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- Rudyard Kipling
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…above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. ~Roald Dahl
Though a good telescope is recommended for a proper look, Mars has been brighter than usual as it made its closest approach to the earth on October 6, 2020. Though now it gradually moves farther away, it won’t get this cozy with us again for another 35 years.
Happily, I rise early enough to watch as the planet slips down the sky and winks between the maple leaves before gradually disappearing from view on those days that it’s not cloudy.
By opportune chance I recently chose to begin a mindfulness regimen that now extends beyond my daily meditation practice. Otherwise I most likely would have missed the spectacle.
Instead, as I gaze out the west window in a heightened state of attention, I realize that I witness the near imperceptible movement of the earth. More than that, I feel it.
Photo Credit: Paulette Haws in EarthSky Community Photos
Author Pico Iyer maintains that limitations act as catalysts to creation, something a good number of introverts have discovered to be true during the current pandemic. Those who live alone often describe the heady freedom from unwanted obligations to show up in an office or socialize. Others find time for new pursuits: baking, cooking at home instead of going out, gardening, preserving fruit and vegetables, picking up abandoned hobbies and the like. Extroverts aren’t quite as enthusiastic.
In addition, Iyer also views having fewer choices as liberation from the pressure to choose. Really? That’s likely true for those who dither over decisions. I seldom struggle to make up my mind. When I do, careful consideration usually reveals the most reasonable answer.
Frankly, I am more troubled by having no opera or concert season at all in 2020 than by having to select a limited number from superb options. Music on Zoom or through substandard speakers? Meh. Sorry. I’m out.
When faced with various possibilities, Todd Rose, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers this advice: When you have a choice, choose fulfillment. When you don’t have a choice, do what has to be done.
Perfect. That’s my default anyway. I understand the practical sense of doing what has to be done when nothing exciting is going on. Fortunately, I enjoy most domestic tasks and routine maintenance. The ones I don’t like, such as organizing my tax receipts, I do on a gloomy day so as not to waste a fine one.
The late Donald Ritchie, who wrote extensively about Japan, explained how the newly unemployed samurai class at the end of the Feudal Era in 1868 invented manner and ritual to elevate routines. The tea ceremony, for example, was designed so that guests who now had a great deal of time on their hands entered a small tea house, sat for hours and savored the emptiness. How apropos–thinking outside the box by quite literally stooping to crawl into one.
After a summer of beach and garden visits, explorations in new culinary adventures at home, and limited social interactions—enough to call it a serene and joyful summer in spite of its sorrows—I face the coming winter.
My choices of activities which once included the company of others and the vibrant cultural life this city offered have been severely curtailed. Like the samurai, I have to cope with a new reality—a great deal of time without enough pursuits to fill the hours.
The activities I had intended to explore after my return from ikebana studies in Tokyo are not an option for the duration of the pandemic. Worse, some may not be after it’s over.
Ironically, tumbles through the online looking glass lead me to podcasts with people currently or formerly engaged in monastic life. As I listen a notion begins to smoulder under the ashes of my imagination. Perhaps I might mitigate the stultifying aspects of my pandemic life by adopting a monastic approach. Perhaps I can elevate the mundane through imposing greater restrictions of manner, ritual and mindfulness.
What if I try a crazy experiment, reduce my already limited circumstances further and like the samurai attempt to savor the emptiness?
Something in my gut says: It’s worth a try. Go for it. In many spiritual disciplines simplicity is understood as a path to the sacred. As paradoxical as that might seem, it also seems a sign pointing toward fulfillment. Stay tuned. Let’s see where this road goes.
For more than a week I have not opened a window as the skies over Victoria have been shrouded in toxic smoke from the fires which have destroyed entire US towns and thousands of hectares to the south. Smoke ribbons hovered over the waterways and the darkened skies remained impenetrable to sunlight.
This morning was the first time I could see clouds—soft, blue-tinged woolly batten—ringing patches of blue.
For a nanosecond I was tempted to think, phew, it’s over. However, it’s 2020. We shall not tempt fate by thinking any such thing. Instead, I remain alert and braced for suffering is a game of Whack-a-Mole. Even so, suffering, too, is impermanent. Like a tide it will come and go.
