After words (http://www.angelajeffs.co.uk/whats-in-a-word/), things. But what do I mean by things?

An open antique market in Essex, where things include a vintage train carriage, garden furniture and great skyscapes. But is sky – the sky – a thing?

A few weeks ago, nearing the completion of a book I had been working on since New Year, I was on call in my local charity shop. As usual, I checked the book shelves, and once again a title jumped out at me: A.C Grayling’s The Meaning of Things.

 It was the word ‘things’ that caught my eye. Because my own book is also essentially about things. But as I was to discover, one person’s idea of things is not necessarily the same as another’s definition and understanding of the word. (Or maybe it’s even more complicated than that.)

Household Stories/ Katei Monogatari is about a house, and the things (with all their associated tales) that our house in Japan contains, or rather contained. (We left in late 2012 to move here.) So a book largely about material objects that could be regarded as relatively unimportant: possessions, furniture, books, plants, etc.

Grayling’s book (Applying Philosophy to Life) is about how life is enriched by things that ‘matter’: “values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata” (Latin, desired things) “both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life.” (An impressive paragraph in itself.)

Always interested in how a book is constructed, he offers short essays under three main headings (as in three parts): Virtues and Attributes, Foes and Fallacies, and Amenities and Goods.

It was under this final heading that I found writings most relevant to Household Stories: Art. Leisure. Peace. Reading. Memory. History. Travel. Privacy. Family. Age. Gifts. Trifles.

I suppose this is because HHS (as it has been headed in my documents file since 2011, when I completed the first draft) describes a fair amount of art, quite a few gifts, and to what a reader may appear to be any number of trifles.

And here I have to laugh. Because compared to a book on philosophy, I suppose my book is trifling in its concerns.

But that is for the reader to decide, and those concerned in its production have found it quite the opposite. So I am comforted.

Yes, HHS is a book about things. But it is also a physical and spiritual journey through time and space to the point of accepting the relative unimportance of physical things. Which leaves us with the spiritual, which is of course what Grayling’s book is mostly about.

But wait. While the Foes and fallacies of Part 2 initially left me cool to cold, I do now find Faith, Miracles, Prophecy and Paganism more than a little interesting. And some of the Virtues and Attributes of Part 1 move to warm the cockles of my heart, because HHS is also about Love, Happiness, Hope, Courage, Sorrow, Tolerance, Civility, Perseverance …  so much more than mere ‘trifles’.

Lee and Sue’s garden in Basildon, Essex. Also full of things: plants in pots, mirrored washing on the line, and Buddha. A statue of Buddha is a thing for sure, but Buddha himself?

Now I am not only comforted. I am encouraged.

By the time I next blog, Household Stories/ Katei Monogatari will be available via Amazon.com. So expect an enthusiastic and 100% unashamed sell.

 

In memory of Gwendoline Edna Loader (nee  Price), September 1910 – July 2007. 

When my mother moved here in the early 1960s, the cottage was a newly renovated croft sited on a roadside amid a sea of rubble, a derelict landscape.

Once it had thatch, a tenant in the barn (now our bedroom), a cow in the byre (in my mother’s day the coal shed but now a utility room), and water was collected twice daily from a spring down at the burn. It must have been a tough life.

I know all this because soon after moving in in late 2012, I was working outside when a car halted on the road, drove on, backed, drove on again, backed again, and finally came to a halt.

A man emerged and, introducing himself as Peter Symon from Errol, shyly asked if he could take a photograph of Burnside, as it has been called for at least a century, if not – as old maps indicate – far longer.

Of course, I replied, but why?

It turned out that his aunt, Agnes Smith, had lived here until 1950.  She used to make pancakes and large scones on the range, and relatives would set up a bell tent outside in summer for holidays. Also bee hives were transported to and fro.

It seems there were Smiths at Burnside for well over half a century…

Agnes in front of a very different-looking Burnside. In the 1901 census, it was described as a croft with – excluding the byre – four rooms and windows. A decade later, the census of 1911 counted three rooms and windows. Very odd. Today it has seven (some very small) rooms and eight windows. This archival photograph, from the personal collection of John (Jack) Joiner of Errol Village, Perthshire, was scanned and mailed to me in 2012, which in part explains the quality. 

After Agnes died, the building stood empty on Forneth Estate until my uncle Charles Speid and his wife, my aunt Jo, decided to make it a home for her widowed sister, my mother Gwen. (So the two sisters, separated as youngsters by the death of their parents, could be reunited in middle age.)

But they only redesigned and fitted out the croft. The ground outside, rolling down towards the burn and with open views across the Lunan Valley, was for my mother to make her mark.

In the beginning… her view from the front door: Lunan Valley in the wild

Then came a bird table, some standard roses and shrubs, and to the right, the beginning of a rockery… Beyond, wild grasses wait in innocent bliss to be tamed for a lawn…

Early days for my mother, transplanted from city life into the most rural location imaginable, where she had to start anew in her mid-50s. I know she was lonely, felt isolated. But she never gave up. 

