Across Rivers and Pillars
Walking past the doors of the bar into the summer night is like swimming past the breakpoint into the Pacific. Warm water currents off the Japanese coast give way to waves that engulf the entire person. Like those salty torrents, the heat and humidity of rainy season reinforce each other to create a continuous wave that crashes against every breath and every movement for a good four months. Tsuyu1: the season everyone loves to bitch about. Some carp about the season with such ferocity that you’d think it’s through complaining that some establish their ergo sum. For these people, the thick humidity is an unwelcome and unwanted embrace of a sweaty stranger.
During tsuyu droplets switch from a delicate drizzle to buckets of Noahic proportions without any discernible pattern or warning. What never changes, though, is the warmth of the water. Smoking appeals to some when it gets chilly out, when frost powders the ground. But for me, my vice has that appeal during tsuyu. There’s nothing quite like the curious concoction of the bitter rich earthy fumes that interlace between molecules of the moist fragrance of vapors falling from the sky and rising from the ground—redolent of the mild, mineral flavored rivers flowing from the endless mountains that ridge the country. I can’t help but think this tsuyu2 gives Japan its distinct flavor. Rain evokes memories and the heat provokes contemplation.
Tsutsumi-komareru3 is the phrase that comes to mind whenever I’m out and about during tsuyu4. Introducing this phrase into my imaginative horizons may have been the only redeeming feature of the abysmal public school I attended. In third grade, nestled in the corner of some goofy story laced with intellectually-insulting moralizing, I found that phrase. It really didn’t have anything to do with the overarching moral of the story—it was employed to apply the emotive grease to crank the narrative forward. The boy in the story wrapped his warm arms around his horse’s living corpse, to be present with the horse—tsutsumi-komu. Normally, the phrase applies to a loving mother embracing her child. It also tends to connote a whole body experience, like being enveloped in waves. It also has this sense of being claimed—the mother claims her son, the boy claims his horse, and so on. Not only is the whole person enfolded into the other, the act of enfolding changes the one being enfolded. Or at least that begins to map the contours of tsutsumi-komu.
With a quick click and another cigarette lit, like every night, it’s nearing the time to count my losses and walk home. Leaving the air-conditioned bar to drift into the moist evening, I always wonder whether a woman’s embrace would be as comforting as the rain. “Demo beto beto surujyan,”5 her playful protest rang again in my mind. The lady in the next barstool thought it was important to register this complaint. For whatever reason, I decided to crack the door a little bit for this person as the blues band played some soulful Delta and electric Texas—seamlessly switching between B.B. and Stevie Ray. Something about the melodic bass lines, like gentle rain, softened me for a split second.
To open the door to her, then, was what we call a confusion of causality in my trade—confusing the warmth of the soulful cry of the slide guitar with this lady in front of me. It’s only right for me to call my own bullshit after all. Nietzsche said that philosophy was like the hammer that sounded out ideas for idols in order to smash them. Idols, as I’ve learned over the years, die hard. Especially idols that my community refuses to see. One of those idols sits atop the stool next to me, and has also entered with her muddy shoes.
No, not exactly. It’s not her; that would be another confusion. It’s the idea behind the reason I sat down to talk with her where the idol is enshrined. The creaking twenty-some odd centimeters between our stools is the site of an infinite chasm between her and I, and the words exchanged are desperate attempts of two people filling the yawning distance to fulfill the ideal of psycho-somatic completion in this singular other of a closed world system. Please excuse me lapsing into my profession; my mentor always reminds me to speak in human. So here’s an attempt. I’m sitting here because I’m want to become the object of desire for this person that I am physically attracted to. I hope that becoming this object of desire will fill in the countless holes that belie my brokenness—physically, emotionally, spiritually. This string of reasoning is carelessly called love, and it is that kind of misplaced reasoning that forges the idol that has Nietzsche grabbing for his hammer. And here is what scares me about this ubiquitous idol: in this frantic exercise of feeling each other out, we never really encounter each other. We’re allowed to think that we’re the sum of descriptive terms—all we are is what we wish to express. We try to fill in the cavernous depths between us with countless grains of those bits and pieces of expression. Which, if we’re honest, is kind of like crushing up a bag of chemically engineered chips and dumping it into the Grand Canyon in the hopes to walk across it someday. Our barstools protrude like pillars in the desert, and our words simply reflect ourselves in the glimmering sand.
Descriptions don’t always lead to prescriptions and I sink into the same stool of unknowing again. Tsutsumi-komareru tte douiu koto nanndarou6, I thought as I watched her lips move and her eyes smile away. At least one thing is clear to me: the question can’t be answered while I couldn’t be present. The rain seemed to gently knock on the windows to cue me that time was up. I bade her a lovely evening and, as I passed through the doors into the night, the warm wave of tsuyu invited another drag of that smooth bitter rich earth to accompany me home.
