Year of Grace, Day 67. Repeating history, Part 2.

My Uncle Jose – my mother’s younger brother – got more than his fair share of beauty — and brains as well. He was the most good-looking of all 6 siblings, with deep-set eyes and a fine sculptured nose on a narrow face – throwbacks to the family’s Spanish genes. He went to join Uncle Mariano, who preferred to be known as Uncle Bob, then living in the States, and studied criminology there. When I was 10 or 11, I cannot recall exactly, Uncle Jose came to live with us briefly in Manila. I remember him now because he actively encouraged my bookishness. Every week he gave me a set of words to look up – of those I remember “apostate”, the very first one; “lagniappe”, and “pecuniary.” This must be the very first time I have ever used all of those words in one sentence! One day he brought me a book – The Diary of Anne Frank: it was my introduction to the Holocaust. When I’d read it, I was left disturbed and then relieved that at the time — the 1960s — wide-scale persecution of Jews and other minorities was no longer official policy in Germany and that the Jews had established a haven of safety in their own homeland, Israel. That was over half a century ago.

On my birthday this year I received a book on netsuke – those exquisitely carved toggles that secured a pouch or small box when tucked into a kimono – written by the English potter Edmund de Waal. He had inherited a collection of over 200 from his uncle then living in Tokyo. In tracing the history of those intricately carved treasures in his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, he uncovered his mother’s family’s personal experience of the Holocaust in Austria and France. Of the Ephrussi family’s collection of paintings, sculpture and other art, as well as furniture, only the tiny netsuke had survived intact, secreted by a faithful family maid under her mattress throughout the war.

The Dreyfus affair – that infamous persecution and inhuman exile of a French Jewish army officer in the 1890s of which I learned in my World History class in high school — had a part to play in de Waal’s book. One of the Ephrussis – Charles — had supported Parisian impressionist artists by buying or commissioning paintings when hardly anyone was prepared to buy them. But when French society was sundered between those who sympathized with the unjustly accused Dreyfus – the Dreyfusards – and the anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards, artists who had previously benefitted from Charles Ephrussi’s financial support turned against him. All except Monet. It is against this background that I can now make sense of various references throughout Monet’s biography (read years before) to the troubles that Clemenceau, one of the Dreyfusards, went to Giverny – Monet’s famous garden — to seek a restful haven from.

In my previous post, I wrote of having read halfway through Robert Harris’s book on the Dreyfus affair – An Officer and a Spy – given me by a German friend. I have finished it now, and it ended on a happy note: the narrator of Harris’s fiction – Colonel Picquart — was vindicated in the end: appointed a Cabinet Minister by Clemenceau and promoted to Brigadier General. Dreyfus was eventually declared innocent of espionage in 1906, once a Count Esterhazy was confirmed as the actual guilty party who had passed on notes and copies of a weapons manual to the Germans, as proved by Picquart’s investigation. But perhaps the anti-Dreyfusards had the final word decades later – very few French Jews survived deportation to the Nazi concentration camps.

Why am I writing about this now? Because yesterday in Paris, 3 men broke into a house where a young Jewish couple were staying, raped the  girl, withdrew all the money from their bank account, and took all the jewelry and valuables from the house. The reason? Because they were Jews. Worldwide in 2014, it is open season on Jews. Even in American university campuses – in a country where once Jews found a place of safety. Especially so in Israel – also once a haven of safety for Jews from all the world’s continents from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and expressly established for that purpose. Every single day anti-Semites come closer to their avowed goal of total annihilation of Jews. When they cannot do it physically, they assassinate verbally in the international media and other fora. Just over half a century after 6 million Jews and uncountable other minorities were exterminated by the Nazi regime, there has resurfaced the same age-old hatred for this one race. No longer confined to one country such as France or Germany, Jew-hatred has become a global pandemic.

One has to ask why there is so much hate towards Jews and Israel worldwide. And you perhaps are  asking, why should I, a Filipina, care? I care because I care about injustice. I care because one group of people is unfairly treated. All over this world, there are those who care about wildlife and biodiversity and their disappearance from this earth. As a researcher of social ecology interested in the preservation of biodiversity, I care deeply about the earth and its biodiversity – its biodiversity in the widest sense — not merely of plants and  wild animals, but also of the genus Homo sapiens,  an animal speciesI am beginning to doubt that specific “sapiens”  in light of all the unsapient acts humans have been and continue to be capable of. Here is one ethnic group, one among the diverse groups that make this earth and this world of ours a richer and more interesting world. And we – who care about our pets, the orangutan in the forests, the lions and elephants and whales and other charismatic wild animals in the forests and savannahs and the seas; who denounce the cutting down of forests and age-old trees – shouldn’t we care as much about one of our kind that is a similarly threatened and endangered species? Isn’t this a convoluted form of self-loathing – hating one group of humans?

One group of people that has contributed much – so overwhelmingly much in all spheres of human endeavour – in diverse aspects of culture and science, business and philosophy, ethics and religion, popular entertainment and medicine, information and other modern technology. And yes, philanthropy too – wherever in the world disaster strikes – an earthquake, a tsunami, typhoons, and recently Ebola — there is unfailingly an immediate humanitarian Israeli presence. Perhaps therein lies the root of all this focused human self-loathing – unadulterated envy of the unfair share of talents and skills showered in overflowing measure on them by the Creator of the Universe: manifold blessings in compensation for their being unjustly despised from generation to generation.

