Outdoor living is coming in fits and starts now that it’s June. Last week it was in the 90’s (30C) and today it is gentle and cool with thunderstorms passing by north and south, bringing coolness in the wake of their stormy skirts. The sun shines but the thunder rumbles nearby and my cats retreat farther indoors to snooze on chairs instead of near windows.
It is tempting to join them. The heat break means that deep good sleep is possible again. Even with air conditioning, I sleep poorly when it’s hot. I sleep best when it rains.
And it has been raining at night but in great torrid thunderstorms where the house shakes and the windows rattle. Sometimes I lie in bed as the thunderstorms march by and wonder at the fate of all the creatures and people living outside.
It is summer and I have no arguments with it. It’s too hard to argue with the seasons. On the beautiful days, I sip my breakfast tea outdoors and watch the birds and squirrels to start my day. There’s always a drama playing out in the backyard. My favorite is the cardinal who walks along the deck rail, casting his bright black eye here and there and then breaks into song until a robin kicks him out. When the coast is clear, he returns and does the same thing all over again. Despite my nearness, he doesn’t mind me at all and I adore his bright red plumage and courageous laughing heart. His song cheers my soul and I’ve come to recognize his particular song. It falls under the same lines as all cardinals but it has a bit of improvised trill at the end. I think he’s been hanging out with song sparrows and got Ideas.
He’s a hard individual to photograph (all flash and movement) but I’ve shared a photo of a cardinal from National Geographic so you can get the idea. He’s hard to ignore and is a permanent on the robins’ blacklist. I aspire to such a level of happy insouciance.
How to get through a Big Book and have a little fun too.
- Make and eat food mentioned in the book (big books always include food, usually in meticulous detail).
- Read a little bit each day.
- Make a soundtrack.
- Dress like a character from the book for a day. Or a week. Or a month if it really grabs you.
- Ten minutes to kill? Daydream about the landscape or what the characters are seeing as they move through their day.
- Read passages you enjoy out loud. If you’re in the right mood, record yourself reading passages and share it (Instagram is great for this). Include illustrations if you like (thank you, Shirin).
- Whip out a highlighter or some sticky tabs for those great parts.
- Pace yourself and remember, reading gigantic books isn’t a race. It’s about the journey. Might as well bring along snacks, good drinks, great lighting, and enjoy the ride.
A big city not far from mine has a casino. I’ve heard a few stories from friends that have worked there. Most center on being treated badly by a customer and revenging themselves by throwing the customer’s car keys into the Fox River. Karma is enacted on a regular basis at the casino.
There’s something about that river, flowing by, murky green during the day and black at night, a bottomless pit for car keys.
The river divides the city in half, east to west. The Fox flows along the old warehouses, limestone and brick, built back when the city had manufacturing plants and industry. Now the warehouses sit sturdy and silent, crumbling ever so slowly. Their roofs are flat and give the illusion of brick walls running straight into the sky. Some were built like prosaic wedding cakes, higher and higher, until the final topping is small square with tiny windows. Industry has never been about aesthetic needs and wants. And yet by some miracle, these old turn of the century warehouses have achieved it just the same.
I observed the warehouses from the back deck of the riverside café, clutching my cup of earl grey and wishing I had put sunscreen on. It was the first time I had ever been to this café and I came because I needed a new setting for a fiction story I was working on. None of the cafes I remembered from the past were working for me. I needed this kind of café, one that hung out in an old manufacturing city where there wasn’t much industry left. There was, at least, a casino and many local businesses and this café hung on, here at the water’s edge.
A little further up was the casino where my friends had thrown those keys into the water. From my point on the deck, I could see the grimy metallic white heel of the building jutting out. Another friend told me that he goes there regularly to play black jack. It relieves stress and earns a little extra cash for his family.
The wind picks up a little and despite the sun, it’s chilly. Spring plays these tricks on us.
There is no sign of life in the warehouses all around me. We’re all boxed in together and the light plays off their empty windows, open and blank to the sun. I sip some tea and play “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin just to see if this café will work for my story. It only takes a few bars of listening to the song and I know that this place is perfect. This spot on the river is perfect for many stories. It’s been perfect for all the stories I know nothing about and the ones that I’ve caught the smallest glimpses of.
A mallard suns himself in the weeds that line the water’s edge. The river moves fast and sure and I turn off the music. No need to for further noise. The song is already there.
