After marking the Winter Solstice and a wedding anniversary last night with a nice dinner at our new favorite restaurant, I was further cheered this morning to discover that my Christmas cacti have begun to bloom...or at least they have set blossoms, albeit some buds just the size of uncooked short grain rice. I was afraid they weren't going to bloom this year -- not having a Christmas tree is one thing, but this was serious! But there they are, the little nubbins of blossoms popping out just as yang starts to rise.
Last year the plants, despite neglect and abuse (which I think they actually thrive on) blossomed twice...at Christmas time, and again toward Easter. I love the cosmic clock of nature. It just ticks on with or without my intervention.
A concatenation of circumstances has led to the third time in my life I have not had the pleasure of a real Christmas tree with which to mark the season. And a long one...I usually get my money's worth out of the tree...it has been known to last far beyond the 12 Days of Christmas (12/25 to 1/6), sometimes through to Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day or Ash Wednesday. (It's always been gone by Easter; that would be doubling up on sacrifices.)
The shipments of Oregon produce to Hawaii this year were smaller than normal...and some of the containers (they come on container ships) were rejected because they were infested with bugs and slugs, illegal aliens wisely not admissible through Hawaii's agricultural inspection. I personally would have accepted the vermin (having come to accept the local ubiquitous cockroaches, cane spiders and lizards), but the State is cautious about such things. Our usual vendor did arrange a last minute shipment of trees, flying in 600, for a line of folks who started queueing at 3 a.m., like fans trying to score rare concert tickets. The Wizard called me after visiting this vendor to say, "They just announced there are 30 trees left and there are 200 people still in line ahead of me."
"Come home now," I said, "that's potential riot." It wasn't, Hawaii people being generally patient and orderly, and I am satisfied to know there are some children who have a tree that we didn't buy out from under them. I do wonder if there were tree scalpers. I hope not.
The alternative is an artificial tree. My first qigong instructor said that plastic plants fulfill the same feng shui function as real ones, although that may just be disinformation spread by the Hong Kong silk and plastic flower industry. But a fake, more like furniture or a decoy, doesn't have the sacrificial quality that a real tree does, and I don't want to pay money for another thing to store...it's bad enough to store all the ornaments.
The other alternative is a locally grown Norfolk/Cook pine, above, a tropical evergreen that is lovely to look at, and available as a Christmas tree, but lacks the density of the traditional Northern Hemisphere firs, spruces, pines. (I once had one as a potted houseplant in Appalachia; I would decorate it, but it was second string to the spruce we usually cut ourselves.) The Christmas tree tradition is after all a Northern European, old religion sort of thing. I expected a big rash of illegal Norfolk pine rustling, and I may actually scavenge some ironwood branches, below, which have a kind of oriental pine look about them, to do at least some greenery decor.
So no tree. We will donate the money we would have spent to our local homeless charity. And in a sour grapes spirit, I don't have the CHORE of acquiring, decorating, and undecorating, to say nothing of time-consuming visits to the storage locker. In the meantime, I will be content with the lighted ceramic tree, which reminds me of one my Victorian-esque Aunties had; the little orchestra is a family heirloom, the figurines are marked on the bottom: "Made in Occupied Japan."
There's also a tiny tree, below, 2.5 inches, smaller than our usual 7-foot Noble fir, with awestruck mice (the Wizard has a thing for these tiny miniatures), and a clever hand-made crocheted tree, right, bought from a local crafter. It is on my desk in my office, cozily displayed next to a ceramic fireplace, chair, bag of gifts and, again, some mice, a cat in a Christmas stocking hat, and a Chinese dragon.
So in lieu of the actual sacrifice, I at least have some tangible references to it. (Sort of like crucifixes, but more cheerful.) And I do have lots of lights on hand, not in the storage locker, to string all over the place.
In the meantime, while burning scented candles and playing holiday music, I will offer incense to the memory of the albizias that were pointlessly sacrificed, destroying the view from my lanai and the habitat of a lot of birds. I know this seems all contradictory and conflicted. That's the nature of sacrifice.
I got kind of weepy this morning when I saw the maiden flight of Boeing's new big old jet airliner, the 787 "Dreamliner," innovatively made of a carbon-titanium composite, essentially plastic, not aluminum, expected to be more fuel efficient, thus environmentally friendly and cheaper to operate. The hint is the 57 carriers who have already ordered more than 800 of the $150-million planes MAY pass their savings on to consumers...yeah, right, we'll see. I only hope a little blip turns up in one of my 401(k) accounts -- there must be some Boeing in there somewhere. I am happy of course for the Boeing employees who have jobs building these things.
