Mini-review of The Samurai Garden

Sometimes we experience a real resonance between our real life and the world of a book we’re reading. That has been the case as I’ve read The Samurai Garden, a 1994 book by a local (El Cerrito) author.

The main action of the book surrounds a young university student, Stephen, who has moved from Hong Kong to a small town in Japan to recover from tuberculosis. The book is written as a series of diary entries Stephen records for about a year, starting in 1937. World War II is beginning and the Japanese are invading China.

Stephen moves from busy, crowded Hong Kong to his grandfather’s beach house in Japan and is cared for by Matsu, an older man who has worked for the family for many years. Matsu’s touch is tender, as he cooks simple Japanese meals of fish and tofu and encourages Stephen to rest by painting, working in the garden, and swimming at the beach. As I read, I longed to be transported to that peaceful world too. I don’t have tuberculosis, thankfully, but I’m struggling with depression and anxiety and need much of the same medicine Stephen received.

The book has a wonderful parallel subplot. Matsu, it turns out, has been caring for years for a woman, Sachi, who has leprosy. Sachi lives in a mountain village with other lepers. She moved there years ago so she wouldn’t cause disgrace to her family. Matsu has been her lifeline over the years, helping her build her house and delivering food and supplies. Stephen begins accompanying Matsu on his trips to visit Sachi and is deeply impressed by her. She is still very beautiful, despite her scars from leprosy. It’s a beautiful example of how bonds can grow between people in unexpected ways. Part of Stephen’s recovery is made possible by his friendship with this woman, an outcast of society.

This is a very atmospheric book, with beautiful descriptions of Matsu’s garden and Sachi’s garden. Life and health come through the natural world. Stephen faces many trials (such as the dissolution of his parents’ marriage) but friendship and nature pull him through. This was a healing book for me.

Poetry, persimmons and my inner battle

Live human conversation is happening in my dining room. In this time of Covid it’s as soothing to me as listening to a symphony.

My son’s friend Emilio is visiting. He has come to build a tower desktop computer with my son TJ. The two of them have spread out the parts on the dining room table and are carefully assembling parts and screwing pieces together. They talk about their online school experience, attempts at working out and living at home.

Emilio says he hasn’t been out of the house since March. His mom has mandated that he sees no one. She hasn’t even allowed him to order his favorite fast food, for fear it might pass on the virus. I guess she relented today, knowing his computer is an important hobby.

I have a few errands to run, but I’m reluctant to leave this hum of conversation. I’ve been battling anxiety and my whole world is calibrated toward the goal of being less anxious. Even doing errands has become difficult. Can they just wait? Do I really need to return the wrong-size slippers I bought at CVS? Do I need to buy those noodles at Costco? Last time I went to Costco a loud alarm went off at the register and I was barely able to cope.

Writing, on the other hand, and this listening to human words, is a refuge. The physical act of putting words on paper or a screen is calming. It’s as automatic as driving a car, but even more immersive. To get lost in writing, to become absorbed with words and meanings and sounds, offers solace. How strongly I want to get lost! I want to escape my own troublesome thoughts.

Poetry has been perhaps the best escape for me lately. On several sleepless nights I’ve sat in bed with my notebook circling over a few lines of poetry, playing with different combinations of words and syllables. Poetry demands that every word, every morpheme, count. It’s writing at its most pared down and concise.

Some people think poetry is serious and stuffy and complicated. This is not true. A lot of poetry can be playful. Just look at a Billy Collins poem or many haikus. Many times a haiku will carry an ironic meaning. For example, the other day I wrote:

on the back fence
morning glories
open all day

I was trying to play with the idea that although these flowers have the word “morning,” their wide purple blooms are actually open all day. I have a view of them outside my kitchen window and all day long hummingbirds and butterflies flit around the flowers gathering nectar.

I also wrote:

deep orange persimmons
“let them ripen, be patient”
says my neighbor

This captures a brief conversation with my neighbor the other day when I walked by her tree and she was picking persimmons. She gave me a few, still shiny and hard, and told me to let them ripen on the counter. They were like getting gold. According to my neighbor the squirrels often get to the persimmons before she can pick them.

Poetry is all about detail. It’s often about the senses. It’s about noticing and recording the noticings. For example, I might notice the feel of the jagged jigsaw puzzle pieces in my hand or the ooze of an egg I’m cooking as I crack it into the pan. All of those textures are fodder for poems.

I’ve learned that managing anxiety is also about details. One strategy is paying attention to breathing. I learned about breath prayer this summer when I participated in a virtual Camino pilgrimage. The guide I listened to instructed us to pick one phrase to say as we inhaled and another to say when we exhaled. I picked “Come Lord Jesus” on inhaling and “fill me with your love” on exhaling. I find it centering and relaxing.

***

It’s now a few days later and election night has come and gone. Biden has won and makes a wonderful speech, talking about unity and healing. For a short time I feel hopeful and elated. But still my anxiety, coupled with depression now–the sister of anxiety–continues. Writing has become difficult. I struggle to put words together. I fear that this one thing that helps me has been taken away. Still, I return to poetry, remembering a conversation with my son.