All things move and change and are impermanent like clouds… The Buddha
As the pandemic wears on (and on and on) and life piles on other burdens, I have sought a variety of ways to distract, uplift and console myself. By trying things I haven’t done before I attempt to avoid that lethargic pall akin to a hangover. It’s an ongoing battle with the brain, which defaults to the familiar and the effortless even though it’s beyond boring because that’s evolution’s means to stay safe.
After chatting with my friend D who described finding a Donvier ice cream maker for six bucks in a thrift store, the temptations she created with hers inspired me to look for one.
On Used Victoria I sourced one in mint condition for fifteen dollars, downloaded the manual and got started. Mine also happens to be one of the older models made in Japan by Nippon Light Metal from 1984 to 1990. Current models which sport a sleeker exterior design are manufactured under the Cuisipro brand and retail new for $110 and more.
According to a 2018 article in Business Fondue, vanilla ice cream still ranks as the favourite flavour in many countries worldwide. Among them: Canada, Finland, France, Japan, USA, Lithuania, USA and UK.
Though I enjoy other flavours from time to time—especially outliers such as crème fraiche, black sesame or Armagnac when offered by dessert chefs in fine restaurants—vanilla remains my touchstone. It’s the flavour I always order on a first visit to an ice cream shop and determines whether I return or not.
With farm fresh eggs from my aunt and uncle’s hens, rich milk, cream and premium Madagascar vanilla I set to work. When taste testing the resulting custard I couldn’t stop. My bad. I ended up consuming a quarter of the rich, warm liquid before it ever got to the fridge for its overnight chill.
The next morning I poured the custard into the metal chamber and began to churn according to the directions. In 20 minutes I had gorgeous soft ice cream which I spooned into containers and popped into the freezer. The left overs on the paddles, inside the chamber and a small reward bowl I had set aside were breakfast.
Then I did something else I’ve never done before. I raided the fridge and had it again for lunch. For afternoon snack. For dinner. For bed time snack. I ate nothing but vanilla ice cream all day long.
So far I have avoided “pandemic belly” and eaten a balanced, nutrient rich diet; however, by day’s end I could feel the slippery ice-cream-slicked slope to perdition. Then again, this was an additive free and nutrient rich mixture of eggs and milk. On the list of indulgences, a number of options are much worse.
In fact, this might be doing some good in the world. Recently, the Japanese government encouraged its nearly 126.5 million people to eat one serving of ice cream a day in order to bolster the flagging dairy industry. Normally I’d say Get thee behind me, Satan, but in this case I’m inclined to get behind the government.
After sharing the remaining vanilla with friends I faced the next flavour choice. No contest: chocolate ganache. After a trip to Bernard Callebaut for cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate drops I combined the Donvier recipe for chocolate ice cream with the Nuts About Chocolate (a few copies remain available online) option for ganache. A marriage made in heaven.
Did I save the local dairy industry? No. Did I get my brain out of its rut? Too early to tell, but it’s loft. Bless it.
When consolation seems out of reach I often find solace in beauty. Yesterday I returned to Butchart Gardens seeking solace among the flowers and the trees. I’ve never forgotten my first visit to this garden or that initial wonder of looking down into the former limestone quarry and its riot of colour when I was four.
That heart-pinching response hasn’t changed much; somehow, it never grows old.
A plaque placed in the garden by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board Canada reads:
Jennie Butchart began to shape this magnificent landscape in 1904. She established, in the style of the grand estates of the period, several distinct gardens to evoke a range of aesthetic experiences.
An abandoned limestone quarry was transformed into the dramatic Sunken Garden, a reflection of the early 20th-century beautification movement and an exceptional achievement in Canadian gardening history.
Through successive generations of the Butchart family this site has retained much of its original design, and continues the Victorian tradition of seasonally changing the outstanding floral displays.
Inhaling the phytoncides (essential oils released by the trees) in the morning air, I wander the pathways between the flowers, dew still glistening on the lawns as the sunlight streams between the trees.
