Monday, February 28, 2011

Better Caretakers

Close to fifteen years ago I attended a wedding in Sasebo, Japan. It was my first visit to Japan and having traveled from Bahrain in the Middle East the first week of May which is known as Golden Week in Japan, I was blown away by the cleanliness, the green vistas, and the hillsides blooming with azaleas. I vowed on that trip to return to Japan if the Navy ever offered. I washed my hands in the fountain outside of the shrine, wished I had on a kimono, and drank in all of the beauty. Our friends, Rob and Kimiko, were married in a Shinto ceremony wearing traditional dress. It was a visual feast to my eyes grown accustomed to brown sand, tumbling trash, and faraway camels herds.

Rob asked us to sit near the altar as part of his family. We sat facing Kimiko's family. The chairs were lined up opposite each other. We Americans felt a bit more squirmy than our Japanese counterparts sitting stoically across from us. The priest began by blessing the rice and every other item. I began to feel very anxious. It hit me sitting there watching the priest that Shintoism believes that everything thing has a spirit even the rice. I was momentarily unsure of how to process this as it conflicted with Christian teachings I had received. I settled my unrest with the thought that I was here to support my friends and thus their way of celebrating this event.

In the first year that we moved to Japan, we discovered Hayao Miyazaki and his lovely film "My Neighbor Totoro." I noted again how every living thing has a spirt in the Japanese way of thinking. Totoro is a tree spirit. I loved the film and the spiritual aspect it presents of kindness, helpfullness, childhood imaginations, and that tree and along with that tree its spirit, Totoro.

Reading John Maeda's The Laws of Simplicity" recently, I came across his discussion of Shintoism and how his parents who were Japanese used this viewpoint to see even a piece of paper imbibed with spirit which meant wading up paper or wasting anything was discouraged. Everything has a spriit so nothing is to be wasted! We must care for every little thing. I thought wow! I like how that raises the value of every little thing.

Yesterday, I was listening to an old podcast of "On Being" with the nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai. She helped to plant over 30 million trees to restore soil erosion, provide firewood, and fruit for sale for women in Kenya. Part of the story was about when she was a child there was a kind of fig tree that her mother told her that should never be used because "that is a tree of God." Her quote was, " I used to collect the firewood for my mother. And I remember my mother telling me not to collect any firewood from this tree called a fig tree, the so-called strangler fig tree. And when I asked her why not, she told me, 'That is a tree of God. We don't cut it. We don't burn it. We don't use it. They live for as long as they can, and they fall on their own when they are too old."

She went to America to study and returned five years later to find those trees had been cut down and that over the course of another five years soil erosion had drastically changed the landscape. The women walked further and further in search of clean water and firewood. These godly trees had been part of traditional African spirituality so when more of the people became Catholics, the missionaries encouraged the no longer sacred trees to be cut down and used. Interestingly, those trees and that myth had served a greater purpose to preserve the ecological system of the environment. Her inspiration was to plant trees as a way of undoing the unplanned changes. In light of these thoughts of reconciling that everything has a spirit and the Christian idea that God is every where, I am choosing to embrace this Shinto idea more fully as I see that with everything having a spirit, we are better caretakers.