When I lived in Japan I joined a flower arrangement club. I didn’t have any interest in flowers, or tradition, or grace, so it was an odd move.
I did, however, have a friend who was the president of the Ikebana club at our university, who had helped me out a lot in the first months of school. In classes Ryoko made sure I was following along by grabbing my sleeve and whispering, “Understand, Emi?” She blinked a lot and made audible breathing-in noises whenever she was about to explain something difficult or ask me a question she thought I could potentially answer no to. So when she invited me to come watch her Ikebana club, I could only say yes.
The sensei, who was in her late 70s, helped me prune my branches and buds into the appropriate shapes. Then she impaled them at specific angles onto a square of metal spikes placed in a shallow bowl. Ryoko told me to remove the branches and buds and to try to recreate the sensei’s angles. I did, and then Sensei came back and fixed the angles of the branches by two or three degrees. Ryoko told me to remove the branches and buds one more time and try again. I did it again, and when my arrangement looked almost exactly like Sensei’s original arrangement, she said it was beautiful. She said I had talent.
Then she asked me my pant and shoe size. She looked at my feet and nodded with the same enthusiasm she had for my arrangement. I found this senile side of Sensei unexpected and charming. Ryoko put her hand over her own mouth and shook her head, “Sensei,” she whispered through her hand.
About a week later I was walking to my dorm with Ryoko after class when she said, “Emi, I have something to talk to you about.” She breathed in. It wasn’t just her voice that sounded high pitched and confined to her lungs — even her breath sounded trapped and worried. She started to talk and then cut herself off. “Wait a minute,” she said, and we stopped walking so she could think before she spoke. She grabbed onto my sleeve.
Next to Ryoko I felt like a man. I was so large and my voice so much lower than hers, and her concerns were just so dumb. Her cuteness sort of irritated me and turned me on at the same time. It was fall and cold, and I had an impulse to put my arm around her and then maybe marry her. I imagined myself coming home from work to our artistic house where I could explain to her on a daily basis how ridiculous she was.
So I was picturing what an imaginary domineering relationship would look like with Ryoko when she said, “Emi, Sensei would like you to study with her. She’ll wave the fee, and if you join, you’ll only have to pay for the cost of flowers.” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to join the club, and the proposal surprised me, but my own disinterest in the subject seemed like too self involved a reason not to join.
I looked at Ryoko, and her head was slightly cocked, her eyebrows were raised, and her mouth was open. I had spent the time I could have thought of an acceptable reason not to join the club planning a life of domination over Ryoko, and now I had to join the Ikebana club for the year because of it.
And that’s how I got involved in the ancient and symbolic art of Ikebana. Each week Sensei instructed the club on how to build a little cosmos in miniature. In the fall we built the cosmos with scotch broom and oak; in the winter with pine and winter berry; and in the spring with plum blossoms, iris, and weeping willow. Sensei taught us about the importance of balance and asymmetry, about the necessary changes in form with the seasons, and ultimately about how to manipulate nature to make it more beautiful. Also, the slightly senile side of Sensei would kick in and she would ask about the size of my feet, and my pants, and my shirt, and anything else I was wearing. This happened every week, and every week Ryoko would say “Sensei” with shock through her hand. Yet as the weeks went on I started to like the art of Ikebana and maybe even the weird club I had joined against my own better judgment. At some point in the year, after I had received a license, assisted Sensei at several exhibitions, and purchased Ikebana magazines on my own, I had to admit that I wasn’t just in a club — flower arrangement was actually a hobby of mine. • 29 October 2007