And she did indeed make her mark over the years, planting first rambling roses around the door, and then in borders, choosing plants and shrubs that were equally as scratchy and painfully punative.

Winters must have been so hard. With only wire to protect her plantings from ravenous deer…

I could never work out why she made such choices? Was she trying to barricade and protect herself against the world, like the Sleeping Beauty of folklore, or was it a childlike mean streak? Knowing what I know now about her internal confusions, a bit of both I suspect.

She created a lawn, fenced against rabbits and deer, and called this her ‘garden’.

Down below the fence, the land was left to do its own thing…

To the side lies a triangle of land along the roadside that is still planted with ancient but once again magnificently fruiting redcurrant bushes. She tried to raise vegetables, but everything was against her: the wildlife, which ate just about everything, and the bogginess of the ground, flooding as it did back then on a regular basis.

At some point in the late 1980s, an enthusiastic neighbour came down and planted trees: rowans, elder, oaks, hazel and wild cherry. He insists to this day that he asked her and she agreed. She insisted to her dying day that he went ahead without agreement, that he “just did it”. Nowadays there is a limited view to the other side of the valley in winter, and none at all in summer.

Another huge change was the demise of the raspberry field.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, mother rented the tract of land across the burn (that had been gifted to her for her lifetime) to a local farmer. The area around here is famed for soft fruit, and he planted canes and cropped the fruit through the summer.

Shot from the top of the raspberry field, with staked canes and the hut down by the burn very much still in business. See the small evergreen to the right of the cottage? That was one of my mother’s Christmas trees. It is now higher than the oak tree seen behind, and still growing…

As he and my mother grew older together, to the point he could no longer work, the field returned to the wild, and is now a mature copse of mostly sycamore, nettles and willow herb.

My children remember running up and down the lines of canes in the 1970s, and in later years making a bonfire of the derelict hut on the burn side that had once stored equipment. Now my son harvests the copse, a tree at a time, to feed our log house and – once dried out – our wood burning stove.

By the time my mother died in 2007, ten years ago almost to the day, her ‘garden’ was a mound of weeds (plants in the wrong place at the wrong time), and her land reclaimed by nature. I had done my best every time I returned to see her from Japan, but really it was a losing battle.

Since moving here, we have worked hard and now the three parts of the ‘garden’ all are gaining and regaining their own identities. Nearer the cottage, the borders are slowly filling out, and the roses healthily under control.

She coped by coping… love the hat!

Along the fence that separates us from neighbours, a hedge is slowly becoming a wind break, alive with colour, texture and birdsong; how my mother coped with bitter winters and ferocious gales I cannot even begin to imagine!

Along internal fences, shrubs and flowering perennials mix with soft fruit – gooseberries, blackcurrants, goli berries, raspberries, blackberries… We have apple trees, hardy Scottish varieties.  Even green tea bushes. And a lot of herbs.

Through 2014, we turned the boggy triangle into a labryrinth, for quiet reflective walks. The rest is planted with a crab apple, walnut, and most recently, a fig. In January it is a sea of snowdrops. Then come the daffodils. And in May, bluebells. (Currently, it’s nettle pulling time!)

This year, we have turned our attention to the field below the anti-rabbit fence. It’s a work in progress, obviously, and will be for some time. But already there are more fruit trees (Victoria plum, damson, nashi or Asian pear), mown paths (as there are around the labyrinth), a huge mown circle, with a bright pink ornamental cherry planted in the centre, and some rhododendrons finding their place around the edge…

We also have two benches. And a small pond.

This is located at the far end, towards the slate bridge over the burn, and where we erected a lintel from my aunt’s cottage, during its own renovation. (You can read about this in a blog from 2015: http://www.angelajeffs.co.uk/the-old-and-the-new/)

Alongside Akii planted a Yoshino cherry, to remind him of Japan, and several varieties of iris. Ironically he was in Japan this Spring when they all flowered.

The burn, running the length of the long side of an isosceles triangle? Almost invisible in mid-summer, overhung with ferns and brambles, with only the music of its coursing after rain to remind us that it’s there. It needs clearing again, but that’s a job for autumn into winter, so soon enough. (http://embrace-transition.com/2013/12/07/east-and-west-clearing-the-burn/)

Because the septic tank and lie of the land mean drainage, and intractable sedge grass, we decided to try and make a feature of its damp nature. Liam, who mows the lawn, slope and paths for us, offered us a small pond liner that he had “kicking around”, and dug it in for us at the backend of last year.

Now it looks thoroughly at home, overhung with ferns, with pond plants for aeration, a water lily, and more than a few baby frogs.

All very satisfying.

Now we are eyeing a far larger area, and thinking big. Liam is quite excited, it seems, and so are we.

The sycamore off centre to the right will be coming down in August, to open up this side of the burn even more.

