(April, 2011) Last weekend I saw where all the pictures of Heaven were taken. You know them: they run across movie dreamscapes, fill panoramic frames in the fluorescent-lit offices that claim our winter skin, and stock the marketing photo files of the Calgon and Summer’s Eve back offices.
An hour north of Seattle, every year the Skagit River Valley streams impossible color across fields waiting hard all year for daffodils, tulips and irises to fill the vast spaces they become in winter. If the sight of them breaks you open with gratitude, you were probably waiting for something too.
The tulips bloomed three weeks late this year, and tourists who had timed their trips missed them while cold rain and wind tested the resilience of even the patient people of Seattle.
I did not go for the flowers, or even know they were there. After a hard transition in my personal life and facing a difficult decision, I went to visit a friend. I could have picked a more reliably uplifting location than a city in the midst of its rainiest spring in 15 years.
But when I looked back to the most difficult transitions I’d faced so far, this friend had been the reliably uplifting location who had helped through to spring every time.
So I flew from rainy Newark, NJ to Seattle, exiting the airport to the full weight of clouds in the shadows of Mt. Rainier.
We ate at favorite restaurants, attended a poetry reading and drove to Portland, Oregon to hike to the top of Multnomah Falls and visit another friend. I did my best to adopt the necessary pretending that Seattle-dwellers seem very capable of: that unrelenting rain, cold and clouds were not obscuring the beauty of the surrounding mountains, inlets and lakes capable of restoring almost anyone to the most content versions of themselves.
When the sun eventually emerged days later, we were driving up Route 5 toward Skagit Fields. It was still raining, but I could clearly see a break in the clouds over the valley ahead.
“Look, it is going to be sunny! See it? Right there, sunshine!” I said, far too insistent, far too needy for a glimpse of blue, far too clearly starting to annoy her.
“It’s still going to rain,” she said.
I asked my friend why she chose the Pacific Northwest, far from her Boston roots where her family still lived and to where she’d always said she would return. She was going on her tenth year there with no signs of leaving, despite friends’ best efforts to claim her back from the West.
“You know, I think I just figured this out,” she said. “Back east I felt closed in by all the buildings. I couldn’t see the sky. I couldn’t see where I was going. Here I can. This is where I feel right.”
I am aware it sounds a little less human to say I felt closed in by the sky. But I did. It left no choice but gray when it insisted on being everywhere with its dark insistence: there will be no sun for you today!
There is a lot to love about Seattle, from the neighborhoods to restaurants to the kind people who don’t cut you off in traffic. But their sky induced claustrophobia in me.
As it turned out, its contrasts were exactly what I needed.
We exited the highway under dark clouds and followed signs for the “tulip route.” Maybe my excitement came from the knowledge that in a time of needed clarity, suddenly I could see with my own eyes that unabashed sunshine lay ahead.
Or maybe I was just as ready for a less winter-like spring as we all are.
Either way, when we turned a corner, across a field of grays and greens we saw a swath of tulips so inky with red that the sky buckled over its influence, giving way to the pitch of blue I had been waiting for—maybe waiting a little too strenuously this year, and maybe annoying my friend a bit in the process.
But in the places most in need of sunlight, when the tulips finally stretch upward in a band of reaching color, you see them so hard you know you’ll get through to the end of rain.