Quarterly Media Review

By rights this re-view ought to include the many articles that have been assigned reading for the Environmental Humanities (MOOC) course I began in January run by the University of New South Wales via the UK platform, FutureLearn. So many times in the last few months I have wondered: what on earth was I thinking? And: who has the time, the wherewithal, to process this properly? But then, I remembered what I had been thinking and that, though I was not able to keep up at the pace the course was run, I do have time (especially as there no real limits on time; it being ostensibly self-paced.) It has been a rich course, one aligned with core values I hope my life is fruitfully entangeld with, and I have gained much insight and been able to think in good and generative ways with it.

BOOKS

PAGE-TURNERS

  • Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, Robin Sloane. Great title! The book itself is luminous. It shone at night on the shelf beside my bed. It’s low fantasy, wholly bookish, and it’s about reading, reading closely,  and about print, both physical and virtual. It’s also, eccentrically, about the Gerritszoon font.  An easy read, not without gems of insight, but mostly it felt like reading a comic. Was this an experiment approaching new modes of storytelling? Mmm. I’m not sure that it succeeds. Who loved it?
  • Cobra, Deon Meyer
  • A Banquet of Consequences, Elizabeth George
  • Conclave, Robert Harris
  • The Myth Gap, Alex Evans. Loved the connections made thinking with this book! Also, the portrayal of Margaret Barker of Temple Theology renown as ‘the real Indiana Jones’ I found quite delightful!
  • Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (on going)

SLOW READS

  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (on going)
  • Japan’s Cultural Code Words, Boyé Lafayette de Mente
  • Silence & Beauty,  Makoto Fujimura (Lent book, ongoing)

EVEN SLOWER (~ CLASS PREP.)

  • The Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd
  • Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson

ESSAYS

  • “All that offers a happy ending is a fairytale,” (Granta), “To Speak is to Blunder” (New Yorker), YiYun Li
  • “The Smallest Woman in the World,” Clarice Lispector (Dodson, trans.)
  • “Karaoke Culture”(Williams, trans.), “Questions to an Answer”(Hawkeworth, trans.), Dubravka Ugresic

PODCASTS 

+ Aspen to Go

  • Tom Friedman Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (12.21.2016)
  • Drew Gilpin-Faust & Leon Wieseltier Humanities in Decline: A Cultural Crisis (8.31.2016)

+ The Anthill

  • The Future (2.23.2017)

+ London Review Bookshop

  • On Benedict Anderson (5.18. 2016)

+ Tim Ferris

  • With Krista Tippett Calming Philosophies for Chaotic Times (2.21.2017)

Anyone with ears or eyes knows of Tim Ferris and his 4 hour work week. I’d never encountered his work before, only the promos. This was a most enjoyable interview which runs about 2 hours that I listened to lying in bed one afternoon at the beginning of what has lately blossomed into bronchitis.

+ BBC World Service, In The Balance

  • The End of Ownership (4.3.2017) [Notes on the Circular Economy]

+ Intelligence Squared, Yuval Noah Harari

Myths we need to survive

ON SCREEN/S

+ Inside Out

+ A New Story for Humanity: Change the Story, Change the World (Findhorn, 1h42″), which you can read about here.

+ Mozart in the Jungle

+ Broadchurch

Saving & Being Savable

The sun was out and a stiff breeze blew as I crossed the bridge to the library to pick up some books for the weekend. I noticed the flags were flying at half-mast and in a flash remembered that it was the 3.11 memorial day for the East Japan disaster of 2011.

I was out walking that afternoon and this, riverside. To be in the presence of water – life giver & death dealer – seemed right. My spontaneous prayer was a quiet walking meditation along an enchanted, little-used path that touched, as I was capable of sustaining the images, on catastrophes of scale utterly beyond my understanding.

In my mind, somewhere, somehow, I re-see the roiling black waves, living nightmares, looming over seaside towns up east, insatiable, leaving profound devastation in their wake. Is this a face of God? The elemental face of the Deep, beyond our human ken?

In my body, I register the way the light shines, the luminous jade colour of the riverbed, and I catch sight of the little placidly paddling nutria pup hoving into the sparkles under the overhanging boughs, beside the scrubby, sun-bleached pale yellow reeds. Easy to feel the Presence here. Even to exalt.

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Miroslav Volf recently tweeted:

 Our task is not to save the world; only God can do that. 

