To Sit, To Breathe

Look what I found at a tag sale yesterday:

I’ve been thinking about meditation recently so this little zabuton is the perfect inspiration to get my ass positioned for a ‘sit’.  Reasons to do so are plentiful: relieves stress, inspires creativity and general well being.

Meditation is one of those things that I’m never sure I’m doing right. (Kind of how I often feel about writing…) Rationally, I know that this is nonsense-thinking, but still I doubt myself and I think I should really learn how do to this from a teacher. And then I remember Taniguchi-san.

In Kyoto in the 1980s, I met a Buddhist monk on a bus and we became friends. I initiated a conversation with the kind looking elderly man beside me (he was not in his robes so I had no idea he was a monk) because I was intrigued by the book he was looking at of these amazing little stone sculptures.

While in Kyoto, I fancied myself a sculptor and was so excited by these expressive, wacky looking little figures all lined up in endless rows that I said, “Summimasen, doko deska?” while pointing to his book.  Turns out, these nembustu were at a temple in Arashiyama not so far away. He introduced himself  as a monk who lived at a another beautiful temple and offered to take me to this place. Of course, I gleefully accepted his generous invitation.

A week later I met Taniguchi-san at his temple, Myoshinji .

We mounted bicycles and I pedaled furiously behind this 70+ year old gem, marveling for the millionth time at the wonderfulness of Kyoto. I’d been living there for over 3 years and had recently decided to move on.  Before I left, my new friend Taniguchi-san gave me a crash-course in meditating.

I met him on a beautiful spring day at Miyoshinji temple again and this time, I followed him inside to his quarters past simple gardens, silent but for the crunch of gravel beneath our feet, bees as we passed the cherry blossoms, buzzing in what seemed a chant. In a simple tatami mat room, Taniguchi-san talked about breath and paying attention.  Mind you, my Japanese was not great and he spoke only a smattering of English.  I searched my journals this morning to see if I’d made notes and found nothing. But I do have this:

As a parting gift, Taniguchi-san gave me this lovely stone – explaining I might, with eyes just ever-so-slightly open, focus on this rock. He knew I’d been inspired to come to Japan because of the rock gardens. For over 20 years this precious piece has graced my bureau.  I blew the dust off  setting off ripples of recollection as if this old stone had been tossed into the depths of my mind.  A cushion, a rock, a lesson remembered.  A return to breath.

Reason to Get Up in the Morning

Today I pushed the always-set alarm to ‘off’ and went back to sleep — something I never do. I might hit ‘snooze’ for a few extra minutes, but not ‘off’. I didn’t sleep for too much longer – it’s now just 8 AM. But most Sunday mornings, I’ve already dropped Molly at her job, gone grocery shopping and walked Tetley. Left to my druthers, I like to rise early — but there has been something vacation-like about this week with Molly away. And with her off to college in less than 2 years, it’s a taste of what awaits me. And yet…

The longing to take care of someone besides myself, hit me in my late twenties. I had been living in Japan only a month or so.

A cold morning in Kyoto, curled up in the warmth of a futon on the sweet smelling tatami-matted front room in Sarah‘s little house on Marutamachi Street. Sarah was away. There was no place I needed to go. No reason for me to crawl out of bed and get up in this unheated, empty house. For breakfast I would need to dash down the frigid, creaking hall to the tiny kitchen, light the kerosene heater and hover over a cup of tea and wait for my breath to disappear as the room warmed, but why bother? No one was expecting me to show up. Very few people in this country even knew I existed. So I stayed under the covers listening to the sounds of the narrow, busy street. High pitched greetings of women neighbors, grinding gears of trucks, dings of bicycle bells, customers announcing their presence in the tofu shop across the street. Noises of other people’s busy lives. No one waited for me anywhere, nor expected anything of me. I burrowed deeper into my futon with a new ache: a longing to be needed.

As Molly becomes more independent, I moan less about having to drive her places and welcome those moments together. Soon she’ll have her license and she’ll just borrow the car. With another year of high school, she’ll still need some prodding and sometimes, bullying awake in the morning. But not for that much longer. My daily tasks as a mother are changing, disappearing — and I recall the emptiness of a cold Kyoto morning.