Around every corner more compositions of line, colour and grace appear.
Even the trash towers are columns of magnificence.
May the flowers fill your heart with beauty,
May hope forever wipe away your tears,
And, above all, may silence make you strong.
Chief Dan George
Prior to the solstice I considered strategies to up-level what I feared might all too easily devolve into a wasted and blighted summer. How might I maximize the sun-laced days without concerts, gatherings or travel adventures? I needed something uncomplicated, effortless and gratifying to do within current constrictions.
Among other things which developed out of a brainstorming session, I decided to buy a beach tent. The light-weight structure has its own carrying-case, pops up easily, and can be secured with pegs, pieces of driftwood or stones. Open on two sides it allows me to enjoy the scenery and the surf while shielded from the sun.
Numerous beaches within minutes of my home offer expansive shores and splendid views. Although a few have been contaminated by effluent, ironically that only adds to my enjoyment as it eliminates crowds of swimmers. Undisturbed by public noise I can write, sketch, meditate or nap consoled by the wind, the waves and the expansive blue peace.
Of course, I had little inkling how much I would need the solace my ocean side interludes afford. Danish author Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen, a woman who had her share of betrayals, disappointments and losses) maintained that the cure for anything was salt water, be it sweat, tears or the sea.
I’ll take it. It’s less harmful than wine (though I’ll take some of that, too).
Three eclipses, a global plague and a new comet. Recently someone on a comment thread claimed to be only a ‘plague of frogs’ from completing his 2020 Apocalypse Bingo card.
On June 29, 2020, my brother undertook an ambitious climb in Strathcona Park to conquer three peaks in as many days. He has not returned nor has his body been recovered in spite of extensive efforts to do.
“You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.” (Helen Macdonald)
When he was born I was not yet two, first spoke German and could not say Bruder. To everyone’s amusement and worth a note in my baby book I called him mein Buddha.
The great Zen teacher Hakuin wrote: All beings are intrinsically Buddha. Nirvana is right here, before our eyes. This very place is the Lotus Land; this very body, the Buddha.
Eric Whitacre was one of Laurence’s favourite composers.
Schlaf süß, mein lieber Buddha.
Image credit: Copyright 2019 TrueBlueDesigns. All rights reserved. https://www.dailyzen.com/cards/
When little can be done, do little. *
Magic comes from change—even change you don’t choose. *
As part of a recent guided meditation I was instructed to create a mini movie of any problem I wished to address. Then I was to continue watching as the step by step resolution of the problem unfolded on screen.
The problem: Several months after my return from Tokyo I remain largely cut off from easy-going, social interactions I value. I am unable to partake of what was once a vibrant cultural scene in the city. As self-isolation restrictions ease somewhat, I’m not tempted to dine out, travel locally or endure tedious line ups for every mundane transaction. I’m not opting for risks that don’t offer commensurate rewards. Of course I realize that such inconveniences are not as catastrophic as the deprivations experienced by others. However, they chafe all the same.
The circumscribed life I am living mid global pandemic—one I might imagine as appropriate in my late 8th and early 9th decades—is not quite what I’d anticipated in late February as I embarked on what I thought would be two rapturous months studying in Tokyo followed by a summer of leisurely and stimulating idylls.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that the meditation didn’t quite work out as expected either. The mini movie offered no resolution. Before me I saw a pristine white cocoon suspended by silky white threads from a branch. Serene. Elegant. Motionless.
Of course, the symbolism is quite obvious and nothing I didn’t already know. A global pandemic has put my life on hold in a crisis which changes from day to day but also remains static, suspended and mind-numbingly the same.
However, as I considered the imagery I began to wonder whether the recent aborted journey to Tokyo was never meant to be the culmination of my ikebana aspirations as I had planned. Perhaps I had failed to recognize the venture as the caterpillar stage.
Though I did not see a resolution to my state of stasis in the meditation, there’s a well-known outcome to the cocoon stage. A transformed creature emerges from the chrysalis and engages with the world anew. As if to underscore the reminder of change they did not choose, swallow tail butterflies flit among the leaves outside my window. Magic!
