To be alive and to know that you live!

My advice to anybody is: get born.

~ Jeanette Winterson


This gift of being alive now . . . is so important . . .

Once you become aware of being alive, really aware, life becomes a very different experience.

~ Gerry Hughes


I have this feeling that if you liberate yourself, anything you lay your hand on can sparkle.

~ Leonard Cohen


Living is a great good in relation to others . . .

she who lives totally is living for others,

she who lives her own vastness is giving a gift,

even if her life takes place in a cloister of a cell.

Living is so great that thousands of people benefit from every lived day.

~ Clarice Lispector

Each of these pieces of wisdom I take in and roll around in my mind. Sometimes I see the essence, the light within them; sometimes they go dark. Nonetheless, I believe them. They seem to me to be worth the faith.

And this, today, from Pico Iyer, I especially appreciate:

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Midsummer’s Day

The door to the verandah and the curtains were open to let in the breeze. Woken by the crows at first light, out of one half-opened eye I saw that it was overcast, but not in the manner characteristic of June which is a still, flat platinum openness anticipating rain. This, rather, looked like a good sumi* wash: nuanced, layered and dramatic. The heavy clouds were trundling slowly across the sky from the north. White smoke-like wisps arose in the clefts of the distant, dark hills. I fell into a deep doze roused in time by joy as my cockles rattled and thrilled with the percussive sounds of rain and gentle booming peals of thunder.

We are often strictly cloistered by the time summer solstice rolls around, the temperatures and humidity unpleasant enough to keep us indoors. One can only dream of walking now. I read books like ‘The Philosophy of Walking’ and ‘Getting Lost’ for consolation, and dream of the autumn cool when long walks can resume.

This midsummer’s day, however, was more gift than I could have hoped for. The storm rolled out to sea and blue skies like the first day, shone in its wake. The world was washed clean and a freshening breeze wafted around, inviting, promising. I headed out along the river for the hills. In honour of Sol, it would be a walk from the Fire Station to the Dragon’s Mouth.

There was the intoxicating sweetness of mown grass to accompany me—no finer incense, surely!—interrupted occasionally with hints of sourness breathed from the vast fields of onions cultivated in the area. I gulped my first great whiffs of gardenia from roadside bushes. A combination of senses register the fresh full green of summer and the deep dark earthiness of the after-rain terrain. On a hillside flower garden zinnias, lilies, and hydrangeas grew in the shadow of a great bamboo curtain. Raindrops glistened on the blossoms and leaves, still unfound by wind or sun. The warbler still embroiders the air with her complex trill. Cormorants dive silently, erupting later from the surface of the green waters.

By mid-morning I was pleased to have entered the forest paths. From some unseen place a musician was playing a Chinese violin. The sounds were arresting: warm and wistful, green and watery. A perfect match for the day. I stopped and listened a while. The sound, I knew, would be lost as I ascended the hill and rounded the bend.

Coming upon the rice fields, not the ritual ones of the last blogpost, but the real fields, I was granted a vision I have long wanted to see: the sight of a big blue sky replete with fluffy white clouds reflected in the mirror of the flooded paddies. It was strangely unexpected, as if something magical had suddenly bloomed on this well-worn path. (It is the kind of image animators use to evoke summer though it will be a month yet before such scenes are accompanied by the whirrings of cicada song: this, for us, is a sign of the height of summer when I am inclined to believe that only the rice is happy.) Out of the mirror, little feathery, fragile saplings poke. Pond-skimmers dart about making the water look mercurial. Ingenious irrigation ditches all clatter softly with good, clean water flowing down at just the right pace. Choruses of frog song rise and fall.

Nothing, except water, rushes at this time of year. Beside water falls and rapid, this is one of the best places in summer. We come for the sounds, for the cool, the comfort. Here, we perfume ourselves with the scent of moss and damp earth.

The growing towers of cloud built through the blue all day returning to their sumi drama by evening and by nightfall a light rain had begun to fall again. It would be another cool and peaceful night.

Laudato si.


* sumi is the pressed black charcoal used by brush-style calligraphers

Conscience

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Conscience

Somehow it seems wrong:

to take one’s noonday nap and hear

a rice-planting song.

Motaina ya hiru ne shite kiku ta-ue-uta.

–ISSA

Fortunately, the rice-planting song was sung before my noonday nap. What a joy it is to have the rice planted! June is here and the frogs are happy!

The Plenitude: ‘It neither is, nor isn’t.’

‘It neither is, nor isn’t.’

One ancient poem ends that way.

In other words:

something can both exist and not exist at the same time.

Indeed, thoughts and feelings arise in our minds only to flicker away–

they are

invisible,

intangible,

But we can argue:

they exist.

Then again, if one claims otherwise, this too seems to bear a kind of truth.

We are strange creatures

who think and vacillate, vacillate and think,

endlessly

throughout our lives.

People thought up [Chinese] characters . . . [to] refer to completion,

but surely

no one has ever actually experienced that.

If so,

it could only have been in a provisional way.

In reality,

all things continue

somewhere

in perpetuity.

(Link to the Japanese version, here)

(Toko Shinoda)

It was a rabbit-hole of a poem and I sat staring at it positioned in front of a looking glass in the salon, called, happily enough under the circumstances of an enchantment, Slow Life. I always read this (very smart) magazine that the shop offers, backward. I save the best for last. This piece was on the last page. I stared at the page for the longest time. It transfixed my attention. At the same time I was unmoored, afloat, away (with the fairies and yet also) fully present. The words breezed in; I was reverberating with them, but not only them: the image had its own particular magnetic power. Was it, maybe, the combination that seduced me?

