THE WOMAN ON THE TOKYO TRAIN

This is about the woman, a young woman, that I saw on the Tokyo commuter rail taking me from busy Tokyo station to the station where I would catch a taxi back to Tachikawa Air Base. That’s where I was staying in a pleasant little, single-person dwelling on the base during a two-week temporary duty leave. In truth, “temporary duty leave” was merely the technical designation for the trip a military member might make from their base in Korea to Japan for, essentially, a vacation. For some it might be for duty. For me and others, it was just a two-week vacation, a break.

As I recall it was rush hour. I’d gone into Tokyo just to look around. I could not begin to recall just where I went or what I did on that particular day. It was September, 1970. I was a standing strap-hanger in a nearly full, though not jam-packed car. Japanese trains were clean, in my memory, and commuters polite, perhaps especially to a non-Japanese visitor. But I did not interact with anyone on this particular trip. I was glad it wasn’t more crowded.

Meanwhile, the train sped through the sprawling miles of densely packed fringes of metropolitan Tokyo, all fascinatingly terraced or stacked to accommodate one of the most populous cities in the world. I don’t recall, on that particular trip –standing in the middle as I was — much of what we passed. None of it, really. My eyes were fixed on the people and I only recall that young woman

She was sitting right before me. She was wearing a light top coat. She was somewhat heavy set, had long black hair. Her eyes were downcast. Never once did I see her look up. She was pressed in between other commuters and they would rise to get off, others would sit down — at least I seem to remember that. That would be the likely flow of traffic on a commuteer train.

The point is that she never once looked up, paid no attention to the movement around her — not at every stop where her body and the bodies of those beside her might sway barely perceptibly with the inertia of the train slowing, stopping, then starting up again. She was unmoving; she just stared down. There might have been a purse on her lap, her hands folded around it.

Then I noticed a tear streaming down her cheek. Then another…and another…. She did not wipe them away. She was immersed in a private sorrow and did not wish it to be known or to be observed. But, of course, I was observing this and wondered, why — why was she crying? I didn’t get the sense anyone on either side of her noticed that she was crying. (Perhaps they did and, in polite Japanese fashion, ignored the fact.) What was laying on the mind and heart of this young woman, perhaps a little older than me, perhaps headed home from work in Tokyo, for whom this commute might have been a daily routine while for me it was part of a joyous, solitary, exotic adventure in a strange land? I would not pass this way again, not likely. I haven’t been back to Japan….I recall and certainly have forgotten many details about those two weeks, visiting monuments and famous streets. I have not forgotten this small moment.

I could only surmise at the cause of her sorrow: trouble at work, trouble at home, broken romance, a death in the family, or of a friend, a bad medical diagnosis….

Of course, for some, a nameless but intense melancholy can come unexpectedly and overwhelm every other emotion unexpectedly. Like a tsunami…

In overly idle moments before this same laptop, I have recently watched on Youtube wobbly, terrifying cell phone video of a tsunami overwhelming Japanese seafront neighborhoods, people in shock, shouting and running for their lives, boats, cars and houses being swept away. Massive catastrophe, massive terror and sorrow. It is not, please God, likely that most of us in America will experience that particular character of catastrope in our lifetime. Such hazards are most often a potential reality for people living in South Asian regions where many of us Americans could only imagine living. But then — earthquakes that trigger tsunamie could strike either coast, especially the California coast….

And here in America, this summer– and even in the last couple of days — there have been sudden, extraordinary, deadly wild fires to the west, cutting through neighborhoods, consuming houses in minuters, trapping and killing people. And the floods! Horrible flooding in Kentucky. Shocking, unexpected, life destroying and mind-altering misfortunes that change lives forever. …

But I feel this was no grand sorrow I was witnessing on that Tokyo train. Just one of life penetrating small sorrows. But enough to make this young woman sit quietly crying on a public conveyance.

On that Tokyo train, where east was meeting west in that moment, everything, including the way people interact or register joy or sorrow, might well have been conditions by culturally distinct conventions and therefore be different from anything I might have recognized or expected. But here I felt sure I was seeing a quietly crying woman who could have been any one of us.

