Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

mandala2

 

Inspired by Dana’s beautiful nature mandalas, I set out to make my own. I have little experience in mandalas except reading about the sand mandalas the Tibetan monks make. They create complex circular designs out of sand and then ritualistically destroyed their creation, ceremonies and prayers lifted up during the end.

I set out in the morning with a bag and a husband and we skirted along the hems of native plants growing in profusion along a creek. I always hesitate to pick flowers. It feels cruel tearing the flower asunder from the mother plant and as much as I love bouquets of fresh flowers, I rarely indulge. Today however, I sniffed the breeze and began to pluck tiny purple Michaelmas daisies, dropping them into a pouch as I went along. After dodging assorted bumblebees and harvesting a few flowers, I marveled at how many flowers were left. It’s as if I never touched them, so many still tilted purple under the sun. I prayed a quiet “Thank You” for the bounty of the flowers and sent a few lavender buds into the breeze in an attempt to return what I had taken. We moved onto a sumac bush.

What I did not expect was while I gathered, I felt my heart threading its way through the rising vegetation and then along the water of the cool creek glinting below. For the first time in my life, I did not want to leave my current home. The thought of leaving this small piece of restored land, profuse with flowers, bugs and animals, suddenly wrenched my heart out. I come from a long line of wanderers (as I think most Americans do) and I have always wondered where we would wander next after this home. This time, however, I did not want to wander. My hands were joined to the land as I nimbly picked leaves and flowers and now my heart was as well.

Leaves, flowers, and crabapples in hand, we wandered back and I began to build my mandala, spinning out a circle that radiated from three glowing daisies in the center. I built the art knowing that it would come swiftly apart and be sent back into the world. A certain joy caught up with me then- the joy of freedom. It’s a very gentle feeling, very small but it grew as I added leaf after leaf and flowers after flower to the circles. It continued on even as I ripped the mandala apart, sending the bounty back to the outdoors. As I cleaned up the litter and tiny bugs fallen from the petals, I reflected on how the mandala wasn’t to make money, to further my career or anything like that. It was a celebration of play. It was the gathering, the creation of beauty and then the destruction that is so necessary to our lives. The materials I loosened from the plants and trees were now settling into the earth for the next growth cycle. My internal load was lightened as well during this simple ritual. Making a mandala clears the mind and sweetly teaches the lesson of letting go.  As we head into winter, I look forward to making more mandalas out of what the season offers. Even in the depths of dark cold, there will be a few twigs and berries to lend themselves to creation.

Comments (6):

  1. Fir

    October 9, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Such gorgeousness in your getting native with Earth. Such alchemy in your intimacy with the flowers. A unification bonding with your Sense of Place. Love your delicate writings Catherine. You express a polarity with one who never wants to leave her habitat, so in love am I.

  2. grace

    October 11, 2013 at 10:14 am

    this is so very beautiful. I love the idea of your “heart threading its way through the vegetation”. Like you were becoming one with nature. <3

    I have been feeling the call to make mandalas as well and reading this post was a good motivator for me to start. Thank you!

  3. Catherine

    October 29, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Your comments are always such a pleasure, dearest Fir Maid. Thank you for them! Dana’s teaching me to see potential mandalas everywhere. One may just need to happen today now that fall is further in her season.

  4. Catherine

    October 29, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks, Marijke!

  5. Catherine

    October 29, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    I hope you do, Grace! Once you start to notice all the little bits that nature supplies, they get super easy to make. I’m going to try one today but make it outdoors rather than in and see the different energy it creates.

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Winter in the Time of Climate Change

There is a stream near my home and I walk along it nearly every day; I know its moods and seasons nearly as well as I know my own. We are family and our connections are pure: we’re both made of water.

Every day brings more distressing news about the environment. Big changes need to happen but whatever change that does happen is so slow. Global warming is now being felt by everyone, some more than others. I go out and walk along the stream when the news and all the unfortunate future unknowns press in too hard. Right now, it is running fast. This winter has been a series of freezes and thaws. November hit hard with a heavy, deep freeze and I expected this to lead to a  white Christmas but instead, it’s been a muddy, wet winter, full of more temperate days than frosty ones. The thermometer rides up and down, every day propelled by a bouncing ball rather than a steady progression of tiny fluctuations.

The stream locks and then unlocks. It accepts each freeze and thaw with inestimable grace. After reading the news, it is hard to know what is near or far, here and up in the sky, in the mind or in the present moment. But the stream is always present, it knows no other moment. It lives in eternity; as David Hockney said, “It’s always now. It’s now that’s eternal.”

