The Cruellest Month

I have long loved T.S. Eliot. As a young bookworm and self-proclaimed ailurophile I could recite passages of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats from memory and sang along to my parents’ LP of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s spectacle of kitsch at the top of my small lungs. I even won over the judges of my middle school’s annual public speaking contest with a spirited interpretation of “Jellicle Cats.”

Thus in 9th grade, when it came to write a research paper on a British author, there was no other choice but Eliot. My innocent little heart was a bit crushed to learn that Eliot was a bitter anti-Semitic ex-pat brooding in the London gloom for most of middle age, and he did not qualify as a “British Author” for English 1.

“But what about the cats? The cats are so cute…?” Ah, dear child, so much you have to learn.

There began the litany of tortured artists I was to study as I worshipped at the altar of the Canon. I knew that I’d run into Eliot later in life, and didn’t relish the prospect of getting to know this jerk—his library section looked really long.

Years later, I vaguely glanced “The Waste Land” from my roommate’s British anthology class, but the slew of Milton references and monstrous polyphony of voice didn’t intrigue me and felt overblown. I did note the famed opening passage, as most readers will:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land.

In previous poetical parsings my interpretation did not reach far.

“Why, April is delightful! Everything is fresh and growing! How ever could anyone not like April? The grass is green and bulbs shoot out of the winter ground!”

Ah, dear child, so much you have to learn.

The cruelty of April comes in the lines to come:
…mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

If only one could stay warm in forgetful snow and not confront the possibility of new growth or the memory of last year’s garden in bloom.

Last spring I effervesced about the sense of burgeoning possibility in my life—I expounded at length about the excitement of being in the gardens in chilly March and imagining what the new leaves would look like, how all those buds would eventually turn to flowers. The reality was that I walked among the cherry blossoms alone in crowds of people, missed the rose season entirely with the chaos of last June, and my free guest passes to the Botanical garden expired after a year’s worth of sitting unused on my counter.

This year, I finally got it. I ran my fingers over the tissue-thin new leaves and felt the cruel promise of April. The atmosphere conjures fluttering hope and sets me up for expectations I know will never be met. Seeing the tulips on Park Avenue and the daffodils in the park, I felt the inevitable disappointment. The pressure of work is close at hand, the possibility of finding someone to wander with me in the gardens and laze about is just about nil. There is absolutely no reason for me to be excited about spring. The full-blown rose is never as beautiful as the half-curled bud, no matter how you wish it would be. Cherry blossoms and magnolias fall off and bruise with the slightest touch—they aren’t made for vases. Sure, you can lop off the whole branch if you really wanted, but that’s just cruel to the tree.

The problem is that on a brisk sunny day with the scent of cherries on the spring breeze and baby leaves on my fingertips, it is impossible not to feel optimistic. I have decided that even with Eliot’s scorn for April’s cruelty, I will put myself at her mercy and give in to her whispered promises.

The half-furled rose will always be more beautiful than rows of thorny bushes in midsummer, but the warm air carries the scent better. If you walk with your eyes closed and brush by the petals (carefully!), I think it smells even better than the lilacs of spring. So I will sit alone on a bench at the end of the Esplanade and watch other people shake petals from the trees onto their paramours, skip the festival and take pleasure in the less crowded corners of the native plant garden. I will wait out this month of maddening renewal, let myself love the stirrings of the spring earth, and try to keep my roots safe until the weather warms up a bit.

I will always love the simple Jellicle Cats of my younger days; as I learned as an adolescent, I will have those dark moods when I feel myself trapped between the idea and the reality, stuck in the Shadow. I even hear the smoky coffee spoons of pathetic Prufrock on tedious afternoons in an office. But no matter how it mistreats me, I can’t bring myself to think of April as part of the Waste Land.

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