When I was fourteen, the Most Venerable Master Nomo Hyun-Shik, my lifelong guardian, announced to me that he was going to die.
He was quite specific, gesturing toward our hanging wall calendar and indicating a date sometime the following April.
I was devastated by the announcement, of course, but also confused. It was only September. Was I being provided with this information as a kind of warning, or as an object lesson? Couldn’t the future tragedy be averted in any way?
Master Nomo shook his head. He was nearly eighty-five, he said, so his death would be no tragedy.
It is not unusual for Zen masters to predict their own demise. This is usually done to prepare a disciple for succession. It is not, as some might think, a mystical practice of foretelling the future. Rather, it is a byproduct of a life of awareness-in-action and total synchronization of mind and body. To put it simply, Nomo’s atomic clock was winding down, and he knew it. Still, I was only his daughter, not his successor.
So I cried.
I’ve been asked, “But what was it like being raised by a Korean Zen master? Some of those old coots can be pretty tough. Wasn’t he always whacking you with the stick?”
Answer: Only during za-zen (meditation). And even then, only until I got good enough to need no further prompting.
Secretly, I was Master Nomo’s pride. He had made a promise to my grandmother, one of his early American disciples, to watch over and guide me. Slowly wasting away in her hospice bed, she had shaken her head as if to communicate back to him, No―better than that!
So he took a noble vow to bring me up as his own, to give me all his love and compassion. And not to begin my lessons in earnest until I had reached age seven. At least!
“Your grandma one tough cookie,” he told me. “I tell her I have many followers who would raise child on my say-so. She tell me to stop bragging about followers and please to remember my promise.
“She say, if one person depend on another person who depend on another person, child likely to end up in basket on doorstep like floral delivery.”
He paused, dwelling on a past memory for only a moment, then rearing his head back and laughing like a donkey.
“Your grandma one tough cookie!” he repeated.
In meditation, I won his approval quickly. I liked the quiet time spent together, the sense of closeness and peace, and turned my breathing down low enough to hear his. I was probably doing it all wrong, not contemplating my own inner quietude, but simply sitting there silently on my bamboo mat enjoying our connection.
Yet Nomo considered me a prodigy. Sometimes I heard him get up and inch closer, passing his palm over my eyes to see if I flinched.
One time I reached out and grabbed his hand and squeezed it. After a few seconds, I felt his other hand stroking mine and gradually opened my eyes.
He was looking on in astonishment.
“You trying to achieve dai kensho and leave old man behind?”
When Master Nomo took me shopping, we often lingered near the register. He told me I could learn much about misguided Western food-desires that way.
He might spot a bag of chips coasting along the belt and intone, Harumph. Or see me eyeing a liter of soda with what he appraised as undue interest in sweetness or bubbles, and correct me with a sharp intake of breath.
“You see, Sparrow,” he would lecture (he had trouble pronouncing my real name, Sarah). “How Westerners glut themselves on crisps fried in pig lard.
“For this reason, kitchen known as “larder”—place to store still more animal fat.”
When my seventh birthday drew near, Nomo caught me gazing too long at a supermarket cake.
To my great surprise, that year an identical cake appeared on our kitchen counter. It was angel food, with vanilla icing and “Happy Birthday, Sarah” written on it in frosted pink letters.
Both of us regarded the confection with awe.
My guardian nonchalantly carved a piece off the top for me. For a while, I simply stared down at my plate.
“You no like to eat?” he asked, curiously.
“Is it bad luck to eat my own name?”
“Not bad luck, good birthday luck.”
So I took a bite, and another. The cake did not really taste like food to me, more like a spongy drug.
Nomo took a bite also. I always suspected he had a secret sweet tooth. Then we both sat down to try to finish it. That night, I wished we hadn’t, for my stomach grew hard and I ran to the bathroom to throw up.
I remember Nomo stroking my hair out of the way and saying, “Next time we save rest of cake for another birthday.”
