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Words, of course, are the most powerful drug used by mankind.
- Rudyard Kipling
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Update: For anyone interested I am now also on Instagram @lyndawow.
Since greater isolation is part of the pandemic parameters anyway, as I said in a post a month ago before I got a little sidetracked, I decided to extend mindfulness beyond my daily meditation practice to the numerous tasks and activities in any given day. I plan to be more deliberate and more conscious of moments I might otherwise overlook or float through on autopilot.
It is said that individuals breathe about 23,000 times a day and normally are quite unaware of the process. A mindfulness practice changes that by paying attention to the breath—inhalation of air into the nose, its passage down the throat, into the lungs, and the flow of oxygen as it’s pumped through the blood to the cellular level. That focus continues with the out breath. Subsequently each time attention is caught by a thought the practitioner chooses not to indulge it but brings attention back to the breath. Gradually that awareness on the breath is expanded to encompass perception of whatever sounds, smells, tastes, or sensations can be perceived in that moment.
Once the mindfulness practice is over, people commonly revert to less heightened states of awareness. However, that’s what I wish to manipulate differently going forward. I want to practice greater mindfulness as I carry out the usual mundane activities which make up a day. Is it possible to sustain that?
Another question is: What exactly does that entail? As an example, let’s use a heightened awareness of this moment. As I keyboard I pay deliberate attention to the sound of the laptop keys quietly clicking in random rhythms and my fingers as they reach across the rows. I remain aware of the different sounds made by my fingernails, the pads of my fingers, and the heels of my hands as they slide across the smooth plastic.
I then give similar consideration to the tactile sensations of my hands and wrists as I continue to expand the awareness to all sensory input I can register; whereas, normally I would not consciously attend to anything but the words and typos as they step forward across the screen. Obviously, that’s a very different way of being in the world.
I’m curious. Spiritual teacher Barb Schmidt maintains that our ordinary life is our spiritual life. I’m about to put that to the test. How long will it be possible to sustain a mindful state? Also, is there any point in doing so? Will I discover anything significant during the exercise? We’ll see.
Keyboard photo and clip art used with permission.
Early in September I opened an Instagram account (@lyndawow) and started playing around with posting this, that and the other thing. A rather random selection of whatever strikes my fancy any given day as I figure out how the platform works.
I also started following the Sogetsu site, as well as the accounts of various individuals who were my teachers at Sogetsu Kaikan, the Tokyo HQ. Though I never attended a lesson with the Iemoto (hereditary CEO of the school) Akane Teshigahara herself, I began to follow her Instagram account and to my surprise, she started following me as well.
Since I can’t take ikebana instruction to continue my Level 5 certification in Tokyo or in Victoria during the pandemic, I began taking note of the various arrangements posted to other Instagram accounts which got a “heart” from the Iemoto for their instructive value.
Secretly I harbored a wish that some distant day one of my arrangements posted on Instagram might receive one from her.
Because the season is brief and I have a few photos of autumnal themed work I did at while studying at HQ, I decided to post a few of the best ones to Instagram between the other daily life stuff I have been putting up there.
This morning I posted the above photo of a mikan (Japanese orange) branch with pincushion flowers fixed without a kenzan (pin frog). Less than 10 minutes later a notification came in—the first “heart” was from Akane Teshigahara!
What a rush of joy flooded my being. I haven’t felt that since leaving Tokyo when many times after class I would return to my little apaato–Tokyo Tower a glowing orange exclamation mark on the indigo night–in a state of incandescent rapture. Sigh!
…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