 Our task is 

 to protect and enhance flourishing life 

 in a world we cannot save.

 

I was struck, and a little annoyed (feeling I should know), by the question: What does ‘save’ mean here? [1]. Keep the same? Rescue? (From what/whom? For what/who?) Is the message emancipatory, hopeful? Something about limits? Does it have anything to do with its Latin roots in ‘health’ (salvus) or its other cognate, ‘holiness’? Is the message meant to be anti-hero/anti-individualist, inviting a non-zero sum play, instead? [2] Not, of course, that the positive task of protecting and enhancing the flourishing of life is for sissies. But, inescapably, for me, at least, when I think about what it could mean to ‘save the world’, it is to that benighted figure from the myths, Sisyphus, that my mind goes.

I wondered, watching as much as I could, my collar soaked in tears, the deeply terrifying National Geographic-edited live footage of the disaster: What is saving for? Why save? What is worth saving? Is what is saved unchanged and/or unchanging? How does one live, being saved, with trauma? In certain lights the answers present with absolute clarity. One saves because one chooses Life. Perhaps what troubles me is the assertion that our work is not to save the world. That ‘the world’-whatever that means- cannot be saved, by us (be made to conform to our fantasies?) seems evident. On the other hand: who else is there, to meet it, as it is, in the vein of St.Teresa of Avila, but us?

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Something Dame Ellen MacArthur said in a recent interview stuck in my brain: deep water is safer than shallow. This burrowed in as I read more about tsunami. When the conditions are bad, the advice goes, move either to higher ground or further away (inland or toward the horizon), or into deeper waters, the deeper, the better (it’s friction that increases the devastating power of the wave). [3]

There are times when it appears we can do things to be savable. Equally, there are times when we cannot, and we sink. It may be terrible this self-emptying, responding to what we do not choose, what we do not will for ourselves. To answer with surrender means a rejection of what we may have once imagined as true of saving and of safety. It is, essentially however, an expansion. A busting of limits. The submission represents, paradoxically, a leap, beyond, into the Unknown. The act of surrender moves us out of shallow waters, farther from the shore and into the deeps. Then what? I like to think, and hope, that the saving graces here continue to unfurl, even while they happen off the page, underground, in darkness, outside of the range of human comprehension.
Volf is right about one thing: while we can, let us choose Life, and in any way open to us, protect and enhance flourishing.

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[1] A quick look in a dictionary calmed me somewhat. It is a word with a lot of meanings.

[2] Robert Wright describes the non-zero sum game as the kind in which everyone’s interests are aligned, so that everyone wins or loses together. Wright argues that history tends towards more and more non-zero-sum co-operations and higher … levels of social complexity. See Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap, 41-2.

[3] I blush to think how closely this aligns with my reflexes where conflict is concerned. There is useful friction, we can agree, I think, and then there is the corrosive and ultimately destructive kind. Discernment advised!

Doing, Not Doing

In English, they can sound almost the same, fate and faith, but a little better familiarity with Latin would have tipped me off to their quite different roots. Still, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the concepts that these two words carry for a couple of weeks, where faith is likened to doing (it is something we practice, or cultivate) as opposed to fate, not doing (something we are subject to, powerless to influence). The tension grew after I was introduced to this captivating, rustic gentleman, Masanobu Fukuoka.

Watching this lovely, old, long white-bearded grandpa claiming that we ought just to relax and let nature take its course, and simply do what needs to be done and then take a nap, I was, I admit, quite drawn to the message. I don’t know that I could actually surrender enough to do it; I imagine it would make me anxious after all these years of learning to work in my community. Still, wouldn’t it be something to try? I mean, it gets to the heart, doesn’t it—What Is A Life?—and it throws into question all the restless questing we become attached to as grown-ups. Then I began to wonder: was Fukuoka’s approach not simply fatalistic? Or was it, in fact, a portrait of abiding trust? Possibly, why not, it was (most likely!) a mix of both. (10” video)

“The ultimate purpose of farming is not the cultivation of crops,” Fukuoka claimed, “but the cultivation and perfection of the human being.” A similar comment might be made about the study of the humanities: it’s not about the job or the status or the money, it’s about learning how to be human, to be natural, related, a human being. Is this what the Gospel verse printed on our University stationery meant to convey? I was sardonically amused when I laid eyes on it: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin …’  Was this pretty message, couched in flowers, meant for the women of the society in which I teach? Or was there, perhaps, a deeper truth waiting to be recognised?

