I’ve never quite seen a hotel door like the one that greeted us in Kamaishi. Golden ducks on a black laquer pond. Maybe its stylish beauty was to compensate for the plain Jane of the city, with its industrial history of iron and steel production. Maybe we had the honeymoon suite by accident. More likely (in retrospect) a premonition.
A premonition that (somehow) luminous birds on dark water would transmute into happy children paddling in a golden lake.
We were in Japan in May. Akii stayed a month. I was there just two weeks, and with only one thing on my mind: to meet Chiaki and apologise for failing to set up an imagined project to bring schoolchildren from Otsuchi to Scotland for a welcome break and some English (Scottish) language immersion.
Otsuchi, a costal town just half an hour from Kamaishi, in the north-east region known as Tohoku, lost 1000 of its inhabitants to the tsunami of March 3, 2011. This included half its city office staff; not surprisingly it took this shattered community a long time to get anywhere near back on its feet.
I became involved with Otsuchi at long distance after 3/11. Having collected coats and blankets for survivors and evacuees, I networked to try and find a way in which they could be distributed up north. Which is how I found Chiaki.
Takahashi Chiaki (family name first in the Japanese way) – based in Morioka City, Iwate Preffecture, and working as an English teacher so enabled to communicate internationally – had established an amazingly efficient volunteer organisation: Iwate Relief. It was she who drove my boxes to Otsuchi, and saw the contents distributed.
Halfway through Level 4 of DOTWW at the time of the disaster, it was clear after we reconvened three weeks later that everyone’s attention had been redirected. Alena was preparing leave Tokyo as a “radiation refugee” and move south to Wakayama Prefecture. Jacinta went on to set up (first by Facebook, later as a website) Embrace Transition, to help people cope with change. Jeffrey began writing songs about Fukushima’s unfolding tragedy, and produced a CD to help raise funds. James joined them on a trip to Otsuchi, to distribute gifts, as donated through the Share Your Christmas with Tohoku Campaign.
We had dreamed up this project over a rather drunken dinner one summer evening; good to report that it’s still going strong, with people all over the world sending gifts to share each year-end.
Eighteen months later, preparing to leave Japan for Scotland, I contacted Chiaki again. Did she know anyone who might find my sewing machine useful? Yes, she replied, a woman with children who having lost her home to the floodwaters was desperate to support her children. So off it went…
The world assumes four years on that all is well with Japan; it has “recovered”. But believe me, in those parts that have been conveniently forgotten by the media (as instructed by government), the need remains enormous. Communities have not only been battered, but subsequently abused, with Otsuchi providing a clear example.
Chiaki had gone to a lot of trouble to make our visit clear and instructive. After picking us up from the hotel, she drove 30 minutes from Kamaishi to the kindergarten in Otsuchi, where she teaches English to the little ones. I use the word “teach” loosely; rather she is familiarising the under sixes to hearing a different language and making them comfortable with using some simple phrases. And how beautifully she does it: in heavily accented American-English and using American-English expressions, true, but to which they respond with great enthusiasm and joy.
There was no fear of me either. In 1986, when I first arrived in Japan, the large majority of children ran a mile!
The owner and founder of the kindergarten came to talk with us, showed us photographs of the damage caused that terrible afternoon. The tidal wave, funnelled by the valley, swept right into the building up to ceiling height. Fortunately staff had taken all the children to safety, barring one, whose mother had come to pick her up by car before turning back into the town to collect her mother. All were swept away.
Much affected by what we had seen and heard, we went for lunch in the one restaurant back in service. It was here I explained to Chiaki why the project I had hoped to set up in Scotland had not manifested.
No matter, she insisted. “I have another idea that maybe you can help with…”
Which is how the idea of the Otsuchi Summer English Camp was born.
With the fishing industry decimated, the canning factory gone, and the iron and steel industry in Kamaishi reduced, prospects for the next generation are limited. Chiaki feels that with a wider exposure to the outside world and a confidence in English, they will have a better chance in life.
This is why she donates every Friday to the children of the town, and with nearing half a decade behind her, will continue for another five years. By this time, she will have seen at least one generation through from kindergarten entry level to age 15/16 when they move to high school.
We met many of these older children in in the local community centre, where they attend voluntarily extracurricular English language classes through the afternoon. They had all made us drawings of welcome, shook our hands with sweetly assured confidence and told us their names.
The community facility is the highest building in Otsuchi. Yet residents had been told to make the temple below the town’s main evacuation point in any emergency. Many of those who gathered there lost their lives. Survivors climbed up through the graveyard and huddled in the main hall, where they first cut down the long floor to ceiling length curtains and then sectioned them for wrapping up the children overnight. It was pitch black inside and out, snowing, and very very cold.
Those ragged curtains acted as a traumatic reminder of that time for all students and staff when school resumed. Now they have been replaced, thanks to yet another of Chiaki’s efforts: the Curtains of Love project, with major private and corporate funding, and a large contribution from Germany.
Just last weekend, on July 29, three months after our visit, a group of children from these classes, aged between 7 and 11, travelled by bus and train to Tazawako, a beautiful pristine lake in Akita Prefecture to the northwest. They stayed in the pension That Sounds Good, ran free (something they cannot do where they are living) in nature, cycled, enjoyed craft projects and began to learn to swim. Most Otsuchi children are terrified of the sea, never go to their own beaches.
As to the English immersion aspect, English-born Japanophile Kevin Dodd, who has been much involved with Otsuchi from the start, travelled from Paris where he currently based to assist. Also my friend of many years, Heather Willson, from Kamakura, south of Yokohama, promised to leave her fluent Japanese language facility at home.
