Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Panic Corner in the Language Center

There’s a part of the language center in my brain that I imagine as a large filing cabinet — one of the metal ones with drawers that stick. Tucked inside dog-eared folders are the words I never use, but which pop up like song lyrics. I spent an entire day wondering where spanghew came from and why I was thinking of it, and it never got used in anything I wrote or said. It was just my mantra for the day. Ah, but here it is now, sparkling in its obscurity, begging for you to look up its definition.

My sister and I share a general abhorrence for any food that is slimy in texture. At a restaurant together, with a set meal, we were served a dish that is similar to potato, which gets blended into a viscous soup. It is served over rice. The entire time I was in Japan I was careful not to offend anyone, but I was pretty sure I was not going to like this dish, and didn’t want to leave any untouched. As Naomi served it up for everyone, I said, “sukoshi,” and made a little gesture with my thumb and index finger to indicate “small.” She understood and spooned out a tiny bit.

Sukoshi is the word for “a little bit” in Japanese that I learned 20 years ago when I studied some “get around words” for my first trip to Japan.  Like most of what I used that trip, which included "Otearai wa doko desu ka?”, the word was relegated to that filing cabinet. When I needed it most, in that critical moment of being served a food I might not finish, there it was, like a superhero in a bright red cape.

I probably could have finished the dish. The entire meal was delicious. Oishii. That’s a word I’ll use often.

Yesterday I decided I’d like to have prints made of the photos I took on our trip. I uploaded them all to Google Drive, thinking that would connect to the drugstore’s photo center kiosk. It did not. Google Photos was available, that celestial super-cloud of data I never think about, or I could use Facebook, Instagram, or connect my phone directly to the kiosk with my power cord. Who takes their power cord with them everywhere? I went to another drug store, which had no photo center. Then I ended up at the store of the Living Dead: Wal-Mart.

I thought I’d just breeze through the aisles of zoned-out shoppers by taking the superhighway lane in the middle of the store, straight to the back. My goal was electronics, where the photo kiosks were. A young man at a booth chirped, “Ma’am, may I ask you a quick question?” and I replied, “Nope, I’m on the run.”

“On the run?” From what, exactly? I have never used that phrase before, but the panic center, the part that hates dealing with nonsense, called it up and without thinking, spanghewed it out of my mouth. It worked. The guy backed off whatever his sales pitch was. I didn’t have to talk with anyone who called me “Ma’am.” I wouldn’t feel obligated to buy The Thing I Didn’t Need or Want.

When you’re in a pinch, facing an awkward social situation, the words may just come to you,  unbidden. These are the words you didn’t know you knew, the ones waiting inside untouched folders, the ones whose definitions might need to be researched, but oh, they’ll do the trick as you make your great escape.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Watching Me Watch Myself: A Meditation on Meditation

A quiet mind has never been my hallmark. It reels with proclamations, self-judgements, to-do list items, conversation reviews, philosophical meanderings about time, diatribes on appliance repair, scraps of poetry and song, floating dream images, and survival thoughts — like what might be for dinner. I should go to the grocery store.

When my sister suggested a “Movement Meditation” class at the Satoyama Design Factory during our visit in Kamogawa, I said “Yes! I can do that if there’s movement!” She said she thought it might be about a half hour of dance followed by a half hour of quiet. I wasn’t sure about the quiet, but thought I’d try.

I’ve never done any kind of long meditation before, but I once attended a yoga class that had a guided visualization the end. “Imagine a boat at the shoreline,” the soft-voiced instructor intoned. Lavender misted out of a diffuser in the corner of the room. The set-up was lovely. Instead of relaxing into the image, I argued with myself over which color the boat should be. Blue? No, too on the nose. Red? Too alarming, this is supposed to de-stress. Wait, what is that over there by the cattails? A dead fish? I never got out on the boat. I ended up poking at all the fish that were belly up in my mind.

The idea of combining movement and meditation, where flinching might be allowed, perhaps even flailing, appealed to me.

Our instructor explained in Japanese that there were five stages to this type of meditation, all of which were to be performed with our eyes closed. Kristen translated for those of us who didn’t understand. This class was actually Dynamic Meditation, a registered trademark meditation in a series of offerings from Osho, who was an Indian godman and founder of the Rajneesh movement. During his lifetime he was viewed as a controversial new religious movement leader and mystic. There was a little color photo of him in a frame on the shelf facing the open space where we’d practice.