I was weepy partly because my late mother would have liked to have seen this; she wanted to be a pilot, (romatically inspired by Ameilia Earhart, St. Exupery, and the Spirit of St. Louis) trying to get licensed during the early years of WWII, to ferry trainers around from the Piper plant in Lock Haven near where she grew up. Her old-school mother, like a feudal tai tai, forbid it. When Grammy discovered what Mom was doing on those afternoons at the airfield, she insisted that Mom either pay rent or move out if she was going to do something so improper as to take flying lessons. (We never much talked about the details of her submission to her mother's wishes. Needless to say, I got away with a lot of impropriety in my fledgling years.) I still have her flight logs, just a few hours short of solo.
I never wanted to actually fly a plane, but I always have enjoyed traveling in them (generally,** prefering a train, really), nose-to-glass in window seats, something that I'm not sure my mother ever actually did as a commercial passenger. I'm pretty sure my first-ever flight was one she arranged for me in a DC-3, (the Underwood typewriter of aircraft) and through the years I enjoyed bigger and bigger planes, until the ultimate pleasure of the 747, (the airline equivalent of the IBM Correcting Selectric, both pinnacles of late 20th Century technological achievement) usually on cheap Korean Air flights to Hong Kong. I used to book flights for a petulant Hawaii–D.C. frequent flyer who always insisted on the 747, seat 1A, UPSTAIRS. A plane with a second floor! Since then, the 757, the 777, the ubiquitous 737s (short-hop planes, one of which tragically lost its top and a member of the cabin crew on a routine flight around the Islands) but more likely now, I find myself seated on the too-accurately named Airbuses. (Like Dell laptops? I'm carrying this analogy a little far, but the 787 may be a really snazzy MacBook Pro.) I've always suspected the A in A-300 stands for abominable...a French word.
Boeing always sounds sort of romantic..."big 707 set to go" scans a lot more poetically than "L-1011" or "A-300 Airbus". And I always assumed the "big old jet airliner" was a 747. I'm just wondering how Airbus will respond to this new challenge of Boeing's. Will they devise...a paper airplane? They could recycle it, that's environmentally friendly. And then when booking our tickets on-line, we could get to choose our equipment: paper or plastic?
**Once I woke up in a 747 with a cold brown liquid dripping on me, apparently from the overhead luggage compartment; it was very disturbing. Turned out it was coffee from the upstairs coffee maker which had "malfunctioned," as they say.
Been trying to catch the Christmas wave, but it's not that easy in Hawaii. (Well, some waves are, and we've been having some BIG ones.) The commercial shopping stuff fails to light my candle, there are no strong seasonal weather cues, except maybe the big waves...so I turn to music.
Amazon just delivered Bob Dylan's Christmas album to my mailbox, so fast, the appearance of which I predicted (like John the Baptist predicting the Messiah) many years ago...just wait, I said, someday he's gonna...and he did. I think it fits in the baby-boomer nostalgia spectrum somewhere around Polar Express. (If I wasn't deep in a TVB drama, I might watch that movie tonight. I'll save it for Christmas Eve.)
But back to Dylan, hearing all these old classics by someone whose acid laryngytis is even worse than my own is kind of heartwarming. Sometimes he seems to be channeling (some might say ripping off) Leon Redbone. (Really though, who did what first anyway?) And the packaging of the album (a charity fundraiser) has some funny surprises. Front image, a kind of Classic Coke-style/Currier and Ives Christmas sleigh ride; back image, three camels (loving it); and inside...a Christmas pinup of Bettie Page (red-bordered silk stockings, a Victoria's Secret image of the '50s)! The album cover pretty much covers everything Christmas.
I put it on the CD player, along with a new Verve jazz Christmas collection, and Vol. Three of Christmas Cocktails(included in the Amazon shipment, shipping three for the price of one, please do not tell me I should have downloaded them). And pulling from the library, our very favorite favorite, Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas (someone once said to me at a party I was spinning music for, "That's not Christmas music!"). And our second favorite favorite, The Christmas Collection, with a whole lot of versions of The Christmas Song, with deep-throaty jazz saxophones and Hammond organs with Leslie speakers, the kind of music you would hear at 3 a.m. in a really sleazy bar on Christmas Eve/Morning.
Maybe all this music--five albums I might just keep in the CD changer through Epiphany, despite a collection which includes everything from Gregorian chant to medieval Hungarian carols, Handel to Bing Crosby, and every Windham Hell Solstice album ever issued--with a glassbottle of my favorite cheap cabernet, will get me in the mood. And tomorrow we search for a pre-sacrificed Oregon Noble Fir. It seems like a chore, but then, so does every ritual until you accomplish it.
