The White String

Dreams of connection in quarantine

Brandon Shimoda
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

One night in late 2016—maybe it was early 2017—my partner and I went to Wat Buddhametta, a Theravada Buddhist temple in Tucson, Arizona. We had lived in Tucson from 2011 to 2014, left for two years (Marfa, Kaohsiung, Kure, St. Louis, Portland), and had just returned. We were exhausted from traveling, and were seeking a place, a structure and a community, in which to meditate. The night we first went was chanting night. When we entered, the monk, Ajahn Sarayut Arnanta, was leading a group of fifteen or so people in a chant, or series of chants, of the Pāli scriptures. He sat on a platform surrounded by tall vases overflowing with flowers—the flowers looked like the severed heads and necks of lithe water birds—and in front of several Buddhas, including, in the middle, a golden Buddha. Looped around the golden Buddha were several white strings (sai sin, in Thai), at least two of which were connected to Ajahn Sarayut’s wrists, at least one of which shot out like spider silk over Ajahn Sarayut’s head and onto a wooden grid suspended horizontally from the ceiling. The white string passed through the grid, where it seemed to multiply, sending many white strings hanging down to the floor. The fifteen or so people sat beneath the grid, each with a piece of string coiled or wrapped around their head. (The coiled strings made me think of the frosting on cinnamon buns.) In this way, everyone was connected—to the golden Buddha, to Ajahn Sarayut, to each other.

The chanting that Ajahn Sarayut was leading intensified and deepened the beauty of the grid of white string: the rhythmic, droning, cicada-like sound of each voice—of all the voices together—transformed the white string from a means of connection into a hypha-like form of communication, everyone speaking to each other through the white string—extrasensorially, in the form of pure thinking.

I am describing all this because I had a dream last week—or two weeks or a few days ago, I am having trouble keeping track—about the grid of white string. I had forgotten about it. But shortly after entering into self-quarantine with my partner and our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, the white string returned.

The dream was simple: it was raining. The rain was heavy, a downpour. Yet there was one thing less simple: I saw places, right next to the rain, where it was not raining, as if there were columns of air immune to getting wet. And then, in the middle of the rain and the columns of air without rain, and the sound of it all, Wat Buddhametta appeared, and the grid of white string. They came in a flash, like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, except that the room, in the flash, was empty of people. The golden Buddha was there, and the white string was looped around the golden Buddha, but Ajahn Sarayut was not there, and neither was anyone else. The white string was connected to the wooden grid, and many white strings hung down to the floor.

The fact that the fifteen or so people—who, by the force of their chant, had represented the whole world, or the more infinite world beyond the visible world—had been, in my dream, removed from the room, was disconcerting not only to me, but also, it seemed, to the white string. When we attended chanting night at Wat Buddhametta, I paid more attention to the white string than I did to the people, but now in my dream, with the people gone, I missed them, and felt that something horrible had happened to them, something beyond their removal, more violent. They had been disappeared. What about their voices? Some part of their voices—some resonance or recollection of pure thinking—existed in the pathetic hesitancy of the white string. And with that, the flash burned out, and it was raining, and not raining, again.

Today is Monday, March 30. My partner and our daughter and I have been at home for seventeen days. We used to go to the park, five minutes away, with several wide-open fields of green grass and trees, so our daughter could run around. Now we take walks around the neighborhood. It is spring in Tucson, trees are leafing out, flowers are in bloom.

to ward off adversity
time speeds up the appearance
of flowers the children

That is from Etel Adnan’s Time, translated from the French by the poet Sarah Riggs, which I am currently rereading. “More flowers,” my daughter says, walking through flowers.

A menacing silence has befallen the world. I imagine that the silence, and its menace, is much louder—maybe even extremely loud—in places that are not the desert, that are far from, or inversions of, the desert. But in the desert the silence is faithful. By faithful, I mean also: watching. As we walk through the neighborhood, people appear—young people, old people, people on bicycles, people with dogs—but disappear just as quickly, as if they had slipped through a sleeve in the more general mirage of sociality in the age of COVID-19. Although it feels more as if the people are the mirage, from which I cannot discount my family or myself. And it feels as if the world—certainly the wide and languid streets of Tucson—is the empty room beneath the grid of white string, which still, in our absence, connects us all, maybe even more intensely.

people come back in our
dreams to bring us their truth
that which our eyes refused
to see, and for which they
burned us, in burning themselves

That is also from Etel Adnan’s Time. I trust my dreams. I trust them especially when I do not trust myself to reliably process what is happening outside them. Is that what I am trying to do now, by remembering, for myself and with you, my dream, and the night three years or so behind it, and the suddenly delirious and uncertain days before it? It feels as though the dreams have perfect timing. What originally appeared as a functional, however beautiful, part of daily life, returns, years later, transformed in my dream into the legend, or explanation, for life in general. Maybe explanation is not the right word. Maybe legend is not the right word either. Sai sin, the white string, and the grid on which the white string is held and disseminated, and from which it hangs down, is powerful because it is precarious. If someone were to—intentionally or not—pull too hard on any one piece of the string, the whole thing would come down, would land in everyone’s lap. Maybe the grid would come apart, and the white string would become so entangled that the entire system would need to be gathered up and carried out into the desert.

Time has passed. Now it is Wednesday, April 1 (Day 19). We just got back from a walk around the neighborhood. There were more and brighter, and more fragrant and effusive, therefore more defiant and mocking flowers. And walking through them were people—young people, old people, people on bicycles, people with dogs—all keeping their distance. Would it be otherwise? And yet there was, and has been, something beatific about the faces, above the flowers, of people who had spent their day indoors, oscillating between depression and resignation, awareness and forgetting, and the simple agenda of trying to get on.

What is a ghost? A soul that is desperate to return to that which no longer exists? Or the soullessness that has enforced the increasing lack of existence?

We passed a small house with a rusted metal fence. Cut into the vertical slats was a sculpture: six faceless steel figures on a platform. They were like the figures in Giacometti’s Piazza—walking, yet aimless—but instead of being tall and slender, they were short and squat, as if Giacometti’s figures had been hammered, by time and circumstance, deep into themselves. We knew the house, had passed it many times, but had never, until tonight, noticed the sculpture. “Look!” we said to our daughter, “it’s a sculpture!” To which our daughter said, “Sculpture, sculpture, sculpture,” and then, as we were walking away, “Sculpture, sculpture, sculpture.” Our daughter likes—and needs—to repeat words, over and over, sometimes incessantly, until she has committed them to memory. Sometimes, when she is excited or tired, a cascade of words streams out of her mind, and her mouth, as if the words had breached her capacity to contain them.

Farther along, as we walked through a stretch of bright yellow and orange daisies, our daughter (her name is Yumi) bent over to smell them, as she does with all flowers, and declared, simply: “Too many.”

Brandon Shimoda is the author of The Grave on the Wall, which received the PEN Open Book Award, and Hydra Medusa. His next book is on the afterlife of Japanese American incarceration.
Originally published:
April 13, 2020


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