The first stage of the meditation consisted of ten minutes of breathing through the nose while keeping your knees slightly bent and movement natural. I made short, staccato like breaths, with a focus on the exhalation. Osho’s website describes it as “chaotic.” We were instructed to blow our noses beforehand, but my experience with this stage got messy anyway. I had to wipe my nose on my sleeve a couple of times.

Stage two was “blasting off like a rocket” or “exploding like a volcano.” Ten minutes of vocalizing from the depths, holding nothing back. Wail, scream, cry, sing ... anything goes. Your mind isn’t supposed to get in the way, but I found myself on the floor at one point, recalling a movement theatre class where we were all monsters.

Stage three was jumping with arms up in the air for ten minutes with a mantra of ”hoo” on each landing. You are supposed to let your flat-footed landing “Hammer deep into your sex center.” I think that was lost in translation for me, or I was zoned out when it was mentioned. I just got exhausted here. You’re supposed to “be total.” I felt about half, maybe two thirds, worrying about the blood flow to my arms, and wondering if my ankles would swell up from all the jumping.

Stage four was standing still for 15 minutes in whatever posture you found yourself in when the bell rang at the end of stage three. My arms were up in the air. You are not supposed to move. No coughing, fidgeting, anything. My arms began to sag at about the five minute mark, and were left halfway up my torso, palms facing out, like I was being held up in a robbery. However, this is the stage where I saw color, and felt a really strong energy flow, and my brain finally shut off for a moment. I cried. Then my brain was back on.

The fifth stage was 15 minutes of dance. A celebration. An ecstatic end to exit with.

It turned out flailing was encouraged in this meditation. The stage where I saw color left an impression on me, although I’m not sure what to do with it. Let it flow through me. Observe.

Osho said of this meditation, “… bring your total energy to it, but still remain a witness. Observe what is happening as if you are just a spectator, as if the whole thing is happening to somebody else, as if the whole thing is happening in the body and the consciousness is just centered and looking. This witnessing has to be carried in all the three steps. And when everything stops, and in the fourth step you have become completely inactive, frozen, then this alertness will come to its peak.”

Tod and Dan arrived at the door at the end of our meditation, dressed and ready to go to the onsen. I was glad the next thing on our agenda was a trip to the public bath, where the water would be steamy and melt my muscles. I was ready to relax after all that meditation. Maybe I’d even imagine an invisible boat on some unnamed shoreline.

Oh Noh

There is no cure for a case of the giggles. You try to stifle, and the “funny thing” just becomes funnier. Your sides hurt from the quaking. Your eyes water. Maybe they’ll think you’re crying, maybe no one will notice, maybe they won’t send the usher over to politely whisk you out of the theatre.

Browsing shop stalls at the Temple of Asakusa, I saw some Kyōgen masks, the characters for the comedic interludes during Noh theatrical pieces. The two that caught my eye were Oji, the old man, and Usobuki, a face with surprised eyes and a pinched mouth, a character who can only whistle. I was reminded of my wish to see some theatre while we were in Japan, and turned to my sister. “Do you think there are any Noh productions happening while we’re in Tokyo?” She did some research. The National Noh Theatre had a Fukyu-Koen (Dissemination Performance (Introduction to Noh) on the 11th. Perfect. She got us tickets.

The National Noh Theatre entrance is an open space, with sculpted trees in front of a low building that has a center courtyard. While we waited for the doors to open to the performance, we explored an exhibit of scrolls that depicted scenes from Noh plays from the Edo period, on loan from the Kobe Women’s University Library. There was also a small series of chant books that the actors used for rehearsing.

The theatre seats 200 people, and each seat back is outfitted with a screen for translation. A relief. I’d need that. The National Noh stage looks like a small temple, with some trees painted against the upstage wall, and a long stage right entrance that leads onto the main stage. Actors glided in from behind a curtain and made their way to the mainstage like they were floating on clouds.

Before the production began a professor from Kobe University stood in the center of the stage in his white socks and dark suit and discussed the historical context of the plays. This wasn’t translated. Kristen leaned in occasionally to whisper — “He’s talking about the sea, and the geography of a battle. Now he’s explaining some kind of helmet collar that gets pulled.”

The first play, a Kyōgen titled, “Suhajikami,” was about two farmers going to market. One is a seller of ginger, and the other a seller of vinegar. The entire play is a series of puns, various plays on the words “su” for vinegar, and “hajikami,” which means ginger, as the two sellers vie for space at the market. The twenty minutes of wordplay ends on a boisterous laugh between the two. There were chuckles from audience members throughout, but if you are not a proficient in Japanese, some of the puns are lost, even with translations. My sister seemed to understand most of it. I enjoyed the slow movements of the actors, and the spirited tonality of their voices, which was song-like and made the chant books in the exhibit make more sense to me.

