Magnolia copy

*Rood-Lotus (Magnolia)

A fountain of stars has gushed up and leapt over a neighbour’s wall. I see them lit by the sun from my terrace, magnolias looking for all the world like they’re climbing the wavy silver-slate-coloured roof tiles tumbling down from the spine of an old Japanese house.


The laundry flaps nearby.

Petal confetti lie around the skirts of the ornamental plum trees. Our first hope in winter, the plums begin to bloom in late February around the time the baby nightingales start to sing. The unstinting generosity of this song, this ‘fresh-peeled voice’ (Larkin), embroidering lines with brio, thrills me to the core. I wait for it, even hunt for it sometimes, simply to be showered, indiscriminately, in the full, reconciling joy of it. A vivid sign of life, it is one of the things that gets me through the difficult transition from death to life in the often veiled, sometimes turbulent, month of March.

Daphne is another reminder of life, one that comes through the nose. Her small clustered flowers pack a wallop of sugary-citrus fragrance that regularly arrest my feet on paths.

The sun has been out, jackets occasionally unzipped. Bodies are becoming less brittle. Sap is rising.

Buds on the sakura, relaxing knots now, are turning neon yellow-green. Dawdling at breakfast I look through branches over the river and see that the willows alongside the castle moat have suddenly transformed their violently pruned branches back into dipping trains, hippy boas, the same colour as the buds. Evenings at the moat, just after sunset, gazing on the silvery mirror, a swan slowly and surely captures my attention. Dream dancing we are and while I’m thinking-without-thinking of the things going on under water. I see the bird’s reflection and am hypnotised by the grace of those slightly raised wings, that slow ease, the dipping neck. The cold begins to settle and I lift my soul and  hasten home.

Some mornings, lately, consciousness has cracked gently into waking accompanied by birdsong, love letters, Ikkyu, the poet, knew. Today, I wake to rain.

“Love Letters”
By Ikkyu

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.

(Thank you, Parker Palmer)

*Rood Lotus is a name I’ve made up in honour of Passion-tide. I recently learned that ‘mokuren’, the Japanese name for magnolia, is a combination of tree+lotus.


Praying with Persephone

Open in a window beside this note that I am beginning on Ash Wednesday, 2018, is Jan Richardson’s gorgeous image entitled “Into Earth“. I’ve been staring at it for a long time now. Enjoying my absorption in it. The scent of the potted narcissus on my desk wafts delicately, now absent, now teasing, now fully present, now gone again. My mind drifts as I lift my eyes from the picture to look at the dipping heads on the fresh green stems of these impossible, late winter beauties: how these light-bearing blooms flourish! I am thinking of Persephone, the maiden abducted, snatched and disappeared in a brutal instant, into the wild unknown of the Underworld. Blindsided.

suissenSeed girl, core, inner feminine: from the earth we have come, like you, and to the earth we shall return.

I begin this Lent brought low, blindsided myself. Chaotic and storm-laden within. Which is, perhaps, a fitting place to begin the season. The prophet Hosea’s words that popped in via @digitalnun’s blog not only affirms this intuition, but offers a certain consolation, too:

‘I will lead her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.’


Joy. Ah! (The Midnight Bells)


There are one hundred and seven on the one side of midnight, and a single one on the other. The division between the old and the new is accompanied by the sonorous clang of wood colliding with metal, swung, often with great effort, by teams of religious men, to mark the threshold of the New Year. ‘Joya no kane’ they call the tolling; a toll it is, not a peal.

As well it might be. To be on the threshold of the new is a solemn rite. There is joy embedded, as you can hear, even across languages, but the bell is meant, above all, to be a reminder; each slow bong should bring a surfacing of reflection, should, while ringing out, echo within: the bell must ring inside you. In the dark, it must waken you. Remember you to yourself. The western rite of confession acts similarly.

There are 108 ‘misses’ (sins, worldly desires, passions or attachments) we humans repeatedly make, according to Buddhist tradition. The ins and outs you will know according to your interest. Suffice it to say, these increase suffering in the world. People here say that the last bell is rung after midnight to ‘seal the deal’ as it were; to mark the resolution, to let go what has gone before. I’m all for ‘starting again’. I’m glad, in fact, for any and all opportunities to do so. I also acknowledge my anxiety about finishing sometimes, being finished, letting go, moving on.