The creek is still here, I think to myself whenever I see it, it is still living. It runs forward through this strange January, sometimes under the ice and sometimes not. Patches of green moss dot the banks nearby, beyond that the nearby plants are broken, brown, and dried. They are asleep, listening to things I cannot hear, dreaming of things I barely know of.

The Tale of Genji: A Timeless Novel of Messy Relationships

“Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.”

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

I read through The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu over the course of the summer and autumn, and I finally finished last week. I’d read it in the early morning with my first cup of tea and cat in my lap. The cat becomes upset and depressed if I don’t hold her for a little while in the morning so it was a good fit to settle in and read as much as I could from the 1200 page novel before moving into the rest of the day, accompanied by one happy cat. Now when I get up, blearily make myself a pot of tea and settle down, it’s a strange sensation not to reach out for the massive, multi-generational novel.

Set during the 11th century in Ancient Japan, The Tale of Genji spans three generations and is loaded with all sorts of characters, locations, and religious observances. It deals with the relationships between people, nature, the arts, and the gods. Emotions are celebrated in waka poetry, seasonal changes are closely noted and cherished, religious observations of Buddhism and Shintoism dominate daily life, and people’s lives change due to the current Emperor in power. At the center is the story of Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji) and later on in the novel, his descendants. Despite having a father as Emperor, his mother was a low-ranking consort and as such, he has commoner status– but for all that, lives a wealthy, fabulous life. Added on top of this is his intense, near-otherworldly beauty and grace, acknowledged by both men and women. Loaded with money and charm, he seduces and sleeps with many. Hundreds of pages are devoted to his thoughts and feelings on his lovers (to whom he sends piles of poetry and presents) and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of his lovers are revealed privately to the reader. Nearly every woman who comes in contact with him (and a few men) has deeply conflicted feelings about Genji and his behavior.

Noble women’s lives in the Heian Era are so delicately arranged that any mere whim of Genji’s can affect their futures deeply. The women live entirely at home, tucked into the deep recesses of their houses. They rarely even stand—though if a noblewoman does get up and walk, life is about to get spicy. To express their sadness and depression over Genji’s cavalier behavior, they watch the seasons change through a veil of tears, lie face down on the floor, refuse to talk to him, or can’t stop sending him messages. Whatever their behavior, they ultimately have accept his treatment of them. It is not an easy path to walk. They find consolation in the surrounding world: by reading, writing, playing music, observing the seasons, flowers, and birds, caring for their children, and talking to other women.

Seasons, religious observances, and rulers flow by and the main characters change too, from Genji and all the people surrounding him, to his grandsons and the women they love. There is a possibility that different author wrote the story of the grandsons, Kaoru and Niou. The style is different, somewhat smoother, and the characters’ thoughts and motives are revealed in more depth. I like to think that it was Shikibu’s work, a return to her great story after many decades of refining her craft.

“The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

The final third of the book centers on a succession of autumns, and a melancholy light flickers through the last few hundred pages. Genji is remembered but in passing—little of him is left except for his great house and his descendants. Kaoru, Niou, and three sisters that they love are on center stage. Genji’s grandchildren live in much the same way he did and though their personalities are different, their lives are just as fleeting and as frail. People make many of the same choices as the previous generation; the circle of life wheels around and around as the seasons flash by. The story has no neat conclusion: the book ends abruptly with protagonists still navigating their lives and affairs. I imagine Kaoru, Niou, and Ukifume out there in another dimension or time, wrestling with their lives, emotions, and circumstances, trying to make do with the choices available to them.

The Tale of Genji is an immersion into another life and era; it is an ancient gift that has survived for nearly a millennium. It is a book of shadows and barriers, a world that exists in lamplight.

“In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

It is miracle that so massive a book, copied out by hand year after year, decade after decade, century after century, then at last into print, should survive into the modern era. Due to its venerable age and old language, many translations of The Tale of Genji have been written: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s in Japanese and Edward Seidensticker’s in English are among the most well-known. I read Royall Tyler’s translation, occasionally dipping into Arthur Waley’s and Seidensticker’s earlier ones. What comes through strongly, regardless of the translation, is how incredibly easy The Tale of Genji is to read despite being nearly 1000 years old. Part of this is Shikibu’s very modern skill of weaving plot points in and out of characters’ motivations and thoughts. Shifting narrative perspectives and stream of consciousness prose both play a part; but an even bigger contributor to the story’s strength is its centering of relationships. If readers love anything, it’s hot, messy love affairs, tangled family and friendships, and all the accompanying emotions that go with them. Genji, full of tumult, even ghosts and possessions, is ultimately about human nature and all the triumphs, frailties, and failures that come with it.