Another Thanksgiving

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My grandchildren have  taken the seats at our Thanksgiving table, now vacated by our elders.  I no longer awaken on Thanksgiving morning to the sounds of my mother in the kitchen, up very early to prepare the feast for us, because she had worked too late the day before in the Elmwood Market grocery store to get anything done.  I’d go downstairs, increasingly enveloped in the wonderful scents of cooking all ready under way.  Often my mother would be singing in her not very good voice, either “Over the Woods and Through the Snow,” or “We gather together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.”( which in reality we never did.)  I’d join in the songs.

Smells, sights and sounds imprinted unforgettable memories.

The weather was always cold in the Thanksgiving of my youth.  Frost might etch the windows, the trees would have lost their leaves weeks earlier. Now that the leaves were carpeting the ground,  I’d get a clear view of the meandering Connecticut River, at the base of our hill in the back of the house.  It all felt Currier & Ives, even if it wasn’t.  If there were a few snowflakes in the air, so much the better.

Thanksgiving was a dining room event, barely large enough to hold our family of four, my aunt’s family of four and a few stragglers who depended on us for a seat at the table.  A children’s table would be set up as needed.  Uncle Sam, not my Uncle at all, but an old friend of my father’s, was always present.  When I look back now, I’m quite sure he was my father’s old gay friend, but such things were never acknowledged or talked about at that time. It was an unusual  friendship but always a comfort to have Uncle Sam on the scene.  My father always enjoyed needling him for one reason or another and it was fun to watch the scenario play out, as they both got increasingly drunk, and my father would irritate Sam more and more.   Poor Sam quickly ran out of comebacks.  He was no match for my father’s wit.  But their interactions varied little from year to year.

I’d be allowed the privilege of setting the table with my Mom’s best china, along with the just polished sterling silver and the large linen napkins and ornate linen table cloth, ironed to perfection .  For many years a Butterball turkey would be brought to the table, thought to take all the guesswork out of roasting the bird, even if it took out most of the flavor as well, because it was frozen.  In later years, they switched back to “native” turkeys, greatly improving the taste and setting standard for the local birds we seek out today.  The cranberry sauce was canned, and the green beans mixed with cream of mushroom soup topped off with canned fried onion rings.  There’d often be a jello mold which I was particularly fond of and of course a large dish of pureed sweet potatoes topped with perfectly toasted marshmallows. And, of course, pecan pie.We ate this exact same dinner at Thanksgiving throughout my childhood.  Why mess with perfection?

After dinner, the men retired to the den to watch football and fall asleep, while the women went directly to the kitchen to tackle the waiting mountain of dishes.

These were memories which have clearly lasted a lifetime.  Now Thanksgiving dinner is a more complicated affair in terms of guests and location.  It’s a bit like herding cats trying to figure out where to have it,  because we’re spread between coasts. Now, my children seem more excited about celebrating it than I do and they’ve taken on most of the work.  I’m grateful for that, because the day always holds a bit too much nostalgia for me to ever be as exciting as it was in my childhood.

 

Kiku: Understanding the Significance of the Chrysanthemum


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White chrysanthemum

before that perfect flower

scissors hesitate. 

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A few days ago, I found my way to another celebration and exhibit of chrysanthemums (kiku) at a shrine in Tokyo.  Taken at a superficial level it was proof to me that when the Japanese decide to explore the limits of anything, it usually goes way beyond what I’ve come to expect from the western world.  This world of chrysanthemums, displayed at the shrine, felt as chrysanthemummy as it could get in terms of extravagant blooms and displays.

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Digging deeper, I listened to poet Jane Hirshfield speak about the deeper meanings chrysanthemums hold in Japanese culture.  They are long lasting autumn flowers, in contrast to the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t ephemeral state of plum and cherry blossoms. They announce the arrival of spring, but we enjoy the luxury of looking forward, after their blossoms drop, to a long summer ahead.

 Chrysanthemums are an emblem of transience as well, but they tend to be long lasting, poignantly holding off the dead of winter.  Their explosion of beauty and their stillness serves in Buddhism as a reminder of a spotless open heart and an awakened mind.img_8563

Thank you, Jane for the poetic enlightenment!

It seems to me that many of the Japanese celebrations that include seasonal flowers, serve as a reminder of life’s duality between beauty/grief.  The beauty assuages the grief we all must feel at the transience of life, but it also serves to reinforce life’s brevity and compels us to notice what’s before us in the moment.

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shrine entrance

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The lanterns lit

The color of the yellow chrsanthemum

Disappears.

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I Like Ca(u)ndy Too!

It’s fun and tough to shop for our five granddaughters when we’re in Japan.  We try to find small transportable items that they’ll find intriguing and exciting and perk their curiosity about this place we visit so often.

Two of my grandchildren were very specific about what they wanted me to bring back from our last trip.  KitKats, made and sold only in Japan.  To be clear, the Japanese have taken ye olde KitKat candy and turned it from a grocery store staple into a sophisticated and quality driven product. The  300 Flavors change regularly and the most popular ones sell out. I’m not sure how my grandkids knew about this, but they were in the know before I was.  We were happy to find a KitKat Chocolotory, located only in certain department stores. After several minutes of confusion, we finally settled on a few flavors that we deemed child friendly and purchased several packages  for them.  https://nestle.jp/brand/kit/inbound/en/

Their younger three year old cousin was with them when we distributed the gifts.  She watched the distribution carefully, noting that she was not part of the KK hand-out, but had received something else.  Obviously, in her mind,  not as desirable.