Shinoda, Mu

The title of the poem, shown in the image [right], is the enigmatic character ‘Mu’ — Nothingness or Emptiness. It is one of the signs (for minds formed in the West) of the apophatic; denoting that which cannot be said in reference to ultimate reality. But to write that even, in my opinion, adds a heaviness to the lines that they do not carry. Only mystics and poets, I think, can make forays on this concept. Christian Wiman’s ‘bright abyss’ springs to mind. Or calligraphers, of whom, it is said,

‘when facing the blank white page before beginning to write, do not ponder how to fill it, but how best to activate it.’

*

I first encountered a fresh and essential liveliness of the word in calligraphy I could not read or understand. Arabic may have been the fleeting first; the Chinese/Japanese lasting next. I have dabbled in western-style calligraphy but here was something which truly evoked in me the sense: ‘Behold!’ In these brush strokes and shapes, bold, heavy, light and playful, in the controlled mastery of spontaneity, the studied ‘honesty’ of the word made free, there was something recognisable, something true, a source of curiosity, contemplation and wholehearted enjoyment. Perhaps it was the strange attraction of something that I did not, could not know that drew me?

The mark of the Divine in things is preserved by their connection with the world of silence.

( ~ Max Picard)

*

Imagine my surprise when I began looking for more information about the artist-poet, Toko Shinoda. What an extraordinary woman! She’s 102 years old this year. In the early 1980s, Time Magazine did a story on her in which ‘her trail blazing accomplishments [were considered] analogous to Picasso’s’! She was born in Manchuria and, influenced by her cosmopolitan father’s love of sumi ink painting, calligraphy and Chinese poetry, naturally enough began practicing calligraphy at a very young age. Her rebellious and creative nature steadily became apparent in her calligraphy practice. One writer notes that ‘Shinoda’s deeply independent nature–her core willful strength–is the basis of her unique personality.’ Indeed. She does not accept awards; has never joined an art society or organization; never formally studied under anyone (her father remains her only mentor); has never hired an assistant, taken on a student and she has never married.

‘Although many of her works contain passages and poetry from Chinese and Japanese literature, she came to realize from her foreign audience that it wasn’t necessary to be able to read or understand the meaning of the Chinese characters or Japanese kana syllabary to feel moved by her work. Although many cannot read her calligraphy they can respond. The shapes can be read as abstract forms delving from Shinoda’s own creative emotion — a kind of international language and a truly artistic creation. With this, Shinoda offers the viewer their very own interpretation. “It’s not important for there to be a meaning to my work,” she says. “Viewers can find what they want to see.”‘

(See, Lucy Birmingham Fujii,”Learning Dreaming — Toko Shinoda.” In Asian Art News, January/February 2006 here with some great pics; or, on her website here)

Toko Shinoda, making ink

Toko Shinoda, makes her own sumi (ink) on a Song Dynasty (960-1279) inkstone. Image source: Joan Mirviss Gallery

Early Summer Scent-scapes

She drew her hands together flat on the table and, gently pushing her elbows out, she slowly bent forward, mimicking the deep, formal bow made to guests by the host of a tea ceremony. ‘The fragrant zephyr,’ she said, ‘is one of the great Tea words of the early summer season.’ I had been looking at a print on an envelope, one of those evocative paintings in the simple classical sumi-e style, of green leaves. Under the hanging branch, just so, were written, at a slight slant, the kanji characters 薫風. We felt, magically, laying our eyes on that scene, hearing that word, a balmy breeze and picked up, didn’t we, a faint and fleeting scent.

Lately, I’ve been surfacing from the deeps earlier than the sunrise and indulging in an hour or so of floating gently on the waves of waking . . . that deliciously loose, natural, ungrasping state. It is still cool then, refreshing. Through the open door it’s good to drink in the air. I hear the little birds chittering; the barks and parps of early crow conversation and sometimes a chorus of laughter erupts from the cranes who live over the canal in the Garden. Without trying, I want to memorise the prayer of this soft and purposeless pleasure, to return to it once the tightness and hurry and grasping of the day stake their claims and occupy me.

On an early Sunday walk recently, a strong, sweet, distinctive smell enveloped my senses. It took a few moments for me to register exactly what it was . . . fig! Of course, summertime figs! My eyes cast about following my nose and found a little orchard of about nine bushes. Along the bamboo-bordered path, among knotted shrubs and overgrowth was growing wild, a riot of sweet jasmine. The sun was peeking over the horizon, the fragrances then were heady. Into dark green shade I happily tramped, soaking in its particular earthy, mossy delights, heightened yet by a touch of gold warming up and releasing the bitter-sweet of cedar resin. In the evenings these days with the windows open I have noticed for the first time sandalwood wafting in from the trees in flower over the way.

Remember your first whiff of citrus blossom of the season? The ancients thought this a kind of elixir of life (too!) and dispatched voyagers to the Land of Eternal Youth to collect. In the 5th Imperial Collection of 1086 (no, that’s not a typo*), an anthology which contains about 1120 poems, we find particular praise for the hana tachibana, a kind of citrus tree that sprouts white, sweet-smelling, five petalled blossoms around this time of year. The old Japanese tea-masters who cultivated an intimacy with nature, extolled this flower in poetry, and drew attention to the transports between scent and word and memory.

“If it were not for the hana tachinbana in this world,

what could we use as the linchpin for memories

of days gone by?”

“The hana tachibana has begun to bloom . . .

Its scent makes me recall with yearning

the sleeves of someone I loved

many years ago.”


* Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac. Sasaki Sanmi, (trans.) Shaun McCabe. (280)