December. As the temperature plummets, my bedroom window freezes shut. Once again I pull out wool sweaters, wool socks, snow pants and mittens. On a clear night the curved edge of the moon and gleaming stars emit a bell-like ring…small pleasures…and solstice will soon be here. Then the sun will shine a fraction of a minute longer each day…a slow reversal barely visible until spring, yet it is a knowledge that will help my spirit stay afloat. How often does this happen—an imperceptible shift to light just as darkness feels like forever?
It takes courage to live, courage to die, to shed tears, to mourn. We talk of swords, fights, and battles but it is the language of the carp (koi) that captivates me. Like the willow, the carp knows how to follow the wind…and when necessary, has strength to swim upstream. In an ancient myth, a school of carp finds itself travelling against the current. Some turn back but others persevere when they encounter a waterfall. After many attempts one jumps to the top and becomes a dragon.
In this era we tend to think that we know everything, while in fact there is so much we do not know about ourselves, about each other, and the natural world we live in…there are many unopened doors locked by deception, ignorance, and shame waiting to be opened when we dare.
Crossed on the ferry at Tsukinowa to the post town of Se-no-ue to see the ruins that were Sato Shoji’s house, beyond town to the left, near the mountains. We were told to look at Saba Moor in Iizuka, and we eventually came to Maru Hill where the castle ruins lay. Seeing the main gate sundered, the ancient temple nearby, seeing all the family graves, my eyes glazed with tears…
Sword, chest and wind-carp
all proudly displayed
on Boys’ Festival Day
Basho, “Narrow Road to the Interior,” translated by Sam Hamil, The Essential Basho, pg. 11-12
A second Thanksgiving is on its way. The first was our Canadian holiday on the second Monday of October. The second, the American holiday, arrives this week on the 4th Thursday of November.
I find myself embracing another reminder to contemplate gratitude, a source of solace when loss rears its head. I may be declining in some ways, but my mind is still intact, I am still active, I am free of chronic pain. I was born after two world wars in a peaceful part of the globe with clean tap water, indoor plumbing, ample electricity, fresh food, access to medical care, a public school system and much more. My childhood may not have been perfect but my parents were good responsible people. I was born with and retain the capacity to love, to breathe, to hope for another day. Today my glass is more than half full.
Unpleasant appointments loom in my calendar — though not always cushioned by pleasurable events, they are…this time. Nonetheless they continue to tap at the edge of my composure, vying for my anxious attention.
A little anxious, thinking of the Shirakawa Barrier, thinking on it day by day; but calmed my mind by remembering the old poem, “somehow sending word home.” I walked through heavy green summer forests. Many a poet inscribed a few words at one of the Three Barriers–“Autumn Winds” and “Red Maple Leaves” come to mind. Then, like fields of snow, innumerable white-flowered bushes, unohana, covered either side of the road…
around my head
dressed for ancient rites [Sora]
(note: Sora was a poet and traveling companion of Basho during his travels through the North.)
Basho, Narrow Road to the Interior, translated by Sam Hamil, The Essential Basho, pg. 9
Words replay and reform under the sun and moon…on water, on mountaintops, in forests….Matsuo Basho thought of the poems of Saigyo on his 1689 trek. He visited a willow where Saigyo wrote this poem over 500 years earlier:
At the side of the road
The willow’s shade
Where clear water flows
Thinking “Just for a while”
I stayed on
In Basho’s time Saigyo’s willow was by a rice field. He wrote:
Rice-planting done, they
depart — before I emerge
from willow shade
~ Narrow Roadto the Interior
Willows border a rural road near my home. Their long branches add elegance to the flat terrain. William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) wrote of willows in autumn:
It is a willow when summer is over, a willow by the river from which no leaf has fallen nor bitten by the sun turned orange or crimson. The leaves cling and grow paler, swing and grow paler over the swirling waters of the river as if loath to let go, they are so cool, so drunk with the swirl of the wind and of the river— oblivious to winter, the last to let go and fall into the water and on the ground.
I stand on the deck to keep Diesel company while he performs his outdoor rituals. In the sun the air is just above freezing—almost warm. I am there with slippers on, my usual busyness on pause. At this moment there will be no running out to fill the bird feeder or shovel snow away from the wooden steps.