Monthly Archives: January 2012

There Be Dragons…

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It is now officially the Year of the Dragon, the only mythical creature in the Chinese Zodiac. He’s big, he’s beautiful, and those born under his aegis are supposed to be fearless, innovative, self assured and brave (they can also be tactless and quick tempered, but who wants to be negative?)

Dragons are not always creatures of legend and story, as witness the Komodo Dragon, a most unprepossessing customer that that can grow up to ten feet and weigh 200 pounds. Even with all this weight the Komodo can run, climb trees, swim, and hunt  big game like wild horses, deer, and water buffalo. Nastiest of all, the Komodo’s saliva contains so many germs that a single bite will kill within days.

Is it any wonder that I prefer the legendary creatures of fire and air? Of course, not all dragons were friendly. As far back as Sumer, there were stories written on clay tablets about a monster dragon called Asag (or Kur) who was battled by Ninurta, a god/hero. The Egyptians had their hero (who is either the sun god, Ra, or Seth) get rid of a nasty snake/dragon called Apophis. Then there is St. George putting paid to the dragon that brought him so much fame, and the warning that struck terror into the heart of all mariners who dared sail to the edge of the world… “There be dragons.”

Admittedly, dragons have had a bad rep. Deemed sneaky, malicious, unscrupulous and deadly, they always seem to be guarding treasure in some deep and damp cave or setting towns on fire. Even literary dragons have a lot to answer for—consider Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock! Still, there are some good members of the species. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern  and Paolini’s Inheritance cycle spring to mind—and, of course, Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. Closer to home there is “The Very Hungry Dragon” which I wrote to amuse the grandchildren. In it  Sparks, a young dragon who detests broccoli and rutabagas, is driven by hunger to devour hay (with ketchup on it). The story never appeared in print but got high praise from its target audience.

Most likely because I was born in the year of the dragon, I am partial to these wonderful mythical creatures. Though often vilified in the west, dragons are considered revered protectors in the east, and in olden times Chinese people would make many offerings to them. There were a lot of dragons, too (the Great Dragon purportedly had nine sons), and they all had personalities! I recall reading that Baxia was a good swimmer, and that Qiuniu loved music.

Dragons were also a symbol of status. While we were in China we learned that ordinary people could only display a dragon with four claws. Five-clawed dragons belonged to the Emperor alone and anyone foolhardy enough to own or display one such was put to death.

There is a story—supposedly true—about a rich merchant who built a wonderful residence for himself and erected a five-clawed dragon on the roof. Just below the open jaws of this great creature knelt a small frog. Of course the emperor heard about it and had the merchant arrested and brought before him. I can imagine the scene, can’t you? The Son of Heaven sits on his great throne and there before him kneels the trembling merchant.

“What,” thunders the emperor, “do you mean by this disrespect? For your actions, you must die.”

The merchant dares to raise his forehead off the floor. “Oh, Great Son of Heaven,” he pleads, “let me explain. You are the great, the wonderful, the magnificent dragon depicted on my humble roof. I am the miserable frog kneeling at your feet so that I might best serve you.”

Pretty quick thinking, don’t you think? And it worked. The merchant not only left the Imperial Presence with body parts intact but was from then on showered with favor. His business and property increased, and his gardens—which we visited in Shanghai—were fabulous.

Black cloud overhead…

Could it be that a dragon

Has hidden the sun?

The Dragon and the Frog

 

 

 

Haiku Walk

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Though traditionally a cold and unfriendly month, our January here in North Carolina has been mild. This morning is an exception. A gust of chilly wind attacks me as I start my morning walk, and the scudding gray clouds above allow only brief glints of sunshine. Winter… well, it is January, isn’t it? Gritting teeth, head down against the wind, I begin to walk.

A howl of wind tugs at hat and scarf. I drop a mitten which lands in the mud. Is this worth it? I should go home where it is warm and watch the trees dance in the wind. I can write. I can arrange my fabric bins. I can… but that’s a coward’s way out, so I’m going to make this a haiku walk.

When I was growing up in Japan, keeping eyes and ears open for interesting objects or events along the way was a game. Today, with the wind sneaking cold fingers down my neck, I try to enter into the proper spirit but so far see only depressed-looking branches without leaves. Then, I spy the deserted bird’s nest:

Once cheerful, noisy,

Now only pitiless wind

Visits empty nest.

Haiku poems are ideally elegant and spare, and the poet has seventeen syllables in which to offer an observation that evokes image and thought. The great haiku masters were able to pen lines that resonate to this day, but trudging along in the cold I can only hope to finish this walk without turning into an icicle. I mutter words to myself as I walk on. So far, this isn’t working.

Wait—what’s that racket up ahead? There is a holly tree and—aha!—a flock of robins are gorging themselves on the berries. One of the robins turns its head and gives me a beady-eyed look that says: hey, lady, what do you want? we have to work with what we’ve got!

Those cheeky robins

Are divesting holly bush

Of its best berries!

Feeling more cheerful, I watch a lazy hawk riding the currents of the air. Nearly black against the gray sky, he glides with a powerful and deadly grace that far outstrips my plodding pace.

Riding frigid sky

Intent on warmth-giving food,

Sleek, fearsome raptor.

So busy am I watching the hawk that I don’t realize I’ve come over half way and can turn homeward, Now that I have the wind at my back, the going is not so hard. And over there – it surely can’t be daffodils? But there they stand in a pool of pale January sun, bright and erect with yellow trumpets raised. In this sere landscape the sight is so precious that I stop to admire and marvel.

