coloration. But the largest amount of travelers, by far, come on the third day. Come to watch the wilting blossoms falling from the trees and filling the breeze with their tiny petals.

To these watchers, the third day is the most beautiful. They relish the combination of beauty and transience. They know how to say hello and goodbye to something wonderful at the same time.

3 responses to “The Cruellest Month

  1. Spring is (obviously, logically) usually seen as positive – all that growth and fertility and so on. So it’s possible that Eliot is defining spring as hope, and saying that it’s cruel to offer hope, when winter is inevitable. It might have something to do with military campaigns frequently starting in April. Plenty of irony no matter what the interpretation. And it’s a reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so probably lots of brutish and bawdy interpretations there too. Or maybe he just had shitty Aprils.

  2. And maybe he had exactly the same, painful experience of April as you do. All that joy as a contrast to pain.

  3. Spring is intense. I can hardly take it. I need blinders on.

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