P.I., Opening


Co-ordinates: My 72 seasons app informs me that we are in shoukan (Minor Cold). It feels awfully cold, however, all of a sudden. The tradition assures us that though Major Cold is coming, the shock of Minor Cold is worse. “Freeze in Minor Cold,” goes the saying, “melt in Major Cold.” On the hill peaks this morning there was a little snow. Smoke seemed to be rising from the slopes as the sun lit them, then clouds rolled over and completely obscured all trace of hills. Ten minutes later, the hills were all “TA-DAH! Ha ha, bet you never knew where we were hiding!” It’s been a day of snow flurries, interspersed with bright blue sky and sunshine.


Introducing P.I.

I am training my heart to pick up and attend to poetic instants (hence, P.I.). This phenomenon is beautifully laid out by Gaston Bachelard who describes poetic instants, language in relation to time, at length and in detail in his essay ‘Intuition of the Instant’, but also, more satisfyingly and succinctly, in the short essay ‘Poetic Instant, Metaphysical Instant.’

Poetic time is vertical; it plunges, it plumbs. Right into the living waters. What I like about the instant is that, stayed with, it can lead, as many anam cara will know, to an apprehension of depth, to an encounter with something true to Life. Bachelard wrote: ‘If our hearts were large enough to love life in all its details, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer . . .’. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about the plundering aspect, but, yes, if we meet, say, poetry, frankly, sometimes it does have the effect of smelling salts, upsetting our sleep, and causing such a snap in us that we awaken, quite different. Our habits in routine, in perception, our set, our round of What is Known may suddenly inhale something unexpected, utterly novel. One theo-poetic philosopher (Richard Kearney) has described the instant as ‘lacuna, gap, aperture, caesura [that] invites us to replace the élan vital with the élan vocal, [to] replace mute determinism with the liberty of poetic speech, the power to say “yes” or “no”‘.

The gaps, yes …

The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock–more than a maple–a universe.

So writes Annie Dillard.

Being a follower of Poetic Instants (as any P.I. – private investigator – knows 😉) is to be sensitive to what arises and stakes a claim on your attention. It is to be aware of how the instant ‘sprouts’, which is the very flaring forth, the frothing, of creation itself. The French call this jaillisement. It is in these charged moments where we receive time’s gift.


Hand to Heart

Co-ordinates: I’m posting this on Coming of Age day, a day in which all young adults in the country, 20 year olds, are recognised and celebrate together in civil ceremonies in every town with a municipality. They gussy up in formal gear and take a million photos with the cohort and friends they’ve grown up with. From this day on, they are legal adults. I’m not sure what this means, exactly, these days, especially with the voting age having been lowered to 18 last year. Still, it’s a good time for parties and reunions and 20 is the legal drinking age, here so there’ll be a bit of experimentation with that, I suspect.


I wanted to call this post, “The Aisatsu & the Mikka Bouzu”, meaning The Greeting and the Three-Day Monk, because both are important elements, the first serious and the second playful, of the New Year in Japan.


The New Year’s Greeting, a gob-stopping fifteen syllable formula, took me quite a long time to learn to say. The next part of the formula, another fifteen sounds, establishing our mutual dependency, was no easier. It seemed an age before they rolled off my tongue. And then there was the body language to accompanies the words: a bow conveying a sincere heart. That takes some roots to learn how to do properly and getting it all together was a challenge, particularly in comparison with the rather more casual four syllable greeting we use in English.

It is properly formal, something I have grown to appreciate because new beginnings should be approached with the appropriate respect, if not awe. Anything can happen. This is a valuable lesson I see being modelled, and participate in, in the early days of every new year and it is one I cherish. To meet people for the first time in the new year one takes special care with the greeting. These people are part of your new beginning. Who knows what you can be to, and for, one another? Greeting, you commit to trusting your neighbour.

The greeting, or aisatsu, is, at any time, important to the Japanese, and it occurred to me to wonder about the Chinese characters for the ‘Ai’ (sounds like ‘eye’ and to the ‘kanji uninitiated’, most often means ‘love’) part of aisatsu. How apt it would be, I thought, if the ai of aisatsu meant love. It does not, I have learned. The ai of the greeting, though, grows out of the radical ‘hand’ (interesting, in a curious way, as the Japanese traditionally do not make body contact when greeting), where the ‘ai’ of love grows, aptly enough, from the radical ‘heart’. What I see around New Year, though, in the fresh attentiveness with which greetings are exchanged, persuades me of the connection (which any touch therapist will confirm) of the connection between the hand and the heart.



The ‘ai’ of aisatsu is defined as ‘approach, draw near, push open’ The radical ‘hand’ is on the left.


This ‘ai’ means love and spreads out from the central 4 strokes, 3 little and a long, swinging stroke.

There is wisdom, underlined by the hand-heart connection, to putting your heart (also, in Japanese, called the mind) into anything you put your hand to. Often, when the Japanese indicate themselves, ‘me’, or ‘I’, they point to their head (or, more precisely, their nose. No clue why!), where a Westerner will perhaps raise their hand to their heart to indicate the self. By contrast, the Japanese, when telling you what they think, will hold their hand over their heart, never their head. The heart-mind is used for ‘thinking’ or processing, here, never simply ‘the brain’, another little gem of cultural wisdom I’ve come to appreciate.


