Two Septembers ago, I had the pleasure of visiting an old friend in Japan.
Toshiyo lives in Kyoto and was my home-stay host in 1996 while I was studying Japanese at a language school in the city during a summer break from my teaching job in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. I was matched with her completely at random. But, as I've come to believe, nothing in this existence is ever completely random.
From the time we first met that summer, she has been one of my closest friends and mentors, and Kyoto has been my second home. She is a woman possessed of immeasureable wisdom that is unsettling in its simplicity. I consider her another of my elder sisters.
Nature sometimes conspires against my sense of timing.
My September 2004 visit to Toshiyo coincided with the arrival of a powerful typhoon that was raking Japan from south to north, taking a considerable toll in lives and property.
Returning to her apartment after stepping out for some dinner, I closed my sopping umbrella and leaned it outside her door, not wanting to get her foyer wet. Later that night, I noticed she had hung the umbrella, still dripping, on the doorknob inside the foyer.
I had returned to Japan bearing gifts for Toshiyo and other friends I hadn't seen in years. Toshiyo's gift was a beautiful (and expensive) ceramic pendant whose colors were in the earth tones she so loves. Toshiyo, a refreshingly frank and utterly sincere woman, seemed taken aback at this extravagance.
The next morning, whatever we were talking about somehow led to a discussion of people's actions, and how their intentions can be interpreted in unintended ways.
She reminded me that Japanese people of an earlier age sought to simplify their lives once they turned 60 -- having completed five 12-year cycles of the old lunar calendar, one for each of the five elements that make up the world: water, fire, earth, metal and wood. Toshiyo, then 62 and very traditional in her ways, saw this process as well under way in her own life.
She was slowly and methodically giving away all of her material possessions, save for those that were absolutely necessary to live in this day and age.
And here I was, giving her one more thing that she felt she no longer needed.
She loved the thought behind the pendant, but made me promise her -- made me look straight into her eyes and swear -- that I would never again bring gifts with me when I come to visit her.
Then she glanced over at my umbrella, and took my hand in hers.
"You put the umbrella outside my door because you thought it was the helpful thing to do -- you didn't want to make a puddle in my foyer," she said gently. "All I saw was the inconvenience you caused my neighbors, who had to step around the puddle you created outside."