Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (New Directions, 2014) leapt to the top of my to-read list for the most practical reason: its slim and tiny self made it ideal for slipping into the single backpack I brought to Europe. With a little luck, beauty will reveal itself within the most practical decisions, within the most commonplace, as is so powerfully depicted in The Guest Cat. Hiraide is a poet by trade, so when Chibi the cat (“Little One” in Japanese) falls asleep on a sofa, she looks “like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from a prehistoric archaeological site”; when Chibi runs away to avoid being touched, her “manner of rejection was like cold, white light”; and when Chibi repeatedly bumps against a window in the middle of the night, she looks “small and white, with eyes wide open, like a bird striking a lighthouse.” The poetry like prose, which is often prose at its best, goes on without pause.
In The Guest Cat, a married couple live and work in a small cottage in Tokyo, quietly alternating between writing, tending the garden and observing Chibi. Chibi is a stray cat that is quickly adopted by a neighboring family, though she makes regular visits to the couple, much to their delight. Change happens here and there – an emperor dies, friends fall ill, a job is left, a house is sold – but the overall day-to-day plays a steady beat that somehow feels far more significant than any such changes. The book embraces an ease that stems from waking up to nothing short of your everyday, and it embraces a beauty that stems from an entirely present natural world. Just three pages into the book, I began to underline every mention of the garden’s various inhabitants.
There is the zelkova tree, as well as pine, persimmon and plum; there is mistletoe, saffron, Daphne odora and reeves spirea; there is the Japanese bush warbler, Blue Admiral, cicada and skimmer dragonfly; and of course there is Chibi, Cal and Mrs. Muddy, the wayward cats. Nature is not merely a collection of props on a stage overwhelmed by the human cast. Rather, nature stars right alongside us, sharing deeply felt moments. It is noted that “the garden was like a forest to Chibi,” and indeed the garden takes on the grandeur of a forest even to the reader. The couple continuously monitors its changing colors, sizes, textures and sounds, and I dare say the world feels far less lonely when we consider all that is actually alive around us.
On March 11, two days before my birthday, I flew to Amsterdam for what would be eleven days in Europe, my very first time. I selected two cities beyond Amsterdam to explore: Utrecht, a university town 30 miles southeast of Amsterdam, and Paris. Europe invites the possibility of seeing its major sights on a single trip, à la “backpacking through Europe,” a rite of passage straight from America’s young adult folklore. But already under the assumption that I will inevitably return, I chose to tighten the focus on Holland with a jaunt to Paris. In retrospect, I could have easily spent the entire time in either country, or any single city, and I suppose the lesson is to never underestimate the enthusiastic heart’s capacity to explore. I took photos when I could, alternating between DSLR, disposable and iPhone, and wrote when I could, either in my trusty navy Moleskine or the Notes app on my phone, furiously tapping as I wound through Shakespeare and Company not once but three times. Before I revisit such notes, photos and souvenirs (simple items like a postcard from the Ann Frank House, bookmarks from the Van Gogh Museum, tattered train tickets), a couple of unpolished photos and likewise corresponding notes may capture a spirit of the trip that is likely to fade from overthinking.
I write this from a window seat on a train traveling from Paris to Amsterdam. Under a low gray ceiling, scenes alternate between swaths of bare winter trees with tip-tops made invisible by fog, fields of green and brown in equal measure, anonymous farms, and urban relics like graffiti, billboards and pedestrians before and after each station. Birds appear in all directions and begin to race the train, though they soon forfeit to dance up and away to a place gravity forbids. I sense magic when listening to songs from my own canon of favorites as the landscape flies by, especially when that landscape is new and that song has such fitting lines as, “I quit casting hooks off the California coast we held so dear.” California, now an ocean and continent away. I have driven the 500-mile stretch between California’s northern and southern ends countless times, a feat that has skewed my perspective of travel. I am accustomed to traveling far while very little changes. Now, I sit on a train that traverses three wholly unique countries – Holland, Belgium and France – in a little over 300 miles. Borders feel especially arbitrary when countries live in such close quarters. Soon I will arrive in Amsterdam Central only to race to another train headed for Utrecht. Simply because this trip began in Holland, returning after two days in Paris feels a bit like going home. Understand I’m prone to attachment.
