Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Moody Blues


The sun is setting, and I’m standing on the beach watching along with a few scattered onlookers who have gathered to experience this once-a-day miracle of color and majesty. The air is soft and cool, the waves lap softly at my feet.

Light of setting sun

Transforms the ocean waves

Into liquid gold.

“Can’t we go now?” a voice whines. “We’ve been here forever. I’m cold, this is so a waste of time.”

The 12 year old is huddled in a jacket and has dug her sneakers into the sand. Her mouth is turned down, her eyes are narrowed, and everything about her exudes disgust and boredom. Amused, I glance to my left and see a couple probably in their late teens, the girl leaning against her companion. His cheek is against her hair, sunlight reflects against their rapt faces, and their world has narrowed to two. I can almost hear romantic mood music playing.

What would we do without Mood? It’s the staple of any artist. A painter finds it in her palette; a quilter in the hues and values of fabric, a writer uses words to portray a scene, set a tone. So should I want to create a pivotal scene which will reveal the thoughts and motivations of many people, I use a tactic that I call the Moody Blues.

In this sunset scene the Moody Blues is already at work. There is the bored-out-of-her-skull tweenie who is continuing to whine that she never gets to do anything, that she has sand in her sneakers and, listen, she’s already said she’s hungry. There are the young lovers. If I were to write their thoughts, they might go something like this: There’s never been a sunset like this, no, not since the world began, and it’s a sign of our love, isn’t it? Of course it is, of course.

             For some variety,  I’m going to imagine that someone else is watching this same setting sun on a ship far out at sea and feeling a sense of dread because night is coming and he has a premonition that something is going to happen. He thinks: That old sun is telling me something. It’s a  sign for me to get out while I still can. No, I have to get a grip. It’s just a sunset.

Moody Blues can be subtle or it can slap down, hard.  Consider that girl standing on the sand dune some distance away. Her face is hard and set, her hands are fisted at her sides as she watches the young lovers.  What does he see in her? It makes me sick to watch them.  She ruins everything for me.  I hate her!” And the green-eyed monster is off and running.

Moody Blues can be used to change any two-dimensional character into a Person Of Interest. Depending on the way I want my story to go, I can turn the sight of this beautiful sunset into something peaceful, or miserable, or ominous, or scary. Let’s go with scary and imagine yet another character—let’s make him lean and rather handsome but tight-lipped, intense, and concentrating hard as he thinks:  Sunset red…  the color of blood.

Now the sun is touching the horizon, and that great, red orb is dipping slowly into the water, but I’m thinking more of my real and imaginary watchers. I’ve invented their moods and thoughts, of course, but were I to write their story how would it play out? How would these lives intersect? Hmm… maybe I’ll try and work it out. After all. it’s  fun to play the Moody Blues!



A Valentine For Old Things


Valentine’s day with all its flowers, cards and a rainbow of romance, is over, and I am thinking of old things. Not antiques, old letters or works of art and literature but things that are really, really old. Things that never get a mention in a love letter or a valentine but which give my imagination a solid workout.

Take turtles, for instance. Imagine—these stoic creatures have been around for 215,000,000 years (making them truly old) and have outlasted upheavals in this earth of ours and seen strange creatures flourish for a while before making way for the next wave of life. Look at a turtle’s face and see in those wise old eyes the mystery of millennia about which we can only theorize.Civilizations have risen and crumbled, but the turtle continues to swim back to shores of its own hatching in order to lay its eggs and continue its humble dynasty. If it could recount the history of its species, what would it tell us? What would be its advice?

Then, there are trees. Haven’t you ever stood beneath one of those beautiful old oaks and wondered what tales it could tell? Or stared up at soaring Redwoods and tried to picture the awe felt by settlers who left crowded, polluted cities of Europe to seek a new world? I know that when we were introduced to the 1,700 year old olive tree in Umbria last year, I felt a rush of history. Pomp and panoply, plots, warfare and peace must have passed under this tree. The olive tree was silent, but my own imagination was racing.

And then there is space… great, profound and mysterious. Distant stars whose light takes centuries to reach the earth glow in that vast darkness. Perhaps they have already gone nova or perhaps the galaxy in which they burn may have been churned into a black hole. I will never know.

