In a documentary on the bus ride over to Tule Lake, a former incarceree commented that he loved watching the clouds as a child and wanted to take pictures of them, but he had no camera because they were not allowed in the camp. Looking at those clouds for myself, I could see what he meant–fluffy white sheets floating serenely across the sky at their own pace, in their own time. It’s hard to imagine that such cruelty could take place under such a peaceful sky.
At the end of the Tule Lake memorial service, when I was sitting next to Monique and taking it all in–letting my feelings run free after bowing three times (as I learned to do from my grandma, for my Chinese ancestors) with my red carnation in front of the makeshift altar, a scene with a line of model-scale barracks, one for each of the WRA internment camps–I looked around behind me for other Genki Spark friends and noticed one of the elders sitting in the corner of the very back row, with no one around him, bent over forward with his hat inclined to cover his face. I was touched by the sight and went over to him to keep him company, hoping that by sitting next to him and talking with him about our emotions, I could help him feel better by letting him loose his feelings with me, to pop out the thorn in the demon’s side and let all the pus and pollution out to leave him clean, refreshed, and whole.
I sat next to him and asked him what he thought about the service. With eyes slightly red and watery with unfallen tears, he told me about how, yes, he thought the service was wonderful and short. He appreciated its brevity. But he said that he still couldn’t help feeling angry and bitter about what the U.S. government did to his people, his family, his friends. How, at the cemetery on the other side of the low ridge where we all sat in white folding chairs under the sheets of white clouds floating freely in the sky, the U.S. government had uprooted the bodies buried there because they needed the gravel. How he was saddened that his mother, who had recently passed away, had to endure the pain and suffering of raising her family in a prison surrounded by barbed wire, in hardship. How he was angry that even Japanese Americans today would tell him to move on, forget about it, and stop hanging onto and feeling bitter about old memories. He felt like he could never forgive the injustice that was served. Of course, we can move on—he felt like he has moved on, but he can’t forget. We must remember, he said.
And throughout the pilgrimage, I could see how people have remembered the injustices while moving on in their own ways, by celebrating the spirit and its ability to endure and flourish even under the most difficult of times.
At Sunday night’s Open Mic, and from backstage at Monday night’s concert, I watched and listened to a woman play the koto, a long Japanese zither that her mother had learned how to play at Tule Lake, on a makeshift instrument made from found materials. Poetry was read, songs were sung–beautiful works imbued with passion, memories, meaning, and a love and appreciation for life and how far we have come today from 1943, when the loyalty questionnaire was sent out, asking Japanese and Japanese Americans whether they would pledge their loyalty to a government that treated them like second class citizens and stripped them of all their possessions.
What couldn’t be stripped away was their spirit, which showed in full force at Monday night’s concert with the beat of the taiko, with songs and words and the cheering of an audience moved by love, passion, and strength.
Just like the clouds, we move on and change into wonderful, whimsical new shapes as we gain new experiences–being mindful and retaining some of our shape from the past while living fully in the present and looking ahead to the future.