By Mari Nakano
I stopped by the Echo Park Farmers Market the other day on my way out of a meeting. I was looking around for some summer produce and fell upon a man selling Japanese shishito peppers! Not that they were the rarest of all finds, but it hit a nostalgic nerve in my body, that brought back memories of when my family used to snack on them around dinnertime. Grilled and sprinkled with a little salt and shoyu. They were simple, crunchy and put a smile on everyone’s face. The peppers made me think of my father who passed away when I was just about to turn nineteen. He was a professional chef and used to make meals that would spoil our palettes. We used to go out to eat not to just eat, but to taste. I remember how intimidating it was to cook anything for him. He’d teach me techniques whenever we had a chance. In a split second a little pepper brought back so many memories.
It’s interesting how one little object, one little smell, one little pattern, color or sound can trigger one’s memory. Cedar wood reminds me of Japan, moth balls make me think of my friend Jennifer’s house, glycerin soaps remind me of my mother, and the list goes on. Our memories are profound, and each of us seems to store bookmarked moments in our minds and hearts, often through the means of some type of tag. We seem to attach some kind of sense, place or object to our memories, whether we consciously choose to or not. I know there is a scientific explanation for this, but either way, it’s still magical. Objects, places and senses call out memories, but inversely, we have transformed those things into memory containers.
Although my father isn’t around any longer, I still catch glimpses of him in many ways—when I have conversations with people roughly his age, when I catch the smells and tastes of different foods that he used to cook, when I see derby hats or Bill Cosby-like knit sweaters, or whenever I have to cook mashed potatoes. The more time has passed, the less sad I am that he is not around. I suppose that is because I have discovered more places and objects within which he has embedded the memories of himself. That is not to say he purposefully put his likeness into things after he passed away; however, this is to suggest that perhaps we spiritually are capable of embedding ourselves into the everydayness of things. Often times, I think we figure spirits or ancestors can only manifest themselves in particular ways, but perhaps a more beautiful idea is that spirits exist in things that are relative in someway to that spirit, hence the word spirit. We are currently in the middle of Obon season, which in a nutshell is a time in Japanese tradition where we honor the departed. This is a time when the spirits of our ancestors can revisit us. Maybe it’s not just the shishito peppers that made me think so strongly of my father, but perhaps his spirit is closer than usual because of Obon.
The more I think about this, the more I see how important our lives are for something greater. I don’t think we are meant to live so individualistically, within our own shells. If our spirits permeate into other things—and I’m guessing the majority of us have been witness to lost loved ones who have manifested their auras somehow in some way or another—then maybe we should look at those experiences as a point of learning. What I mean, is that if our spiritual selves end up channeling through everyday objects, places or things, then what about our current living breathing selves? How do we permeate our spirits outwardly while we are alive? How do we spread our knowledge, our love, our kindness, our offerings through our everyday lives without needing to expect a result or reward? I suppose we do it subconsciously already, but how do we do it with more intent, and a stronger practice or mindset? I think we can learn as much from death, loss and memory as we can from living. One’s existence is not bound to one’s body. We can learn a lot about how to live our lives from our observations about the spiritual world and our ancestors.
Our lives get marked. Whether we live with strong intentions or not, we are making marks, leaving behind trails, breadcrumbs, an essence of some sort that will hopefully be captured by those we love or by those who can create some kind of meaningfulness out of our spirits. It might seem silly to think that thoughts of a loved one come through the smell of a sweater or the sight of a shishito pepper, but part of the beauty of a person’s spirit is how cleverly it appears and manifests itself.
Wishing everyone good wishes during the season of Obon.
Mari Nakano is a Nisei member of Higashi Honganji’s Bombu Taiko. She is a freelance graphic designer and attends Art Center College of Design. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.