Brain Pickings

An Invisible Flower: Yoko Ono’s Time Machine of Love

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“I wrote this story almost a decade before I met my Smelty John.”

When she was nineteen years old, Yoko Ono conceived and illustrated An Invisible Flower (public library) — a simple, touching story about the invisible beauty of the world we all know is there and one man, Smelty John, who is able to see it. Decades later, her son, Sean Ono Lennon, discovered the sketches in Ono’s archives and instantly knew the book, a tender treasure of visual poetry and a curious time machine of romantic serendipity, had to be published. He explains in the introduction:

My mom was born in 1933, and much of her childhood was spent starving during the Second World War. Many materials from her past have been lost, but some still remain between her bookshelves and in her closets. One day while I was visiting, I saw An Invisible Flower sticking out from the mouth of some old books like a tongue; it immediately caught my attention. It seemed like the story had been written about my dad, but it was dated ten years before they had even met. I felt like I was in a time warp. Was Smelty John supposed to be Dad? Or had he snuck in there while she wasn’t looking and changed the name? I read the story, and realizing the book had never been published, I thought it might be a good beginning for Chimera Library.

I compiled the book myself, every page. It seemed it had to be done that way. As I was doing it, I couldn’t help wondering what Dad would have thought.

Turns out, the same year Mom made An Invisible Flower, Dad drew a sketch of himself seated alongside a mysterious woman with black hair on the back of a horse. Could these casual artistic coincidences actually have been psychic spells summoning each other? In hindsight, my mother did seem like an invisible flower that only Smelty John could truly see…

Ono writes of the inspiration for the book and its seemingly prophetic nature:

When I was evacuated to the countryside during the Second World War, I was only eight years old. The landscape was like a Van Gogh painting: shining golden wheat fields stretching out to the horizon. It was beautiful, but I missed the colorful flowers from my mother’s rose garden in Tokyo.

A young farm boy told me we were too far north for any roses to survive. Yet one day I saw a rose like the ones I’d been dreaming of. It was perfectly white, sitting snugly between the bushes on a distant hill.

I was so happy that I ran to it, but when I arrived it wasn’t there anymore. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere. I was sure I’d seen it; I knew I had! Maybe the flower dropped because it was too heavy. It was getting dark and a bit chilly as well. I went round and round, fixing my eyes to the ground.

The next day, upon my request, the young boy went to the same spot with me. I told him that the sweet smell was still there. He made a gesture as he smelt something in air. ‘You see, there’s no rose. I told you it’s too cold around here,’ he said looking rather serious.

In my dream that night I saw the white rose. She was prim and proper, looking at me as if to say, ‘You should have searched harder.’ When the war was over I went back to my mother’s manor. The roses I missed so much were all there blossoming as I had remembered. But none was that white rose… the one I saw in the north.

I wrote this story almost a decade before I met my Smelty John. He made a gesture indicating that he smelt me in the air. And I knew immediately that he was the only one in the world I was not invisible to. He didn’t sneeze, either. And we got together for life.

Exquisite in its delicate poetics, An Invisible Flower is the kind of book you revisit again and again, the one you sit with on a bad day to remind you that life, even at its most difficult, is a scavenger hunt for beauty.

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