Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Beauty and Sadness

Image borrowed from iStockphoto via smithsonianmag.com
Those who have read Beauty and Sadness will understand why I picked a picture of a Japanese rock garden.

Today, I finished reading Kawabata Yasunari's Beauty and Sadness (美しさと哀しみと) and it was truly a wonderful read. I started reading it a year ago but had stopped halfway, and I recently decided to read it again from the beginning. I realize most readers of Kawabata start with his most famous work Snow Country (雪国), but for some reason I picked up this one instead and it is the only work of Kawabata's that I've read so far. I don't normally do book reviews, but I'd just like to mention that I really enjoyed the atmosphere, the pacing, and the gentle writing style of this novel. It's very suitable for a cold, winter day (I'm certain that it was also a cold, winter day when I decided to buy this book last year). I'm looking forward to reading his other works.

Beauty and Sadness follows the aftermath of a love affair between a young girl, Otoko, and a married man, Oki, in post-war Tokyo. Over twenty years after the affair, Otoko has become a painter in Kyoto and lives there with her young protegee Keiko. Oki makes a visit to Kyoto one day, and the story begins from there as Keiko becomes growingly jealous with the lingering of Otoko's past.

I wanted to mention this book because I felt that it really resonates with my current perception of time, and the concept of holding on to a memory. It portrays the flow of time as slowly and inevitably eroding away our youth, yet without an overwhelmingly heavy sense of melancholy.

Lately, I've been thinking of my mom a lot. I've visited the place where she's laid to rest three times since I came back to Vancouver, and maybe these visits have contributed to my thinking about her. I miss her terribly. So terribly. I heard somewhere that a girl needs her mother increasingly more as she grows up, and perhaps that is the case with how I'm feeling now. There are so many things I'd like to ask and discuss with her, about life, about love, about happiness, about heartbreak, about doubts, about being strong, about everything.

I wish so very much that I had gotten to know her better. I wish I had asked her more about her own past, her personality, her opinions; what it was like for her to grow up and how she had managed to make her way to living the way that she did. I suppose it was harder for my child self to picture her mother as a three, four dimensional existence with depth outside of the figure of a "mother". I remember all the times she asked to sit and talk with me on the bed at night, but of which I had refused. All the years that I was mentally absent in her presence, and the following years in which I was physically absent. I have too many regrets.

So as if to make up for all those opportunities lost, in the often times that I think about her now, I seem to paint my own picture of how my mother was when she was alive. I don't necessarily glorify the dead; unfortunately, my mother and I also had many disagreements back then and I don't omit the faults from my memory. But I try to relive our conversations in my head, and bring to mind memories of the way she did things, or peculiarities, habits, hobbies, expressions. Things that I had never took special notice of, but are somehow unconsciously stored somewhere within my memory today.

But memories are strange things. Maybe they tell about the past just as much as they tell about the person remembering. Yes, my mom was a brilliantly energetic, cheerful, and strong person. Yes, I loved her very much and I still do. But perhaps, somewhere inside me is a desperate hope that somehow, some of the qualities and innocence that I assign to the memory of my mother are reflective in myself and now linger in me as well. That, somehow, the beautiful and tragic heroine who encounters an unfortunate fate completely out of her control is not my mother, but really me. Maybe part of the reason why I find sharing my feelings of losing my mother so difficult, is because I'm also afraid that my bitterness and self-pity will also seep through into my words as I voice them. Maybe why I want to talk to my mother and ask her so much, is because I want someone else to explain myself to me.

This could just be one of my ridiculous conclusions that I've come to from thinking too much. Of course my memories of the times with my mom are factual, and the personality and character that I remember her by are also very real and hopefully not very far at all from the truth. But in the end, memories are not the actual thing, and should not be confused as such. My love for my mom and my memories of her, ultimately, can only amount to but a very small and distorted piece of the weight, depth, and meaning of my mother's existence. The full magnitude of my feelings on this is hard for me to put into words, even in writing.

Thus, I think this passage from Beauty and Sadness appropriately sums it up:

    "It was out of longing that Otoko had painted her mother as young and beautiful, but perhaps there was an element of self-love there as well. Their natural resemblance could hardly account for it. Perhaps she was actually portraying herself.

    Otoko still loved Oki, her baby, and her mother, but could these loves have gone unchanged from the time when they were a tangible reality to her? Could not something of these very loves have been subtly transformed into self-love? Of course she would not be aware of it. She had been parted from her baby and her mother by death, and from Oki by a final separation, and these three still lived within her.

    Yet Otoko alone gave them this life. Her image of Oki flowed along with her through time, and perhaps her memories of their love affair had been dyed by the color of her love for herself, had even been transformed. It had never occurred to her that bygone memories are merely phantoms and apparitions. Perhaps it was to be expected that a woman who had lived alone for two decades without love or marriage should indulge herself in memories of a sad love, and that her indulgence should take on the color of self-love."

It may also be worthwhile to mention that, incidentally, this book was first published in 1964, the year my mother was born.