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.
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.
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.
By rights this re-view ought to include the many articles that have been assigned reading for the Environmental Humanities (MOOC) course I began in January run by the University of New South Wales via the UK platform, FutureLearn. So many times in the last few months I have wondered: what on earth was I thinking? And: who has the time, the wherewithal, to process this properly? But then, I remembered what I had been thinking and that, though I was not able to keep up at the pace the course was run, I do have time (especially as there no real limits on time; it being ostensibly self-paced.) It has been a rich course, one aligned with core values I hope my life is fruitfully entangeld with, and I have gained much insight and been able to think in good and generative ways with it.
- Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, Robin Sloane. Great title! The book itself is luminous. It shone at night on the shelf beside my bed. It’s low fantasy, wholly bookish, and it’s about reading, reading closely, and about print, both physical and virtual. It’s also, eccentrically, about the Gerritszoon font. An easy read, not without gems of insight, but mostly it felt like reading a comic. Was this an experiment approaching new modes of storytelling? Mmm. I’m not sure that it succeeds. Who loved it?
- Cobra, Deon Meyer
- A Banquet of Consequences, Elizabeth George
- Conclave, Robert Harris
- The Myth Gap, Alex Evans. Loved the connections made thinking with this book! Also, the portrayal of Margaret Barker of Temple Theology renown as ‘the real Indiana Jones’ I found quite delightful!
- Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (on going)
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (on going)
- Japan’s Cultural Code Words, Boyé Lafayette de Mente
- Silence & Beauty, Makoto Fujimura (Lent book, ongoing)
EVEN SLOWER (~ CLASS PREP.)
- The Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd
- Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson
- “All that offers a happy ending is a fairytale,” (Granta), “To Speak is to Blunder” (New Yorker), YiYun Li
- “The Smallest Woman in the World,” Clarice Lispector (Dodson, trans.)
- “Karaoke Culture”(Williams, trans.), “Questions to an Answer”(Hawkeworth, trans.), Dubravka Ugresic
+ Aspen to Go
- Tom Friedman Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (12.21.2016)
- Drew Gilpin-Faust & Leon Wieseltier Humanities in Decline: A Cultural Crisis (8.31.2016)
+ The Anthill
- The Future (2.23.2017)
+ London Review Bookshop
- On Benedict Anderson (5.18. 2016)
+ Tim Ferris
- With Krista Tippett Calming Philosophies for Chaotic Times (2.21.2017)
Anyone with ears or eyes knows of Tim Ferris and his 4 hour work week. I’d never encountered his work before, only the promos. This was a most enjoyable interview which runs about 2 hours that I listened to lying in bed one afternoon at the beginning of what has lately blossomed into bronchitis.
+ BBC World Service, In The Balance
- The End of Ownership (4.3.2017) [Notes on the Circular Economy]
+ Intelligence Squared, Yuval Noah Harari
Myths we need to survive
+ Inside Out
+ A New Story for Humanity: Change the Story, Change the World (Findhorn, 1h42″), which you can read about here.
+ Mozart in the Jungle
The sun was out and a stiff breeze blew as I crossed the bridge to the library to pick up some books for the weekend. I noticed the flags were flying at half-mast and in a flash remembered that it was the 3.11 memorial day for the East Japan disaster of 2011.
I was out walking that afternoon and this, riverside. To be in the presence of water – life giver & death dealer – seemed right. My spontaneous prayer was a quiet walking meditation along an enchanted, little-used path that touched, as I was capable of sustaining the images, on catastrophes of scale utterly beyond my understanding.
In my mind, somewhere, somehow, I re-see the roiling black waves, living nightmares, looming over seaside towns up east, insatiable, leaving profound devastation in their wake. Is this a face of God? The elemental face of the Deep, beyond our human ken?
In my body, I register the way the light shines, the luminous jade colour of the riverbed, and I catch sight of the little placidly paddling nutria pup hoving into the sparkles under the overhanging boughs, beside the scrubby, sun-bleached pale yellow reeds. Easy to feel the Presence here. Even to exalt.