For all the good intentions of a new year, there is also an understanding of how easy it is to lose steam. This is where the affectionate name ‘Mikka Bohzu’, or the Three Day Monk comes in – all hot and serious and holding tightly to your own will power at the start, soon you become tired out by all that efforting, all that self-focus. Relax and align with your true purpose, be patient, grow into it. Be natural. Begin again.

Be willing, as Meister Eckardt says, to be a beginner every single morning.

Image credit: my iOS Japanese dictionary, imiwa, whose kanji person is Ulrich Apel.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Co-ordinates: It’s Epiphany as the Year of the Bird is hatching. I love this energy: this recognition, this first up-side down, dangerous yet wonderful god spell. My fingertips are cold. Sun shines through the blinds of my office, a rare treat that only (and mercifully) comes at this time of year. I find myself glad of the cold: it fits the pattern of what I expect. I am no fan of the cold, but this, simply following a pattern, feels like a relief.

I’m thinking of women spreading their wings.



Initial conditions: dappled.

The moon smiled, Venus was her beauty spot, or a charming, lop-sided dimple. This was one of the faces of beginning the new year. One thinks of faces on the threshold: who welcomes us?

The Greeks had their god, ‘Yes-Actually-I-Do-have-Eyes-in-the-Backofmyhead’ Janus, sitting on the threshold of the new year, looking back, looking forward. Increasingly complex times, however, call forth in me the need for the multifaceted, or many-armed, or perhaps even better yet, the multi-coloured, goddesses of Buddhist tradition. Colour is light and energy and I need the nuance. I begin the year with dappled feelings.

Sister Death walks close with me in Winter. There are several significant memorials in the season when darkness falls. As the old year was closing, exactly a week ago today, SJ opened her wings. An early bird, perhaps. 

Myriads mourn, we each carry a piece of her light, a story of how our lives had been touched by hers. She took, as her religious name, StJohn, ‘the witness who testifies to the Light, so that all might believe through this person in the True Light, which enlightens everyone.’ No wonder, then, she became one of the best known Catholic educators in the land. No wonder, either, that my first impulse once the news was absorbed was to light a candle, if only to stay a moment longer with her particular warmth and radiance: borne -like that other John, of the Cross- and tempered by long years in darkness.

On the heels of the news, I hit the road. There I found that gift of Death: the time-space lacuna, the blessed Between. Its grace, a strangely glorious quickening.

Along the city canal I walked feeling the blue sky’s glory, marveling at the gently flowing water (as if a visitor to the planet), the stone path strewn with hot pink, heart-shaped camellia petals (confetti for your journey onward?) A red shrine and its gate freshly painted vividly vermillion for the New Year, featured an intricate kazari decoration, the proud foxes‘ forefoot raised, two long red flags flapping aside the site. My eyes rested on the frizzy haired vine above, wisteria, so glorious in May. Remember this purple majesty, new friend in heaven? How it had its time, so quick, so beautiful. Maybe it is so for us, too?

My senses take in the world anew, as if on your behalf.

I look up from my reflections and see an apartment block called ‘consolare’. Yes, serendipity I accept your comfort.

At canal’s end, there is a path that rounds an explosion of rocks. I’ve often suspected this violent arrangement was accidental, but that day I saw an open flower, face up. I circumambulated slowly around the arrangement, praying the labyrinth. This is a good prayer for transitions; especially when you can’t sit still.

Returning, I walk northward, where possible in the middle of the stream. I’m thinking of the shachihoko: something fierce, amphibious, many-realmed, but essentially a salmon-like creature that swims against the current to return home. The image resonates. You did the same, I think, with courage, effort and perseverance.


Another day, I climbed a steep hill to visit a favourite temple. This was the day of your (understandably) closed send-off. I climbed up to the Temple of the Buddha’s heart (Busshinji); its walled garden is always calming and I had not seen it for ages. All was stiil, clear, quiet. Walking past the grave stones on the hillside, I thought of the hillside where you would be laid to rest. Yours facing east; this one facing south. Over these graves watches a beautiful figure of wisdom, the Kuanyin (Kannon, in Japanese). In old times, difficult times for Christians, here, the Kannon was blended with Marian imagery. I feel the energetic; something in me understands. She is standing with her arms open wide: if you are coming home, there is welcome here. I’m at one of the highest points in the area, the vistas go on for miles. I can see the inland sea, the island of Shikoku. I sigh-groan, a sort of cri-de-couer that issues from the deeps that rather surprises me to hear: “What shall we do without you, SJ?” Somewhere I am saying words to our Lady when my senses are shocked by the scent of incense.

The sun is going down and I must make my way on unknown forest paths back home. A huge, bright orange orb, setting, peeps through the houses and the bare branches of the everyday world as I, too, descend.

Tomorrow and tomorrow we will begin to journey in the light of your prayers but without your wise and witty and warm ways. May we follow the star, too, that leads us home; may we be unafraid of spreading our wings!

And in the light of this rising sun/Son – the revelation of this day – I celebrate your new life, sure of the shining Face who has greeted you, even while we mourn our loss.

                                                                 (In grateful memory of Sr. Kazuko StJohn Watanabe)


Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops – at all.

Emily Dickinson

P.S. Jan Richardson’s gorgeous 2017 retreat, downloadable here, is called, coincidentally, “Walking the Way of Hope.”


Image credit: Masahiro Wada, “Northern Dancers: The Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaidō