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As I turned the calendar to a new month a few days ago, it occurred to me that had anyone told me five months back that I would move to Victoria before the year was out; I would have considered it a joke of the day. April Fool! Yet, after tending to a dying mother, arranging her memorial service, selling her condo, settling her estate and selling my own Abbotsford home once that was done; that’s where I am.
I’m glad I started that process in June by moving and living here part time before the one-fell-swoop uprooting move. It helped immensely to walk into a cozy suite and simply leave the carload of boxes and bags in the spare room for a day or two until I was in the mood to unpack them. How nice to be able to wait for “the mood” and not have to rise at 5 and work until 5 day after day. It’s wonderful to have the option to roll over at 5, and snooze until 7 before schlepping out of bed and putting on the coffee.
After such a labor-intense and emotionally fraught period I’m unsure of my next steps. I’m on pause. Of course, I will collect myself and find direction. It’s only a matter of time. Fortunately I’ve lived long enough to know and trust that.
Even though I miss it deeply, I don’t know whether I’ll decide to resume blogging about my travel experiences in Japan, take a different tack or abandon blogging altogether.
At the moment I have moved to the place of no words. Although that creates a void, a retreat into this period of silence also feels right. Like the idea of nai tokoro in Japanese, it is the point or state of nothing. It’s the negative space which surrounds and reveals the focal point. I wait to see what that might be.
Yesterday was India’s Independence Day.
After I sold my mother’s condominium, I sold my own. Currently I am sorting, culling, and preparing to move to Victoria. Sitting down to craft posts is not on the agenda. However, I thought I’d share a review which ran a decade ago in The Vancouver Sun.
Usually I stay somewhat distant in reviews; however, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, by Alex Von Tunzelmann required something else.
The Mahatma Gandhi Community Forum which publishes news & views on Mahatma Gandhi, peace and nonviolence asked my permission to run it on their website. I hope that some might read the splendid book as well as the review.
Removing the contents of my mother’s home, handling all her mementos and treasures has proven a problematic, even excruciating task. For one, I’d been after her to do some of it—at least the non-treasure stuff—for years. How many plastic yoghurt containers do you need to keep at any one time, Mother? Apparently, many.
Some people who were destitute during the Great Depression never seem to lose the tendency to keep a thing for its potential usefulness. Not that Mother was a hoarder. I suspect that she simply forgot that she already had two unopened boxes of bran flakes when she bought the third.
Some have no problem with the culling process. One suggestion from someone who shall remain nameless was to pitch it all from the balcony. Fortunately, there are people who love other people’s stuff. The foodbank gratefully took the bran flakes and five boxes of goods from her pantry.
More good luck, the condominium has a swap table for residents to leave items which have outgrown their usefulness in one household. No matter what you put on it, in short order the maggots descend and the table sits like a bleached bone in a matter of hours. One woman who happened to be passing by the moment I arrived could barely restrain herself from snatching my mother’s sun-bleached and badly beaten up plastic watering can from my hand.
Even greater good fortune, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) operates a thrift store within a kilometer of the condominium. They happily receive resalable goods of all kinds and turn them into wells for villages, loans for third world entrepreneurs, and among many other things, assist refugees (which my grandparents were when they entered Canada). Call it payback time. They’ll see good money from many of Mother’s beautiful clothes and fine things.
After family members had selected mementos, I loaded the condo’s contents into frogboxes (delivered with dollies to my doorstep by Frogbox Fraser Valley), and with the help of friends and siblings made several trips to the MCC Drop Off on South Fraser Way. Unsold furniture will be picked up later by the larger MCC operation on Gladys Avenue.
Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it?
Not so. Every object, slip of paper, ribbon, and jewel passes through my fingers. I must decide whether to keep, donate, recycle, shred or toss. I am reminded of lines from Pope’s mock epic The Rape of the Lock:
Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows, / Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.
In an era where we can’t wait to toss a thing for the new one that’s come along, as they did to Pope, these objects might seem trifles to some. Especially to anyone who scorns things. Especially women’s things. Or worse, old women’s things.
Not so. Whether gifts of love received for her wedding, birthdays and such, splendid paintings or numerous crafts, a grandchild’s scribbled sketches, letters, cards, her last grocery list of items never shopped for; each is no mere thing.
