Stars in my Pocket (1)

New Moon tomorrow, according to EarthSky, and now’s the time to keep watch for Alpha-Boo (Is it a rapper? No, it’s a.k.a Arcturus), the spring star, Guardian of the Bear.

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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… 🙂

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P.I., Opening

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.”

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

 

Pick Up Lines, 4th quarter, 2016

Two things I’m thinking about as I write this final book blog post for the year:

• It might be the cover that makes you pick up the book to hold it; you might scan the blurbs and the names who contributed said blurbs…but it is the first lines, surely, that decide you. What did the writer do with that blank page that invited you in?

• Also: libraries! What a magnificent idea and institution! That a community, a municipality or a town would fund and encourage reading, by allowing its members to borrow books and that this would be so intrinsically valuable that you would honour this civil contract as an unquestionable good. The library is a marvel for which I am perpetually grateful. 

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As the fourth quarter of reading began I returned to Stalinist Russia, to Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. It begins: It happened in the middle of wartime, on a station platform as flat and dusty as the endless plain surrounding it. It was a slim pick, as I was busy with other writing and needing something for those evening times when I wanted to forget the world of work. It was a provocative ‘fictionalised biography’ (so I’ve learned the genre is now called) of Dmitri Shostakovich. (I’ve been trying to work out how or why most biographies are not regarded as fictionalised?) Turns out this ‘fictionalised bio’ was the second such I’d read in the year, the first being Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein. By the end of it, I was ready to steer around stories of suffering artists under crazy, dangerous politics.

Why not something closer to heaven, next? I picked up and, after 100 or so pages, also gave up on, Arcadia by Iain Pears, because it was just not right for the time. It required too much of a kind of attention I then did not have the energy to give it. Have picked it up for the holiday pile and have downloaded the app for it, too. Looking forward to getting back to it.

Next was In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which begins: I want to cross a small lake. It is a collection of essays detailing the author’s internal journey of learning to fully inhabit a foreign language. Lahiri, in Rome, learns to live (and write; I mean really write!) in Italian. The left page is in her original Italian; the right is in English translated by Ann Goldstein (and, interestingly, not by the author, a choice explained in the foreword). Thoroughly enjoyed this collection. So much rang so true to my own experience living outside my native language environment (though Lahiri’s devotion to her studies & her deep project are incomparable to mine, I confess! ). This is the first of Lahiri’s that I’ve read. Next, of hers I’d like to read is The Lowland. Her writing is elegant, light and beautiful. Just so.

I read A Midsummer’s Equation, by Keigo Higashino (trans. Alexander O Smith) which opens with the central character, a child, on his way out of the city.  Kyohei found the transfer gate from the bullet train to the express line without any difficulty, and by the time he ran up the stairs to the platform, the train was already there. It was quite a quick read and I was gratified by the central theme of resistance to an environmentally destructive project that was about to spoil an old fishing village. Such news seldom makes it to the international (or English medium) papers so I was glad to see this dealt with in (international) fiction. It was set in summer and I liked being there in my imagination. The little fellow, Kyohei, was a great and well-voiced character. I thought the translation was great, too.

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison, begins: It’s not my fault. If you read this book, and you should, be prepared to carry its resonance. That sounds like a threat, perhaps, but you cannot (shouldn’t?) come to this writer’s work casually and you cannot leave it unchanged. I’ve not read all that much of Morrison’s fiction, I realise as I write this. (I think I may have been carrying resonance from what I have already read!) She is august, almost formidable, and I know, and am reminded reading this one, soul-stretching. Everything I want to write about her capacities veers toward the superlative … I don’t need to convert you, if you know her work. This work is profoundly human (is that the artist’s essential skill? There’s little you don’t recognise in it as, if not reflective of a piece of you, then somehow and amazingly, true to life.) It was utterly wretched in some parts and quietly uplifting in others. Above all, because of its humanity, it is hopeful and it gave me hope.

