If integuments are the vital connections

between things, as Gil would have it, then it seems my course in the days since coming back to New York was about restoring some of those integuments, strengthening them.

I went to a few places I love. Driving south to Wave Hill on a winter Sunday is like visiting family, its mansions and gardens a boon, on a hill overlooking the Hudson.

If you can tear yourself away from the view of the Palisades through the pergola, pay homage to some of the old, old trees. Wave Hill’s Chinese elm bark looks more like rough cement.

The linden that was here when Mark Twain arrived in 1901 still reaches upward.

I always like the quote attributed to Twain by his daughter Clara about the Bronx estate: “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.”

Today it was quiet rather than blowy and you could notice a few details in the silence.

A witch hazel cultivar which burns in the cold air.

The first of the snow drops.

The bones of the Japanese maple.

My old friend the copper beech.

Which invites you to come closer and duck beneath its sinuous branches, the better to imagine all the people who have come before and recorded their visits.

I picked up a book when visiting my mother this month and found an old clipping carefully folded up inside its pages. The book’s author, brilliant critic Reginald H. Blyth, had first published Haiku in 1949, but this was the 1982 reissue.

Blyth began writing about Zen Buddhism while imprisoned in Japan as an enemy alien during WWII. By the time he died in 1964 he had released more than 20 volumes on Japanese Zen, English literature and the deep relationships he found between them.

My mother, the brilliant learner Betty Zimmerman, had been inspired to get the book based on that review.

She and my father spent her first married years in Japan. In 1982, she had recently received her masters in cultural studies at Manhattanville at Purchase, writing a thesis on Odilon Redon, the French symbolist painter.

She went to work at the Metropolitan Museum in the Eastern Arts department.

The Met has got to be the last changed environment in all of New York City. Or when it does change, it manages to seem as if it has always been like that. The skyline has changed of course, due to incursions of needle skyscrapers.

The windows overlooking Central Park capture a landscape that was created even before the museum opened there in 1880 and has been maintained in much the same way since.

 If you go not to the changing exhibits but the old guard, even more so. The Asian arts in particular are burnished by time. This Noguchi basalt “water stone” has been here forever — at least in my time frame, since the 1980s..

Some of the painted screens change but there will always be birds in flight in the Met’s collection, in this case mynah birds, by an artist of the Edo period.

Reginald Blyth talks about haiku not being just a poetic form but a way of life.

“Haiku record what Wordsworth calls those ‘spots of time,’ those moments which for some quite mysterious reason have a peculiar resonance.” The deluge of a waterfall would be one such moment, captured by Tanaka Raisho in 1917.

I totally get it. A hawk in the seconds before flight, in the late 1500s, by an artist you’ve never heard of. It doesn’t matter, all that matters is that beady-eyed moment.

Blyth goes on to say, “When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of those things, this is life, this is living. To do this twenty-four hours a day is the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

I also like a quote from the yellowed NYT book review from another of Blyth’s books: “The back of the picture, the unheard melodies, the dull and the stale, and cheap and vulgar are all of infinite value.”

That is why I am touched by my mother’s scribbles on the repurposed bookmark also hidden in Haiku’s spine and never supposed to see the light of day again. The page numbers and opening words of certain haiku… ones she would have been considering, she tells me, for use on Christmas cards. I turn to page 27.

Mountains and rivers, the whole earth—

All manifest forth the essence of being.

Not actually haiku but a verse used by monks studying Zen in the monastery, according to Blyth. Think of the splash of pine at Wave Hill.

The mysterious shadow of the atlas cedar.

The essence of being is a phrase that reflects the integuments that exist, between my mother and myself, between Japanese scroll painting and poetry, between Mark Twain and the “hoarse song” of the wind, between all those who initialed the Wave Hill copper beech bark over the ages. The things that connect to other things.

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