Miguel mentioned the other day that he had discovered William Carlos Williams, a poet from the last century. I am curious about this poet and do some Googling. It turns out he and Ezra Pound were part of the Imagism movement of the early 20th century, which featured “precision of images and clear, sharp language.” His poem about a wheelbarrow (below) has been frequently quoted. It is a brief, haiku-like poem, superficially about a wheelbarrow. Is there a deeper meaning?

XXII
from Spring and All (1923)
[1]

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Technically, this poem features a lot of enjambment, which is incomplete syntax at the end of a line. You have to jump to the next line to finish the thought. The effect of enjambment is to slow the reader down, almost to a meditative level.

Some critics thought Williams wrote this poem when he was treating a dying patient (he was a doctor) and he looked out the window and saw this scene. The toy wheelbarrow belonged to the little girl he was treating. Williams scribbled these lines on his prescription pad. Later this theory was debunked, but I like the idea. I want to believe that a poet’s radar is always on, ready to compose poems, even when engaged in another activity. Maybe that’s why Mary Oliver recommended that poets always carry a notebook, to quickly write down their inspirations. I can picture Mary, walking at the Cape Cod seashore, with notebook in hand.

Here’s a haiku I quickly wrote this afternoon after a walk. It follows traditional haiku rules of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third.

turtles on the log
brown shells absorb midday sun
walk around the lake

The 5-7-5 rule is often broken in published haiku. I like the rule, as it sets some parameters in writing. Next time I’ll try some enjambment. What are some of your favorite poems?

I received more persimmons the other day. They seem almost a fall poem in themselves, with their smooth orange skin. There are two types of persimmons, ones that have a round bottom and ones that have a pointy bottom. My neighbor gave me the pointy-end kind that need to ripen before you eat them. Then you scoop out the flesh and eat the soft, gooey insides. My friend gave me the round kind. You can slice these like an apple and eat them alone or in a salad. The texture is almost like a pear. I will savor these persimmons. In my state of struggle I need all the beauty I can find.

Covid chronicles: life with my 20-something son

I knew something was up when I saw the meat mallet out on the counter.

“Did you use the meat mallet for something?” I ask my son.

“Oh yeah,” he says, with a smile, running into the other room to get something.

He returns with a smashed brown pulpy mass, about the size of a small lime but looking more like a putrified fig.

“What is this?” he says.

I examine the rough surface in my hand.

“It’s a Buckeye pod. You know, those huge things that hang from the tree in back? What were you doing with that?”

“Oh. I found some on the lawn. I wanted to see what was inside it.”

I’m glad. He’s still curious about the natural world. For all his time on the computer in Zoom classes and playing games, I wonder if he’s become immune to that.

And, I am reassured. TJ may be turning 20 today, but he hasn’t changed. He’s always loved taking things apart, whether it’s dissecting worms or old cellphones. Five years ago when my Ipad crashed, he delighted in hammering it apart and inspecting the innards. We gazed at the shiny chips in silence as if we were considering a sacred icon.

I’ve lost count of the times he’s disassembled his tower computer with the excuse he needs to add an additional fan or better graphics card. The first time he did this I panicked at the sight of all the parts and screws spread out across the dining room table. Now I know he is capable of putting it all back together about as fast as it takes me to do the weekly shopping.

I do a little Googling and I can’t wait to tell TJ that Buckeye seeds are poisonous. Buckeye trees like ours are native to California and, according to Wikipedia, native Americans used the poison to sedate fish to make them easier to catch. TJ and I don’t have a ton of topics to discuss, so I’ll jump at any juicy fact to get his attention.

***

It’s a few days later and TJ isn’t impressed by my knowledge about Buckeye seeds. He barely changes expression as I mention the word poisonous.

Instead we talk about air quality. He tells me his good friend can’t play tennis right now due to his lung condition and sensitivity to the bad air. Actually, no one should be playing tennis right now. It’s a shame, because tennis is TJ’s main exercise. I would have never imagined that in 2020, TJ’s sophomore year of college, he would be living at home and we would be in semi-lockdown due to a pandemic and further isolation due to bad air quality.

“Did you know Mom, that the hair in your nose is thicker than the hair on your head?” TJ says suddenly. “Your nose hair is very good at filtering particles.”

Later, I’m unable to confirm this information on the web, though it sounds perfectly plausible.

That evening I ask TJ, “Where did you get that nose fact? From Reddit?” I’m feeling proud I can drop the name Reddit into the conversation.

He laughs. “No, I heard that on a podcast.”

***

The kitchen is our common space. We meet there several times a day. Some days TJ rummages around the cupboards and fridge and creates his own meal, a fried egg and cheese sandwich or a veggie dog on a toasted bun. Other times, he asks if I can make his meal. I’m happy to oblige. He won’t be around forever. Someday the pandemic will end and he’ll move into an apartment of his own.