The sacred rite of bell-ringing between the worlds of past and present I conceive with the ancient image of the yin-yang diagram, with the last ring, in the earliest moment of the new, as the light particle, a seed, a star, falling into the dark, a quietly, dynamic background. Call it soul-soil.

Readying for its mission.

Quarterly+Quarterly Media Review

(I can’t make up my mind whether a quarter plus a quarter equals a bi- or a semi-, hence the title.¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

Over the summer break, I was disappointed not to feel lit up by any fiction. I read Shafak’s Forty Rules of Love and I hoped to love it through and through and didn’t. I had been teaching on exophonic writers and learned about this esteemed Turkish woman writer. It was a lovely recalling of the passions of Sufism. I was left, alas, un-ignited and slightly frustrated by it. I very much enjoyed Coetzee and Kurtz’s (non-fiction) conversation and remain engaged by the questions raised about change, in particular, the relation and possibilities that exist in and between the individual and the collective.

Changes at work have taken an enormous amount of time and energy in the past year and I have been through some doldrums on the reading front. Happily, I have a large stack on the TBR pile, including the 3 later volumes of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. Each time I pass the cobbler’s shop near my place, I get chills and a wicked thrill of the memory of the ending of My Brilliant Friend! I’m very much enjoying the early stages of NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut (and feeling proud and nostalgic). Just as well semester ends in a few days before a week’s break over the New Year.


  • A Greater Music, Bae Suah
  • Forty Rules for Love, Elif Shafak
  • The Good Story, Arabella Kurtz & J.M.Coetzee
  • Tales of Literacy for the C21st, MaryAnne Wolf
  • Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  • My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
  • The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
  • Make Me, Lee Child
  • The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange
  • Writing in the Dark, David Grossman


  • Speaking into the Air, John Durham Peters
  • The Incredible Need to Believe, Julia Kristeva
  • Doing English in AsiaHaseltine & Ma (eds.) 


  • Clarice Lispector (trans. Dodson), “And it’s going to rain”; “Better than to burn”; “Forgiving God”.
  • Ted Chiang, “Tower of Babylon”, “Understand” “Division by Zero” 
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Exchange” 
  • Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the University”
  • The Vatican, “Educating to Fraternal Humanism” 
  • Edwin O Reischauer, “The Meaning of Internationalisation” 
  • Adam Kirsch, “World Literature & Its Discontents


  • WNYC, Apocalypse, Now
  • The Spirit of Things, Rachel Kohn & Krista Tippett
  • The News Quiz (I miss Sandi Toksvig)
  • Slow radio
  • Pray as you go (I’ve enjoyed a restart for Advent)


  • The Theory of Everything
  • The Midwife (French)
  • The Circle


  • Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak
  • Knock Twice, ed. Andrew Simms
  • The Road to Character, David Brooks
  • We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
  • The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper (#thedarkisreading – a twitter experiment with @RobMacfarlane and @juliamarybird, starting on Winter Solstice eve. So much fun!)

Remember your Genius

Two orthodox Jewish gentlemen who’d flown over from NY were in the Seoul, Incheon lounge at crack of dawn when we arrived. One, finishing an audible, online but to me incomprehensible (Yiddish? Hebrew?) conversation, opened up what looked like a prayer book – brown, well used, worn, with hanging page mark strings – and read quietly for a while. I was inspired to do the same and opened up my Office app on the iPad. It was Lady of Sorrows. I was struck by the readings’ images of water, mud and overwhelm and reflected on the destructive waters experienced by the country I had just left. Leaving the lounge to board for my next flight, I passed a small dining room with a tv screen broadcasting the strident, scolding and triumphant tones of the lady anchor from ‘NoKo’. I didn’t understand that either; nor did I know about the missile until late in the afternoon when I was back home safe and sound.


The grass on the river banks is knee high and setting out for a walk to lessen the effects of jet lag I feel as if I am walking on clouds; clouds, I find, of cricket song. This is wonderful! The leaves of the sakura are looking desiccated as they do having endured the heat of the summer, and I am surprised that autumn feels quite so close. My own skin, pleasantly sweat-free, registers the change first. My sneezing faculties tickle, too, signaling dry air settling in.

Walking south I catch the boys rowing at sundown and sit on the wall to watch. On the far side of the river a soccer game is going on, shouts and laughter rise into the air. Happy sounds, they make me smile. Near me is the regular shush of oars pulling in and out; an occasional bout of bellows resounds from the diminutive cox on one of the larger skulls. The boys are all berry brown, lost in loose concentration, full of grace.

