Every spring, my mother looked for cherry blossoms but could not see them. An exile from the country of her birth, she tried to re-create what she could of Japan in our home in Oklahoma, adapting recipes, decor, and landscapes with whatever was locally available. Cherry trees could not survive Oklahoma’s climate. She planted whatever flowering trees she could, so blooming petals could mark the coming of warm and better days. I grew up marking the coming of spring by looking for flowering buds against the sky, but never seeing her cherry blossoms.
In March, I visited the University of Washington quad in Seattle and saw for the first time my mother’s signs of spring. In between these Hogwarts-like buildings stood giant trees with curling branches, frosted in delicate pink-white cherry blossoms. Thirty trees line the sidewalks, and every year thousands of people gather in this space to revel in the transient beauty of this spring moment. When I turned the corner into the quad and saw the trees, my heart broke open in aching grief for my mother, who died two years ago. History incarnated this space and made it sacred, immersing me within this small piece of my mother’s life. These trees meant spring in ways I hadn’t understood before.
In Psalm 137, the psalmist asks, “How could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?” Asked to sing songs of their sacred homeland, the psalmist weeps and vows never to forget their historic home. Looking at these cherry blossoms, I thought about how exiles and wanderers, refugees and migrants, struggle to make a home in new lands while also preserving their ways of being and remembering where they came from. Worship and ritual are deep parts of embracing the new land while keeping rooted in the old. We might sing the Lord’s song in a new language or with a new tune, but they’re still God’s songs.
Yet there is this: Psalm 137 ends in bitterness and anger, with the psalmist blessing anyone who would murder the children of their conquerors, while forgetting that they were conquerors, too. They had stolen their sacred land, where Zion was, from the Canaanites. Standing there in the midst of spring life, I remembered that this sacred space was stolen land, too. In Seattle justice circles, it’s common to introduce yourself by including the name of the indigenous peoples who once lived on the land that you now live on. The land that these trees live on is the home of the Duwamish. They have always lived on the land now known as Seattle, a city named after their Chief Si’ahl, who signed the treaty with the United States meant to guarantee the sovereignty and land of the Duwamish Tribe. Euro-American settlers and the US government quickly ignored that treaty and continued to enact violence against the Duwamish. The Duwamish are still fighting for their sovereignty. These trees are rooted in stolen land.
Cherry trees themselves aren’t so innocent either. During the Meiji Restoration, when Japan conquered or occupied its neighbors, cherry blossoms symbolized the willingness of soldiers to die for the empire, and the transience of lives beholden to imperial military service. Japan also gave cherry trees to other imperial powers around the world as a sign of friendship and political alliances. The cherry trees near the National Mall in the other Washington (DC) were part of that imperial gift that link Japanese and US imperial desires. These blossoms have roots in histories of conquest and suffering.
In this space of new life and sunshine, I knew the shadow of bitterness, greed, and anger that are deeply planted within systems of conquest and colonization. In this space of stolen land and imperial desire, I felt my mother’s heart and her longing for familiar comforts, and her faith in God who knew her suffering as an exile. Sacred and profane twist together so tightly to draw tears and blood, and it can be impossible to separate the two. Perhaps worship shouldn’t separate the two, but witness to both in spaces where they coexist, where hearts break open ready to receive these truths.
How do we sing the songs of God who is life when we stand on stolen land? When our land is stolen from us?
Is the space itself inherently sacred, or do the songs we sing generate the sacredness?
Does it matter whose songs we sing and whose voices do the singing?