N O T E S F R O M T H E C A F E F I A S C O
Volume 9, Number 1 - April 2004
I am a man of small ritual. There are things that I do every day in a certain order - small things that serve to make me feel more secure in the chaos of life. Most of these rituals are daily -- taking the vitamins with the morning OJ so that I don't have to think about whether I did it or not; printing out the day's schedule as soon as I get to my desk so that I know what I'm expected to do; returning my keys to the same pocket as soon as I'm through with them. But some of these rituals are more periodic -- stretches of days when I can actually make the time for meditation; silently saying hello to my departed friend Rob whenever I pass his office. And a few are even annual -- the Annual Report that you receive every winter solstice and, for the past ten years, looking for the two lamps in the Old North Church steeple from the deck of my apartment the Sunday before Patriot's Day.
This last ritual started ten years ago when I had returned to Boston after three years of living in Canada and Scandinavia. I had returned to Boston at very much at loose ends. I came back to the major tasks of rebuilding some sort of life from one that had collapsed in on itself while I was gone. I didn't have a job to return to, my family was gone, my social network was in tatters, and I had no place to live. It was time to start over from scratch. Again. I was lucky to have good friends (Bill, Claire, Duke, and Kenny) who gave me the leg-up that I needed to start the process.
And so I started from the beginning -- finding a place to live. Where I live now was the first place that I looked at - a small one-room shack-like structure that sits on top of a building at the apex of a hill in Somerville with a clear view into Boston - a location that I still share with a murder of crows and thus was named the "Crow's Nest" by the building superintendent.
I moved in in late March of 1994 and slowly started to pull together what I had to fill the small space ( books, a couch, and a bed) and tried to make the place a Home. As much as I tried, the "Home" part didn't really seem to happen until the Sunday night before Patriot's Day when I was sitting on the couch thinking about this peculiar "Bostonian" holiday that I hadn't thought about for years. Suddenly, I wondered about something. I grabbed the binoculars that I had just unpacked and headed for the deck. Could I see them from where I lived?
As it turned out, if I squinted hard, I could make them out just past the Prospect Hill Monument -- the twin lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church that proclaimed that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by way of crossing Boston Harbor. The lanterns are put there every year to commemorate the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolutionary War - a ritual as Bostonian as they get. As I stood there on the deck with my binoculars in my hand, for the first time in years, I felt that I had indeed come Home.
This feeling was reinforced later in the week when I was completing my Saturday Aikido class at the Aikido dojo in Porter Square. I was the last one off the mat after class and I had a minute just to sit there and quietly drink the place in by myself before the next class started. It's a very Japanese dojo - a word meaning "place of the Way" - owing to the fact that our teacher Mitsuanri Kanai was a very Japanese guy. Kanai Sensei (an honorific meaning "teacher") knew the kind of atmosphere that he wanted in his dojo and the space very much reflected what he wanted. And as I sat there and looked at the floral arrangement at the head of the room, the clean white canvas that covered the large mat, and my name that still was displayed on the wall in the appropriate place for my rank, I again felt like I had finally come Home.
But, of course, things change.
This year as I looked for the tower the lights from the modern Leonard Zakim Bridge have almost washed out the two lights in the steeple of the Old North Church. From my vantage point, the old Boston is there if I squint, but it seems to be literally fading a bit behind the new more cosmopolitan, hipper Boston.
And Kanai Sensei is gone. Two weeks ago, just a few days before his 65th birthday Mr. Kanai suddenly died of a heart attack leaving many of us with a very large hole in our lives.
Though I studied under his direction for over 20 years, I can't say that I had a close relationship with the man. He was "Sensei" and I was a plodding student on the back of the mat who didn't have sense enough to quit as I attempted to learn in a very slow manner what he had to teach over the period of many years. If he was the sun of the dojo then I was a comet with an eccentric orbit only coming close to the center of the system on odd occasions and then retreating back to working for small victories in kinesthetic understanding. He knew who I was and he wisely left me to my own interior struggles. He understood that this was my karma and that I had to work it out for as long as it took. He understood that I wasn't going to be a star in his dojo and he understood that, for me, that wasn't the point.
But though distant we did have a definite connection between us and that was imprinted in the type of place that he created for all of us to study in. It was the type of place where you could leave for literally years and then come back only to discover that he was still willing to teach if you were still willing to learn. It was a place where you discovered that you had again come Home.
As David Farrell, one of his oldest students, noted at his memorial service, he had lived the American dream. Coming to this country over 30 years ago with nothing more than his skill and energy, he had built a strong dojo and trained thousands of people in the art that he loved so much. In the process, he didn't become rich except in the love and respect of almost everyone he touched over the years with his kind spirit and mischievous sense of humor.
Kanai Sensei was a Japanese who became an American and in the process taught many of us Americans through the use of Japanese tools to become more of who we really were -- something that transcended both categories. Sometimes he did it with a cryptic comment that would have you wondering for days what he meant, sometimes he did it with a smile as he watched you screw up a simple technique for the umpteeth time, sometimes he did it with a verbal kick in the pants if he thought you needed it, but he always did it with an underlying sense of respect that kept many of us coming back long after we probably sensibly would have quit anything so impossibly difficult as getting to know yourself from the inside out.
So, as I write this on the Sunday before Patriot's Day, I now have a new April ritual before me. For as long as I'm here looking toward that symbol of the first glimmer of America on the Sunday night before Patriot's Day I'll stop for a minute and give thanks to the man reminded me that Home is really in the heart and in all the tiny particulars that you're able to give to people every day -- a very Japanese man who became an American and an appropriate symbol of what those lanterns were all about.
Spring has again come to Boston. Life returns. Some things have changed. Some things will always remain the same. I put my hands together in deep appreciation Sensei for reminding me that Home and the Way are two of those.