Written by Andrew Singer
June 30, 2020
Last Saturday (6/27/2020), we traveled from the famous sandbar we live on known as Cape Cod to Asia. I needed to be at work on Monday, so it had to be a day trip. At 8:00 a.m. on a day that threatened rain, we backed out of the driveway, drove three hours west across Massachusetts, and found ourselves in the Berkshire Mountains on Stockbridge Road-Route 7 in Great Barrington. We stopped at a Shell gas station next to an auto parts store. Just down the street we could see a U-Haul rental store and a bowling alley. Um, Andrew, where exactly in Asia are you heading?
Here. Look towards the U-Haul place. OK, now back your eyes up and shift right. See it yet? A dragon. A bronze beast with a scaly hide and an undulating body, eighteen feet long, seemingly hovering above the ground. He used to have a twin, but his brother (at least I think it was a brother) flew off a number of years ago.
Taking the second driveway down from Shell, we pass an eight-foot Buddha sitting legs folded on a double lotus base staring across the highway. Nearby, a seven-foot, twin-sided, chiseled Buddha head with full yellow and red lips gazes both up and down the road. These giant statues were carved from lava stone in Indonesia. We have arrived at Asia Barong Gallery. I feel at home every time I pull into the parking lot. I am back in Asia.
I have been making this pilgrimage for many years. Not as often as I would like, but always with anticipation. It has been just under two years since my last visit, on my first wedding anniversary shortly after my wife died. I had come that weekend to escape and at one point had to excuse myself to flee back to my car and cry for fifteen minutes. I wanted to come again last year when I was in the area for a writing conference, but they had closed the day before I arrived as the owner returned to his home on Bali and his winter buying trips around Asia. I drove by the closed building and garden yards anyway.
This year is different, for a number of reasons. The gallery is open (I called on Friday to confirm), the owner has since re-married, and I too have found new love and am traveling with my girlfriend. It is a time of new beginnings and renewing old acquaintances.
Rain begins falling steadily as we enter the outside yards and stroll among bright white marble Guanyins, guardian lions, and bursting lotus flowers. We walk down rows of standing, sitting, and reclining Buddhas. We look up at the thresholds of immense wooden doors and gates leaning up against the building and imagine. I have never been here in the rain before. Tears of serenity stripe the Buddha’s volcanic face. Marble statuary glistens. Puddles begin to form in the gravel yard. We pick our way gingerly to avoid soaking our sneakers. It is solitary and quiet save for the muffling rain. We are in a safe zone, the toils and troubles of the world fallen by the wayside.
The breadth of the gallery’s inside is such that each time I enter, I have to take a minute to gather myself. A gracious, dark brown, wooden mandala hangs on an entire wall face off in a quiet corner. A collection of delicate, Tibetan jade bowls adorned with trademark silverwork sits translucently in a lit cabinet. Thousands of Buddhist and Hindu representations weigh down shelves that tower over my head. Antique wooden, Chinese bed chambers, bookcases, and cabinets stand crowded in the cavernous, rear warehouse. The owner’s daughter writes on their website that the gallery is in part her dad’s museum, and she is not wrong. The sight, smell, and feel of all of this soothes me, just as I become calm in Buddhist temples.
It is true that I cannot ever seem to leave without loading our SUV with treasures, and my sons worry that I am turning our house into a museum. But the shopping is not the essence of my returning, again and again and again. Rather, I feel an affinity for this space and with the owner who created it decades ago and nurtures it to this day. He and I had a chance to speak on Saturday before more customers trickled in, and we kept our social distance. My girlfriend from China and I also enjoyed our conversation with his new wife from Taiwan. These two met at an unexpected time and place (Bali) and fell in love. My girlfriend and I met at an unexpected time and place (Cape Cod) and fell in love. And today we are all together in this place.
We rang a couple of the floor gongs, the deep resonant thrum reassuring. They remind me of the Da Zhong, Big Bell, Temple Museum in Beijing. The Temple’s Yongle Bell stands 16.5 feet tall and is carved with more than 200,000 Chinese characters of Buddhist scriptures inside and out. The attendants played us a recording of the bell’s chime when I was there a decade ago standing close enough that I could reach out and touch it. The sound rooted me to the ground with a force that took my breath away.
We walked and talked all around the gallery, listening to the rain beat down on the metal roof. Before we knew it, several hours had passed. It is an experience with which I am most familiar. We made our long way back from Asia. I slept late on Sunday morning and awoke with no jet lag.