We know that those Otsuchi parents who were reluctant to allow their children to travel so far, out of sight, have been watching this project with interest. With our intention to make this an annual event, a much larger group is expected next year. Needless to say, more helpers will be required; more funding also.
But at least we have a year. To have organised the weekend camp in such a short time, is miraculous. But then Chiaki is a bit of a miracle.
While in Otsuchi, she took us to meet a retiree whose house had survived while all those around were either lost or severely damaged. Initially he worked tirelessly to help his neighbours, but slowly they began to turn against him, angry at the apparent unfairness of their situation compared to his own. He has suffered innumerable breakdowns as a result, still suffering survivor’s guilt.
We met another friend of Chiaki’s who had lost his home and his car, yet is still having to pay the loans of them… He barely survives, handling his depression by escaping into traditional Japanese dance dressed as a woman.
Chiaki says that the level of mental health is low among just about everyone in the region. Everyone has problems.
Soon after the tsunami, with the population in a state of shock, the vultures moved in: real estaters from the capital, who bought or simply moved in on land from families who had no proof of ownership over generations… Now the construction industry is having a field day, laying down infrastructure and creating piles of sand which, it is reported, will be “glued together”. You can be pretty sure that the families in temporary facilities will not be able to afford to buy the houses to be built on such structures.
Chiaki is very angry. But channels this energy into helping as best she can. Which is all any of us can do, right?
I will finish with a few photos from our own stay at Tazawako…
And will post photos of the camp as they come through to me from those involved. By next week, promise.
Blue is a colour much on my mind right now. But there again I’m not sure it ever quite went away.
It began when my mother said that I ought never to wear blue. This would have been around 1957, in post war Britain.
Having studied fashion illustration at art school, my mother used to entertain my father, my sister and I with a chart hung on the wall explaining the colour wheel. My response, being a wannabe rebellious teenager? To go out and buy some bright blue fabric from the market in Coventry to make a sack dress, a fashion that was all that rage at the time. She was horrified, of course. Not only would the colour “drain me of colour” (her words, not mine), but the shape would “do nothing for me” (ditto). But I did the deed, as in run it up, wore it to jazz clubs and pubs, and thought I looked the bees knees. Being very thin, it’s more likely I resembled a blue bean pole, but let’s not go there.
Through the Sixties and Seventies, family life and my social life tumbled past in a fabulously fast and furious fashion. I was often blue – very blue indeed – as in deeply distressed and depressed. But I worked hard to keep my head above water, and somehow we all survived. The Eighties were another matter. My foundations literally crumbled.
In April 1986, desperate to change my life, I sold my house, apologised to the children and cats who were suddenly out on their own in the world, and went to Japan. Even as the plane soared upwards, away from Margaret Thatcher, the miner’s strike, and a blighted country steeped in blues of its own, I felt the colour change from negativity to positivity. Arriving in first Hong Kong and then Japan, with sky reflected in flooded paddy fields every which way I looked, I quickly understood why blue and white were the colours of Asia.
Fast following on, I learned that indigo (ai) was regarded in craft tradition as a national treasure.
I remember interviewing Amy Katoh of the Blue and White shop in Ebisu (https://blueandwhitetokyo.com/), and her recalling how playing tennis years before on earthen unmade land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay had been a wake up call. She’d realised that under her feet were any number of small pieces of blue and white broken china. I used to walk the beaches of Shonan picking up such remains, and right now have a sack of many hundreds in my garage in Scotland, waiting to be used for something… The general consensus is that ancient trading vessels laden with ceramics between Japan and China must have foundered, with shards still washing up centuries later.
Now Amy’s shop sells all matter of things in blue and white – fabrics, washi paper, ceramics, toys and gifts. It’s very successful too, not with mainstream Japanese who thinks it old-fashioned stuff, but quilt-makers, tourists and odd foreigners like me. A white cushion stitched with pale blue thread (sashiko) sits on our Highland sofa; a tenugui (cloth) printed with blue and white tea cups hangs on a cupboard door in the kitchen.
Our summer dressing gowns, in white cotton dyed with indigo – the true blue of textile dyes, from the leaves of the plant indigofera – are called yukata. Go to any onsen (hotspring) town in Japan and you will see people – especially the elderly – wandering the streets in these traditional bath robes; rather like western women in the Fifties, who felt no shame in wearing their hair in curlers to go shopping.
Quite a few friends in the late Nineties took classes in aizome, dying with indigo.
I have many bits here – curtains made from Thai aizome, bought on travels, the scarf that Rikako gave me; cushions and cards that Catherine made before returning to Canada; a jacket and overshirt made by Tomo (Tomoyuki Tsuji) in Kyoto. Tomo – whom (we heard from his wife) died in 2014 – had a great story, which in memorium I will relate in brief here:
His father had been an artisan indigo dyer, which filled Tomo wih mortification. So old-fashioned he felt as a young man growing up in the 1970s, wanting only to Be American. Escaping to Australia, he was astonished to find people deeply impressed that he came from such a revered city, and highly appreciative of his father’s ancestral calling. He returned to Japan with a new perspective, and uncovering the dye vats (his father had retired) put them to work.
Why did the subject come to mind so suddenly?
Well, Akii has suddenly been taken with the blues. His upcycled music centre is now in place, painted in just the colour he specified. And now he’s waiting for the exterior to be sprayed Cobalt, after hours of mulling over a shade card offering fifty shades of blue.
