Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE


UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE

Saturday, December 16, 2016.  Today Carol and I decorated the tree that Reg and I assembled while he was here for Thanksgiving.  It’s in three parts.  Each section needs to be “released” from its tightly bundled form that it took last year when the tree was put away in a box in the garage.  It is artificial, a Chinese masterpiece of imitation, and perfect for the desert. 

Today it was time, time to decorate the Christmas tree.  Such an old custom from my childhood.  Is it really so many years since I decorated my first?  I’m 81 now.  The tree back then was a spindly thing that came from far away, only to end up in a grocery store in Oklahoma.  I loved how it smelled. I wanted that smell again this year.  So Carol insisted on getting a real Douglas fir wreath from Costco.  It’s on our coffee table. The drier it gets the stronger its smell, a fragrant death poem.

I dread Christmas.  It brings back memories of secretly setting up a tree in our living room during the war in the 1940s. After making sure the electric wreath candles with American flags were properly displayed in our windows, I was put in charge of the tree.  The Church of Christ we belonged to warned that Christmas itself was a pagan custom.  So some members refused to put up Christmas trees in their homes.  But I wanted instinctively to worship the baby Jesus under my tree.  So I did.  And my parents were fine with that.  I made a crèche with my mother’s old perfume bottles and some of her handkerchiefs (ruined as soon as the lids were screwed on.)  The rest of the year these dolls depicted various characters in my plays, produced on a small stage made with a chair and blanket, for an audience of neighborhood kids. 

Part of the feeling of sadness that overwhelms me every Christmas season comes from remembering my parents and my special relation to them as an only child.  They raised me like a new adult friend who came to live with them. If anything, I think they loved me more than I loved them, a shameful thing to admit. It was the three of us in a strange world.  I didn’t really know anybody else as well as I knew them, and they’ve been gone for a very long time (father in 1970, mother in 1980.)  I miss them, and just thinking of them, which I always do at Christmas, makes me sad.   

But my sadness also comes from the Christian story.  Who could think up such a tale?  Start with sex, a young couple, Mary and Joseph.  She’s pregnant, but claims to be a virgin, and he knows he didn’t do it.  He’s even ready to “put her aside publicly” as the law required a man to do if he discovered his betrothed was not a virgin.  But that might sign her death warrant in a court of law. So he kept quiet, out of love.  To make matters worse, Mary claimed that an angel had told her she would become pregnant and bear a son, who was anointed by God, the Christ, to be the savior of the world.

In spite of everything, Joseph took care of Mary and this helpless baby, and they raised him to be a good Jew. Maybe too good. Even before puberty he began to spout off about life and death, to teachers and anyone who would listen.  And he performed miracles.  Before long he had a motley crew of followers, young men and some women (even a few wealthy ones.)  The Jewish community was split trying to decide if Jesus was the Christ or a heretic. Believers thought his kingdom would come with a show of power and majesty greater than any ever known.

The story in scriptures lets us know early on that his rebellion was mostly gentle, but he became threatening enough for Jewish leaders to label him a heretic and for Roman authorities to charge him with treason. Both counts required his death on the cross.  Depictions of his “Passion” in our family Bible mesmerized me.  The death of goodness.  Human cruelty.  Injustice writ large.  It was at the foot of that cross in mostly 19th-century European paintings that I became an art historian. Images that human beings made of the flesh-and-blood mystery of life and death cut more deeply into my heart than sunsets, mountains or stretches of beach and waves ever could.  

Of course there is the conclusion to this story that makes Christianity what it is.  The empty tomb.  The resurrection.  His female followers being the first to recognize him.  His incredulous “this can’t be true!” male disciples (especially poor Thomas, my doppelganger.)  And finally, His lift-off into Heaven, where He sits once again with God and the Holy Spirit, Three in One. It is at this point, after Christianity became a world religion under dictators who waged war against all unbelievers, that I began to lose interest.  I kept feeling sorry for all the people who lived before Jesus was born who might be in Hell because they never knew him, and thus could never follow him.  My teachers shamed me for my doubt, assuring me that God would take care of such people.  Cop out.  I was about five.

