John made a number of beautiful wooden boxes with lids that swiveled from one corner, every one unique, built by his hands, of various hard and soft woods, lovingly finished, each.
These boxes were intended to hold ashes, John’s primarily, he told us.
When he was dying four years ago he showed us his works-in-progress, proudly. We did not think it morbid at all. He was staring forward; witnessing the inevitable, bravely, if only in brief spurts. Fear must have been all consuming. He was preparing. Perhaps trying to be responsible when, at times in the past, he may not have been so much so. A small redemption exercise it may have been.
But he toiled away in his small craftsman’s garret in Point Richmond, with his wood tools meticulously arranged, antique plumb bobs hanging as ornaments, dope deals colliding outside the windows. A holy woodworker bringing love to the Bay.
We have a tiny portion of John’s ashes in one of the boxes he made for himself, in a special place in our house that gets attended to from time-to-time with care and a feather duster. John didn’t speak Japanese but that hardly matters now. We’re here to take care of him. I’m unsure where or if he is. In the image, John is in the smaller box on the right.
John gave me another box then, the white one on the left, and it has been sitting on my desk these past years, awaiting meaning.
Peter and I recently decided to divide our Dad’s ashes—he passed eight years ago—and scatter them on the same day in the Columbia River where we were born and Dad died, and on the Continental Divide, near where he grew up and I now live, on peaks he surely climbed as a teenager before he grew up and joined the Navy at 17 to go fight Hirohito.
But I asked Pete if I could keep some of those ashes and put them in that other box John made for that purpose, and set them alongside John.
I did that today.
I was in a Council group yesterday. We speak carefully, with a quiet mind and an open heart. It’s easier to hear and feel that way. It is suggested that, when we speak, we consider those who came before us and are gone, feeling them standing behind us, listening, as we speak for them in present time. And, as we look into the fire when speaking, a fire some refer to as “the children’s’ fire”, we see our kids, their kids and those we can only imagine in the future, listening, waiting to hear what it is we have to say.
In this way, John faced the future, preparing, making his simple but elegant boxes, a place for him to rest, then stood in the present as he died and now he stands behind us, listening, feeling our hearts. John gifted forward and now he joins our Dad too, somehow reaching out, reaching back. Perhaps in this way he and Dad are here now.
And now we pass these ways of knowing and being into the future to ours and to those we don’t yet know.
Gary Snyder ended his poem Axe Handles with these lines:
“And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.”
However we do, we are going on. Always going on.
-Geoff Shōun O’Keeffe
August 25, 2019
Nancy Coulter-Parker says
Beautifully written Geoff. Thank you for sharing.
The John I knew refused to be put in a box when alive. Ironic he built a box for himself to “reach out…” in another plane. Going forward as you said so beautifully. Love this Geoff.