My Dear Ceramic Artist
Thank you, my dear,
for offering the 49th day memorial service for me today.
At last I will be on my way to the other shore.
Before I go, I wanted to greet you and write you a letter.
E-mail is something I have long pooh-poohed,
but it sure is handy at a time like this, isn’t it?
Not too bad, after all:
it is a wonder that I, an inconsequential being,
get turned into signals and connected to you like this.
Of course I’d definitely prefer exchanging
letters penned on some nice stationery
appreciating varied shades of ink.
But for some time now, I’d like to tell you,
even holding a pen in my hand has been difficult for me.
That day, I tumbled down seventeen steps from the upstairs landing
with the vacuum cleaner’s electric cord tangled around my legs.
I was hit on the wrong place and lost my life – that certainly was not in my life’s plan.
It’s been quite stressful for me not to realize that I am dead.
You shouldn’t conclude that convenience spoils a man.
In the future vacuum cleaners should be cordless.
Please learn from my death. Make sure to clean the second floor carefully.
Just as in my case, it can happen anywhere –
death can come so simply, even when not wished for
yet there are some who are kept from drowning or committing double suicides.
Isn’t that odd?
If it is a rule in this world that wanting too much
will keep us from getting what we want,
might we have to want to die in moderation, too?
I wish I could say that I never once despaired at life in this world,
but to tell you the truth, I wished to die a little bit.
Just enough to allow me to pretend that I was dead
And that would have been enough.
It was five years ago
On the spur of the moment I agreed to go with my friend, Sawamura,
to a ceramics exhibit I was not all that interested in.
To think that if I had not picked up that bowl in my hands,
you would not have spoken to me –
karma is so unfathomable, isn’t it?
That is the most vivid memory of you and me:
before you told me that the bowl was your creation
you said something so out of the ordinary!
Have you ever seen tears moving across your corneas?
When you are mindlessly gazing at one place, and blink, after that
don’t you see limpid ephemeral patterns lightly pass across the view?
Ah . . . yes, yes.
You are seeing the movement of tears across the corneas of your eyeballs.
When I was a sophomore in Junior High, Shiina, my buddy in art class, told me that.
Yes, he told me that all the views we see are in fact covered with tears;
he also said to me:
in our world where stars and gritty dust mix together
the fact that we shed tears to cleanse all
is really wondrous.
I cannot forget what Shiina said to me,
and I want to make a bowl for tears some day, that’s why I got into ceramics –
I felt as if I had secretly received the mystery of the world.
As you said, on the body of your bowl,
many a dewy translucent film lingered, letting the glaze flow
and I even felt I’d get to somewhere nice if I followed its path.
Thinking back, I had already fallen in love with you then.
A first impression is something like a tool of fate, isn’t it?
Not knowing that you were the most verbal you’d been in your entire life that day,
I was so touched I was sure I could live as long as three years
eating plain rice topped with just the memories of that day!
Your moustache, your large hands, and your clumsy manner of speech –
I was certainly attracted to all these, I confess.
I poured myself into the belief that your silence reflected deep thought.
When I came to, we were married. It was five years ago.
But wedding ceremony and wedded life –
even though they share the same word “wed,”
they have totally different textures, don’t they?
Of course if every day were as ceremonious a gala as the wedding
we couldn’t bear it.
I thought I was grown up enough to know
that everyone has a front and a back to make a whole,
and that your wordlessness could mean Buddha’s immovable face.
Yet I grew up in a noise-filled household
with a talkative Dad and a laughter-prone Mom,
and I came to learn how limited my specific imagination was
about a phenomenon called “Silence.”
Once our life together started
you were in your workshop at the other corner of the back yard
kneading clay in silence all day long.
If I spoke to you a hundred times,
you’d give me a single phrase even shorter than a super-modern haiku.
That and the tiny bowls, plates and urns you made on your potter’s wheel –
those were all I had to piece together for surmising
the truth in your mind.
If your eyes met mine as you gave me a nod, that was not enough to cure my anxiety.
I felt so stifled that my scalp began to dry up and peel away with noise.
Even then you simply stooped over a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel for hours on end.
You would complete shaping a piece, and gently lift it off the wheel with your forefingers.
I so wished I were that small plate or bowl.
How annoying those bowls were. Look at any one of them.
It is shaped to look up at the sky
as if it is intently yearning for gods’ grace – a trusting figure, isn’t it?
You stooping over a bowl and the bowl looking up at you
cut a happy figure of questions being answered.
You were like lovers who owned their exclusive universe where no one else could intrude.
I could not bear the sight of that, and I stayed away from your workshop.
“They are not lovers. They are my children.” That’s how you tried to explain
your affection for them.
When I told you, “In that case wouldn’t they be mine as well?”
you just gave me a wry smile.
How inconsolable it was to think
ceramics attracted me to you and they kept you unfathomable to me.
More inconsolable to me was that you started to work in your workshop
the very night I died. With your usual expression on your face.
Of course I had no idea that I was dead.
It was eerie as well as fascinating
to be able to instantly get to wherever I thought of.
Eyeing with some suspicion the plain wooden cinerary box on the living-room table
I tried to do my usual chores –
preparing meals, doing laundry, or carrying garbage out,
but somehow something was drastically different, you see.
