Pick up lines (Part One, 2016)

I’ve made a facetious summary of the reading I have completed in the first quarter of the year and it’s been an interesting exercise. I notice a lot of ‘wounded men stories’ in retrospect, even in the title below that suggests the exact opposite of this. There were two interesting women characters: Marta in Couto’s wonderfully strange tale and Mitsuko in Endo’s Deep River. I don’t choose books based on the gender of the writer, but my attention has been drawn to this in the last year or two because there is an imbalance of attention given to women writers. Of the ten fiction titles I have read, seven were not originally written in English . . . I like that – there’s Japanese, French, Russian and Portuguese – among them. I’m glad they’ve been made accessible . . . one needs to ever expand one’s notion of the universal and be surprised by the spectrum of humanity.

You can skip the next paragraph – it’s an aide-memoir, a note to self, an attempt to discern a pattern . . . There are probably other ways to do this (like, e.g., in lower case 🙂





Ab./  = abandoned

Opening lines – in blue

I am Pilgrim (Terry Hayes)

There are places I’ll remember all my life . . .

§ … A muscular skop, skiet en’donner. Relentless. Captivating. Exhausting.

Ab./ Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (James Runcie)

Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective.

§ … Comparisons made to Mma Ramotswe made this a temptation. Salley Vickers claimed in the blurb that the vicar was good company in bed.  Alas, it was a cold dark January morning, in the wee wee hours after we’d spent about a week together that I finally decided he could not stay. Yes, that  32 year old bachelor ‘tall, with dark brown hair, eyes the color of hazelnuts and a reassuringly gentle manner’ was given the heave-ho.

Ab./ The Buddha’s Return (Gaito Gazdanov)

I died.

§ … Russian lit belongs in the winter, I’ve often thought. The book, published by Pushkin press, was a physical pleasure to hold and to read. Horrible attitudes to women, and though the stream of consciousness was intriguing and the theme of memory potent I eventually lost patience and tossed this one, too.

Missing Person (Patrick Modiano)

For ten years Guy Roland has lived without a past.

§ … Thoroughly engaging and thought provoking. I was thinking about memory a lot early in the year.

Noah’s Compass (Anne Tyler)

In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job.

§ … Again with the memory theme, though in a far more homely, warm, if not exactly happy, register than Modiano’s noir-ish novella. 

Silence (Shusaku Endo)

News reached the Church in Rome.

§ … Devastating & brilliant. I imagine I will be absorbing and reflecting on this for a good, long while. Ironically, immediately after I had finished it, I felt compelled to go to the library to pick up another of his–I’d read all his books, by golly!– only to find it was CLOSED FOR TWO WEEKS (STOCK-CHECK). So I was forced to sit with Silence.

Ab./ Three Strong Women (Marie Ndiaye)

And the man waiting for her at the entrance to the big concrete house—or who happened to be standing in the doorway—was bathed in a light suddenly so intense that it seemed for radiate from his whole body and his pale clothing: yet this short, thickset man before her, who had just emerged from his enormous house and was glowing bright as a neon tube, no longer possessed, Norah straightaway realised, the stature, arrogance, and youthfulness one so mysteriously his own as to seem everlasting.

§ … This was beautifully written. I’m all for strong women but do they have to be forced to become so because of rotten men? I don’t like this kind of ‘equation’, don’t believe it and I don’t subscribe to it.

The Tuner of Silences (Mia Couto)

I was eleven years old when I saw a woman for the first time, and I was seized by such a sudden surprise that I burst into tears.

§ … Reading this book, I was interested to note how it taught me the pace it wanted to be read at. This and Agua Viva are both translations from Portuguese. I loved this strange and lyrical tale. Many a sentence and section I have copied into a notebook. Beautiful!

Deep River (Shusaku Endo)

Yaki imo. Yaki imo. Piping hot yaki imo.

§ … Ditto comments above regarding Silence.

Agua Viva (Clarice Lispector)

It is with such profound happiness.

§ … This piece of experimental writing is intense, poetic, amazing, a strong medicine whose effects are difficult to describe. I can only take it in in bits. I understand the words. I kind of understand the paragraphs. I’m interested most of all in the silences within and between the sections and mean to explore this dimension of it. Agua Viva fascinates me and I hope to find more cogent things to say about it as time goes by.

  Non-Fiction (On The Go)

Silence: A Users’ Manual (Maggie Ross)

A Philosophy of the Unsayable (William Franke)

The Edge of Words (Rowan Williams)

Christ in Japanese Culture (Emi Mase-Hasegawa)

The Good Story (Arabella Kurtz and J.M Coetzee)

To conclude: advice from Austin Kleon on:

Austin Kleon, How to Read More


Wrestling … with a flower?!

As a little piece of simple, homespun wisdom, who could object to “Bloom where you are planted”? I surprised myself recently taking issue with it and feeling unreasonably angry when a friend trotted it out in conversation. 

For years I have recognised the wisdom of it – the saying encapsulates an act of radical trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be; that exactly where you are is where you have the best opportunities to serve and to grow. This is your place: no other. (Because of my own privilege–and faith, perhaps–I would qualify the sentence with ‘for the time being’ . . . ). Doubtless there are pluses galore to staying and sticking out the hard times. There may be no better avenue to self-transcendence than the ability to stay.