A second reason is because several pairs of monpe, the Japanese farmers’ trousers that I wear through the summer, are wearing thin. So I ordered three pairs (online, and so easy) from a maker in Kurume, Kyushu. This town on Japan’s southernmost major island and currently in the news, is famed for its kasuri fabrics (from which monpe are made). These involve pre-dying warp threads in indigo in precise mathematical measures prior to weaving. You more probably know the technique as ikat.
No sooner had the monpe arrived than we made the split second decision to go to Japan in May. Our tickets came through the day before the earthquakes in Kyushu began to take their toll…
Right now we feel far from blue, in every sense: physically and psychologically. We could be scared, but we’re not. Having survived Kobe and Fukushima’s 3/11, we know the drill. Packing my suitcase, though, its content will tell a different story. No hard hats and first aid kits (we can buy those on arrival), rather two new T-shirts from Toast (www.toast.co.uk), dyed in indigo naturally.
Over the three years we have been sharing the workspace known as the 0-shotei , meaning in Japanese, the bush warbler’s hut, it has become increasingly clear that for one of us at least, it has not been working.
The space was not working. Neither was I. Well I was, but with difficulty, unhappily…
Much as I love my partner, he works in a far more active and vocal way than I do. Trying to concentrate was not easy with music playing, often with karaoke-style accompaniment, and a non-stop cacophony of samurai-style Japanese grunts and self-directed comments and discussion.
Our first idea – rather my first idea, let’s be honest here – was to develop the site where the garage stands. This wooden structure dates back to the late 1960s when my widowed mother moved from Coventry to live near her sister. Needless to say after 40 years plus it’s not in the best of shape, but with the concrete foundation remaining a sound footprint it made sense.
Summoning Gillies and Mackay, the Errol-based company that designed and contructed the o-shotei ready for our arrival in late 2012, we came up with a design: a new garage with an office on top, accessed by a flight of outside stairs and a balcony. Price agreed, a planning application was submitted to Perth and Kinross Council.
One day many months later a man in a suit turned up, walking in and around with great authority and a handful of proposed plans fluttering in the breeze.
“It’s a bit tall,” he stated.
“Really?” I replied. “With the log house on one side, and the stairs and balcony on the other providing width and balance, I think it will look lovely.”
Seeing his face darken at my audacity to disagree, I knew we were doomed.
And so we were. Plan denied: Unsuitable to location.
We took advice from our local community council (for not a single neighbour had protested) and considered re-applying: an appeal. But having already spent a lot of money, we were unsure.
Onto the scene strides our saviour, David of Kellstone Developments in Pitlochry.
I had met David at a farmer’s market in 2013, where he had a stall promoting his work as an eco-friendly mechanical engineer. We had been thinking to extend the cottage, and he came along and drew up some provisional plans.
Three years on we are still unsure about the extension. We want one, but not until we are sure we will be staying here. This depends on Akii getting permanent residency in 2018, and right now he’s on a renewed spouse visa. With immigration a hot topic, none of us know what the future will hold…
In a pathetic attempt to balance the books against the demand for entry from the EU, a certain Ms May is trying to throw out non-British spouses of British nationals. We know of several Japanese women married to British men who have been forced to leave, leaving families behind. There are Americans, Canadians, all with the same problem. So basically, we take nothing for granted…
And there is no point spending a small fortune on making the cottage larger and more sociable (we don’t even have a decent-sized table for eating with friends) if we’re not going to stay. As an estate agent said years ago, spend the money if you’re going to stay. Don’t if you are thinking to leave, because whatever you do it will always be a two-bedroom, one bathroom property, worth only so much.
This is what we were explaining to David November last, asking if he had any bright ideas for giving us more space.
“Have you thought about a container?” he asked. “You could sit it along the far side of the garage, so out of sight from the road. It won’t need planning permission and will cost less than half of what you were originally going to spend.”
Looking back, it was not exactly the right time of year for such a project. But David was excited, and so were we. So hands were shaken; agreements made.
First the base had to be excavated and laid and a lovely old redcurrant bush planted by my mother, relocated. The digger turned up late, but then it was December! As for David, when there was work to do, he was there in wind, rain and snow 100 per cent hands on and always cheerful and enthused.
January 8 the container arrived from Glasgow on the back of a truck. GOLD it read down the sides, and for sure we felt we had struck that very seam of precious metal. First it was unloaded into the field next door, then swung over the fence and manipulated into place. Neighbour Michael did a sterling job on the crane, and David manouvred it – to the centimetre – into place. Tall and slender, his strength and stamina was phenomenal. We could only stand in awe.
It was David who then cut out the widow space and doorway, fitted them out and built a doorstep, thus displaying an increasing range of talents. (I doubt most architects would know how to use a welding torch, let alone be ready and willing to heave flagstones and mix concrete.)
Assisted by two young Polish men, he insulated the container throughout, and then supervised the fitting of all electrics, all connected to the existing cable and box in the garage. By this time we were in late February and it was cold. Very cold. But the interior of the container was warm, and fake-oak flooring and several coats of paint made it even lighter. It was ready to move into.
So Akii did. In the first week of March he finally, after three years, unpacked his beloved music system, and carried his desk, filing cabinet and chair over to the KON-TE-NA (in katakana) and (provisionally) Music Box in English. He found he could not hang the divided curtain, ordered and delivered as a Christmas present from Japan, because the doors opened inwards. So for now it’s pinned up at the far end of the room – the music end of the room: a small rabbit sits gazing at the moon, listening, listening… (Akii is a rabbit according to the Chinese calendar.)
Now he can play his 70s music – Led Zeppelin, Chicago, Keith Jarrett – full volume and you can’t hear a thing outside. An amazing piece of insulation!
