Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Winter Tale: Knowing how to not know

“Allow yourself to not-know so you can be taught.”

—Erich Shiffmann, from The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness

*            *            *

In Japan, I don’t know many things.

I don’t know precisely how deep to bend my upper body in a “greeting bow” versus a “thank you bow” versus an “I understand bow.”
I don’t know what type of sauce goes with what type of noodle.
I don’t know what all the buttons on my toilet do.

I look again at the ordinarily overlooked.

In the list of ingredients on my flu medicine, I see ornate calligraphy.
The hand-made paper wrapping on my box of sweets is worthy of a frame.
My gooey food spirals playfully around chopsticks and sometimes falls in the space between my bowl and my mouth.

I think I said “your welcome” instead of “thank you.”
I think I asked her where her nose is.
I think I burped instead of slurped.

I don’t know many things. But sometimes I think I know. And that’s where I get stuck, closed off to the unknown, blind to possibility.

*            *            *

Yes, I remember winter. I know cold. I know rain and its snowy incarnations.

Sniffle. Ug. Grunt.

Kanazawa has thunderstorms in winter. This I didn’t know. This I wasn’t exactly happy to know. Typhoons sweep across the valley, breaking branches, tossing hair, stealing umbrellas. An incessant rain pelts the pavement. My breath shortens. My body tightens. The thunder sounds like an angry animal. My heart pumps harder in its presence. I pull my covers tighter around my neck.

To end class one day, some chitchat about the weather:
“Bad weather this week, eh? So much rain! So many violent storms! Winter’s coming.” My voice lowers in disappointment.
“I like thunder,” he says.
The class laughs.
I shoot him a quizzical glance.
“You know buri?”
“Buri…??” My voice rises in bewilderment.
“Yellowtail fish.”
“Yes, I know yellowtail.”
“You can eat best buri in winter season.”
The class knows this. They nod in agreement. I stare blankly.
“Thunder makes fish move to shallow waters. Easy to catch. So I like thunder. Fish is most plentiful in winter. Very fresh. Very delicious! Kanazawa most famous for winter buri.”
“Oh, I didn’t know.”

He smiles.

I pause, taking a moment to soak up his explanation.
Hmmm…thunder and buri…I like that.

The time is up, and we exit the classroom. Filing hesitantly out into the cold. There’s a faint hum of thunder today and a grey, expansive sky cut dramatically by snow-capped mountains. Winter brought a change in air pressure that lifted the heavy fog of summer and fall, revealing these massive rocky landscapes.


I take a deeper breath when I see them in the distance. I can see my breath. It joins the wind that blows to the mountains. On the other side of those mountains is the sea. In the sea, thousands of buri are thrashing around to the rhythm of thunder.

Somewhere a fisherman smiles.

In all my experience of thunder, I never considered its positive effects. My shivers and shutters at its boom-bang-cackle made me think I knew all there is to know about thunder. Truly, there’s something to appreciate about everything. Sometimes in order to find it, we have to let go of what we know.

I’m not sure I know what bad weather is anymore, and I’m glad.

*            *            *

Back at home I continue to ponder the relationship between thunder and buri. Investigating further, I discovered that “buri (Adult Yellowtail) in Japan is a symbolic taste of winter that has even come to be described by the common phrase ‘Cold Season Buri.’” —from the iphone app, Sushipedia

I never knew I’d one day say thank you to thunder.


  1. Beautifully written. A pleasure to read. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Brenna! Lovely, as usual.

  3. Thank you for reading and also for your encouragement!!