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June 9, 2011

Being Met by Japan

One of my favorite places on the planet is the Japanese Garden at the Botanic Gardens in Fort Worth, Texas. I dropped by the Japanese Garden gift shop earlier this week, The Treasure Tree.  I walked across the low bridge that leads to its weathered wooden porch, passing a water lily bud, rising like a scepter from a green pond. I entered the store, a space full of light, where windows look onto the natural and man-made beauty that surrounds. To the right of the entrance was a new set of shelves, populated by Japanese dolls.  I felt drawn to them, as though they were magnetized and I was a set of iron filings.  As I looked at them, a young woman from behind the cash-register counter said to me in a gentle voice, "Aren't they wonderful?"

I turned to meet a young Japanese face lit by bright, dark eyes and an enchanting smile.  "Yes," I agreed, "they certainly are."  "Why do you like them?" she asked me.  I talked to her about my childhood and my love of tales from Japan, the kimono my father brought me after a trip, white with red and blue flowers. It was a child's toy, screen-printed, not embroidered, but the sleeves were just right, as was its shape. I had a book of Japanese stories, which included several about dolls and Japan's Festival of Dolls. She was pleased, but also surprised.  We looked at the dolls together, commenting on their different postures, painted faces, and "kimonos." 

I spotted one on the bottom shelf and said, "Here, this is the one for me." 

"Oh," she replied, "you did not pick a doll that was made for tourists, but for a family. Look, there is writing on the bottom."  She looked at the characters that are indecipherable to my Western eyes. "This doll comes from the region where I live."

"And where is that?" I asked.

"It is the same area where the earthquake happened," she replied.

"Is your family all right?" I asked.

"Yes," she said with a smile.  "They are all right. They work in the medical profession, so they have been very busy--and they will be busy for a long time."

Her face radiated peace and strength. I reached my hand out across the counter to touch hers. I told her about the haiku on this blog. I told her how deeply millions of Americans felt for her country and its people. Then my eyes filled with tears, and the words disappeared.

She continued to smile, and her face continued to be peaceful.  "Thank you," she said.

Even as a child, I felt strongly that cultures other than my own had lessons to teach me, secrets to reveal to me. As I have traveled within and been exposed to a variety of cultures as an adult, I have learned that each culture has highs and lows, bright spots and dark. You can learn from the dark sides, but you can't live from them. The high spots, though, are a different story.

"Smile at fear," Pema Chodron writes.  Today, as I remember Sayoki's gentle, courteous manner, her delicate smile, I think we need also, somehow, to learn to smile at death, to smile peacefully in the midst of loss. Not a smile of denial, or of resignation, but a smile of pure presence.  I see you, loss. I see you, death. You are inescapable, unavoidable, and yet I will smile at you. It is my way of acknowledging your necessary existence and the suffering you cause. It is also my way of saying, "I am here, too. I am alive enough to look at you, and brave enough, having looked, to smile."

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