Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Box

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At this time of year when little goblins and werewolves prowl the streets in search of candy, I am thinking of a Box. Not an ordinary box, mind, but one crafted by the mer-folk in a long ago fairytale about a young Japanese fisherman called Urashima Taro.

I’m also thinking of Rip Van Winkle.

Taro and Rip  come from opposite ends of the earth, but they  walk along the same imaginative storyline. That storyline takes them to an unexpected place where they enjoy themselves, then returns them to their homes where they discover that many years have passed. But their stories go separate ways.

The difference starts in their  characters. Rip is a cheery, lazy chap who is more fond of the bottle than of doing a few chores around the house. One day whilst escaping his wife (who wants him to fix something, probably,) he encounters some individuals dressed in costumes of a by-gone era. These silent, spooky people invite him to play nine pins. That this game is enhanced with lots of booze makes Rip happy—until he wakes up next morning, all alone, and many years older! When Graybeard Rip totters back to his home, he finds that his son has grown and that the world has changed.

It’s said that Rip’s fellow nine-pins players were the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew, and that makes it a grand tale for Halloween. Some writers also point out that Van Winkle moves from his first childhood to his second skipping maturity along the way—and perhaps this is true. Urashima Taro, though, is a completely different personage. He is a fisherman, a responsible son, a lover of animals. He saves a small turtle from being stoned by a gang of children, and it is this turtle which returns—now as big as a table top—to invite Taro down to the undersea palace of the Sea King.

In that wonderful, fabled place Taro is thanked for his kindness to the turtle, entertained, wined and dined. In a little while, though, he starts to miss his family and asks to return to his village.

In my book Yuri’s Brush With Magic I have the Sea King’s beautiful daughter trying to dissuade the young fisherman from hurrying home. When he won’t be persuaded, she gives him a box and tells him that he must only open it “when you are truly lost and lonely in your own world.”

So here is The Box… and you know what’s going to happen next. Taro returns to his village and finds an upscale neighborhood with condos and boutiques. His family has long since died, and he is remembered only as a young fisherman who was drowned during a storm. Lost and lonely, he opens the box and become an old and broken man.

Unlike Rip, Taro is given a choice. The choice is to stay in this brave new world and to go on with his life or to follow the people he loves. The choice is to reach out to the new or to cleave to the old. No easy choice, certainly!

Writers are curious creatures, so I naturally began to ask questions and  polled my grandchildren since they had read Yuri’s Brush With Magic. The two girls both said without hesitation that they would open the box. My grandson considered a moment and then hedged his bets. “I bet he could have gone back to the Sea King’s palace if he asked,” he mused, echoing Tammy in the book. “So I probably would go back under the sea for a long time and then come back way in the future. That would be cool!”

So much for the optimism of youth. My adult frends were on the fence. Some didn’t know which way they would react while others said that since it was a done deal, anyway, it would be fun to stick around and hang out with their grandchildren. Still others felt that opening the Box would be their only real option.

To tell the truth, I’m not sure what I would do. Are you?

 

Which? to look forward

Or whisper to ghosts of the past?

So hard a question.

 

Sandcastles

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It was so windy that Mary Poppins would have made it into the sky without her umbrella. The wind was from the northwest, and its cold fingers slid down the back of my windbreaker as I walked the beach. I shivered both from the cold and from a vague sense of loss—summer had gone and with it the warmth and bustle of carefree holiday. Also, our once grand sweep of sandy beach was eroding, with each storm and hurricane taking a swipe from the retreating beachfront. Now, there was very little left. Storm surges and wind had beaten down the hopeful dunes that were just recovering from their last battering,   sea birds huddled like refugees on what remained of dry land, and even the pelicans, flying low over the incoming tide, looked depressed.

I was so intent on gloomy thoughts that I almost stepped on a sandcastle. Not just any castle, mind—this one was built like an Aztec temple, with carefully crafted steps etched along sloping sides and with seashells decorating the top of the pyramid.

Three teenagers in shorts and windbreakers were putting their finishing touches to their masterpiece. They grinned self consciously when I complimented them. “But why build it so close to the tide line?” I asked. “The tide is coming in—it will destroy this wonderful thing.”

The young people shrugged, and one of them said, “It’s okay. If it comes down, we’ll build something else tomorrow.”

They went back to work and I walked on admiring the optimism of youth. Not that they were the only ones to build sandcastles, for I have done my share. So have we all.  We paint or sculpt or write and pour our hearts into the work even though sometimes no one else seems to share our vision. Someday, we think, and we hope. Always, we hope.

But sometimes hope is hard to find—and here came those gloomy thoughts again. When hurricanes destroy the work of a lifetime, when death steals a beloved life, when sickness or misfortune or accident scars our spirit or when that manuscript comes back for the tenth time— what then?

In the cold darkness

Hard to light the candles

With frozen fingers.

The spirit of melancholy lingered with me throughout the day and  followed me into the next morning when I once again walked the beach. The wind had abated and the sky was an innocent blue. Silver fish were jumping, blissfully, unaware of hungry pelicans swarming above. Intent on watching them, I once more nearly stumbled on…

The sandcastle? That sandcastle? But yes, there it stood at the tide line. Part of its outer wall was missing, and incoming waves had blurred its steps, but the pyramid was solid, and shells still proudly adorned its crown.

Keep it in perspective,  I warned myself. Cool it. It’s just a sandcastle, not some celestial omen! But I remembered the youngsters who had shrugged away my dour predictions and gone ahead with their project, and knew that of course they had been right.

