Friday, December 10, 2010

The Way of the Tea Garden

I had a solid professional excuse to spend five days in San Francisco last week. The weather stayed obligingly grey and wet most of the time I sat indoors glued to a computer screen side by side with my collaborator. The morning of my free day at the end of the trip, the sun rose without a wisp of fog in sight, and I made straight for the Hagiwara Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

For twenty-five years, no spot on earth has brought readier healing to my soul. The place is full of small, gentle gods: the spirit of this clump of rushes, growing at the edge of a broad, shallow pond where koi undulate like stoned holdovers from the Summer of Love; the god of this expanse of moss, stretching out below a grove of cedars behind the pagoda that rises above the steep hill in the northwest corner of the garden; the god of this stone basin, water brimming from its lip amidst a stand of bamboo at a turn in the path from the teahouse just before it descends again toward the entrance gate.

The bottom of the stream was strewn with drowned russet maple leaves on Monday morning; a fading yellow carpet of ginko lay sloping down over the bank.

The timelessness of the place is an illusion. Sand sifted over dunes here in the late nineteenth century. The garden was created as a permanent park after the 1894 World’s Fair by Makoto Hagiwara, who first invited the kami–these quiet, unassuming gods of small things–into the heart of his adopted city. From the 1950's, various restorations and rebuildings have transformed its design. The stone basin welling endlessly below a bamboo waterspout arrived only in 1996. The pagoda at the crest of the slope above the koi pond has begun to disintegrate, its paint peeling, the shredding edges of its staged rooflines sporting gardens of lichen among the pine boughs high above the paving stones.

The Hagiwaras tended these five acres for over forty-five years–until they were interned along with most other Japanese Americans by the U.S. government in 1942. The place was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden and left to languish. Many of the family’s original buildings were demolished, including the Shinto shrine that stood at the top of the great hill behind a torii–a temple gate–as out of place before the Buddhist pagoda that replaced the earlier building as a crucifix in a mosque. The garden is named for the Hagiwaras once again; the torii has vanished since my last visit.

Walking these paths as a queer man, I can’t but draw the line between the plight of the Hagiwaras, victims of one of American history’s more shameful injustices, and the marginalization of my own kind. The same morning as my visit, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments for and against the constitutionality of California’s Proposition Eight prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state. It’s a mere two months since the rash of suicides by bullied gay teens that spurred the It Gets Better campaign. I weep freely for the Hagiwaras this morning in part because I know what it’s like to be denied my rights and treated like a threat rather than seen for who I am. But I also sit beneath the roof of the tea house in gratitude for the family that created this place and invited these gods into it–as for those who have tended it ever since their departure. I sit here in gratitude for their example: that kindness, civility, and quiet reverence before the simple miracle of beauty can prove stronger and more enduring than bigotry and injustice.

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