By that time music had already shown me the way to God.  The piano allowed me to explore a world of utter beauty, which I was willing to share on stage, even if I was sick before every performance, worried that I would not be able to disappear into the magical world that my fingers could expose in works created to the glory of God by my favorite classical composers of Western music -- Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.  Ethnomusicologists certainly show us plenty of examples of music other than the one that grew up in Christian Europe.  But for me all great music lies firmly in the history of the church.  Even the secular works by the great composers are tinted with some of the glory that causes you to kiss earth and sky at the sound of their masses and oratorios for soloists, orchestras and great choirs.  They can turn human brutality and suffering heavenward and transform them briefly into hymns of ravishing devotion and praise.

How ironic that the church could produce such moments of transcendence, while committing a continuous sin against humanity throughout history.  I’ve seen and heard in real time, as well as in stories and pictures, of the brutality that we human beings have committed, often in the name of God.  I’m sad at Christmas because I miss my parents, and I feel sad that I love the Christmas story but distrust the churches that claim custodianship of it. Many of their teachings set my teeth on edge because I see so much injustice in them.  I can’t stand injustice.  Especially my own judgmental nature, based as it is on a sense of right and wrong.  I don’t deny there is a right and wrong.  I just don’t see a way of living without dealing personally (following Dostoyevsky’s lead) with crime and punishment.

 Such dealing, however, makes me an accessory to the crime with every punishment I can devise.  I am, now and forever, a bleeding heart. There is a way out of a bleeding heart, so to speak.  The practice of meditation learned in Japanese Zen temples allows me to reach deeply into that heart for a glimpse of the “Not Two,” a state of perfect identification with all being.  But I am practical. I see the results of actions and cannot shut up if I find them unjust. 

In the 1950s I was almost arrested in a little Alabama town for inciting a rebellion among black citizens.  At Kyoto University in the ‘60s and the University of Washington in the ‘70s I actively protested the war in Vietnam. In 1970 I saw for myself that communism in China had created a police state.  Ten years later I watched Chinese police carry off and abuse Buddhist nuns in Tibet for demonstrating against the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. When I visited the Buddhist temples in Tibet destroyed by China’s Red Guards, and learned of their torture and abuse of priests, I was enraged.  At one point, for “assaulting” a Chinese guide I was expelled from Lhasa and sent back to Cheng-du. I found it ironic and ultimately unforgivable, that Chinese officials ordered the ethnic cleansing of Tibet in the name of egalitarianism.  

I became aware of Japan in grade-school because growing up I was told the Japanese were doing terrible things to Americans.  I hated them for their attack on Pearl Harbor, which I saw pictures of in magazines and newspapers.  I was petrified with fear of such evil people.  In my child’s mind I was afraid they were coming for me. But later, when I saw the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in newsreels, I cried for the Japanese. I went to the local library in December of 1945 and asked for all the books on Japan they had. Those books turned me into a student of that country for the rest of my life. I learned a lot about Japan. In 2011 the Japanese government, on behalf of Emperor Heisei, awarded me a medal for my fifty years of teaching about Japanese history.

In retirement I can look back on my life as though it belongs to someone else. It has deposited me here in the desert, with Carol by my side, leaving both of us safe and sound in a kind of paradise.  Clearly, the people and events in my life have been very kind to me and to my loved ones.  It seems that only Christmas brings back the sadness in my heart.  Under the Christmas tree I have to cry.  That’s where my heart breaks, every year.  Any place else and at any other time I am happy and grateful, even when some injustice fills me with outrage.  Moments of potential danger loom, such as the recent election, against which I will continue to rage, simply because it is unjust, unwise, and wrong. But whatever the DJT presidency may bring, I cannot imagine that it will make me as sad as the loss of my parents, along with the loss of any answer to the mystery of life and death. Nothing can ever be done about that loss.  I leave it under the Christmas tree.