The Charm Offensive

Once I was doing an graduation thesis interview and the student was having difficulty retrieving the word ‘conflicts’ from her memory banks so substituted instead, ingeniously and hilariously, ‘cornflakes’. I did not have the heart to intervene in an already tense situation to set her straight that the central tension of Streetcar Named Desire was not, in fact, Stanley and Blanche’s cornflakes.

This memorably amusing incident I had occasion to recall today, as it added a light and humourous twist of flavour to an annoyance I had to resolve.

I was steamed when, after spending almost two hours in the post office recently on what I take to be routine business, I was recalled because mistakes had been made that needed to be rectified in order for the business to proceed. Oh, I was so ready to stomp down there and give the guilty incompetent a piece of my mind for unnecessarily wasting so much time. Down I marched this morning, calmly, but full of purpose!

Alas, the culprit was absent and instead I was helped–and utterly disarmed, I must add, to my chagrin–by another young person. Rectifications were swiftly made, apologies given, smiles exchanged, thanks offered. By the end of the transaction which had taken a shockingly short time–a blitz of efficiency!–I, determined, but by now, barely lukewarm, remembered why I had come. To set them straight! The height of my complaint reached: ‘Well! That was a bit of a bother.’ Another apology, a beautiful smile, and I left, smiling all the way home, my good nature quite restored.

Sometimes I realized, thinking of conflicts and cornflakes together can be really helpful.


Remnants of a Star

Contemplating the stars picks up one of the cornerstones of this blog: we orient by and are oriented as human beings by the stars. The stars are waymarkers out there; they are the building materials, too, of all carbon lifeforms; we host within us, are being created and renewed by elements that once floated in the spiralling galaxies. The very soul of human life–to say nothing of the iron coursing through your veins as you read this– depends on stardust. This is mind-boggling, amazing, wonderful. It is appropriate that we remember this dust in its earliest form as Lent begins. On this Wednesday believers foreheads’ are smudged with ash, a reminder of the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega. It is a reminder, too, that we carry light within us as remnants of the stars, heirs and reflections of an unimaginably vast and creative universe.

Our ancestry stretches back through the life-forms and into the stars,

back to the beginnings of the primeval fireball. This universe is a

single, multiform, energetic, unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence

and life.

(Brian Swimme, The Universe is a Green Dragon)

I loved this video piece (3″57) ‘We are Dead Stars’ by Nasa astrophysicist, Michelle Thaller, who has an enthusiastic, quite delightful dramatic sense. It’s exciting listening to her. Thaller’s little talk here dives into the  question: What is human existence? (If I had my ‘druthers’ I’d probably not have gone with the adjective ‘dead’. Though it is a biological word appropriate for organic forms I suppose, somehow it doesn’t sit right with me. Wouldn’t “recycled” do? I did look up upcycling and downcycling, but I suppose which you chose, up- or down-, would depend on your views of, and outlooks for, humanity?). I like the term ‘remnant’ for its allusions to (needle-)craft and I also make an imaginative association (leap?) with fire.

‘We are Stardust’ I like much better and it is the title for this audio clip (16”20) — also featuring Michelle Thaller, and including Danny Glavin, an astrobiologist, and Br. Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory. It’s well worth a listen. Some gems include the observation that humans are, in fact, just complicated rocks; that ‘you find life by looking for things that are out of balance’ (juicy possibilities in this line!); a lovely riff on the big Saturnian moon, Titan, and a musing on the question of whether the human is born lonely because making connections and coming to a recognition of interdependence is such a joy.

 We are the first humans to look

into the night sky and see the birth

of stars, the birth of galaxies, the

birth of the cosmos as a whole.

Our future as a species

will be forged within

this new story

of the world.

(Brian Swimme)

                                       A Supernova Remnant, Image ESA . . . Supernova image: European Space Agency  here

Notes on a Sunday morning walk: early spring

The Barnacles of Busyness Fall Away

Going north, heading for the hills, the sun was gentle and warm. A cool wind thundered in my ears. I took the low road for cover. It runs along a tributary through the large veggie plantations that flourish in the floodplains. I turned right at the little white road-side hut, a shrine containing two large ojizo wrapped in golden kimono silks, flowers, offerings, candles, a bell and a bench. Over the little bridge I sauntered, and back behind the baseball ground. I crossed a small road and nipped onto a small, secret dirt path I found a few months back. It feels like I’m entering another world when I step onto this path. There’s a small graveyard just ahead and I am pleasantly surprised by the sound of a rushing waterfall I don’t remember encountering before. Spring songs sprang from the birds in the fields, astonishing contrapuntal canticles. Does bird song actually change with the waxing of the light? I’d swear it were so. Once I read a poem on a scroll in a tea ceremony that said bush warbler babies’ song practice was a sure sign of spring. Had I gone, unbeknownst to me, in search of that song?

