Jiko looked out across the ocean to where the water met the sky. “A wave is born from deep conditions of the ocean,” she said. “A person is born from deep conditions of the world. A person pokes up from the world and rolls along like a wave, until it is time to sink down again. Up, down. Person, wave.”
A Tale for the Time Being
This is a photo of my eye.
Cathy took this picture for my new passport. Actually she took a picture of my whole head, but it’s this eye and the glasses I want you to look at. If you were able to zoom in you would see the shadow of Cathy on my pupil as she lifted up her phone and took the photo in our kitchen last week. It was our third attempt to get a photo that the passport office would accept. What is and is not acceptable in passport photos has changed a lot since 9/11.
It has been 9/11 and the Christchurch earthquake that have made me notice how cause and effect really works: not like a neat row of cascading dominoes but like a heavy stone dropped in a deep pool and the reaction of water. When a heavy stone is dropped into a deep pool there are the ripples in all directions, but there is also the sploosh and spray that land all about the rock-sized puncture in the water’s skin, and then there is the disturbance below the surface as the rock falls to the bottom of the pool. Cause and effect are complicated; properly encompassing the ripple, the spray and the undercurrent.
In a very round about kind of way it was the moment that Osama Bin Laden was given the flick by the CIA in Afghanistan that led to my rising irritation last week as the passport office in New Zealand rejected, one by one, each image that I sent them for my passport renewal. The global security belt-tightening after 9/11, and the rise of the surveillance state, come out of that moment decades ago in Afghanistan and may yet prove to be Bin Laden’s final victory over democracy.
This particular photo – that the one above is cropped from – was rejected because of the thin sliver of green reflected light you can see over the left lens of my glasses.
This picture was taken at my eleventh birthday in 1984. My party was at Pizza Hutt which was pretty new to Wellington in 1984 and at that time had dine-in restaurants all fitted out and purpose-built with sloping red roofs, and a kind of old-fashioned wood and leadlight lamp shade theme going on. This Pizza Hutt was in Crofton Downs. The guy on my left licking his expectant lips was one of my best friends at school, and the plaid shirted arm on the right hand side belongs to James. The lip licking was right because that cake looks like it has my mother’s delicious chocolate, coconut icing.
You might also note The Return of the Jedi movie-tie-in drinking cups. Never mind the pizza, I’m pretty sure this was the deciding factor for me when I was deciding where to have my birthday in 1984. The Return of the Jedi was the movie event of 1984 for me and my friends. The film reviewer for The Listener had mixed feelings about Jedi but the film reviewer for The Listener would do; for people like me it was a tour de force that did what it was supposed to do. It also, incidentally, delivered my generation’s first heterosexual male sexual fantasy when it showed us Leia as a dancing girl in Jabba’s throne room. It also delivered movie-tie-in drinking cups, and action figures and bubblegum trading cards all of which were hugely desirable to my febrile 11-year-old mind.
All of which, I should also add, ended up in the bin within four years during a house move when I decided I was too cool for Star Wars and moved on to such sophisticated cultural treasures as Smash Hits posters of heavily made up men promoting songs about pleasure domes and purple rain. In the rubbish tip digs of the future archaeologists will find a thin layer of plastic action figures roughly dated to the late 80s to which I heartily contributed. I don’t regret the tossing out of the Star Wars figures, but I do bitterly resent myself for the tossing out of all my Smash Hits magazines some time in the 90s when I had moved on to grunge. There was no way of knowing that in 2014 I would listen to far more music from the 80s than Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Funny what lasts and what doesn’t.
‘The dead are not as dead there as they are in our own society,’ the religious scholar Herman Ooms writes. ‘It has always made perfect sense in Japan as far back as history goes to treat the dead as more alive than we do … even to the extent that death becomes a variant, not a negation of life.’
This is from an emotionally exhausting article about the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan. It is an article that I found devastating, and upsetting and challenging and that has been hanging around in my head for a few weeks now waiting to connect up, I suppose, with the book I’ve just finished reading: A Tale for the Time Being. This article mostly relates the story of a Zen Buddhist priest in Kurihara who has spent a lot of his time post-tsunami exorcising the spirits of the drowned from the troubled souls of the living. One young woman has become a conduit for an endless series of spirits and returns again and again to the priest who is helped by his wife. For them all the hardest possession is the spirit of a child.
‘When a child appeared,’ Kaneda said, ‘my wife took her hand. She said: “It’s Mummy – it’s Mummy here. It’s all right, it’s all all right. Let’s go together.”’ The first to appear was a tiny nameless boy, too young to understand what was being said to him, or to do anything more than call for his mother over and over again. The second was a girl of seven or eight. She had been with her even younger brother when the tsunami struck, and tried to run away with him. But in the water, as they were both drowning, she had let go of his hand; now she was afraid that her mother would be angry. ‘There’s a black wave coming,’ she said. ‘I’m scared, Mummy. Mummy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’The voice of the girl was terrified and confused. Her body was drifting helplessly in the cold water, and it was a long struggle to guide her upwards towards the light. ‘She gripped my wife’s hand tightly until she finally came to the gate of the world of light,’ Kaneda recalled. ‘Then she said: “Mum, I can go on my own now, you can let go.”’
It hurts somewhere deep inside to read about how the universe – represented as the colossal surge of a tsunami – has taken children too small to fathom the indifference of the cosmos, but old enough to have perfected their faith in their mother’s and father’s ability to always be there, to protect them, to hold them. It connects to a wider hurt: the hurt we all feel when we understand that all things must pass regardless of how dear they are to us. I was there at the moments when my daughters were born; when the little wave of both my daughters began to rise from the deep conditions of the ocean, and I have been there ever since to see their little waves grow. It has been a rewarding and troubling gift this witnessing. Partly it has been troubling because I can sense my own wave cresting, but at least it is a long, long way (but also no time at all) from the crest to the final ripple shooting across the flat, dark sand of the beach.
How precious and ephemeral it all is. The coconut, chocolate icing, and the Jedi drinking cups. The shadow on the pupil and the reflection on the lens. The 41-year-old regarding the 11-year-old. The child looking at the parent and the parent looking at their son, or daughter.
In class this week we have been thinking about the civilisation of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and the Canaanites in Understanding Religion. Michael Wood, in part of a film we watched, visits the desert ruin that was once the thriving city of Uruk. There is a wide sweep of sand-muted wall, and the stolid, rounded mound that was once Ishtar’s ziggurat. Mostly though, there is sand, and rough ground, strewn with fragments and rubble. Once a city of thousands, now sand running through Michael Woods’ hand.
Uruk’s hero was Gilgamesh who, on his final quest, perhaps 5000 years ago, went in search of immortality but did not find it. He found this advice instead:
Gilgamesh, whither are you wandering? Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands. Gilgamesh, fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy, dance and make music day and night. And wear fresh clothes. And wash your head and bathe. Look at the child that is holding your hand, and let your wife delight in your embrace. These things alone are the concern of men.
One of the characters in A Tale for the Time Being has the opportunity to offer some advice before death. She writes one word: to live. It’s good advice but hard to follow without despairing at times, without wishing time would stop, or slow, or let you back. The not going back, the loss, the shore ahead – these are hard things.
Hard, hard things.
I was still thinking about what she said about waves, and it made me sad because I knew that her little wave was not going to last and soon she would join the sea again, and even though I know you can’t hold on to water, still I gripped her fingers a little more tightly to keep her from leaking away.
A Tale for the Time Being