So, Bob Dylan singing Little Drummer Boy, how bizarre and lovely, starts the holiday, and will see me through it. My only quandary will be when it's all over...do I shelve the Dylan CD with the other Zimmie stuff or store it with the Christmas albums? It doesn't really matter: it'll be available anytime on three iPods and my laptop. It will be a delight to hear Christmas Blues turn up in a shuffle.
In memory of people I never knew, but now feel sort of close to, the Lindquists, who apparently lost their lives in a flash flood after Thanksgiving dinner, here are some images that at least suggest why they liked to live where they did.
"About twenty years ago, an old man named Smitty turned his back on society and came to Koki Beach to live as a monk. Living in a cave on the north side of the beach, he cleaned up the beach, and was a lifeguard of sorts, saving people who dared the riptides. He was a popular figure and would post his "thoughts for the day" on the Hana public bulletin board. But in 1984 his cave collapsed on top of him. When the rubble was cleared, his body was found in a kneeling position, and the story is that he died while meditating."
Warning at Koki Beach
Weird Medusa Tree at Hamoa
Hana Highway, (the curvy thing on the side of the green cliff)
Not long after we finished cleaning up after our first of the cook-once, eat-many turkey dinners, tragedy struck very nearby. We were safely ensconced in our vacation rental, digesting our colorful supper, washed down with champagne in tumblers -- no wine glasses in this house -- all cozy and watching DVDs while a really hard rain came down outside, complete with thunder and lightning.
Just up the road, an older couple -- older than us, anyway --had just finished their Thanksgiving dinner at the only hotel in Hana, and then drove home to their more isolated Hana home to be caught in a flash flood that washed their SUV into a stream, and their bodies, it is suspected, into the ocean, something like 50-100 yards away.
The hotel staff had offered them a room for the night, but they decided to just go home.
There's a lesson here: if you are out on a dark and stormy night in an area where flash floods are not uncommon, and if the hotel staff says, "Have a night on us"...take it! Old B&W horror movies to the contrary, a night on the house when the weather is raging might be a good idea.
When we drove out from Hana on Sunday, the road was still very wet and slick and greasy with fallen leaves, blocked by at least one rockslide, and compromised by crazy tourists driving too fast and inattentively. They were enjoying looking at the countless vigorous waterfalls in the jungle hillsides. Weather reports say it rained two inches in one hour Thursday night. Beautiful, but water can be a deadly force.
Hana Highway One-Lane Bridge
Over Raging Stream
Monday morning update: they're still missing. Very sad. But as one of my blogging friends has pointed out to me regarding another matter, nature always wins. Don't fight, don't gamble with Mother Nature! Be a Taoist. Cooperate with her. Listen to your mother.
There were a lot of people out and about, so we retreated to our house to read, drink, snack, nap and watch DVDs of "Two Fat Ladies", a BBC culinary show. One of their recipes had to do with cooking pigeons (or some kind of small wild game birds). The method involved thickly slathering them with butter, stuffing them with a chunk of butter, and then wrapping them up with several slices of bacon. Suddenly our own holiday indulgences, not exactly a health educator's dream, didn't seem so bad.
We are celebrating this Thanksgiving holiday in Hana, Maui, one of the most remote places in Hawaii, and perhaps on earth. (George Harrison maintained a house here, and who can blame him?) This continues a tradition we have established over the past few years with friends, renting a house on a neighbor island, trucking in a turkey and trimmings, and settling in to avoid Black Friday and just enjoy a nice old-fashioned feast and fellowship with friends.
After a short but pricey flight from Honolulu, stopping in Kahului to pick up overpriced supples we didn't want to carry on the plane, we headed out for the 68-mile drive on the Hana Highway, a truly secondary road with 59 old bridges (most of them one-laners approached sharply after one of the 620 tight curves on the coast hugging road). Making this trip special was driving in the dark and in the rain. I was getting a little car sick in the slow-moving rocking and swaying Jeep, but that eventually faded as the burdens of our office lives were left behind. We found our house, our friends greeting us with drinks and a hot supper. After a good night's sleep, we awoke to this view out the front window:
There Ought to be Sheep
The view out the back, through a screened lanai, is of a small residential community (and our trusty rental Jeep) with Hana Bay and the ocean on the near horizon:
After assembling the turkey for roasting, my contribution to the team effort of Thanksgiving dinner, my friend and I took a stroll around the neighborhood, a domestic botanical garden of delights.