Should I have tapped her shoulder, given a wordless, trans-cultural expression of sympathy? No, that plainly would have been wrong. She clearly did not want that attention — would have been embarrassed.

When the train reached my stop, she was, if I recall accurately, more alone on that long train seat, eyes still cast downward, unmoving. Wherever she was going, it was farther out in the suburbs than where I was going. What if I’d had a sprig of flowers! (Ridiculous notion!) What if I could have dropped it in her lap before I moved to the door? Seen her glance up at my departing form, smiling…? This is almost vanity to think such things!

But again…

What if I had spoke Japanese –many westerners in Japan do — and could have leaned over and uttered some consoling word in her ear?

For all I know, this normally laudable American entiment might have violated some Asian shibbolith — who knows? Whatever…

This was fifty-two years ago this month. I didn’t mean to write so much about it. A simple sorrow, simply observed would have been better.

But I hope that was the most transitory of sorrows for that young woman. Who knows? Perhaps it had lifted and vanished by the time she reached her destination. A good little cry, and it was over. I hope so. I hope, if she’s still alive, she has had a happy, fulfilling life.

Living or dead, I’m thinking of her, obviouly. And praying for her. And while I remember the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower, The Ginza…I will also always remember the young woman on the Tokyo train.

MARK IS 60

My nephew Mark O’Hara, young, it seemed, just yesterday, turned 60 today. He was born August 25, 1962. On that night ( believe he was born at night), I was sitting on Jimmy Sweeney’s back steps on McKone Street, Dorchester, watching some kids play cards and thinking how I didn’t seem to have the gumption to join in. Would I look like someone who didn’t know how to play cards? How did the word get to me that I was an uncle again? Did I already know this fact? This was my sister’s fourth child. She would have one more, Kathy, in February, 1964.

As for Jimmy Sweeney, who, like me, was 16, my memory moves to an early summer’s day the following year. I joined him and, I think, Peter Ivans and Billy Martin and maybe somebody else in a walk across an empty field and under the Southeast Expressway from the First Boston 10-Pin Bowling Alley. It was dark, but we were going to go swimming. I was always trying to fit in. And I really didn’t quite fit in.

Jimmy was talking about the girls that hung out with us. He had Kathy Graham from Westglow Street as a girlfriend in those days. It’s interesting. I’d had a crush on Kathy in the 6th grade. Jimmy was talking spiritedly about how “they (the girls) wanted “it” but were afraid of it.” I think all of us were afraid of “it” in those days. I’m not even sure, being very naive and sheltered, that I was sure what “it” was. And none of us, I suspect, had had “it” at that point and my own sense was that “it” was something you had only under sacred, marital circumstances. My reticense on that score was extreme. I was afraid of “it”, too, I guess. (It would be about six years before –under very non-marital, immoral circumstances — “it” came about for me — that circumstances would converge in my restive, advancing, virginal life that I would, for pay, in the tenderloin called An Jung-ri outside the gates of Camp Humphrey, Pyong-Taek, Republic of Korea — partake of “it”, twice in one night. It was a terrible way to be introduced to something so sacred.

But there we were, about four of us, walking over to Tenean Beach,our little city beach, in the dark, Jimmy talking about “it.”

Once there, once in our bathing suits that must have been under our clothes, we were all a little skittish about the dark water at fairly high tide in the enclosed urban inlet that was Dorchester Bay whose actual relationship to the reality of the open ocean seemed as remote as a puddle might be to the Great Lakes. It was Jimmy Sweeney who suddenly, boldly made for the water, running and spashing up to his waist, then diving. We followed. Then everybody moved over to the high old wooden pilings of the old Lawley Shipyard at the far end of the beach and Jimmy and Peter and others climbed up and I, again typically, stayed in the water below, too timid to climb up and balance on the large, oil-soaked old beam. Somebody said, “it’s okay, don’t worry, stay there” to me. Maybe it was Jimmy. That made me feel better, accepted.