“Must learn to defend yourself, Sparrow. America full of rap music and gangs. You just a girl, but strong and full of fire. See, your hair even red. Lit up from inside.”
I stood with my arms stretched out, palms faced downward. Master Nomo balanced a dictionary across the back of my hands and told me to hold still. Easy for the first few seconds, but torture thereafter.
My arm twitched and the book hit the floor.
He shook his head. “Gangbangers win,” he said.
I will say this for Nomo: he always did his part to attend PTA meetings and parents’ nights.
He would fire questions at the teachers about discipline and expect them to answer as rapidly as temple monks—an unreasonable expectation, no doubt, for fresh-out-of-college educators who expected no more than ingratiating flattery or a few softball queries about holiday decorations.
“How do you enforce discipline?” or “How command respect?” were typical overtures.
The teacher would squint, not really placing this man with the funny name or perceiving a familial connection to any of his pupils.
“Ah―we have rewards here, or action plans?”
“Ah, action plan. Very good.”
“Yes, they can be effective. . .”
“What action you take? Caning? Hitting student with ruler? Both very good to curb behavior, especially unruly behavior, bah hah hah.”
To our neighbors on 2nd Avenue, he must have seemed like Mr. Nomad, always coming and going at odd hours.
While I was in school, he spent most of his time at a large thrift store named Paradise Reclaimed. He worked behind the scenes in the repair station.
“You see, Sparrow. Americans buy one thing, toss it out when it stop working, then buy another. Our neighbor throw vacuum cleaner in a dumpster when all it needed was new belt!”
He mimed following the reconditioned vacuum cleaner around the living room as if it were powerfully pulling him. Then he tore a piece of junk mail into small
chunks and demonstrated how the patched hose could suck them up, even at a distance.
The experiment backfired when one of the pieces of paper got caught up in the brush and made a loud noise like a whoopee cushion.
“Throw it away” was surely the most idle of Master Nomo’s admonitions.
He was notorious for taking a load of stuff that had been picked over and rejected by Paradise Reclaimed to another site rather than hauling it to the dump—to a church fundraiser, a community shelter, or even to another thrift store.
Once we received a call at home from the Kidney Foundation about a truck coming through our area, and he seized this opportunity to purge all the lost treasures he simply couldn’t discard.
He stacked dozens of boxes out in the alley, and I printed “KIDNEY FOUNDATION” on them carefully in all-block letters. The driver came and somehow fit them into the back of his van.
I think our address was blacklisted by the Kidney Foundation after that.
Nomo’s favorite story was the Kannon of Shido. It had a moral for every occasion, but most often was simply his way of letting me know he was working and didn’t wish to be disturbed.
The Kannon of Shido was an unfinished wooden statue of the Goddess of Mercy. Its head was never finished, and it lacked facial features such as eyes and a mouth.
According to legend, it had been carved by a wandering monk who found a huge log washed up near a village after a devastating flood. He carried it off with superhuman strength to a workroom and began carving it—for some reason, all in one night.
He asked not to be disturbed. But curiosity got the better of some of the villagers, who peeked in at him while he was working in an enlightened frenzy. This shattered the monk’s concentration, and he left. To this day, the temple statue remains unfinished.
Periodically at the thrift store, I would be asked to check in on Master Nomo’s progress on a repair or to get a time estimate from him. It was not my favorite thing to do.
If he was concentrating on an item or had tools spread out in front of him, I could expect to be greeted with a “Hak! Hak!” or a “Kannon of Shido!”
I grew up neither loving nor hating work, just considering it part of life. Rain or no rain, Dog had to be walked and fed. This was my duty to an animal Master Nomo insisted we never name so as not to succumb to Disney personification and lose sight of its essential nature.
School was for schooling. When I unloaded my book bag in the afternoon, hours before dinner, I did my homework. If I didn’t bring any home, Nomo would tell me I had serious grounds for complaint to the teacher.