Last week we found amazingly ugly piece of furniture at Allsorts in Blairgowrie. Now it’s across the road with Jennifer Devaney (www.realcycleuk.com) who is upcycling it in blue and white with a musical theme for a music centre.
And when the weather improves, David will be back to paint the exterior indigo blue, clad it in part with wood, and lay gravel. We are all looking forward to the day we can officially cut the tape and declare it open. There may even be a party…
As for me, it felt quite weird when Akii moved out of where I’m sitting now in solitary splendour. I even felt bereft. But not for long. I have turned my desk around that it now sits on a slant facing the door, with windows to right and left, just as my old desk did in Japan. And have been writing in silence since 9am. Bliss.
As Virginia Woolfe is quoted as saying: ” Every woman needs a room of her own to write in.”
At last, once again, I have one.
And so we enter our fourth year in Scotland. Where will it take us? No idea. Best not to know, maybe. Simply be aware in presence and keep the faith…
I remember Heera once saying – maybe five or six years ago, during one of our monthly discussions in Zushi on the teachings of Eckhart Tolle – that hope was not in her vocabulary. Whilst it shocked most who believed that hope was all we ever have in terms of a positive future, I recall also a sense of curiosity. It planted a seed that has since flourished. Now I too have placed hope aside. Instead I use the word faith.
Hope I now realise contains a strong element of doubt, negativity. I hope it will be sunny tomorrow (but most probably the rain will just keep on falling, as it is doing right now in Scotland!) Better by far to accept whatever it throws our way. Have faith that the weather will continue its own journey, which is nothing to do with me and over which I have no control. In such a matter, hope really is rather a waste of time.
But what about all those poor people who have lost their homes and livelihoods? Not only because of flooding, but war, and persecution? Surely they need hope to cling to.
How much more powerful that they have faith in themselves and others to lift them up and see them through. Surely faith is the ultimate in empowerment. Something to think about if not to agree with.
Sometimes I am asked where my faith comes from. It is not rooted in any one religion and most certainly not in religious dogma. Rather in a deep-seated knowledge – no not a belief, rather a core-like knowing – that everything that has happened in my life, is happening and will happen, is part of a divine plan that is working itself out in pre-destined fashion.
Right now I am reading Caroline Myss’ book Sacred Contract.
Her work had been recommended to me over the years, and yet I resisted. Resistance I realise now has been a dominating factor in my lack of conscious (spiritual) progress, why I came to begin work on my self so late in life. Over and over again I was offered signs of salvation (as in being saved from further self harm); over and over again I backed away, allowing ego to raise and further strengthen the walls of self-protective denial erected in childhood.
Late last year I was doing a shift at a local charity shop and sorting out a shelf of paperbacks, mostly light novels left by visitors after being on holiday. Yet there, sticking out at the end as if shouting Oi!, was a copy of Caroline’s book.
I took it down, sat down, and almost immediately felt giddy, unbalanced and unwell. Putting it aside, feeling as if I really was not supposed to even look inside, I ended up being driven home by a kind acquaintance (now a friend). After sleeping a few hours and waking feeling better, I unpacked my bag and found Sacred Contract tucked neatly inside.
How strong my ego’s opposition to further awakening; how determined Caroline’s message to reach me!
So there was my Christmas gift. Now being read a second time and – to try identify and establish my own ‘sacred contract’ this time around – making use of my daughter-in-law’s own present to me: a beautiful blue leather-bound writing book. Clever girl, to know (without consciously knowing) exactly what would fit into my life right now. Beloved Sue.
Be loved. Another phrase that I am consciously making a part of my everyday language, and one for which I must again thank Leonard Jacobson in his teachings.
There must surely be no more over-used, over-worked and over-weighted phrase than the three words I LOVE YOU. In the same way that the word hope is used without all due thought and consideration, we load all emotion, desire, need and want into dumping our greedy needy ‘love’ onto another, whether good for that individual and the relationship or not.
We all know the sense of desperation in telling another you love them when it’s clearly not reciprocated. It can drive you mad, especially when judged as unfair. You offer them the full burden of your complex damaged love in the form of gifts, your lifestyle, friends and family, and what comes back? Rejection, abuse, pain.
True love –which sounds like the opening to a song, but I’ll spare you this at least – is boundless, unlimited, and 100% unconditional: Be loved, and do with that love (which, though heartfelt, is really nothing to do with me but offered freely) whatever works for you best. If it leads you out of my sphere of reference, so be it. I wish you well. (Beautifully exemplified by Gerda Wegener in the film The Danish Girl.)
What else have I learned and taken aboard?
Why I have always felt alone. Not lonely, never lonely… with many friends and very sociable. But a sense from early in childhood that I was separate, on my own in the world, and had to survive as best I could. It made me strong, but also deeply sad.
So I thank Osho for the dynamic exercise offered in Leonard’s retreat in California, which took me back to the realization that I was (or at some time in the past had been) the last of my tribe. And why I accepted a golden feather as a temporary ‘tattoo’ from another participant. It lay transferred in healing, posed between the mysterious bruise that manifested on Day 1 (not the first time this has happened) and the age marks on my hand that pretty much replicate the Pleiades star cluster or constellation. .
Stranger than fiction? Then let me return to fact. As in non-fiction.
Soon after arriving here, and desperate to carry my work forward and make my mark, I published a book based on travels and linked ancestral research. By this I mean self-published. Not via the genre known as vanity publishing, whereby an author pays to see his or her words in print. Rather Amazon.com’s print-to-order platform, Create Space.
