Backward, Forward, Upward, Inward

These are the directions of memory that I’ve been thinking about in the last few weeks, the work of remembering, looking back and forward, being a very ‘January’ activity.

Janus-faced wood sculpture. Details below (1).

Remembering backward is reflexive: putting threads together and making stories builds the earth; it bolsters the self and secures, for a time, our roles and boundaries in the worlds we inhabit. Remembering well, curiously perhaps, depends on making in many forms. On an abstract level, it concerns the care-taking of textured mind-spaces that hold the threads-sometimes spun and woven, sometimes still raw-of our stories. Otherwise, practically, it is about making sense, making art, even, sometimes, making confession.

Remembering backward can be an uneasy past-time for the exile, the mis-, or dis- placed person, though; traps abound. The selective memories that comprise nostalgia are particular temptations. Too, they are particular forms of forgetting. Nostalgia is a bit like drinking alone while sad. I mean, there are dangers to recalling alone. It exacerbates loneliness and increases the distance between being at home with the various parts of the self that make up the I. To be known, to have someone remember you, who you have been, how you have arrived, and (importantly) how you have changed, helps you figure out where you’re at and maybe, too, where you’re going.

If the Queen in Alice’s Adventures is to be believed when she remarks: ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that works only backwards,’ this means we ought also to practice remembering forward.  Remembering forward is a concept I’m new to, as such, and I am not finding it easy. What is remembering forward? Simply: hope. This article tells us the biblical command to remember is written in the future tense. We are to look forward to a ‘time to come’. We are to bring the past as the good, the bad and the ugly into the present and allow ourselves to see how these constellations inform and shape who we are, how memory affects our living here and now, and where we can go from here. Remembering forward asks: What kinds of remembrances enliven our present and give us hope for the future? The question is best answered, I intuit, with a sense of community, connectivity or communion. Remembering well requires a kind of rootedness.

I do not find the world a hopeful place at present. I take seriously the injunction to ‘look forward’ but my lenses are anxiety-fogged. My sense of ‘disjointment’ feels pronounced. [Often not so much the ‘where was I?’ of the absent-minded, as the ‘where am I?’ of the lost.]

Unable to articulate a satisfactory set of responses to the question articulated above (see, enlivenment and hope) I found inspiration rather in this fabulous article by Gene Tracy, Sky Readers [highly recommended!], which reminded me of the intuitions that initiated this blog. The most important of these is that ‘knowing where you are in the world is fundamental to knowing who you are.‘ The stars, like stories, provide a GPS for our lives so that looking up (or bringing oneself into the presence of one’s internal lights) is a way of connecting one’s outer and inner lights to ensure that you don’t lose your way when generated light goes out. It is knowing, at many levels, where you stand. And, making stuff, like blog posts, like 

stories, poems, songs, music [or] visual art makes this knowledge more real to us, charged with emotive power, which aids in the forming of memories. It helps us to come to know things, and to know their place, by knowing ourselves more deeply as well.

You can remember backward or forward Janus teaches, but older, more experienced cultures than the Graeco-Roman teach us that looking up and in, and making something of that, is also a fine option, tried and true, for orienting. Modern cosmology might have arrived at the insight that we are at no special place in the Universe; that, rather, ‘we are wanderers among the stars, through a space with no centre’, but weaving stories and making and re-making memories helps us, as the Kalahari teach, ‘not to fade off into the nothing or the nowhere.


Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ 


Image Sourcery:

  1. Headdress (Nkuambok), Janus-Faced Wood-Sculpture, 19-20th century, Nigeria. Source: the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  2. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ lives at MoMA.


Further Reading:

+ James K.A. Smith’s editorial Memory Forgetting and Hope is well worth a read. I particularly liked the apprenticeship angle (to cooking). Several students have been reflecting on their shaky links to the past in being unable to prepare any/many of the Japanese traditional myriad New Year dishes.

+ Gene Tracy’s Sky Readers is wonderful!