>>> Post-script insertion. How could I have forgotten?! After the Morrison I read the Australian writer, Gail Jones’ Sixty Lights, which was also a woman-centred story. It opens with an epigraph by Eduardo Cadava, There’s never been a time without the photograph, without the residue and writing of light. It’s an arresting and beautifully written novel of becoming that takes place on three continents and is, on a deeper level, a mediation on seeing, on light, on photography. I copied out many passages from this book and it continues to swim about in my imagination. I remember the word ‘maculate’ from it; something true to life, that seems accidental, but that piques interest and has in it a sort of strange beauty that you don’t expect. <<<

How to choose a book after that? All I could think was to enter another world, entirely! I picked up The Girl of Fire & Thorns, by Rae Carson, with an eye out for new titles to use for my YA literature seminar. Gobbled this up in a few days reading with the same intensity and pleasure I used to as a child when days were unending. It was really well done, I thought, and thoroughly enjoyable. It begins: Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. This opening line signals what turns out to be a strong spiritual line throughout which I suppose could be risky, but was well done. I really liked the story and the characters and the relationships. I think it’s a great YA book and a delightful princess story for our age.

(As a P.S. on the princesses for our age, I enjoyed watching this short video of Jeanette Winterson at work with children rewriting Cinderella on the wonderful BBC series, 100 women. )

ON THE HOLIDAY PILE

Arcadia, by Iain Pears. Imagine a landscape.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan Lost in the shadow of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thein. In a single year, my father left us twice.

Cobra, by Deon Meyer. The rain drummed down on the corrugated iron roof. 

Silence & Beauty, by Makoto Fujimura.

Riches Restored

I went to the convenience store around the corner from the university to pay a bill a few days ago. It was busy: customers milling about waiting in line, stock being shelved and one woman at the cash register working heroically to pick out exactly the pieces of oden (kind of steeped veggies, a winter favourite of many) desired by the woman whose turn it was. Within moments the cashier realised there was a back up and summoned help. I was next in line. Sorry, so sorry, said the woman helping me. It had only been a few minutes and, cold outside, so it was kinda nice to be in a warm spot. Paid the bill and in deference to the busyness of the store, skedaddled as soon as I had, mutual thanks shared.

 
The following day, a colleague popped by my office and asked if I had gone to the convenience store the previous day. Odd question, but yes, I had, I told her. Oh, good, said she. It is you! She explained that she, too, had dropped in after work & had been accosted by one of the cashiers in a terrible twist who had served ‘a foreigner’ and forgotten to give her the change she was owed! Well, said Kaya, what was she like? Friendly. Nice woman. Comes in every once in a while. Is she a teacher at your campus? There are only two of us (friendly & non-Japanese women) on our campus, so that did narrow the possibilities, and I was found!

 
I went around yesterday afternoon to finish the business and got the “Full Monty Japanese Apology” which consisted of sincere apology and the deepest, most polite bowing. I confess I tried to get in on the apology a little, since I had been in a bit of a hurry, too, and truth be told, was none the wiser about not having received my change – but soon realised that this was not the way to relieve the tension that had built up over the error, as the bows deepened & the voice tightened; ownership of the mistake seemed precious and fragile territory. Well, alright, I thought, we’re not going to share this. It’s no problem, I said. Thank you. Please accept, she added, handing over a large box of cookies, this token of our remorse for the mistake.

 
I left the store with the twenty bucks we’d failed to exchange, a big box of treats (fortune cookies, img_0618perhaps, for they were labelled with an inscrutable verse-like proclamation) but also, and most priceless of all, a heart warmed and filled with joy.

 

 

It turned out that manifold riches had been restored.

Now, that’s what I call customer service!


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Light *is* the signal in transition

Her autumnal splendour has been let go. The tapestry is unravelling. The oranges deepen, the now-rare reds shock, the golds look threadbare but the browns emerge all the richer in this warm late autumn sunlight. Underfoot, on my walking paths, there are carpets of multicoloured leaves, star-lit by the ten thousand fallen momiji [Japanese maple] leaves.*

Fluffy, nodding paintbrush heads, white and luminous in the afternoon sun, was it you who painted the sky and the river-mirror so flawlessly blue today?