A curious drooping floral thing in the back garden of our rental house:
A hot pepper plant in someone's yard:
We continued our walk to the bay, but my camera battery failed: we will revisit to document the lovely seaside vistas. The feasting butterfly reminded of us of our turkey back in the oven, soon to be savored.
Although my Chinese painting teacher focuses on "flower and bird" painting, I doubt this was what she has in mind:
Truth be told, this bird and flowers are from 2007's holiday in Kula, "up-country" Maui, the wildflowers gathered from a similar stroll along the country road while the turkey roasted. The turkey tastes the same. I like to carve it with an antique fork and knife (like a stag-horn handled jian) that were wedding presents to my parents. Our 2009 feast turned out to be just as colorful, with green spinach, orange yams, yellow stuffed acorn squash and the delicious purple okinawan sweet potatoes (which were never part of my mother's traditional feast which tended to be a bit more monochromatic).
The whole day was sunny and cheerful, but at night we had really heavy rain again, making it hard to hear the DVD movies we had brought along for group entertainment. But now it is sunny again, time to walk off yesterday's indulgences with a visit back to the bay, to photograph the scenes we missed yesterday.
Went for a haircut, a karmic touch-up that seemed appropriate as the sun enters Sagittarius, my birth sign. I would actually like to shave my head, but that seems a little extreme. My hairdresser said after my last cut, her next patron asked for "the color you gave that lady."
I have Mother Nature's platinum or silver or ... gray. Whatever you want to call it. White karma.
Then I stopped at the Ross store next door, that weird shopping mecca, a bazaar of seconds and overruns, to buy a scented candle for the holiday season. The checkout lines were long. A woman behind me said, "Why don't they have an express lane for, you know, one item or less?"
I was still chuckling over that one when the cute clerk at my register called back to his manager about someone else's item code: "Is this bed linens or lingerie?"
"You've got a lot to learn, " I said.
I think this holiday season is going to be a lot of fun.
After enduring the physical indignities of an overnight economy flight from HNL to PDX (which wasn't that economical, and far less entertaining and comfortable than any Chinese train) we arrived in Portland (Oregon) for an exercise in filial piety for a weekend, in this case, the elders traveling to visit the younger generation. The night flight was annoying because they kept the big TV screen on the entire flight, flickering and flashing at 3 a.m. (And I couldn't find my eyeshade.) Do people need this CONSTANT "entertainment"? Everyone who wasn't asleep was trying to be. I declined the stupid movie in favor of my iPOD (shuffling Bob Dylan for hours) but at one point woke up to a frantic video about traveling in China. Still listening to Bob, and pretty certain I wasn't dreaming, I narrated the travelogue to myself. The sights I hadn't seen, I am familiar enough with to know about them. I drifted back to sleep only to wake an hour later to see an American Idol sort of competition about dog grooming. This time I wish I had been dreaming.
Portland is cold, wet, and misty in contrast to the hot, wet and misty we left in Honolulu. The long weekend begins with proof that weather reporting is not always inaccurate. As predicted, it is 44 degrees F, with light rain, and nippy (not a term I am accustomed to seeing in weather reports). It is not comforting to know that this is the extended forecast.
To fortify ourselves against the weather, after changing from light Aloha wear to jeans and fleece jackets and socks, looking quite local in a Northwest sort of way, we have a cozy pub lunch with some fine microbrewed beer, then drive downtown to wander about.
We try the mass transit: within a certain "Fareless" zone, it is free.
Why Can't Honolulu Do This?
The weather conditions, which were frightening when landing at the airport, with a ceiling of about 100 feet, make it impossible to tell what time it is all day.
Always Time for Lights On
Still the walkabout is beautiful, a yin contrast to the sunny yang of Hawaii, and offers views of what my Chinese painting teacher described as ku shu, that is, dying trees.
They will inspire me to paint when I get home.
Our main downtown destination was Powell's, the city's famed used/new bookstore that occupies four floors of an entire city block. It is like a vast library where you can buy the books.
I found several old texts on Chinese painting to supplement Lao Shi's lessons, which are great and generous, but sometimes difficult because of the non-linear teaching style with slightly tortured English expression, not at all unlike the lessons I enjoyed on the Tao in Wudang.
These texts--with classic references going back to the 17th century, not Walter Foster guides-- support the teachings, rooted in the Tao, in this case, the way of painting. They discuss painting not in Western terms of critical interpretation, but its place in the whole culture, and the ideals and standards of the traditional techniques. The skills are not easily acquired, and come no more naturally to the Chinese --or at least Chinese not raised in a traditional culture-- than Mandarin or Cantonese comes naturally to a second or third generation Chinese person raised in the West. So while you can't learn the painting (or language or qigong or Chinese philosophy) just by reading the books -- you truly need a culturally connected sifu, a lao shi-- the books do reinforce the lessons, just as Taoist scriptures like the Tao Te Ching reinforce internal cultivation of the spirit.