There was little snowfall this winter. When there isn’t a snowpack to melt in the spring, there is drought because the melting snow fills the rivers and creeks and creates spring flowers. So I thought this spring would be sad. It would be sad just like this election had been sad, the healthcare system in this country is sad, the state of the mental health of this nation is sad and so on and so forth. It would be one more thing.
But no one can predict the weather. It rained and rained at the start of this spring and the miraculous happened: flowers bloomed in a frenzy (it’s been a month and I’ve got the same tulips blooming still), trees let out baby leaves before I could blink and the grass roared to green life.
It is one of the greenest springs I have ever known. And now that it’s been going strong for a month, things are happening. The rain has not stopped and now blooming bushes are pulling down fences, sidewalks are disappearing under green and mud, lawns are growing faster than people can mow and the birds never stop singing.
During a walk, I passed by a young tree packed with chickadees. My husband thought the chickadees were cute (they were). I told him they were vying for territory, their cheeps filling the air with lust for power, trees, and land. And as I said these words, I thought of the few things we know about the Celtic pagan past and that this time of year was not a just sweet time but a pulsating, racing, hungry time. Nobody was full of food yet, that wouldn’t be until later on in the summer. The sun was coming back and people obsessively followed, traced, and urged along her every movement.
This is a season when the continuation of life hangs in the balance. Will the sun come back? Will the green come back? Will the birds come back? Will we survive into the next season? Will there be plenty or starvation ahead?
I sit down to eat breakfast and look out the window. In the garden, bleeding heart flowers cascade from slender green stems. Birds disappear in the riotous lawn only to reappear again as they wing upward and away. The maples unfurl their leaves in the sun while the red oaks are more steady, slow, and cautious. A faint, tender green line the tips of their branches. A small squirrel inches to the end of a slender tree branch and places maple tree helicopter seeds in her tiny cheeks.
It is drizzling out. The sky is heavy but in the gloom, the daffodils lining the chain link fence grow brighter. I thought they had been destroyed by early morning hail but it must have been heavy rain instead for they are jaunty as ever.
I read the news and within ten minutes, I stop and stare across the kitchen table, unseeing. Words course through my brain and I lose my self in them. The swirling words in my mind are moving so rapidly, it is hard to pick out one from the other.
I suffer from C-PTSD. It is not usual for me to disassociate. I often do so without noticing. The news is making me disassociate but I haven’t noticed this yet. I am lost within the funneling word storm.
My unseeing eyes flick towards the yard and the yellow in the daffodils’ skirts urges my self to emerge out of the abandon. The daffodils are calling me come back into the physical world. Anxiety, coupled with an internal deadness, start to slide out of my mind. I start to see but it is a struggle. Anxiety is a serious business and believes its cause is true. No doubt it is. But I have to let go because I can’t live here. No one can. I cannot have a self and reside in this place where words and images babble and scream. It will and is and has pulled me to pieces for years without ceasing.
I extend the trust that it is ok to come out of chaos and let myself look at the flowers.
We enter into the clear space together. The daffodils are my teachers, the illumination into a reality that has few words but is present in every line of plant, stone, green, sky, our very existence. It is a sort of “underworld,” a way of “seeing in the dark,” a place that poetry often seeks and sometimes finds, that other world associated with night and knowing. And here it is, in the heart of a daffodil, beckoning you and I out of mental hell, away from brains lit on fear and terror both for ourselves and others, making a space where we can regain the quietness that lies deep within the soul.
The daffodils were not shredding by hail this year. They called me away from dissociation and back into life.
I started a bullet journal last fall. Everything started out well: I had color coded charts, washi tape decorations on the pages, and all sorts of lists (like Emma Woodhouse, my list making game is strong. especially when it comes to books and movies). But then, the newness wore off as did the color coding and keeping track of every little goal I made. And then I started gritted my teeth whenever I opened my bullet journal. And then I started gritting my teeth whenever I thought of my bullet journal. And by then it was over.
I mulled over what went wrong. I knew it had to do with goals, the wretchedness of constantly trying to achieve goals and how the desire to meet goals can lead to hellish micro-management of life. It’s fortunate that life is much more than this. but from my bullet journal? It was hard to tell.