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I’m sitting on a boulder, my eyes resting on the river, admiring the reflections of the Goddess Tatsuta** as she lounges voluptuously looking for all the world just like the hills. I’m listening in my earbuds to a lecture given a month or so ago in London by an intellectual, a global (or as he might prefer, ’cosmopolitan’) soul. I like his work, but this lecture is nothing to write home about. I enjoy the Q & A. I have to listen in different ways living in a non-native language environment, so I find myself especially admiring of the listening and interpretive skills of the audience, and also the warmth and humour evinced in Prof. Appiah’s responses.

The scrubby shore opposite does not engage my attention until out of the stillness and quiet the watery mirror at my feet briefly shatters – then mends, in a trice, -and a kingfisher flies fish-laden and free. I watch it with pleasure lunching in the dense undergrowth. Oh, little messenger, amphibious winged jewel, my heart always thrills when you break through into my awareness!

Looking downstream I see a fly-fisherman, his silvery web-like line flicks in the air, folding momentarily before falling lightly to rest on the surface of water, which, at a distance blackens, bronzes and flashes golden in the changing angle of light.

Later, walking back from an errand to the post office in my neighbouimg_1532rhood, hemmed by the buildings on the street, my eyes are drawn up again to the sky. To the north, hillward, clouds in shades of mauve and pink and softest grey station above and I cannot help but think with awe and gratitude: what an elegant planet we inhabit! What a universe! Arriving home, there is cause for rejoicing to the west. What had seemed a rather flat and mundane sunset as I departed had transformed into a blazing glory. Whoever knows what ignites the world of beauty and my response to it? My heart was opened, ready and grateful for it.

All this imagery, consoling and beautiful, I am recalling in my first thoughts of the morning after I hear, across the valley, and through the leaf-shorn trees, on a clear brisk morning, the 6 o’clock clang of  temple bells. I have been in a state of reverie, contemplating Initial Conditions since December started and I have found that this attention is bearing sweet fruit. I don’t know where things begin exactly, but I often imagine the dark as divine incubator of the new, and in this season, this year, I am drawn to contemplating what it means to be, in the words of Donna Haraway, in this essay, a ‘compost-ist.’

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*Heads up for the coming Geminid showers!

** The goddess, or princess, Tatsuta, is the Japanese personification of Autumn.

The End of November (By Golly!)

As I look back over the month of November, trembling, like the last of the autumn leaves before it crosses into December tomorrow, I am aware of feeling the quiet, the necessary quiet I have entered, perhaps a kind of repentance, perhaps a kind of sorrow, settle.

I have held in my mind this month a sentence from Intuition of the Instant, an essay by Gaston Bachelard, that reads ‘There is but one general law in truly creative evolution—the law that an accident lies at the root of every evolutionary attempt.’ This I find hopeful. For accident, you could substitute the words mistake, disruption, trauma, brokenness. When everything we thought we knew shatters . . . well, as mystics have expressed it, and so memorably did our contemporary, Leonard Cohen, ringing the bells that still could ring: ‘There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’

I’m thinking of hope, as one does at Advent, and of my friend Mags’ short reflection on this. She writes that the way things look does not encompass the whole reality. That is emerging in you and being shaped and influenced by your heart and mind, your actions, your choices, your awareness of all the ways your very being is inter-dependent and part of a marvelous, complex whole.

