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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]


Chapter 86


October 13, 1991   -   BUILDING A FUMIDAI


I was outside making a fumidai in the soft presunset light when the call came from Jessica at the temple next door.  "Hojo-san wants to see you after dinner."

I gulped and said I'd be there.  I slid the aluminum-framed screen door open, stepped back out onto the swept and cleared cement into my zoris and walked out from under the corrugated plastic overhang to stand under Maruyama's late October sky.  The heat was gone and the cold hadn't yet come.  What does he want?

Then it was back to work on the fumidai.  That's the word Okamura-san next door had used when told that the mess of planks at the edge of her drive was going to be a small platform to step up on before entering the house.  I didn't know why on earth I'd waited so long to build the thing.  I never liked seeing all the shoes and sandals scattered around.  I was constantly straightening them.  The fumidai would take care of that, the fumidai and the getabako.

"Getabako" means box for wooden clogs, and that's what Okamura-san called the shoe rack.  She thinks it's the neatest thing on earth that we do projects like this around the house.  She asked if everyone in America did all their own work on their houses.  "Some people do sometimes," I told her.

I was sure that once I got the kitchen door area set up, everything would be in order forever.  The idea was to step up on the fumidai from one's foot gear which would then be placed on a shelf.  The house would be entered with clean feet and the kitchen entryway would remain tidy with plenty of room for our three bikes and two blue plastic trash cans.

Between the house and the neighbor's garden wall, I looked through a stack for some more appropriate wood, watching for centipedes in between the boards.  Does Hojo-san want to see me about the letters for Immigration which I had just asked him for before he went to breakfast?  They were to be ready the next day and only he could write them.  One letter verifies what studies I'm doing in Japan so I can renew my cultural visa and Elin her spouse's visa.  Another letter assures that we are upstanding people, that he will be responsible for us and that, if we do anything reprehensible, he will cover for it and fly us back home.  He hadn't checked with me about the specifics of the first letter as he usually did.  Maybe he has a question on that.  But he knows what to say.  He's so used to writing these letters for us and his foreign monks and students who live at the temple.  Most of us need new visas every six months.  And he keeps copies.  Hmm.

Found the board I wanted and took it around to where I was working.  It matched its mates just fine.  I put it down and started wire brushing off the dirt and loose bark of a rounded end piece scavenged from the trash heap of an old family-owned lumberyard nearby.  It would be the outside vertical piece for the getabako and would add a natural touch.  It was the sort of quick and funky job that I'm best at.

Maybe Hojo-san feels I'm not doing enough, that I gotta shape up or start going to the temple earlier in the morning like I used to, I pondered uncomfortably.  It was the first time in three years he had asked to see me.  We see each other a lot so there's never been a need to call me up.  I turned on the trouble light that hung from the wall - it made everything look more yellow in the fading light of day.

There was still a chair on the back side where I had started to move an unused light around to the side door area where it would be useful.  There was no back door anymore as two and a half years before I'd turned it into a kitchen pantry.  If I just extended the wires and moved the light around the corner, we could use the same inside switch on it.  I'd been up there starting to take it down earlier in the evening when I decided to look about and, sure 'nuff, just behind my head under the eave was a clump of sleeping yellow jackets about the size of a grapefruit.  Slowly I stepped down the ladder.  That episode had stopped work on the outside light until the cold got 'em.

          I had the handy inches-and-centimeters tape measure which Kelly had brought me in the summer from the U.S.  The blond pine floorboards and the brown weathered lauan shelf pieces were all to be thirty-seven inches and the supports for both structures thirty-three inches.  Just two lengths - keep it simple.  My finger squeezed the trigger of the skill saw and the first piece was cut, the remainder falling to the cement surface with a smack.  I wanted to get the cutting done before dark, mainly so as not to bug the neighbors, but looking into the kitchen at the clock on the wall, I could tell it was time to see the boss.  I hopped inside, walked through the kitchen and washed up at the laundry sink.  After putting on clean pants and shirt in the bedroom, I bid farewell to the babysitter, a twenty year old student of Elin's who lives in the neighborhood.  She and baby Clay were playing on the tatami in Elin's study.  Then I left by the front door and walked apprehensively over to the temple.  Elin was downtown teaching at a culture center.  What news would I have to tell her when she got back?


Inside the temple, I made my way in the semidark to the faded landscape on the fusuma outside of Hojo-san's room.  "Shitsurei itashimasu (excuse me)," I called out politely.

"Hai," he returned with oomph.  "Go get Jo-san and wait in the osetsuma."

Jo-san was in her room.

"Hey Jessica," I called her by her Christian name.

"Coming!" she answered enthusiastically.

She came and we waited in the osetsuma.  All forty-five years of her was as cheery as usual.  I was smiling numbly, tapping my fingers on a knee as I sat on my shins in seiza on a flat blue cushion she had slid over to me.  Jessica gave no hint as to why we were there and I got the feeling she had no idea.  I didn't ask.  We made small talk.  How's the baby? from her, how's the kiln? from me.

