I have a very clear memory of biking down Gaffield street last summer in the afternoon sun, breathing in the smell of linden flowers blooming on the trees that lined the streets. It didn’t matter how close you were to a linden tree – the scent permeated the air.
I’d been looking forward to a repeat of last year’s linden event – my memory told me it happened sometime in early June – and I would eagerly sniff the air as I biked home from work at the library. It was both exciting and comforting to be in the same place for another summer, to watch the seasons change in a predictable way, to welcome the return of the flapping leaves on the cottonwood outside my bedroom, to see the light pour through my windows at summer solstice angles again. I enjoyed being able to notice and predict the way my surroundings grew and shifted with the lengthening light; in doing so, I felt pulled deeper and deeper into the rhythms that connect our lives to the life of the world … and to the life of the One who makes it. So much of my life has been spent moving from one place to another, and my longing to stay put in one place for a while is mostly rooted in this desire to enter the cyclical, predictable rhythm of things.
So I waited for the linden flowers. I noticed the flower buds appear on the trees, but still, no unmistakable aroma. As I prepared for various weekends away at out-of-town weddings, I worried I would miss the peak. I returned from the festivities – still no pervasive linden scent. I began to wonder if I’d made some sort of mistake: I noticed a slew of fragrant, white-flowered shrubs in many of the places where last year I had supposed I was smelling linden, and I thought perhaps these shrubs were what I had been smelling the previous year. I suddenly felt like a stranger in my neighborhood.
And then, one damp early morning, I walked to the library, and I suddenly felt surrounded by an indefinably sweet smell. I looked up. There, spreading in the branches above me, were dozens and dozens linden flowers, fuzzy and open-budded, quietly perfuming the air. And I was so happy.
Later, the next day, as I cut off the fragrant blooms to dry for tea, I thought about rhythms and predictability and surprise. The websites I’d consulted to learn the best way to harvest the blossoms said that the linden tree bloomed in June and July, depending on weather. June and July – that’s two whole months of trees staggering their flowering, never going in the same order twice, never peaking on exactly the same day. Two whole months to bud and bloom and wither at whatever pace they like. Why would I ever have expected to enjoy the flowers at precisely the same time every year?
My desire to be rooted somewhere is good and beautiful and worth paying attention to, but seasons are never entirely predictable, even in one place. As Aslan tells Lucy in Prince Caspian, “Things never happen the same way twice.” Much of the beauty of the world – and its pain, it’s true – is held in the moments that surprise us, that take our breath away, that command our full attention.
If I lived near Gaffield Street for the rest of my life, I would likely enjoy the smell of the linden blossoms every summer. But I think I would lose something precious the day they no longer had the capacity to surprise me. Rhythmic does not mean predictable, and “rooted” is not equivalent to “same” – after all, those linden trees have deep roots, and they’re changing all the time, every season, every year.
A few days after my linden discovery, on July 5, I was paging through my diary and saw an entry from exactly a year ago. It said, “I love the smell of Linden trees. And I love how the smell simply inhabits the whole expanse of the air – the scent isn’t necessarily stronger when you stick your nose in a branch. It takes up residence on the whole street. It’s a Linden season.”
So it was my memory, and not the trees, that had shifted the dates of the peak. I don’t think this invalidates anything above. If our memories shift and twist, then everything I pondered about change and rootedness becomes even more necessary to internalize. For even the selves with which we experience the world are never the same, both rooted and growing, both predictable and wildly mysterious.