When I watch the little old man surrounded by aliens from the cities looking to be restored rolling seed balls, I think about education and about the ways things spread; how we spread ourselves. As teachers we are putting a whole bunch of different seeds  (whose riches contained we trust cannot be destroyed by hungry critters, real or figurative) into a package that will be flung out into society, lay on the earth for a time, and, if/when conditions are right for flourishing, begin their sprouting.

Yes, I know, this is dreamy. In dreams, though, is where the quickening seed engages the tension between faith and fate. We hold each, or both, by heart; this much is apparent when we choose to respond. We do well to remember what David Steindl-Rast teaches:

“The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.”

Keeping Watch

What of the world has touched me this day? What, gratuitously, has reached me? Via all my preoccupations and distractions, what have I allowed in, registered? What grace have I mindfully received? To what and to whom have I given my attention?

These have been the questions that have been informing my way of late. It used to be that I kept a list of all that I did in a day. I tried that for almost a year in an effort to discover how it was at the end of a day I was utterly spent and with no memory, let alone satisfaction, of how I had become that way. So, I kept a list. Looking back over that list did not make my heart sing, however, not at all. Who cares, I thought? Not even me: all the things I did. It was a little misery-making to realise this, I confess. Papers marked, grades logged, meetings attended, classes taught, papers written, emails sent, phone calls made, bills paid, swims swum, walks walked (OK, that last one I do care about.) It seemed an experiment that bore no fruit, no nary a blossom.

At bottom I was haunted by that line of Annie Dillard’s ‘How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.’ (A reflection on this very question, is here.) I guess one of the reasons I decided to keep the list was to see how I was spending my days, my hours. I wanted to see if I could get a peek at something bigger than my sense of fragmented business. I wanted to make sense.

The alternative practice I started at the new year, based on the questions (above), can be seen to be somewhat (informally) connected to the Ignatian examen (which I’ve never really been able to get into).This way is, I feel, a focus more on being (attentive) than on doing. In one sense it is effortless; in another it requires a certain orientation of mind, a certain alignment of intention, an attunement to divine frequency. Into a notebook I’ve begun to write down the things that penetrate the fuzz, or buzz, of living. Mostly I’ve noticed that they are sensory charges. Detonations in the routine hum-drum. Poetic Instances. The cold, sweet sip of water in the middle of the night; the fragrance of slow-cooked hot sweet potatoes bought off the wagon in the shopping street;  the sweetness of a mikan eaten while soaking up the sun; watching an earthshine moonset from my apartment window, a new moon accessorised by bright Venus in a two-tone sky of peach and gradated blues; the sound of my keys thunking into the ceramic bowl as I return home.

Oh, blessed asymmetry of life!

This day of ashes and of earth is a reminder: we are home. Being with this, orienting around it, encouraged and inspired by all the gifts I am sensing along the way, these things really do make the heart sing.

ume

 

Stars in my Pocket (1)

New Moon tomorrow, according to EarthSky, and now’s the time to keep watch for Alpha-Boo (Is it a rapper? No, it’s a.k.a Arcturus), the spring star, Guardian of the Bear.

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Here are a few things that I have given my attention to in the past week. They concern language & ways of thinking about the world; decolonising the mind; dreaming of a world without borders; a great piece on cognitive biases and a rich, rewarding interview with Giorgio Agamben.

Also, I’m been experimenting with a new (to me!) little app called Padlet. Tap on the link below. (Here’s hoping what’s supposed to happen, happens… 🙂

P.I., Opening

❅❅❅

Co-ordinates: My 72 seasons app informs me that we are in shoukan (Minor Cold). It feels awfully cold, however, all of a sudden. The tradition assures us that though Major Cold is coming, the shock of Minor Cold is worse. “Freeze in Minor Cold,” goes the saying, “melt in Major Cold.” On the hill peaks this morning there was a little snow. Smoke seemed to be rising from the slopes as the sun lit them, then clouds rolled over and completely obscured all trace of hills. Ten minutes later, the hills were all “TA-DAH! Ha ha, bet you never knew where we were hiding!” It’s been a day of snow flurries, interspersed with bright blue sky and sunshine.


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Introducing P.I.