The whole area of what we loosely term ‘the garden’ (about one and a third acres in total) is now green, healthy and blossoming. Even the copse is opening up, with a circle of cut log seating, a circle of stones for a bonfire, and deer as regular visitors.

It’s not easy to keep on top of, and I feel great frustration at not being able to work in it as I used to. How long we can hold on, I have no idea.

For the moment, however, it is pure joy to see its personality developing and broadening. Responding so positively to care and attention and love, it is full of birds, bees and even butterflies. (Initially there were very few.)

I choose to believe my mother is very pleased.

 

And yes, I have always loved red geraniums…

Friend Judy Whitfield (we shared a flat in 1962 in London’s NW2) created this artwork as part of her degree at St Martin’s Central School of Art in the late 1990s. A copy now hangs above my mantlepiece, serving as a constant inspiration…

She began in the centre with the single word SPACE, and then began adding by association… Plucking out two of three words at random and working them into a paragraph at the beginning of a writing day works wonders at getting the             creative juices flowing…

Having just sent off my latest book for layout, I find myself positively astonished that yet another 60,000 words – 60,313 at the latest count – have somehow manifested.

Manifested… now there’s an interesting word.

To me it implies words having somehow, as if by magic, (and by implication, meaning) made their way from brain to screen, just as in the old days they made their way on to paper.

But what does manifested mean by accepted definition?

Good lord, not what I was imagining at all: when used as an adjective, clear or obvious to the eye or mind, and (as a noun), to show (a quality or feeling) by one’s acts or appearance; demonstrate.

And yet on some level, my reason for writing was clear and obvious to my mind, my eye. And I was most definitely demonstrating a feeling, an emotion… After all, I was writing a love story. A love story about a house. The house that was our home in Japan from 2002 until we left to come here in 2012.

Still the word, manifest, means more… to me, at least. When students write something that astonishes, even blows them away, many having never written before, they all say the same thing: ‘Where did it come from?’ And my reply is always the same: ‘Well, there’s the mystery, the magic.’

Apparently the Hindu word for meaning is “breakthrough, release”. I like this very much.

Talking and writing about what an individual may have broken through to, psychologically or emotionally, or what they may have released, inevitably leads on to a discussion about imagination and the meaning of that particular word: imagination, a noun used easily in day-to-day conversation, but without any real consideration as to its origin and inherent explanation or interpretation.

We use words so casually, especially in these days of instant communication. This is why dashed off e-mails and twits/twitters get so many into so much trouble.

When all communications had to be hand-written, time was different: longer, quieter, less dictatorial. There was time to think, to consider, to reflect, to re-consider… Words were more carefully chosen, sentences crafted, pages discarded for not reflecting the writer’s intent or emotion.

When did you last delete an e-mail and re-write, having realized it might be mis-construed, even cause the reader pain? (We are all at fault here, SEND-ing without even checking spelling and construction, let alone the emotional consciousness or un-consciousness at the heart of the message.)

I remember some years ago now a man mailing about a course I was about to run. Did he have to bring anything, apart from his laptop? When told that students would be writing by hand, and that all he needed to bring were a candle (for Proprioceptive writing sessions), a pen or pencil that he liked to work with, and an open mind, he near had a fit and accused me of being a dinosaur. Needless to say, he (being just the kind of person who would benefit most) did not sign up.

If he had come, I might have suggested at some point that he begin a PW WRITE by asking himself what he meant by accusing me of living in the past, if this was indeed what he meant or was implying. Because the question used in PW to explore our thinking and reactive habits more often than not leads into previously unexplored territory. This is how we learn, move on… how transformation occurs.

WHAT DO I MEAN BY DINOSAUR?

An extinct reptile? Someone living in the past? Jurassic Park? An archeological site of ancient remains. What else… where might such a question lead?

A quick google of the question, what’s in a word, brought up Michael Hoey’s five questions for learners (of English as a language, I am assuming) and linguists.

  1. What does the word mean?
  2. What word or words does it associate with?
  3. What meaning does it associate with?
  4. What grammatical function does it associate with?
  5. What position in the text does the word favour?

Questions 1-3 I have time for. But I admit to never thinking about 4 and 5. This is in large part because my writing courses are holistic rather than academic in approach. It also reflects how personally I write.

I rarely “think” (too much) about what I am writing, and am in no doubt that there is (at such an admission) a great throwing up of hands, many a wry cynical smile, and maybe even a few, “Well, that explains everything!”

Rather I am like a fountain that mostly flows full and freely, sometimes less so, and only very occasionally runs dry. An empty page, a blank screen never stays so for long. There is always something to write about. Words spill out of me… and usually in the right order. An order that maybe I alone understand, that is. But that’s okay. While writing to communicate with others, in large part I write to explore my Self, to raise my awareness, deepen my consciousness…

Or for fun. Donna (Murray-Trail) sent me this card, not because she thought I needed persistance (or rather persistence, which it appears I have in abundance) but because she thought it might make me laugh… which it does! 

