Spring Thaw

Charting the seasons of the heart

It's here again. The evidence is overwhelming.

The pink tree outside my building is in bloom, and the grass is full of those little blue flowers that are weeds but still incredibly delicate and heart-stirring and seem to cry out for a few lines of Wordsworth.

On the college campus where I work, the girls have segued from Ugg boots to flip flops without missing a beat.

It's easy to find jelly beans in almost any store.

It's hard to get a pedicure appointment.

Spring is the time of year when Knoxville feels like a stage set, a location carefully selected to define a season. If there is a prettier spot on Earth right now, I do not know it.

There, I said it. An unqualified compliment from a certified Yankee for a place I never planned to go, and once arrived, never planned to stay. A place I have occasionally loathed, often lambasted, and sometimes longed to see in my rearview mirror. And now, in these days of early spring, a place to which I return from my travels with gratitude and relief.

Coming back from the chilly Northeast, I chart the distance in flora: There, it's tentative crocus. Here, it's full blown tulips. From the plane window, the Earth below is a pale green haze of treetops. The wooded hills are still mostly bare, but the redbud is out, splashes of luminous mauve in the brown landscape. It's a sight that never fails to move me, a visual sermonette about the shy, insistent force of beauty.

It's late March as I write this, a manic roller coaster of summery afternoons and frigid nights, mild mornings of limpid light, dark rain-soaked weekends. The weather reminds me of my own precarious state of mind decades ago when I began my first, grudging approach to Knoxville.

It was late March then, too. Shepherded by relentlessly perky real estate agents through a series of suburban neighborhoods, I tried and failed to picture myself here. There was one house, recently refurbished, with a terraced lawn of daffodils stretching down a steep hill that seemed possible, but it was sold overnight. Everything else was too old, or too new, or too boxy, or too much in need of major overhaul. Or, let's face it, too far from Chicago, which is where I lived then, and where, despite the frigid climate, I wished to remain.

In that long-ago season of my discontent, Knoxville's lush spring felt like a flowery quilt designed to smother me. I averted my eyes from the burgeoning dogwood, the drifts of petals floating on the soft air. Back on Lake Michigan, mountains of snow plowed from the city streets were dumped along the shore, where they towered until mid-April. Winter was serious business there, and I was good at winter.

On one final house hunting foray, we drove along a twisting road that climbed and dipped between the hills. It seemed miles from anywhere, and the trees that lined the way were leafless still, gray against the pale sky. Then, looking up, I saw the mauve branches of redbud woven through the dull woods. There was no pattern, no design—just random bursts of quiet perfection announcing that the Earth was new again.

We bought a house at the end of the twisting road, set on a hill above the river. I came to love the backyard woods, where wild narcissus appeared each March alongside trillium and tangled vines of jasmine. In time, I planted my own bulbs and watched for the green shoots that signaled an early spring.

Before I left Chicago all those years ago, a well-meaning friend sent me a picture of a spring garden. Bloom where you are planted, read the message. It took me a while, but I dare say that I did. I do. I will.