The way the word Paris conjures up an entire city and its history, like a petroglyph lost to time, each is a magnificent story. Each a memento of a moment—its heartbreak or joy—the person with whom it was shared, and needing to be mourned. A life-epic not to be mocked.
Following the recent and unexpected death of my mother and all the upheaval that means for a family, I have decided to officially take a break from posting. That doesn’t mean I won’t create posts, but the 7-10 day regularity that I like to observe can’t be counted on. Just so you know.
Two days ago I moved a fraction of my stuff–things that can fit into a hatchback– to Victoria. Last Sunday my brother loaded up his Subaru, too. I plan to live here part time for the next seven months as this is where most of my family and friends are. I will return to Abbotsford and my home there periodically to settle estate matters.
I’m in an ideal spot–near Mt. Douglas Park and the beach–in my brother and sister-in-saw’s gorgeous little in-law suite and settling in quite nicely.
Already it’s strikingly different than coming into town as a visitor. I mean, I have to shop in hardware stores, not boutiques. In addition, I don’t have my usual support system of familiar purveyors for my needs at hand. I don’t have a table yet. It’s here in the city, but can’t be delivered until next week because the delivery schedule is that busy.
None of those are complaints. Just facts. Meaning a good deal more settling into this life is necessary before I can focus on new posts. Still, I miss it when I don’t write. You’ll see me again. I’m quite sure of that. Perhaps I will surprise myself. It may be sooner than I think.
You know you are not in a good place when you’ve got the undertaker on speed dial.
My beautiful and gifted and occasionally exasperating mother was admitted to ER on April 20. On May 1 she went into hospice care. On May 9 she died.
Her charm, creativity, sense of humour and gentle spirit endeared her to others all her life, even during her final days in hospital and hospice. An enthusiastic singer, artisan and skilled painter, her family was (in her words) “what gave me the most joy in life.”
Ours was a complex relationship. Often like a falconer and his bird.
When I first began to work as a freelance writer she (and my father, too) was inordinately anxious about what I would say. There was a whole lot of not-saying in our house–not uncommon in Mennonite culture. Differences and hostilities cannot be open, but lurk underground and nip at one’s Achilles heel.
At the time Camilla (still) Parker-Bowles was in headlines reading horse face. My mother extracted a promise that I would never ever call anyone horse face in anything I would write. No problem. I promised. However, Mother overlooked that a horse has another end. I had wiggle-room. But of course, I didn’t say so.
So far I’ve never had to play the other-end card. But I could. Just sayin’.
I wrote about Tedorigawa Yoshida brewery, which still makes rice wine the old fashioned way, in October after visiting the premises in September 2015.
The Birth of Saké, a documentary of the process and the people who give life to this 2000 year-old art, debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival where its director Erik Shirai took the Best New Documentary Director Award. Other awards followed worldwide. Now it’s available on Netflix and other platforms.
The Birth of Saké depicts the labour intensive, hands-on tradition of sake brewing as it takes place at Tedorigawa Yoshida–one of very few places in Japan still using the centuries-old methods. Here the men who craft this artisanal wine under brewmaster Toji Yamamoto spend six months of the year secluded from society to produce this top tier product.
Its dark and moody cinematography is particularly beautiful. The slow and nuanced storyline will appeal to viewers who love deliberation and subtlety in their art as well as their wine.
When I visited on a late summer day, the six month brewing process had not yet begun. I am lucky and honoured to have enjoyed the Yoshida brand wines (every single one in the lineup below) and now a glimpse into the world of traditionally brewed saké.
Much like the awe of looking into the Milky Way on a black night, Japan’s infinite bombardment of the senses wrenches the mind.
Along with its numerous cultural attractions Japan is often marketed as a shopper’s paradise. There is so much stuff for sale—most of it stunningly designed, meticulously crafted, and exquisitely displayed.
Of course, if you are into cheap tchotchkes made elsewhere there are plenty of those in the tourist shops and hyaku-en (the 100-yen equivalent of North American dollar stores) too. But this post isn’t about the cheap and cheesy side of Japan.
