Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Walking down the street— my head cloudy with argument—a low hum descended upon me like the rrrrmh of a plane passing overhead. Around me, empty storefronts huddled together for warmth on this, the first chilly evening in October. How could a city street be so dark? I looked above me. A thick canopy of oak leaves blocked all but a sliver of light. The trees on either side of the street seemed to be reaching out, as if still consoling one another after the trauma of being separated.
Ahead, a single light illuminated one side of several oak trunks. I jaywalked and found the aperture of an open doorway. The contrast between my dark neighborhood and the beacon made me feel like one of those innocent characters in books—Alice or Meg Murry or the Pevensie children— who encounters a portal to another world. A syncopated shadow blocked the light for milliseconds at a time. I could just make out a sign above the door; it read Jodo Shinshu Temple.
Inside the upended rectangle I saw the profiles of three men wearing bright red robes with orange trim. They raised their arms parallel to the parquet floor and turned a slow circle. Their hems gently rose away from their sandals. The men turned again and my eyes rose to their faces. Six half-moons and three slashes of a comet’s tail— closed eyes, pursed lips. I continued listening and watching as they danced. Their turns seemed random to me, but their synchronicity never faltered.
“Excuse me.” A woman brushed past me on the sidewalk. I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking, but of course I had. I mumbled something embarrassed and apologetic, but it didn’t matter. She was gone. She may as well have entered a portal herself. I turned my back to the door so I could walk across the street. Somehow, putting it between the men and me made me feel less disrespectful. I waited for a car to go by and then I crossed. Mid-stride, I heard an exclamation of surprise, then the hum abruptly stopped.
When I turned around, one of the men was leaning out beyond the threshold with his cupped hands out in front of him. After a beat, he unclasped, releasing a small bird from his palm. It glided to one of the oak branches somewhere far above my head. No longer able to distinguish bird from shadow, I lowered my head toward the doorway: to ask the man about the bird or the humming or the meaning of Jodo Shinshu, but he had already ducked back inside.
I couldn’t just abandon such an inexpressibly meaningful occurrence, so when the humming started up again, I walked to one of the oak trunks and placed both hands on the dappled bark. Just for a second. Then I went straight home.