On one level I admire those writers who spend a day crafting a sentence, following Michael’s five questions to the letter. On another, I think it must be hell. But that is because I am who I am (led by intuition and an ongoing search for authenticity), and they are who they are (lodged in academia and seeking perfection in logic and rationale).

The need for success seems to loom large for many. Appreciation by their peers. Recognition. Admiration. Zillions of sales. Money in the bank.

All very nice, some of it at least. But is that why I write? Not really. I write because it’s who I am, what I do. Do the words I produce define who I am? No. But they keep me off the streets and happy.

And to be honest, that’s enough.

WHAT DO I MEAN BY HONEST? Mmm. Maybe need another rainy afternoon to see where this leads.

Excerpt from HOUSEHOLD STORIES/Katei Monogatari (now in production) – from the chapter My Room:

I love this room. How many thousands — millions — of words have been written in here? How many trillions of thoughts have chased through my endlessly chattering brain? How many breaths have I taken to live through each and every day? How many deliberate slow breaths have I taken trying to enter stillness and silence, or to consciously allow energy to enter my body and heal the various parts that at one time or another scream for attention? (There are really parts of this ageing thing I could well do without.)

I no longer practise yoga, which I had done on and off for many years, and miss it terribly. I dream of being in lion’s pose, it is — was — so comfortable.

But I do sit.

And sometimes I dance.

My room in Japan (2002-2012) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The room where I am writing now…  Remember: a  word is simply a label, meaningless in itself. Meaning less than what? Now there’s a thought… 

21. March 2017 · Comments Off on Up close and personal · Categories: Uncategorized

I love trains. Always have. They must have figured in my childhood, except that in those days, in impoverished postwar Britain, there was not much long-distance travel. So I’m guessing the love affair began in 1953, when my parents put me on to the Royal Scotsman steam train, to travel overnight alone from Birmingham to Edinburgh.

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Just last week we took the Scotrail train up from Dunkeld to Inverness for the day. We wanted to see the last of the snowfall on the Cairngorms, and so we did…

As I write in my book Chasing Shooting Stars:

     Was it a sign of the times that they could be so trusting? Maybe they assumed me a well-seasoned traveller since I went to school daily on the bus. For they simply asked a couple with a dog – an old smelly spaniel with long, ragged ears – to keep an eye on me. I remember feeling sick with excitement (not fear). And going to sleep with my head on the dog’s soft but solid rump.
     At some point during the night I wake to find the compartment full of soldiers, drinking, smoking, playing cards and singing. I think, this is the life, and with a sense of pure contentment, return to my slumbers.

On a train just like this…

I was met in Edinburgh by my father’s elder sister, Catharine, who drove me to her home in Inverness. A former PE teacher, and a cricketer who played both at County level and for England, she was working for the Scottish Council for Outdoor Education, and had just published a book.

Published in 1951, with her own  photographs, and the poem below         (found on a bothy door, author unknown) that echoes my own love of    the journey from Euston to the                              Highlands…

These MEN OF TOMORROW are now my age, if     not older…MEN OF NOW, or even MEN OF                             YESTERYEAR….

I was thinking about this trip not so long ago, travelling down to London from Edinburgh on a Virgin train, for my first-cousin Genevieve’s cremation and the gathering at her home afterwards.

Gen’s mother had died in 1953, which is apparently why I was sent away, in complete ignorance, so that my father could help handle the immediate family crisis. His younger sister Elizabeth (Betty) had died in childbirth, and there was a inconsolable three-year-old (Gen), her distraught father, and a newborn to care and plan for.

My parents were also, I suspect, trying to protect me… protect me from death. But I think they were wrong. Maybe they thought me too young and sensitive to deal with it. In this I know they were wrong. Maybe the reaction was rooted in the Victorian mores in which they had grown up. Who knows now, for they are both passed on, and now that my own mother’s younger sister is no longer with me, there is no-one to ask.

It is an odd feeling. There is no-one now alive on either side, my mother’s or father’s, who can share my childhood. My memories are mine alone.

 

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My father as a young man…

My first up close and personal experience of death was at age 21, when my father died; he was 51. His body lay in our front room for several days before the funeral, with my mother wailing as if the world had come to an end. Her own had, apparently, which is why she spent the next fifty years as a “professional’ widow. So sad, such a waste.

 

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Samuel Robert Loader (1911-1962). Here not long before his death, old before his time… He always loved water, the sea.

What do I remember of his death?
It was late November, and icy cold. A corpse that my mother insisted I kiss. The look of him, and a sickly sweet smell that was nothing remotely to do with the father I loved. Also a sense of rage, that he would leave us all in such
a mess. We had parted badly, he and I, and all I could think was, Did you die because you thought that my leaving home meant I didn’t love you, didn’t care? How foolish was that!

I have no memory of any wake, either before or after.

