My Jesuit friend Tom called the other day, and said that if we were serious about the Dark Side Rising Diet and exercise plan, we should walk around the new Geisha exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, with our friend Buddy, and then have lunch.
“Going out and doing intensely cultural stuff is a subversive act — since if Bush does win, libraries and museums will be closed. Also, I think we should go because Bush especially hates the Japanese.”
“Because his father threw up on them.”
We met outside the museum, and sat in the sun for a while, eating grapes and waiting for Buddy. He was returning from a bus trip to Sacramento, Calif., where he was protesting a speeding ticket, and might be late.
“What would Jesus do right now?” I asked, referring to the state of our union. “Do you think he would take one look around, and just run for his life? Muttering that we’d missed every single point he had tried to make?”
“No,” said Tom, “he would want to, but he’d stick around, to take care of everyone who was hungry. I think he’d start by making soup.”
“Then he’d sit down and eat with everyone. Because they were family.”
We watched people pass by as we ate our grapes. So many people looked sad and really worried. I thought of a button I used to have that said, “I’m not tense — I’m just very, very alert.” That pretty much says it.
“Then, when they had eaten,” Tom continued, “he’d encourage everyone to get up and moving again. He’d ask them to help Him pick litter up off the street.”
I decided then and there that during these seven weeks until the election, I would not only walk to the post office every day to mail off money or voter registration forms, but I’d also begin a trash pickup project, so that one wrapper at a time, I could make the world nicer.
Buddy finally arrived. He is Father Tom’s best friend, and you may remember him from an earlier piece about our experiences on a cruise ship. He’s in his mid-50s, and looks sort of seedy: overweight, with missing front teeth, and hair like he’s just gotten out of bed. He comes to church with me sometimes, even though he’s a Lutheran and as such does not approve of us singing and clapping so loudly. (I’ve tried to explain to him that clapping your hands while singing about love and peace scares the devil away, but he won’t listen.)
“I need you both to come to Sacramento and protest my fine,” Buddy announced. “Or else it will stay on my record, and my insurance rates will go up.”
“You were guilty,” said Tom. “You were speeding. I’m going to testify for the opposition.”
Buddy covered his ears with his hands, and cried out, “Please don’t say one mean thing to me today. Not until after the election.”
Buddy thinks Bush is going to win easily, while Tom and I are not sure. We are of two minds: one is to ask ourselves, What would — and did — Jesus and Martin Luther King and Medger Evers do? And then we try to do just that. The second thing we do is send money to people who are effectively flinging a little shit at Bush every day, mostly to MoveOn.org and the DNC, and hope that if we do this until November, a lot of it will stick.
The three of us went inside to see the geishas. To my Western eyes, they looked alien, with their downcast eyes, their white masks and red eyeliner, the platform shoes in which they can only shuffle. Buddy said they looked unhappy. Tom, who has spent a lot of time in Asia, said that they are serene, not sad. They are aloof, solemn, unattainable. But they do not have sex with their clients; that’s for the courtesans. “Life is a profound education for them,” Tom said. “In music, singing, conversation, calligraphy, dancing. And it’s a tea ceremony, the epitome of beauty and decorum.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But deep inside, isn’t there the usual human murk and mess?”
“Sure,” said Tom. “Everything is ceremonial and prescribed, until, of course, they’re invited to join their gentlemen in sake. Then they get drunk, and start throwing their fans around, and go completely mad. It’s actually not a bad living.”
“I could do that,” I said.
“You have done that,” said Buddy.
We walked around looking at the women, the grace, the implicit power of sexuality withheld. The sexiest part of their bodies was the nape of the neck, the portal to the possible — the kimono might just fall off those shoulders. It reminded me of the Victorians letting a beloved see only a glimpse of ankle — oh my God, skin! It’s so much more erotic than “Let’s take Ecstasy and get down.” You couldn’t help but notice the extensive language of their fans, like silent castanets, or window shades to hide behind, a shy or nasty peek-a-boo. Bush is the shadow side of this, so perfectly coached, at his own little teahouse, where everything feels right because everyone knows the rules. The total lack of revelation, his prim little mouth, holding back all those worms and resentments and secrets.
I say, let’s hear it for pain and fear and reality. That’s the only healthy response to madness.
Outside the gallery was a video of geishas preparing to perform. One of them sang a song called “Seicho Hakata Bushi,” which Buddy said meant “Green tea makes the Bushies go away,” and so when the video ended, we went to the museum cafe for soup and green tea.
Tom was euphoric about the exhibition. Buddy was not moved: “I don’t respond to Japanese images,” he said. “They’re so not Lutheran.”
I just savored being bathed in Tom and Buddy’s company, in having sweet and civilized friends in these spectacularly grim, weird times. It was salvation. But then all of us sighed at the same time.
“You’re a priest,” I said to Tom. “What will we do if Bush wins?”
“We’ll make soup, clean up litter, and then look at what to plant next.”
“Can we plant now, so there will be something new growing in the fall?” I asked.
“Nope, you don’t plant now. It’s harvest time, so you eat great autumn food. Also, you look through seed catalogs, to see what you want to plant in the fall and winter. You think about where to plant new flowers, and whether there are plants you should remove from the ground because they’ve died, or taken over the garden, or because you just hate them, and you want to kill them and get rid of them. Then you study the daffodils and irises in the catalog, and order them.”
“Then what happens?” I asked.
“Then the bulbs arrive in November, and win or lose, we plant. This is significant, because bulbs are all about hope, about new life emerging in the spring. It’s already starting to get darker, and things will begin to get really bleak soon. But in November, even if we are deeply damaged, we’ll still make soup for people, and we will put things in the ground that grow. I personally believe that George W. Bush will insist that all daffodils be killed off. But there’s an excellent chance that irises will still come up. And maybe green tea actually does make the Bushies go away. So drink up, girlfriend.”