How could we tire of hope? / -so much is in bud. 

(Denise Levertov, Beginners)

All weekend long we waited for the typhoon that had been roiling around taking its own sweet time dawdling north-east. The suspense grew dreadful. Finally, on Sunday night, after a weekend of odd gusts and a bucket of rain here and there, it was upon us, howling and violent. Waking the following day, it was to a world washed clean.

I have been wrestling with Julia Kristen this week reading an interview published as ‘This Incredible Need to Believe‘. Such a compelling title and connected with so much else I’m trying to wrap my mind around. (For example, Coetzee and Kurtz’s ‘The Good Story’ and Ward’s ‘Why We Believe…’) In particular, I’m trying to get to grips with a section on genius and ‘great men’, thinking about the individual and the collective. In particular, I’m interested in the turning point between when people were in touch with the Angel/Daimon/Genius that made you You (where the human was seen as a ‘co-presence’ with the Divine, a fresh expression, a never-before-or-since kairotic emergence; a deeply original, creative, loved and actively loving Singularity) and when people decided that rather than honoring this god/(aspect of) God, they’d project that power instead onto the so-called ‘Great Man’.

Kristeva refers to Arendt who noted that during the Renaissance it was down to ‘men, who were losing God, to displace transcendence toward the best among them. Frustrated to see themselves assimilated to the fruits of their activities … the subjects of galloping secularization endeavored to confer the traits of “genius” and/or the divinity with each of them upon …’ others. From here, the beginnings of celebrity culture can be traced. (Though to say giving power/devotion to the ‘best among us’ is no longer, or quite so undoubtedly, true. It is, at least, open to interpretation: who counts as a member of the group, and what, and for whom, is ‘best’?) Along with the rise of celebrity culture, comes the atomization of the body social and the gradual erosion of pan-human dignity. There’s something to the biblical first commandment that I begin to appreciate as I live into my years and my questions.

The next part I’m going to try to figure out is how the notion of genius animates a ‘loving desire to surpass oneself’ notably in the Jewish and Christian traditions. For the time being, though, to remember one’s own dear Genius seems a small and necessary awareness to bring to the resistance against, if nothing else, creeping despair. This ‘self-surpassing’ I hope, will say something about how we all belong to a bigger story.


In other wrestling news, I realized the Autumn sumo tournament was on and tuned in to watch the live broadcast on a day when I’d arrived home early and tired from work. It was great fun to watch again. There’s been a long interval in which I have not paid it much mind at all. A little excitable edge-of-your-seat squirming and jeering and cheering at the screen was an enjoyable release of tension.

So ends a week of Now.Heres. Wishing you well.

Quarterly Media Review (very late)

3 months and a day, I see, since last I posted. Today the spring/summer semester comes to a close. I am working from home while ex-super-typhoon Noru ( demoted last evening to a tropical storm) buckets down. For the time being we have respite from the challenging heat and humidity of the past weeks and enjoying feeling, if briefly, human again.

Following below are the media that held my attention from March through June.


  • Palace Walk, Mahfouz Naguib
  • My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  • A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness
  • World Folktales, Anita Stern
  • On The Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd
  • Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari
  • Momo, Michael Ende
  • Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle


  • Poems, New and Collected, Wislawa Szymborska
  • Map,Wislawa Szymborska
  • Selected Poems, Denise Levertov
  • A Quiet Place, Seicho Matsumoto


  • Speaking into the Air, John Durham Peters (ongoing)
  • Silence & Beauty, Makoto Fujimura (ongoing)


  • A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, YiYun Li
  • The Far Shore, Yoko Tawada


+ The Liturgists w/ Richard Rohr on The Cosmic Christ

+ Rachel Kohn, The Spirit of Things, (Australian Radio National), Dances of Universal Peace

+ The Why Factor, Words Matter

+ BBC World Service, The Power of The Word (Love to read)

+ The Forum, A Single World, Many Identities

+ Cultural Frontiers, The Effects of Emigration on the Writer

+ Intelligence Squared, (Carlo Rovelli, Christophe Galfard),  The Architecture of the Universe.




  • Spotlight
  • Arrival


NEW APPS (I learned Cyrillic for a laugh & am practicing Japanese)

  • Duolingo
  • Memrise






Forest Bathing in Five Pieces

In the woods in the late afternoon I become


(a thin place).

