Year of Grace, Day 65. Saikai and sunflower seedheads

I once read a Japanese story – I forget now who wrote it – titled Saikai (re-encounter). My memory is such that I cannot even remember what the story was about, but the event following its reading is what I do clearly remember. It was my first time to meet someone from high school days after graduation. It was the mid-1970s and I was then a student in Gaigodai in Tokyo. And this re-encounter was with one of my Japanese friends, Kazuko Nobusawa, whom I had got in touch with through her old postal address. There was no such thing as email or Facebook then of course. By good fortune, her mother still lived there. And Kazuko and I met in Shibuya, that I definitely do remember, just by the main entrance of Seibu Department Store by the designer scarf section – not at the usual meeting place which is the statue of the faithful dog Hachiko – where thousands rendezvous. I thought we would lose each other among the usual throngs there. And it was just as well, as she had not resembled the image I held of her in my memory; nor perhaps, had I in hers.

And it so happened that not long after, I was asked to write an article for a Tokyo English newspaper, and I chose to write about that reunion. Kazuko and I had our photos taken by the newspaper –  it could have been the Mainichi – and we were sent copies of the photos. Years later I was told that my story had found its way into an English study text for high school students. It’s a pity I don’t have a copy of that text nor have I seen it, but the point I wish to make is that the context of that story, about attending an international school in the Philippines, Makati to be precise – the American School, later called the International School of Manila – and its link with Japan is most likely what held the textbook compiler’s interest.

Yesterday was the occasion of yet another lovely saikai, and Japan and the American School/International School of Manila were again the common threads that drew me and two high school mates – siblings Marian and Silvester — together. And it is interesting how, despite distance and decades, we were able to reconnect, albeit on much more complex and deeper levels than those through which we were linked in our early years. I would call this way of creating or recreating manifold complex links, re-relating. There were links to shared love of literature – the Judge Dee detective series of van Gulik – whose author was a work colleague of the siblings’ father and, as a family friend, known personally to the siblings’ mother. Insights into van Gulik’s character and humility, as well as his ancient Chinese-mandarin-like manner, emerged from our conversation. M and I shared that van Gulik had been treated by the same physician as ours in Tokyo. Links within links!

After lunch with Diena, the siblings’ mother, we proceeded to spend a delightful afternoon in a museum surrounded by beech woods – carpeting the ground and, in some trees still clothing the branches above, with their warm coppery foliage. The way to the museum passed through a rolling and soothing landscape of fields of heather among pine woods and a few picturesque farmhouses roofed with new thatching – an untypical environment for those more used to the Netherlands’ expanse of canals and level fields. It would be lovely to bike through there in the summer, and perhaps camp as well.

I have long wanted to see the Kröller-Müller Museum’s collection of van Goghs – the second largest collection worldwide, and it was an opportunity not to be missed. As a gardener with an interest in botanical art, I have been struck most by van Gogh’s fascination with flowers, and at the museum, the one representative painting on exhibit was of dried sunflower seedheads.

Perhaps because van Gogh’s other sunflower paintings have become ubiquitous, I have become more partial to a different representation. But I believe it is also because — much as I love flowers at their height of beauty — I have also come to appreciate this downphase of a flower’s life: when it begins to die back and its beauty begins to fade. Then, a flower or a plant’s beauty of structure and form are shorn of the cosmetic effects of vigour and colour and scent, and it lies in unaffected natural grace.

So it is with people too, I find. That as they age, people take on a different aura – one bestowed by experience — by all the happenings and events that touch everyone’s life – the desirable ones and the not-so-desirable ones. And how each one of us deals with these elements of our personal history leaves its unmistakable trace on us. And I find that, as with van Gogh’s sunflower seedheads, I am drawn to the lineaments of maturity and wisdom and grace etched on people’s faces, and deep in their eyes I sense their innermost beauty and hearts softened by time and grief and joy. And love too. Perhaps that is why I am fascinated by the faces of older people, by the accumulation of wisdom and experience and compassion limned in their faces.

I am grateful to have reconnected and re-related on so many levels with high school mates Marian and Silvester, and to have spent hours conversing – finding always something to talk about and share. I am thankful too that I got to meet their mother, Diena, whose shared love and knowledge of the Judge Dee series and their author added gloss to an already well-appreciated and beloved author. I believe that my re-acquaintance via Facebook with Marian and Silvester and our sharing of different aspects of our current and past lives on our daily status postings are what made the transition from childhood to mature adulthood an effortless and smooth one. Although there are those who would take a dim view of social media, in our case at least it has served as an important bridge linking and re-relating our past and distant lives and our present ones. To a shared love of good food and drink, to a shared love of certain aspects of art, and to a heartwarming day filled with much affection and warmth and grace and laughter – thank you, Marian, Silvester, and Diena! Oh and a belated happy 87th birthday to Diena, and to many more grace-filled years! Another note of thanks to the Kröller-Müller Museum for the wonderful collection of van Goghs and pastels of Odilon Redon — a hauntingly lovely portrait of a young girl and a three-panelled screen with a pegasus.