My journal of gratitude is in its 67th day. What do I have to be grateful for on this day in the light of this unfathomable and sickening state of affairs in our world? Perhaps gratefulness is not an emotion I can rise to at this moment. I can merely remain positive and hopeful. I would like to think that we – the human species, Homo sapiens – are capable of rational, sapient thinking and behaviour. I would like to reserve a space in my heart for hope – hope that all that is good and positive will prevail and triumph over the evil and negativity that threaten our species and our world. Because we, as a species, are the lesser for hating one of our own, for killing one of our own, for trying to obliterate one of our own.

As John Donne concluded centuries ago in the poem, No Man is an Island: “Each man’s death diminishes me,/ For I am involved in mankind.” Centuries earlier, a disciple of Jesus, an early humanitarian – whether you believe in his divinity or not is irrelevant — quotes him in The New Testament, Matthew 25:40: “Truly I say to you, that whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do also to me.”Jesus as a persona is not confined to Christian theology; he is regarded as a prophet in Islam.  Moreover Eastern philosophy echoes the Christian view that what affects one of us affects the whole.  As Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics writes,  “The essence of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events…. All things are … interdependent and inseparable parts of [the] … whole….”

When we indulge in hate and seek to destroy others, we ultimately destroy ourselves.


Year of Grace, Day 55. Futon

I first arrived in Tokyo almost half a century ago, and the feeling that I remember from that first encounter with a foreign land was one of a barely contained inner thrill. I can imagine that an explorer – of new  or unknown lands – would have a similar surge of excitement, with perhaps some prickles of anxiety thrown in, in anticipation of discovering something never seen or experienced before. I liken that sensation to having a slight case of butterflies in the stomach, but it is not an unpleasant feeling. I still get this prickle of excitement, even now, whenever I am in any place that I do not know and have never been — where everything and everywhere is novel and unknown and begs and waits to be known.

This intense curiosity to see what is out there is my earliest and most vivid memory of childhood. Just beginning to heave myself up and stand, I recall  holding myself up at one corner of our dining room table, then covered with some kind of cloth – an oilcloth most likely, called a mantel – and feeling quite aggrieved that I could not see the top of that table from where I was. It was such a strong feeling of frustration at not being tall enough, and not being able to articulate that I wished to see, to know what was up there, so near yet way beyond my reach and my eyes and my hands.

Those first few hours in Tokyo, I remember glancing out of the minivan that came to fetch the lot of us, seven new Mombusho scholars, from the airport – then Haneda — trying to make out from the misted windows what was out there in that dim, densely packed urban landscape. I remember my companions chattering excitedly all around me, but I was engrossed with what might be just outside. There was nothing much for my eyes to pick out as the minivan sped through empty streets, isolated from and elevated above the shadowy crowded structures of urban living below. It was well past midnight – it must’ve been around 2 or 3 in the morning – and all was still and, remarkably for such a huge metropolis, hushed. Our minivan seemed the only one on the road. Our flight had been terribly delayed. My impression was of a super clean, smooth, and complex futuristic road system – elevated expressways crossing each other this way and that at all angles, above and below. Such a world of difference from Manila’s gaping potholes and litter-blown streets. It was chilly too on that early spring morning.

Our first stop was to drop off the postgraduates and one of our sempai (older colleague) at what I would later know as the Komaba Ryugakusei Kaikan – the foreign students’ dorm near one of Tokyo University’s campuses. We reached our own dorm, a brand-new one as I was to learn, some while later and after being greeted by a welcoming committee and signing forms, we were shown to our rooms. I remember it as if it were just yesterday – my room being second from the left as you enter. It was on the ground floor.

My first task was to make sense of the Japanese way of bedmaking. There was a bed – familiar enough – a Western-style bed, along the inner wall. There was a pile of white – brilliantly white and precisely folded – bedclothes on them. I remember seeing a Japanese quilt cover for the first time with its round cut- out front edged with a decorative border, seemingly crocheted, and I can still hear the sharp, tearing sound – immensely satisfying to one, like me, who has fun popping the bubbles on bubblewrap — as one draws apart the layers and folds of stiffly starched bedlinen. I fell gratefully onto the bed once I had finished making it. My first impression of the heavy futon was how unwieldy it was, but I was immediately convinced of how right it was in that chilly room. How absolutely right its weight was, as it immediately comforted and warmed me as I settled in under it, snug and cozy. I fell asleep at once — it had been a long, tiring, and exciting day.

I have been in love with traditional Japanese beds ever since. It is such a comforting sight to behold in a ryokan or a minshuku or a traditional house — a set of futon all fully made up on a sweet-smelling tatami floor – the lower thicker and more solid one of the shikibuton and the fluffy top quilt, the traditional textile motifs peeking through the cut-out front panel. And the pillow! It is packed more solidly than a Philippine or Western pillow, and thus a bit uncomfortable for those who like their heads to sink into it – but when it has a panel insert filled with grainheads – wheat or rice — their rustling and that curious bumpy texture that I like to run my fingers over, strangely enough send me off into a deep, peaceful slumber like nothing else has ever before or since. There is nothing like the comfort of slipping into a Japanese futon in its starched, super white splendour. Do I sound nostalgic for the days of my life in Japan?

On this the 55th day of my gratefulness journal — things to be grateful for: I had a marvellous day yesterday – which turned out sunny despite the forecast for rain; a positive outcome for something I had hoped for; and for still being able to call back and record snippets of my childhood and youth despite a memory through which certain things slither away like quicksilver even though they took place just a few minutes ago.  Today it is a typical grey autumn day here in Bonn, and I am glad to be home, warm and dry.

On a day like this, I am reminded of autumn days in Japan. Here are some photos of a first unexpected snowfall around Lake Biwa, taken years and years ago so that their colours have faded. One of them is of a persimmon (kaki) tree  — bare but for its cheery fruits still hanging — a familiar and iconic sight that never fails to gladden my eyes in the cold months of the year.