Looking disappointed, but being the sensible and diplomatic child that she is, she looked at us and said evenly, “You know, I like candy too.!” (pronounced, cundy.)

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colored-kitkat

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Lesson learned.  Guess who else will be getting some Kit-Kats too?

Heart Warming and Belly Filling

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The hilly village of Ohara, in the northern precincts of Kyoto, is idyllic.  It’s one of the places that I must return to each time I come to Kyoto.  Its simple country farmhouses make a ring around a central area of fertile farmland growing rice and vegetables. At one time, this rural farm area grew most of the fruits and vegetables for the city of Kyoto.   Glimmering streams snake through the landscape.  Ancient temples watch over the proceedings of the ever changing lives of the mortals living below them.

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Several years ago, after arriving in Kyoto in early winter, I foolishly suggested we visit Ohara and take a walk.  A light rain was falling in Kyoto, but common sense should have told me it was not a great day for a walk in the country.

When we arrived in Ohara, it was snowing ,very cold and damp. A day my mother would have  described as “raw.” The walk quickly became an endurance test.  A friend we were with kindly suggested we stop at a nearby farmhouse that had a small sign in Japanese, indicating they served food.  What a refuge.  At the time, we were the only customers.

The large old farmhouse was owned by a young couple who had inherited the house from the wife’s parents.  She had an adorable infant strapped to her waist as she served us course after delicious course of food prepared by her husband in the adjacent kitchen.  The food is beautifully served on a wonderful assortment of antique and new ceramics.  We watched the snowfall as we happily sat behind large glass windows,consuming the heart warming food prepared for us.

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Steamed local mountain veggies and tofu, from the top and clockwise, daikon, tofu, carrots in sesame sause, spinach and burdock root with gingko nuts.

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On Sunday, we decided to search again for the farmhouse, neither of us certain  just where it was.  I managed to locate it, but when we walked in, the owner told us they were all booked.  I made my plea and they kindly sat us at a counter table in the kitchen.  We determined it had been about nine years since we’d first come.  They now have three daughters and share the work of serving lunch most days to about 20 lucky people.  The husband told us, when he wasn’t cooking, he was farming, on their small plot of land, directly across the small road.

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I was happy for them, although it was obvious to see how hard they both worked, she doing triple  duty as server and busgirl and dishwasher, her husband cooking for 20 people at a time, while growing the food in his spare time.  He grows organic rice too. Her parents look after their three daughters.

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The name of the restaurant is wappado.  Open only between noon and 3pm on certain days.

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Prepare to have your heart warmed and your belly filled.img_8359

 

 

In Praise of Friendship

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As many years as I’ve been coming to Japan, there are experiences to be had here that can only happen with the help of caring friends who have contacts and relationships that open doors that are not  available to the casual visitor.

When our friend Masa invited us to spend the day with him at Daitokuji Temple, I had no idea how memorable a day it would be. Masa, who is from Kyoto, had arranged the meeting for us, as a part of our day at Daitokuji. We were to meet the Abbot of the Zui-ho-in Temple, a sub temple of Daitokuji, to participate in a short tea ceremony the abbot would lead for us .

The visit of Zuiho-in starts with its front garden. To reach the builds from the front gate one has to turn three times, a design that helps the visitor to distance herself between the busy outside world and the quietness of the temple itself.

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Spending time with the Abbot was one of those experiences I would have liked to have been able to record. It was one of those experiences when my mind kept repeating to me, “This is amazing.  Pay attention!”

We entered the small humble tea room together, the abbot in his distinguished  white flowing robes, his presence glowing, his eyes knowing all. A small arrangement of the season’s first camellia blossoms and a scroll painting of autumn chrysanthemums on the tokonoma were the only decorative element in the room.

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Masa introduced us. My husband and I sat on stools as the Abbot, at age 77,  effortlessly lowered himself to the tatami mat.  He asked us a few questions about us, his eyes seeming to look into our very souls.  Then he began to speak to us about the importance of  breathing practice every day, performed first thing in the morning and before eating.  He gave us a demonstration , as he recited the heart sutra in sanskrit on each exhalation.   His deep baritone voice sounded as if it arose from deep in the earth.  I sat spellbound.

I’ve been flirting with the thought of doing breathing exercises for months, but haven’t been consistent.  I felt as if the Abbot knew that and chose to speak about its importance for this reason.  It was a message and demonstration I needed to witness.

My friend shared with the Abbot that I’ve been coming to Japan for many years.  He told me that my karma for Japan should allow me to go deeply into the culture of tea ceremony or other Japanese cultural practice. I felt grateful for that acknowledgement.

Masa patiently talked us through the ritual of tea ceremony, which I needed, although I’d participated in a longer tea ceremony a few times years ago.  It is a ritual of exquisite etiquette. When to bow, when to drink, when to acknowledge the tea master, how to admire the beauty of the tea bowl, etc.  It was over in just a few minutes, but to be in that space in those moments was an intense experience, a lifetime in a thimble.

” wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful!  and yet again wonderful.”  D.T. Suzuki

Thank you, Masa-san for making these arrangements for us and for sharing the wonders of Daitokuji with us!

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