Science, though is remarkable. The other day we watched as the rings of Saturn spread across our TV screen. In front of my eyes those glittering shards of ice whirled about that great gas giant 890,700,000 miles away from the sun, and I held my breath with wonder and breathless delight. Saturn has 62 moons, some recently discovered by the Cassini Probe. Among that plethora of satellites is Rhea with a possible faint ring of its own, and Titan which has an atmosphere made of liquid methane gas. Can you imagine skies that glow green and where raindrops fall very slowly? That is the scientists’ idea of Titan . But the moon that interests me most is a malformed moon that is thought to be composed of the detritus left over when our universe was formed.

Whirling in dark space

Exploding out of chaos

To glow in the sky.

It’s hard to grasp, hard even to imagine, but scientist theorize that ancient space matter came drifting  from the heart of deepest space and that it was caught in Saturn’s gravitational pull. Will man someday set foot on this bit of rock and plumb its secrets?

Until that day there is imagination. Perhaps my colleagues who are science fiction writers or painters of the great cosmos have already begun to write or paint or sew together stories which center around dramas we can never hope to see. Perhaps trees have inspired poets and illustrators and storytellers to set down their vision. And the turtle… surely its journey from millennia past to the present day is worthy of note in song or word or art!

And the fact that these ancient things stir us to create has to be worth a lot of valentines.


Unclaimed Memories


Perhaps like me you have stood staring at faded photographs of unnamed people—aged farmers, small children, or Civil War soldiers ready to march to war? Bright-eyed children, stooped, weary old men and women staring down the future, boys whose eyes glow with dreams of glory—I ’m always filled with sadness that I did not know the people in the photographs. Not their lives, per se, but the pivotal events of their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and the tears that may have fallen in the darkness of night. From such things come tales and novels, and I always wonder— should I tell their stories for them? Should I try and recapture the unclaimed memories of these lost and forgotten lives?

Loss comes to everyone, for if we live long enough we will all have lost someone  to death or love destroyed. I’m no exception. In February twelve years ago, my mother slipped away from us after a four day illness. She had a long and eventful life, a daughter, two grandsons, and she knew of one adored great grandchild. Even so her loss was a tear in my heart.

On that winter day

Hungry birds pecked at the sill

Outside her window.

I know of only one way to combat loss, and that is to remember.  When I say, “I remember the time when Mom broke into song on the top steps of that restaurant,” I can still laugh out loud. And in my mind my mother stands beside me, smiling.

So she is still real and alive to me. Not so my aunts on my father’s side whose faces used to stare wordlessly out of sepia photographs. Margaret—the lovely, dark-haired aunt with serene eyes—died in her thirties from peritonitis. She and Aunt Catherine were gone by the time I was born. Genealogical charts may give me their names and dates of birth and death, but these aunts’ memories were never shared.

On my mother’s side there was enigmatic Uncle Raymond, who took the Siberian Express to get from his home in Yokohama, Japan, to Switzerland. There this only son of the family fell in love and swore to his bride that he would never again set foot in Japan. He broke his mother’s heart, and in that heartbreak lies an untold story and many questions. Was his bride so beautiful? Was he so weak that he didn’t care about his parents’ feelings? Mom was too young to know more than the bare bones of that story, so I’ll never know the whys that lay tangled about a decision that affected so many lives.

Fortunately, my mother was a mine of information about her own life. She told me about her growing up years, her large and wooded home on the Yokohama bluffs, and her many adventures. She described  the rickshaw man who ferried her to school on rainy days and the irascible rooster that lived next door and which lay in wait for her each day when she came home.

“It knew,” she would say, darkly. “That miserable bird had a sixth sense. No matter how I tried to creep past or run past, out it would come, flying and cackling, its beak was as sharp as a pair of scissors.”

Regardless of her feathered nemesis, Mom was a defender of all animals, birds, fish, and even snakes, for she was on good terms with Willie, the garter snake who each season shed his skin near her beautiful old nandina bush. Once, when she was visiting us in the States, she arose one morning to calmly announce that there was a snake in her bed. “And don’t make a fuss,” she commanded, “it’s just a small snake and I don’t want it to be frightened. But I think,” she added judiciously, “that it would be happier outside in the garden.”

