Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Ma’s Deep Pockets

February 18, 2017

I solemnly took her coat, a beautiful leather coat. A memento of sorts, the coat was something tangible to remember her by.

I claimed it as my own, a coat I’d probably never buy for myself. I still can’t imagine my mother wearing it and found no photos to prove she wore it. I must have had it in my possession for about a year after her death before I thought to actually wear it. We were headed to see a play. It was a cool Seattle autumn evening. The coat fit as if it were tailored for me.

Ma's Leather Jacket

Ma’s Leather Jacket

On our way to the car, I discovered pockets, deep pockets, to keep my hands warm. It was when I thrust my hands into ma’s deep pockets that I made my discoveries.

In the right pocket, I found a handkerchief. Perfectly clean, starched, and ironed. Instinctively, I put the hanky to my nose, as if to search out a trace of my mother’s smell. All I smelled were mothballs. Those of you reading this, who knew my mother, are laughing. I know you are, but it is no laughing matter! My mother had this thing about mothballs. Or, more accurately, she had a fear of moth infestations so she stuffed mothballs in closets, dresser drawers, coat pockets, and between our folded sweaters. My mother knew that mothballs would keep moths away. What she didn’t know was that mothballs are made of naphthalene, an insecticide, which gives off highly toxic fumes and vapors harmful to insects, wildlife, and humans.

The handkerchief

The handkerchief

In a split second, nose to handkerchief, I was back in my childhood home. The handkerchief transported me to a small brick house in NW Indiana, where the heating and AC vents carried no-longer-secret private conversations between my parents. Conversations about their monetary worries, concerns over the safety of their children, their health, our health, our futures carried through the vents with a frightening and embarrassing clarity. I remember once confessing to a priest about eavesdropping on my parents’ private conversations. I felt that guilty so as to bring my dark shame to the confessional box! I remember the priest taking an unnatural interest in my confession! Ah, the smell of that darned handkerchief!

Back to the autumn theater night in Seattle, my fingers next touched a tube of lipstick. Ma’s coral red lipstick! My mother didn’t wear make up, but on certain rare occasions, she’d put some lipstick on. For some reason, I hardly remember this. It’s a dim memory, only brought to the surface when I found the tube of red lipstick in ma’s deep pockets.

Ma's Coral Red Lipstick

Ma’s Coral Red Lipstick

For some reason the lipstick made me sad. I am trying to understand why it makes me sad. Maybe it’s because the lipstick is a testimony to the life my mother once lived. The tube of lipstick I found bears witness to my mother’s all-too-human life, one in which she wanted to feel more feminine, more beautiful. The tube of color to redden her lips unveils a woman, my mother, who was alive for a brief time. Holding the tube of lipstick makes me sad because I am reminded of her earthly existence, and all the complex feelings we humans may have about measuring up and concerns about how we should look and present ourselves to the world. I see her applying the red lipstick, perhaps in search of a boost of confidence and I continue to feel overwhelmed with sadness.

That same autumn evening in Seattle on our way to the theater, I found one last item, the most significant one, in ma’s deep pockets. I found my mother’s beloved saint card.  I couldn’t believe I now had her treasured prayer card in my possession.

Santa Rosalia, Patron Saint of Palermo

Santa Rosalia, Patron Saint of Palermo

My mother loved Santa Rosalia. Santa Rosalia is also affectionately known by Sicilians as La Santuzza, or The Little Saint. I used to see my mom pull out her saint card, covered in a clear plastic card holder. She’d lovingly caress La Santuzza, flip the card over, and I’d watch her silently lip the prayer on the card.

La Santuzza (1120-1160) is always depicted wearing a crown of roses. She is sometimes shown wearing dark thick fabrics because she cast off her riches and lived a monastic life in a cave. Her story is unusual: Rosalia was born in Palermo, Sicily, to Sicilian aristocracy (Frankish aristrocrats governing Sicily). Her father was Sinibald, Lord of Roses. Rosalia was a descendant of Charlemagne. Rosalia was a beautiful noble woman, who at a very young age, experienced a calling to devote her life to God. At age 13, she moved to a cave near the town of Santo Stephano Quisquina and devoted her life to prayer. She later moved to another cave on Mount Pellegrino, near Palermo. She lived entirely alone and died alone.

Always shown wearing a crown of roses, here La Santuzza wears the clothing of a hermit.

Always shown wearing a crown of roses, here La Santuzza wears the clothing of a hermit.

As a hermit, she was not venerated by her neighbors, royalty, or family. No one came to visit her. She died completely alone.

In 1625, during a period of plague, she appeared in a vision to a hunter near her cave. Her relics were discovered, brought to Palermo, and paraded through the street. Three days later the plague ended, intercession to Rosalia was credited with saving the city, and she was proclaimed its patroness. The traditional celebration of Rosalia lasted for days, involved fireworks and parades, and her feast day was made a holy day of obligation by Pope Pius XI in 1927.

Her festival is an annual celebration in Palermo, but I also found the following:

Rosalia is deeply revered as a saint to this day.  Her festival is a big bash, not only in Palermo, but also in Bensonhurst (a neighborhood in Brooklyn) and other Sicilian communities.  Monterey, California has a three-day fishing tournament and Italian heritage festival in her honor.

