and BAI —
We all get by with a little help from our friends — and since ancient times each of these “three friends of winter” has offered courage and hope to the people of China and Japan during winter. White, long, bitter cold, blanketed in heavy snows — in Asia, as in New England, winter is the cruelest season, a time to be endured and survived.
Sho, pine (matsu), stays green throughout the winter, and offers beauty when everything else is dead around it. Pines cling to rocky cliffs and flourish in inhospitable conditions. They are symbols of inner strength, resistance to hardship, and permanence.
Chiku, bamboo (take), symbolizes longevity. It’s graceful and beautiful, but it’s also tough, strong, and flexible. It bows under heavy winter snows and then rebounds, bends but doesn’t break in harsh winter winds. It’s green all year long, and has myriad uses, so for someone to be flexible, strong, and resilient is to be like the bamboo.
Bai, plum (ume, but sometimes apricot) trees, begin to flower while snow is still heaped high on the ground. The delicate blossoms symbolize beauty and optimism during times of adversity, and they are the first heralds of much-longed-for Spring when the frozen land, and the near-frozen souls who inhabit it, will revive. Hence, they are the friends who remind us to look forward to a brighter future —
Some of us face heavy winters; others live in milder, gentler climates. Probably all of us, though, whatever our landscape, share a need for “friends” to help us with hope and support in times of adversity, whatever form those may take.
When I was a child, the first purple and yellow crocuses, the first bright green spears of daffodils, meant Spring to me, and to this day, they are my “friends.” The achingly slow advance of the light, at first only seconds each day, but, by February, perceptible, is my most hopeful friend.
Do you have your own personal Sho-chiku-bai? Your friends of the heart? Friends of winter’s adversity, whatever that may be to you?