Miroslav Volf recently tweeted:
Our task is not to save the world; only God can do that.
Our task is
to protect and enhance flourishing life
in a world we cannot save.
I was struck, and a little annoyed (feeling I should know), by the question: What does ‘save’ mean here? . Keep the same? Rescue? (From what/whom? For what/who?) Is the message emancipatory, hopeful? Something about limits? Does it have anything to do with its Latin roots in ‘health’ (salvus) or its other cognate, ‘holiness’? Is the message meant to be anti-hero/anti-individualist, inviting a non-zero sum play, instead?  Not, of course, that the positive task of protecting and enhancing the flourishing of life is for sissies. But, inescapably, for me, at least, when I think about what it could mean to ‘save the world’, it is to that benighted figure from the myths, Sisyphus, that my mind goes.
I wondered, watching as much as I could, my collar soaked in tears, the deeply terrifying National Geographic-edited live footage of the disaster: What is saving for? Why save? What is worth saving? Is what is saved unchanged and/or unchanging? How does one live, being saved, with trauma? In certain lights the answers present with absolute clarity. One saves because one chooses Life. Perhaps what troubles me is the assertion that our work is not to save the world. That ‘the world’-whatever that means- cannot be saved, by us (be made to conform to our fantasies?) seems evident. On the other hand: who else is there, to meet it, as it is, in the vein of St.Teresa of Avila, but us?
Something Dame Ellen MacArthur said in a recent interview stuck in my brain: deep water is safer than shallow. This burrowed in as I read more about tsunami. When the conditions are bad, the advice goes, move either to higher ground or further away (inland or toward the horizon), or into deeper waters, the deeper, the better (it’s friction that increases the devastating power of the wave). 
There are times when it appears we can do things to be savable. Equally, there are times when we cannot, and we sink. It may be terrible this self-emptying, responding to what we do not choose, what we do not will for ourselves. To answer with surrender means a rejection of what we may have once imagined as true of saving and of safety. It is, essentially however, an expansion. A busting of limits. The submission represents, paradoxically, a leap, beyond, into the Unknown. The act of surrender moves us out of shallow waters, farther from the shore and into the deeps. Then what? I like to think, and hope, that the saving graces here continue to unfurl, even while they happen off the page, underground, in darkness, outside of the range of human comprehension.
Volf is right about one thing: while we can, let us choose Life, and in any way open to us, protect and enhance flourishing.
 A quick look in a dictionary calmed me somewhat. It is a word with a lot of meanings.
 Robert Wright describes the non-zero sum game as the kind in which everyone’s interests are aligned, so that everyone wins or loses together. Wright argues that history tends towards more and more non-zero-sum co-operations and higher … levels of social complexity. See Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap, 41-2.
 I blush to think how closely this aligns with my reflexes where conflict is concerned. There is useful friction, we can agree, I think, and then there is the corrosive and ultimately destructive kind. Discernment advised!
In English, they can sound almost the same, fate and faith, but a little better familiarity with Latin would have tipped me off to their quite different roots. Still, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the concepts that these two words carry for a couple of weeks, where faith is likened to doing (it is something we practice, or cultivate) as opposed to fate, not doing (something we are subject to, powerless to influence). The tension grew after I was introduced to this captivating, rustic gentleman, Masanobu Fukuoka.
