Two days ago I celebrated Thanksgiving Day, or as we call it, Turkey Day, with my relatives in the US. It was the first time for me to do so in over 20 years.
The myths about the holiday are well-known, so I won’t waste time relating them here (most Americans are happy to go on pretending the “Pilgrim Fathers” started this when really it’s just an excuse for a four-day weekend of stuffing yourself, watching football, and shopping).
In our case, it was the first holiday since my mother passed away. The next two will be even harder. But the oft-trite is oft-true: it was as if the empty chair at the long table was filled with her presence. This year was different.
A passing of the family torch. Dinner at my sister’s house, dessert with her in-laws. Boardgames with aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Family stories with grandpa. Skype with the grandkids overseas. Most of us drove seven or eight hours roundtrip just to spend one day together.
The grieving process continues. So does life. You can’t pick your relatives, but in some case you get real lucky.
This past Monday, city workers came to cut down a cherry tree near our house. It had been there for years.
We found out later that a neighbor had complained that leaves falling in her backyard were a nuisance to clean. The fact that local children (and adults alike) treasured the cherry blossoms each spring seemed to escape her.
And cherry blossom viewing season is just around the corner. What a shame. A waste.
More’s the shame, I only have two pictures of the tree in full bloom.
Fleeting moments, lost in time and memory.
My children wrote a heartfelt letter to the tree, and I taped it as best I could to the stump:
“To the Cherry Tree,
For always showing your cherry blossoms to us until now, thank you.
We miss you, but we’ll never forget that this stump is the stump of a cherry tree.
If this stump ever grows, we want to see cherry blossoms again.”
Kyoto, where I work, is chock full of temples and shrines. Every day I walk to campus, I walk through a Rinzai Zen temple along the way. While the temple itself is not as famous or as old as others nearby, it is popular among tourists for its gardens, open public lectures, and guest houses. There’s a nursery school within the temple grounds, and TV crews occasionally can be seen filming for various end-of-year specials. Because it’s located in a residential neighborhood near several high schools, students and office workers alike travel through it daily. After a long, crowded train ride during the morning rush hour, walking through a zen temple is an incredibly relaxing experience. I’ve walked through the temple grounds every day for three years now; I have to remind myself how lucky I am.
Last week, after a typhoon crossed over Japan just south of us, I was heading home through the temple when I saw an older man squatting down in front of a small pine tree. He had taken off his hat, with a small white towel draped over his shoulders to prevent sunburn, and was silently contemplating the tree. I watched as he took a drink from a water bottle, then poured the rest of the bottle around the base of the tree.
I don’t know what he was thinking, of course, but I like to imagine: how long would it take for the sapling to equal the other pine trees in the temple precinct in size? He might no longer be alive then. How long ago had the older trees been planted, as saplings? Perhaps he had not even been born yet.
Pine trees (matsu) have long been associated with zen Buddhism and zen temples. Zazen (sitting meditation) is practiced by Rinzai Zen monks, and visitors to this temple are encouraged to join the morning zazen when they stay at the guest house. But really all you need is a tree, and your imagination, to understand how short life is. How mysterious. How tenacious. How precious.