At Powell's, once I exhausted the Chinese painting section, I moved on to Asian philosophy where, to complement Thomas Cleary's version, I found a copy of Richard Wilhelm's translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower, (which was part of what we were learning in Wudang) and a miniature of Stephen Mitchell's Tao Te Ching translation. I enjoy his reading of the TTC on a CD I have, but I will like to have the written version as well (not really being one to "listen to a book" like my friend who wants me to do Chinese painting with a pen pad). The Stephen Mitchell versions include no commentaries to speak of, but his voice and elegant translations stand quite nicely on their own. I much prefer these to the latter-day self-help styled versions, like Dr. Wayne Dyer's "Do the Tao" set. I recently have been reading Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power, which has a lot of good historical information. And John Blofeld, who joins a group of immortals including those other China Hands like Graham Peck and David Kidd. They have great connections with the past to enhance our understanding of the present.
We are modern people, but to fully understand traditions, I believe we need to explore the sources as close to the beginning as possible and honor the scholarship that has already been done, before proclaiming we understand any of these ancient techniques.
A few days ago a coworker was extolling the virtues of the new mini-Wacom pen pad, about the size of a trade paperback, that he just got for his MacBook Pro. "You should use this for your Chinese painting," he said. Untraditionally, I have occasionally made little doodle-sketches on my white board in the Chinese style while trying to think of a solution to some problem (only to eventually erase them the way Tibetan monks destroy their sand mandalas, to show their impermanence, or in my case, express an occasional fit of office pique. Although the digital camera does give them a sort of immortality, seen here on the right.)
But the pen pad? "Well, it's really all about the brush, the ink, the paper and the qi, " I explained.
"But you can express the qi with the pressure of the pen," he went on. Still it just doesn't seem...traditional.
When contemplating one of the paintings I did last week at the Cultural Plaza, the Wizard said, "But why are those birds there? They look out of place." (They are the swashy things in the space to the left of the tree trunk. Big birds.)
They weren't mine, but were added by another of the painters at the demonstration, one of the reasons my teacher didn't want to participate. While she generally corrects our classwork by adding or enhancing some feature or stroke for teaching purposes, it did seem just a little bit rude to do it in public. And she too felt the birds were not only out of place, but out of proportion to the rest of the design.
So I enlisted my own pen pad, a much larger Wacom model, and did a little digital kung fu on the painting. Since they weren't MY birds, I could vanish them .
Makes a difference, don't you think? Unfortunately, the original work features the unerasable birds. You can't use white-out on a Chinese painting.
Today I did another piece, all by myself. I will take the homework to class, and Lao Shi may correct it. At least I know for certain she won't add gigantic birds.
(There is no particular reason the paintings are of different color values. Birds-no-birds was scanned; the mountain hut scene is a photo. And the white board images are photos of your basic EXPO dry erase markers on a white board and live on only as digital images.)
Much as I like the Three Deep Bears concept, it doesn't work as a pinyin-ization of my name. Here's what it's supposed to look like (from a T-shirt, jersey not being necessarily the best material for fine calligraphy.)
The Wizard had these characters carved into a chop (seal) for me many years ago. You must admit it's pretty sexy. (The seal print reads right to left.)
Here's the bottom, carved side up resting in its silk Chinese box. Unfortunately in this picture, it looks kind of like an elaborately presented piece of meat. A chop chop.
If you don't know exactly how this works, you press the chop into a tin of specially prepared inky red goo, like a stamp pad, and carefully imprint the paper. My chop has a particularly nice feel in the hand. I have begun using it on some of my paintings.
Since my seal is so unique, it could pretty much be my legal signature as long as I keep it locked up! "But the will was changed! It has her seal on it." And thus begins a wu xia fantasy extravaganza...starring Vincent Zhao...and me! But wait...that woman...she stole my chop!!! Identity theft!
TAO 61: A great nation flows downward into intercourse with the world. The female of the world always prevails over the male by stillness. Because stillness is considered lower, by lowering itself to a small nation a great nation takes a small nation; by being lower than a great nation a small nation takes a great nation. So one takes by lowering itself, another takes place by being lower. A great nation wants no more than to include and nurture people; a small nation wants no more than to admit and serve people. Both get what they want, so the great should be below. translated from the Tao Te Ching, Thomas CLeary