It was hardly the easy process promised. With a graphic designer in one part of Canada, the cover’s artist in another, and me wobbling in Scotland (for wobbling I was to have made such a huge move after so many years) we crept forward slowly and far from surely. Eventually there was a book and I’m proud in many respects. Yet it would have been so much better if I had given myself the chance to settle and give the text one more hard edit in the cooler light of calm re-settlement.
I remember reading the I Ching before setting off on global travels in Spring last year, and how I was encouraged not to think in terms if goals (as in destinations) but concentrate on the journey, placing one foot carefully after another. I took this advice firmly on board and via Canada, California, Hawaii and Japan returned in one piece with no major problems.
So, a huge lesson here… to ‘screw the results and relish the process’. It does not matter that Chasing Shooting Stars was not picked by more readers. I always said that it was written for my children, so that they might know their mother better, and understand the dynamics of the two genetic pools from which they were created. In this sense, goal achieved. Success. (If, of course, ‘success’ is what I am looking for…another question to be answered, and I suspect Sacred Contract may provide more than a few clues.)
So here I am at the beginning of 2016, forever on the path of the learning curve, with only valuable distractions from my next book on the horizon and, with lessons learned, so much to gain.
Wishing us all fruitful journeying ahead.
Good news. I’m back on the book: Household Stories/Katei Monogatari (in Japanese) But three years has taken its toll. It’s not simply a matter of making sense of the time frame; there’s so much that needs re-writing. What worked written fast then does not work now: what was joyous on now distant occasion reads flippant; what made sense at the time seems muddled, incomprehensible even. So there’s a lot to do.
As usual, though, there are days I cannot settle…
From day to day the weather dictates whether I can get into the garden. Though leaves are largely swept and distributed into piles for compost, there is bracken to cut back, the burn to clear, new saplings to support and protect from deer and the ravages of the Scottish winter, and planted borders to put to rest until next year.
There is a new asymmetrical hair style I’m trying to cultivate; easier said than done!
There is also the co-op.
It was Leila who suggested way back in early summer that I go along to a meeting at the Birnam Hotel (across the Rover Tay from Dunkeld) to see how I felt about joining a co-operative of like-minded individuals, all with small businesses. Also how they felt about me. Seems I passed muster, because I am now one of the nine founder members of The Perthshire Care and Wellbeing Co-operative (www.thecareandwellbeing.coop) offering our various services to this part of rural Scotland.
It’s been one hell of a learning curve. For one thing, since allocated the role as words person, it was naturally assumed I would take on the task of writing copy for the co-op’s website, as designed by Louise Copeland of the Blairgowrie-based company Great Little Brands. The schedule was crazy as we planned to launch at Perth’s weeklong wellbeing festival in October.
Never again (well I say never again…) Thank goodness for Louise’s level head and experience in the field, leading me step by step.
Keep it simple I was advised. Write for the average 12-year-old I was instructed (whoever that may be). Repeating the same work in one sentence is not lazy writing, it seems, but reinforcement. Oh, and write the site from the middle outwards to the end and beginning.
Result? Some sleepless nights and one less than happy ‘writer’. We got there in the end, of course, and made the deadline, but I would not describe my part as a happy experience. But only because my ego was upset. As of old (before it was allocated the new role of life companion rather than a saboteur) it tried to jump in to protect old habitual feelings from hurt, self-doubt and fear of failure.
The Perth launch went well, as did two linked events. The general consensus in the minefield called social services and community welfare in general in the UK today seems to be that we are ‘new, innovative (as in thinking outside-the-box…), to be watched!’
Carer Fiona and befriender Gillian have already gained new clients. Donna, a family home carer and the co-op’s ‘face to the world, is busy acting as our contact, gathering information and attending endless meetings to network on our behalf.
It is a whole new world to me, and one that I embrace whilst at the same time acknowledging that I am a newcomer not only to the co-op, but Scotland and Scottish culture, and in many respects it’s a bit late to start a whole new career. Not that I want to: I am a writer first and foremost. As I have written on the website, “Through courses, workshops or working one-to-one, I am a writer who loves to help others with their writing.” So we will see.
I am not just sitting back however. Leila (a herbalist) , Gordon (a mindful nature guide) and I (via words) are putting together an event called THREE KEYS TO AWARENESS, which we will test in February in Perth and repeat in Pitlochry in May.
So now you see why my book is coming along more slowly than planned. There are so many meetings to attend these days that I’ve even had to buy a Filofax again – the first in ten years – to keep myself straight.
When people assume I am that odd word “retired”, I have to laugh. A new world is opening up to embrace my acceptance of all that is to come. And yes, that does include scheduling my own writing in there; I just have to be more organised and s-t-r-e-t-c-h time out as I did in the good old bad old days of earning a living when multi-tasking juggler extraordinaire was my second name.
This is a question that has been on my mind for near on three years now. Whether to self-publish the second to last book I wrote in Japan, or leave it in my computer, whispering shigata ga nai/it can’t be helped… sayonara.
It is a book I needed to write at the time. Now though, being no longer in Japan, I’m wondering about its relevance.
So I have drafted a new introduction. Will it do the job, I wonder? Are you titillated? Encouraged to read on beyond the first sentence, first paragraph? To be honest, I’m really not sure, really need to know:
I’ve always been a more enthusiastic party-giver than party-goer. But there are exceptions. Which was why in late spring 2004, I was hanging out at a launch party held opposite the Korean Embassy in Moto-Azabu, Tokyo.
It celebrated the opening of a new kind of arts centre by three remarkable women, one Californian, one Japanese, and the third American-Thai-Filipino. It was a venue where anyone could learn to draw, sculpt, play the piano and journal visually via right-brain (as opposed to left-brain) techniques. Hence its curious name: RBR, for Right Brain Research.
