Weaving in a Japanese bath

I keep envisioning life in weaving terms, and this is a bit strange, because I’m not a weaver. (My only close connection to weaving is a phase my mom went through in the 1980s, when she used her loom to create quite a collection of placemats and scarves.)

But weaving seems to be offering me a concrete way to think about life, so I’m going with it.

In weaving, the warp is the thread strung vertically on a loom, running top to bottom, top to bottom. I see it as what life gives us to work with … chronological time, our situation, ourselves.

The weft is the horizontally oriented thread that is woven over-under-over-under the warp. As a piece of weaving can include many different weft threads, creating an infinite variety of patterns, life brings us choices, events and relationships that lead us into countless possibilities for our lives, something one of John Steinbeck’s characters described so memorably in Grapes of Wrath:

Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one.

The metaphor of woven fabric especially speaks to me when I consider what happens to us when we spend time in new places. It’s as if we come away with all sorts of unexpected colors and textures among our wefts — memories and lessons, joys and regrets, now woven into our lives.

Last night, I Zoomed with a book group about my Japan-related memoir, The Same Moon, and one member asked me if there was a rhythm I had experienced in Japan that I wish I’d maintained.

I’d actually been ruminating on that very notion for some weeks, thinking I should be taking more baths.

Particularly in a deep tub.

Especially in the evening.

Even in this instant as I sit at my dining room table listening to neighbors shoveling rock for a landscaping project and my son noodling on the piano, aware of the cat pacing about, preparing to claw her way onto my lap, simply imagining a Japanese tub filled with steaming waters all the way up to my chin causes my mind, my heart and my shoulders to relax. All is well with the world.

OK, I’m back. I blipped for a moment to my host family’s ofuro, a dedicated room tiled floor to ceiling and containing only a deep tub, a shower and a drain in the floor. I remember sitting on a plastic stool, and using a water scoop and hand towel-sized washcloth to lather and rinse, letting the stress and dust of the day disappear down the drain with the bubbles before gradually easing into the steaming-hot tub. As warmth permeated my body to the bone, cool evening air and the sounds of insects would drift in through frosted, tilted-open windows. Many evenings, I would stall there until nine o’clock, when the city’s chimes played the slow, majestic theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

This nightly pattern is woven into my memories with pale celadon thread, the color of cool tile.

I also think back on soaking at Yufuin in Oita prefecture, where a group of us went one winter to stay at a ryokan — Japanese inn — and enjoy its famous hot springs. We started in a large indoor women’s tub, its hot, mineral-rich water warming us to the core. Soon the heat emboldened us. We grabbed our towels and stepped out of the tub.

Dressed only in our birthday suits, we pushed open a door that led us outside into the dark winter evening, where we found a rock-lined rotemburo — open-air hot spring. There we perched like birds on the rocks, lifting in and out of the clear water, steam rising from the bath and our skin. Suddenly, snow began to fall, soft flakes landing lightly on our faces and arms, the most magical bath I have experienced, a pattern of charcoal threads speckled with white, woven in my mind’s eye.

How can I recreate such experiences, such patterns, in my American home? Doing so could resemble a mismatched patch ironed onto a piece of fine cloth.

But isn’t that how we make our lives our own, by changing the pattern, embellishing what is there?

It is never too late to add another thread … or a bead … or a shell … or a feather … or a patch … to live the lives we were meant to live.

***

Coincidentally, a free online event about Japanese bathing and its health benefits is coming July 18, 2020. More information is available here: I Love Yu! Japanese Bath Houses, Hot Springs, and How to Soak Up at Home.

***

Sarah Coomber is the author of The Same Moon, a memoir about what happened when she abandoned her wrecked Minnesota life to spend two years teaching English in Yamaguchi, Japan.

Weaving photo by Alecsander Alves on Unsplash.

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