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March 16, 2011

Japan: Cherry Blossom Parties & Making Meaning.

In 1992 I left my sister, my friends and my job as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, stuffed a backpack with professional clothes and sensible shoes, and moved to Japan.

I was 26 and I wanted to see the world and wanted some space to figure things out. Although I didn’t speak a word of Japanese at the time, I had a master’s degree in English and had heard that would be enough to land me a decent job. So with little money and lots of verve I landed in Tokyo, found a place to live, a gig teaching English to Hitachi employees and set out to learn to love slimy sashimi and slimier natto.

After a few months I got tired of the concrete jungle that is Tokyo and moved a 45 minute train ride out to the beautiful temple city of Kamakura – famous also for Daibutsu, the great bronze sculpture of the Buddha. I found a friendly obasan (“auntie”) who rented me the top floor of her rickety old wooden house just a minute from the beach and a few minutes from the big buddha. Fresh smelling tatami mats lined the two-roomed floor. I had a little kitchen and bathroom and a beautiful row of exterior glass doors which overlooked a little garden. Except that I was freezing most of the time, it was perfect.

In spring the cherry tree in the courtyard blossomed outside my window. And so after I was invited by my students to participate in O Hanami – which translates as something like: Venerable Flower Viewing party.

Every spring in Japan for two weeks or so, this is what happens: after work or school, you bring food, drink and blankets (and warm clothes) and meet your friends under the cherry trees. Tokyo’s parks are blanketed with them and when sitting under them you are sheltered by a sublime pink canopy. In fact the whole country is full of cherry trees and if you are ambitious and time it right, you can travel from Kyushu in the south to the northern part of Honshu and even to Hokkaido, and have O Hanami parties for 6 weeks or more.

O Hanami—A party to enjoy the momentary, stark raving beauty of flowering trees.

You sit there under the trees and it starts to get dark and chilly and then the wind blows a bit and cascading cherry blossom petals decorate your hair and caress your face and for that moment, life is very fine. And you’re young and unattached and carefree. Drinking a little sake, eating sushi, enjoying the struggle of understanding a foreign language and culture, and laughing about little things with kind people.

I left Japan in 1994 but stayed in Asia studying yoga and traveling for almost two more years.

Then six years ago my husband and I finally purchased our first house (he’s was a wanderer too, so it took us a while to finally settle down in North Carolina). Our first spring here we decided to plant trees. My husband wanted fruit trees. I agreed, but saved the small space just outside my kitchen window for a decorative cherry—so that every spring, for two weeks, while washing the dishes, I could remember Japan and O Hanami and participate from afar in the present moment beauty fest.

Last Saturday the buds just started bursting on my kitchen window tree. And I am filled with a bittersweetness. Oh Japan, what happened to you! Taihen des ne! (so horrible). And what can I possibly do from so far away?

On the news I watched the horrific waves washing in, I heard a woman screaming to the people below her who were trying to get to high ground, “Isogu! Isogu!” Hurry up! Her shouting turned to shrieks as a figure was carried away. Surely it must have felt nothing less than apocalyptic.

And we are all left to make meaning. Which doesn’t mean trying to figure out why it happened – some right wing Japanese politician said the Japanese people are greedy and so god was punishing them. Appalling, yet even fundamentalist ideologues rant about tragedies to make meaning. The mistake is assuming that our limited infantile perspectives, our narrow, distorted understanding of reality could “know” a reason for such a tragedy, for any tragedy.

The original meaning of “apocalypse” is “to lift the veil” or “to reveal something hidden.” Not “we’re all going to hell.” What reality is revealed when your house, your family, your whole life is washed away in a monstrous wave? When suddenly the notion that everything is fine, everything is static, and that life is secure is ripped out of your arms and flushed out to sea or threatened by nuclear fallout?

The yogis say that there is a way of knowing that is more sublime than the intellect  –  and that is surrender. Making meaning for me means only deepening this sentiment. That my petty ego does not control or fully understand the universe, that every moment is a gift, that the seconds of catching my husband’s smiling eyes or laughing with my son at the kitchen table are precious. That life is sacred and exquisitely, poignantly, fleeting.

So we try to make meaning. Maybe you teach a yoga class and try to inspire others to make meaning. To leave the question “why” out in the tsunami waters and bring the question of how to be present and compassionate into their hearts.

Right now my practice now is this: I will remember that every breath is a gift, and every molecule of that breath is quivering with the most powerfully loving force in the universe. Whatever I can do for those who suffer I will, and I will breathe in the pain of the world and offer my exhale, my being, however small or insignificant, for its healing.

Om shanti, shanti shanti

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