I am training my heart to pick up and attend to poetic instants (hence, P.I.). This phenomenon is beautifully laid out by Gaston Bachelard who describes poetic instants, language in relation to time, at length and in detail in his essay ‘Intuition of the Instant’, but also, more satisfyingly and succinctly, in the short essay ‘Poetic Instant, Metaphysical Instant.’

Poetic time is vertical; it plunges, it plumbs. Right into the living waters. What I like about the instant is that, stayed with, it can lead, as many anam cara will know, to an apprehension of depth, to an encounter with something true to Life. Bachelard wrote: ‘If our hearts were large enough to love life in all its details, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer . . .’. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about the plundering aspect, but, yes, if we meet, say, poetry, frankly, sometimes it does have the effect of smelling salts, upsetting our sleep, and causing such a snap in us that we awaken, quite different. Our habits in routine, in perception, our set, our round of What is Known may suddenly inhale something unexpected, utterly novel. One theo-poetic philosopher (Richard Kearney) has described the instant as ‘lacuna, gap, aperture, caesura [that] invites us to replace the élan vital with the élan vocal, [to] replace mute determinism with the liberty of poetic speech, the power to say “yes” or “no”‘.

The gaps, yes …

The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock–more than a maple–a universe.

So writes Annie Dillard.

Being a follower of Poetic Instants (as any P.I. – private investigator – knows 😉) is to be sensitive to what arises and stakes a claim on your attention. It is to be aware of how the instant ‘sprouts’, which is the very flaring forth, the frothing, of creation itself. The French call this jaillisement. It is in these charged moments where we receive time’s gift.

Hand to Heart

Co-ordinates: I’m posting this on Coming of Age day, a day in which all young adults in the country, 20 year olds, are recognised and celebrate together in civil ceremonies in every town with a municipality. They gussy up in formal gear and take a million photos with the cohort and friends they’ve grown up with. From this day on, they are legal adults. I’m not sure what this means, exactly, these days, especially with the voting age having been lowered to 18 last year. Still, it’s a good time for parties and reunions and 20 is the legal drinking age, here so there’ll be a bit of experimentation with that, I suspect.

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I wanted to call this post, “The Aisatsu & the Mikka Bouzu”, meaning The Greeting and the Three-Day Monk, because both are important elements, the first serious and the second playful, of the New Year in Japan.

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The New Year’s Greeting, a gob-stopping fifteen syllable formula, took me quite a long time to learn to say. The next part of the formula, another fifteen sounds, establishing our mutual dependency, was no easier. It seemed an age before they rolled off my tongue. And then there was the body language to accompanies the words: a bow conveying a sincere heart. That takes some roots to learn how to do properly and getting it all together was a challenge, particularly in comparison with the rather more casual four syllable greeting we use in English.

It is properly formal, something I have grown to appreciate because new beginnings should be approached with the appropriate respect, if not awe. Anything can happen. This is a valuable lesson I see being modelled, and participate in, in the early days of every new year and it is one I cherish. To meet people for the first time in the new year one takes special care with the greeting. These people are part of your new beginning. Who knows what you can be to, and for, one another? Greeting, you commit to trusting your neighbour.

The greeting, or aisatsu, is, at any time, important to the Japanese, and it occurred to me to wonder about the Chinese characters for the ‘Ai’ (sounds like ‘eye’ and to the ‘kanji uninitiated’, most often means ‘love’) part of aisatsu. How apt it would be, I thought, if the ai of aisatsu meant love. It does not, I have learned. The ai of the greeting, though, grows out of the radical ‘hand’ (interesting, in a curious way, as the Japanese traditionally do not make body contact when greeting), where the ‘ai’ of love grows, aptly enough, from the radical ‘heart’. What I see around New Year, though, in the fresh attentiveness with which greetings are exchanged, persuades me of the connection (which any touch therapist will confirm) of the connection between the hand and the heart.

 

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The ‘ai’ of aisatsu is defined as ‘approach, draw near, push open’ The radical ‘hand’ is on the left.

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This ‘ai’ means love and spreads out from the central 4 strokes, 3 little and a long, swinging stroke.

There is wisdom, underlined by the hand-heart connection, to putting your heart (also, in Japanese, called the mind) into anything you put your hand to. Often, when the Japanese indicate themselves, ‘me’, or ‘I’, they point to their head (or, more precisely, their nose. No clue why!), where a Westerner will perhaps raise their hand to their heart to indicate the self. By contrast, the Japanese, when telling you what they think, will hold their hand over their heart, never their head. The heart-mind is used for ‘thinking’ or processing, here, never simply ‘the brain’, another little gem of cultural wisdom I’ve come to appreciate.

