On the first day of 2006, I left my bad luck tied to a tree outside a famous shrine in Tokyo. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting rid of, only that when my new friend, Ema, unrolled the tiny fortune and read it, she giggled nervously and said in accented English, “You unlucky this year,” then she pinched the corner of the paper between her thumb and index finger, waved it back and forth and said, “Is very bad, you leave it here.”
We had just finished waiting for thirty minutes in the long line leading to the front of the Shrine, and had made our way to the outsized wooden doors, where we clapped twice, bowed twice, made a wish, clapped again, and then rang a bell. The shrine’s straight wood walls gave way to a triangular red tiled roof that swooped and rose into the sky like a giant bird. As we turned to leave, making room for the people behind us, Ema pointed to a rickety barrel full of fortunes and motioned for us each to pick one.
Ema told us that her own fortune was not as good as she had hoped it would be, but she kept it anyway, which confused me. Now I know that she had already accepted her fate and would not try to change it. She said that hers was not so bad as mine. She handed my fortune back to me and bowed, her slender arms covered in goose bumps, her lips chattering.
Snow fell on and around us, the flakes so large that they touched and connected to each other, creating a giant scrim that was dark and light all at once, wrapping the shrine in a piercing chiaroscuro. Ema shivered and I looked up and down at her navy kimono, noticing that she had nothing on beneath it but a bra and panties. I felt suddenly disrespectful in the sweatpants and snowboarding jacket I’d thrown on before we caught the bullet train that morning. My husband, Jon, and I had been in Japan for a week, but I was still suffering from jet lag, and the lack of sleep was making me sloppy. Ema was like a princess, her long black hair pulled smoothly behind her head, her thick kimono sash sitting high on her straight upright body. I watched her turn to wave at her father, who was still making wishes on the steps of the Shrine, and her round white face drew up tight, leaving nothing but rigid lines where seconds before her eyes and mouth had opened wide in laughter.
That morning, when we met up at Ema’s parents’ house and I asked her about being a Shinto, I had said, “I want to know more about your religion,” but she stopped me, frowning, her fingers frenetically worrying themselves as she searched for the right words.
From the small living room, I could hear her mother and sister at work in the kitchen, preparing the special New Year’s Day breakfast. The dining room table sat eight inches from the floor and was set with seven lacquer bento boxes and bordered by thin, multi-colored silk pillows instead of chairs. Ema was still thinking.
“Is not so much religion,” she finally said, “more just the way we are. How we know things. My family not religious, but still Shinto. Many people Shinto and Buddhist though.”
“Like me,” I said, “I’m Catholic and Jewish, not religious.” She smiled and nodded. After a week with Ema, I had learned which smiles were authentic, and which ones meant she didn’t understand me, this smile, accompanied with a slight tilt of her head and the barest hint of a nod, was the latter. The two examples were not at all the same. It was silly of me to think she would see the irony behind my joke.
My parents both came from strong religious backgrounds. My father is an Eastern European Jew and my mother, an Irish Roman Catholic—but somehow their upbringings failed to make enough of an impression on either one of them. When they were married, they had two separate ceremonies, one in a wooded park beneath a Chupah, and the other inside a Church—they were married once by a Rabbi and once by a Priest. Both times they promised, in front of their parents, to raise their children with love and faith in God.
Growing up, my siblings and I went to Church a handful of times for Christmas, and Synagogue once a year for the High Holidays and that was it. We never spoke of God, and we never prayed. Once, my mother told me that it was up to me to decide what I was, but I could never understand how to one day believe in something that hadn’t always been a part of me. It seemed impossible to deprogram years of ambiguity when faith demanded I believe in one story over another.
My brother, sister, and I were still very young when my parents went away on a business trip and left us with my maternal grandparents. At some point during our stay, my grandmother secretly baptized all three of us in her bathtub. I don’t remember this exactly, but I can somehow imagine what it felt like; the coolness of the water, the rosary beads that my Grandma kept on her dresser, clenched between her wrinkled wet fingers, and the sound of footsteps coming down the hall towards us, the creak that the floor made when you passed the kitchen. I remember these things as if they happened, and so I believe that they did. After my grandmother’s funeral, my aunt revealed that she had been there at the house, pacing the hallways as my grandmother dunked our tiny heads into the lukewarm water and made the sign of the cross in the small pocket of air between us.
None of this has helped to give me the faith my parents promised us. There is nothing more alienating to me than standing in a Church. If anything, it is easiest for me to sit in Synagogue, where there is no bloody body of Christ hanging above me, but even there, I inevitably feel that I am a fake, that I do not belong, that I was not chosen like the rest of the Jews. I know only how to depend on myself and have always been skeptical of the likelihood that somewhere in the universe there is a man, or even a concentrated power that loves me deeply and listens to my private musings. I do, however, recognize a collective consciousness in the world around me, a connectivity that expands beyond humans into nature, an unnamable energy that is both cyclical and revitalizing. There was something of that in Ema’s explanation of “how” her family knew things—what they accepted as true and where they found their strength in life.
“Shintoists,” Ema told me, “believe that ancestors’ spirits stay here after death. Everything in Shinto has spirit—dirt, sky, all things live, so we must respect every thing. If you cut down tree without saying proper prayer, tree spirit may come back to haunt you.”