I still miss him.

In Japan I was witness to three Japanese Buddhist-style funerals. I say Buddhist-style because Japan has a habit of taking on cultural imports from abroad and after some home-grown tweaking, making them their own.

The crematorium: imagine a long bare room with ovens down one side. Being (I have recently learned from DNA testing) that I am one per cent Western European Jewish, they still give me the shivers.

The body is wheeled in on a trolley, the priest recites sutras (prayers), the family members say goodbye, the trolley is pushed into the oven, the doors clank shut, and everyone goes off to a side room for green tea and chat.

Around an hour later, the family is summoned to return. The oven doors are opened and the trolley is wheeled out, revealing what is left of the corpse: ash and bones. Relatives then pick out the bones with chopsticks and –  to one side, in a semblance of privacy – place them inside an urn in logical order from feet to skull cap.

The first time I experienced this, I thought I was going to faint. But then I thought, hold on: this is something to really think about, consider…

By the third funeral I was as pragmatic as the rest. Saying goodbye to a corpse, treating remains in this way, is simply a ritual of respect. It has nothing to do with the ‘person’ (personae) or their life essence, which (to my way of thinking) has long gone.

I have had many discussions and arguments on the subject of funerals, in particular in relation to the open coffin. In Japan, this is normal at the wake, or otsuya (lit, ‘all through the night’) on the evening before a cremation. Once again, a ritual that initially seemed alien and distasteful, frightening even, became one that I can honestly say I came to love, in part because of the love displayed towards memory and the physical body of the deceased, which at this stage were intertwined.

I first experienced an open coffin at a friend’s funeral – one I had forgotten about, so four – but in this instance I attended only the otsuya, and not the kasou (lit. ‘funeral by fire’, or cremation) that followed on.

As a single mother, Tomiko had left her daughter an orphan, and it was immensely moving to see how she said goodbye to her mother: placing Tomiko’s make-up bag in the coffin, together with her favourite operatic CD, and a photograph of them together. She then invited everyone to surround her mother’s face with roses, while an Italian aria of great beauty filled the space left behind, and our hearts.

If only I had grown up with such personalized celebrations! Instead I was left baffled and dismayed by the body of the man who had in part created me, lying skeletal, yellow, cold and decaying, with the house full of whispers and denial. Where had my father gone? He was not there for sure. For the first time it made me consider the mystery of the separation of the physical and spiritual once the energetic life force/soul/atman has left the shell, but there was no-one to discuss it with.

My cousin Gen – her poor body ravaged by MS (multiple schlerosis) — was carried into the crematorium in a beautiful willow-woven casket. A simple bouquet of white flowers lay on top. There was music – a string quartet, a song from a group of her son’s friends (all professional singers), a Shakespearian sonnet, a tribute from her best friend from long-gone school days. Then – Gen having gone ahead to leave behind years of pain and suffering – her body was returned to dust and ashes, and physically she was gone.

And yet, her smile is still with me… it feels as if she’s not so far away. Maybe just across the mountains to the north?

Maybe I ought to take a train.

Not a romantic but slow and essentially filthy coal-fuelled train from the 1950s.

Not a narrow Virgin train in which there is hardly room to swing a cat, the toilets are stuffed, and the tea tastes of dusty tea bags.

DSC_0416Not the stunning new state-of-the art shinkansen bullet train that we rode on in Japan last year between Akita and Tokyo; glory hallelujah for just about everything: comfort, speed, bento box, lunches, green tea.

And not the next one either… just another one, soon .

 

 

 

 

 

Looking out of the window as I write, I see that this Spring – if this is indeed Spring for the weather continues to jump about, back and forth, provocatively, in teasing fashion – the snowdrops have doubled in size, as in covering twice as much ground as last year.

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Up towards Cothill from Burnside, massed flowers…

They like us being here, I think.

They know we are acting as guardians rather than owners. They rejoice in our energy and admiration. They feel safe enough to multiply and offer passers by, on the A923, a marvelous display. Just yesterday, two cyclists shouted their appreciation: “Oh wow, look at that. What a garden!”

Looking, and seeing. There is a difference for sure.

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The road runs from left to right, right to left, over the wall between the blue furniture at the entrance to the labyrinth, and The Bonnet, a neighbour’s house in the distance…

The young women looked quickly, glanced, and then moved on. They did not stop to see… to take time to dismount, wander around, breathe in the quiet sappy fragrance, and look deeply into the heart of the flowers… into their spiritual core, their essence of being.

It is the same with all of us. Even when living closely with someone, do we really see them? That is why the phrase, “I see you” resonated with so many in the film Avatar. Quite often Akii and I will stop, gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, and say the words: I see you. We always feel so much closer afterwards.

This “seeing” is a re-connecting on a spiritual level. It is the recognition that we are spiritual beings enjoying a human experience, rather than the other way around. Those who look go no further than enjoying the human experience, so missing the point of existence. They are too busy rushing from point A to point B, focused on the destination rather than the journey.

