Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A White Page...

I always love the beginning of January, when the year and world appears bright, fresh and new. And yet from most perspectives it appears to be a rather dark and depressing time, with the driving rain outside, the biting winds and bracing temperatures that gnaw away at all that is exposed. And at the start of 2021, we are cruelly exposed to far more than the habitual extremes of the Winter elements which lay seige to our homes.
That silent, invisible, uninvited guest - Covid - is still seeking to enter each household, steathily plant its feet firmly under the table, unbudgeable and unyielding, ready to systematically strip away all that represents hearth and home, like some monstrous cuckoo. As we have to respect the curfew and confines in house and home town, our thoughts fly freely towards family, friends and far places or at least ones further afield than those of our current situation.
In the face of all of this, I am still trying to keep hold of the strange peaceful feeling of the new year. This time it might not be a white page for us to write on as we wish, to start anew and script the days and months ahead. The paper is already marked by the passage – threatened or real – of this unwelcome visitor which has left its signature on our lives in indelible ink. So perhaps a white page is not an appropriate image for the opening month of 2021 but the light petals of the Azalea might be… As a flowering shrub with multiple symbolic meanings, some contradictory, it seems to sum up sentiments towards the present situation.
Alongside the usual associations with purity and calm beauty generally linked to white flowers, the azalea also symbolizes care for oneself and one’s family. In Chinese culture, it is referred to as sixiang shu – the thinking-of-home bush – and expresses homesickness and the desire to return to the family. How appropriate in an extended period of lockdown! Meanwhile, in its thirst for reading the cryptic language of flowers, Victorian Britain saw the hardy azalea from Asian countries afar as a symbol of resolve, reserve and emotional restraint. Supporters of the Temperance Movement even went as far as to use the bloom to indicate their abhorence of alcohol, although I have as yet to see a refusal of any kind of tipple in the current confinement.
For all its delicate, bright elegance, the azalea does nevertheless possess a potent, dark side. As a member of the Rhododendron family, its leaves and flowers are highly poisonous. Such is its toxicity that ‘mad honey’ is produced from its nectar, leading to confusion and life-threatening illness in those that ingest it. Not surprisingly, the azalea is therefore seen to represent a death threat – again most relevant as we are in the clutches of Covid.
And yet in spite of the unsettling overtones of this plant and above all, of this particular period in our history, I just want this flower to highlight beauty, hope and resilence in the Winter months before Spring returns.

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