I’ve taken to telling my grand children some of my own growing up adventures. I share my mother’s reminiscences whenever I can. It’s an important task, even a duty, for  memories are unique and make us what we are. I don’t want our memories to be unclaimed.

The nandina bush

Grew just inside the old gate…

Remembered garden.

Throwing the Beans


February 3rd is  Setsubun, the day when we get to throw beans.

To explain: when I was growing up in Japan, mamemaki was performed as part of the Spring Festival. On this day the doors of the house were flung open, and we were given handfuls of roasted soy beans to toss while shouting, “Devils (read: Bad Luck) out, Good Luck in!” Then, Fortune having presumably entered the house, doors were shut, and we were finally allowed to munch on yummy roasted beans.

I thought about this long-ago custom today and decided to throw some mental beans at the plague of irritants that want to keep me from fulfilling New Year resolutions. To write more, to produce better art… these noble aspirations will be attainable once I’ve routed the imps that stand in the way.

First, I’m hurling beans at that lugubrious and laggardly Imp of Lethargy.  This lumpish creature too often settles in my brain and hangs a damper onto everything I should be doing. It complains constantly that it’s too tired to pick up a brush or a needle, and it insists that it’s not in the mood to write anything. But there is an antidote. When Lethargy strikes, I bombard it with the beans of stimuli. A visit to a quilt show, the museum of art, a library, concert, literary event—anything that will get my creative juices flowing is anathema to Lethargy, so out it goes.

My next target is the Imp of Hesitation. Hesitation gets on well with its cousin Lethargy, for where one leaves off the other begins. Hesitation has good ideas but balks at the thought of following through. It likes to think of completed projects but isn’t sure just how to start them. Will this work? Perhaps I shouldn’t even try? Where exactly should I begin? Whine, whine, whine—and best of all—I’ll do it tomorrow. Of course, tomorrow never comes—until I grit my teeth, roll up figurative shirtsleeves, sit down, and start to work. So—away with Hesitation!

Third bean is aimed squarely at Fear of Competition. This Imp is an insidious creature and needs to be beaned thoroughly so that it doesn’t return under the guise of Well Meaning Advice. The FC Imp will whisper things like: “Really! Look at all the books about this subject… do you honestly think yours has a chance?” or, “The work on that art quilt is stunning, isn’t it? And the technique is flawless. How can yours ever match that?”

The best way to banish the FC Imp is to concentrate on how best to do the work efficiently and quit worrying about whether that work will sell or whether it can compete with others in its field. This is not an easy task by a long shot, but unless I throw this imp out of my working life, I open the door to Lethargy, Hesitation, and—worst of all—the Imp of Hopelessness which would make me shut away the computer, hide the fabric, and feel grouchy all day. So, at huge fistful of beans to bid FC be gone.

That last Imp, lurking in the corner, is the Imp of Excuses. Unlike hesitation, this Imp is all too eager to impress me with its favorite line: but I just don’t have time! Most of us have met up with this cagey customer, and our busy lives can easily be hobbled  by plausible excuses. The thing to do is to retaliate with a fistful of good, solid common sense and the reminder that anything that we really want to do always gets done!  If I don’t have all morning to write, I will set aside an hour each evening—or when I first get up—or in the afternoon right after lunch. If an hour is too much to hope for, half and hour or even fifteen minutes will do for starters. Each day without fail will I set aside this time, and from experience I know that that half hour grows exponentially once the project  (and interest in it) gathers steam.

The Imps are banished, but has Fortune come in to replace them? Unfortunately, this requires work. First off, there has to be inspiration—or at least, an idea. Then the idea has to be followed through. This demands concentration and a conviction that the new idea is a good one, that it can become a great one, that it will be a unique work and something of which—never mind what the world has to say— I will be proud.

And with the Imps banished—at least for now—I can finally eat those roasted soy beans!

February winds

Rattle the leafless branches,

But see the new shoots!


Morning Song