The actors didn’t wear masks. Their action was a slow float, glide, and turn. In many ways, it resembled martial arts, loaded with intention and meaning. The costumes were elaborate, and I felt I was missing something here as well, not understanding what the patterns and textile choices might mean. It felt a bit like reading Chekov — I got the gist, but I wasn’t experiencing the richness for an ignorance of cultural and historical background.

The main Noh play, which came after the Kyōgen, was “Akogi,” a story in which a monk encounters an old fisherman on the beach and discusses an old poem describing Akogi-ga-ura beach. The monk asks why the beach is called Akogi-ga-ura,and the old man tells the story of a fisherman named Akogi who was discovered poaching fish in the sanctuary, and was executed by drowning off the shore of the beach. He encourages the monk to console the spirit of Akogi, who is still suffering in hell.

In the first half, we hear the old fisherman tell the story of Akogi to the monk. It is nearly sung, with little movement, with the addition of some drumming and chanting. Reciters add to the text in a way that felt echoic. After intermission, when the fisherman (who we now suspect is the spirit of Akogi) disappears, we are introduced to a traveler returning home who sees the monk resting in his hut. The monk explains that he was just regaled with a story by an old fisherman, and he thought the hut belonged to him.

This is getting long, isn’t it?

I peeped down the row of audience to my left.  All asleep. The man who was seated late in the middle aisle was sleeping. Four people in our row were nodding off.

The owner of the hut begins to tell the tale of the fisherman … again. Another long, poetic retelling of poaching on the high seas, with drums, echoing words, and slow movement. I wasn’t prepared for the retelling. Kristen leaned in as we read the translation of the traveler’s monologue together. “Maybe he doesn’t know the whole story.” And then he began, “In the year …” and she whispered, “Nope, looks like he knows it.”

That set me off in giggles. It was a release from intense storytelling, but I was in the National Noh Theatre. I should have reverence for a craft that has been around since the 14th century. My laughter felt worse than poaching fish. I was in a state of helplessness, like Akogi, unable to find my way back to the shores of propriety. When I couldn’t stop, Kristen and I slipped out of our seats (luckily they were in the back on the aisle) like two schoolgirls skipping class.

The drama ends with us disappearing into the ocean of Tokyo’s winding streets to meet everyone at the Akita Festival —a festival devoted to dogs so devoted they wait for their masters who have been dead for years to return from work. I wonder if Akogi had an Akita still waiting for him to return from his damnation. I wonder if there will be one waiting for me — hee hee hee.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Loud and Wrong

Sometimes you have to wait in line — a long line, without really knowing what is going to be said to you at the end of it when you finally get to talk with the person in charge at the counter.  It’s part of life, and at the airport, it is a chance to observe human behavior.

Our flight out of Japan was delayed by a day. We were deplaned after two attempts by the mechanics to fix a “part that is needed to fly over water,” according to the pilot. Since this was an 11 hour flight, most of which is over the Pacific Ocean, I was really fine with the decision to not fly. Some passengers grumbled. As we left the plane, there was already trash everywhere. Discarded candy bar wrappers, plastic wrap from the  complimentary headphones, and on each screen, a still of whatever movie was being watched. It was like walking through the last vestiges of a preteen sleepover.

We returned to our original gate seating, and waited for word on the delay. When the announcement was made that the flight was canceled, and wouldn’t be rescheduled until the following morning, we were told to “follow the woman with the yellow vest” through the airport. All 300 or so of us followed one tiny woman. We lost her at a couple of points, and had to rely on the herd of faces we’d already memorized as our fellow plane mates — the young Texan with the loose blonde ponytail, a Japanese man with his grandmother, a guy wearing white-rimmed glasses. A few airport employees held up handwritten signs with arrows along the way. What our pilgrimage amounted to was a very long line at the airline check-in desk, where we’d all started our day.

We stood with a young woman from Laos who asked us if we’d been through anything like this in our travels. Dan explained that we’d either be offered a hotel and meal voucher, or we’d get rescheduled flights. She seemed relieved. The line snailed along. Dan noticed that attendants at the counter had to share a stapler. Then we realized they had no printers, and had to walk away from their posts to print out hotel vouchers and boarding passes. Some of them rode the luggage belt to get to their desks faster.