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For all the good intentions of a new year, there is also an understanding of how easy it is to lose steam. This is where the affectionate name ‘Mikka Bohzu’, or the Three Day Monk comes in – all hot and serious and holding tightly to your own will power at the start, soon you become tired out by all that efforting, all that self-focus. Relax and align with your true purpose, be patient, grow into it. Be natural. Begin again.

Be willing, as Meister Eckardt says, to be a beginner every single morning.
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Image credit: my iOS Japanese dictionary, imiwa, whose kanji person is Ulrich Apel.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Co-ordinates: It’s Epiphany as the Year of the Bird is hatching. I love this energy: this recognition, this first up-side down, dangerous yet wonderful god spell. My fingertips are cold. Sun shines through the blinds of my office, a rare treat that only (and mercifully) comes at this time of year. I find myself glad of the cold: it fits the pattern of what I expect. I am no fan of the cold, but this, simply following a pattern, feels like a relief.

I’m thinking of women spreading their wings.

northern-dancers-the-red-crowned-cranes-of-hokkaido-photos-nippon-com

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Initial conditions: dappled.

The moon smiled, Venus was her beauty spot, or a charming, lop-sided dimple. This was one of the faces of beginning the new year. One thinks of faces on the threshold: who welcomes us?

The Greeks had their god, ‘Yes-Actually-I-Do-have-Eyes-in-the-Backofmyhead’ Janus, sitting on the threshold of the new year, looking back, looking forward. Increasingly complex times, however, call forth in me the need for the multifaceted, or many-armed, or perhaps even better yet, the multi-coloured, goddesses of Buddhist tradition. Colour is light and energy and I need the nuance. I begin the year with dappled feelings.

Sister Death walks close with me in Winter. There are several significant memorials in the season when darkness falls. As the old year was closing, exactly a week ago today, SJ opened her wings. An early bird, perhaps. 

Myriads mourn, we each carry a piece of her light, a story of how our lives had been touched by hers. She took, as her religious name, StJohn, ‘the witness who testifies to the Light, so that all might believe through this person in the True Light, which enlightens everyone.’ No wonder, then, she became one of the best known Catholic educators in the land. No wonder, either, that my first impulse once the news was absorbed was to light a candle, if only to stay a moment longer with her particular warmth and radiance: borne -like that other John, of the Cross- and tempered by long years in darkness.

On the heels of the news, I hit the road. There I found that gift of Death: the time-space lacuna, the blessed Between. Its grace, a strangely glorious quickening.

Along the city canal I walked feeling the blue sky’s glory, marveling at the gently flowing water (as if a visitor to the planet), the stone path strewn with hot pink, heart-shaped camellia petals (confetti for your journey onward?) A red shrine and its gate freshly painted vividly vermillion for the New Year, featured an intricate kazari decoration, the proud foxes‘ forefoot raised, two long red flags flapping aside the site. My eyes rested on the frizzy haired vine above, wisteria, so glorious in May. Remember this purple majesty, new friend in heaven? How it had its time, so quick, so beautiful. Maybe it is so for us, too?

My senses take in the world anew, as if on your behalf.

I look up from my reflections and see an apartment block called ‘consolare’. Yes, serendipity I accept your comfort.

At canal’s end, there is a path that rounds an explosion of rocks. I’ve often suspected this violent arrangement was accidental, but that day I saw an open flower, face up. I circumambulated slowly around the arrangement, praying the labyrinth. This is a good prayer for transitions; especially when you can’t sit still.

Returning, I walk northward, where possible in the middle of the stream. I’m thinking of the shachihoko: something fierce, amphibious, many-realmed, but essentially a salmon-like creature that swims against the current to return home. The image resonates. You did the same, I think, with courage, effort and perseverance.

