Listening (to good scents)

Star Festival (Tanabata) decorations (image by OK)


The star festival celebrated in east Asia as the planet makes its earliest, barely noticeable, dip toward autumn has the legend of a love story attached to it. Each year, on the seventh day of the seventh (lunar) month we wonder: will the cowherd boy (Altair) be meeting the weaver princess (Vega) across the Milky Way? I’ve long thought of this event as a summer festival with resemblances to some traditions around the winter Christmas festival. Instead of decorated evergreens, for example, tall stalks of bamboo can be found all over town. These are festooned with colorful pieces of paper on which, in beautiful calligraphic script, wishes are written. Should the star lovers meet the wishes are bound to come true. Once, wishes for greater skills in the arts–writing, painting, music and weaving–were traditional. One story has it that, if on the day of the star festival, you collect water from a lotus leaf to use for grinding ink on your inkstone, your longing to become better skilled in calligraphy could be fulfilled.

Silver Puddle Lotus

Lotus leaf puddle mirror (image by OK)

Collecting this enchanted water would most certainly have been possible on the night of the Star Festival as a light rain was falling on the evening I made my way over to the island and through the forest to the big thatched house in the Garden where the incense ceremony, my favorite summer game, was to take place. The air had that rain-freshened earthy, green cleanliness about it, accented by faint hints of moss, fragrant bark and damp undergrowth. The theme of this year’s ceremony (naturally enough) was the Star Festival, though it was plain that we would not be seeing the lovers meet. Outside the front door a pot of pink lotus blossoms wore delicate silver raindrops and in their large elephant ear-like leaves lay puddles like mirrors.

There are certain tastes and smells in east Asia that one is said to ‘hear’ and I’ve always found this synaesthesia quite delightful: one ‘listens’, for example. to incense.

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I had been thinking of listening having come across, for the first time, the concept outlined by a 70s era theologian, of ‘hearing to speech‘. If you have ever experienced such a hearing, it is something you never forget.

Depth hearing […] takes place before the speaking – [it is] a hearing that is far more than acute listening. A hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech –a new speech—a new creation. (Morton)

Living where I do and between languages and cultures this particular quality of intimacy is now rare in my life. But I was reminded of this kind of hearing again in the reading for the recent feast* of the Assumption that tells of the encounter of Mary & Elizabeth as their bodies began to stir with the promises of the prophets.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, [… she] was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to her cousin,”As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

I have always loved this sound-activated spurt of inner joy. Who does not thrill to the sound of the beloved?

*(Gentle reader: a tangential question. Have i missed something? Why do they use the word “solemnity” rather than “feast” nowadays, I wonder? There is a place for solemnity, I know,but it is an inner, mental posture whereas a feast is a communal, relational celebration. Does not the latter seem more apt, at least for something as wonderful as this encounter?)

The surround-sound cicadian racket seemed to have been dampened. The only sound was that of the subtly percussive effects of the rain on the leaves of the surrounding trees. Our footsteps crunched on the gravel as we walked toward the door, my friend wearing a softly colored kimono with a playful obi featuring the image of a seasonally apt cricket cage.


Small calligraphy box set (image by OK)

We knelt in the spacious tatami room on a red mat in places each marked by a small calligraphy set (ink stone, block of pressed ink, brush), prepared the ink and, using our brushes, filled in our carefully folded score papers. The game began with the master setting the scene by telling the story of the star-crossed lovers. There would be (a whopping!) seven rounds of incense he said. First, two scents would be circulated, the first representing the Cowherd and the second the Weaver. The aim of the game would be to identify which scent, of the seven rounds to follow, belonged to each.

Listening to incense makes me aware of different parts of my mind becoming animated. There is nothing linear (IFTTT) or strictly rational about distinguishing between very slightly different blends of fragrance. It is like having a sense experience of grace; no will in the world can command it. The purpose is play (something many
adults don’t get enough of), to relax, attend, enjoy and allow yourself, as you become in-fused, (and sometimes a little con-fused :), to be, above all, in the manner of Elizabeth & Mary, enthused (en-theos-ed).

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