I watched a woman at the desk pull out her hair from the same spot just in front of her ear, strand by strand. Another woman, at the counter the entire time we waited in line (about two hours), must have had a complex travel itinerary which was disrupted by the flight change. She took out her laptop to consult a world map. Her flights were rescheduled.

Americans are not good at waiting. It’s like they’d never spent time in a line before. There was a group of impatient, entitled ticket holders who decided to start their own line by complaining. One man oozed his way to the front of another counter and demanded to know why he and his wife had to wait. He was given a hotel voucher. I overheard him tell his wife, “It’s ok, we got meal vouchers too, and I have plenty of snacks.” No one was going to starve (I sat near this man on the plane the following day, and he ate during the entire flight). Then he felt empowered to let others know his success, and made an official announcement that “this line is the line to get into if you want a hotel voucher.” Some went into that line, which took away one or more attendants who could manage all the people in the first line.

The rube and his wife, the guy in the white rimmed glasses, and several others who befriended them, were the boisterous Americans who had all the answers before anyone else did. At the bus queue, one of them decided that one bus was designated for each hotel, and actually moved someone’s luggage. Each bus dropped people off at either hotel since the hotels were near each other. They were wrong. So they had the wrong answers first.

I have never liked the adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Sometimes the squeaky wheel is just a total embarrassment to the rest of the vehicle, and needs to be removed and replaced.

You know, like Trump.

When our plane took off, people applauded. My takeoff anxiety was in full-swing. We had 11 hours to go. Let’s make it over the ocean first. The pilots have a job to do.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020


Everyone in Tokyo today has a coat that is nicer than yours. Herringbone, grey, beige, long, short, collared or not, adorned with a small faux-fur scarf. I saw very few black coats. Nails on women were manicured. Hair was conservatively cut and styled.

In the year 2000, the fashion in Tokyo was intergalactic. Fifth Element short skirts, white eyeshadow, the highest of platform shoes (women died from falling on subway stairwells), bleached hair, bright colors. The white eyeshadow was a startling Liquid Paper for the eyelid. I forget what I wore. Probably stretchy pants and wordless tops. Everywhere we went I felt like a big loaf of bread.

In 2020, calm is the new wild. Everyone is wearing earth tones. The highlight color is mustard, if you are brave enough to wear a highlight color. Dan saw a guy dressed all in green, but I missed him. It’s easy to miss people in Tokyo, which is a mill and seethe of humans.

I packed layers, planning on cold days and evenings in the countryside with my sister and her husband, and didn’t pack anything I’d call fashionable. In Tokyo, I felt like a rock with legs. A monolith in my oversized grey sweater coat, like an avatar in a video game whose goal is to not bump into anyone or anything. I failed at that, I’m sorry to say.

I thought about the coats I could have brought with me and if they’d stand up to what I was seeing on people. Nope. The 10 year old black coat I bought in Germany? The other black dress coat I got at Target 12 years ago?

By our second day, I felt offensive. My hair, in piles on top of my head, got snickers from shoppers while we were in a paper store. I love the red, cashmere hand warmers my daughter got me for Christmas, up-cycled from someone’s sweater, and wore them everywhere, with the big grey monolith sweater. They stood out. The boots I purchased to be comfortable (which bore a tag on them that said “fashion” — knockoffs of some brand I don’t know), made my size 10 feet look like concrete blocks. They were comfortable for all the walking we did though.

I wondered out loud with my sister if I should style my hair differently for the next day. Was I offending people? “Wear it how you want,” she said, and she shared that in her early days of living in Tokyo she gave up on trying to blend in. You never will. Just be you.

What a relief.

In the countryside of Kamogawa, I felt more at home. Everyone wore relaxed, comfortable clothing. Layers. They smiled more, and even if I was ridiculous and loafy, they didn’t make me feel so. There were goats, dogs, chickens, and cats. None of them wore fancy coats.

But I still feel the pull of desire for a nicer coat, which is impractical for where I live. When I’m around people who have manicured nails, I want manicured nails, which is not wise for a woman who tends to goats on a daily basis and has to sweep out a barn. Yesterday I found myself on my knees in the mud, in my thrift store “goat coat,” holding onto the collars of Littleface and Brick, who decided that a visit with the neighbors down the road was a good idea.

My biggest concern these days is how to trim goat hooves. Goat manicures are on my mind. I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube tutorials. My days of fashion, if I ever had them, are over. If you see me wearing a nice coat, it’s a loaner.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Page Match

Last Friday (right before I lost my voice), I participated in Page Match as Volta, my alter ego. She's all about delivering turns, gut punches of meaning ... you know, you think you might laugh, but then you cry, that sort of thing. She has to wear many sweatbands and a fanny pack full of melting chocolates to do this important work.