Santa Rosalia, La Santuzza, beloved saint of Palermo

Santa Rosalia, La Santuzza, beloved saint of Palermo

My mother must have gotten the card from Sicily because La Santuzza’s prayer is in Italian. On the way home on the cold autumn evening, I dug my hands into ma’s deep pockets. Perhaps like my mother, I found myself caressing the card covered by clear plastic. I didn’t read the prayer until I got home that night.

Below is the prayer on the reverse side of La Santuzza’s card (translated from Italian to English).  This is the prayer my mother lipped silently every day:

Santa Rosalia, pray to God for my family and me.

Through your powerful prayers, may we obtain health, life and salvation.

I also pray for this special need and intention

(make your intention

known).

O St. Rosalia, I promise henceforth to remember and follow your example of faith and love.

Pray for me and mine.

Amen

In Ma’s deep pockets, I discovered a cornucopia of treasures transcending time.

Christmas Growing Up: Indiana 1960s

December 27, 2016

When I was growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, Christmas meant time off school, time to play in the snow and make a snowman. I always received Perfect Attendance Awards in school, mostly because I was healthy, but also because, even if I had a tummy ache, my mom ignored my complaints and sent me off to catch the bus. Unfortunately, as soon as Christmas vacation came around, I usually got sick and spent the first day or two in bed with the flu.

Christmas time meant a family drive to Chicago to see the Christmas decorations in the shop windows along the Magnificent Mile, a one-mile stretch of shops on North Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and the Chicago River. I loved my Dad fiercely as he fearlessly drove alongside big trucks and thick traffic to get us safely into the heart of the big city. We splurged on paid parking, but we saved on meals: mom packed her homemade impinialata (olive onion bread) and had prepared plenty of hardboiled eggs. In our family, there was no driving adventure without at least a dozen hardboiled eggs in tow. (Years later, the first time Rick went on a road trip with my family, when offered a second hard boiled egg, he asked me, “What’s with the eggs?”) In the big city, bundled up as I was, my little feet always got painfully cold and my dad had to give me horseback rides up on his shoulders! The Christmas decorations looked especially beautiful from up high.

Christmas meant having the whole family together. It meant dad coming home early from work at the Indiana Toll Road on Christmas Eve. He entered the house, bringing in snowflakes and a gust of freezing wind, holding a gigantic basket filled with jam, cured meats, mustards, nuts, various types of cheese, crackers, fresh pears, dried fruits, and deluxe chocolates. He proudly handed the basket over to us as we unwrapped it and inspected its rich contents. He won a gift basket year after year for being one of Indiana Toll Road’s best and hardest working employees.

We loved Christmas because it meant my dad had a few days off work and we got to spend every waking moment in his lovely company, all of us! We played his favorite opera and Sicilian folk music records on the turntable. He told us stories of the old country, he sang for us, and he smiled his beautiful contagious smile as he and mom made homemade sausage. The sausage meat mix was ground pork, flavored with salt, cracked pepper, oregano, aniseed, and red pepper flakes. I begged for bits of raw seasoned meat before it made its way into the sausage casings via the hand-crank machine. Again and again, mom and dad patiently swatted my little hands away. Those were the happiest of times.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at St. Stephen’s was packed with other large Catholic families. Some families were so big, they took up a whole pew. My family -seven of us always arriving late- took the back row. Why were we late? Because mom always had one more chore to do, one more dish to prepare, one more item to put away, one more daughter to dress, one more door to lock. Dad waited patiently in the car. He sat rubbing his gloved frigid hands together and kept the engine running, the car warming up, the windows frost-free.

No one saw our new outfits at Midnight Mass. We kept our heavy coats on during mass because it was so cold. I felt like an Italian-American Eskimo, but at least I could snuggle deep into my coat and doze on and off, unnoticed, during the long late-night mass. The priest, rather than celebrating the many people attending midnight mass, scolded those who only showed up for the holiday masses. I counted the seconds for mass to end. Mom stood at her full height, which was not very tall at all, proud of her well-dressed, bundled up daughters and her handsome husband, proud of the fact that my family never missed a single Sunday mass throughout the year. We were not the ones being scolded. Dad had a smirk on his face as he remembered Midnight Mass of his boyhood at Santo Rocco back in Grotte, where he, the cute blond prankster, tied all the widows’ black shawls together so when they made to leave, their shawls fell off their shoulders in one big tangle! What a commotion! He dared repeat his prank every year and no one ever figured out who the prankster was!

After mass, we came back home and opened gifts under the artificial silver Christmas tree that we, as a family, had proudly assembled and decorated with tinsel and mom’s ancient Christmas ornaments from Grotte, Sicily. The ornaments were hand-painted, made of delicate glass. How carefully we handled them, knowing they were mom’s treasures. She’d certainly kill us if we broke one.

The other treasure was the nativity set my family had brought over from Sicily. On the days leading up to Christmas and for days after the holiday, I loved to say goodnight to baby Jesus before going to bed. I could stare at the tiny figures for a long time and study the faces of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three kings, the sheep and the cows. The figures of the nativity cast a spell over me. Their faces held magic, a mystery that was too profound for me, a mere child, to understand. The nativity set, I knew, represented the rock that held my family in a steadfast knot of faith.

After midnight mass, we were each handed a wrapped gift from under the tree, while an electric light-gadget facing the silver decorated tree went round and round, magically casting colors and turning the silver tree and tinsel into a spectrum of red, blue, green, gold, and orange.

