it's a flower tonight
My ikebana class is taught by an enthusiastic woman whose name I asked for once but never learned. I call her Sensei, and that summates our relationship well enough that there hasn’t been a need to inquire again. On days when we have class, Sensei sends a morning message to our LINE group chat to confirm who is coming so that she can purchase the correct amount of materials. The chat has a built-in feature that sends a follow-up message in whichever language you didn’t type in - English is regurgitated into Japanese and vice versa. Translated literally by the AI, Sensei’s reminder that class is happening is delivered stiltedly, “It's a flower tonight."
On nights when it is a flower, lessons are held in the very back room of the local community center. To get there, I pass a gym full of middle-aged and elderly people playing table tennis and volleyball with a vigor that I’ve already lost at the age of 23. Maybe enthusiasm for life is a U-curve; children and old people have a special energy and all the time in between is a bit hum and blah.
The building is old but clean, with thickly-painted, yellow-tinted walls that might have been white once. I take my temperature at the front door and spritz my hands with sanitizer. I head towards the classroom, where I exchange kon ban wa’s with Sensei and the other ladies in the class in my brightest, friendliest voice. With only 100 or so Japanese phrases at my disposal, each word needs to communicate a lot.
I set my bag down at my unofficial official seat, and take a quick peek at the day’s flowers to inform my decision about which container to use. From there, I head to the tatami room where the ikebana equipment is stored. For the unacquainted, ikebana is Japanese flower arrangement, container is a fancy and more encompassing word for vase, and a kenzan is the spiky lead plate that holds stems in place. I select my container and place a kenzan inside of it, then head back to class where I fill it with water scooped from a bucket. When I sit down to begin at 7 PM, I am exactly on time, and yet I am one of the last people to get started.
The classroom contains two long rows of tables. The row closest to the door belongs to five or six middle-aged women who fit maternal archetypes and make jokes about their mounting ages when I tell them mine. The other row, the one I sit at, is what I refer to as “the kid’s table”. It’s for me and any other foreigners in attendance, and one other woman named Rei who I spoke to once, for five minutes, before my language ability ran dry.
In “real” ikebana, you have to sit seiza-style with your legs folded underneath you, a position that guarantees they go numb within a half hour. “Real” ikebana has a million schools, each with its own unique style and rules that emphasize (a)symmetry and symbolism and showmanship. But because I attend the world’s most relaxed ikebana class, I get to sit in a folding chair and do whatever the hell I want.
My class has no lectures and almost no instruction. I learn by craning my neck towards the ladies behind me to see what they are doing and making confused faces until Sensei catches on and comes over to give me pointers. On one hand, I’d like to learn a bit more about ikebana so that I can talk about it without sounding clueless. On the other hand, there is something marvelous about doing something that has a lot of rules without knowing any of them.
Recently, I invited a friend to ikebana class and she expressed her worry that she might be bad at it. I told her that there’s no way to be bad when you don’t know what the standards to evaluate “good” are. They’re flowers, I said. No matter what you do, the end result is going to be beautiful.
My class meets under the premise of flower arrangement, but I have a suspicion that most of my classmates are there to socialize. As I pluck leaves and stab stalks, I am treated to the familiar tempos of friendly gossip. It shares all the hallmark sounds of a neighborhood salon: exaggerated gasps of surprise, thoughtful hmm’s, excited exclamations of agreement, pauses where you can practically hear the nodding of heads, and speech that slowly speeds up until allthewordsblendtogether.
I can’t understand what is being said, so I make up stories in my head. I picture the other women as hard-working, devoted housewives who cherish their children and domestic responsibilities but still make time for their hobbies. I silently congratulate them on doing something just for themselves - in patriarchal Japan, no less! - and muse on whether or not alternate-universe, housewife me would have the same mettle. It’s unfair of me, perhaps un-feminist, to assume that these women do not have aspirations beyond or besides making a home. But in my headcanon, they enjoy the daily happenings of motherhood very much, so much so that they would choose to stick with it even if offered other options - and the presence of conscious choice is what allows it to circle all the way back to feminist once more.