When it was time to cook or clean around the house, he simply fell to it. When I was little, I would watch Master Nomo while I colored pictures, and when I was older, it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world to help.
On the weekend, we might undertake a bigger household project, or he would take me along to the thrift store on his shift and I would sort through boxes with the ladies.
Nomo was probably most unapproachable on the subject of gyms.
“Training of body and mind beneficial, but what happen to concept of work?” he would ask, hypothetically. “All those grunting people and sweating bodies accomplishing nothing.”
He was decades ahead of his time on the subject of green gyms, the idea of hooking up exercise machines to power generators.
“Now we getting somewhere! Now we participating in energy exchange, getting something-for-something.”
“Do you think Dog will go to heaven?” he asked me one day, point blank.
“Yes,” I answered immediately.
“Why you say that?”
“Because he’s a good dog?” I ventured, less certainly.
“Dogs not really good or not-good. A sunny day not virtuous, just sunny. A stormy day not evil, just make lots of tree litter. Nature is neutral, Sparrow.”
Predictably, Dog’s ears pricked up at so many mentions of his name. He got up from his castoff rug and slowly sauntered over to us, tongue lolling. Then he sat down obediently at Master Nomo’s feet.
“Good dog,” said Master Nomo automatically, patting him on the head.
“Do you think Dog go to Heaven?” Master Nomo challenged me on another day.
I know now this question was part of my training, his adaptation of Joshu’s Mu, a famous Zen koan.
I was petting Dog as he said this so didn’t have to think twice.
“Yes!” I said enthusiastically, giving Dog a bear hug. “Because I love him!”
Nomo wasn’t sure what to make of this answer. He tried to tease out just a little more subtlety from me.
“Heaven said to be very special place. What has Dog done to deserve to go?”
“I don’t know. But it wouldn’t be a very special place without Dog there!”
Master Nomo mulled over this gentle paradox. Not too terrible an answer, anyway.
“Besides, he’s so cute!” I added, stretching Dog’s jowls into a joker-faced grin.
Nomo made a little choking noise and exited the room.
I wasn’t the only one to feel the blunt end of Master Nomo’s teaching.
His U.S. popularity had peaked back in my grandmother’s days, but for as long as I can recall, we had a steady stream of spiritual solicitors to our house.
They would come in, heads bowed, grief-stricken, and sit with Nomo in his den while I quietly killed time with a book.
Eventually they left, looking a little worn, but mostly pacified. It was rare to see the same visitor again for months, if not years.
“What do you say to them?” I asked him once, curiously.
“I give everyone who come through that door same thing,” he confided.
“Something to think about.”
“Nothing or no-thing is overrated,” he would say. “Better to just think about one thing.”
“Whatever it is you supposed to be doing!”
He may have fallen off the zendo wagon in some other respects, being rather attached to his old gadgets and vulnerable to sweets, but it was very difficult to break Master Nomo’s concentration on a task at hand.
Sometimes to remind him of my presence, or just to ask him a question, I had to enter his field of vision and stand there till he looked up.
Our next door neighbor, Mrs. Devers, was a churchgoing widow who had difficulty accepting that Master Nomo was not some cult leader who had abducted
me from my real family. She would glance at him suspiciously as he puttered around the yard.
One Sunday, I was weeding at the side of the house while Nomo was cutting the grass, and she came over to compliment me on my hard work.
Apropos of nothing, she asked, “Do you-all attend church?”
“We sometimes attend temple.”
“Temple? Are you Jewish?”
Then she spotted Master Nomo making a return lap with the lawn mower and she fled.
Later, he pulled the machine around to the side of the house and killed it.
“What that woman want?” he asked.
“She wanted to know if we attended church.”
“Jesus message very simple,” Master Nomo said, thoughtfully. “To be a sheep, not a goat, one must give to poor. Must also care for sick. Must also visit prisoners in jail.” He paused.
“That woman Oh-for-Three.”
Nomo would never allow another person to become a nemesis, however.