Spring Rituals Remembered

February! Somehow, we’ve made it this far through winter and barely had snow or the cruel temperatures Europe and Russia are enduring. Already, there are signs of spring. On a quick walk through my yard yesterday I discovered green crowns of Hyacinth bravely starting to erupt. And in another sunny corner, spears of Daffodils are torpedoing through the dry leaves and dead grass. Strawberry plants look very green on the slope outside my driveway and there are already weeds encroaching on Lupine territory. Bitter cold and snow are likely still ahead, but days are longer and winter’s end is definitely in sight.

Nothing like flowers as harbingers of spring. In Japan, February is the time for Plum Blossom viewing. Crowds flock to parks or temples to really look at the Plum trees in bloom. When I lived in Kyoto, I used to pedal over to Kitano Shrine, lock my bicycle to a lightpost and join the throngs parading through the trees, admiring and of course, taking pictures of and with, the delicate Ume somehow already in bloomIt’s February remember, and still cold. But even bundled up against a bitter wind, clouds of breath lingering in the air, the promise of spring can be inhaled in those blooms and it’s impossible not to feel warmed and hopeful. A few thimble-size swallows of plum wine with friends helps too.

Also in Japan, February 2-4 is Setsubun; the last day of winter by the lunar calendar. Time for spring cleaning — and that includes getting rid of all the bad luck, illness and misfortune in your house, any remnants of the Oni – a kind of cute devil. Many Japanese in Kyoto visit a temple on the east side of town, Yoshida-jinja with calendars, papers, anything that symbolizes what they want gone, and throw it all into a huge bonfire that makes this usually staid place feel primeval. One year I went back early the next day before clean up, to see the broken, charred chotchke remnants still smoldering in the ashes. Isn’t this a fantastic ritual? A communal purging. I planned on taking care of some overdue house cleaning today anyway and am glad I remembered this festival. Now I feel motivated to clean house and tonight, will stoke up the fire-pit outside for a mini-Setsubun in Connecticut. ‘Oni-wa-soto, Fuku-wa-uchi’ (‘Out with devils, In with luck’)

News of the World

Disturbing world events cloud the bright spring light. Beyond sending money to the Red Cross and thoughts to affected friends, I feel powerless. Worried about Japan and now Libya and anxious for word on the 4 missing New York Times journalists, I check the news almost obsessively. In recent years, my dose has been kept to a minimum fix of BBC, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – but these days I find myself switching wildly between the network news stations. Tricky how commercials are timed to run simultaneously – the mute button the only way to avoid the advertising bombardment.

When I lived in Croatia and Bosnia, CNN and the British, Sky News were the only available international new sources.   I appreciate the 24 hour-ness of CNN – but what’s with the scary, music constantly playing as the news people talk? And the bizarre touch-boards of maps and charts? Colbert and Stewart have spoofed this high-tech nonsense, so now, when John King enlarges, shrink, circles and stars, images of the Japanese nuclear plants, it seems comical – although the subject is anything but funny. It’s too much – the constant sound effects and nerve wracking music amping us up to “Be afraid! Be very, very afraid!”, not so subliminally. Flipping over to BBC, a perfectly nice and normal woman with a too-shiny purple shirt (obviously, and refreshingly they seem to have no wardrobe people) sits at her desk and delivers the news, shifting, without fanfare, to field correspondents. No charts, no holograms. Same thing with the PBS stations – while sometimes soporific, they just present straightforward news. Everything is scary enough these day, we don’t need these guys yelling at us.

I feel a little guilty looking away from it all and feeling pleasure at the shift of the seasons out of winter. But there is so much to be done in the garden and family and friends need attention – and it is okay to feel the joy in this. Didn’t I learn that already? In any case, I need to catch up on things. Like clearing last year’s leaves, planning this year’s garden. And yesterday, I was reminded about — forgive me for being so mundane — clothing.

Although only March 18, yesterday turned into a weird, way-too-warm, too-early day. Dressing for work in the dark morning hours, I pulled on wooly socks, corduroys and a sweater. By the time I left the bookstore in the afternoon, everyone was in shorts and flip-flops. How did they make the switch from winter fleeces to summer frocks so quickly? My plastic bins of summer clothes are buried in the basement and the shifting-of-the-clothes is a major weekend undertaking.  Anyway, although I can see from my window, a patch of  daffodils in bloom, I am cautious and will not bury my sweaters just yet.


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