On invitation, I began drop-in classes in creative writing based on experimental exercises that would trick left-brain – that masculine lobe that tells us we cannot write and never will be able to write so why bother to even try – into shutting up/down, so allowing feminine right-brain to function freely and intuitively.
We all used to be so much more right-brain before the macho Ancient Greeks got their reasoned hands on us, laid down the system of western-style education that is still followed today. Sadly the days when we communed naturally with the gods have given way to the three Rs and all the laws of logic and rationale.
By 2005, the classes I had initially offered through trial and error had evolved into an eight-week course. At the end of this, students asked when the next one would begin…
Today DRAWING ON THE WRITER WITHIN offers four levels: Initiation, Exploration, Affirmation and Confirmation.
The first three levels consist of weekly exercises followed by a 25 minute session of Proprioceptive Writing (http://radix00.com/PWriting_Main/) and omiyage, a Japanese word meaning obligatory gift. In this instance I give students the gift of a writing task to do in their own time at home ahead of the next session, to be shared – gifted back – for feedback by e-mail.
Level 4 is different. Students are asked to plan, develop and begin work on an 8-week project rather than weekly assignments. This is to encourage their own internal resources of self-discipline as writers. After all, at the end of this course, they are – theoretically at least – on their own.
To encourage them and – having spent years in journalism – plumb my own creative depths, I began a project of my own. The book that follows evolved from this self-imposed exercise.
I began it in 2010, by which time RBR had moved on to a new venue. This time around I was working with six women – American, Scottish and English DOTWW graduates –who had all completed the first three levels. I completed my own first draft a year later in 2011, by which time circumstances had changed.
While now a testament to the past, it remains as intensely personal and present as the time in which it was written. Welcome therefore to a love story about a house.
Angela Jeffs, Scotland, 2015
This morning I posted an article from The Guardian on to my Facebook page. It’s about yet another discovery on the Salisbury Plain, famed for the iconic structure of Stonehenge but with our knowledge and understanding of prehistory being increasingly pushed ever further back into the mists of time: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/07/stonehenge-archaeology-ritual-arena-neolithic-monument
It seems that archeologists have discovered a massive new site dating back at least 4,500 years – a site far bigger and more extensive that any previously found. And that is saying something, because it is now accepted that Stonehenge itself is just a small part of a prehistoric culture of ritual practices that extends for miles all around…
It’s my interest in such ongoing discoveries that spurred me on to create a board on my Pinterest site under the title Pushing Back the Years, with the following lines as minimalist explanation: New discoveries are pushing back our understanding of pre-history all the time… at the same time ignorance, ego and development places investigation and discovery under threat. We have so much to learn if we choose to survive.
Having read the article, I laugh aloud, having just remembered that Euan and Jamie are coming today to manouevre various rocks into place in our garden. Yes, the practice of setting stones continues…
It began when friend Naomi in London announced that she wanted to come north to stay in order to talk to Akii about Japanese gardens. ‘Ha’, I replied. ‘Like so many Japanese, sadly he walks around them knowing little to nothing about the origins of their design…’
It seems she had just finished reading Tan Twan Eng’s novel ‘The Garden of Evenings Mists’ , which centres around a garden in Malaysia created by a Japanese diplomat (who may or may not have been an Imperial gardener) before the Pacific conflict. A must-read, she reckoned. So I did – bought and read it – and quickly found myself ordering a second book, one that is referred to over and over again throughout the 2012 winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize.
‘Sakuteiki – Visions of the Japanese Garden’ is the most recent translation of two ancient scrolls. Originally scribed in the 11th century, and in combination, they are not only the oldest surviving treatise on Japanese gardening but the oldest known book on gardening in the world.
Sakuteiki (lit. records of garden making) makes for fascinating reading, as the links between setting stones in Japanese gardens and in places and spaces in ancient times become so clear. I read the introductory chapters – if this is how they may be described – on Nature, Geomancy, Buddhism and Taboos, and then the records themselves: on different gardening styles, how to create streams, waterfalls, ponds and islands, plant trees and most interesting of all to me right now, how to set stones.
Work began a few weeks ago on what was (before her death in 2012) my aunt’s house and garden, and as diggers got to work, levelling ground and dismantling walls, I begged some of the boulders and lintels from the two men there working every day. Expert dykers, I was amazed at the speed with which they rebuilt walls and stairs to the new owners’ and architect’s design. And yes, they were perfectly happy to help, especially since I would be commemorating the building’s original function as quarry workers’ cottages and gardens.
When they arrive – carrying two of the largest stones in diggers – I shall have my compass at the ready. Just as the Ancients set dolmens (standing stones) according to the four quadrants (north, south, east and west) and when grouped (more often than not) in alignment with the stars, so I shall do my best. I know for sure what not to do, according to the rules of fusui (better known in the west as the Chinese feng shui), but otherwise placement will basically be in the hands of Jamie, Euan and the gods…
But this feels comfortable enough. The origin of setting stones (ishi wo taten koto in Japanese) is traced to the use of prehistoric sites with naturally standing stones for prayer and ritual. Those with a rounded form and upright appearance were considered especially powerful.
As the Sakuteiki explains: It is believed that through the medium of the stone (and as believed in Japan’s animist religion, shinto), gods could be induced to descend from their heavenly abodes to visit earth and bestow their blessings or good health and ample harvests on village communities. These sacred stones, called iwakura, are still actively incorporated in religious life today. In later eras (after Buddhism was introduced into Japan from Korea via China in the 8th century), the spiritual qualities inherent in sacred stones carried over into the use of stones in gardens.
