When I was in my 20’s, I had the extreme good fortune of being invited by a distant relative to accompany her on a trip to the Far East. It was the mid-80’s and China had barely opened their doors to the West. Inspired by Chinese art history classes in college, I had developed a fascination with Chinese culture. And having the opportunity to fully immerse myself in that environment before westernization took hold, (as much as any American was allowed to immerse themselves at that time), was an incredible opportunity.
Images of Beijing and Shanghai today portray metropolises of high-rises and neon hardly different from any of the world’s other great cities, but when I visited, China was truly a different world, caught in a different time. Most buildings then were no taller than 3-4 stories and the streets swarmed with bicycles rather than cars. There was a sense of space and intimacy despite the burgeoning population, qualities that the encroachment of concrete and highways tend to nullify. Everywhere you looked there was something beautiful to see, and it was not unusual to come across a sight (such as fishermen casting their nets) that was exactly as illustrated in a centuries-old painting. The importance and attention attached to aesthetic details enhanced even the most banal of structures, leaving a lasting impression. Flora and fauna were liberally depicted and our guides made a point of sharing their symbolism.
I didn’t have much expendable income, so was careful in keeping my eyes open for something I could bring home to mark the experience. By far my favorite and most significant souvenir is a lovely painting of a peony and butterfly that has hung prominently in every home I’ve lived in since. The peony is the national flower of China, and in full bloom it symbolizes peace, making for a worthy remembrance.
Peonies are such glorious flowers and hold a special significance for me, a factor which I’m sure influenced my choice of Chinese souvenir. My mother had a peony bush with pale pink blooms that were lightly streaked with deeper pink stripes. It was one of the showiest and most exotic flowers in her Maine garden and we eagerly anticipated its annual display. Like a sacred object, she would bring a single blossom inside each year to grace the dinner table, floating it in a square silver dish that I don’t remember being used for any other purpose. I have an ancient childhood memory of sticking my nose into one of the flowers, deeply breathing in its scent with the naive expectation of being rewarded with the cool aroma of peppermint, as its coloring suggested.
In my current garden I have three varieties of peonies that bloom in succession and all strike me as just as extravagant and rewarding as my mother’s. It’s as much a treat today as I remember it was then to bring in one special bloom to set on the dinner table to treasure in its fleeting glory.
Yet another reward of keeping a sketchbook…the opportunity to tap into the richness of memories while standing firmly in the beauty of the present.
Have I recommended this before?
The Flower Recipe Book by Althea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo is an extraordinarily beautiful book – one that will sweep away anyone with the slightest interest in the forms and colors of flowers. I would even go so far as to recommend the digital version as the backlighting of an iPad or similar device somehow adds to the impact of the gorgeous images.