Everything changes. Everything appears and disappears. There is perfect tranquility when one transcends both life and extinction. The Buddha
Cocoon Image Credit Megan McCarty https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0
Butterfly Image Credit By Calibas at en.wikipedia – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15530204
After sixty days which include the two-week Federal Quarantine Order before self-isolation, I hold two states of mind simultaneously: gratitude to have landed blessedly well and lethargy due to this serene limbo-life. I’ve been forced into a routine I imagined for myself in my 8th or 9th decade—quietly sitting at home albeit minus aches and pains for late-in-life companions.
Even though I have successfully skirted the temptation to avoid pajama days 95 percent of the time and joyfully accomplished a great deal, occasionally as the evening wears on I get an acute case of corona fatigue. Sometimes after days of nothing much to do and nowhere to go except for brief in-out shopping trips to replenish basic groceries and necessities, it all seems tedious.
I’ve completed the large projects I undertook in the first few weeks, and none of the domestic chores ever occupy an entire day.
Though the results look great and cost much less, home-based spa time lacks any luxurious atmosphere or cachet.
Yawn. YouTube and Netflix (even the educational and enriching options) offer little enticement anymore. The same holds true for scholastic pursuits as those mean more sitting in front of a computer. And music via speakers—even good ones—sounds hollow compared to the real deal.
Last week shops, restaurants and services not deemed essential began to open under carefully controlled conditions. Even though I am behind the idea of supporting local businesses to recoup their losses in principle; the reality is I’m not the least bit helpful. I have few needs other than groceries and am not particularly motivated to stand in lines and follow arrows or don a mask to peruse items I don’t need in the off chance of an impulse purchase.
Happily, we are now allowed to expand our “social bubbles.” However, we are advised to use caution, maintain good hygiene habits and continue distancing. Though I’m not fearful of people per se, I’m not particularly eager to engage with those I don’t care about deeply. The risk reward payoff is no temptation.
Last week I visited an aunt and uncle whom I hadn’t seen since February. The week before, I walked with a friend through the gardens of The University of Victoria campus. In both instances I was smacked with the incredible uplifting energy which imbues human connection. The various devices we use to create reasonable facsimiles of such links are somewhat deficient in conveying its essence. It’s not unlike the difference between icing made with hydrogenated oil instead of butter. You still get a dope dose of sugar, but.
Of course, ennui will not help me amuse, motivate or improve myself over the remaining days, weeks, months or years that cocooning through this pandemic and its various levels of fallout might last. I wonder whether pupae fret and chafe in their silken cages.
Realizing I need to regain a Buddha mind, I turn to ikebana which I haven’t touched since my last class in Tokyo two months ago. I choose a container, cut pieces of weeping eucalyptus bark [Eucalyptus sepulcralis, Latin for belonging to a tomb] set them into a kenzan and cover it with beach stones. When I finish my hands are fragrant.
My photos fail to capture the depth or subtleties, the rich harmony of the grays and browns in the bark, container and stones. Removed from its natural state and transformed, the bark conveys dynamic movement upward in spite of its static state. Might that expression be symbolic? Perhaps. The Sogetsu tagline is: The flower becomes me. Perchance by some unconscious, beautiful accident it’s true.
I wish to make clear that I merely describe and reflect on my circumstances after two months in covid confinement. I am fully aware that my bit of boredom and bother are not even close to suffering. At the same time, psychologists underscore the way that all people suffer in various ways through this current crisis, even the ones whose circumstances are favorable or whose natures may find isolation easier to bear.
Alas, as has ever been the case during calamities, through no fault of their own many people have been and will continue to be devastated by this contagion in multiple heartbreaking ways.
All my empathy and compassion for their plight can do nothing to alleviate it.
Over the past 10 days I made use of the self-isolation period to get rid of the murky gray/brown paint on my kitchen walls and trim. I would have preferred to change the countertop for something less ho-hum and not at war with the floor. However, a liter of paint is less costly and doesn’t require the hassles of scheduling sub-trades. The goal was to unify everything by matching the trim and wall colour to the cabinets.