There was an elegant dragon dance on display as the wind funnelled through, flapping the plastic frost coverings on a row of onions, a choreographic undulation (that smelled!) I smiled.

I felt, rather than a song, a kingfisher in the offing. That stretch of the river up near the Dragon’s Mouth Hiking Hill (serendipitously: real name!) has shown them, on occasion, rare and usually later in the year, darting and swooping under the extravagant willows overhanging the shore. This halcyon day seemed ripe for a sighting. I have stalked kingfishers enough to know, however, that they are more likely to find you than you them. They are great meditation teachers. Your approach must be characterised by vigilance but, above all, by nonchalance. (Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still writes T.S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday.)

A fence was down beside a fallow rice paddy, a bench appeared stream side and I sat down to watch. No willows in leaf here. Except for the evergreens, trees are skeletal, silhouettes by night and day. It would have been austere but for the light of the sun and the blue sky which made everything luminous, beautiful. Across from me a generous bamboo forest, lush green rustling, a soft click-clacking sound; the wind kindly transformed into a breeze for the watch. Behind, a short distance away, a small, red tractor ploughed the clay soil of the old flood plain.

Sitting still, small flashes of colour began to enter my visual field, accompanied sometimes by snatches of sound; a whistle, a trill, a shriek-like cry, a tweet, strains of a song. The bright yellow-green of the mejiro flitted by and then a heart-stopping blip of burnt umber. Ah ha!

But no.

Keep sitting.

And then, suddenly, in all its fleeting glory, the iridescence I had sought; a feathered jewel, blue-enrobed, burst out of the forest, as if from a green screen. My eyes did not deceive me! Across the stream, its orange breast shone, its wings reflecting the heavens; across the rough, bare brown-grey fields it flew, alight, aloft, as I followed it with my eyes into another clump of swaying bamboo on the far side of the lumbering tractor.

After you have received a gift or encountered mystery it’s better if you take a little while to absorb it.

. . .  After the kingfisher’s wing 

Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still 

At the still point of the turning world. 

(T.S. Eliot, again, in Burnt Norton from the Four Quartets.)

My walk resumed. I’d go to where the ‘mountain’ meets the river and the road goes no further, then I would turn back. The wind passed through the tall mountain pines and sounded of the sea. Above the glinting stream further north, neon green strings swung like dragon whiskers, or bell ropes, the sap was rising in the willows. The angle of the sun made the dark green-black leaves on the hill behind me glisten, the wind caused them to twinkle. Momentarily, it seemed, looking past the small statue of Kannon- sama (Kuan-yin, Goddess of Mercy), that big, browned wintering hill was home to swathes of stars.

Warriors & Witnesses

I surprised myself yesterday bursting into tears as I came across a picture online of Kenji Goto. Just the day previous I had been looking at a web magazine on the Christian history of Nagasaki [link here] and was jolted by the name ‘Goto’, a group of islands off Nagasaki well-known, I learned, for its history of the utterly remarkable hidden Christians. This underground culture of believers came to be following an edict banning Christianity from the land, a ban that was made public by the 600 mile march from Kyoto to Nagasaki of the men (and children) who were to be murdered as examples, by the Powers.

Among the merchants and missionaries crowding the shores of the southern-most island in the mid sixteenth century there was a dangerous entanglement with politics which led, in the early seventeenth century, to the launch of what Diarmaid MacCulloch in The History of Christianity describes as

‘one of the most savage persecutions in Christian history . . . The Church in Japan, despite the heroism of its native faithful, was reduced to a tiny and half-instructed remnant. It struggled to maintain even a secret existence for more than two centuries until Europeans used military force to secure free access to the country after the 1850s, and rediscovered it with astonishment . . .’.

One of the three named saints of the 26 martyrs of 1597 was John So-an Goto. He was 19 when he was killed. Kenji’s name and the name of the islands have no relation in meaning, only in sound (and in Roman script), I know, but  Kenji was, among all the other things he was (son, husband, father, journalist, Japanese), a Christian, and in a sense heir to the martyrs whose witness the Church commemorates today.

