Monday, January 14, 2008

I dontoyaki, don't you?

Dear Family and Friends,
It has been a busy, but amazing week. I finally feel like I am making some inroads into this culture, mainly because of the wonderful hospitality I have experienced the last few days. The seniors' group that I teach on Tuesdays has been a blessing...all of them are retired and enjoying the "good" life for the first time since they were in college. Although they are glad to have some personal freedom from work and parental duties, the transition to retirement is mentally difficult for them as well. The men oftentimes talk about their relationship travails in class, mostly the inevitable conflicts that come from a more than full time worker (if they work in a company, they are usually gone from the house from 8AM to at least 10 PM, 6 days a week) transitioning to being a full time husband. Their wives, having essentially been single parents for more than 20 years, are having NO MORE of the cooking/cleaning thing. Many want to work part-time jobs and to pass the housekeeping duties onto their (very!) unwilling husbands. Recently, one couple bought a puppy so they would have something to concentrate on instead of fighting with one another. "At least we have something nice to say to one another, now, even if it's only about how cute the puppy is," explained one of my students. EEEEEEK. I hate to break it to Tim, but he doesn't get to retire....ever.

One benefit of all this freetime, however, is that several of them have invited me to attend cultural events and meals at their homes. That "private good time" I spoke of in my last letter mercifully turned out to be an innocuous lunch invitation. Whew.

This last Monday was the last day of their New Year celebrations, a day where the "Dontoyaki" is performed. Traditionally, Japanese people hang pine branches, a special straw rope and bamboo decorations to welcome the good spirits/good luck into the home for the year. On the last day, they bring all these things to their local Shinto shrine to burn along with prayers from the year before, written out on small pieces of wood. Symbolically, the bonfire returns these offerings to the gods. My friend and his wife and another couple brought me to their favorite shrine by the beach on a delightfully cold day. The warmth of the bonfire was all encompassing, I could have taken off my jacket and scarf and been perfectly warm. It was a peaceful, thoughtful event.

There is something about fire that causes people to become focused and introspective--I have had the same feeling at bonfires the Saturday night before Easter. In a way the two are deeply connected. After a long season of concentrating on our human failings, the Easter fire signifies to me that a great light is coming to us again. There is hope that what is good in us will be resurrected and burn eternally bright for all to see...I think the Dontoyaki celebration speaks to the same hope in our souls. We have examined our past year, turned over our failings in our minds and determined to start a new year with renewed heart and soul. We burn what is earthly and of the past with hope that our prayers take flight and reach our gods. I couldn't stop watching the little bits of charred paper and wood float up into the air, to be tumbled about by the wind and carried out of was a cathartic experience.

After the Dontoyaki fire, we went back to my friend's house for lunch, which was delicious as always. Both couples taught me how to print my name in Kanji and how to fold an origami crane. Kanji is a deeply poetic form of writing. To write a western name, you must match the syllables of your name to a japanese sound and then find the Kanji character to match. "Nan" and "cy" come close to "Na" and "shi". Each Kanji character might have several different meanings so I am either "Quiet Poem", "South Sea" or disturbingly...."Quiet Death", or perhaps, mysteriously, "South Death"....I, of course, like the warm, calming sound of South Sea. So peaceful, so inviting. I can almost feel the turquoise waters lapping at my toes. T. and the girls, however, are reluctant to agree. When crossed, apparently I am much closer to (Not So) Quiet Death...or perhaps South(west) Death....(Death from the Southwest?)

Yesterday, my friend Keiko, from the same class, invited me for a tour of Kamakura--an ancient Samurai/Shogun capital with hundreds of temples and shrines. She introduced me to 3 Zen temples, all of which were indescribably beautiful and serene. One had its own bamboo garden. The leaves stay verdant all year long and they are the most lovely, vibrant shade of green--truly a color in and of itself, unique in the dead of winter. The trunks are tall, strong and impossibly straight. Being such a cold day, the temple was practically empty. The garden was soulless except for us. The bamboo leaves blowing in the wind made the most intoxicating shushing makes me calm just thinking about it. The gravel gardens had been exquisitely raked into undulating patterns broken up by small islands of rocks and green plants. The whole place was so.....well....Zen, for a lack of a better word. Oh, the wonderful zenniness of Zen. I wish you could buy it and give it away by the armful.

Keiko picked me up at the train station, toted me all over and taught me new things. She refused to let me pay for anything, including the green tea and sweets and entrance fees into the temples. She introduced me to a small, delightful noodle restaurant where the chef prepares the buckwheat noodles right in front of you. I wanted to pay for lunch since she had already gone above and beyond the call of duty, but she would not let me. She then told me the most wonderful thing I have heard in all my travels...By hosting me, she wanted to thank all my "ancestors" (countrymen) for being so kind to her and her family while she was living in the states. "We were young, had 2 small children in New York City and not a lot of money. People from the local church were so nice to us. They showed us the sights and treated us to meals. Americans are so very kind."

I wanted you all to know that you make a difference by being kind to foreigners in the US, no matter what their nationality. From experience, I can tell you that it is uncomfortable not knowing how to read the signs or menus in a foreign environment. It is downright scary to not know the customs and fear offending someone. It is exciting to be abroad but also sad to be so far away from your family and friends who know you (and magically still love you). So please know that whenever you host a foreign student or invite a foreigner over for a holiday or show her a sight or let him into traffic or give your seat up in a public place or smile at her at WalMart or pay for him to get into a movie, you are literally DOING THE WORLD A FAVOR. You may not reap the rewards at that very moment of kindness, but somewhere out there, that act of hospitality will circumnavigate the world and manifest itself as a perfect day for an addled, middle-aged mother of two who needs a bit of serenity.

Thank you for being "kind Americans". And for listening to/encouraging my rantings. Hope your year is off to a good start,

Take care and God bless,

Love the South Sea Quiet Poetess Who Brings Death from the South

(I am getting that name copyrighted, so don't even think about stealing it.)

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