When a storm came and knocked down a limb in Mrs. Devers’ front lawn, he was out testing a rebuilt chainsaw the next day. I helped him haul the litter to the curb.
Later, Mrs. Devers brought over some cupcakes. And when she saw I was happy, all her questions were about school. She marveled at my straight As and awards.
Even Master Nomo softened toward her when he saw the cupcakes.
He did notice Mrs. Devers tended to hold her neck at a slight angle as she talked, or looked up only with difficulty when I showed her my top shelf of books.
“You want me to fix your neck?” he asked.
This really threw Mrs. Devers for a loop, especially when Master Nomo moved in on her quickly and guided her onto a chair.
“Just relax muscles,” he said, smoothly grabbing her under the chin and yanking.
I heard a crack from across the room.
Mrs. Devers looked dazed in her chair. She tried to smile, but as she sat her eyes teared and her nose started to run in two long yellow streaks. Embarrassed, she asked me for a Kleenex.
“Perfectly normal response,” Master Nomo murmured.
Mrs. Devers just nodded her head and wiped. Then, recomposing herself, she said, “It’s much better now, thanks,” and told us she must be leaving.
“Good-bye, Sarah. Goodbye―er, Sir.”
Nomo made no further comment on the situation until later that night when we cleaned up the dishes and refrigerated the rest of Mrs. Devers’ cupcakes.
“I always knew that lady had head on crooked.”
Afterwards, Mrs. Devers was quite friendly to us. Her husband had died nine years before and she divided most of her time between home and the market and church. I explained to her that in Korea, Master Nomo had once held a rank like a cardinal in her church, and showed her letters we still received from Thailand and Myanmar. That pretty much closed the subject of religion.
“Poems for Headstones”
by Sarah Loewe
Fifth Grade English
Cyrus “Cy” Vance
anchor and a cross
sailor, pillar of the church
solid as a stone
Bertie and Gordon Miller
She collected pigs.
He indulged this whim, perhaps.
Now he has no choice.
On Billy’s fresh grave,
fire truck waits to rescue
souls of riders.
The Selph Twins
Bunny and stuffed bear:
mementoes of a childhood
that will last and last.
I brought you tulips.
There is nothing more to say.
Mother, rest in peace.
I grew up with a lot of stuff. When I needed clothes, Master Nomo brought home a box of things my size for me to try on, then donated back the rest. And the ladies at the store set aside nearly-new castoffs for me.
Sometimes the clothes actually brought me within a year or two of being fashionable, which for me was a little too close for comfort. I preferred broken-in shoes and well-worn jeans, so long as they weren’t full of lice or peeled off a dead person.
Although Master Nomo would certainly have reminded me that hot dryers kill lice, and the dead have no further need for designer wear.
Our house, predictably, became a holding area for cast-off games and puzzles. I completed the puzzles or simply counted pieces to see if they could be sold in good conscience; the same for decks of cards, or toys in their original boxes with lists of “Parts Included” that couldn’t be trusted.
Used CDs, DVDs, and players had to be checked, too, so we were never lacking for home entertainment.
“Something wrong here. Hero in car headed west during chase, but end up in city.”
“It could be a continuity error, Sir, not the disc itself.”
“I can’t believe I rescue this from throw-away pile! Perhaps I return it tomorrow to rightful place in rubbish.”
But he would always settle deeper into his reclaimed recliner and watch the rest of the scene unfold. He loved old action films.
I can’t say when I first became obsessed with books, but they were as indispensable to me as his mechanical devices were to Master Nomo.
More practical, too: an old power drill might require all of its components to work, or need to earn its keep as a repository for spare parts, but books were what they were and didn’t require battery power.
I’m not talking about discarded self-help books that are the staple of thrift stores, or gift books that are mostly pictures, but old tomes that smelled of print and leather and had words like “classic” embossed on the spine.