So let me focus, just for a while, on the snowdrop, regarded by so many as the harbinger of Spring. When it snowed the other day, they disappeared, were invisible; when the snow melted, they reappeared again, quite unscathed. Unlike many buds on trees and shrubs that yet again seem to have gone into shock at such swift climatic changes. Delicate the snowdrop may appear, but hardy is its second name.

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The last Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop) to open, shaded by the woodland copse across the burn…

Known since the earliest of times, the snowdrop was named Galanthus (from the Greek for ‘milk flower’) in 1753. Nowadays there are twenty recognised species of this bulbous perennial in the family Amaryllidaceae, ranging in shape, colour, design, height and size. (My aunt, who knew the Latin names of all the plants and shrubs and trees she planted in her garden, would be so proud that I have got around to learning this.) In the northern hemisphere, which is where we are, snowdrops have usually finished flowering by the vernal equinox on March 20 or 21. So carrying us neatly into Summer.

Snowdrops are also known as Candlemass Bells. Candlemass was originally an ancient festival (rather than pagan, which I regard as rudely ignorant) that marked the middle of winter – this year, February 2. Later it was given a Christian perspective:“The snowdrop, in purest white array/First rears its head on Candlemass Day.”

Because they are one of the earliest plants to flower, snowdrops have not only become symbols of Spring, but taken on some weird and wonderful associations, linked to what pragmatic opinion now consider to be Old Wives’ Tales.

The most common is that it’s unlucky to bring snowdrops into the house. This superstition, which appears especially strong in the West of England, and on the Isle of Mull, seems to hark back to Victorian times, when the snowdrop became associated with death, and therefore a bad omen. (They were a gloomy lot at the best of times, the Victorians!)

Legends also abound throughout Europe, the most well known – and most positive, apart from Woman being made to suffer rather more than Man! – being its association with the biblical Garden of Eden:

Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, a place where the sun shone every day, where they were warm and happy and had everything they could possibly wish for or want.  Unfortunately for them it was winter when they landed on earth, heavy rain, cold winds and dark grey skies. Eve spent every moment shivering, something she had never experienced before; she never needed to wear clothes, she didn’t even know what clothes were.  It was so cold that she felt as if her blood was beginning to freeze, and then the snow began to fall.  

At first the snow looked so pretty but that soon wore off; the blizzards made her eyes sting, her face hurt, her fingers were going numb and her body began to freeze.  Eve fell into a deep despair: would this cold never end, would she ever feel the warmth of the sun upon her face, would she ever feel warm again? She fell to her knees and began to cry. 

God hadn’t abandoned Adam and Eve completely; he had sent an angel to watch over them. Upon seeing Eve kneeling in the snow in a state of deep despair sobbing her eyes out, the angel asked her why she was so sad.  Eve told the angel that she despaired of ever feeling warm again; she had given up hope of ever seeing the sun, of ever being happy.  

The angel reached down and picked up a snowflake, gently she breathed on it, and let it fall back to the frozen ground.  Every time she did this the snowflake turned into a small flower as white as the snow upon which it fell until Eve was surrounded by a carpet of small pure white flowers. 

“Why have you done this for me?” asked Eve,

The angel replied: “To show you that winter will end, that flowers will bloom again and the sun will shine. This gift I give you is the gift of Hope”.

The flowers that the angel created became known as Snowdrops and they give us hope of a new spring, a new beginning, and new life.

Thanks to Silent Owl of County Mayo for this: http://amayodruid.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/thelegend-of-snowdrop.html

Most interesting of all, to me at least, the name of the flower does not mean a drop of snow, but derives from ‘ear drop’, the old word for earring.

Interesting to me because having learned rather more than I knew a couple of hours ago, I can now more honestly say, I see.

And ‘seeing is believing’… an idiom first published in a collection of Proverbs in English and Latin by John Clarke in London in 1639. It means, of course, that concrete or physical evidence is convincing.

Or is it? I love earrings, and wear four, two in each ear, all of which are different. Why? The simple reason is that I lose them, one at a time. Often this is while I’m gardening. I come back to the house and realize… oh no, another one gone.

So the thought bubbles up, that they are simply manifesting as flowers; which is why the land is awash in ear drops.

 

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It’s been a complicated and deeply disturbing twelve months. And still far from over…

Why have I blogged so little… not at all since Spring. Was I blocked? Not exactly, because I did begin twice, once in late August, and then again last week.

This was the header selected for the blog begun last week: THE DYING OF THE YEAR. Today, it simply seemed wrong and out of sorts: I changed my mind.

This was the header selected for the blog begun last week: THE DYING OF THE YEAR. Today, it simply seemed wrong and out of sorts: I changed my mind.

The autumnal piece was titled somewhat prosaically, NEITHER HAIR NOR THERE, and ran on thus…

What does your hair mean to you?

