Category Archives: books

What’s blowin’ in the wind.

Rain, rain, rain! My biggest dodonaea or hopbush was blown over in the last storm. Alejandro came Saturday and Sunday to re-stake three of these bushes, just before this current storm arrived. I was so thankful to get them shored up before the next gale.

I stayed home all day today and did housework. Isn’t it fun, the way housework incorporates everything from book-mending to picture-hanging, laundry to cooking? I did all those things today, and more.

When I wanted to read a certain fairy tale to the grandchildren last week, I opened the anthology I grew up with, and the cover fell off – again. A decade or two ago I had duct-taped it together, and today I put everything back again with clear tape. Afterward I had to browse a few pages, of course, and wonder about how much of my philosophy of life and my ideas about various things might have been shaped by the words and pictures on those pages.

I’ve already written about “The Little Match Girl,” (eight years ago this month, I see!) but other fairy stories, poems and nursery rhymes had a big effect on me. The words generally impressed more than the pictures, as I developed the habit of devouring them greedily, not wanting to take time for the images. “Hickety, Pickety, My Black Hen” was the sole reason I kept black chickens when I was a grown-up lady, but I always envisioned straight black, not laced, feathers. I evidently ignored this drawing.

But – when I think of “Hansel and Gretel,” which I also loved, this is how those forsaken children look in my mind.

Some rhymes were so much fun they seemed to insinuate themselves into my consciousness without any effort:goops IMG_3158

 

In our family we were not coddled. I had little sympathy for the princess who was so thin-skinned and tender, but whose story I liked to read again and again, and to stare at the illustration, so simple and absurd:

Ah, “Over in the Meadow” —  This one, I’m not sure if I loved it as a child or only after singing it with my own children over the years. All the mothers and children in that rhythmic counting song make me feel cozy.

When I was leafing through these pages this morning I didn’t gravitate to the poems about rain and wind that are more in keeping with the season. We haven’t seen the sun for a couple of days, and are predicted to get six inches of rain before this three-day storm has passed! Right now the wind is howling and the rain clattering; this month has been an average of ten degrees colder than usual, too. I made a big pot of vegetable soup, and roasted another of my butternut squashes, and was grateful.

That’s the theme of the last page I am posting here, which was the first one I saw. It’s not one of the more familiar ones to me, looking at it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it in the book, and it started me on my musings. Father in Heaven, we thank Thee!

Simply lolling and not wasting breath.

A couple of weeks ago I was writing about the muddiness of the pool (my mind) in which all the rich material of Japanese history and culture has been collecting. I anticipated the waters clearing eventually making it possible for me to compose a book review or two by way of participating more fully than I yet have in the Japanese Literature Challenge.

But just as things were coming into focus, the body in which my mind resides became afflicted with a fat head cold. My head feels huge and achey and that makes it hard to think. After picking up one book after another this morning, reading a few lines, realizing that I was not interested, I finally lit upon a novel I was already a couple of chapters into, Kusamakura (also known as The Grass Pillow), as the one that was not too heady and not boring either. This book by Natsume Sōseki is nothing like his other novels, and it was meant to be a “haiku-style” novel, hearkening back to old Japan just as most writers were eagerly embracing western culture. He published it in 1906.

The narrator is taking a little holiday for the purpose of contemplating the beautiful. I have been enjoying his lighthearted philosophical musings and descriptions that are not too hard to engage with in my compromised state of mind.

This afternoon I was reading by the fire, and became so sleepy and warm, I kept nodding off, so I went up to my bed and lay in the cool room, continuing to find on every page his delighted descriptions of the beauty of the tea sweet, the silvery bamboo in the distance, the pleasant arrangement of the rooms of the inn, and the calligraphy on the wall. When his mind was briefly agitated he wrote haiku as a way to practice mindfulness and calm down, and it restored his sense of humor.

