She came in at the best possible time. The
noon-time rush of visitors had tapered off, and the gallery was once
again peaceful. Only about half a dozen people were left in the room
looking over my woodblock prints, just enough to make the place feel
a bit active, but not enough to feel crowded.
As I did with all the visitors when it wasn't too
busy for it, I greeted her and explained what sort of things she
would see on display. Her voice was soft, but she spoke with
confidence; her clothes were quietly elegant, and she moved about
with grace. I left her alone to take in the exhibits, but while I chatted
with some other visitors, a group of college girls, I watched
her stroll about the room.
She spent some time in quiet contemplation of the
prints, before approaching me again. We talked a bit about my work,
and then, after a momentary hesitation, as if she were deciding
whether or not to speak in such a way to a stranger, she spoke to me
of her feelings about one of the poems. The most well-known poem in
the set, probably the most famous in the entire Japanese 'waka' canon
- Ono no Komachi's cry over her lost youthful beauty:
And now that the
Have all faded,
In the lingering rain,
In vain I make my way
Through this world of ours.
She spoke about the fact that her feelings toward
this poem had changed over the years. That while she may have
'understood' it in a purely intellectual sense at a younger age, now
that she was approaching forty, these words had come to have a real
heartfelt meaning for her. She felt that now, and only now, had she
come to understand what Komachi had been trying to describe. The
feelings that come over a woman in her middle years, when her skin
loses its smooth youthful glow, and her hair its lustrous blackness
... When she sees men turn to watch a young girl walk by in the
I listened quietly to what she had to say, and
while she spoke I wrestled with myself. About how to respond to her
ideas. I could have simply talked about how all women presumably pass
through similar stages in their lives, and that these thoughts were
'natural' and inevitable. I could perhaps have spouted some such
platitude as that.
But I didn't want to tell her this. Maybe it might
be true, I don't know, but it wasn't what I wanted to say. I wanted
to tell her instead what I had been thinking while watching her stroll
around the room, what I had been thinking when I saw her standing
near those three college girls, and what I had felt when she then
came close to me again ...
I had been thinking about myself, and how the way
that I feel towards women has altered over the years. The 20 year old
me, and the 40 year old me, are actually quite different people ...
What did that 20 year old see in women, and in
particular in the one he had picked as a partner back then? Of
course, he mostly saw physical beauty: shapely curves, a slim waist,
and the smooth skin and lustrous hair that Komachi missed so much.
He heard a cheery voice, accompanied by a quick smile, and a 'fresh'
bright personality. Pretty much just like the three students
standing over there ...
But what then of the 40 year old me ... A normal
man, right? Doesn't he want the same things? Well, maybe. Of course
he's still attracted by a good shape, but he's now far more aware of
how that shape is a reflection of the woman inside. As she walks, he
can see her personality expressed in her movements - not quick and
flighty, but confident and experienced. As she speaks, he can hear
her character in the tone of her voice - not fresh and bouncy perhaps,
but measured and well paced. As she listens when he speaks, he can
see in her eyes and expression, her reactions to his words, because
she has shared enough years of experience to understand ...
And now here in the gallery, I, the 40 year old I,
had watched this woman walk around the room ... and I had enjoyed
what I had seen. I had seen her stand near to those younger girls,
and had felt that there was 'no comparison' ... And then to
hear her speak to me about 'losing her attractiveness'! She
was concerned about some gray hairs! Here was a woman telling me of
her self-image as a 'fading flower', but whom I viewed as someone
becoming more attractive year by year ...
So what do you think I should have done? What
should I have said to her? I have never found it easy to talk with
women under the best of circumstances, and I was afraid that if I
spoke to her of these things, she would think that I was just trying
to be 'smooth' with her.
I am sorry to admit that I couldn't find the
courage. I kept my thoughts to myself, and just spoke in some
inconsequential way. And then some minutes later, as she slowly made
her way to the door, and left the gallery, I felt ashamed of my
reticence. Wouldn't she have been pleased by such ideas? Wouldn't she
have walked away feeling perhaps just a little bit warmer? I guess
I'll never know. I was simply unable to tell her what I thought. But
you who read this, you for whom Ono no Komachi's poem evokes similar
feelings, at least I've been able to tell you ...
As a woman passes out of her 20's, through her
30's and on into her 40's, so do the men around her. And while the 20
year old man may indeed be most attracted by that 20 year old girl;
as he grows older, so does his idea of a suitable mate change. Her
hair now perhaps may have a touch of grey, her waist may be
missing that delicate slimness, her movements might be no longer
quite so quick ... But what she has lost in youthful 'freshness' has
been more than compensated for by her mature elegance.
So yes, my head will still turn on the street to
follow young college girls, but don't misunderstand the gesture. They
are not suitable partners for me. At least not yet. Not until they
understand something of how Ono no Komachi felt ...