The Flowering of Hope
Some fragmented thoughts on an old Chinese legend about the hydrangea
Thursday, June 30
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Greetings, dear reader.
These have been strange and discouraging days. From the news of the dozens of migrants who died in a tractor-trailer in Texas to the repercussions of the various rulings from the Supreme Court, from the killings at a gay bar in Norway to the ongoing denominational shenanigans in the U.S., from the revelations of the January 6 investigation to the ongoing war in Ukraine, I’ve felt sorrow and exhaustion. In my own work as a writer and as a preacher, I’ve been wrestling with insecurity and doubt.
Some days, I feel as if there’s little I can do beyond echoing the words of the psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”
Some days (and nights), I end up doom-scrolling.
Some days, I go to the community garden to weed, wishing that the woes of the world were as easy to pluck away as the bindweed and the purslane.
This morning, I haven’t made it as far as the garden. After breakfast, Fozzie and I went out to the front yard. Though it’s going to be a blazing afternoon here, the morning was still relatively cool, and the tall maple tree out front graced us with its shade. I brought a pair of scissors and a vase that Tristan’s sister gave us: The hydrangea are finally blooming, and I decided to cut some blossoms for the house.
It’s so interesting how the visible evidence testifies to processes happening beyond our sight. On the left side of our hydrangea bush, the blooms are more pink, more mauve, than they were last year, which means that the soil has turned more alkaline. On the right, they’re staying blue.
The kind of hydrangea we have growing outside our house is native not to North America but to East Asia. And there’s an old Chinese legend I love about the hydrangea. It involves a group of demi-gods known as the Eight Immortals.
In the mythology of my people, the Eight Immortals were humans who had somehow achieved a deathless state. Uncommonly attuned to the rhythms of nature and the vagaries of the weather of the human soul, they had the power to talk to animals, soothe spirits, and even resuscitate the dead. They formed a sort of ancient League of Justice, fighting evil and working for harmony.
One thing I love about the Eight Immortals is that they represented human diversity. Some had been beggars, others aristocrats; they were poets and musicians, and one was a gifted flower arranger. Lan Caihe has always been a figure of ambiguous gender—sometimes wearing traditional women’s clothing, sometimes men’s. Han Xiangzi, a rebel who refused his family’s instructions to become a court bureaucrat, infuriated his elders by whiling away his days in the garden, using his superpowers to change the colors of peonies mid-bloom. Li Tieguai, the group’s resident grump, is often depicted in Chinese paintings with an unkempt beard and a body bearing abundant evidence of a hard life; known as the patron of the disabled, he used an iron crutch and dispensed medicine from a gourd.
Once upon a time, the Eight Immortals were invited to a banquet by the Queen Mother of the West. She was a goddess-like figure who lived on the slopes of a sacred mountain—a liminal space where it was said that heaven and earth met. Her palace was set amidst paradisiacal gardens where magical peaches grew.
Nobody ever turned down an invitation to taste one of the Queen Mother’s revered peaches, so the Eight Immortals embarked on a long journey to dine at her table. But halfway across the waters, the sons of the Dragon King, who reigned over the sea, spotted the entourage. The princes were captivated by the beauty of He Xiangu, the only woman among the Eight Immortals and an ethereal figure who subsisted on a diet of mother of pearl and moonbeams. (Moonbeams!) They kidnapped her.
Infuriated by He Xiangu’s imprisonment, the other seven Immortals summoned seven fire-breathing dragons and unleashed them on the Palace of the Dragon King, where their friend was being held. The sudden heatwave surprised the Dragon King, who knew that this climate change could not be natural. After learning that it was his sons’ fault, he rebuked the princes and freed He Xiangu. He placed her in the royal sedan chair, and he ordered his sons to hoist the chair on their shoulders to be carried back to her friends.
As a sign of his apology, the Dragon King sent with He Xiangu the hydrangea plant. From there, the Eight Immortals did their part: They took the hydrangea back to their home, a little archipelago in the middle of the sea. They propagated it. And as they traveled the world in their work of peacemaking and their ministry of care, they spread its beauty.
For some reason, my people have never venerated the hydrangea the way they have the lotus blossom or the peony, the camellia or the rose. But I love these odd and gorgeous flowers. And when I consider the hydrangea and the legend of the Eight Immortals, I’m moved by the things that make the story special beyond the presence of the fire-breathing dragons (which some days I would also like to be able to summon): fierce friendship, mutual responsibility, the beauty and power of repentance.
Some days, an ancient legend will remind you of beauty and hope. And some days, that has got to be enough.
What’s keeping you going amidst these trying times?
That’s all I have for you this week. As ever, I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.