Monday, October 23, 2006

Meeting Rumi's Dead Parents

I'm trying to catch up....I'm sorry for the delay! I'm headed to Hong Kong in about two weeks to see Fearless Husband, and I am so excited! I'll take lots of photos, and promise to post them and our adventures there before the end of November! We're hopeful that he will be home for Thanksgiving, and again for Christmas.

Back in June, I had one of the most foreign experiences I've ever had in my life. Miyuki invited me to join her on a trip to a temple with Rumi, a 12-year-old 7th grade student. Rumi’s parents are both dead, and she had asked her teacher, Miyuki, to join her as she went to say prayers at the temple where her parents "sleep".

Rumi is shy and awkward and just darling--very eager to please. She and her 14-year-old brother are being shuffled back and forth between two aunts and an uncle. No one wants them, so they spend one month with one relative, then get sent for one month with another relative.

The brother is really going down the juvenile delinquent road, according to Miyuki, but this little girl is still bright and bouncy. She doesn't show her sorrow at all...but I'm afraid in a couple of years she could become a very hard case. Her mom died of cancer three years ago, and then a year ago her dad died of a heart attack from "overwork and stress." I want to adopt them both! But I don't think FH would jump for joy at the idea of adopting a 12 year old and a 14 year old, neither of whom speak English!

Going to the temple was not sad at all though. The temple itself was simply a two-story, relatively non-descript building on the main road. The only thing that distinguished it from its neighboring shops was a particularly fine tile roof. We found parking (amazing!) and walked up the stairs to the front door on the second floor. Inside, we took off our shoes and put on leather slippers before moving through the main temple room, with a beautiful gold-leafed statue of Buddha at the altar area at the front of the room. We went down some narrow stairs, past a photocopy machine and some boxes and stacked newspapers (like an office storage room) into a plain room with fluorescent lights and a wooden floor…very much as if we’d walked through an American church and into the fellowship hall in the basement!

The room might have been a fellowship hall, or a classroom or an office, except for the fact that it is the resting place for the remains of hundreds of people. Shiny black cabinets trimmed in gold line the walls and march in long rows down the length of the room. The bottom part of each cabinet is a closed cupboard; the top is an open shelf/alcove, lined in gleaming red and gold paint. Each shelf has a little tiny golden altar, some silk flowers, a little book with the names of the deceased written in it in flowing and beautiful calligraphy (each person receives a new name at death), a little dish for burning incense, and a little dish for offerings. The bottom closed cabinet holds the ashes of the dead for that family. All Japanese are cremated. There is not enough land for them to be buried whole. Lots of containers of ashes can fit in each cabinet, so the family stays together even after death!

Some offering dishes had cans of beer for the deceased, one shelf had soda and candy--Miyuki said it was for a child who’d died. A modern disposable lighter was placed beside each incense bowl. Rumi lit some incense, looped the prayer beads over her folded hands and said a prayer. Then Miyuki said a prayer, and then I said a prayer...all silently. The whole time, when they weren’t praying, they were both laughing and talking in normal, happy voices.

Miyuki said I should "introduce myself to Rumi's parents" when I said my prayer. It was not the way Americans act at cemeteries, full of sorrow and longing. Instead, it was as if we were really visiting her parents, and I felt as if my prayer should have begun “It’s very nice to meet you!” Then they both laughed and talked about how surprised Rumi's parents were going to be to meet an American. It was very upbeat, as if her parents were on a higher plane, but they were ghosts, not far away in heaven—as if her dad would enjoy being offered a cold beer, and her mother would be ducking her head in shyness to meet an American.

During the three day Obon holidays in August, Miyuki said that Rumi would host a memorial service for her parents in the main part of the temple...but people here do not go to regular services. There are no "weekly services", just funerals and memorials at the temples, weddings at the shrines, and visitors to both temples and shrines whenever anyone feels the need to pray for strength, hope or luck, or for the spirits of the departed. During Obon, families make trips to the resting places of their ancestor's ashes...some in the city, some far out in the country. The spirits of departed ancestors are invited "home" and offerings are given of new rice and other food. Many people picnic at the outdoor cemetaries, eating what they've first offered their ancestors. At the end of the three day festival, lanterns are lit and floated down the river in huge numbers, to "light the way back to the underworld" so no ghosts stick around to bother the living. The river filled with lanterns in the twilight is an amazing sight.

I felt so odd in the fellowship-hall-mausoleum, like I should whisper, and I was embarrassed that I had bare feet in the provided leather slippers, because I’d worn sandals to the temple. Miyuki said bare feet were no problem, but 99% of the people I've seen have had socks. The young women wear knee-highs peeking out at the tops of their stiletto-heeled boots, and everyone seems to wear socks or stockings. I'm going to start carrying a pair of socks or knee-highs in my handbag for when I wear sandals. I wonder if it's sort of too casual to go barefooted, for health reasons, cleanliness, etc. The traditional Japanese outfit includes tabi socks with the zori--the wooden thong shoes like clunky flip-flops. Tabi socks are like mitten socks, with a single divider between the toes for the thong, and they button up on the inside of the ankle.

Miyuki and Rumi were giggling and laughing, and didn’t seem to think that my bare feet were a problem at all. Miyuki asked if I wanted to take a photo, which really surprised me. It turned out that made Rumi very proud, as she was the "owner" of her parents’ altar, and could give me permission to photograph her parents “home”. So I'm thrilled to have photos of that...but of course I didn't take photos of the Buddha in the temple. (That’s frowned upon.) They even directed me as to what photos I should take, so I have one photo of Rumi's parents' shrine, one photo of a line of little altars, a photo of Miyuki with Rumi in front of the altars, and one of me and Rumi ("Say Cheese!" insisted Miyuki in English!)

My heart goes out to that little girl because of her current situation of being tossed from aunt to uncle once a month...but her laughter and pleasure at “introducing me” to her parents seemed somehow healthier than our American obsession with grieving for many years after death.

More soon...