Our narrator is an artist, and he wants to paint many things he sees; other times he says that he feels that he is in a painting, because of the sublimity of the scene he inhabits. When I came upon this passage as I lay on my bed I really engaged with his mood:

“Drawing a picture feels like too much trouble just now, and as for coming up with a poem, my mind is already immersed in the poetic — to actually compose something would be merely a waste of breath. Nor do I have any inclination to undo the box of two or three books that I’ve brought along, tied to my tripod, and read. I feel perfect happiness simply lolling here on the balcony in the company of the shadow cast by the blossoms, my back toasting in the warm spring sunlight. To think would be to sink into error.”

For different reasons than this man, I’m sure, I have felt that my trying to write anything  analytical about my readings thus far would surely have been to sink into error. The risk of reductionism is more of a certainty than a possibility. Rather, I will try to follow his example and pay attention to each “thing” I encounter without worrying about how it’s related to all the others. I know I won’t be writing any haiku to distill my experiences, but after contemplating the literary scene it might happen that I find something to “paint” here.

The Japanese Literature Challenge is going through March. The books I still want to delve into more or finish are:

Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura
Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki
Deep River by Shusaku Endo
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
Modern Japanese Literature edited by Donald Keene

I realize that during this read-along, a few of the things I’ve been reading are in the non-fiction category, not the literature genre. I chose them in hopes of getting a little more background knowledge so that I could better appreciate the literature, and I’m content with how it’s going.

My brief exposure to the literary world of Japan has started me on a deeper study of broader and universal aspects of our humanity. But more on that later. Right now, I’m going back to the countryside of Japan where I can loll about and absorb some beauty. Come to think of it, I’ll put the kettle on and brew a cup of tea for good measure.

Japanese cats and poetic lives.

Yōko Sano was an award-winning Japanese children’s author and illustrator. I found out about her because until her death in 2010 she was the wife of Shuntarō Tanikawa, “one of the most widely read and highly regarded of living Japanese poets, both in Japan and abroad, and a frequent subject of speculations regarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.” (Wikipedia)

I read poems by Tanikawa that I liked, while reading a bit in the Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry, translated and compiled by Edith Marcombe Shiffert and Yuki Sawa. Here’s one:

PICNIC to the EARTH

Here let’s jump rope together, here.
Here let’s eat rice balls together.
Here I will love you.
Your eyes reflect the blue of the sky,
Your back will be dyed with the green of the herbs.
Here we will learn the names of the stars together.

Staying here let’s imagine all the things that are far off.
Here let’s gather seashells.
From the sea of the daybreak’s sky
let’s bring back the tiny starfish.
At breakfast we will throw them out
and let the night go away.

Here I will keep on saying “I have returned!”
as long as you repeat “Welcome back!”
Here I will keep on returning to again and again.
Here let’s drink hot tea.
Here sitting together for a while
let’s have the refreshing wind touching us.

I like to think he was writing this to his wife Yōko. She illustrated a volume of his poetry, but she is especially famous in the West for her own book The Cat That Lived a Million Times, which was the inspiration for one of my favorite movies, “Groundhog Day.”

The cat in the story, which I’ve only read about, because my library doesn’t have that book, is reincarnated again and again but never learns to love until he has a cat “wife” and family. This is a little different from Bill Murray’s character in the movie, because when the insufferably conceited Phil Connors is punished, he is forced to live the same day over and over again. He tries to escape by death but that is evidently impossible; eventually he gets over himself and is released from the torturous day.

I did borrow I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki from my local library. Its beginning chapter was the first short story that Sōseki ever wrote, and he intended for it to stand alone. But the editor of the magazine in which it was published — more than a hundred years ago now — persuaded him to continue it as a series, and that is how the novel was born. I did read that first chapter, but I don’t know if I will go on, much as I enjoyed the character of the nameless cat. My stacks of books from the broad genre of Japanese literature are tall, and life is short!

In the same poetry anthology mentioned above I read Makoto Ōoka, a contemporary of Tanikawa, and this evocative poem:

TO LIVE

I wonder if people know
that there are several layers in the water?
Fish deep in it and duckweed drifting on its surface
bathe in different lights.
That makes them various colored.
That gives them shadows.

