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Fading Flower

Posted by Dave Bull at 8:37 PM, September 1, 1994

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 to take in the exhibits, but while I chatted with some of the 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 flowers
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 street ...

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 as I watched 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 that 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 those 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 I had then listened to 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 ...

(September 1994)


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