I’m also thinking of my blogging friend Fran’s post-Camino Advent reflections, Waiting in Motion, which have made me remember a lesson about this that I learned kayaking last summer. I was out in the lake a ways and had to turn back to get back before dark. The wind had picked up and what was a swift doddle out into the deeps became, on return, more of an effort. It would be in my nature to work hard at it but I switched on a different response and decided to just take it easy. I paddled and paddled and paddled. I decided to try not to try, not to wear myself out: and, slowly but surely I got closer to the shore. As I was resting from all that paddling somewhere in the middle of nowhere out there, a divine lightbulb illuminated. Ha! Persist, but soft and gentle – it still gets you where you want to be. This insight has occurred to me, too, swimming laps at the pool.I sometimes wonder: Am I almost there, yet?  I am so bored! I am sick of this. Lap after lap. And then I watch the Ancient Ones at it*, slow (and I mean slow!) and steady, and I remember myself.

I have taken a few (too few!) enjoyable, autumn walks in painterly light but it has been a ferociously busy month of teaching, meetings, conducting and marking early entrance examinations, working on a translation of a local nineteenth century children’s literature writer with a colleague, organising for a new stream in the department, preparing for (at least one) possible/likely new course in the new academic year, and attending an academic meeting in which one of the foremost Endo scholars (another colleague) talked about his work for the opening of the movie Silence in Japan.

As part of my own silence I borrowed a stack of books from the library and have, for the moment, forsworn the ‘news’ in favor of literature. And jolly good it is, too. (Final Book Review, Pick Up Lines IV, forthcoming in a month or so). I signed up for Spotify which has only recently come to Japan and have been enjoying that service immensely. I enjoyed a terrific night out with friends last Sunday at a saké bar I’ve never been to and would never, ever have been able to find had not one of the party been before. It’s a gem of a place hidden down a dark alley with no signage at all. Inside, it’s small, cozy, warmly-lit and stylish. The food was good, the saké delicious. Perhaps the best highlight of an otherwise tough month was my visit to the annual Japanese traditional craft makers’ exhibition. It is a feast of color and shape and texture that leaves me swirling in the happiest of dreamy states. I love that it exists. I love that artists are still making beautiful, remarkable and oftentimes, surprising, things. Kimono, ceramics, lacquerware, metalwork, wood-work were the main categories and there was delight to be found everywhere. The kimono section remains my favourite. Going with a dear friend who has a respectable collection of kimono herself along with a deep knowledge of the craft was the best! Who could fail to be imaginatively transported by clothing whose names and appearances suggested things like: ‘Asking Questions of the Sea’, or ‘Traces of Wind’, or ‘Fireflies in the Evening’, ‘Among the Clouds’, ‘Fragrant Road, Early Morning’, and ’To a Faraway Place’? It was just the kind of light I needed!


* My gym is on the top floor of an seniors’ center.

The Music Inside

Entering the forest, I see, out of the corner of my eye, from a small, black, smoldering corner in a patchwork of golden rice fields, a thin, blue-grey tendril of smoke wafting upward. It is one of the first fields to have been harvested, the remnants of the grains, a burnt offering, gently smoking. 

A pristine autumn afternoon has drawn me out to play and packing up my work at the University at warp speed, I’ve come out to the foothills for a slow meander. I’m thinking of the harvest as I sit alone in the forest in the middle of a magical arena bordered by tall trees. It is shady here, and cool. Above, astonishing blue and on the still-green tree tops, the afternoon sun pours on a layer of warm, caramel sweetness. Amid the deep, gathering shadows, the sun peeks in and I think of the lights along the way that have startled my senses: haphazard fields of multi-hued cosmos and the bright orange of fully ripened persimmons that hang on the gnarled branches of the Sarah-aged trees, vivid zinnias, the almost neon green-yellow of the heavy-headed soon-to-be-shorn rice fields.

The turn is not far off. The cool fresh air that caresses my face assures me of this. Being present to the harvest, the turn of the trees, the changing angle of the sun, the tilting of the planet: what a beautiful thing! And to think back, to recollect, in these moments of tranquillity, how I have spent the summer months, the oft-cloistered, first peak of my yearly activities. (The unpleasant heat & humidity of full-on summer here coincides with the end of semester, exams & the reading & research break from teaching that follow, the latter for which I usually escape to cooler, more northerly climes.)