When I thought I’d fix a hot tofu dish for tonight,
that very moment I was standing at the familiar tofu shop in the market,
but I couldn’t chat with the young owner to buy a piece of silken tofu . . .
rather, I was chatting away, but he did not respond.
I’ve had enough of being ignored by my husband, I thought to myself,
walked right into the shop, and stuck my arm into the tofu holding vessel
to grab a piece of pudding-like tofu
but it slid away from my palm . . .
no, it wasn’t the tofu that got away, my hands were useless.
I didn’t know what to do, so I was opening and closing my right hand in the water
then a thought crossed my mind –
I had forgotten to pay the community dues for this term.
Oh, no I haven’t paid it yet, I thought, then that very moment
I was standing at the Sasaokas’ front door.
I could see Mr. Sasaoka sitting by the porch, so
I greeted him, saying hello, but
he just kept stroking his mottled cat on his lap; he didn’t even bother looking up.
I thought he was hard of hearing or maybe he was just rude.
I raised my voice a bit to say,
I’m here to pay the dues, I am very sorry for being late.
Then the cat on his lap quickly raised its eyes, and growled at me.
I glared back at it, I have no business with you; Mr. Sasaoka is the one I want to see.
The cat then raised its rear.
Mr. Sasaoka looked at his cat and toward the direction it was glaring, and said to the cat, What’s the matter, eh?
I wondered for a moment which goes first, one’s eye-sight or hearing as one gets old,
while I and the cat locked glares for a time.
The cat, too anxious to break the tension, pounced on me.
Upon seeing that, I just gave up paying the dues at that time.
Strangely I don’t get hungry; my nails don’t grow; aside from that
everything is so very hard to manage.
For some time from your workshop I’d hear
you destroying the creations that did not satisfy you.
I was getting sick of it all, then one afternoon about a week ago
you came into the kitchen, back from your workshop, opened the fridge
and took out a carton of milk.
You looked tense and on edge; you must have been facing a deadline the next day.
You ignored the carton that had been opened, and tried to open the new whole milk;
so I told you that was the wrong one
but you ignored me as always
you are shunning me again, I thought, mortified
so, as you were about to leave for your workshop holding the carton of milk,
I tackled you, clinging to your hips.
You paid no attention to me dangling about you, and just walked down the hallway.
I really should have realized that something was odd by then:
even if you were so cold-hearted and obstinate,
you wouldn’t walk on with your wife hanging from your hips, would you?
But as you dragged me along, I was stubbornly holding onto you.
I thought I wouldn’t let you go even after I died – of course I was already dead then–
I was determined that this very day I had to come to some resolution.
There was some aura coming out of you,
that made me think to resolve it “this very day”, that was for sure.
I was with you as you walked into your workshop; as you started to knead the clay.
I tightened my grip around your waist as strongly as I could.
You felt constrained around your lower belly and let out huffing breaths.
You see, dear, I can come into the house without opening the door these days.
Don’t you think that’s odd?
Neighbors pay no attention to me either; I am lonely, you know . . .
As I was speaking to you, you never even glanced back at me.
You stubbornly stooped over the potter’s wheel.
The slant sunlight was diagonally reaching the floor from the window.
Only the rolling noises of the potter’s wheel echoed in the high ceiling.
Around your stooped back I saw the air
gradually coagulate as if to arrest time.
When I moved myself around to face you, I saw your unclouded gaze.
You were looking at the depths of the universe, trying to listen quietly.
Now you are at the center of yourself. Now is the time I can connect with you.
It was then,
I felt my being softly tremor
your aura deepened its glow all at once
along with it, just as laundry dries in the breeze,
my unresolved mind was set free of moisture and levitated lightly off the earth;
warm water filled the left side of my bosom.
What on earth is happening?
All you were doing was to further concentrate yourself:
your earnest seriousness in working with the clay and
your meticulous care for the anticipated birth of a bowl
morphed into minute golden particles
to penetrate deeper and deeper to seep into the center of my being.
I grew more and more peaceful.
I felt I could believe there would be a dazzling place somewhere.
I came to believe I could absolve the insecurity that made me suffer.
How much time passed, I wonder?
Finally your potter’s wheel stopped.
Holding up a smallish urn in your hands off the potter’s wheel
you let out a long, deep sigh I had never heard before.
That moment all of a sudden I came to understand all.
I felt intoxicated, almost faint,
in the gradual parabolic motion of my consciousness.
This is a prayer.
Your ceramic work is your prayer.
The moment of my death revived in my eyes.
At last, I came to full terms with the fact
that I was dead.
A week later, on the body of the fired urn
ephemeral patterns of tears swayed in the most beautiful flow they ever showed.
The sun was setting in flaming red, and reached into all corners of your workshop.
You looked up, holding the urn burning in the sun,
as if you just noticed the flaming sunset. That moment
you looked startled at something that slid down your cheek from the corner of your eye.
Forgive me, dear, for having been unable to understand while I was still alive
the true meaning of your work.
I will never be in limbo again. I can now reach the other shore.
thank you for creating the urn for my ashes.
Poet's Note: The 49th day memorial service
In the Buddhist tradition the 49th day after death is a critical time in the progress of the deceased toward the afterworld. Buddhists believe that the soul of the deceased passes through a different stage on its journey to other world every seventh day. It is commonly believed in Japan that the 49th day memorial service marks the stage when the soul, which has been adrift between this world and the next, is finally reborn on the other shore.