I am usually the last student to finish their arrangement. When I tell Sensei I am done, she comes over to check my work and adjusts a few components while emphasizing, “3D, 3D!” The last few lessons, however, she hasn’t needed to fix anything. Instead, she gives me two thumbs up and exclaims “perfect!”. Though I know that she does not actually mean perfect, it still pleases me.
We take pictures of our arrangements on top of an upright piano draped in a red patterned cloth, against a white wall with a crease in it where the paint has unstuck and folded over itself. I send the pictures to friends and family over LINE and WhatsApp and iMessage and Twitter DM.
I made this! Aren’t the flowers so pretty? Ikebana is so much fun!
Living abroad is a special kind of kid’s table. I’m not completely forgotten, but I'm undeniably removed. Here at the periphery, attention feels like a scarce resource. But as much as I want it, I’m too embarrassed to ask for it. Instead, I play an unwitting game: I send you the occasional update text, then feel disappointed when you lack the information needed to box me into an identity archetype, meaning I have to do the hard work of figuring out who I am for myself.
Sometimes I wish I could simply place my hand on your head and meld our minds together. I want to understand you exactly like you desire and deserve to be understood. And I want you to understand me too.
When you notify me about the happenings of your life - the engineering slip-up you’re afraid to alert your boss to, the delicious Norwegian plant-based yogurt you had as a snack, how your father is unwell, how your father needs help sitting up, how your father has lost the ability to swallow - I know that what you communicate is a minuscule fraction of all that you are experiencing. I know that you are so much more than I’m privy to, I know that you have ideas and emotions so complex and informed that I cannot begin to guess at them, I know that so much gets in the way of us seeing each other fully. But we cannot help ourselves from trying.
So here we are, exchanging tiny soundbites and getting upset when the listener cannot transcribe the full melody.
Please accept this meme in lieu of a hello. Send pictures (because anything longer than a paragraph is an essay, and I’m busy). Check Instagram, I posted about it, didn’t you see? Remember that more than three sentences borders on oversharing and saying anything negative without an immediate reassurance that everything is a-ok is highly discouraged.
Personally, I’ve perfected my three sentences. Japan is good! I am trying my best, like I always do (so there’s no need to worry). I love you.
My practice of minimalism (and my creeping suspicion that I’m bound for nomadic life) means that I’m quick to sever ties and hold an almost repugnant view of sentimentality. I prefer to yield to ebbs and flows without giving too much weight to any particular undulation. But while there’s superb pleasure in being able to meet the moment - to be newly invented with the advent of each first interaction - there’s also indescribable loss in entire chunks of my personal history being relegated to incommunicable flickers of memory, in being unable to reach out to the only other people who might understand what being in that place at that time was like. Yes, for all my posturing, I am sad that I have lost all selves except the self who is here now.
At the end of ikebana class, we pluck the carefully arranged flowers out of our kenzan and wrap them in newspaper to take home, the blooms poking out of the cone’s opening so they have room to breathe. Back inside my apartment, I arrange the flowers once more, then watch them die slowly over the course of two weeks until the next ikebana lesson provides me with a new bouquet fated for the same end. As the flowers wither, I think about momentary pleasure - how we invite things into our lives despite knowing they have an expiration, despite knowing how painful the bit between “everything is okay” and “everything is over” is. When I stuff the wilted, browning flowers into my trash can, cracking their stalks in half to save space, I am agitated not by the loss of beauty, but by having to clean up the mess it leaves behind.
Sensei always sends me out the door with a final "jouzu”, which translates directly to “skillful.” Jouzu is a word that’s been overused to the point of emptiness, the same way that “nice” can be applied to nearly everyone and everything in English.
But when Sensei uses jouzu to describe me, I don’t think she’s trying to say that I’m good at the actual ikebana part. I think that she means I’m good at being a member of this specific class, good at showing up, good at trying to listen, good at holding respect for the order and rhythms of this small-town social hour at which I am a guest.
Biweekly on Monday nights, you can find me in the back room of the local community center, snipping at stems and listening to the chatter of female friendship. Half a dozen women remind one another, “you’re good at that”. In most situations, jouzu is nothing more than a well-intentioned lie, but in the ikebana classroom, it comes close to feeling true.
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