My first summer in Washington, D.C., I was relieved by how remote the White House seemed even though it was only three miles south of my apartment. The Iraq war was entering its third year. George W. Bush, who had just started his second term, would soon get to nominate two Supreme Court Justices. But the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court all looked slightly unreal, as though I were seeing them on TV even when I was walking past them.
Settling into my apartment near the National Cathedral, I thought of another capital further back in time: Kyoto, where the 10th-century writer Sei Shōnagon had served as a lady-in-waiting to the empress and recorded her impressions of court life in the 185 lists and vignettes that comprise The Pillow Book. I grew up in Kobe, 40 miles west of Kyoto, before moving first to Wisconsin and then to Boston. After three decades in those cooler climates, I found myself in Washington, back in the sticky heat of my childhood summers. On my morning run in Rock Creek Park, the air felt like warm water steeped through the thick foliage overhead. The imperial garden Shōnagon observed daily would have been immersed in the same liquid light in the summer. The streets in my neighborhood were lined with ornamental cherries, their dark small berries hidden behind leaves, and nearly every garden had trees and bushes that were mentioned in The Pillow Book—red maples, camellias, azaleas, peonies, white magnolia, hydrangea, bamboo.
“In the summer the nights,” Shōnagon wrote. “Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights, too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!” She could have been describing the fireflies flickering over the azaleas and Japanese laurels on our grounds and the frequent popup thunderstorms drenching the bamboo grove out back.
Pansies and violas, the staples of summer gardens in the Midwest and Northeast, were winter flowers in D.C., as they had been in Kobe, so I filled my window boxes with petunias, salvias, lantana, and snapdragons—my mother’s favorite summer annuals. I hadn’t read Shōnagon with my mother, whose suicide when I was 12 was the reason I left Kobe at 20 to become an American writer, but one morning, when I was watering my flowers, and a female ruby-throated hummingbird zipped up to my third-floor window to hover a few inches from me, I knew this was a visitation from an entity that was half my mother and half Shōnagon.
Both women had loved flowers and clothes, equally drawn to nature and artifice. Shōnagon, who included “sparrows feeding their young” on her list of “Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster,” never encountered a hummingbird—there are no hummingbirds in Japan—but if she had seen the one at my window, she would have pronounced her “resplendent.” Although the female hummingbird lacked the jewel-like gorget of her male counterpart, her iridescent green back resembled a jacket worn open over her white chest and belly. When she spread her wings, a line of white appeared on the tips of her dark green tail feathers, like the crisp hem of an undergarment intentionally revealed. Court ladies of Shōnagon’s day wore 12 layers of silk to produce a similar effect.
Shōnagon believed that beautiful clothes featured a natural symmetry in their construction. “I cannot stand a woman who wears sleeves of unequal width,” she wrote about a popular fashion fad of her time. “If she has several layers of robes, the added weight on one side makes her entire costume lopsided and most inelegant.” My mother, too, preferred simple elegance over dramatic flair: A-line dresses, tailored blouses with straight, knee-length skirts. She would have been appalled by the bellbottoms, maxi skirts, harem pants, and palazzo pants I wore in the decades after her death (and she would have been right—these flamboyant styles are not flattering on a small person). Both women advocated wearing colors that harmonized with the season. Pale greens and pinks in spring put the wearer—and the observer—in mind of new leaves and flower buds even if the weather was actually damp and dismal. Wearing beautiful clothes meant uplifting others’ spirits as well as your own.
Little is known about Shōnagon except that she was born around 965 A.D. to the family of a provincial government official, went to the capital in 993 to serve Empress Sadako, and left the court in 1000 when Sadako died in childbirth. In one of the entries, Shōnagon claimed she wrote The Pillow Book for her own amusement to ponder “odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material,” though the book-in-progress was regularly circulated at the palace. Sadako was the first wife of the young emperor (he was 10 and she 14 when they married in 990), but there were several rival wives and consorts, each backed by a political faction. Shōnagon, who wrote admiringly about the clever conversations between the empress and emperor (who mostly talked about poetry), never referred to the numerous political intrigues, or even to the fact that after the death of her powerful father, Sadako lost the emperor’s favor to her cousin, Akiko. Neither did she comment on the famines, fires, and outbreaks of smallpox that anyone at court would have heard about.