I write this from a window seat in Café Pieper in the center of Amsterdam. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet plays familiar notes in this 17th century café, and as the two make an undeniably perfect pair, the conclusion is that certain things are indeed timeless and stunningly so. Floorboards creak loudly with each new customer, and the espresso machine whirrs just as often as beer is poured. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman cling to each other in the far corner. To my left, a couple sits with a dog that they quickly report is 15-years-old and deaf; to my right, two shimmering blondes talk as quickly as their hands fly. Upon hearing any foreign language, my mind seems to fill every word, sound and syllable with deeply profound meaning, as if to emphasize, Listen to all that you don’t know! Outside the stained glass windows, there is a canal with cars and bikes wrapped tightly around its perimeter, which strangely does not diminish the canal’s beauty. Instead, beauty emerges from the bustle, timeless and stunningly so.
There is a special place in my book-filled heart for Elizabeth Percer, and I’ve been waiting for her latest, All Stories Are Love Stories (Harper, 2016), for well over a year. I reached out to Elizabeth after reading her first novel, An Uncommon Education (allow me the pleasure of introduction), and among the emails we exchanged during that time, she shared that she was working on a book centered around a major earthquake and fire hitting modern-day San Francisco.
All Stories Are Love Stories reads like a preemptive eulogy of San Francisco, a glorious city at the mercy of the merciless San Andreas Fault. We perceive roads, sidewalks and buildings, even people around us, to be such permanent things, carefully placed fixtures of the here and now. When those fixtures are also legendary, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Castro Theatre or Painted Ladies, they give off an eternal quality, as if lifted from the pages of a fairytale. That all of it perches atop the softest ground, under which pressure builds unabated, almost feels like a betrayal. Modern-day San Francisco may worship at the alter of technology, but ultimately answers to the unquestionable authority of nature. It is only a matter of time, and in All Stories Are Love Stories, that time is the evening of Valentine’s Day. The book spans just 24 hours, but as experienced in crises, time breaks open and behaves erratically, so that while on one page, a minute feels like an hour, on another, a millisecond changes ever little thing.
Rather than a sweeping story of a city in crises, the story zeros in on the lives of Max, Vashti and Gene. We meet all of them hours before their lives are upended, so that once the earthquake hits and the larger story of disaster unfolds, it is interrupted only by stories from these characters’ pasts. This is not about people in the midst of happily ever after when disaster strikes. This is about people in the midst of pain, confusion and heartache when disaster strikes, making it feel all the more ill-timed. You will enjoy these characters, especially Franklin (Gene’s partner), who says things like this:
“Our city is dying. The soul’s sucked out of her. And I don’t care if speaking the truth makes me unpopular.
It’s a hell of a lot better than that crap you were dishing up. I mean, a twenty-first century Gold Rush? Millennial prospectors? You kids are nothing but starry-eyed naïfs with overworked vocabularies” (107).
Perhaps rather than a eulogy, I should describe the book as an homage to San Francisco: Ina Coolbrith Park, Nob Hill Masonic Center, Grace Cathedral, Brunswick Hotel, Transamerica Pyramid and Huntington Park, among others, all make an appearance. I remember the five minute drive from my apartment in Berkeley to Aquatic Park, from where you can see both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, entry points to a floating city shrouded in fog. It is enlivening to be connected to something so grand, and though this book reminds me of that feeling, it also reminds me of all there is to lose. Whether it is a life, a relationship, a passion or a city, All Stories Are Love Stories explores the permanency of things, and offers shining examples of what may outlast even disaster.
“Sunlight and water to a blossoming flower, likewise our sense of well-being is both nourished by the shine of other’s eyes and the gurgle of our self-regard. Who I was as a person was more than what I looked like, but then again, how people saw me was a part of who I was.”