When I walk in the soft rain, I think of this one fellow, Norman, who lived a life frighteningly similar to mine and wrote a story based around his memories of growing up in rural Montana. Slowly walking in the rain, it felt as if the old man joined me for some indefinite stretch of the way. A story, Norman taught me, was only half-told when it’s picked out of the greater history from which smaller stories spin off—like the little eddies at the edges of larger rocks. The eddies are born only out of the flow of the river they find themselves in.
His keen, fly-fisherman’s eye also taught me how to see rain. Only a true fisherman can, after all, read both the river and the rain. Rain droplets sink past the granite layers of time to tell the stories of those who came before me in that half-told story as they bubble up again to feed the river. A story without a larger story is kind of like scooping a cup of water from a river and claiming that the water was the river. The river of stories needs rain-like memories to fill its banks, he’d gently explain as we crossed the gardens by the port. Rain jogs one’s memories and the warmer the better. Or at least that’s how it feels as I turn onto the bridge past the gardens. That’s about when the stench of the dying river below burps up the smell of industrial decay, and Norman seems to have silently walked away.
Obāchan7 named me after hī-ojīchan8, I reflected on my new guest past the soft orange glow of my cigarette. The name was given to me after a prolonged, hot-blooded battle with my mom. Weaned as a Midwestern farm kid on the ideals of pull-yer-boots-up autonomy, she took exception to the even more iron-willed woman of samurai descent half her size. But obāchan prevailed and she branded me for life. I remember once asking her about it as I helped her out in the kitchen during one rainy day at the beginning of summer vacation. “Otōsan9 was a loving Christian,” she started. “Back then, daughters meant nothing. But otōsan loved and cared for us deeply—we all went through college because of him. To him, we were more precious than sons.” She would then grin as she recalled how he’d regularly, but unintentionally, embarrass her. In the planning stage of my grandparents’s wedding, he insisted that they sing “The Church’s One Foundation.” On the day of the wedding, he broke down into tears repeating to obāchan, “Itsudemo kaettekite iinndayo. Itsumo matteruyo.”10 I imagine his tears were warm as rain as he hugged her—the gentle yo’s becoming the droplets that tsutsumi-komu11.
He was an eccentric man by anyone’s account. During the fin-de-siècle, he attended a private Christian boarding school after which he went to study electrical engineering at a prestigious university. The subject interested him mostly because it meant he could build his own television sets—he ended up with five homemade TVs by the time he croaked. “How the hell am I supposed to watch the other baseball games?,” obāchan overheard him giggling once when her mother complained about how much space the TVs were taking in their small Shitamachi home.
As I said, a goofy guy. The flickering lights from the city are even more intense when it refracts in the rain. Boyaketa hikari wo miruto12, it seems like the city is smiling. And he seems to be smiling along as well as he joins me across this bridge.
At family gatherings, aunts and uncles remembered hī-ojīchan’s flashy personality and re-lived the endless stream of eccentric episodes that he instigated. Laughter and heads shaking. Every night, one auntie would recollect, he’d hammer down half a bottle of scotch. Warm and well-oiled, he’d suddenly stand up and sing hymns in English as loud as he could, pissing off the neighbors and the local dog population. Intermingled with laughter, an uncle would recall that every morning he’d eat oatmeal with a pack (or two) of cigs in his boxers as he’d wander around the kitchen. Another auntie would shake her head and interject that he was a manic stylist. He was either in his boxers or he donned a custom tailored suit made in Italy for which the sky was the limit in terms of his budget (“Those Italians understand silk and how to fit a man right,” someone would caricature his gravelly voice).
I swear I could hear his voice I’d never heard in the rain. Or it could be the barely discernible drunken confessions of a homeless dude living on the west side. His confessions, if anything, were as reviling as the river stained by generations of factory waste that flowed twelve meters under him. Dirtyass pigeons, picking at the crumbs around him, seem to be the only priests willing to hear his confessions. “Kedone,” hī-ojīchan elbows my side in the good old Matsui way of communicating. “But maybe the pigeons are more present to him over this disgusting river than all those conversations that dry up between those barstools you waste so much time at.”
The laughter about hī-ojīchan would crescendo when, between tears of joy and sadness, obāchan would tell the story about how his officers would mercilessly beat him during the war. Once he got a butt of a rifle to his face because he said he was a pacifist. (Apparently it didn’t help when he recited the Sermon on the Mount and offered an exegetical defense to his superiors). Another time a cast iron top of a stove dislocated his jaw and broke a couple rib bones because he refused to have his hair cut. His apologia: “Look, I don’t want other armies coming into Tokyo and seeing that we look like a bunch of dumpy-looking losers. I want to go out looking good… sir.” Even in his stubbornness, he was respectful. The stories reach a predictable and colorful high pitch when my loudmouthed otōsan says, “And during tsuyu he would always greet us in his boxers with his massive gut out by the street!” “Not only that,” obāchan would laugh with a tinge of horror. “Ano hito wa kinjyo no hito ni sonomama aisatsu wo surunndakara!”13 “Hontouni nihonnjin datta no kashira,”14 was the cue that they were done talking about him, and the rain would come to an end. “It seems that your inheritance consists more than the smokes and scotch,” he’d jab me in the side again.
