As soon as I turned the corner, I knew my weekly shopping budget was going out the window. For weeks at the farmer’s market, the vendor on the corner had buckets of tulips—little things, barely buds, for sale at a premium, premature price. I was able to ignore them despite my love for watching their petals unfold and morph, diaphanous velvety butterfly wings exposing their seeds to lure in a hungry bumble.
This week was different. In addition to the buckets of tulips were bucks of blossoms—tiny pink stars seeming to have just blinked into existence, their frailty a stark contrast to the dark branches from which they brazenly sprouted. I have so many emotional memories tied to flowers like these, I had to have them. I carefully selected bundles that had the most open blossoms. Within minutes, I realized my mistake. Pink petals trailed me as I walked home. Thankfully, I got them in water without too much loss, but I can’t ignore that, while I’m still happy to have their bright company, these flowers will be nothing more than a pile of pink fluff and a bunch of sticks even sooner than I thought.
Seasonal changes bring about many things—new clothes, new sunrises and sunsets, new foods, new flowers. The focus tends to be on the time that’s ahead of us, imminent or even weeks away, like all the hype around the cherry blossoms (the flowers I bought are technically peach blossoms, if you care to know; the herbalist in me needs to be specific!). Here in the heat-trap of New York City, we tend to have premature blooms, so trees that take their time flowering elsewhere have already debuted. Cherry blossoms (and daffodils, and forsythia, and magnolias) are everywhere, yet today I wore a hat and my puffer coat because the temperature dropped into the forties again. I can’t say nature is getting ahead of herself—she follows the light—but for us, so hungry for any signs of spring, we can be easily tempted by those early flourishes. Everyone gathers around the magnolia tree that’s juicy and pink to get #itsspring photos for their Instagram; the one with just the first signs of budding flowers, though, gets ignored, even though spending time with that nearly-flowered tree is where we might get a chance to encounter the wonder of life unfolding. We forget that jumping ahead might cause worse suffering than that incurred by waiting a little longer, holding back, giving things some space.
Space is a hard thing for most of us to find a healthy relationship with. There’s either too much or too little, rarely just the right amount. In our culture of optimization, we’ve adjusted to life in efficient, space-saving boxes and vacuum bags, literally displacing the air from objects to make room for more. I’d put time into this category as well, since it’s nothing more than an attempt to control and organize (and monetize) the space of the day. When there’s not enough time (most of the time), we’re frazzled; but too much time, and we’re bored. What prima donnas we are around this element, which is actually the most laid back and generous of them all.
Space. Absence. Nothing. No-thing. No-doing. Existing before the movement element of air, or the transformative element of fire (according to samkhya philosophy), space is a container of potential, which is as much everything as it is nothing. Without space, there’s no room for anything to exist, but rooms without life are also somewhat contradictory. We get into a jam with space, I think, when we forget the fact that we emerge from it—we’re not separate from it. When the ego takes hold and starts to think it deserves all the space, things get cramped and fearful; the feeling of scarcity and competition takes over. Whereas when we realize we are part of the space, we can relax. My body might be over here but my mind can be over there at the same time, so I don’t need to worry about holding onto my little corner so tightly anymore. And the softer I feel in my own space, the easier it is when other beings nudge into my space; we just adjust and make room for each other. Maybe we can both exist in the same space, because we already are.
Space is an element we need urgently in spring. Not because it’s lacking—winter clears things out pretty good—but because it’s the container into which all new life will bloom. Earlier this winter, I lamented when I saw a neighbor had cut down a big beautiful tree in their yard; now, I see that patches of crocuses have popped up where the tree was. The urge to open the windows and clear out old things in spring isn’t cultural, it’s biological—we’re in detox mode, and we’re better able to digest and eliminate when our physical spaces mimic the kind of space we want inside the body for that purpose. Wide. Open. No obstructions.
Where we tend to mess things up, though, is not being able to sense the line of just the right amount of space. That place of discomfort when we have the space but haven’t quite filled it all—or maybe haven’t filled it at all. This is where interesting things can happen, if we have the patience to sit at the edge of the spaces we create (or stumble upon) and wait for the right thing to fill it, in the right time. Most of us don’t. We’re looking straight ahead at the thing we expect to want rather than letting possibility fill it. In our craving for instant gratification, to take the edge off of longing, we forget all of the things we don’t know about that could make us happy.
My teacher likes to use the phrase “we make space, and the universe fills it,” describing what happens in the dance of gasses between our bodies and the atmosphere called breathing. A miraculous coordination of movements creates a vacuum in our lungs, which the universe fills; and then the vacuum of the universe says, “hey, we need our air back,” and we give it. What’s key about this isn’t how the lungs get filled right on time, but the longing of the body to be filled. The contraction of the diaphragm pulling down to let the lungs inflate, then relaxing to give back the air. That instinct is the most fundamental process of our lives—filling and emptying space—and one we might do well to remember when we’re antsy at the edge of a new season, in any sense of the word. Trying to breathe without the right amount of space, or giving the air back too soon, would not end well. Yet we do this all the time, with our energy, our food, our money, our sleep, our love.
Why not wait to be filled by the thing made to fill us up, instead of getting a hit of some cheap, mass produced, imitation?
Or, as poet John O’Donohue writes, “May the one you long for long for you.”
Changing seasons also tends to allow the space of time to collapse and unfold in surprising ways. The arrival of another new spring (or any season) ushers in the flood of previous springs that left an imprint on us, the space of the future being filled by the past. Spring was never my happiest season, but since the pandemic it’s taken on new flavors of loss that make that space of the future, and the present, even bigger, and the memories that fill that space bigger still. The longing here is somewhat different, a longing to be in a space that no longer exists. And yet space itself refuses to allow that to be totally true. If in this moment, my mind is somewhere three years ago, and my body is standing before a tree yet to flower in a way I can predict but won’t know until it happens, my being is totally unbounded—space incarnate.
Releasing into that space satisfies any longing. Not by being filled, but by realizing that, like the buds of the cherry blossoms that opened right on time—their time, not ours—it already has everything.
Just wait for it.