Today the smell of fresh bread fills the kitchen. I’m making bread in the bread machine. This bread will go well with the shakshouka (stewed tomato dish) we will have for lunch.

I’ve become obsessed with finding vegetarian dishes my son likes. My pandemic brain runs daily loops of possible menus: mushroom risotto on Monday, pesto tortellini on Tuesday, manchego mac ‘n cheese on Wednesday. I’m overjoyed when I talk to TJ’s brother on the phone and he tells me about a new recipe he’s found for spicy tofu tacos (“TJ will love it Mom!”). Meanwhile, trips to the grocery store always involve a stop at the veggie-based frozen food section. We’ve tried everything from Beyond burgers to “fishless” fillets.

TJ became a vegetarian his senior year of high school thanks to an attractive, smart girl in his class. That relationship stayed platonic, but TJ stuck with his new diet. He’s choosing this path not primarily for health or animal welfare reasons, but to reduce his carbon footprint. I respect that and now I eat very little meat too.

While I cook we talk about our cockatiel. For 12 years Fluffy was a constant presence while we were cooking or eating.

“I thought I heard him flying around the other day,” TJ says.

“I thought I heard him whistling,” I say.

There are still breath marks on the one kitchen window I can’t reach, little smudges Fluffy left behind while perching on the sill and observing the backyard.

I replay Fluffy’s last day with us back in June, finding him struggling to breathe at the bottom of his cage. His little body seemed crumpled like a tissue, his normally erect tail and wings flattened. Then I remember how TJ cupped him in his hands on the way to the vet. Fluffy had one final convulsion that caused him to flutter and crash onto the car floor. His tiny eyes, two black dots always so bright and alert, closed into tiny slits. Later we buried him in the garden outside TJ’s bedroom window.

We don’t talk about that sad day. But I know we are both thinking about it.

***

How did my son become an adult, no longer a teen? It’s the small stuff that hits me. It’s finding him ordering fancy Moleskine journals to take notes for his classes. I remember all the years when I had to buy his school supplies. It’s noticing the way he’s lined up his shoes neatly under his bed. I used to tidy his room. It’s seeing him pull on his vest to go skateboarding, timing his ride so he can watch the sunset. I used to nag him to go outside. As the saying goes, in parenting the days are long but the years are fast.

The other day I was driving to the store and when I reached the slight crest at our corner I saw a young man whizzing by on an electric skateboard. Wow, I thought, he’s going fast. Then I looked again and realized it was TJ. Since we both hardly leave the house these days, it felt strange seeing him out of context. I decided right then that for his birthday, I’d buy him a better helmet…and a Costco-sized wheel of manchego cheese.

On a pilgrimage, during Covid-19

I don’t really have a bucket list. If I did though, one of the items at the top would be walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that runs through Northern Spain. I have always dreamed of taking a month off to walk the route and perhaps discover what draws people from around the world to make the journey every year. I’m getting my chance now to do the Camino, only this one is virtual. It’s not the same as going to Spain by any stretch of the imagination, but during this Covid time it’s the closest I can get. Continue reading

Do I really have to leave lockdown? Confessions of an introvert

There’s a scene in Stir Crazy, the 1980 comedy about two men running from the law, when Gene Wilder’s introspective character is about to be let out of solitary confinement.

“One more day, one more day,” he says to the guard in front of him. “I was just beginning to get into myself.” Continue reading

What a miracle looks like

Every morning after I wake up these days, I sip my coffee and hunch over my phone for far too long. What has happened overnight in our Covid-19 world? I’m afraid to know but I want to stay informed. Continue reading

The April 15th that never happened

It’s April 15th. Normally this is a day for celebration in our household. Peter has finished the long race to the end of tax season. He and his staff go out for margaritas to celebrate. At home we finally have time to discuss fun things like upcoming vacation plans and the start of baseball season. Continue reading

Adventures in dog obedience training with Romeo and Sara: Part 2

Romeo’s fluffy white beard is matted with clumps of sticky peanut butter and his breath smells of Pupperoni dog treats. As soon as Sara leaves, he runs to his water bowl in the kitchen and drains it. Then he lays down in his spot in the living room for a nap. He’s just finished an hour-long session of dog obedience training. Continue reading

What St. Teresa is teaching me about the new year

I’m giving myself an hour or two to write this morning. As with a lot of my writing, I don’t know where this will go. But today seems significant. It’s the last day of the year; tomorrow is a new decade. It seems right to pause, to linger over my coffee and enjoy a bit of solitude before tonight’s festivities. Continue reading

Zen and the art of making movies (with Miguel)

Earlier this month I flew to New York to watch my son Miguel film his final thesis project, a short movie he wrote, directed and starred in. It was fascinating observing a movie set up close and watching a group of about 20 people–cast and crew–throw themselves into the project for a marathon four days. I felt I had stepped into another world, the world of a New York film student, but also the world of a tender story about two brothers wrestling with their faith. Continue reading