The bridge comes to an end and eases into a hill. Walking up the steep hills unique to cities built in natural harbors are helpful reminders that not all memories are so distant—some memories are felt in the knees and ankles. That corporeal reminder is surprisingly not too different than when I read. Authors, good ones at least, meet me and speak with me. It’s often the opposite of sitting on those lonely barstools.
The brutality of hills seems to draw out a despair in me that’d put Nietzsche to shame. In those microslips between the upward steps, reminds me of my ex shouting across the living room: “Can’t you turn your fucking brain off!?” I’m still convinced that it was the coolness in my muri15 that really put her over the edge, as it rightly should. That was also the night, incidentally, I learned how much St. Augustine’s City of God hurts when it is hurled across the room and nails one’s chest. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve climbed this damn mountain of a hill during tsuyu, I feel winded as when flying books hit me.
Chuckling at the irony when my ex threw that massive tome my way apparently wasn’t the right response either. If it wasn’t so damn inappropriate, I wanted to tell her how appropriate it was that she threw the work of the guy who caused all of this thinking—might as well kill two obsessive thinkers with one book. It was listening to that tall North African bishop confess everything to God, after all, that I came into thinking about my birth. Through his confessions, I learned that we’re born much earlier than when we become conscious and enter into the flow of memories, and it’s only in thinking about it that we realize that we were born. The eddies aren’t immediately conscious of how the river and the rain were guiding and preparing its place.
Crossing the last park before home, those ancient confessions came to life. Alas, his words also conjured the rabid bitching of classmates over his Confessions. His flowing prose felt densely humid to some. To others, his candid confessions were too uncomfortably personal. But I think, as I thought then, those explanations are weak. What Augustine did was subject himself to divine scrutiny before others. He didn’t seem to particularly care whether or not he expressed who he was to others. The passionate prose that sparked that thought wasn’t to impress others or more articulately express himself, in order to unveil himself before God. It was an earnest plea to see one’s story in that larger river, and recognize that we aren’t the ones who direct the flow of the river or decide where the eddies swirl. It’s the recognition that we’re claimed and not our own that seemed sticky. Yappari, beto beto suru karaka.16 Just as I unlock the door to the unlit home, all I can hear is the gentle rain, that warm rain.
These guides remain at a distance from me; they can never enter my world. Like pillars protruding from ancient rivers that cut through the canyons of time, I can only see them at a distance. Yet their words are carried across the face of the river. A Wind carries their witness across the vast distance as it hovers over the water to nourish me, to instruct me, and to embrace me. This Wind engulfs me as it brings the words of the dead to life across the river. This water, the bishop said in a letter late in his life, is a visible sign of an invisible grace that quickens the living dead to life. The stories of the living faith of the dead, another historian put it, is what continues to feed this river. Walking with them, the line between death and life becomes thin—maybe even thinner than this drizzle that reminds me of my comfort in life and death. Embraced in the Communio sanctorum, I head up the stairwell. Kore ga tsutsumi-komareru tte yatsu kamone.17
Chikara was born under the scorching summer sun, typical of the deserts of central California. Before long, he was whisked from the desert to the bustling metropolis of Yokohama. The historically multicultural port city raised him on beauty. ‘Beauty needs to mature,’ he learned as he wandered through her many gardens. So he decided to take his time and stroll through the garden of life. High school planted the seed for a passion that blossomed in college as the love of Wisdom. Graduate studies in theology and philosophy continues to deepen that love. He writes about everything and anything at: medium.com/@chikarawakoko
Frédéric Mélotte is a Mauritian interior architect and has been a photographer for the past eight years. Photography gives him the possibility to experiment with different avenues in creative self-expression, and has led to a great love of people and animals. See more of his work at: www.facebook.com/fminteriorarchitect
- rainy season ↩
- soup stock ↩
- to be embraced/engulfed ↩
- rainy season ↩
- “But doesn’t that make you feel sticky?” ↩
- I wonder what it’d mean to be embraced ↩
- Grandma ↩
- great-grandfather ↩
- Dad ↩
- “You can come home whenever. I’ll always be waiting.” ↩
- embrace/engulf ↩
- Looking at the blurred lights ↩
- “He would greet people in the neighborhood that way!” ↩
- “Was he really Japanese?” ↩
- nope ↩
- I guess, it’s because it gets sticky. ↩
- Maybe this is what it means to be embraced. ↩