Clean Bill of Health

CBring out the champagne! Dr. Siegel officially pronounced me to be cancer-free as of last week. There is a lot for which to be thankful this holiday season, and I’m looking forward to starting 2014 with a clean bill of health.

As I celebrate however, I have a lot on my mind.

I have spent the past five months with a singular identity: Cancer Patient. By necessity, I have been dependent on others. But it’s not mere dependency – I haven’t even had to make my own decisions.  Someone else has decided what I eat and where I go, how I get places and my schedule. I have pretty much decided what to wear by myself, but that’s about it.  I fell into the Cancer Patient identity pretty easily – I was too sick to protest.  When I think back on those terrible summer days, I am grateful for the people who took over my life and functions so I could concentrate on simply breathing on some days. Now that I feel well, and the label is gone, I have to re-learn how to be a fully functioning, forty-something adult who is responsible for herself. It feels a bit daunting, though when I think about it rationally, I know I’ll be fine and back to normal in a pretty short time. I do, however, think it will be a new normal. Cancer has changed me in ways I can’t yet imagine as I work to get back to myself. I really hope I will be able to keep the best of the lessons I’ve learned and get the bad stuff out of my head.

The love and support I’ve received in the past five months is overwhelming in its depth and breadth. My friends have taken me into their hearts and their homes in fuller and more meaningful ways than before. My relationships are changed in wonderful, beautiful ways and for that I will forever be grateful. I don’t have to name names; they know who they are.

The singular most important lesson I’ve learned has to do with patience, but it’s really beyond that. I have learned to meet people where they are. I control myself and only myself, and in general other people are most often doing what they feel is right, even if it feels wrong to me. It’s not my business to tell others how to live when all of us are just muddling through, doing the best we can. That alone has made me a calmer person and I hope to keep that lesson handy as I move more and more into the “real” world beyond cancer.

For now, however I have five more weeks until my husband and children meet me in the U.S. To ring in the New Year.  There will be a lot to celebrate when they arrive, and even more when we head back to Tokyo in early January.

There is more writing on this topic to come, but for now I want to thank you for sharing my journey. I’m thankful and grateful for your company. Onward Ho!

I Can Practice Zen Meditation – They Call It “Practice” for a Reason

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

Recently I had the fortune to visit Soji-ji, the Head Monastery for the Soto Zen Sect of Buddhist Monks and experience Zen Meditation.  Called Zazen in Japanese, this ancient art is about much more than sitting still; it incorporates awareness of the inner and outer world of each person who practices the art.

Our group had arranged for a special lesson and tour in English, and we were met by two Monk trainees, one who spoke mostly Japanese and the other who translated to us.

Zazen has many small rituals associated with it and it is indeed the small rituals that are repeated over and over again that make the entire form come alive as an art and practice.  For

The meditation room - the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

The meditation room – the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

example, we had to fold our hands for walking down the long corridors of the monastery in a particular position – left hand in a fist facing sideways, with the thumb tucked in, and the right hand covering the left.  The monks held their elbows out, and the Westerners tried to follow suit, but often let their elbows drop toward their sides.

Once we entered one of the small meditation rooms, called Sodo, we had to be silent.  Each person stood in front of one pillow, called a Zafu.  The Zafu sat precisely in the center of one tatami mat on a raised platform.  What I didn’t know at the time was that I was sitting in a place of many purposed.  There is a wooden edging around the tatami, about 6 inches wide, and that’s where the monks eat.  They sleep on that tatami mat.  They do their

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

meditation on that tatami mat.  They keep their personal items in two drawers against the wall on that tatami mat.  Everything they own, use or need is in that space – the space of one tatami mat, which is a standard measure in Japan, usually around 1.8 meters x .9 meters (6 feet by 1 foot, approximately). It brings a whole new meaning to simplicity and paring down a life.

Our practice began with turning the Zafu so the words stitched on it faced the

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

wall.  Then we bowed to the wall, we bowed to the outside, and then, without putting our feet (remember, you’re barefoot for EVERYTHING in Japan) on the wooden edging, we had to get our bottoms on the Zafu and fold our legs.  No easy feat.  We were taught to fold our legs in a few ways while sitting on the Zafu.  Those wearing a skirt were recommended to sit on their knees, the Zafu placed discreetly under them for a minimum of comfort of those knees.

We then had to turn clockwise to face the wall, keeping the Zafu under us.  We had to fold our hands so the left hand sat in the right hand, thumbs lightly touching, forming a small oval. The monks said a few words about breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth – very very deeply. We were told to sway slightly to find our center of gravity, then make ourselves still. The gong rang three times and that was it – we were meditating.

My first thought was on the fact that my foot was asleep and felt like a small elephant attached to my ankle.  But recently I had been told that I use my shoulders to breathe instead of my stomach, and I concentrated on making my stomach go in and out.

zen kitchen god

Originally from India, this is the Kitchen God, Daikoku Sonten, who is the first to welcome visitors to the monastery.