I’ve left a lot of empty journals in my wake but it was hard to abandon a journal with a such cute fox sticker on the cover. So I thought of a new idea and a few weeks ago ago, I gave it a try. I began to keep a list of all the things I enjoyed in a day. I recorded small happenings like the joy of listening to Oscar Peterson play the piano while I drank tea in the morning, eating a pork bánh mì sandwich from the local Vietnamese restaurant (don’t underestimate this sandwich), reading great new manga (check out Moto Hagio), and listening to the rain dance on the roof. I scribbled down the everyday pleasures that my life gave me every single day. And no, nothing life-changing has happened from doing so. But what I do notice is that I’m writing a new way. I’m learning to write about the pleasantries in life instead of the goals and the hindrances in my way. Noticing what gives my body and soul rest and enjoyment takes a new kind of seeing and a new kind of a style. As a human being and a writer, this is exactly the kind of exercise I want to be doing.
I don’t know how long this new kind of list taking will last but for now, my bullet journal is giving me exactly what I need. It is working for me instead of the reverse.
I ask for a center cut of salmon. The butcher smiles, picks a beautiful pink rectangle, and places it on the scale. It is three-fourths of a pound, the exact weight I want. The scale tips to my favor.
I had come straight from the lab, where my blood had been drawn to test for different types of arthritis and Lyme disease. The nurse was funny and we had a few laughs but the gloomy part of my mission remained: I needed to find out if there was an underlining cause for the tendinitis that had spread through my body, a reason it hadn’t fully healed after 3 years. None of the probable answers were great but it would be something at least, a way to clothe the suffering in medical language, a quick shorthand to use when someone asked about it.
At home, I cut the salmon fillet in half lengthwise and admired the skin side, how the white scales merged into the black. The skin shimmers and it is easy to imagine the original body flashing through the water, magnificent, glinting, gloriously alive.
I soaked the fillets in sake and salt, patted them dry and then sprinkled salt over the flesh. They rest now in the cool dark refrigerator and soon I will take them out, rinse them off, and broil them under a flame.
Salted salmon is not hard to make and it goes well with rice and green tea poured over the top.
During these preparations, my left elbow aches and moans. The nurse had asked me to make a fist as she looked for a vein to draw blood and I had held the fist a few minutes long, unsure of when to let go. That short lived clenched fist aggravated the tendinitis in my left elbow. It swelled as I drove away from the lab and aches constantly now. I held a book in my left hand after I got home and instantly regretted the action.
Everything has a price, even this simple recipe, even reading. My elbow burns and flares, hot and sore to the touch. Medication has never worked. I prepare salmon slowly and listen to the elbow’s pain as if it is a dead radio channel turned on in the background.
“It could be fibromyalgia,” the doctor said, popping his head back in after he had already left. “I forgot to mention there’s a good chance of that.” He nodded, then left.
The day in 1st grade that I graduated to writing from a pencil to a pen was a tremendous occasion. I had labored for months on holding the pencil correctly, mastering the art of (somewhat) straight and curved lines, learning to write with a light touch rather than a lead grinding one. I no longer made holes in my pencil from sharpened pencil tips, I could shade in shapes and above all, I was beyond tired of envying my parents for using pens whenever they wanted. The moment had finally arrived: my 1st grade teacher announced I was ready and handed me a blue Bic pen.
My self-satisfaction and smugness soared through the roof. Not only was I using ink but I was among the few who did. Not everyone else had worked as hard. They must continue to labor over alphabet worksheets with infantile pencils that must be sharpened by hand every day. How demeaning.
And so began my love affair with pens.
In many ways, I never moved past my 1st grade achievement. The goal had been to write with ink and when that hurdle was cleared, any pen would do. Ink was the point. It wasn’t until college that I developed any sort of pen preference and that was do more to the fact that I didn’t have a laptop and was handwriting on paper constantly. Pentel RSVP Ballpoint was my first favorite and later on after college, Papermate Flexgrip Elite 1mm black ballpoint was the preference.
And then last fall on a visit to Seattle, WA, dear Amanda escorted me to Kinokunyia’s Bookstore and I was flabbergasted. There were rows upon rows of pens, pencils, highlighters, gelpens, refills, erasers, and sample pens were everywhere. I had heard of such places but I had never been to one.
My head swam and I was shook but I set my teeth. I would try out as many pens as I had time for and take away a few. Amanda was a patient saint while I made my long and vacillating journey. I think I tried every pen they had. I came away clutching a handful.
