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.