And I guess we dried off — did we have towels? — and that was that. I probably went home. We all went home. It was the night of June 5, 1963, early summer.

The next day I was at my post outside the Elm Farm supermarket down behind my Neponset Avenue house where I loaded groceries in cars. Greg Burke with another kid (don’t recall who) came running across the parking lot and said to me, “Greg, Jimmy Sweeney is dead.”

What?

It was June 6, 1963, my sister Anne’s 4th wedding anniversary. D-Day, too, of course. But it was also the day of the funeral, I believe, for Pope John XIII. Catholic Schools were out. Jimmy Sweeney went to a public school (English). He played hookie to join his Catholic school friends in order to go diving and swimming down at the old remnants of the railroad bridge that once crossed the Neponset River south of the Neponset River Bridge. It’s all gone now, and was fairly dangerous. Jimmy had leaped or dove into the water and one of the other kids –I’ve been told — cannonballed him, just horsing around. There was a collision. Jimmy didn’t come up. It must have been a terrible moment. He must have been knocked unconscious. Police were eventually summoned by someone (who is still around who was there that day?) and a diver named Pasquale pulled Jimmy out of the river. That was according to a small item in the newspaper headlined BRIDGE DIVE KILLS DORCHESTER YOUTH.

But was it a dive, or the dive on top of him? There was a wake and a big funeral and burial at Holyhood Cemetery way off in Brookline, real foreign territory for us Dorchester kids — but it’s where the Kennedy parents are buried, and some of the children, and former Mayor Maurice Tobin, and my maternal grandmother. I’ve never been back to Jimmy’s grave. On the job once, I did show a young phographer the Kennedy grave, impressing him, I’m sure. And I looked for–and found — my grandmother’s grave up the hill.

But that’s the memory thread that comes out when I think of the night of August 25, 1962, the birthday of Mark Aherne, 60 tonight.

It’s midnight, the clock gong is ringing in the parlor. It’s August 26, the day I had my last drink of alcohol in 1987. My 35th anniversary then.

Every day is something, isn’t it?

IN AMERICA…

In America there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is –that is what makes America what it is. –Gertrude Stein

Though popular historiography has stressed the ‘Age of the Robber Barons’ and deplored the gross materialism of the epoch (i.e., the closing decades of the 19th Century), this hostile view is not borne out by the facts, which display a panorama of general progress in which all classes shared and in which all intellectual and cultural interests were abudently displayed — a panorama, indeed, highlighted by the emergence of quintessentially American geniuses.

-Paul Johnson, A History of the American People

Gertrude Stein, probably viewing her homeland from Paris, Brit Paul Johnson viewing it from a nearly equal distance in England. Views of our homeland, over a century or more later keep tumbling and rearranging kaleidoscopically as our social and cultural realities advance or, perhaps, retrogress. Less open space, for sure, more or less materialistic, as ever. People pouring across the border; geniuses, variously engaged in the culture, still seemingly in good supply,quirky Gertrude Stein among them, now a memory. But again, an ex-patriate. We lost people, we gained millions more. We shift about, restless, angry, anxious. America, the Beautifully Open and Complex and Troubled.

Our future uncertain, as ever. God help us.

BELIEF

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life.

American philosoper Charles Sanders Peirce, from How to Make Our Ideas Clear

The word “God,” so “capitalised” (as we Americans say), is the definable proper name, signifying Ens necessarium*; in my belief, really creator of all three Universes of Experience.

*Necessary Being

Charles Sanders Peirce, A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God, 1908

MAY’S BEGINNING, POEM’S BEGINNING, NO SPECIAL RELEVANCE

Between me and the sunset, like a dome

Against the glory of a world on fire,

Now burned a sudden hill,

Bleak, round, and high, by flame-lit height made higher,

With nothing on it for the flame to kill

Save one who moved and was alone up there

To loom before the chaos and the glare

As if he were the last god going home

Unto his last desire.