Mind unclenched, heart at ease, and nothing in this spacious overflowing, nothing but sighing the words ‘thank you’ – the wholly adequate prayer of Meister Eckhardt – seems either apt or necessary.



When the petals of the grand-finale cherry blossom, the yaezakura, have made a nice thick carpet on the ground, that’s when the mauve wisteria begin declaiming their poetry. When the tide of green’s inexorable and there is no turning back, the azalea explode into colourful hurrahs and the nightingales, in forest amphitheatres countrywide, give concerts, belting out thrilling, trilling resurrection songs. In through the ears this heart–magic weaves.



Ladybugs and butterflies have found me a worthy landing strip. Upon my light green shoe, nine ‘eyes’ gaze from a wing for a long, quiet time into mine. I am gentled by this creature.

Drawn upward by sudden movement, I see three large black butterflies engaged in an energetic twirling, this way and that, moving cursively across the arc of my field of his vision. This is a language I cannot grasp – what is going on? I’m thinking of Bartok or Schoenburg in the manner of: it’s piano music; I’ve heard piano music before, but this, this is nothing like that. It’s somehow out of reach; it does not conform. Around and around they whirl and loop, a calligraphic sky–writing to which I cannot attune.

Before long they leave through an opening in the trees and my forest stage is cleared, returned to the consoling simplicity of the breeze. The setting sun illuminates some hot pink hurrahs on the periphery.


The three wild butterflies in their choreographed spring cadenza have me thinking about the Trinity and the write-ups I’ve been reading recently from a recent CAC (Center for Action and Contemplation) conference. This line of Cynthia Bourgeault’s, “Work in the world is not going to drain you down, unless you become identified with it” has me mulling over the way one identifies with work, and I wonder if this is aggravated by operating in a culture infamous for its workaholism? I’m thinking of Ryan Avent’s piece, too, that I’d read earlier in the day, on work. But I’m not thinking too hard about it. After all, this is a holiday.


I begin my walk back from the forest on the foothills, across the fields to the riverside. The sun is low in the sky, shining below the rim of my hat. The air is cool, I wear a light sweat. Exultant swallows dart over the green barley; the sparrows seem more delighted by pecking away in the bare grey-beige fields which have lines inscribed, curved and straight, ploughed, smooth, beautiful, ready. They await activation after a season lying fallow by the germinated rice seedlings coming soon to the Sowing Circles of the now mostly ancient farming folk.


The Everyday

It’s ‘Golden Week’ in Japan and I have a longer than (conventionally) long weekend. I’m reading @LizStrout My Name is Lucy Barton and @Patrick_Ness A Monster Calls presently. Each I’m finding a gracious influence. Doing laundry this morning, I wrestled with the clothes that had gotten twisted in the washer, becoming aware of myself hurrying to get them out onto the line, for no particular reason other than to be done with it. A memory flashed into my mind of the slow and simple pleasure of doing a wash and hanging it out in the gifted last months of a dear friend’s life on This Side. 

Taking time for the quotidian, it seems to me, is easily overlooked but adds immensely to being present in our days. I’d go as far as to say that living well requires it.

Taking Tea, ceremonially

You enter on your knees, your white socked feet tucked under you, your head low, bowing, a curled, almost embryonic posture, signalling humility. The small tatami room is cozy, a bronze kettle peeps out, bubbling in its space just under the level of the floor, and adds a soothing warmth. Here you become small and soft. Shed the ego & the facades you use in the outside world. Relieve yourself of your swords. No defences can enter with you. Here, simply be, natural and calm. 

To be welcomed in this humble space is a chance to remember yourself. Sit up straight, relax, breathe. This is a world within a world. A space apart. In this ancient, tradition-refined ceremony there are hidden complexities that, over time, release ever more flavours and fragrances. They cannot be forced but, like happiness or the alighting of a butterfly, are glimpsed, recognised, (somehow, – impossibly – ) real. In their wake, gratitude ruptures, wearing away the old, bringing something fresh into the soul.

What is it? I don’t know. I only love it. Therefore, I praise. I am no expert; I do not study the way of tea, but I take great delight in the stories of the friends who do. It is a tempering art: you go through the fire before you begin to take shape at it. There is so much that has to be dropped to become self-effacing enough to adequately perform the ritual. Fidelity to the practice is all.