Away with gloomy thoughts! I thought. Loss and disappointment, great or small, touches every life, but we continue to thumb our noses at fate and persevere. Summer will come again with warm wind and a sun-dazzled beach. And in the meantime I have sand castles to build.

Cold, mighty ocean,

Here is one small sand castle

You could not destroy!


On Friends and Friendship

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How can this be? Our last meeting could not have taken place a year ago… it seems like just yesterday that we sat together and laughed and munched on brownies.

Although my too-short visit to Sharon, Ma., has come at an inconvenient time, a few of my old book club friends have managed to meet me. No one knows more than I the Herculean efforts that this entailed— schedules revised, family events put on hold, important matters juggled to open up a brief span of time. But here we are, comrades of over forty years, relaxed and happy in each other’s company.

Yesterday we laughed

or was it day before last?

Ah, the passing years.

Where would we be without friends? Recently there have been a spate of e-mail generated postings about friendship, but though these are funny and often poignant, they merely scratch the surface of something which a wise friend of mine once described as the ‘purest human connection.’

So… how to define friendship?

It has often been said that a true friend is someone who would not mind being awakened at two in the morning. In a crisis, I am grateful to know that there are several  who would gladly step to the plate. There are many kind hearts, too, who offer their shoulder in times of grief, or who would bring food and consolation to those in need. But I think that the definition of friendship needs to add that a true friend is one who will wholeheartedly and joyously share in the triumphs, the accolades, and the happiness of  another  (or another’s children or grandchildren) without the slightest reservation. Friends who can share your grief are precious, but friends who can share your joys are beyond price.

I believe that we choose our friends not only because they are people we enjoy and admire but also because they have qualities to which we aspire. In a way, they are reflections of ourselves or ourselves as we wish we could be. As years pass and we mature, so do our friendships. An easy relationship becomes deeper because of shared life experiences, and we learn to know and appreciate each other’s foibles, follies, and strengths. We view all these with mutual humor and forbearance and tolerate the quirks in each other’s personalities with kindness.

Growing older is no joke, but it has this one benefit—that in the friendships we form we become richer, happier, and better in ourselves until we come close to that wonderful old parable of a man who comes to his friend’s gate and finds it barred. When asked who is there, he answers, “It is I.” The door remains barred. The man thinks awhile and then knocks again. The same question is repeated, but this time he answers, “It is yourself.”

And the door opens.

 

 

 

 

Chrysanthemum Season

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Mounds of yellow, bronze and deepest red, they glow like bright jewels in my garden. Roses and peonies, lilies and hollyhocks are all welcome in season, but I have a special place in my heart for chrysanthemums. Everything about them—their clean, brisk scent and their tough, businesslike stems—epitomizes the crisp, no-nonsense air that Autumn brings in with her. Besides, these envoys of cool autumn days are storytellers. They bring back memories of other hands that tended chrysanthemums in long-ago gardens.

These same flowers grew

In autumn-shaded gardens

Many years ago.

When I was growing up in Japan, chrysanthemums were key. After all, they sprang from a very old and noble lineage and had been cultivated in the east for over two millennia. The Chinese believed that eating ‘the flower of happiness’ would make them long-lived; the Japanese imperial coat of arms was resplendent with a chrysanthemum.

Each autumn I crouched beside my two aunts as they planted new chrysanthemums in their gardens. Aunt Juliette went for the exotic type of mum, and each fall she brought home something new. Colorful and even bizarre plants bloomed in her autumn garden. My Aunt Francine, a maiden lady, preferred the true Japanese kiku, a dignified plant which produced one or two huge flowers—the same flowers which the haiku poet Basho immortalized. One year Aunt Francine brought home an expensive specimen which she tended with devotion.  “Did you know,” she told me one day as she watered this prized plant, “that chrysanthemums were the flower of the nobility? In China, they didn’t let commoners grow them.”   Then she would look around her as if daring anyone—commoner or nobleman—to mess with her flower.

Aunt Francine’s chrysanthemum fascinated me. The huge, erect pearly head with the curling, multi-dimensional petals was mysterious and exciting—and out of bounds. Whatever is said about forbidden fruit must include flowers, for every time I went into her garden, that  kiku drew me like a lodestone. At first I only stared, but then I ventured to touch a stiff white petal. And then one day…

You know where this is going, don’t you? Eventually I found that just touching the flower was not enough. I reached out to give the plant a little push. It was fascinating how the heavy-headed chrysanthemum swayed back and forth, so I gave it another push … and the stalk of  my aunt’s prized flower snapped in half.

Disaster! Horror! The severed stems of the flower wouldn’t stick together again no matter how I tried! And here was my aunt stalking toward me and staring at the ruin of one of her prized flowers.

“What happened?” she demanded.

Even if I had known what to say, my voice had long gone. Head bowed and ready to cry, I stood there clutching the evidence of my crime. Then—“Give it here,” my aunt demanded.

I handed over the chrysanthemum. She took it and commenced walking toward the house. After a few steps she turned and snapped, “Come.”

What was she going to do to me? Miserably, I straggled along behind her. But when we reached the house, all she did was to select a vase and fill it with water. That done, she slid the kiku into the vase.

“It looks lonely. It needs some green leaves,” she  mused and then—inexplicably—she smiled and put an arm around me.  “Let’s go into the garden and find some, shall we?”

You  see why I love chrysanthemums?

 

"Chrysanthemum Gardens"