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Another day, I climbed a steep hill to visit a favourite temple. This was the day of your (understandably) closed send-off. I climbed up to the Temple of the Buddha’s heart (Busshinji); its walled garden is always calming and I had not seen it for ages. All was stiil, clear, quiet. Walking past the grave stones on the hillside, I thought of the hillside where you would be laid to rest. Yours facing east; this one facing south. Over these graves watches a beautiful figure of wisdom, the Kuanyin (Kannon, in Japanese). In old times, difficult times for Christians, here, the Kannon was blended with Marian imagery. I feel the energetic; something in me understands. She is standing with her arms open wide: if you are coming home, there is welcome here. I’m at one of the highest points in the area, the vistas go on for miles. I can see the inland sea, the island of Shikoku. I sigh-groan, a sort of cri-de-couer that issues from the deeps that rather surprises me to hear: “What shall we do without you, SJ?” Somewhere I am saying words to our Lady when my senses are shocked by the scent of incense.

The sun is going down and I must make my way on unknown forest paths back home. A huge, bright orange orb, setting, peeps through the houses and the bare branches of the everyday world as I, too, descend.

Tomorrow and tomorrow we will begin to journey in the light of your prayers but without your wise and witty and warm ways. May we follow the star, too, that leads us home; may we be unafraid of spreading our wings!

And in the light of this rising sun/Son – the revelation of this day – I celebrate your new life, sure of the shining Face who has greeted you, even while we mourn our loss.

                                                                 (In grateful memory of Sr. Kazuko StJohn Watanabe)

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Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops – at all.

Emily Dickinson

P.S. Jan Richardson’s gorgeous 2017 retreat, downloadable here, is called, coincidentally, “Walking the Way of Hope.”

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Image credit: Masahiro Wada, “Northern Dancers: The Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaidō

 

Pick Up Lines, 4th quarter, 2016

Two things I’m thinking about as I write this final book blog post for the year:

• It might be the cover that makes you pick up the book to hold it; you might scan the blurbs and the names who contributed said blurbs…but it is the first lines, surely, that decide you. What did the writer do with that blank page that invited you in?

• Also: libraries! What a magnificent idea and institution! That a community, a municipality or a town would fund and encourage reading, by allowing its members to borrow books and that this would be so intrinsically valuable that you would honour this civil contract as an unquestionable good. The library is a marvel for which I am perpetually grateful. 

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As the fourth quarter of reading began I returned to Stalinist Russia, to Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. It begins: It happened in the middle of wartime, on a station platform as flat and dusty as the endless plain surrounding it. It was a slim pick, as I was busy with other writing and needing something for those evening times when I wanted to forget the world of work. It was a provocative ‘fictionalised biography’ (so I’ve learned the genre is now called) of Dmitri Shostakovich. (I’ve been trying to work out how or why most biographies are not regarded as fictionalised?) Turns out this ‘fictionalised bio’ was the second such I’d read in the year, the first being Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein. By the end of it, I was ready to steer around stories of suffering artists under crazy, dangerous politics.

Why not something closer to heaven, next? I picked up and, after 100 or so pages, also gave up on, Arcadia by Iain Pears, because it was just not right for the time. It required too much of a kind of attention I then did not have the energy to give it. Have picked it up for the holiday pile and have downloaded the app for it, too. Looking forward to getting back to it.

Next was In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which begins: I want to cross a small lake. It is a collection of essays detailing the author’s internal journey of learning to fully inhabit a foreign language. Lahiri, in Rome, learns to live (and write; I mean really write!) in Italian. The left page is in her original Italian; the right is in English translated by Ann Goldstein (and, interestingly, not by the author, a choice explained in the foreword). Thoroughly enjoyed this collection. So much rang so true to my own experience living outside my native language environment (though Lahiri’s devotion to her studies & her deep project are incomparable to mine, I confess! ). This is the first of Lahiri’s that I’ve read. Next, of hers I’d like to read is The Lowland. Her writing is elegant, light and beautiful. Just so.

I read A Midsummer’s Equation, by Keigo Higashino (trans. Alexander O Smith) which opens with the central character, a child, on his way out of the city.  Kyohei found the transfer gate from the bullet train to the express line without any difficulty, and by the time he ran up the stairs to the platform, the train was already there. It was quite a quick read and I was gratified by the central theme of resistance to an environmentally destructive project that was about to spoil an old fishing village. Such news seldom makes it to the international (or English medium) papers so I was glad to see this dealt with in (international) fiction. It was set in summer and I liked being there in my imagination. The little fellow, Kyohei, was a great and well-voiced character. I thought the translation was great, too.

