Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love in the Time of Chrysanthemum

“White mums, yellow mums
And even the moon
Autumn ending.”


When I was 22, I fell deeply in love. It had not the ephebic quality of that which I had hitherto experienced—embellished feelings that hinged on everlasting love and that illimitable sense of possibility, the overwrought despair and the accompanying spiral into an abysmal phantasmagoria when the lust object dumped me, and the rediscovery of inflated romanticism when another unsuspecting fool became the object of my affections.

No. This was love, not lust, and it ran deep.

Those others merely approached the Urbino to my new love’s Florentino.

Truth be told, my love object made my affections easier, for the inanimate cannot by definition requite. My love object was Japan.

In retrospect, I surmise Japan satisfied my innate, obsessive needs—needs that, I would like to think, have relaxed over time—for order, tradition, and civility (even if that civility is merely superficial, a form of etiquette) and thus provided me what emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually I required to further become a self.

Each autumn when the chrysanthemums bloom I am reminded of the love that blossomed so long ago, a love that perhaps shook me from my foundations as it separated me from who I was and allowed me movement towards who I could be.

In retrospect, I ask myself: how could I not love Japan? The country lives my own order-focused neuroses (with all due respect). But more seriously, the country celebrates Kiku no Sekku, The Chrysanthemum Festival (also rendered as Kiku Matsuri), on the 9th day of the 9th month (which has a more poetic quality than simply writing 9 September).  Here is a country that celebrates its national flower; what’s not to love?!

Over 2,500 years ago, the Chinese began to cultivate the chrysanthemum. One sage philosopher apparently found the key to happiness: “If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow Chrysanthemums.” (Might this be the root of the mass proliferation of chrysanthemums at this time of year? In supermarkets, garden centers, K-Marts, Targets, grocery stores, specialty stores, and hardware stores? Who thought happiness could be so inexpensive?)  

The Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo even advised that we

"Eat the shoots in the spring
leaves in the summer
flowers in the fall
and roots in the winter.”

Its introduction to Japan in the 8th century apparently was quite epic, for by 910 A.D., on some accounts, the imperial court began to hold chrysanthemum expositions. By the 1300s, as I mentioned in a previous entry, the Emperor adopted a 16 petal version of the flower as its symbol, its Kikumon (meaning Chrysanthemum Crest).

Crests of chrysanthemums now appear in my garden, waves of them inundating the space and revitalizing the autumn garden: a pale lavender (nearly four feet tall!), a rich burgundy and a brilliant Miranda Orange, purple, whites, and brilliant harvest golds, and, embedded between the stones of my patio, a few errant chrysanthemums (their seeds most likely deposited by birds) of lavender and rustic or rusty coral, the latter of which perfectly parallels the autumnal, burnt mauve of the few residual Lady in Red Hydrangea florets.

Chrysanthemums have a particular, je ne sais quoi, quality, most pithily captured by the unnamed Chinese sage. Perhaps it is the infusion of life and color to the last weeks of the garden that, like love, gives us hope. Perhaps, like the yellow flag of cholera, they separate us from the wildly fleeting wider world, suspending time, and giving us precious moments to reflect on that which simply is.


  1. Chrysanthemums always remind me of Aunt Annie who taught me the proper way to divide them. Lovely post, Matt.

  2. Thanks, Melinda! Aunt Annie is somewhat of a legend, isn't she?! I had hoped to visit so I could take photos and write a few blog entries about her and her gardens--what I honestly think of as my own version of heaven--but that hasn't happened just yet...