I began my reclamation project in my room, finding it easy to part with my stuffed animals and jewelry boxes, replacing them with the Collier Junior Classics or Britannica Great Books sets I hoped to read one day with greater understanding. Until I had a larger collection of fairytales, folktales, Gothic novels, stories of shipwrecks and adventure, mysteries and literary classics.
If asked, I guess I would have told anyone that when I grew up, I wanted to become a librarian. But what I really wanted to be, if such a job ever existed, was a book rescuer.
Mrs. Devers eventually joined us at the store as a volunteer. She started to expand her flowery wardrobe a little and took me out sometimes for lunch.
The shopping center where the Paradise Regained wasn’t the best, anchored by a discount store and a tire place.
Sometimes we took Mrs. Devers’ car to a café down the street because the city block was not designed for pedestrians, but on a sunny day, we walked.
Once we were approached by two teens who asked Mrs. Devers for her purse.
Alone, I could easily have run to avoid an encounter, but not with Mrs. Devers standing there. My martial arts training kicked in and I told Mrs. Devers to run. Then I started to slink around the boys, wave my arms, and grunt.
They laughed, but it bought Mrs. Devers time to escape. I soon met up with her at the café, where she bought me a salad and a milkshake.
I told Master Nomo about the incident when we got back, but left out the part about the milkshake.
Master Nomo was not particularly helpful to me when I took drama classes.
He suggested I intone my lines in the shrill tones of Noh drama and rehearsed me like a little geisha.
While at school, I blocked out his advice, but sometimes my body would start to react on its own.
I worried about him attending the first performance. The play was a series of adapted fairytales, and I played a swan princess wrapped in a soft gown, slowly rising to my feet amid a cascade of falling feathers, then prancing around the stage with other princesses before finally folding up into my nest again.
I wasn’t too worried about that particular sequence, in which my Noh training was actually kind of useful. But in the next, a handsome prince cut into the swan dance, he and I waltz, and he ends up on his knee proposing.
In my mind, I could just picture Master Nomo rising up in the audience and shouting something embarrassing like, “Stop! They too young!”
Yet he didn’t react that way at all, not at any of the performances, one of which he actually attended with Mrs. Devers.
Nor did he offer me any direct criticism, either, except once to comment, “My little Sparrow growing up.”
Relationship advice, à la Mr. Nomo: “Always wait for man to open door. Give him opportunity to be chivalrous. If he not move, then push him out and shut door quickly behind.”
What is the most important thing you can teach your child?
Master Nomo’s answer: “Only do one thing at a time, con-centrate. That way, you gradually get better, with fewer missteps.”
I remember asking him once whether he missed temple life, or whether he thought we should attend services more often.
“What you doing right now?” he asked me.
“Nothing, really, just sorting these books.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Pretty much just about books.”
“Sound like you in temple already.”
Nomo always tried to get me to take his little paradoxes seriously, but when I tried to hold contradictory ideas in my head, I failed.
In the previous category of Master Nomo’s koans for kids:
Sorting through boxes at the store, he came across a child’s school drawing of a bushy-bearded Abraham Lincoln.
“Er, Sparrow, look at this picture.”
“Tell me now, why this man doesn’t have a beard?”
“Because that kid couldn’t draw very well?”
“Sometimes you little smartypants, Sparrow! It very important to develop a questioning mind.
“They say a hwadu should become part of your life, and where you go, it go. When you eat, the hwadu eats, and when you go to bathroom, it go with you, too.”
At that time, as a kid, I thought this hwadu (Korean for “koan”) remark just about the funniest thing I had ever heard. I couldn’t suppress some giggles.
A little later, when I really did have to use the restroom, I made some stupid remark about taking my hwadu with me.
A brief look of disappointment flitted across the old man’s face. I apologized immediately.
Nomo just nodded and returned to his boxes.
When I returned, he looked up briefly and said, “Doubt healthy, Sparrow. Just remember that, so no one try to pull the wool over your eyes.”
I nodded to show that I understood.
“Now, please sit your hwadu down here and help me with these boxes.”
©2012 This work is the property of the author.