-“Man Against The Sky”

-Edward Arlington Robinson

APRIL

The end of April, actually. 2022. Every kind of feeling, every memory, fear, regret, maybe hope.

There was a lilac behind our house on Neponset Avenue. It bloomed about now. Someone pulled it up, gone. Also the swamp maple my brother Doug decided to plant, supported by a broom stick when it was new and fragile. It grew and grew. It’s gone.

April, the cruellest month. So said the poet. Months, every month can be cruel.

Those gone, not forgotten. Missed. The wind chime jangles gently. It is cold up north. I took Diane to the airport before dawn. She texted, “cold, Wry very cold.” She probably meant, “Very, very….” But wry. That says it, too.

Someone posted an old Ch 12 WPRI, Providence newscast on FB — Monday, March 30, 1987. That was four months before I arrived there after my time at Channel 7/ Boston. I was noon anchor. It was a good two years, though I’d expected to be at Channel 7 for the rest of my career. It did not work out that way.

I am missing a reunion of broadcast people in my old neighborhood this Saturday night. I am sad at that. But my solitude here — maybe at last I can sort out some things. Aren’t we always trying to sort out things?

Monday, March 30, 1987. The edge of a lost April. “Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The past in which that was written is far, far past.

I walked alone in the nature preserve, exotic birds near me, hot, breezy.

I try to call my brother Bill in his confinement, aging, infirm yet, my sister-in-law tells me, in good spirits, having come back from the hospital , recovering –thank God — from a bout with a mild strain of the Covid virus.

Thank you, God, for everything.

I must make spring feel better than this, even if no roses are blooming in Ukraine.

April this year is on the edge of sorrow. Sadness.

MARRIAGE

There are words signifying human arrangements or states of life which should never be emptied of their true meaning. Marriage and all that it signifies is such a word.

This remains true even if every soul in our culture succumbs to the temptation to treat marriage merely as a fungible civic “institution” or solely as means to a beneficial personal financial end. It becomes a mere human contract, and, compared to a contract to buy or sell land, is perhaps not nearly as serious or consequential.

The word marriage in our culture still implies love, intimacy, total, “ideally” unbreakable commitment between human beings. I think many would agree that it should be “sacred,” however one wishes to interpret that word. In the religious culture I embrace, it is one of seven Sacraments. It is prohibited to regard it merely as a civic, possibly temporary and reversible arrangement. It is eternal. It must be borne through all human trials of sickness or poverty. The universal evidence reveals it to be a source of enormous joy and fulfillment for multitudes and a natural and desireable state of being for all humanity in all times.

The Catholic Church and much of the secular culture still regards marriage, of necessity, to be between a man and a woman. And religious and non-religious peoples alike probably never expected that fundamental fact to be upended.

But that’s where we are in our culture. There is no telling where it will lead us.

Marriage is also fundamentally supposed to be about new life — children, family. This comes about through an intimacy that God-oriented people regard to be special and sacred and, in Catholic teaching, reserved only for the sacramentally married. The culture at large flaunts this shibolith in a spirit of indifference, even mockery, and in the name of “progress”. Like all the most special and sacred things that exist, the powerful human drive for intercourse can be grandly abused, but remains an infinitely serious form of human expression. No one, even the most unreligious and secular-minded, denies that, though many deny that abstinence is possible or desirable, sometimes regarding it to be “unnatural” in the wake of the so-called “sexual revolution”. (Whenever I hear that line urging us to “crown our soul with self-control” from “America the Beautiful”, I believe I’m hearing lyricist Katharine Lee Bates propounding the pre-modern understanding of how we should deal with everything from anger and hunger to sex. I guess that was the “old” America, “from sea to shining sea.”)

But in the new, still beautiful America, we have gradually embraced polymorphous means of being intimate, and unnatural means of conceiving children. No telling where this will lead us, either.

Sex, seen as merely a primal impulse or appetite, has largely been “divorced” — another troubling word — by much of the whole world’s culture from marriage. So has the necessity of procreation as a unific, inseperable aspect of sex.