I gather up pearls on a pavement.
I live inside a phantom forest;
upon notes of music scattered over the strings of my being.
I live in hollows of drops that trickle upon snow;
in damp ground of morning where the liverwort opens.
I live upon a map of the past and future.

I have forgotten the color my eyes were yesterday.
But what things my eyes saw yesterday
my fingers realize
because what my eyes saw was by hands
patted like touching the bark of a beech tree.
O I live upon sensations blown about by wind.

Cats do not seem to be a common subject for Japanese poetry. In two anthologies I didn’t find one on that subject, though at least two poems mentioned babies teething. To conclude my ramblings on my browsing I give you this 11th-century verse from One Hundred Poems from the Japanese translated by Kenneth Rexroth:

Involuntary,
I may live on
In the passing world,
Never forgetting
This midnight moon.

-The Emperor Sanjō

japanese moon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach”  by Kawase Hasui

It’s about light and seeing.

This was a Sunday extra-full of intellectual stimulation, so much so that I feel I must write in order to debrief and process the swirling thoughts. (The church property was also graced with thousands of manzanita blossoms, with which I am decorating my post.)

As I have mentioned before, we are reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis this year in the high school class that meets, as they all do, after we have partaken of the Holy Gifts, toward the end of Divine Liturgy. Today I was amazed at the scope of philosophy and questions we touched on in half a chapter of the book: What is a person? What purpose should art serve? How can we resist the urges from without and within to imbibe and conform to the culture we are born into?

The fictional story is of ghosts who get a chance at Heaven by taking a bus trip from Hell. They have been in the process of becoming more or less human for a long time. Is it hundreds or thousands of years? Hard to say. Our narrator’s guide by the middle of the book is none other than George MacDonald himself, who explains a great deal of what is going on.

About one ghost who appears to the narrator not to be really wicked, but only “into a habit of grumbling,” MacDonald says, “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one — still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

The blessed spirits journey for ages to meet the excursionists from Hell, and try to persuade them to cast off whatever hinders, and to stay in Heaven. Today’s reading included such an interview, between two men who had known of each other in the previous life, where they were both artists. When the ghost arrives, he looks around briefly and immediately wants to start painting.

“I shouldn’t bother about that just at present if I were you,” says the blessed spirit, and goes on to explain, “When you painted on earth — at least in your earlier days — it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came…. If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

I wonder if George MacDonald struggled to keep his artistic focus on “telling about light,” if he ever found himself writing for the love of his own voice and to promote his reputation as a writer and storyteller. If so, he must have noticed, and repented. The glimpses of heavenly realities he was able to give have helped thousands to keep their eyes toward their life-giving Lord.

As often happens, the homily we had heard an hour earlier contributed to our lesson. This time Father John was telling us about the word peculiar in the King James translation, used in I Peter when the apostle is speaking to us who have been “called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It comes from a Greek word that tells us we belong to God; we are possessed. We mused about how this fundamental truth about our personhood can help us to come back again and again to that light, His light, and not get distracted forever from our purpose, and from His life-giving Spirit.

I was not through being challenged to think, and to try forming my thoughts into speech fast enough to contribute to a discussion, because our women’s book club from church was gathering around my table mid-afternoon. We certainly didn’t need to eat, but you know how it is, one may rarely have a gathering of any sort in our society without serving food, and it is fun! …so I did put out a few snacks, and tea things and mugs.

We were discussing The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. A couple of the younger women had read it 20 years ago, and liked it then. But they have changed, and did not enjoy it much. None of us thought it was great, and I only read half, and won’t say more about it here. Next time we are reading Wounded by Love by Elder Porphyrios, picked from a half dozen suggestions of literary sustenance for our Lenten journey coming up in a few weeks.

Okay, now I’ve made my little report, and I hope I caught a ray of light somewhere in it. At least from the darling manzanita.