Vermont is the Lake in all its moods, sunsets, the cabins, friends, craft beer. It is reading, kayaking, and star gazing. It is kingfishers, herons, and white sails. It is summertime. It is food from small farms on the islands, sold by the people who raise and husband the crops and the animals. It is Adirondack chairs (gazing over the lake at part of the range of that name), bonfires and walks along wooded paths and stony shores. Also then comes the time of the first yellow leaf falling.


I’ve been thinking a lot about time. I do when the seasons are marked. I want to love time; I want to recognise it as gift and appreciate it as such, because so often, instead, I struggle with it. (Or perhaps I struggle with my understanding of it? Why do I love it best when I am least, or un-conscious of its presence?) You know that to struggle with time is to struggle, in some ways, with life: it is a dimension fundamental to human awareness. One of the projects I’ve been working on lately has given me a helpful breath of inspiration, one that counters my perception of, after Mandelshtam & latterly Barnes writing on Shostakovich, the so-called ‘Noise of Time’.* It concerns time conceived not as irrevocable flow but rather as Poetic Instant (à la Gaston Bachelard in The Intuition of the Instant.) It’s a real mind-changer and, of course, once you tune in to the idea, you start becoming aware of these glorious instants everywhere; the character of Time is quite – refreshingly! – changed. More on that in another post.

Here I only meant only to gather, briefly, in a small bundle, the nodding stalks of my own summer’s harvest of memories. My old home computer is on its last legs and is giving up the ghost in no uncertain terms (I’d like to go out on a spinning rainbow ball, if I could, though, wouldn’t you?) . . . Things will continue on the blog in quiet-ish mode until a replacement is procured, in due course. Blogging on a tablet is not a preferred option. Still, I did want to pick up the thread now that the new season’s opening and my favoured contemplative & ‘soleful’ (walking) activities resume.

The farmer walked slowly backward facing the hills, toward the setting sun, his lit torch touching the ground at intervals. This ‘kiss of fire’ worked with the alchemy of the setting sun to make magic with light and shadow, with the living and the harvested. The whole field would soon be quietly ablaze. Soon the foliage will follow. Rows and rows of blackened stems and I am thinking of the lady Demeter and her abducted child and I am thinking this is exactly the right season in which to listen to some requiems – a beautiful music, a heart rhythm to accompany our mourning, or our slowing down and deepening, music that reminds us we are human, with limits and the glorious capacity to change. If autumn teaches us a pattern, I’ve always thought that it is that beauty precedes the darkness that ushers in change…

‘What could be put up against the noise of time?’ Barnes’s Shostakovich reflects at the end of the book.

‘Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.’

______________

* Julian Barnes’ fictionalised bio of Shostakovich is called The Noise of Time, a title that comes from an early autobiographical prose work by the poet Osip Mandelstam, Shum vremeni (1925), where the shum in question is the noise or disturbing clatter of an age whose clamorous demands drown out the voice of the individual. 

Pick up lines (Part III, Autumn edition)

Pick up Lines, Part 3 – Autumn edition

Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, (“He had four names at various times.”) continued my Russian streak of novels. It was a strange and wonderful book which will appeal to people with an interest in embodied spirituality and, well, to say ‘religious life’ may be misleading if you already have ideas about what this means, but I think it fits. 
The translator, Lisa Hayden, has received awards for her work rendering the narrative from Russian to English. It was said to have been phenomenally difficult because of the range of registers used. (Modern English doesn’t really do registers, but Japanese does and so I have a sense of how mind-bending the task of translation must have been!) As I was reading I was thinking about the translators of the previous Russian works I’d read (Arch Tait and Polly Gannon of Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein and The Big Green Tent, respectively) because in places the language felt a bit jarring or uneven. In retrospect, though, it’s fair to note that neither of them had quite such tricksy narratives to work with.
Vodolazkin, a medieval scholar, writes in a fascinating way about the nature of history and time. I found this a very engaging part of the novel. I have not seen, I think, a better, starker, and more unromanticised portrait of a Holy Fool than he writes. It is bonkers and it is quite brilliant. 
One of the criticisms of the book that struck me was calling it ‘hagiographical’, as if that were a bad thing. I don’t really get that. I found it a compelling exploration of goodness.