Golden daffodils

Lift bright trumpets to gray sky,

Celebrating life.

One more hill, and I’m home free. Ahead lie warmth and comfort, a hot cup of tea, shelter from the cold. It’s the end of my haiku walk. Braver, stronger and still filled with the life force, the natural world continues to offer its inimitable poetry.

That Special Tree

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A tree is a wonderful thing. It asks for nothing except sun and rain and stretches out its branches to give shelter, shade, and a home to multitudes of birds. It is a constant in mythologies around the world, appearing in Norse legend as Yggdrasil and in China as the immortality-giving peach tree which bore fruit once in three thousand years. There is also the Tree of Life, which is a revered symbol in many cultures.

I  really love trees, so when my friend, Marilyn, sent me the Boston Globe  article about Isy Mekler and his project, I was excited and intrigued.

According to the article, thirteen year old Isy decided to tackle childhood illiteracy for his Bar Mitzva project. He wrote to as many artists and writers as he could with the request that they draw a unique, three dimensional tree. Isy’s plan was to then donate these special trees to  Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit promoting early literacy, so that the trees could be auctioned at their annual fund raiser. Thirty five artists honored Isy’s request and  drew from his or her experience to create unique and personal trees.

What a wonderful project, I thought—and then the inevitable question: what sort of tree would I have chosen to create? Out of all the trees that I have loved, which one has inspired me the most?

Not an easy question, and to answer it I sifted through a wealth of memories. There were the Camphor trees my uncles had in their garden, aromatic and stout and easy to climb (my Uncle Joe was known to have shimmied up the Camphor tree by his window after a late night out). So, Camphor trees. But, wait—what about pine trees? The sweeping Japanese pine, the towering redwoods, and the long-legged Carolina variety that bend and dance with the wind?

Camphors for remembrance, the pines for their resilience and their evergreen presence…. but would I choose either of these to represent my inspiration to write and create art? The question and the choice remained difficult.

Our history helps to shape us and our goals, but we draw our hopes and our dreams from the essence of ourselves. So to choose ‘my’ tree I need to reach that quiet place that exists in all of us and to see with the eyes of the heart.

There I found the Ume, a species of  apricot tree that grows in Japan and blooms in deepest winter. Though it might be easily overlooked in another season, this tree illumines the January garden with its dark, leafless branches and its small, pale flowers. A quiet, elegant presence in that bleak month, it is to me a symbol of tenacity, of perseverance, of hope.

Undaunted by cold,

Ringed around a golden heart

Tender, pale petals.

Yes! My choice is made! Now, I pass the question on to you, my friends and colleagues. What would your tree be like?

Read Isy Mekler’s story at:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2012/01/07/year-old-isy-mekler-amibitious-idea-buy-books-for-needy-children/ZBjsXqHFcoJ4Ms0w0PxzLN/story.html?s_campaign=8315

The Muddled Middle

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Never mind that it is cold and blustery outside, inside wheels are turning. For me, this is a time when new projects, new plots and designs all clamor for precedence. During these short days when the earth rests and patient trees sigh for warmer winds, my always messy workspace becomes a confusion of fabrics and a jumble of notes. Timid souls who venture up here mutter things  about the Sargasso Sea as they hurriedly make their exit.

Beginnings are exciting. Like a bursting firework comes that first inspiration, and it is followed by possibilities. These are my characters, and this is the germ of a plot. I will follow it here and here and… oh, what fun! I know just how everything will turn out at the end, too. So, boot up the computer, start writing with fervor and drive and direction.  And then…

The problem is the and then that cometh to me soon or late. The joy and drive of the beginning lasts until the bubble bursts and I stare out upon the wasteland of pages that must be crossed—metaphorically speaking—before I come to the end.

What to do? Well, here is that neat little outline I’ve written down to guide me through the Muddled Middle. This is what I always promote in writing workshops. ‘Write your outline, and it will be your blueprint, your guide,’ I have said, and usually this is true. But occasionally—well, more than occasionally—the outline is no use because I have tossed out several characters, added two, and changed the plot line significantly. So far my first draft has no resemblance to the original story that once had me rubbing my hands in glee.

Now is the time for the tearing of hair, for the grinding and gnashing of teeth. With enthusiasm diminishing and the end of the story far, I wonder: should I soldier on and complete what I have started or… dreaded thought… chuck the wretched thing?

The Muddled Middle Syndrome invades the world of fabric, too. At the start of a project, I am full of confidence. I’ve pictured the design in my mind and even made a rudimentary sketch; colors have been chosen, a background constructed. All that is needed is to put beautiful fabrics together. But once the fabric pieces are cut and sewn together the colors don’t marry. Bother! Perhaps I should take the whole thing apart?

Tell me of any writer or artist who does not dread the Muddled Middles, and I acknowledge a Master. Dickens, I’ve heard, wrote the whole of The Christmas Carol at one gulp, and I am green with envy. Perhaps the three Spirits (or some other kind of spirits) had something to do with it.

Maybe if I take a break and read a book, inspiration will return? But though the book starts well and the characters are engaging and I do want to know what happens to them, there are six hundred and three pages between me and the end!

This can’t go on, I tell myself. The Muddled Middles must be dealt with, and there is nothing for it but to face up to my projects. Sighing, I get back to work. And the strange, the really incredible thing is that once the Muddled Middles have been conquered, I never understand why I had such problems in the first place.  What was all the fuss about? I wonder as I finish the last chapter or sew the binding to a completed piece. This wasn’t so hard, after all. Nothing to it!

Now, in my next project…

Between the first step

And the long awaited goal

Lies a vast wasteland.