On any given day when I think there can’t possibly be anything more fabulous to see, I turn a corner only to find another charming street of seemingly endless raptures. More galleries, food, drink, fashion or other surprises tucked into a narrow laneway suck me in like a magnet.
That’s topped by the infinite attention to detail of absolutely everything.
In addition to the urbane character of its cities, add the views from trains or skyscrapers and hilltops.
Splendid mountains. Quilted valleys. Deep river gorges.
The architecture. The technology. The museums. The gardens. The temples. The shrines. The music, dance and theater. Traditions going back millennia.
Often it leaves me stimuli overloaded the way I might feel if I ate nothing but sugar treats all day–aching with a discomfiting buzz. No wonder Zen meditation or emptying the mind took deep root in this place of relentless beauty, cultural bombardment and consumer glut.
The paradox of cacophony and serenity born from the same place. No wonder I often feel compelled to close my eyes for a few moments of black-screen rest. Some may think I overstate the case. Hardly. Sometimes, Japan’s unrelenting beauty and spectacle are shattering.
On March 15, 2016, a large number of Japanese, Japanese Canadians, and businesses or groups affiliated with that community bid farewell to Vancouver’s Consul General Seiji and Mrs. Yasuko Okada in Burnaby’s Nikkei Place. As their three-year appointment has ended, the Okadas will return to Tokyo to new duties.
It was a bitter-sweet evening of photos, speeches, sake, food, music and some tears. The Okadas will be sorely missed.
As a non-Japanese Canadian (but a grandchild of immigrants) I marvelled at the event. I couldn’t help but reflect on the bitter history of Japanese Canadians in this country. Some people present had lived through the loss of their fundamental rights as Canadian citizens, experienced World War II internment, suffered the full force of racial prejudice, and experienced horrific losses.
I wondered as I listened whether any of them might have imagined the present vibrant community, or the splendor of the Nikkei facility, its museum, gardens, seniors’ housing and avenue of sakura trees in full bloom on this day, some 70 years after WWII. I suspect not.
Consul General Okada, who has explored the consular office’s 125 year history in Vancouver, commented on how harsh life was for those who first ventured across the Pacific and the difficult economic realities which prompted that decision. Then, rebuilding from nothing after the end of WWII was no easy task either.
But Okada points out in an interview with John Endo Greenaway, Editor of the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association’s monthly magazine, The Bulletin, “I’m very much impressed with the demography of the Japanese and Japanese Canadians particularly in the area of culture.”
“The Japanese Canadians, or Japanese who live here, really keep a strong identity as Japanese, maintain the traditions of Japanese culture and retain their modern culture. In particular one of the unique features is: when our office as a consulate organizes a cultural event—which is one of our most important roles—there are many groups or individuals who are doing something traditional from Japanese culture such as playing the koto, practicing Japanese dance, ikebana, tea ceremony, shigin etc. etc. So, our office can work with these people to introduce Japanese culture—that’s a unique feature—there are not many other places where we can work with local communities for these kinds of events.”
Several times during the evening I wished that the newly arrived Syrians—or any others rebuilding their lives in Canada—could witness what 125 years of history has achieved. Perhaps it would offer encouragement to persist in the face of doubt, fear, prejudice, economic hardship and other challenges which might face them.
I’ve been to Happy Terrace on the 15th floor of Kyoto Station many times before. It’s never the same. Sometimes the still frigid March wind has nearly blown my coat off. Other times the fresh night air is a welcome relief from steamy over-heated rooms. That said, I’ve not been here when the hot and humid nights of summer turn the city into a sauna. (I’ll pass, thank you.)
If the weather is fine the city spreads out toward the mountains, sparkling like a jewel against the night or glints like mica in the setting sun. The view of the atrium as I look down into the station from this height is splendid, too. I never tire of it. I make time to admire it every occasion I have to stop in this city.
Although not everyone loves the station’s architecture, I do. Even more, I marvel that all of this once existed only in someone’s mind. And here it is now in glass, steel and concrete.
This morning the air is brisk but the sun’s warmth is quite comfortable as I arrive at the top of the escalator. Cleaners wipe the window ledges and scrub down the escalator rails. Gardeners prune a hedge and water the potted plants. Two whippet-like expats, who look as if they have sprinted up the 15 flights of stairs, are working through sun salutations in perfect sequence.