When I was little, my big sisters told me that Santa was a hoax and that the gifts from Santa actually came from mom and dad. I cried because what they told me was dreadful. How could they have come up with such a cruel story? I told my mom what I had heard. My mom sternly told me that if I continued to believe in Santa, I’d keep getting gifts from him, but that if I chose to believe that he did not exist, Santa would then stop bringing me gifts. It didn’t take genius-brains to figure out what I was supposed to do. I continued to receive gifts from Santa until I was 12.

I received dolls and toys until I lost interest in them. Most of the dolls came from Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily did not have children, so she splurged when it came to gift giving for her brother’s children. She was my godmother and adored me! She brought gifts for all my sisters, but I thought my gifts from her were always super special. I secretly believed she loved me more than anyone else in the world. When I lost interest in dolls, I started receiving practical gifts: underwear, socks, a winter coat, boots, a sweater, scarf, hat, mittens, flannel pajamas, slippers, and long underwear. We children received clothing items to keep us warm during long Indiana winters.

Mom cooked and baked for days before Christmas. We children were given the difficult jobs, like cutting onions and peeling garlic. Can’t believe I am divulging this embarrassing detail, but she made us girls wear hairnets in the kitchen! Serious eating began for my family on December 24 and continued for the next 24 hours. On Christmas day, Mom put a sea of fold-up tables together in the basement and then came the tablecloths, one tablecloth overlapping another. Out came her finest plates, the best glassware, and polished silverware. The concept of potluck did not exist in my family. If my mom was hosting Christmas, she made the entire meal. My dad’s sisters came over and helped with the finishing touches.

The gathering was no fewer than 20 people. We began with a pasta dish, usually lasagna or spaghetti with meatballs, followed by Italian Sausage with roasted peppers and onions. There was always a potato salad with hard-boiled eggs, a baked ham, salad, homemade bread, olives, and dad’s homemade wine. The meal went on and on. I will never forget those Christmas meals!

We ate with gusto and we all drank wine, including the children. Everyone talked and laughed at the same time. The noise level kept going up. My boy cousins could really tuck the food away into their bellies. Watching them eat pleased my mom to no end! The adults and the children all sat at the same table and we all interacted with one another.

At some point, eventually, my mom and the other adult ladies would clear the table, quickly do the dishes, and pull out the baked cookies! Someone started a pot of coffee. Even though I was allowed to drink wine, I was not allowed to drink coffee. A well-kept secret was that Aunt Lily let me drink coffee when I spent the night at her house. I kept my word to Aunt Lily and I never told my mother. I loved how the coffee made my heart pound! I always loved the smell of coffee. It smelled of comfort, warmth, of happiness. It smelled of home. My home.

And out came the desserts! Mom’s Sicilian Fig Cookies were the best. Mom called them cucciddrati. I think she made them from memory because I never found her recipe for them (recipes are below, just before the photos). The best part of cucciddrati is that they are topped with a frosting made of butter, confectioner’s sugar, and milk, and topped with colorful nonpareil sprinkles. Mom also made Anisette Cookies. Nonna Licata used to send a box of baked cookies for Christmas. The treasure in Nonna’s box sent to us from Grotte was the cobaita, a pure-goodness-almond-brittle that my grandmother made with sun-roasted almonds from her orchard. They tasted of Sicily!

Mom also made Sesame Seed Cookies, which are called giugiuleni in Sicilian. These hard cookies were delicious dipped in coffee. When in my mother’s house, I dipped them in milk. At Aunt Lily’s house, I dipped them in coffee!

Don’t forget we lived in Indiana, so a bit of the Midwest came into the dessert scene. Alongside the almond cobaita, the dried fig filled cucciddrati, and the sesame studded giugiuleni, mom presented her freshly made Hoosier delicacies such as potato chip cookies, or jello embedded with either cottage cheese or miniature marshmallows.

And NUTS! Christmas was not Christmas without a huge bag of roasted nuts. By the end of the evening, there were piles of nutshells on the table. My dad would crack nuts for me because I didn’t have the strength to crack a single nut. I couldn’t even crack open my favorite almonds and hazelnuts! As my dad cracked the nuts for me, he’d tell his stories!

After the gargantuan meal, the adults played card games. Sounds of coins, banter, laughter still fills my ears. It feels like yesterday when I watched the adults become as playful as we children were. Sometimes we all formed a circle or a train and did Sicilian folk dancing. We’d move the tables so mom and dad could dance the tarantella. They were so light on their feet. Sometimes we children played “chase” and if you got caught, you nearly got tickled to death. The adults told jokes not meant for children’s ears. We were sent off to play, but we hid nearby and listened. We had a hard time understanding the play on words and the various puns in their slurred fast-clipped wine-dipped Sicilian dialect. The jokes went over our heads.

My mom would tell her animated played-out funny stories for all of us to hear. Every year, her bawdy stories grew more embellished, more dramatic, more comical!  She told her entertaining stories about flatulence happening at the most inopportune moments.  One of her stories, which took place at the Italian-American picnic grounds, was about an unfortunate elderly Sicilian immigrant lady, about to sit on a toilet seat, surprising a bird that was taking a dip in the very toilet she was about to sit on.  Mom also had a pocketful of stories about the many colorful characters back in Grotte.  Her stories filled every corner of our humble home with resounding laughter. Every Christmas, our house became a palace, complete with a banquet hall, a ballroom, and a court jester!