But that’s not to say she idealized court life or human nature. Many of her entries are about human foibles, including her own. Among the list of her “Hateful Things” are
To envy others and to complain about one’s own lot; to speak badly about people; to be inquisitive about the most trivial matters and to resent and abuse people for not telling one, or, if one does manage to worm out some facts, to inform everyone in the most detailed fashion as if one had known all from the beginning. (Translations by Ivan Morris)
I don’t think she was claiming to have only witnessed these hateful behaviors in other people. In “Pleasing Things,” she confessed, “I realize that it is very sinful of me, but I cannot help being pleased when someone I dislike has a bad experience,” only to follow up with a particularly innocent remark: “It is a great pleasure when the ornamental comb that one has ordered turns out to be pretty.” Her mind was as nimble as a hummingbird: dipping into one flower, then the next, hovering in the air for a moment and then flying backward. If Shōnagon didn’t comment on public affairs, her private observations had a wide range as well as a sharp focus.
Unlike my friends who call themselves news junkies, I found it a chore to read the paper and watch the news every day. Living in the 21st century, I had responsibilities that Shōnagon did not: to stay informed, vote, and help promote social justice and environmental protection. But I had always kept my writing separate from my duties as a citizen. For the next 11 years, with Shōnagon as my patron, I continued to write about my own “odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material,” though residing in our nation’s capital. Especially during the eight years of the Obama administration, I felt completely justified.
The day after the 2016 election, students were huddled in the hallways of the university where I teach; many of them were crying. One of my colleagues, an Indian-American novelist who grew up in Kentucky, said that a stranger had stopped her sister in the small town where she lived and told her, “Pretty soon, there will be fewer people who look like you.” I had spent the election day walking from the polling place to a museum to see a Van Gogh exhibit so I could write an essay about the recurring images of lampposts in his paintings. Shōnagon would have loved the subtle changes I noticed in the angles of light in his paintings, but now, with the lives of thousands of people—immigrants like me, but not as fortunate—at risk, I couldn’t think of anything less important. It was time to part company with Sei Shōnagon.
I didn’t want to sit at my window contemplating the trees outside, the birds that came to my feeder, and the hours I spent with my two cats, while people were deported to countries they barely remembered and the advances made over the years in women’s rights and environmental protection were demolished. In the past, even for causes I strongly believed in, all I did was to donate money and hope for the best from the safety of my home. There was no excuse for passivity anymore, I decided. I needed to participate in some public events and write about them.
But at the women’s march I attended, I found myself covertly scrutinizing the different versions of the pink “pussy hats,” trying to figure out which ones had been knit seamlessly, 3D from start to finish, and which had been made as a flat piece, then sewn together. The only insight I had about the march was that cats were its main symbol and no wonder: for centuries, strong women and cats had been maligned in pretty much the same way. Everywhere I went, it seemed, I was doomed to notice only the trivial and the irrelevant. I didn’t write a single essay or op-ed about the appalling injustices around me. Even in my journal, I scarcely mentioned the daily accumulations of outrage.
Except on a rare occasion when the blinds could be raised because no man was in the vicinity, Shōnagon observed the garden through their carefully angled slats. The multi-layered clothes she wore, as well as the code of modesty, prevented her from going outside to wander around the palace grounds, much less the rest of the capital. The empress and her ladies-in-waiting only left the palace on group excursions to view the cherry blossoms or the autumn leaves, hear the cuckoo’s song, or attend religious festivals. They traveled in a caravan of ox-drawn carriages and saw most of the sights through the vehicles’ windows.
I would have come back to Shōnagon sooner or later anyway, but the pandemic expedited our reunion. With the city in lockdown, staying home all day became a necessity, perhaps even a civic duty. We were all living like Shōnagon, who rarely saw outsiders face to face. Numerous courtiers came to the palace every day to deliver messages to the empress, but Shōnagon only spoke to them through the blinds that separated the interior corridor where she sat from the verandah that wrapped around the building, where visitors stopped. Any letter or gift they brought for the empress was slid under the blinds in a well-practiced no-contact delivery. Although Shōnagon shared her quarters with a dozen other women, their layered clothes would have kept them six feet away from each other without even trying, and besides, Japanese people have never been fond of standing close (unless forced to do so, for example, on a commuter train) or touching.