So many, like me, are either guilty bystanders or active, sinful collaborators in this cultural unraveling –which millions define as “progress”.

Random sexual, temporary parings between the male and the female of the species are, based on scientific evidence, premordial. They are common in the animal kingdom. But the arrangment called marriage is for humans and involves a number of human norms and understandings. Sometimes people, regardless of their age, come together in this bond out of shortsighted immaturity and emotional infirmity. ( I ain’t preaching. I’m as frail and shortsighted as the next person.) We all know about those early, ill-considered, half-forgotten marriages. Those who engaged in them failed to grasp the seriousness or nature of the journey upon which they were about to embark – or didn’t know their future spouse as well as they thought they did. The list of problems goes on.

But, as it happens, the most thoroughly secular marriage I ever attended took place in a grand stone castle above a beautiful, mist-shrouded Massachusetts beach between two atheists, at least one of whom (the male) I know to have –to this day — an utter, insistently reasoned disdain for religion. He is a professor of philosphy.

Nonetheless, the Introductory Address at that wedding by the “celebrant” in the presence of a Justice of the Peace read as follows:

“In all cultures and at all times, people have entered into matrimonial union in recognition of the mystery of love, the power of moral commitment and the enlightening force of communication which connect them and give meaning to their lives. “

Further, that address went on to speak of “(L)ove, the fundamental bond which ties the human family together and which gives us hope for a world in which peace and community reign….”

Beautiful! And very serious, and true. This was well over thirty years ago. That couple is still married.

But I would submit that this atheistically-oriented address ( which, in my book, qualifies as a “prayer”), recited in the presence of the bride and groom, though they were never referred to as “bride” or “groom”, nonetheless invoked a number of theological concepts, e.g., “the mystery of love” and “hope” which Catholic Christians regard to be a theological virtue along with charity, often rendered as “love”. And “family”, too, is a bond that Christians or other religions see as of divine origin.

If there is no God, why should love be a “mystery”?

I have attended Christian marriages that did not seem so steeped in the beauty of things I, for once, see as of divine origin. In everything good thing we mortals do, if it is worth doing, there is an echo of eternal truth.

But then there is cohabitation — or marriages that are mere cohabitations. Here is where two humans can experience endless, deep, psychological and spiritual lacerations, live in a state of mendacity and illusion, anger, recrimination, sexual and emotional objectification, financial ruination, trapped like addicts in one another’s emotional grip, aware, however subconsciously, that they are merely hostages to one another. It is a nightmare, a horror. True love is obscenely mocked and strangled.

Then someone comes along and says to the unmarried, “you two should be married.” They cite Social Security benefits, scold a person who would deny the other party both the SS benefits and tax benefit. If the “mystery of love” is baffling, so, too, is the mystery of modern cohabitation among those we might diagnose as “codependant.”

It is understandable that those well-meaning kibitzers should be baffled– not realizing that they are urging those two souls to make a horror permanent; seal the bonds made of fear and emotional infirmity, born of what we have come to call, again, co-dependancy.

God help us. God help them. God help me, as a matter of fact.

To be single, alone, living and responsibly maintaining our own orderly, charitable lives, possibly experiencing lonliness, but bonded to all those we love and even find it necessary, through circumstances of our own making, to support financially — even to our own detriment and for as long as we live — this is truth, integrity and reality.

A decision to do so is every bit as essential as the decision to marry. Like true marriage, it is a state of life that can bestow true peace, engender true love. I, for one, believe this.

I pray for it.

God hear my prayer. God care for those I love and with whom I hope to escape all illusions, all disorder. Let me be an instrument of your peace, your love and your truth. And of divine and human — reality!

Amen.

HIS PASSION, OUR PASSION

It’s been a so-so Lent for me. Always falling behind in prayer, distracted by periodical reading, disorganized, lazy as ever, and, therefore, scatter-brained as ever in matters both material and spiritual, pestered by temptations and unworthy thoughts and angry bouts, and deeply worried to the point of agony and persistent anxiety about finances.