So here come Jamie and Euan, and I must get to work with not only that compass, but also my camera. All under the ever-watchful eyes of two new kittens who are just settling into their seventh week here. Sora (sky) and Hoshi (from shooting star) graduated this week to the genkan (lobby, in this case made of glass) and are fascinated by the general business of the garden – rabbits, deer, birds, mice… Today, however, they have (especially in cats years) a once-in a lifetime treat in store…
My aunt liked continuity. I believe she approves that some of the stones she so loved at Downalong have moved up the road to Burnside. She regards it as a further indication that we putting down roots. Roots that will last far longer than we will, but like Stonehenge and the many stone circles in Perthshire, will remain for time immemorial to remind us of the fleeting nature of human life.
In February 2013, just after we moved here from Japan, Louise and Fred came to stay. They had travelled from Australia via Eire for a funeral, and were very sad and tired.
Last week, they were here again. This time though they had travelled that huge distance for a wedding. The sister of the sibling who had died – committed suicide, with her body never recovered from the ferocious depths of the Atlantic Ocean – was getting married. A happier more optimistic time, the sense of which they carried with them across the Irish Sea to join us here in Perthshire.
No sooner had they settled in than Pam and Jacob arrived, to doss down in the oshotei, our name for the working space across the garden from where I am writing now. (Oshotei = the bush warbler’s hut, in Japanese.) Roughing it on the sofa and floor was better by far than camping, they both affirmed the next morning.
Louise, Pam and I go back a long way, to the mid-1970s when we were all working in publishing in London. Our three bearded partners, Fred, Jacob and Akii know one another only through this association, but have met often enough over the interim period to form affection and friendship.
But still, years had passed, and Louise and Pam had not seen one another for over a decade, except via Skype. They had all stayed with us in Japan at differing times, but how would it work in another time, place and space, three couples sharing a cottage on the Isle of Skye for four nights?
We need not have worried of course. Everyone took change – the many transitions we have gone through in our lives – in their stride, mostly by making adjustments in expectations and assumptions.
Louise had started out as an editorial assistant on a book I was editing. Now she is an passionate ecologist and the author of several books on Australian wildlife. Very much the scientist these days.
Pam’s third job out of university was on a magazine. (I was the editor of that too.) It’s where she learned to knit and indeed, at any opportunity on Skye – mostly in the evenings – she would return to working on a complex Fairisle-style sweater that left us open-eyed with admiration. (As for the tea cosy she knitted freehand as a gift when we moved here – Scottish thistles in the round – an inspirational one-off.)
Jacob is a restoration joiner and carpenter. A perfectionist. Which is why is has taken him 12 years to get to the point that Pam might soon have a kitchen in the chapel he is renovating near Matlock. (It was years before she even had hot water!)
Fred is an artist, concerned with pushing colour and line to their limits. He and Louise recently moved from Sydney into Nature, where he was looking forward to building a huge studio to work in now that both have jumped off from, and out of, the career rat run.
Akii? Well he now works as a translator (English into Japanese ), and being like the others in his early sixties, still very active. Me being ten year on leaves me behind in some respects, which is why when they all went hiking as a group, I spent much of my time gazing out to sea, scribbling lines of poetry, checking out studios and workshops, and giving lifts to a few of the many young people hitch-hiking their way around the island.
Pam and Louise share a passionate love of the novel. In fact much of their time together was spent sharing titles, authors and opinions. During the last ten years of my time in Japan I read fewer and fewer stories and became much more concerned with non-fiction. I think I got to the stage that I wanted to learn rather be entertained, and the obsession with clever writing – mind over matter – became increasingly repetitive, dull and meaningless. At best I would read, admire and then think, Yes, but so what? What have I got out of this experience? All too often the answer was little to nothing. I know that story telling can carry us into other worlds, but I am more concerned with being 100% awake in this one: the here and now.
Often as I sat looking out towards mainland Scotland, I saw monsters racing across the mountains and moors. Monsters that clawed and writhed or gently swam, changing shape in tune with the clouds above. Friendly enough from my perspective, but hard to imagine how people from centuries ago viewed and survived their landscape. Celtic-Gaelic fairy stories are dark and fear full (as in filled with fear) and it’s easy to understand why many gave up and migrated elsewhere.
When Pam returns home, she and Jacob will cycle from Derbyshire to Venice, camping along the way, ahead of a family reunion in Italy. She then plans to work on a book that has been in her head for decades. Much is on paper already, written in first person and autographically based on an expedition in the Himalayas she made with another climber that first turned sour and then went horribly wrong. She knows it does not work, and is thinking to turn it into a novel, allowing imagination to have its way with any residual anger and regret.
Louise also wants to try her hand at creative writing. But being such a rationalist these days may find it harder to let go… allow right-brain to intuit, dream and imagine in ways that logical left-brain finds it hard to allow. It will be a different kind of writing for sure, and I can’t wait to read… Maybe it will evolve out of her purchase of land that she intends to conserve and protect, allowing eco-systems to self-nurture and generate. A new kind of writing…
As for my own projects, I have a completed draft awaiting a final edit and layout. But I’m held up by the problem of time lapse. It was written in Japan, and I’m no longer there. How to make sense of this? How to make it clear to the reader that the house I am showing them around – our house in Zushi – is no longer our own? This is my Autumn challenge of returning over the sea from Skye.
Which considering I spent most of my time gazing back to the mainland, might have been the better title for this posting: Over the Sea from Skye (again).