Lately, though, I’ve been annoyed by the aphorism and instead of a ‘Yes’ I have found, if not exactly a ‘No’, then a ‘Not So Fast’ in it. I have found it to resemble one of those pretty little pieces of sentiment along the lines of ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. How could I not when day after day we are confronted with appalling visual and narrative records of  migration crises? How can ‘bloom where you’re planted’ apply in the 21st century? How do the enslaved attain liberation? What is the liberation that is sought? What kind of flourishing is possible?

After wondering what had sparked my irritability, I realized one of the reasons I was angry was because a talented young woman I had taught had written to tell me that she had been shifted from high-flying international sales position to office drudge in the blink of an eye. (Which opens a separate can of worms on issues of justice, especially for women in the Japanese workplace . . . ). I thought: how, in circumstances of injustice, to bloom where one has been planted? She was a lot more sanguine than I about the situation: good for her! My question, though, remains about the larger picture, and concerns, in particular, matters of justice. The metaphor, it seems to me, is strained on this scale. The essence of it, cannot, to paraphrase Yeats’ admonition, ‘hold’. It falls apart.

We know not all flowers can bloom where seed falls. This  could be a result of poor soil, insufficient water, or care, too much sunlight, or too little. Likewise, there are plenty of people who cannot bloom where they are planted for any number of reasons. I can count myself among these number. To the contrary, of course, there are the miraculous – both plants and people – who not only survive but sometimes manage to thrive, in less-than- ideal environments.

I live among a people who are especially well rooted. It is both strange and delightful to me to encounter people, especially among the elderly, who have been born and grown up in the same house, or neighbourhood, or area and who have friends still from elementary school. I know that, to them, I am the strange one. I’ll admit that this quality of belonging animates in me a sense of my own longings.

Is the adage a truism, I wonder, something obvious that says nothing new or interesting? Or is it a piece of deceptively simply wisdom that looks easy to swallow but actually needs a good deal of chewing to digest properly?

railside bloom-2

Petunias on the platform

Spring Training

Something Rowan Williams said in a video clip* recently made me resolve to get down to planting (my) perennials. [* It is 10 thoroughly worthwhile minutes long.]

. . . I’m set in the midst of gift. There’s always an agency around that is giving. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every moment is wonderful . . . but everything that comes to you has the potential for being a moment of growth. 

Then, there was this pearl of Alan Watts’


and I initiated, for myself, a Presence Project.  

This has been some time in coming and is, in some ways, a response to having read some of my (handwritten) journals of the past few years. I see that I seem to have begun to describe myself as a human doing rather than a human being and I don’t like it, nor do I believe it to be my primary purpose on the planet (though the Industriousness of post-modern Work-Culture likely disagrees). At least, for now, that approach is not making the sense it (perhaps) once made. I remember why I started that style of recording, though. I would end the day utterly spent and exhausted and not be able to recall at all what had put me in such a condition. So I started to make notes of how my time was spent. Alas, it did not make me feel any freer or in control. I did not, in my opinion, inhabit my moments any better knowing afterward where the time and my energies along with it, had gone.

The perennials I mention are metaphors; necessary resolutions whose roots I dream of reaching the bedrock of truth about what it is that only I can offer the world. What is the invitation that my creation speaks to the world?


I have noticed that sometimes I am present to the Presence; sometimes it simply presents itself to me. “Yoo hoo!” it pipes up from time to time “Over here! Oy!” I know where I am likely to encounter it; I also like to be surprised by it.

On the first day of the practice I was walking alongside a tall wall – on one side of me was a parking lot, on the other a garden: I could feel something following me. A scent had snuck over the wall and was trailing me. So unexpected and such pleasure it brought me! And how much more so when I came upon the plum blossom grove from which it was emitted, all pink and white, a kind of ice-cream parlor pink-and-white themed Milky Way of flowers floating around a field of ancient crooked trunks frozen in a quaint and elegant choreography.

On another day, I’d just come around the bend when the sun crested the hill and lit up one side of a great, big, wild peach blossom shrub. A golden lick of paint left slurp marks on the beautiful, shaggy untended bush. I took a place on a hillside bench not far away, took off my jacket, sat still and soaked up the blue sky under a warm sun. Against a background of chirps and cheeps, I wondered why the season’s songs had not opened fully yet? Only a chorus of short, intricate winter sounds embroidered the quiet. No brave, out-loud, look-at-me, love -me cheer, yet. There were prickly, golden-yellow witchhazels in bloom and voluptuous camellias in various pink and white states of dishabille. Above me, bare branches and twigs sported still tightly knotted sakura buds. There were unseen woodpeckers rattling gently away in nearby cypresses that made me smile.

I want to interrupt those things I do without a sense of Presence and the quickening of spring is surely the right time to be experimenting with where and how to refine and rebalance the scales of being and doing. I can’t help feeling that conversations with nature, while they may not add anything recognisably productive to The World, are important. Here, my at-one-ment with the revelations reliably reminds me of the giftedness I inhabit. Here, the kind of attention I am able to pay in the presence of birds and bats and frogs and bugs and trees and fields and hills and streams expands my capacity for inner quiet and stillness. Being out I am connected with my body and with my being. In this state of mind, doing becomes second nature; being, naturally, is primary.