Autumn and winter have passed since that fateful day. I’ve narrowed them down to one tried and true favorite workhorse, the Zebra Surari .7mm Emulsion Ink Pen.
Zebra is a Japanese pen and writes much smoother than the usual American pen. The writing line is deep and precise, plus the narrow body is a great fit for my hand. There’s a great pleasure to be had from a smooth flowing pen that I hadn’t known before Zebra. My next favorite is the Zebra Surari .5mm ballpoint. It has the same narrow body, smooth flow but with an even finer line. I tend to go for wider lines but sometimes a fine line suits the mood of the day.
A big perk is that refills are available for these pens. No more buying a box of pens and throwing them away as they cease to work, an issue I’ve always hated due to the waste.
The pleasure of a fine pen is a very great thing, indeed. No doubt I’ll learn more as I pop into pen shops and chat with pen connoisseurs. If you’re someone who writes a great deal by hand, I’d encourage you to discover the pleasure of trying out different pens from different countries. It’s an unexpected delight. And please feel free share your favorite pens here. Simple or elaborate, pens are part of everyday pleasures.
In the shade of a huge chestnut tree at the edge of town, a monk made his hermitage a refuge from the world. Saigyō’s poem about gathering chestnuts deep in the mountains refers to such a place. I wrote on a slip of paper: The Chinese character for “chestnut” means “west tree,” alluding to the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha; the priest Gyōki, all his life, used chestnuts for his walking stick and for the posts of his home.
Almost no one sees
the blossoming chestnut
under the eaves
An excerpt from Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, trans. Sam Hamill
It is resting to read about Bashō’s account of his travels through Edo period Japan during this fever pitch time of ours. He quotes famous poetry and writes his own, recounts the weather, mountains, landmarks, legends, and friends he visits along the way.
His haikus are numerable and they begin to sink into the soul. Nature becomes a deep, rich place, the surest area to connect with the finest thoughts and feelings.
And when I look up from reading, I remember one moment in earlier in the day. I was driving along and I beheld: the black arm of a streetlight become a tree branch of iron beauty, a perfect blue sky hung like a backdrop behind it.
I drove underneath the iron tree and was full of gratefulness that I was alive enough to see such everyday wonder.
I wish the same for you.
Artwork: Lingering Snow at Asukayama (Asukayama no bosetsu), from the series “Eight Views in the Environs of Edo (Edo kinko hakkei no uchi)”, c. 1837/38, by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重, color woodblock print, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/25293
The cool dry weather had shifted during the night and when I went outside in the morning, I walked into a sauna. The front welcome mat was soaked like an old rag but the cement steps were dry. The cracks in the driveway were damply dark but the road glinted white grey in the sunshine. I strolled down the street, fierce pleasure flooding over me when the sun poured down onto my wide brim hat. I felt the heat through the hat’s crown and on my arms but underneath the umbrella of my brim, my face and shoulders remained cool. I gave up on the Pokémon game that everyone’s crushing on and instead, took pictures of the maple leaf shadows on the street. The leaves were pointed like stars, too eloquent for language. I heard them rustling overhead but down below, I studied them through my phone’s window, marveling at their everyday foreignness. They are closer to something, more pure and true because they are closer. What they are close to? I am not sure but I can guess: a land I live in but can rarely see, a melody I strain to hear in the breeze and on good days, I catch one chime or two. I glide further down the street, away from the maples and towards the oaks, red and bur. They do not cast shadows on the street; they are too dignified for shadow play at the noon hour. Maybe later when the work hours are over and they feel free to let down their hair. They are strength; they hold up the sky, push down the earth. They are closer to something but we don’t talk about these things together. We listen instead. Oaks are strong because they are tuned into things that I can barely see and songs I can barely hear. I would like to see more, like to hear more. I would like to hear them. When I arrive back home, I take off my hat and the wind ruffles my hair. I climb the dry cement steps, take one step on the ragged doormat, enter the house, and close the door. H is for hearing. S is for song. T is for time.
(Influences: LaRose by Louise Erdrich, Lucky Romance starring Ryu Jun Yeol, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan)
This is the opening quote in White is for Witching. Here is the full poem with title:
my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell
I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can tell when I may dine again.
No man can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.