The room is, in its way, spare. Each item is freighted – with history, meaning, purpose, play. Nothing is superfluous. This makes for coherence. Our recent narrative theme for the spring ceremony was that of the local legendary hero, Momotaro. The hanging scroll was an old calligraphed poem and likeness of the founder of the ceremony, Rikyu. The Master decided we would use Rikyu to stand in for Momotaro. There was a small porcelain pheasant ornament in the alcove, on the right, perched on a folded sky-blue paper pillow, an incense burner. The vase in which the pale pink peony stood, a petal fallen onto a lower leaf and dew still quivering on it in drops, was tall, dark and rough-hewn: this was the arm of the demon with whom Momotaro does battle in the legend, protruding from below.

The chawan (tea bowls) are all different and uniquely precious pieces: each bearing a story, of origins, of ceramic artists, of design. Having entered the room, and before sitting down, an elaborate twittering dance between the participants takes place, one from which I, thankfully, as an outsider, am exempt. The more experienced the guest, the closer to the Master, s/he is seated. It is considered etiquette not to appear knowledgeable; hence the twittering. I sat, a bit reluctantly, but obediently, in the third position, recommended by my friend, a teacher of ceremony herself, who sat in fourth, she having whispered— like this was a good thing—that the third guest gets one of the really good tea bowls … (Ah, well, as the only foreigner in the room, I was standing out already. Might as well enjoy it! 😉)

Everyone knows that the guest nearest the Master has to perform the most. Usually this guest has been chosen and notified in advance and is experienced in the forms necessary to the cultivation of the atmosphere. Their duties include just the right kind of admiration (of the art, in particular), the right kind of comment and/or conversation, light and easy and effortless, exercising, where called for, wit that does not draw attention to itself, but contributes to the relaxation of all, the kind of words that enter the flow, maintain ease and heighten the enjoyment. 

I, as third guest, did indeed get a beautiful bowl which fitted, in shape and weight and size, comfortably in my hand. It was watery in design and was made by a third generation potter of a lineage whose founding eccentric artist’s story, I had first heard a week before. As I finished my dark green tea in the requisite three gulps, out of the depths, the opening lotus blossoms appeared.

Farewell, the Castle

At first light, one trumpet-like sound blasts one note across the sleeping valley and a clattering chorus of response erupts. The herald is bold, insistent but with no sense of oratory: no rhyme, no respect for time (or timing), neither is there harmony, nor any perceptible musical pattern. This is the sound of the neighbourhood murder, shattering, definitively, night from day.

The contrast between these sounds splitting heaven and the sight of the delicate and serene majesty of the sakura in bloom, is striking. The white-pink snow storm clouds  like candy-floss trees, as in a dream. Being the neighbourhood of Crow Castle, there is, naturally, a resident crew of brassy, jet-black guardians, gangster-rough and full-voiced. Particularly potent in the spring, they carry on all the live-long day, keeping you, slightly irritated, grounded.

Classically, because the blossoming season is so short, we are given to meditations on mono no aware — the temporal nature of things, the brevity of life, the passing of beauty, the limits of our incarnation, possibly dreaming of what lies beyond what can be seen and known. Raucous bacchanalia ensue, following a certain logic. The trees, revived from winters’ rest, reach for heaven; the crows remind us that, for the time being, we are of the earth. Spring invites us to show up, to embrace liminality: here we are between heaven and earth.

For most institutions in Japan, April is the season of new beginnings. The new academic year starts, without a trace of irony, on April first. I’ve grown to appreciate the arc of the timing. It’s good to be opening and growing with the light and to be winding down and finishing, fully absorbed, in the dark. Surely, for new beginnings we have the most energy for transformation having emerged from wintery realms.

A breeze picks up and I enjoy my favourite seasonal sight of all: swarms of petals looking for all the world like butterflies!

As the part of the planet I inhabit tilts toward the sun, Crow Castle, visible for half the year from the living room window, disappears, first behind a burgeoning veil of sakura where its outline gradually fades from view, then, soon, to be completely obscured behind a wall of fresh green foliage. Whiskers of green already hint at what is to come, just as the tight knots of rust-coloured buds did for the glorious tide of blossom that’s now washed up. This rhythm of revelation and hiddenness that the changing of the seasons brings is precious; a visible metaphor I grow slowly to understand.

The Castle and its daydreams fade into the background as the beauty of the trees begins to flourish and appears to come nearer. In the autumn and the winter, I dream with the castle of higher things. Preparing to no longer see it through the bare branches means, I take it, that the time has come to get to the work of manifesting.

Castle & Sakura