Yesterday afternoon, I showed Anastasia where the labyrinth can be found at The Bield, in Blackruthven. She had just spent two hours exploring meditatively – questioning her self on paper, via Proprioceptive Writing. It was the first time she had considered that there might be two of her – her, and her self, a realisation that has set at least one great spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, on his path to awakening. Now, with the labyrinth, I was introducing another route to discovery…
I had been at The Bield the previous weekend for the annual SOLAS festival. It was a gentle affair, with music, discussion groups, dance, poetry… and straw bales to sit on, rest against and – in the case of the many children having a wonderful free experience of countryside – pulling them to pieces in the last few hours to roll in and throw around. My husband, who being Japanese remembers the film if not the actual event in August 1969, said it reminded him of a micro-Woodstock. Creativity in abundance, wrapped in laid back love and peace, also on a working farm on a warm midsummer day.
Quite apart from the established orchard labyrinth, there was another temporary structure, laid out with rope on the floor of the tennis court. The design was geometric rather than curvaceous, the path wide, the corners gently rounded. Yet twice I fell off… lost my balance. But then it had been rather odd couple of days, swallowing pride (as in placating ego) to walk around with a placard front and back reading “WRITE YOUR MIND ALIVE” and a hand full of fliers for further illumination.
Well I had to do something. Lovely as it is, The Bield (meaning ‘to nurture’ or ‘to succour’) is the other side of Perth towards Crieff, 25 miles from where I live. And no-one around here has heard of it, so hard work to promote.
Despite handing out 100 handbills, only one brave soul turned up for yesterday’s WRITE – Anastasia – and she had completed the first 8-week course of Drawing on the Writer Within (DOTWW) back in early 2013, so was quite the old hand. Not that old though. Seems she is 19, which means that she was just 17 when she did the course. This makes me all the more admiring; she really is a remarkable young woman.
She showed no inclination to walk the walk, however, maybe because we were so busy talking the talk. But in time, maybe. In time…
This morning’s task in walking our own labyrinth here at Burnside – spiralling ever inwards – was to carry any lingering dregs of disappointment about lack of interest and leave it at the central standing stone, there to dissolve in sunshine, wind and rain. Walking back I felt light and resolved; I often employ that comforting old adage, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’, and it never felt more apt.
Sometimes my walks are quiet, empty of both past and future. Often they are throw up images, words and messages, and even clearly answer questions. At worst, the chattering monkey mind offers no relief, but that is rare these days.
I remember walking a labyrinth at the Orchard retreat, Kilkgraston, soon after arriving here in late 2012. I was pretty shattered, devastated to have left my beloved Japan. The path was tight and narrow; I was cold and shivering. I was not a happy bunny.
I walked The Bield’s far more open and meandering trail in September 2014 for a very different experience.
I sent what I wrote as a gift to the Danish founders of the retreat, Robin and Marianne, and they liked it enough to share with staff and visitors.
So here it is again. Make of it what you will:
WALKING THE LABYRINTH AT THE BIELD
It is a mellow Sunday in late September, a classic Indian summer day. At the entrance, I look in the basket of what The Bield calls ‘cushions’ – rounded wooden blocks carved with Celtic crosses – and nothing appeals. Then a small roughly rounded ball catches my eye, and I pick it up to carry to the centre. Interestingly I can no longer remember what it represented, yet at the time it was quite clear… how odd is that? I only remember thinking that it did not need to be large, because I knew the problem was not… ah, doubt! It represented a niggling doubt about my writing and the programme of writing I offer, and to which Scotland feels so resistant. Niggling because I know deep down that it is transitional and not to be taken too seriously.
Apple trees are symbolic of wisdom and guidance.
As I begin to walk, I find myself ducking branches laden with fast ripening apples. Unlike our own at Burnside, this labyrinth is wonderfully organic, wending its way between the fruit trees of an ancient orchard. Do I duck a lot, I wonder? Do I tend to duck those things in life that get in my way, interfere with intention? What do I mean by duck? Dictionary definition: Moving my head and body quickly downward to avoid being seen or to dodge a blow; to plunge suddenly underwater (as ducks do); informal dodge (a duty or responsibility).
The duck is generally thought to be a symbol of resourcefulness.
There is a lot to think about here, and I am preoccupied until I reach the centre, where I find an apple in my hand. I have no memory of picking it up. Or did I pluck it in passing? It smells divine, and I hold it in both hands, like a gift to be passed on.
I love reaching the middle if this labyrinth, where a hideaway has been created by sticking branches of willow in the ground, and weaving new growth along the sides and overhead. The ground is soft with bark and leaves, and at the far end, a globe of wood large enough to sit on. Today, however, because a day of blessings is underway in the main buildings, there are three large pillows, laid by previous walkers. I wedge my mini-pillow in between two of them, but the apple adamantly refuses to stay put, rolling off first this way and then the other.
Light filters between the twigs and leaves. I feel safe and happy. A surge of energy. And yes, it’s great to be alive in the moment. Ah, I say to the apple… yes, I talk to every thing. Ah, you are life, alive and nurturing. I need to carry you with me, the slightest doubt assuaged and laid to rest. And so I do…
The chicken has been seen as a mythical symbol of courage throughout many civilisations in world history.
But what is this? One of the brown hens that live free as part of the Bield’s organic smallholding, steps onto the path. I ask it three times to move aside, and so it does. But then another bars my way and refuses to budge . Finally, I take a small step forward and it gives way with grace.
Well set up with wisdom, guidance, resourcefulness and courage, I complete the circuit in good humour. I’m not tempted to eat the apple, shiny and rosily aromatic though it be, but rather carry it with me for the rest of the day. Come to think of it, 24 hours later it is still in my jacket pocket.