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison, begins: It’s not my fault. If you read this book, and you should, be prepared to carry its resonance. That sounds like a threat, perhaps, but you cannot (shouldn’t?) come to this writer’s work casually and you cannot leave it unchanged. I’ve not read all that much of Morrison’s fiction, I realise as I write this. (I think I may have been carrying resonance from what I have already read!) She is august, almost formidable, and I know, and am reminded reading this one, soul-stretching. Everything I want to write about her capacities veers toward the superlative … I don’t need to convert you, if you know her work. This work is profoundly human (is that the artist’s essential skill? There’s little you don’t recognise in it as, if not reflective of a piece of you, then somehow and amazingly, true to life.) It was utterly wretched in some parts and quietly uplifting in others. Above all, because of its humanity, it is hopeful and it gave me hope.

>>> Post-script insertion. How could I have forgotten?! After the Morrison I read the Australian writer, Gail Jones’ Sixty Lights, which was also a woman-centred story. It opens with an epigraph by Eduardo Cadava, There’s never been a time without the photograph, without the residue and writing of light. It’s an arresting and beautifully written novel of becoming that takes place on three continents and is, on a deeper level, a mediation on seeing, on light, on photography. I copied out many passages from this book and it continues to swim about in my imagination. I remember the word ‘maculate’ from it; something true to life, that seems accidental, but that piques interest and has in it a sort of strange beauty that you don’t expect. <<<

How to choose a book after that? All I could think was to enter another world, entirely! I picked up The Girl of Fire & Thorns, by Rae Carson, with an eye out for new titles to use for my YA literature seminar. Gobbled this up in a few days reading with the same intensity and pleasure I used to as a child when days were unending. It was really well done, I thought, and thoroughly enjoyable. It begins: Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. This opening line signals what turns out to be a strong spiritual line throughout which I suppose could be risky, but was well done. I really liked the story and the characters and the relationships. I think it’s a great YA book and a delightful princess story for our age.

(As a P.S. on the princesses for our age, I enjoyed watching this short video of Jeanette Winterson at work with children rewriting Cinderella on the wonderful BBC series, 100 women. )

ON THE HOLIDAY PILE

Arcadia, by Iain Pears. Imagine a landscape.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan Lost in the shadow of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thein. In a single year, my father left us twice.

Cobra, by Deon Meyer. The rain drummed down on the corrugated iron roof. 

Silence & Beauty, by Makoto Fujimura.

Riches Restored

I went to the convenience store around the corner from the university to pay a bill a few days ago. It was busy: customers milling about waiting in line, stock being shelved and one woman at the cash register working heroically to pick out exactly the pieces of oden (kind of steeped veggies, a winter favourite of many) desired by the woman whose turn it was. Within moments the cashier realised there was a back up and summoned help. I was next in line. Sorry, so sorry, said the woman helping me. It had only been a few minutes and, cold outside, so it was kinda nice to be in a warm spot. Paid the bill and in deference to the busyness of the store, skedaddled as soon as I had, mutual thanks shared.

 
The following day, a colleague popped by my office and asked if I had gone to the convenience store the previous day. Odd question, but yes, I had, I told her. Oh, good, said she. It is you! She explained that she, too, had dropped in after work & had been accosted by one of the cashiers in a terrible twist who had served ‘a foreigner’ and forgotten to give her the change she was owed! Well, said Kaya, what was she like? Friendly. Nice woman. Comes in every once in a while. Is she a teacher at your campus? There are only two of us (friendly & non-Japanese women) on our campus, so that did narrow the possibilities, and I was found!

 
I went around yesterday afternoon to finish the business and got the “Full Monty Japanese Apology” which consisted of sincere apology and the deepest, most polite bowing. I confess I tried to get in on the apology a little, since I had been in a bit of a hurry, too, and truth be told, was none the wiser about not having received my change – but soon realised that this was not the way to relieve the tension that had built up over the error, as the bows deepened & the voice tightened; ownership of the mistake seemed precious and fragile territory. Well, alright, I thought, we’re not going to share this. It’s no problem, I said. Thank you. Please accept, she added, handing over a large box of cookies, this token of our remorse for the mistake.

 
I left the store with the twenty bucks we’d failed to exchange, a big box of treats (fortune cookies, img_0618perhaps, for they were labelled with an inscrutable verse-like proclamation) but also, and most priceless of all, a heart warmed and filled with joy.

 

 

It turned out that manifold riches had been restored.

Now, that’s what I call customer service!


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