I realized then, half looking at Ema, and half looking at the translucent light pouring in through the rice paper screens that separated the Sugiyama’s living room from their garden, that even though there had been no God for me to believe in as a child, I had had an intense faith in magic. I believed, fiercely, that my dolls were alive, and that if I lay still enough at night they would come to life and talk to me. I searched everywhere for four leaf clovers, and knocked on tree trunks in hopes that fairies would fly out and enchant me. I tried hundreds of times to fly, jumping off my bed, down the stairs, and off of tables. I prayed to Tinkerbell, begging her to come and sprinkle her fairy dust on me so that I could become weightless and effortlessly float out my bedroom window, away into the night. Every time I began to feel the despair of reality setting in, I told myself that I simply hadn’t believed hard enough, and then I would start all over again.
The way Ema explained Shinto to me—that all things have souls—that trees have feelings, that rocks are alive, and that there are many gods, called Kami, who mind their own business, flitting in and out of various objects—kicked my childhood belief system back into gear, flooding me with a dizzying sense of hope that I had lost once I’d stopped looking for fairies. Ema herself embodied that magic, and so did her parents, always laughing, showering us with gifts minutes after meeting us, making us a fantasy feast of all their favorite foods, and taking us along to witness their sacred new year ritual, despite our shabby outfits and inability to speak Japanese. I studied Ema that day with a child’s sense of awe and wonder, she was like one of my dolls finally come to life and I could not look at her without smiling.
As she waited for her father to return from the steps of the Shrine, people from the neighborhood bowed at her, her sister, and their mother. Once Mr. Sugiyama had joined us again, they slapped him affectionately on the back. Everywhere I looked, people talked and bowed, the words spilling out fast, the exchange of bows fluid. On the ice-covered road, their movements transformed into a dance, smiles and laughter hovering like music in the air above us. Jon and I ate hot noodles with fish sauce from one of the many stands that bordered the long straight road while Ema and her family spent thousands of yen on good luck talismans to hang in their home and car. Steam rose from the vendors’ food carts, brightly-colored foil balloons bobbed happily in the wind, people everywhere bought and sold good luck charms—dolls to ensure you would make lots of money, statues to help you earn good grades at school, love poems, health charms, anything you could imagine. The street was alive with a sense of celebration. When Ema’s family wasn’t looking, Jon rolled his eyes at me, and I knew that he was put off by the fact that their beliefs were based on things like luck and fortune telling.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he muttered, “comparing faith to something that operates like a lottery.”
To distract himself, he pulled out his pocketsize Japanese dictionary and bravely started up a conversation with a couple standing in the road beside us. He was far more interested in the people of Japan than he was the spirituality.
I, on the other hand, could not separate the two, and was naively delighted with everything I saw that day. I was caught up in the romance of being in a foreign country, of eating things unfamiliar to me, of taking part in rituals that were not based on guilt or sin or redemption. It seemed so simple, so sensible to be a Shinto, and I remember thinking Damn our government and their stupid wars! Why can’t we all just drink sake, believe in luck, and worship nature? It wasn’t until later when I remembered that as a child, I’d seen a film where the Emperor of Japan was forced to admit to his people that he was mortal, and not, as they had always believed, one of the Gods himself. It was during the end of the WWII. There had been wars for Japan, too. Horrible ones. When I was in Tokyo though, eating Japanese junk food and celebrating the New Year, it was easy to dismiss history, and even easier to fall into the cliché exoticism of a beautiful eastern empire. I fell in wholeheartedly.
Guided by Ema’s instructions, I took my fortune, made my way to a small grove of trees surrounding the Shrine, and tied it to a branch. Ema told me it would stay there until it disintegrated, one of millions battling the winter cold and wetness until the Kami succeeded in exorcising its evil tidings.
From afar, I thought it was just snow weighing the branches down. Up close, it was as she said—endless bad luck abandoned on the Shrine’s many proud pine trees. The volume of white paper was overwhelming.
Ema’s father died a few months later from a brain cancer that was already ransacking his body as he celebrated the New Year. Everyone knew, I suppose, but Jon and I. We were willfully blind of the signals and gestures that should have made it obvious. Why hadn’t Ema tied her fortune on the tree, too? Because hers was not so bad as mine. She had told me herself. Perhaps she believed, like many Japanese, that her father’s soul would be redirected into a new body, an object of some importance, a pretty rock or a particularly tall tree, and then, the only pain to contend with would be her own—and so, of little importance.
Is it sick that I wish for that same peace? That I wonder about my own lack of faith and marvel at the willingness with which I grasp for paper fortunes and good luck talismans? Is it wrong to want to believe that my destiny is set, that luck is arbitrary and that when I die I will become a river?
I still wonder, with some regularity, what it was exactly that I left behind that day, and how my life would be different if I had chosen to carry that fortune with me. It’s a philosophical debate. I know that the paper was probably meaningless, but there is something profound to me in the way Ema held on to her destiny instead of abandoning it like so many others. I think about the magic I felt being there, celebrating with her family, welcoming in the New Year, regardless of what they knew it would bring them. They were so much stronger than I could ever imagine being.
I think of my grandmother dunking us in a bathtub, of my Nanny trying to teach us the evening Kiddush. Every religion has its own spells and rituals. Maybe I should have never stopped knocking on tree trunks. Maybe it’s the act of knocking itself that brings that higher power into existence, like when Peter Pan tells all the kids in the audience that if they believe in fairies they should clap their hands together, and then Tinkerbell will come back to life, her tiny fairy light pulsing in the theater’s darkness like the memory of a heartbeat.