My Christmases as an adult are now quiet, the way I have grown to love them. This year, Rick and I spent three exquisite days at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. The weather treated us well. We enjoyed cold crisp frost-and-sun-filled days, took long walks, enjoyed each others’ company, caught up on sleep, read books, watched the sunrises and sunsets, and savored life as it is today. I find I do not yearn for the Christmases of my childhood, but every Christmas I do say a silent prayer of thanks to my parents and my aunties for giving me the gift of Christmas memories I will carry in my heart for as long as I live.

And below are photos from our fabulous Christmas this year at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula.

Haystacks in the sea

Haystacks in the sea

Looks unreal. Color untouched, clear skies, cold day at La Push

Looks unreal. Color untouched, clear skies, cold day at La Push

My Winter Long Shadow against the frosted grass

My Winter Long Shadow against the frosted grass

Rays of sunlight spill into the forest trail on our hike

Rays of sunlight spill into the forest trail on our hike

Another long shadow selfie: shadow against unblemished sand

Another long shadow selfie: shadow against unblemished sand

Long Shadows Across Grass (color untouched, just as I saw it!)

Long Shadows Across Grass (color untouched, just as I saw it!)

The author of this blog (Fran) and Rick

Selfie: The author of this blog (Fran) and Rick at La Push

Ice Puddle I

Ice Puddle I

Ice Puddle II

Ice Puddle II

Eye: Quileute Nation Totem Detail

Eye: Quileute Nation Totem Detail

Mist and Sea

Mist and Sea

Pink Sand makes for beautiful art

Pink Sand makes for beautiful art

Rich Red Drift Wood Against Sand

Rich Red Drift Wood Against Sand (unbelievable naturally occurring colors!)

Reminds me of my family's "steadfast knot of faith".

Kelp Strand: Reminds me of my family’s “steadfast knot of faith”.

The road leading to La Push

The frosted curvy road leading to La Push

Sunset at La Push

Sunset at La Push

Autumn Haiku

December 2, 2016

It’s already December!  Have I really been back from Japan for almost a month now?

On the first day the group was together in Japan, I gave everyone an index card containing a haiku translated into English. Each haiku had an autumn theme.  I asked everyone, if possible, to capture an image with their cameras to match their particular haiku.

A haiku poem traditionally contains a specific image which becomes a symbol for a given season.  For example, crows, red dragonflies, colorful leaves, full moon, moonlight, bamboo, sake, frogs, wild geese, cranes, and herons are common images or symbols for autumn haiku. It was a tough assignment I gave out.  It was not always possible or easy to capture the simple-yet-rich imagery depicted in the haiku.

I did, however, receive the following examples of Autumn Haiku with their corresponding photos below.

The first haiku below is the one I assigned myself (!).  I thought it would be easy to find a lone empty road, but I couldn’t seem to find what I wanted.  Instead, I captured the lonely beauty of the ancient cemetery at Mt. Koya.  The tombstones, tilted drunken sentinels standing watch next to ancient trees atop the forested mountain, were covered in moss.  Instead of a road, there was a footpath running the length of this vast cemetery.  I certainly would not want to brave this path alone at night.

Not one traveller
braves this road –
autumn night.

-BASHO

Cemetery at Mt. Koya

Lonesome path. Cemetery at Mt. Koya. The five stacked stones represent the five elements Earth, Water, Fire, Wind/Air, Space.

And Jeff was the first to submit a photo for his haiku!  Here is his assigned haiku and his photo from the bamboo forest:

Moonlight slants through
The vast bamboo grove:
A cuckoo cries

-Basho

Jeff's photo of the bamboo forest

Jeff’s photo of the bamboo forest

Bill was not able to photograph the solitary leaf of a kiri tree while in Japan, but when he returned to Vancouver, BC, he saw an image which would help him investigate the loneliness Basho describes:

Come, investigate loneliness
a solitary leaf
clings to the kiri tree

-Basho

Bill's photo and haiku below

Bill’s photo of the solitary leaf

Yoga: I Love Light

November 21, 2016

Whether he is in Japan or back at home, every morning Don wakes up at 4am and does his yoga practice.  At the end of his yoga practice and meditation, he recites the following mantra:

I am a child of light

I love light.

I serve light.

Light is in me

protecting,

illuminating,

supporting,

sustaining.

I am light.

Don was recently on the Japan tour.  One morning I asked him to share the above mantra with us as we did yoga.  Of the 13 full days touring Japan, we, as a group, had 10 sessions of yoga.  As usual, I am unable to take photos when I am teaching.  But luckily,  Jeff (and Karin) got a few good shots!  I only took some of these photos.

The first set of photos were taken on our cycling trip in Kyoto.  That day we had standing yoga in Kameyama Park.  Since we had been cycling all morning, I told everyone not to worry about bringing their yoga mats along.  And since the ground was a fine white pea gravel, we also wore our shoes.  We called the class Standing Yoga.  It felt so good to take in the clean fresh air of Kyoto!

Debby and Marc forming a bridge of friendship.

Debby and Marc forming a Bridge of Friendship.

One more view of the Vol-Au-Vents (the name of a savory light pastry in France that means Fly With the Wind)

One more view of the Vol-Au-Vents (the name of a savory light pastry in France which means “Fly With the Wind”)

Happiness is the Bridge of Friendship. Ginger and Woody

Happiness is the Bridge of Friendship. Ginger and Woody (pant legs tucked in from the bike ride).