Enjoying long quiet days with my cats, and talking to my friends on the phone, I wasn’t lonely. I only missed one thing about going out: getting dressed up. So I took comfort in what Shōnagon said in “Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster”: “To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.” She wouldn’t have stayed all day in her pajamas or gone to the grocery store—the only place I went anymore—in sweaty running clothes. I also understood why my mother, who didn’t go out except to shop for groceries or attend PTA meetings at my school, changed out of the shirt and slacks she wore around the house and put on a dress to go to the supermarket. In the 10 centuries between her and Shōnagon, not much had changed in how often or how far from home a respectable woman was allowed to roam. My mother, too, had led a life of self-quarantine. The dress she wore to the grocery store was subtly pretty but more casual than the one for attending a parent-teacher conference. When you seldom left the house, each outing deserved careful planning. Coming up with the right grocery-shopping outfit every week gave me the inner pleasure my mother and Shōnagon had known. When the mask I ordered online turned out to be pretty, I understood how Shōnagon felt about her ornamental comb.
Shōnagon didn’t criticize the political leaders of her time, but she hated vanity and hypocrisy. “It is absurd of people to get angry because one has gossiped about them,” she wrote. “How can anyone be so simple as to believe that he is free to find fault with others while his own foibles are passed over in silence? Yet when someone hears that he has been discussed unfavorably he is always outraged, and this I find most unattractive.” If Shōnagon had read the nightly Tweets from our president, or seen him holding up the Bible in front of an empty church after dispersing peaceful protestors with tear gas, she would no doubt have called his behavior “most distasteful” or “hateful in the extreme.”
Shōnagon also understood the importance of compassion. “Sympathy is the most splendid of all qualities,” she declared. “Compassionate remarks, of the type ‘How sad for you’ to someone who has suffered a misfortune or ‘I can imagine what he must be feeling’ about a man who has had some sorrow, are bound to give pleasure, however casual and perfunctory they may be.” She suggested that “a friendly remark passed on to less intimate people” might be more meaningful than sympathetic inquiries to a close friend, who would be expecting them anyway. “This all sounds simple enough, yet hardly anyone seems to bother,” she lamented. “Altogether it seems as if men and women with good heads rarely have good hearts. Yet I suppose there must be some who are both clever and kind.”
The virus is still spreading. For days, a crowd gathered near the White House to protest the killing of George Floyd and numerous other acts of racially motivated violence. Recent events make clear that activities I take for granted—running, bird-watching—can put African-American men in danger. At the Zoom graduation reception for the MFA program I teach in, I was moved by the remarks several colleagues made, encouraging our students to keep writing in and about these turbulent times. “But it’s still okay to write about your childhood and your current life at home, too,” I found myself saying, all the same. In the preceding months, in the weekly updates that I asked my students to submit, once our classes began meeting only online, many had shared baking recipes, pet pictures, and stories about their home life. I knew them better now through their accounts of trying to run for the first time in years, or meeting a sister in the parking lot of a grocery store so they could talk to each other through their masks as they walked up and down the aisles, six feet apart.
At my grandparents’ house in the country, my maternal grandmother offered incense, tea, and doll-sized cups of rice and vegetables to the spirits of our ancestors at the Buddhist altar in the room where my grandfather meditated, wrote in his diary, and practiced his calligraphy. In a corner of the kitchen, there was a Shinto altar with a dozen amulets from local shrines that my mother, uncles, and aunts had gotten for my grandmother, to ensure traffic safety, success in education (this was meant for my cousins and me), success in business (for our fathers), continued health (for every one of us). Once a week at a roadside altar near her house, my grandmother offered flowers to the spirit of the bear killed by someone in the village before any of us was born. My cousins and I, even our parents, thought she was being superstitious.
But maybe she was setting a good example for me. Living through the pandemic and the social turmoil requires more than one belief system or spiritual tradition. The literature of social commentary and political protest goes back centuries to the Bible our president held up like a prop, to the teachings of Buddha and Mohammed, the philosophies and the tragedies of the Greeks and earlier, and continues daily now in the books, newspaper reports and op-eds, social media posts, and blogs through which our peers are helping us make sense of the world. But our private lives, each with its constantly changing mixture of beauty and ugliness, safety and danger, comforts and anxieties, also deserve scrutiny. So I’m reinstalling Sei Shōnagon where she should be. She encourages me to reflect on what I know intimately and still struggle to understand. In my grandparents’ house, her altar would be in the room reserved to shelter an ancestral spirit.
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