Monkey Mind

I have been trying, without much success, to find ways of feeling more positive about the  Monkey whose year it is in the East. So far I’ve come up with imagery of cute chimps, snow monkeys in hotsprings, intimate group grooming (so not my thing) and, more promisingly, but still not exactly, for the moment, sparking off constellations of inspired connectivity: apes as our deeper time evolutionary ancestry.

monkey mind

(Image Source, 1, below)

What I dread about the monkey, in particular, is being dogged (pardon my domestic zoo!) by what modern culture is particularly prone to: the Multi-tasking Monkey Mind.


I set off on a walk before the extreme cold set in feeling as if I had a monkey on my back. I’m at a low ebb. A prescription for relief seems mysteriously and graciously to have worked out, however, and on three weekends in the past month I have found myself crossing the thresholds of three different hillside temples.

The gates of the temples are presided over by Two Benevolent Kings (the Ni-O). They do not look benevolent in the least: they look angry and fierce and thoroughly badass. Their flashing eyes are wide open; their mouths are pulled back into scary haka-like poses, one has his mouth open (Ah = the alpha, agyo), the other one has his mouth closed (Um = the omega, ungyo). (The sounds Ah + Um made together produce the sanskrit seed syllable, the cosmic sound, the sacred ‘Om’.)  They are colossal in size, these gatekeepers, with six-pack naked torsos and strong, muscular legs. There can be no doubt that they mean business.

nio, guardians

(Image source, 2, below.)

And yet, I find them very comforting, grateful for the sense of protection they offer. They face the outside world whose burdens and entanglements are behind you as you face the wooden temple building within. Entering the grounds of a temple, between these blokes, well, there is no way a monkey on someone’s back gets in.



Image Sources:


Views from the breakfast table

On a frigid, caramel gold, bright blue morning, there’s a rare murmuration of shorebirds racing first north, then south, along the river. The gold ornamentation on the castle in the near distance catches the fire of the rising sun. Above the tree tops, golden light splashes the pale underbelly of a slow, low-soaring osprey and lights up the brown wings of a swooping solitary hawk. These heart-lifting images must sustain the inner fires as snow is expected later and the wind is harsh. I find the cold enervating and sometimes I wish for feathery insulation but at the same time I have always felt that there is something  triumphant and human in the capacity to sense and feel temperature on, in and through the body.


Perception: Numinous Hatchlings


‘Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me . . . There are 2 sides to your encounter with the world: you don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.’

Marilynne Robinson, Paris Review No.198

Robert Harrison introduced his guest on the podcast Entitled Opinions as one who knows what it means to practice the persecuted religion of deep thinking, a practice which, he says, takes many different, often covert, forms. (The adjective ‘covert’ rather tickled me . . . “Be(a)ware: covert deep thinkers may interrupt normal transmission. Do not be alarmed!”)

One of the forms deep thinking takes is . . .

the perception of ordinary reality

which is

anything but ordinary

when perception becomes

truly attentive

and thoughtful.

(Hear, Here: A Conversation with Marilynne Robinson, Nov.4, 2015)

Wide-ranging is certainly a fitting adjective for the conversation – Emerson, Poe, Cosmology, Quantum Physics, Grief, Loss, Shakespeare, the English language – and there are some real gems in the conversation which I enjoyed on my long walk there and back.




Recognition is, Paul Ricouer observes in Memory, History and Forgetting, a small miracle. What could it have been–what is it–to participate in the drama of recognition? We recognize something we have ‘seen’ somewhere before; the mystery of it somehow persists in (his beautifully named) ‘the treasury of forgetting’ and out of this arises an image, or trace, that bears  faithful resemblance to what once I saw, heard, felt, learned, acquired.

When I visited Kannon-sama the other day, as strange as her beauty is to me, there is something recognisable about her; something perhaps archetypal. The uncanny, unheimlich, approaches (after years, perhaps?) heimlich, a state in which there is some familiarity. I know the temple; I have my bearings; I feel at ease (more or less); I’ve seen her quite a few times in various guises. I recognise her, despite her distance from my native cultural repertoire.

 What was it that the shepherds and the Magi saw in the Jesus child that opened in their souls, irresistably, the impulse to worship and adore? Isn’t it amazing that we know this feeling by way of recognition; even while the Parousia is quite beyond our ken?