Our team magicians: Chiaki and Yukiko

Our team magicians: Chiaki and Yukiko

Last shot for the Standing Yoga in Kyoto: I think we look we belong to a scene right out of Saturday Night Fever.

Last shot for  Standing Yoga in Kyoto: I think we belong in a scene right out of Saturday Night Fever.

See what I mean?

See what I’m saying??

Then we have lots of yoga photos from the first Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn with Hot Springs/Onsen) we stayed at on the island of Shikoku.  The room we had was unbelievable!  It was like a ballroom/atrium combo with glass windows overlooking the city of Takamatsu.  We did yoga in the evening, just before dinner and the city lights made for a dramatic and lovely backdrop to our yoga class.  One more thing: I had access to chairs so we did yoga using chairs.  Amazing what you can do using chairs for yoga!

Camel Pose

Camel Pose (Kim in the foreground)

Forward bends using the chair

Forward bends using the chair

Revolved Triangles!

Revolved Triangles! (Bill in the foreground)

Deeper Backbends over a chair (Karin)

Deeper Backbends over a chair (Karin)

Resting Crocodiles!

Resting Crocodiles!

Resting crocodile

Resting crocodile

Deeply Relaxed!

Deeply Relaxed! (Jeff!)

And photos were also taken at the Buddhist monastery at Mt. Koya.  I think that may have been the best room ever.  The floors were made  of tatami mats. There is a nice sweet grass-like smell that comes with tatami mats, which are made of rush grass.  They are gentle but firm.  The room we practiced in was cavernous.  There were several heaters which kept us warm.  This is a good thing because it was pretty cold on the mountain at night. The monastery had a great feel to it. In the morning we watched the monks chant, pray, and do their fire ceremony.  It was very peaceful and meditative. I think their good energy permeated the yoga space.  And it was quiet. A very quiet room with great acoustics so my voice carried over strongly.

Side stretching

Side stretching

Windmill

Windmill

Trees at the Monastery

Trees at the Monastery

Flip Your Dog!

Flip Your Dog!

And lastly, we found that doing Warrior I-or any yoga at all- in our Kimonos was impossible! (Fran and Karin)

And lastly, we found that doing Warrior I-or any yoga at all- in our Kimonos was impossible! (Fran and Karin)

Industrial Yoga

November 19, 2016

A crazy idea, an industrial yoga photo-shoot. Why do it? Seems easier to ask why not? The idea came to me on a rainy day in Seattle, during the rainiest month of the year, November, my birthday month, in this rain-forested part of the world, the Pacific Northwest. I wondered if this idea had ever been explored before?

Yoga and Industry?

Yoga and Gray Buildings?

Yoga in an Industrial Setting?

To find out, I went on line in search of “Industrial Yoga Photo Shoot” and nothing came up. I tried other wording and, still, nothing. What I did find were photos of yogis inside studios that looked like large lofts, lofts serving as yoga studios within former industrialized buildings, fully remodeled with a fresh post-modern look and the telltale interior brick wall to indicate the building’s humble beginnings as a warehouse or supply depot.

I dragged my friend/massage therapist/visual artist, MaryAnn Kuchera, into the rain, to the SoDo District, South of the Dome, the dome that no longer exists, the one that was blown up to bits in order to make way for a bigger-better sports arena. I dragged her to this industrial district that has become the home of Starbucks headquarters. Not sure how I convinced MaryAnn to join me in this endeavor. There wasn’t much in it for her (or me) except that we got to hang out together in the rain. She must love me because there was no glamour in this project. But I wanted no one but her engaged in on my off-the-wall creativity. I thought I’d have to do some heavy convincing, but she agreed right away to be my on-the-scene photographer.

MaryAnn has an eye for detail. She is an artist. And she’s busy. We had to work hard to find a time that fit into our busy schedules. I wanted a Northwest winter setting, read “rain”, complete with gray buildings and low clouds.

Talk about getting what you want!

The day we chose was bone chilling cold. It was pouring. We knew what to expect. After all, it was winter in Seattle. I was worried that, with the cold weather, my body wouldn’t be elastic enough for some of the asanas. MaryAnn took her place behind the camera. We did our work. I warmed up enough at times to take off my many layers. Then I’d get shivery and have to layer up again. One thing I can say, the experience felt real because it was real! It was a typical winter day in Seattle. There were many areas, like the shipyards, which were off limits to us, barred by high chain linked fences and barbwire. And I was in no mood to jump barbwire fences. As is, I climbed fire escapes and loading docks, risked standing on train tracks, and took in the hard stares from the drivers rumbling past. I did all in the name of capturing a part of Seattle that seems to be hidden from the everyday downtown worker, the backbone industrial area, an almost hidden essential artery of the city.

But why yoga in this setting? I am still trying to figure this one out. When I first saw the photos that came out of the shoot, I was not satisfied. They weren’t really what I had in mind. Or so I thought. I put the photos aside and didn’t look at them again for a while…until today. Almost one year later. Now I kind of see it.

It’s about me and all of us, adapting to our environment. It’s about yoga teaching us how to ground, how to navigate life, how to perceive with new eyes. It’s about yoga teaching us how to be playful and, at the same time, how to put your nose to the grinder. With the lines of my body, I explored and fit into the open lines of the city, the loading docks, the wires, the fences, the streets, the railroad tracks. This is something we cannot do within a studio setting.