This morning, having fallen behind in my spiritual reading regimen in the several valumes called In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez, I am called in today’s reading to meditate on Christ’s Agony in the Garden. What’s always driven home to me about that, the opening moment in Christ’s Passion, is how the disciples, despite their best efforts, fell asleep when Christ needed their comfort and support the most and for them to keep a vigil. He warns them to stay engaged with The Master unless they be put to the test. I don’t want to be put to the test. I better stay awake with Christ, keep a vigil, pray to be spared the useless agonies sin inflicts upon us, pray to the Holy Spirit for His gifts, especially Understanding, and especially over the coming Holy Week.

Today , 4/8/22, is neice Mary Beth’s 62nd birthday — she for whom I once served as babysitter. I must call her, chat with her, as well as entering the obligatory greeting in Facebook, along with the thread of other well-wishers. But I am ever-mindful, where my family is concerned, that just about all of them long ago abandoned the practice of the faith. I’ve got my own spiritual row to hoe and reparations to make….but I believe it is my role to pray for their conversion and perhaps, only with the greatest of subtlety, suggest that they consider the time of their lives, the short duration of this earthly pilgrimage — and all that stuff. (We’ve all heard it before, right?) And that goes especially for my brother Bill, caught up in his own emprisoning agony, confined to a bed in a rehabilitation center, angry, yearning to go home where, though he does not know it or, more likely, cannot accept it, he is unlikely to return — and perhaps now suffering from dimentia, as an added burden, and lashing out.

God help him. Let me help him. He is first born of Bill and Jo Wayland. Somehow, I want to help all of us.

But let me, finally, by urgently mending the broken state of my own scandelous life, speak to them with my actions, not so much with my few careful words.

The day is far spent….

The night is dark and we are far from home.

Amen.

RAGGED END OF MARCH

Last day of the month.

You will remember the minutes crowded with meaning, the moment of pain, the aimless hour;

You will remember the cities, and the plains, and the mountains, and the sea…

RESURRECTION

Kenneth Fearing, 1935

My brother Bill was born the year this poem was written. Bill is confined to bed, recovering from a broken hip, in a double occupancy room in a North Andover, MA rehabilitation center. He seems to have slipped into demensia and might speak to me or his wife in a kindly or a nasty manner, depending on his mentally variable mood. His prospects for ever getting out into the world again are thinner than he knows or can ackowledge. We three brothers, the twins and I, do our best to comfort him from afar. Two of us — Doug in Denver, I in Florida — are very far away;

We all wonder what earthly fate awaits us, with our beloved sister already five, going on six years gone. Have I ever fully registered (“processed”) or mourned that death?Bill’s two sons are in far-off Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay area. It is all so sad and so worrisome on this last day of March, 2022.

One morning in 1940, 5-year-old Bill, in the Boston subway with our mother, heading in-town for a shopping trip, standing apart from her, became momentarily frightened, crying, wondering where his mother went. The passengers, all certainly gone now, were warmly observing and ready to comfort and intervene in a small child’s moment alone in the world, the way every Ukrainian child refugee must feel now, staying close to their mothers, if their mothers have survived, in this catastrophic war that is taking the world back to 1939, 1940….

Mother of God, intercede for us, protect us.

The tragic sense of life is everywhere this last day of March. April hours away; what Eliot called the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire

And I will miss a deadline for an important writing project, desire beginning to fail me. Memory strong, but not necessarily of the events of recent years that are speeding by.

We must begin again, if we are able, at every moment of our lives. And may my brother Bill find some comfort where he lay at this hour, so helpless, the first-born of Bill and Joe Wayland on September 16, 1935. We’ve been raised to believe that we all have an angel watching over us, even when we are sinning, most especially when we are sick.

I did get a priest for him. And I got word back that he was grateful.

OF THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH

A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong….I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.

Socretes, as quoted by his student Plato in the Apology.

Socrates had been accused of “corrupting the youth” of Athens and was, as such, to become an ancient — and perhaps the first — victim of the “cancel culture”.

As to the calculation of whether he’d live or die — they killed him.