Nothing quite as ambitious for me, thank you. I’m here to enjoy the bamboo-ringed garden. I have an hour before my train leaves, just enough time to revisit a favourite spot and relax. Adrenaline wants to run with the kick of my morning coffee and the journey ahead, but I resist.
The sign I spotted outside Higashi-Honganji temple on the way to the station read: Now life is living you. I’m in the mood to surrender to that. I park my suitcase next to a bench, sit and pull out my notebook. I breathe.
The grid of gray concrete slabs and squares of grass are wonderfully calming and restful. Shadows of clouds passing across the sun flit across the tableau. A dragonfly darts overhead and a little breeze ripples the single reflecting pool.
That’s when I hear the wind chimes in the rustling bamboo. I’m not sure why, but the little tinkle draws me over to spot the slip of paper moving the clapper. However, as hard as I look I see nothing. Not wanting to add a crick in the neck to jet lag, I follow the slender stems of the bamboo to the grasses below and bring my chin to my chest in a long stretch. That’s when I see the “bell.”
I laugh. What artful artifice. So joyfully Japanese.
My miraculous luck never fails. First night nosing about Kyoto I find a scotch bar. The next evening a champagne boutique. I kid you not. I don’t know how I find them; perhaps they find me. I only know its irresistible golden glow beckoned across the dark gray street.
As I duck out of a drenching downpour and stash my umbrella, I find the “Happy Hours” sign outside and bottles in the window do not indicate a wine bar. Toshiko, the hostess (a university major in the hospitality industry who learned her excellent English in upstate New York) points out that I’ve stumbled into Champagne Boutique YUHI. This is what the Japanese call dai kichi luck—the pinnacle of good fortune.
It’s a small but elegantly appointed shop with a three stools along the bar. Obviously they’re not expecting crowds. Toshiko explains that they offer tastings at 1300 yen (about $13-16 Canadian dollars depending on the sine wave of the money markets) per glass. Today she is sampling Veuve Clicquot.
What better way to revive when slightly jet lagged on a rainy night? She pours me a glass and one for herself. She gets to drink on the job? It’s to make the customers feel comfortable, she says. Then she smiles and slides a glass of water out from under the counter.
We settle in like old girlfriends catching up and talk. Two women on a rainy night sipping defiant bubbles which continue to rise no matter how hard the rain beats down.
We share a second glass. And talk and talk and talk. About everything: politics, history, culture, travel, family, our lives, our dreams. The special challenges for women in this world. I ask Toshiko whether she knows the inspiring story of the widow (veuve). No, she does not.
Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin (better known for her champagne brand Veuve Clicquot than her name) is described by her biographer, Tilar J. Mazzeo, as a woman who negotiated “those familiar crossroads of grief, despair, and opportunity” by taking charge of her own destiny.
Her technical and commercial innovation was both remarkable and unique at a time when women of her class served as decoration, not entrepreneurs who established distinctive world class brands. Or, for those few who did succeed in a man’s world, their achievements went largely unrecorded and unremarked.
At that time in France, only widows were permitted by law to run their own lives with the same freedom as a man. Mazzeo credits 27 year-old Barbe-Nicole, who had no business training or experience of winemaking, with nurturing a small, family wine brokerage into the most important champagne of the 19th century in little more than a decade.
As the Ancien Régime of Old France disintegrated, the young widow Clicquot managed to bootleg her bubbly into Russia in spite of the Continental Blockade during the Napoleonic Wars. An audacious dance, that.
Because she thought like a corporation before such entities existed, seized opportunity, took risks and placed herself on the rise of emerging trends, now Veuve Clicquot is one of the world’s most recognizable wines. Barbe-Nicole was among the first to blaze trail for women who would follow. Mazzeo calls her “the first celebrity business woman.”
In a letter to her great-grandchild, Barbe-Nicole wrote:
I am going to tell you a secret…. It is a precious quality that has been very useful to me…to dare things before others. …The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.
The shop must close soon. Toshiko asks whether she should pour another glass. Indeed. Why ever not? To us! To audacity! To rising like bubbles no matter how hard the rain beats down.