I did yoga asanas in this setting in order to draw attention to the overlooked, to what may be viewed as the possibly polluted parts of the city, in order to promote the enhancement or rejuvenation of these areas. Starbucks headquarters has moved into the old Sears Building in the SoDo District. Others will do the same. Perhaps what we captured will soon be a ghost of the past, buildings that once existed, destroyed to make way for something bigger, better, racier.

We care about our bodies. Well, why not care about the industrial artery of the city? On a bigger scale, why not take care of mother earth the way we care about our bodies, with respect and tender care? There is definitely a relationship between yoga and the environment. Seattle’s Duwamish River is a silent witness to this photo shoot. As I did Warrior II, I was aware of the Duwamish’ rushing presence, the Duwamish showing signs of revival. Finally, she is starting to thrive through much effort to clean her up after some 70 years of chemical dumping and neglect.

At times the industrial area felt dark and somewhat frightening. Do they have a soul these vast buildings and machinery, concrete and steel, cold and hard surfaces? Perhaps this yoga shoot was about shining the light of yoga on the darker parts of the city.

Our world is changing so fast that these places might not exist for much longer. The gray building could go down overnight and be replaced by a high rise apartment complex. On a regular basis, this city takes structures, knocks them down, and within months, newer bigger buildings come into being. Maybe this photo shoot is the start of something big, something new?  A new awareness through yoga.

Autumn in Japan Slideshow

November 13, 2016

And so our autumn journey to Japan is wrapped up in a slide show. As you watch, you’ll hear shakuhachi music, Silver Bamboo, by Dean Evanson.  Be sure to turn up your speakers as you watch these lovely images float by like autumn leaves swaying in the wind.  A great big thank you to my fellow travelers. Your laughter still rings in my ears! The trip was fantastic and I will offer it again in November 2017.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves;

And we travel, next to find ourselves.

We travel to open our hearts and eyes

And learn more about the world than

Our newspapers will accommodate.

-Pico Iyer

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Take only memories,

Leave only footprints.

-Chief Seattle

Yoga Inspiration

November 8, 2016

I am back home now.  I woke up in the middle of the night trying to figure out which city I was in. Was I in Kyoto, Koyasan, Osaka, or Miyajima? Or was I in Tokyo or back in Tsukiji at Kazuko’s apartment? Gradually, I figured out I was back at the condo in Green Lake, home sweet home, with the memory of Japan freshly imprinted in my mind. The Japan experience was incredible, rich, and so varied in scope.  I have a lot of processing to do!

There are a few more Japan-related blog posts to come. For now, I share this poem with you, along with photos of my fellow travelers and yogis, whom I spent the last two weeks of my life with, in the land of the Rising Sun, the Land of Kindness, Japan.

I chose the poem below before going on the trip. It embraces the philosophy of Hokusai and I feel it reflects what we experienced on our trip. Hokusai was an Edo era painter and lived from 1760-1849. He is most famous for his work of art called The Great Wave. He is the best-known and most revered Japanese artist and was extremely productive. He is perhaps the most famous non-Western artist and may very well be the equivalent of Michelangelo.

I think the poem depicts the way of the yogi. I loved the words of this poem and ideas conveyed before I left for Japan, but as I read this poem to the group on our last yoga session, I realized that the words had taken on a deeper dimension after having experienced Japan these past weeks. The poem embraces values found in Japanese culture as well as a deep running undercurrent of the Japanese approach to life.  It is a blend of the indigenous Shinto religion where stones and trees hold spirit and intelligence and of Buddhist philosophy and wisdom, where awakening oneself to the moment, living a life of mindfulness and awareness of thoughts and actions, and living a moral life lead to becoming an enlightened peaceful being.

Hokusai Says

Hokusai says look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing

He says look forward to getting old.
He says keep changing,
you just become more of who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat
yourself as long as it is interesting.

He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.

He says every one of us is a child,
every one of us is ancient
every one of us has a body.
He says every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find
a way to live with fear.

He says everything is alive —
shells, buildings, people, fish,
mountains, trees, wood is alive.
Water is alive.

Everything has its own life.

Everything lives inside us.

He says live with the world inside you.

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw,
or write books. It doesn’t matter
if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It matters that you care.

It matters that you feel.

It matters that you notice.

It matters that life lives through you.

He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.

Love, feel, let life take you by the hand.

Let life live through you.

– Roger Keyes

Divya

Divya

Theresa, Daphne, and Fran

Theresa, Daphne, and Fran

Sisters! Debby and Daphne

Sisters! Debby and Daphne

Wendy

Wendy

JD and Kim with the lovely Maiko-san

JD and Kim with the lovely Maiko-san

Ginger and Woody

Ginger and Woody

Kevin and Fran

Kevin and Fran

Marc and Nellie

Marc and Nellie

Don

Don

Jeff and Karin

Jeff and Karin (Udon Cooking School)

Bill and Bridget

Bill and Bridget

Marc, John, Daphne, Bridget, Debby, and Bill

Marc, John, Daphne, Bridget, Debby, and Bill

Yukiko and Chiaki

Yukiko and Chiaki

Last night in Osaka: Jeff, Kevin, Don, Karin, and Fran

Last night in Osaka: Jeff, Kevin, Don, Karin, and Fran

Up the Holy Mountain

November 6, 2016

Last night was our last night at the monastery in Mt. Koya. Mt Koya is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a sect introduced to Japan in 805AD by Kukai (also known as Kobo Daishi), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures.  Mt. Koya is also the site of Kukai’s mausoleum and the start of Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. 