Watching this lovely, old, long white-bearded grandpa claiming that we ought just to relax and let nature take its course, and simply do what needs to be done and then take a nap, I was, I admit, quite drawn to the message. I don’t know that I could actually surrender enough to do it; I imagine it would make me anxious after all these years of learning to work in my community. Still, wouldn’t it be something to try? I mean, it gets to the heart, doesn’t it—What Is A Life?—and it throws into question all the restless questing we become attached to as grown-ups. Then I began to wonder: was Fukuoka’s approach not simply fatalistic? Or was it, in fact, a portrait of abiding trust? Possibly, why not, it was (most likely!) a mix of both. (10” video)
“The ultimate purpose of farming is not the cultivation of crops,” Fukuoka claimed, “but the cultivation and perfection of the human being.” A similar comment might be made about the study of the humanities: it’s not about the job or the status or the money, it’s about learning how to be human, to be natural, related, a human being. Is this what the Gospel verse printed on our University stationery meant to convey? I was sardonically amused when I laid eyes on it: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin …’ Was this pretty message, couched in flowers, meant for the women of the society in which I teach? Or was there, perhaps, a deeper truth waiting to be recognised?
When I watch the little old man surrounded by aliens from the cities looking to be restored rolling seed balls, I think about education and about the ways things spread; how we spread ourselves. As teachers we are putting a whole bunch of different seeds (whose riches contained we trust cannot be destroyed by hungry critters, real or figurative) into a package that will be flung out into society, lay on the earth for a time, and, if/when conditions are right for flourishing, begin their sprouting.
Yes, I know, this is dreamy. In dreams, though, is where the quickening seed engages the tension between faith and fate. We hold each, or both, by heart; this much is apparent when we choose to respond. We do well to remember what David Steindl-Rast teaches:
“The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.”
What of the world has touched me this day? What, gratuitously, has reached me? Via all my preoccupations and distractions, what have I allowed in, registered? What grace have I mindfully received? To what and to whom have I given my attention?
These have been the questions that have been informing my way of late. It used to be that I kept a list of all that I did in a day. I tried that for almost a year in an effort to discover how it was at the end of a day I was utterly spent and with no memory, let alone satisfaction, of how I had become that way. So, I kept a list. Looking back over that list did not make my heart sing, however, not at all. Who cares, I thought? Not even me: all the things I did. It was a little misery-making to realise this, I confess. Papers marked, grades logged, meetings attended, classes taught, papers written, emails sent, phone calls made, bills paid, swims swum, walks walked (OK, that last one I do care about.) It seemed an experiment that bore no fruit, no nary a blossom.
At bottom I was haunted by that line of Annie Dillard’s ‘How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.’ (A reflection on this very question, is here.) I guess one of the reasons I decided to keep the list was to see how I was spending my days, my hours. I wanted to see if I could get a peek at something bigger than my sense of fragmented business. I wanted to make sense.
The alternative practice I started at the new year, based on the questions (above), can be seen to be somewhat (informally) connected to the Ignatian examen (which I’ve never really been able to get into).This way is, I feel, a focus more on being (attentive) than on doing. In one sense it is effortless; in another it requires a certain orientation of mind, a certain alignment of intention, an attunement to divine frequency. Into a notebook I’ve begun to write down the things that penetrate the fuzz, or buzz, of living. Mostly I’ve noticed that they are sensory charges. Detonations in the routine hum-drum. Poetic Instances. The cold, sweet sip of water in the middle of the night; the fragrance of slow-cooked hot sweet potatoes bought off the wagon in the shopping street; the sweetness of a mikan eaten while soaking up the sun; watching an earthshine moonset from my apartment window, a new moon accessorised by bright Venus in a two-tone sky of peach and gradated blues; the sound of my keys thunking into the ceramic bowl as I return home.
Oh, blessed asymmetry of life!
This day of ashes and of earth is a reminder: we are home. Being with this, orienting around it, encouraged and inspired by all the gifts I am sensing along the way, these things really do make the heart sing.
Here are a few things that I have given my attention to in the past week. They concern language & ways of thinking about the world; decolonising the mind; dreaming of a world without borders; a great piece on cognitive biases and a rich, rewarding interview with Giorgio Agamben.
Also, I’m been experimenting with a new (to me!) little app called Padlet. Tap on the link below. (Here’s hoping what’s supposed to happen, happens… 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.