Tag Archives: thinking

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.

An old man leaning on a gate.

FROM MY WINDOW

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews — to contemplate —
Is it the sky above — the stones below?
Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate’er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

-Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, 1861-1907

The cabbage white lurches honestly.

FLYING CROOKED

The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? —
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

-Robert Graves

First I laughed out loud, and I know I was laughing at myself, because the poet had already communicated to me in the poem what he is quoted as saying at the bottom of the page of Poem A Day Volume 3: “Robert Graves discussed this poem in an unposted letter of 1933; he lamented that scientists ‘fail to understand that the cabbage-white’s seemingly erratic flight provides a metaphor for all original and constructive thought.’”

This particular cabbage white of whom I found a photo seems to be resting on a flower very similar to the one my recent honeybee was drinking from.

Thoughts in my heart and in a box.

A few months ago as I was following my usual route along the paved bike path, I heard hammering nearby, and peering through the trees across the creek I saw a man on the opposite bank working on some kind of cabinet. I stopped and called over to him and his wife who was nearby, “What are you working on?” and though we couldn’t see each other very well we raised our voices and they told me about their project and invited me to take part. Though the object of their carpentry had been in that place for many years, I’d never noticed it before, and from that day until now I never took the trouble to respond to their invitation.

This morning felt very leisurely to me, a day with no appointments or commitments, no one to care how long it took me to get home from my walk. I admired the field along one leg of my excursion…

… and when I started back toward the creek I thought again about that spot across the stream. The reason I hadn’t visited it in all these months is that it’s not easily accessible unless you live in the mobile home park on that side. By the time I find myself across from its approximate location and it comes to mind, I am usually far from a way to it. The people I met had built it with the residents of that community in mind: it’s a place for sitting and thinking and for writing down one’s thoughts, to add to the collection in the “thought box” they had built for their parents and other residents.

Steps lead down from that neighborhood, but the more obvious and public way to that destination is blocked by a chain link fence. Today I slowed down and kept my eye out for a way across the water to that side — in late summer there isn’t much flow — and I found a vague path through the foxtails and over the little stream across rocks that seemed to have been brought and piled in one area.

I climbed up to the unpaved path closer to the stream and soon reached the little meditation spot. The chair is upturned so it won’t collect dirt or rainwater.

The box has been fitted with a heavy lid, roofed with composition shingles ! and inside, bright velvet banners hang down from the underside of the lid. A ziploc bag holds 3×5 cards, some of which have been written on. I didn’t take the time to read on this visit. Maybe next time I will sit and ponder and write something myself.

As I went on my way and the yellowing leaves drifted down over my path, I remembered the first time I self-consciously felt the season changing and noticed the effect of the beauty of creation on my soul. I was eleven years old and maybe it was the first time I’d walked by myself down to the river that was about a mile from our house through the orange groves.

It was at this time of year, and some trees that may have been cottonwoods were blowing in the breeze. The water was low in the river, and the plants among the river stones were drying up. I walked very solitary along a dirt road that ran there, and I was glad.

I took no notes on that experience when I got home, I took no pictures. I just was, in the day. And the gifts of that holy afternoon became a part of my self and of my memory, so that I could receive them again this morning. God is so good to me! Maybe when I go back and put my thoughts in that box, they will be these thoughts.

When I got to the end of this path that I’d never walked on before, I was below the bridge that I normally would be walking on, in the spot where I one time looked down on women collecting watercress. And there was some watercress still, and a stretch of concrete by way of a ford over a second creek, leading up to the main path again.

In the jungle of plants down there I saw some bedraggled pennyroyal, one more surprise of the day.

 

“For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies;
Lord, our God, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.”