We have been staying at a Shukubo (authentic temple lodging and Buddhist monastery) and have a huge tatami room for yoga. It’s not the easiest place to stay, but we have had rich experiences here.  The monastery is very spartan.  Monk-like living quarters.  Very authentic. We sleep on futon mats placed over the tatami mats.  Our shared bathrooms are a schlep down the hall.  And if you prefer a shared bathroom that has Western-style toilets, and has one room designated for women and the other for men, then it is worth your while to wind your way down two flights of stairs, across long hallways and over an outdoor bridge (in the frigid weather at night) and across long corridors that are not heated and walled in by paper windows.  In this special bathroom, you will find a heated toilet seat and all is clean and pleasant.  I think it was worth the hike!  Bathing is in a sento (one for men and one for women) and the hours for hot water are restricted between 4:30pm and 9pm. Our life here is filled with the monks’ chanting, prayer and fire ceremony in the morning, a walk through the mysterious ancient forested Buddhist cemetery Okunoin, making Buddhist prayer bead bracelets, visiting various temples and shrines, seeing gorgeous autumn leaves.  The chanting, prayer, and fire ceremony was a deeply meditative and powerful experience for all of us.  Here we experience sunny days that warm the heart and fill your vision with views of brilliant red maple leaves and golden ginko leaves, and cold nights that bring frost over tiled roofs and pine branches. 

To counter the purity of vegan meals and the simplicity of sleeping on futon beds spread over tatami mats within a room with paper doors (shoji) and paper screened windows, many of us gather at night to enjoy clandestine  sake/whiskey/wine. These furtive parties take place in Kevin’s “abode” or in the Richardson’s tatami “suite”.  We sit on cushions piled high.  We drink the bootleg from our tea cups.  Here on this most sacred Buddhist mountain in the world, it may be 34 degrees Fahrenheit outside at night, but, indoors, we embrace the warmth of our group as well as the warmth from the heater in the corner of the tatami room. Our hearts are full and our spirits rich.

Oh, Japan! You are slipping away too quickly….I hear gongs in the distant night as I pull the covers tight and fall asleep. And again, upon waking, I hear the gongs as the monks gather to chant at 6am.

 

Photo by Karin ...Autumn Leaves at Mt. Koya

Photo by Karin Bigman …Autumn Leaves at Mt. Koya

Autumn in Japan, Mt. Koya

Autumn in Japan, Mt. Koya (photo by Karin Bigman)

Mt. Koya's temples

Mt. Koya’s temples

Temple Walls

Temple Walls

Prayers and Lit Candles: Inside the temples

Prayers and Lit Candles: Inside the temples

Oh, let's pose with a monk! with Ginger and Woody Howse

Oh, let’s pose with a monk! with Ginger and Woody Howse

Stone Garden

Stone Garden and Temple

Perfectly raked stone garden temple

Perfectly raked stone garden temple

Pillars inside temple

Pillars inside temple

Panorama of Fall Leaves Mt Koya

Panorama of Fall Leaves Mt Koya

Autumn Leaves and Rooftops

Autumn Leaves and Rooftops

Novice Monk fallen asleep on drum

Novice Monk fallen asleep on drum

Mt Koya cemetery: Okunoin, situated in the middle of an ancient forest

Mt Koya cemetery: Okunoin, situated in the middle of an ancient forest

The great Buddhist Monk, Kobo Daishi Kukai. Koyasan (Mt Koya) was founded by him twelve centuries ago.

The great Buddhist Monk, Kobo Daishi Kukai. Koyasan (Mt Koya) was founded by him twelve centuries ago.

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Okunoin

Dressed statues commemorate children who did not live long in this world

Dressed statues commemorate children who did not live long in this world.  They wear red bibs and are called Ojizu.

these stone carvings represent earth, water, fire, air, and ether, often the elements are marked in Sanskrit

these stone carvings represent earth, water, fire, air, and ether, often the elements are marked in Sanskrit

Ojizu

Ojizu

Moss covered head stone

Moss covered head stone

Autumn Leaves..Koyasan is the only place where the have leaves started to turn red already.

Autumn Leaves..Koyasan is the only place where the have leaves started to turn red already.

Cemetery Statue

Cemetery Statue

Cemetery Statue

Cemetery Statue

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Kimono Night in Gion

November 5, 2016

We’ve had so many experiences here in Japan.  Our guide, Chiaki, seems to say everyday, “Today, you have another highlight!”  And it’s true!  Everyday seems to bring on another grand adventure and unique experience. One of our highlights was the afternoon we went to Gion, the geisha and entertainment district in Kyoto, to dress up in kimono!

We went to a Kimono Rental.  First we were told to choose a silk kimono.  Next, the attendant chose a slip to match the kimono and helped us choose an obi (silk sash).  I was also told to choose a silk purse.  While the women in my group were choosing their silk kimono, the men where choosing theirs. From there, the women were led into one room and the men led into another.