Jps Martyrs

(L) a detail from the Nagasaki memorial; (R. top) a painting of St. Paul Miki in samurai clothing; (R.bottom) Kenji Goto. Note the top-knots on the men on the right – loved that!

The word ‘martyr’ has its roots in the Latin for ‘witness’. The early Christian converts in Japan were mainly from the elite and influential warrior class known as the samurai. Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan might help to lay out some foundations for the claim that there is a great deal of convergence in the virtue ethics of the samurai and the Christian. And it is no surprise to read of St. Francis Xavier’s love for the Japanese who he found to be ‘more ready to be implanted with our holy faith than all the nations of the world.’

But I admit that I have never been able to wrap my mind around the extreme concept of martyrdom. I have equal difficulty with related ideas of war and its evil (modern?) corollary, terror. There is at least one point on which they share territory: each seems to be a spectacularly ghastly form of political theatre, a stage on which we invest with truth the poem by Robert Burns:

Man was made to mourn: a Dirge

Many and sharp the num’rous ills

Inwoven with our frames!

 More pointed still we make ourselves

 Regret, remorse, and shame!

 And man, whose heaven-erected face

 The smiles of love adorn, –

 Man’s inhumanity to man

 Makes countless thousand mourn.

While victims of terrorism are not always (or even usually) martyrs, martyrs are always victims of terrorism.

So while I sit with the story of Kenji and I remember the martyrs, I think of their passion, conviction and courage. Were it not for St. Paul Miki and his companions, I would not be, via strange and benevolent twists and turns, in Japan and teaching at a Catholic school. G.K.Chesterton remarked that courage was a quality that ‘has ever addled the brains and tangled the definition of merely rational sages’:

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. . . This paradox is the whole principle of courage. [One] must seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; [one] must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.

(From Orthodoxy, Chapter VI ‘The Paradoxes of Christianity)

 And in my prayers I reflect on this poetic description of the martyr archetype and wonder about passion:

Our lives are our contribution to the universe.

We can give this gift freely and lovingly, or we can hold back,

as if it were possible by refusing life to avoid death.

But no one can.

How much worse to die, never having lived!

The . . . lesson of the martyr [archetype] is to choose to give the gift of one’s life for the giving’s sake, knowing that life itself is its own reward and remembering that all little deaths, the losses in our lives always have brought with them transformation and new life, that actual deaths are not final but . . . a more dramatic passage through into the unknown.

(Carol Pearson, 115)

Baubo & the Bean Clean

Bean Day

Candlemas, that night of a thousand lights, marks the end of a liturgical cycle, that of the infancy of Jesus. From now on the light becomes stronger.

Here in Japan, February 3rd, so the old calendar has it, is the traditional end of winter. It marks the end of the long dark days; temperature-wise, this purported end is a little harder to believe. The shifting of this little fragment of the floating world toward the sun, though, is becoming delightfully apparent. Winter fragrances waft surprisingly out of the blue and are especially welcome for their shock (and bliss) value. Drab colours persist but the trees are beginning to sip on sunlight. Today I noticed greening stalks on an apricot tree that has been playing dead for the past few months.

The changing of the seasons is a time in all cultures of the Old Ways of the thinning of the veils, where the borders between the human and spirit worlds become unusually porous. During this in-between time life is in the balance: anything can happen.

To cleanse oneself and one’s dwelling from old memories and negative influences and to prepare the soul to meet spring there is the ritual hurling of beans on this day, called Setsubun. [More info and pix and links, here]. Into nooks and crannies where energy gets stuck and stagnant, (and/or at the rather comedic demon figures) ‘lucky’ beans are flung by the handful, along with the incantation: “Demons out! Happiness in!”


At this seasonal border-line we also find just the place for an irreverent and salty goddess like Baubo. Who better to provide a bit of bawdiness and hilarity to lift and flavour our winter-flagging spirits? The goddess of mirth in Japan goes by a variety names: Uzume, Otafuku, and Okame (varieties I suspect of the mother/maiden/crone triad?).  She’s represented as a plump, cheerful woman whose appearance is not quite perfect,  her hair is mussed or the combs are askew or falling out, and her kimono isn’t exactly immaculate; nevertheless, she is always depicted as a smiling, warm and eminently huggable sort. It was she who danced provocatively before the assembled crowd of gods when Amaterasu (the sun goddess) retired to a cave in a snit and refused to come out. Following (after the jump, if you’re interested) is that amusing story offered for the beginning of spring.



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