Grace settles into the chair, less an act of sitting than of floating down onto the seat. She has borrowed my grandmother’s smile, kind, gentle, inviting. She pulls a book from her bag, its pages or most of them dog eared, and I glimpse some annotations in the margins. We sit around her like children awaiting presents on a holiday, as acolytes seeking knowledge from a font of poetic and prosaic wisdom, or so we think. She reads in a voice that is at once soft and loud enough to reach the back of the room, opening the book to a random page and diving in, then after what seems like a minute and an hour, she stops and asks for questions. We sit dumbstruck for a moment then fire at her like machine gunners on the range. She answers each, claims she is a simple grandmother who writes but we know better, know we are in the presence of a true master.
By hour six, the plane was just a lumbering beast dividing the sky, halfway from God knows where to nowhere special. His body cried for sleep but he knew he had to deny it. That much he had learned from prior trips. For when he landed, made his way painfully slowly into the city, it would be early evening when he arrived at his hotel. He knew he needed to be on the edge of exhaustion. Only that way could he grab a meal from the 7 Eleven down the block, and finally get to sleep, reasonably fresh in the morning. It would be a long day. Each day in Tokyo was a long day of endless meetings and negotiations. It was mind numbing, but he was paid well to suffer it. And he knew that on his last day in the city he would have time to board the subway for Asakusa. There he would wander slowly down the line of stalls, to the great gate of Senso-ji Temple, its giant lantern shedding no light, and peer at the Buddha Hall in the distance. There would be school children in neat uniforms, always hand in hand, and pigeonss, flocking around them and anyone who looked gaijin, easy marks for photos and handouts. And the orange tiger cat would huddle at the base of the nearby Buddha seeking enlightenment. For that hour or so he was in a different world. The giant city melted away. His thoughts grew placid as he placed his incense into to giant earthenware jokoro then washed its smoke over his face and shoulders. He bowed to the young monk carefully writing the prayer sticks. He stood silent at the foot of the Buddha Hall, a conversation no one could hear, one that everyone here was having simultaneously. Time does not yield, and as it ran thin, he headed back to the subway knowing his fortune without purchasing it for 100 yen. A simple fortune really, a return visit on his next trip to Tokyo and maybe a side trip to Kyoto, and as the icing on his taiyaki, a trip to Nara, to again wander the grounds of Todai-ji and commune with the deer at first light, in the shadow of the Daibutsu. On the flight home he thought of the moments in Buddha’s shadow, the resounding of the great bell. He smiled recalling the red bibbed jizo, knowing they gave up Buddhahood to help those like him, still lost on the path. He is saddened knowing he will soon be back in his world, the daily grind, this trip shortened, as all return trips are. And when he lands, goes through Immigration and customs, when they ask if he has anything to declare, he may say “just a moment of kensho.”
Children have an innate sense of their ancestry. I was a child of the city it’s streets my paths, always under the watchful eye of my warden – mother.
Dirt was to be avoided at all possible cost, so I never dug my hands into the fertile soil of my village in the heart of Lithuania, or tasted the readying harvest that dirt would remember.
I never stole a nip of poitin only the Manischewitz which, in our home, masqueraded as wine fit for drinking. It is only now in my second childhood that the ancestry very deep in my DNA has finally found purchase in my mind and soul.
We sit around the small tables glad to be out of the sun whose midday glare seems to blind the drivers slowly approaching the Jetty Park lot.
A family chatters, the children laughing at nothing, at everything, and nearby a dog lays out dreaming of a good walk and dinner, hoping for scraps.
We can hear the water of the inlet, the waves breaking onto the beach, visuals left to our imaginations, but we are satisfied with that, and the fact that our tacos here are far more reasonable with the “without the view” discount.
The news, online and on paper, is replete with stories about adult children moving back in with their parents, whether because of the pandemic, or other circumstances, always expecting they will have a room at the ready.
Perhaps it is why we chose to have no spare rooms, sort of a preemptive strike against an ill-conceived return.
But as my cohort ages, I wonder if all too soon those news sources online, since papers will likely be gone, will feature stories about older parents moving in with their children, rooms available or not.
The cat is stalking around the house, wary. She gets this way after coming back from the vet. She actually likes the vet, and not only for the treats she gets, and the pawdicure. But she must stalk and be wary so we will be remorseful for having taken her to the vet. And she knows we will be, given enough time and back turning. We are so predictable. She wonders if we were like that with our children when they were young. Probably, but we must have forgotten. So she will go on with our training, for a cat must bend humans to her will. That is an unwritten law of nature.
It will soon enough be time again, I am an old clockface on a tower at which no one but the truly bored bother to look, tucked in a corner of a village half empty, its life moved away to places cooler, less stormy. So I sit and watch what life remains around me, the few children wishing they could be elsewhere, some parents wishing they had used birth control. No one looks, no one really cares but I have little choice, it is my fate to mark passages, entrances, but my hands are growing tired and at some not far off point they will stop moving, and I wonder if anyone will care.
It isn’t my first Christmas although almost so, that part of me hidden for half a century, its twisted discovery filling a hole that I never knew existed, yet always knew.
This is the strangest Christmas, a time of gathering, now in isolation, only pixels and prayers on a too flat screen, and it is hard, in times of want and suffering, to recall why we celebrate this day.
A child was born, and now countless others will be, and it is only the children that recall his message, and truly understand peace.