Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bricks and Om: A New Year's Eve Story

Years ago, I lived behind a Masonic Hall, though the Masons no longer used the whole building. I took dance classes a big downstairs room, various arts organizations had offices upstairs. The Masons met in rooms on the top – the eighth -- floor. There was a separate elevator and staircase at the back of the main hallway that presumably only went to the eighth floor. 

Heavy wooden double doors hid the elevator doors and I could hear their elevator from my apartment. I spent a fair amount of time, Rear Window style, looking at the top floor and wondering if there was a hidden floor or floors. All I could see was the brickwork was more ornate about the seventh floor. Trompe d’oeil?

I knew next-to-nothing about the Masons. My only knowledge were high school classmates who were Rainbow Girls; they'd get their pictures in the paper wearing a cape. 

When I was a little kid I thought Masons had something to do with canning, the only masons I knew were canning jars. My dad set me straight – a mason was a bricklayer, someone who worked with masonry. A capital M-type Mason was something else; the only comparison dad had was the Elks. Or the Lions or Rotary – a club. Oh, and the Shriners were Masons, white men in Ali Baba costumes. But a neighbor kid had gotten  free care at the Shriners Hospital,  if they wanted to parade in satin pants and a fez, that was fine.

A friend from Japan -- let's call her Kiku -- came to visit. She had been my translator on a recent trip to Buddhist temple sites in Japan.
"Listen," she said on New Year’s Eve. "I hear chanting."

I listened carefully.The chanting seemed to be coming from the top floor, where the Masons met. Except it wasn't quite chanting, it sounded like male voices learning how to do the Ahhhhhhhhooooooooooommmmmmmmmm sound of an Om.

"It's up there. I will join," Kiku said.

"Er, I don't think those are Buddhists," I said.

“I will go,” Kiku said. I followed her up the stairs of the Masonic Temple. We could hear the ersatz om-ing on the floor above us. 

Kiku squinted up. “Secret door?” she asked.

I showed her the double doors that led to the elevator
Kiku looked at them. “This is a good mystery.”

Months later she sent me a page copied from a Japanese book on Freemasonry; with a translation and a note. “I read that Masons do tests, learn different secret things, one of the secret things they learn is Om, but they spell it IAOM. They learn this one letter at a time. This is very funny, I think."

Kiku was studying anthropology and she followed his with several paragraphs about the role of ritual in society, ending with, “…secret societies need bigger and bigger secrets as members go higher in the organization.  I think someone visited Japan, India, China and saw Buddhist monks and added the ‘Om’… very secret eastern philosophy, who would know this in the USA many years ago, yes?

“..there are Masons here in Japan, I wonder what they think of this? Many here are also Christian, so what would secrets be? I think it does not matter, they pay money to achieve rank, rank is what matters.”

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