Once in the women’s room, each of us had a professional attendant helping us with the whole process.  I was helped into a white robe/undergarment.  A few of us had chosen to pay the extra 580 yen ($5.80) to have our hair done in a traditional style to go with the kimono wearing.  I was led to the hair dressing department in my white robe where a women commenced to tease my hair.  I would rather describe the hair styling action as “ratting” but I know the proper word is “teasing”.  Rat-Tease-Spray-add a hair ornament shaped like a fan, and voila, before I knew it, I had an Audrey Hepburn-like hairdo.  It took about 10 minutes for the hair transformation.

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Then back to the dressing room, where the completion of the kimono wearing took place.  Layer after layer pulled tightly over my midsection, the kimono began to come together.  Then we were given tabi, socks with a separation for the big toe so we can wear our special geta shoes.

It was so fun to see everyone in our group so completely transformed. We then walked to a temple and park and took thousands of photos.

Hot off the press!

Hot off the press!  What a good looking group of kimono-clad-yogis!

We walked over to a park and took this photo

We walked over to a park and took this photo. 

Ladies!

Ladies!

And Gentlemen!

And Gentlemen!

with Don and Karin

with Don and Karin

The Lovely Canadians!

The Lovely Canadians!

with Jeff!

with Jeff!

Having a kimono on is like being hugged tightly.  You cannot slouch so your posture looks fabulous. You feel regal because, of course, you have a regal bearing to your stance.  You cannot, however, do yoga. When you walk, you have a mincing step…and below is Karin and me trying to do Warrior I.  Impossible!

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We wore our outfits to dinner, too. We went to Ganko Takasegawa-Nijoen for a multi-course Kaiseki dinner.  Kaiseki is a meal at one with nature. Every food that is served is in season.  When guests eat kaiseki dinner, they will often find things from nature such as flowers and leaves adorning the food.

Ganko Takasegawa-Nijoen is more than a restaurant. It is a villa-turned restaurant with an exquisite garden that has a river and waterfalls running through it.  It was originally the villa of the Edo-period business magnate Suminokura Ryoi and later that of Yamagata Aritomo, the Prime Minister during the Meiji period.  The historic home has occupied the same location for 300 yeas. The restaurant has a spacious Japanese garden that hardly anyone would expect to find in the middle of Kyoto.  The food is refined and the overall experience was one of a kind.

Bill stands near a lantern in the garden!

Bill stands near a lantern in the garden!

Kim and JD enjoying their meal

Kim and JD enjoying their meal

We wore our kimonos back to the hotel and returned them to the front desk that evening. It took me about 15 minutes to untie the obi and to undress.  Someone counted 19 pieces of garments to undo and take off.  It was a great relief to have it off, but also I felt sad because I suddenly no longer felt the postural support I felt all evening.  I also felt like Cinderella at curfew time.  All the magic was over.  I was just plain me again.  We asked Chiaki if there is a special word for the feeling one has when the kimono is taken off. She promptly replied, “We just say Ahhh!”

Himeji Castle

November 3, 2016

Rick lived in Himeji for over thirteen months.  He spent a lot of time walking around the moat, admiring the castle, photographing it and the surrounding grounds in all seasons.  He was hired by the city of Himeji to write all the English signage on the castle grounds and within the castle.  That was over thirty years ago, not too long before I met him in Chiba.

Today the signage is different.  There are signage warnings with drawings depicting how using selfie sticks can lead to electrocution if the stick hits an electrical wire.  There are warnings not to talk and text with drawings that show a texting-walking figure colliding with a wall.  Modernization has taken root, but the castle itself remains a preserved beauty.

The city of Himeji was hit by air raids twice during WWII and the town was in ashes. However, the snow-white Himeji Castle was miraculously unharmed by the air raids of WWII.  In fact, wars, fires, and natural disasters have left this castle entirely intact and have not affected the structure in any way! Last year the castle was fully renovated, fortified, painted, and earthquake-proofed.  Even though yesterday was a national holiday and the castle was absolutely packed with other visitors, we felt so lucky to be able to walk inside and see this incredible structure!

Himeji Castle was build over 600 years ago (the building of the castle started in 1331). This national treasure, also known as the White Heron (some refer to it as a white egret), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It comes complete with a moat, 21 gates, 32 tall stone curving walls, firing holes, towers, thick latticed lacquered windows, wooden flooring, and incredible tile work on the roof bearing eight different family crests on the ridge end-tiles.  Himeji Castle offers unique defenses that many other Japanese castles do not include, such as the path maze leading to the castle:

  The path maze to the main keep includes many dead ends, to prevent attackers from entering and allowing those inside to defend much more effectively.

It took us about 45 minutes to walk through the castle.  The views from the top were breathtaking. We could not have had a more beautiful day to do this tour.

Map of the castle and grounds

Map of the castle and grounds

Detail: the ends of the tiled roofs are always in the shape of waves. The waves were thought to help thwart fire in the wooden buildings.

Detail: the ends of the tiled roofs are always decorated in the shape of waves. The waves were thought to help thwart fire in the wooden buildings.

Himeji Castle.

Freshly painted Himeji Castle.

Door at the entry gate

Door at the entry gate

Some of the roofs of the 7 level roofed castle.

Some of the roofs of the 7 level roofed castle.

Another gate door at the castle entrance

Another gate door at the castle entrance

View of Himeji from the 5th floor of the castle

View of Himeji from the 5th floor of the castle

Tourists float along the castle moat.

Tourists float along the castle moat.


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