  • Talk by Rowan Williams on TED about Laurus – here
  • More info about Vodolazkin – here. An essay he wrote about the Holy Fool is here.

I was ready for some women in my fiction next, but I picked up Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (“At least he was well dressed.”) because I needed something a little less deep and demanding. That is what I got. This is Mukherjee’s first novel. It was an easy read, a detective story set in colonial India that put me in mind of McCall-Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, or the Death in Paradise tv series. 
Note to book blurbists: ‘Unputdownable’ is not a rave. It is not flattery; it is damning with faint praise and it is lazy. It is a word reviewers should put out to pasture, or better yet, somewhere the sun don’t shine. 
A Rising Man is not a book to be taken too seriously, I suppose, but I confess I felt needled by the racism of the colonials and uncomfortable with the accuracy of the mimicking that this Anglo-Indian man (Mukherjee) ventriloquized (is that a word?). My first, unfiltered inner response was that the absence of irony (at least!) was a betrayal of his ancestry. There was a serious, upstanding, slightly comical Indian character who, it turns out, was the moral centre of the narrative. Mention was made of Gandhi’s resistance and this layer of the story, the heart of it, I thought, was good and regrettably underplayed. Keeping it light seemed to have been a priority.
This may be an interesting text to put into conversation with the big questions that have recently been raised in the Lionel Shriver debacle in respect to cultural appropriation.
(On Shriver, I liked this column by Kenan Malik. I am also going to listen to The Mindfield podcast on ABC on this topic because those blokes are thoughtful and smart and provocative.)

I stayed in pre-partition India for the next read which was Black Narcissus (“The Sisters left Darjeeling in the last week of October.”) by Rumer Godden. I read In This House of Brede a few years ago and loved it and had wanted to read more of Godden’s work. Godden was English and raised in Indian South East Asia (whose boundaries changed in the C20th) and by all accounts she was a fascinating woman. This book was first published in 1939. It has the manners of the time, evident in the characters, cultural expressions and the writing style.
What was particularly engaging about it for me were the questions about mission that it raised. (I’m always trying to understand this better, being where I am, doing the work I do.) The story centres on a group of British sisters who are given a place in the mountains of India and set up a community there. 
I appreciated the less abrasive and insulting attitude to difference in this book. I suppose that is to be expected as the tone will depend on where the centres of power lie. In the former, it was in law enforcement; in the latter, the church. Baldly speaking, there was a preponderance of men in the one story and of women in the latter. There was one very good character drawn in BN, a foil, who encouraged the reader to think about ways of being foreign.
The story invites the question: what is the work of mission? If we agree that it is, plainly, to reflect the love of God and to be open to a range of reflections of the love of God, how are the powers of race, nationality, culture and language accommodated and integrated respectfully? Is the work of mission also about being, in some sense, ’change agents’? It is right to ask of change: Of what, of whom and by whose authority? I wondered, too, and this is a perpetual sort of a question on the dynamics of giving and receiving: How do you remain true to your roots while doing the work of mission? How do you proportion what is held to be precious and true of the self and also let go parts of the self for the good of the work? Do good missioners have to submit to conversion by their host community? (I suspect so.)

The fourth book I read over my summer break was The Amber Shadows (“Damned Engines.”) by Lucy Ribchester. I’ve not quite finished it and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I have been scrimping on it a bit in the last few days because I need it to accompany me in the wee hours when the jet lag has me wakeful. Alas, though, it is not long for the shelf. Its setting is Bletchley Park in World War 2 and what drew me to the book was the work of cryptanalysis. It has been a cracking good read!