The first time I sat down to have my hair washed at Caldon in Edinburgh’s Haymarket, I looked up and became fascinated by the collage of quotations on hair pasted to the ceiling.

The one that really caught my eye, resonated, was by Shane Alexander: “Hair brings one’s self-image into focus; it is vanity’s proving ground. Hair is terribly personal, a tangle of mysterious prejudices.”

So true, I found myself thinking. Vanity’s proving ground. And I remembered Leonard (http://www.leonardjacobson.com/) advising me at the end of the retreat in Monterey (Mt Madonna, 2015) that I was still too caught up in self image. And while I do worry about being over-weight, it’s my hair that has always been my premier focus. If my hair is not right, I’m not right… which is where the tangle of mysterious prejudices comes in.

Born with a thatch of black hair, and growing through infancy with a head of blonde curls, somewhere along the line my head settles for mouse. For years I was in pigtails, then my mother took it upon herself to try turn me into her with a succession of appalling home perms. Then came rebellion, in the form of a fashionable beehive. Brigitte Bardot I wasn’t – too skinny – but I could try…

Which is the point I ran out of steam, or interest… left only with a long list of further quotes from Caldon’s ceiling, which I will post for your interest or edification:

“Long hair is a security blanket for me. I cut it short a few years ago and I really never want to do that again. When I do cut it, I cut it myself.” Alanis Morissette

“I love my grey hair and wrinkles. I love the fact that my face has more of an edge and more character than it did when I was in my twenties and thirties. No Botox for me.” George Clooney

“Beauty is about perception, not about make-up. I think the beginning of all beauty is knowing and liking oneself. You can’t put on make-up, or dress yourself, or do you hair with any sort of fun or joy if you’re doing it from a position of correction.” Kevyn Aucoin

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Maya Angelou

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” Khalil Gibran

“Some of the worst mistakes in my life were haircuts.” Jim Morrison

“Symbolic of life, hair bolts from our head[s]. Like the earth, it can be harvested, but it will rise again. We can change its color and texture when the mood strikes us, but in time it will return to its original form, just as Nature will in time turn our precisely laid-out cities into a weed-way.” Diane Ackerman

“Hair style is the final tip-off whether or not a woman really knows herself.”  Hubert de Givenchy

“They’re not gray hairs. They’re wisdom highlights.” Anon

“How can I control my life when I can’t control my hair?”  Anon

“Don’t you think it’s something strange that you rarely look at yourself in the mirror, except to do things like stand and ponder? I mean, in Shakespeare’s day, it was thought that the mirror would reveal something, that it is trying to tell you something – not just to tidy your hair, but something more.” Nicolas Roeg

“I’m undaunted in my quest to amuse myself by constantly changing my hair. Hillary Clinton

Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/hair.html

Well, Hillary has a lot of time now to amuse herself. The US has a new President-Elect, and it’s not good news. It makes me reconsider Maya Angelou’s line above, that if there is something that you don’t like that you can’t change, best to change your attitude. Right now this appears a conundrum, but I’m working on it.

Just as I am working on how to explain that the blog I wrote and posted on December 20 before the Winter equinox, two thirds of which disppeared overnight, is now redundant, so I shall not try to replicate. Christmas too is over, and the year-end on its way…

Tt may have been the sight of these spikes of sunlight piercing the gloom in Dunkeld yesterday, that set me on a new course. Never be scared or too proud to admit when the words are not right.  Just start again...

It may have been the sight of these spikes of sunlight piercing the gloom in Dunkeld yesterday, that set me on a new course. Never be scared or too proud to admit when the words are not right. Just start again…

January and February are usually considered dreary months, but I see no reason for gloom (all the obvious economic and political woes apart!). Many find Autumn and Winter depressing. Rather I regard them as times for Nature to hibernate and renew energetically towards Spring. Just as we are doing: sleeping a lot, eating well, breathing deeply, gathering strength and momentum. Living in each and every moment. And glorying in the additional 16 seconds of daylight we have been granted since December 21st.

No, the year is not dying, it is simply passing… slipping off its seasonal snake skin and transforming into whatever the future brings. Which is how I regard death of any kind.

In Japan it is customary to send nengajo (celebratory postcards) to family, friends and colleagues for New Year. The Japanese post office stores them up, stockpiles them, that that they are all delivered on January 1st. Which is a hell of a lot of Happy New Year (akameshite omedeto gozaimasu) cards. Even if the population of 126 million each receives twenty, that’s quite a feat of organisation and stamina.

Anyway, here is our own nengajo, customised for calendars in East and West, and I shall spend the next few days trying to work out yet again why this website insists on deleting so much of the copy I post.

Happy year-end everyone. May 2017 look after itself.

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We're all going on a summer holiday...

We’re all going on a summer holiday…(All photographs courtesy of Chiaki Takahashi and Kevin Dodd)

Arrived at Tazawako station... now by bus to the pension!