Hojo-san came in.  He was humming.  Good.  I scanned him quickly.  His eyes were clear and intense as usual.  The tightness in my chest released and I felt my breath lowering.  He seemed in a good mood.

He was wearing a loose light-brown cotton samue and holding a grey set of the same.  He had been sewing a patch on one of the elbows.  Looking at the patch and the thread that connected it to the worn sleeve, I knew that these materials wouldn't be there if he was angry with me.  I watched him finger the patch.

"A true monk," I said in Japanese.

"A true monk," agreed Jessica.

Hojo-san was still standing.  At half a century he holds himself well, with confidence, but not the arrogance that can go with being the abbot of a big temple.  The top of his shaved head reaches to something more than five feet but it's hard to estimate because his presence makes him seem taller than he is.  He looked down at me where I sat and, ignoring our light hearted praise, gave the first hint.

"What did he say?" I said to Jessica.  "I didn't catch it."

"He said, I hate to tell you what I've got to tell you when I look at your face."

Oh god what could that mean?  He can't write the letters for me for Immigration because he doesn't want to exaggerate anymore.  The new head monk insists that I come every morning at four AM or not at all.  A jealous neighbor has told him lies about us.  What?... What?... I leaned toward him largely ears, wanting to hear it quick.  He complied.

"It's your landlord, Tsuda Sensei.  His wife called.  They want to sell the house.  They want to sell it as soon as possible."  He looked at me gravely.

Why hadn't I thought of it?  Our wonderful home and garden next to the temple, our irreplaceable castle by the bamboo grove which we lovingly restored and nurtured, our place to live, love and work is now to be pulled from under us.

"I thought this was going to be something bad," I said.  "This is just a..."  I fished for the word in Japanese.  Technical? No. Realistic?  No...  "What is it in Japanese, Jo-san?  A... yes, this is just a practical problem."

He chuckled and then made us all the usual - thick, sudsy stimulating macha.  We drank it and talked on about the ramifications of the news.  The Doctor was sick I knew, lung cancer I thought.  His wife had told me secretly about it.  He'd had it for years.  Was the home to be sold because of inheritance taxes or what?  Anyway, we had to get out if they insisted because it had been rented to us dirt cheap as a favor to the temple and without the usual exorbitant key money.

Hojo-san was so kind and concerned.  I remembered the paranoid thoughts I'd had of him being tired of us or angry at me or dissatisfied with my participation.  Nothing like that.  He just wanted to help us get through this smoothly.

He asked me what would we do if we lost the house.  "I don't know," I said.  "Maybe go back to the States earlier than we'd planned." 

Jessica remarked  on how well I was taking it and how unattached I was.

Hojo-san looked up at her.  "You don't really think that's how he feels do you?"

Ananda, the young head monk from India, came in to report on the events of the day and to check up on a few things.  I gave him the rest of my tea treat as I knew well that chocolate was Ananda's favorite object of desire that was compatible with his vows.  I excused myself.  Hojo-san and I agreed to talk the next day after I'd gotten hold of the landlords.  He said he'd have the documents ready for me at eight in the morning to take to Immigration.  I'd forgotten all about that.  I thanked him, standing and bowing in the hall, and was just about to step off when Glen, a tall, good-natured, young monk from Southern California, walked in with a box of chocolates he'd just received from his mother.  He asked me to come back in and have some but I declined.

Hojo-san looked at me and said something else I didn't understand.

"Do you know what that means," asked Jessica.

"No," I said.  "Something about leaving early."

"Yes," she said and repeated his quip: "'They who leave early...' It refers to an old saying which goes something like, 'One who leave early may miss out on something.'"


I headed home, buzzing internally.  On the way I looked at the lights of our house shining through the temple bamboo grove - so cozy.  We'd just completed a new reorganization to accommodate the fact that Clay would soon be crawling.  We'd bought some second-hand cabinets, fixed up the kitchen and prepared a baby room.  Oh, change, I thought.  I am so attached to all these fleeting things, things I love to collect and build and fix and write about.  "And things that will disappear," I said out loud, standing on the darkening temple grounds, looking at the glow of our home.

I walked up the driveway to the side entrance by the kitchen, looked at the materials and tools about, sighed and wondered if I should even bother to finish the fumidai and getabako.  So much has happened here.  It's been a good three years in Maruyama - is it time to move on?  Yeah, I guess so - it's time, I thought.  I was sad, but also relieved of the burden of various petty thoughts and memories that had been bothering me just hours before.  Why do I let such trivia get to me? I wondered.  After all these years of Zen.  What good is it?  What have I learned?  I shook my head.  Looking into the evening sky I felt light and imagined my family and me going way, way up there in a balloon, empty and free.

Then I glanced down at the wood before me and smiled.  It looked so good I wanted to eat it.  And so, returning to the full life I am enslaved by, I picked up a board and went back to work.