Everyone who took the stage that night and rose to the challenge of writing on-the-spot in ten minutes was fierce fire, and I was humbled and energized by sharing the writing table and stage with each one of them, and then relieved to take my wig off at the end of the night and eat a pancake at a local diner.

What can you write under pressure in ten minutes with a random prompt? I urge you to give it a try. It generates some wonderfully wild writing if you are willing to let go.

Congratulations to Monica Prince who took first place, to Carla Christopher for her second place win, and to all for their character, charisma, and diamonds-from-pressure writing.
Photography by the poetic lens of Michelle Johnsen. Modern Art space for creative encouragement provided by Libby Modern (Go! Go and find your creative self there!). Event from the fearless literary minds of Tyler Gof Barton and Erin Dorney of Fear No Lit

For the full album of Michelle's photos, go here.

And here are the two pieces I wrote that night. The prompt we were given for the first round was "Astroturf," and the second round prompt was "About a mountain." After my Prepositional Yawp, I was out of the game, left to enjoy the rest of the match with my husband and daughter.


The summer there was too much Astroturf, was the summer of tube socks. Tennis, lobbing balls over fences past the pool -- chasing the damned tiny moons everywhere. Ten, Love, whatever.  I couldn’t feel my hands. I was beyond frayed to falling until I leaned against the fence of my own body, my boundary, myself. Nothing but sky around me, I fell into it, forgot all I was but my outline, a cutout of summer at ten years old, in tube socks and shorts. I waited for anything other than the false ground, fakery, forgery of grass beneath my feet. Green, green youth, not mine, but a volley in a valley of forever. We all go through this madness of finding ourselves in the grass, looking up after a fall. The body suddenly awake, aware, a starfish.

Prepositional Yawp

About a mountain, above a garage, across the year, after the drink, against my life, below, below, below the ground, between the months when we were apart by, bye, goodbye, for all of the incantatory bell ringing of my body against the world, from the other side of the night, from the other side of your spleen, in the distant between of cemetery headstone where you left a tiny rock pressed into the dirt, into the ever after god-awful belief of the everafter, of, of, of, what is all fo this for, from one body to another, stuff and nonsense -- to you this is all to you, I miss you, you up there where no one can say or see or reach -- with that look in your face, with the way that you laughed, oh, oh, oh there are no more ways to say how or what direction other than GONE.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Since Your Death

A found poem from signage read on the PA Turnpike between the Quakertown and Wilkes-Barre exits

Fallen rocks
Falling rocks
Fallen rocks
Falling rocks

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything.

If that's the truth, then I am a total wreck, and apologies are in order. Maybe. No. Take it or leave it, baby!

I'm not a list maker like everyone else in my family. My nose doesn't match. But every single time I catch myself in the mirror these days, I see my mother, and I miss her. Why didn't I see her in how I look when she was alive? It is just about breaking me. I avoid the mirror as much as possible.

Everything I do is pleached with grief. I'm not myself. I do not know what to do with my time, now that I have time. I can travel, and I've gone nowhere. I can audition, and I'm not showing up. I can sit and write sheafs of poems, and all I have are torn out pages from a steno notebook scattered all over my desk. I practice, and don't care about it, really. I started a crochet project just to stay up later at night.

Introspection is needed, rather than putting everything I do out there all the time, although as an Aries I'm not really good at being quiet.

I'm having interesting, symbolic dreams. I'm doing my best to just be. To be slow and be alright with that.

Yesterday I identified 73 different varieties of trees and plants on our property. I ate a yoghurt, and smeared some of that miracle serum on the "wrinkle of concern" between my eyes. I crocheted at a good clip. I didn't smile much. That is my way of "just being."

Wych Elm
Today I picked up five bales of hay for the goats, whacked my head on a beam in the barn (I'm fine), and spent a long time sweeping the seeds and hay out of the back of the car. I always feel like an amateur homesteader when buying hay or straw from a real farmer. Why, oh why did I get a manicure? What is the point? Purple fingernails? 

Five bale limit for our car!
I made a large mask in the art stall, testing out an idea.

One eye is a clock.
The other a sere heart.
It felt good to create. I have some ideas for it that I may or may not follow through with, given my current state. I made a mess of the space, I cried and yelled and wished I had a friend to play with, I was happy I was alone, I got covered in oil pastels and paint, and there were little bits of corrugated cardboard stuck to the bottoms of my feet. How I do anything is how I do everything.

My nose.