Arrived at Tazawako station… now by bus to the pension!

Signed in, beds allocated, backpacks unpacked and it's across the road and down to the lake...

Signed in, beds allocated, backpacks unpacked and it’s across the road and down to the lake…

One way to get accustomed to the water... by paddling a paddleboat!

One way to get accustomed to the water… by paddling a paddleboat!

Only just got here and look, a fish!

Only just got here and look, a fish!

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Time to go back; it’s sun set…

After supper there is music; normally That Sounds Good is a live lakeside jazz venue…

Musician friends from around the lake came to play...

Musician friends from around the lake came to play…

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A high school helper leads the way back…

Exploring...

July 30: Up early – 3am for some excited enthusiasts is reported! – Chiaki and explorers…

Hard to get them out of the water...

Hard to get them out of the water…

Fun and games outside That Sounds Great

Team games build trust and cooperation…

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Ball games in front of the pension…

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Everyone loves drawing…

 

Time for English interaction with Kevin

Time for English interaction with Kevin

Help with homework from Heather...

Help with homework from Heather…

Craft workshop

Craft workshop

Local wildflowers used for souvenirs...

Local wildflowers used for souvenirs…

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Time for more workshops…

Appreciating nature...

Appreciating nature…

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To That Sounds Good… a gift of appreciation…

Sleeping...

Sleeping…

Appreciating good food (most foraged and grown locally)

Eating… (most food foraged and produced locally)

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Chiaki, have you lost your sunglasses?

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The last swim…

Until next year...

Until next year…

23. July 2016 · Comments Off on Mission accomplished · Categories: Uncategorized
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On golden pond, on golden pond…

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.

Otsuchi before 3/11, and beyond, now...

Otsuchi before 3/11, and beyond, now…

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.

Chiaki Takahashi donates every Friday to the new generation in Otsuchi. In the morning she teaches at the kindergarten, accustoming the children to  English

Chiaki Takahashi donates every Friday to the new generation in Otsuchi. In the morning she teaches at the kindergarten, accustoming the children to English

There was no fear of me either. In 1986, when I first arrived in Japan, the large majority of children ran a mile!

Akii and I in the required line up...Chizu (cheese). As to the sweetness of the toddlers, most - but not all - born since 3/11, what can one say but Ahhhhhhhh...

Akii and I in the required line up…chizu (cheese). As to the sweetness of the toddlers, most – but not all – born since 3/11, what can one say but Ahhhhhhhh…

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.

Akii chatting with one of the elementary school-age children that Chiaki teaches on Friday afternoons, as they gaze down over Otsuchi

Akii chatting with one of the elementary school-age children that Chiaki teaches on Friday afternoons, as they gaze down over Otsuchi

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.

The graveyard, from which survivors climbed up to the community hall. Beyond, the construction industry having a financial field day...

The graveyard, from which survivors climbed up to the community hall. Beyond, the construction industry having a financial field day…

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…

Kathy Wu, the owners of the pension That Sounds Good, and Akii, on our last morning. Kathy, who was travelling alone from Hong Kong, is now an active supporter of Otsuchi  English Club events...

Kathy Wu, the owners of the pension That Sounds Good, and Akii, on our last morning. Kathy, who was travelling alone from Hong Kong, is now an active supporter of Otsuchi English Club events…

Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture: a beautiful unspoiled place to unwind...

Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture: a beautiful unspoiled place to unwind…

The pension That Sounds Good, on the lakeshore of Tazawako that hosted children from Ostuchi at the end of July

The pension That Sounds Good, on the lakeshore of Tazawako that hosted children from Otsuchi at the end of July

Sunset on Tazawako - on golden pond, on golden pond...

Sunset on Tazawako – on golden pond, on golden pond…

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.

Come to think of it, we're never very far from it anywhere...

Come to think of it, we’re never very far from it anywhere…

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… by accident or design!

 

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.

 

A favourite mug

A favourite mug

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.

The colour of Asia - sky and water

The colour of Asia – sky and water

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.

Thai aizome, and behind, a sketch of Akii and I from the Nineties wearing yukata

Thai aizome, and behind, a sketch of Akii and I from the Nineties wearing yukata

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?

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Upcycled for a music buff…

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.

Japanese ikat, called kasuri, from Kurume in Kyushu

Japanese ikat, called kasuri, from Kurume in Kyushu

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

16. March 2016 · Comments Off on Containing Led Zeppelin · Categories: Uncategorized
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Snow giving way to snowdrops and it’s all change at Burnside

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.

Prepping the site

Prepping the site

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.

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Digging out the site

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.

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Will the container fly? Will the crane take the strain?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes! And in place to the centimetre...

Yes! And in place to the centimetre…

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Window space cut out. Yay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Window, doors and even a doorstep

Window, doors and even a doorstep

 

 

 

 

 

Moving in morning...

Moving in morning…

 

 

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.

All to myself!

All to myself!