I also think it is amazing that we somehow remember stardust. That we are, in our life-forms, remembrances of it. I liked Pope Francis’ Angelus message on the day of Epiphany. He reminded us that

“The shepherds and the Magi teach us that to find Jesus we must know how to look up to the heavens, and not to be turned in upon ourselves, on our own selfishness,” he said. We must rather “open our hearts and minds to God, Who always surprises us, know how to welcome His messages, and respond promptly and generously,” he added.

The experience of the Magi “urges us not to be content with mediocrity, not to just ‘get along,’” Francis said, “but to search for the meaning of things, gazing with passion into the great mystery of life.

Oriens, in Latin, is anatole in Greek. Both mean the rising, appearing or originating of the sun and stars. Living in the so-called Land of the Rising Sun (Nippon = the first two rays), I’m quite sensitive to the associations with stars rising! Odd, because it totally depends where you read from, so the translation ‘east’ doesn’t really work . . . not for all places, at all times, anyway. To say, though, that they were ‘of the Orient’ is a metaphor full of promise and wonder.  The Magi, ‘from the east’, were strangers and outsiders in relation to the Jewish people they found themselves among and yet the star was a sign that they recognised and responded to (in spite of their foreignness).

I suspect the Magi and the Shepherds were, after their own fashions, poets. Poets always know where the light rises and how the Word becomes flesh.


The Rose of Venus is also called the Venus Pentagram. Venus is sometimes the morning star and sometimes the evening star. I’ve never seen one of these before and I think it’s beautiful. More here.

There’s a kind of hush . . .

There’s a kind of hush poised on the threshold of the New Year in the Land Of The Rising Sun that feels a bit like Christmas. January 1st is a kind of holy-day here—cooking, cards and cleaning—are all carefully prepared beforehand, decorations, too. Feasting, family and favoured activities ensue. I enjoy the quiet. In my heart I am glad that the year opens with a Marian feast. I see myself a child, a hand open, raised and held by the Mother, even while I mourn and entrust my own to heaven. This year was a bright blue, promising kind of a day. Appropriate, I thought, for a beginning.

We hear no church bells. If you are in the vicinity of a temple, though, you will hear the 108 peals at midnight; a Buddhist confession, of sorts. More likely to be heard on New Year’s Day is a perky version of the otherwise sombre national anthem played over the sirens at 7 in the morning. We had snatches of drum, shakuhachi and Japanese harp wafting over from the Garden later on where crowds had gathered to see the cranes set off on ceremonial flights for good luck (and, need I mention, a thousand-thousand camera lenses?) The blessing of the wings, I sometimes think of it, and very elegant and moving it is, too.

January, I’d always thought was rooted in the name of the Roman god, Janus,* who is the guardian of gates, doorways, passages and endings. He is said to preside over beginnings and transitions, and looks both backward to the past and forward to the future. Something about these two faces of his put me in mind of the goddess, Kannon (KuanYin) who is often represented with a number of faces. In the years when Christianity was banned in Japan and the faithful went underground, there were statues created of the Mother of God disguised as the Buddhist deity, Kannon, Goddess of Mercy. These are called, now, Maria Kannon.

So, it’s a new year, a Year of Mercy in the Catholic tradition, and while I could walk down to the cathedral in town to gaze on the lovely, classical, white, europeanised Lady, I think I’ll walk along the river instead and through the neighbourhoods, past the Botanical Gardens, through the big, old temple gate on the side of a hill, climb the steep flight of old stone stairs and call in on Kannon-sama at Hokain (No.5 on the 33 Station Kannon Pilgrimmage in my area). She’s not anything familiar to look at; she’s not really even a ‘she’. . . except that sometimes she is. The face is calm, the ears are prominently lobed, the beauty, whilst somehow attractive and consoling, does not belong to my sense, but God is found in strangeness often, and more honestly, perhaps. I shall ask her to bless my vision, all my beginnings and my practice of mercy in the year to come.


Maria Kannon, C17th**

* Some think, rather, that January is overseen by Juno, see, an interesting parallell too, Juno being known as Queen of the Gods.

** Image source: Paris Foreign Missions Society  “The Virgin Mary disguised as Kanon, Japan” by PHGCOM (2008).