There was one bit of flagellation in which I did not participate.  The monk called it a hand of Buddha, and there is one monk assigned to walk up and down the row with a stick, tapping and then making a smack on the shoulder of any person who is falling asleep or otherwise not fully engaged.  One can ask for the hand of Buddha to strike by folding ones hands as if in prayer for a moment, if feeling unengaged, and the person next to me did it twice, causing me to jump with the loud smacking sound.  She said it did not hurt, but I didn’t feel the need to ask for this practice.

Within 15 minutes the gong sounded again and we were done with the first round.  We were told to get up very slowly, and we practiced a bit of walking Zazen, hands folded in walking position, walking in a small square taking only half-steps.  We did that for a moment, then followed the whole procedure a second time for a second round of regular Zazen.

The second time was easier – and shorter – than the first.  My feet stayed firmly awake and my mind stayed fully on the breath.

The monks took us on a full tour after the Zazen practice (pictures abound).  There are so many more things to the monastery – the beautiful rooms of the head abbot, the house of Buddha, which we could not enter, and the gongs sounding for the ceremony of bells that we got to witness for just a moment after being told we were very lucky at that moment – most people don’t get to see it.  We just glimpsed it and got a feel of the heavy ritual that imbues Buddhist worship.  I really feel that we saw a lot, but still just touched the tip of the iceberg of what actually goes on and what there is to see.

Here’s what I learned: the whole rigmarole of getting ready for the practice, from folding the hands to enter the room, to making sure the stitching of the Zafu is in the right direction, is part of the practice, and forces one to begin the process of emptying the mind.  If you are focused on very small details, there’s

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

no room for other thoughts.  Action begets thought.  It’s not about completely emptying the mind; it’s about complete awareness of the mind.  An entering thought should be examined before it’s abandoned.  Concentrate on that throbbing foot.  Thinking about nothing else might make the pain ease.  Then pick another part of the body on which to concentrate.  Relax that part of the body.  Really feel it. Get into it.  Whether it’s your pinky toe or your left hip, actually feeling your body will lead to understanding it.

It’s not perfect, that’s why it’s called practice.  Your mind wanders; your attention deviates.  That’s why it’s called practice – because improvement of mind, body and spirit comes only through practice.

 

 

Why Do The Japanese Love Cherry Blossoms So Much? Finally, A Decent Answer!

hanami1This is a bit of a teaser post because I’m going to send you over to another blog to find the answer, but I promise you, it’s worth the click.

CLICK HERE!

Writer and friend Alice Gordenker has been in Tokyo for quite a long time and has always pondered the question of why the Sakura (cherry blossoms) are such a huge part of Japanese life and lore.  Finally she has discovered a wonderful answer and it will surprise and delight you.

Be sure to check out this post as well as the rest of Ms. Gordenker’s blog, and look for her column in the Japan Times.

Enjoy!

Hina Matsuri – The Take-Down

The Complete Hina Matsuri Display at the Nishimachi International School

The Complete Hina Matsuri Display at the Nishimachi International School

Every February, many families and public places across Japan erect elaborate displays of the Emperor’s court in honor of Hina Matsuri, or Girls’ Day – celebrated on March 3rd.  These displays, which originated in the Heian Period (794-1185 AD) in Japan’s history, are often multi-tiered and intricate representations of the entire court, from the traditional 5 musicians, to the

Some other intricacies of the display, which at Nishimachi is nearly 100 years old.

Some other intricacies of the display, which at Nishimachi is nearly 100 years old.

tiny little representations of the royal table complete with festival treats such as Hina Arare (sweet little rice crackers) or chirashizushi (mixed fish over rice).

Members of the royal court

Members of the royal court

Though the displays can be enjoyed across the country for most of the month of February, it is imperative that they all be taken down by March 4th, or the superstition says that the girls of the house will marry late, or won’t marry well, or something of that nature.  Taking all of the intricate little pieces down and putting them away in the proper boxes for storage for a year is quite a feat.  Every little hat has to be wrapped; each doll perfectly preserved, and every bit of teensy tableware stored.  It’s quite an undertaking.  Just when you think you have everything wrapped, then all the small boxes have to be put neatly in bigger boxes for storage – don’t forget that space is at a major premium in Japan, so everything has to be as compact as possible.

Here are a few photos of the disassembling of the Hina Matsuri display yesterday at the Nishimachi International School.

Intricate packing of each little piece.

Intricate packing of each little piece.

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The puzzle of fitting little boxes into one big one!

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The whole stand has to come down and be put away.

Every little hat and sword and accessory from the display gets wrapped with the utmost care!

Every little hat and sword and accessory from the display gets put away carefully!

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The little things they use to protect the dolls from bugs for a year.

The little things they use to protect the dolls from bugs for a year.

Ready for storage until February 2014!

Ready for storage until February 2014!

 

The Beauty of Japanese Textiles

2013-02-22 21.51.32In the days of ancient Tokyo, all the way through the 1950’s, kimono dying factories lined the banks of the Myoshoji River in the areas of Nakai and Ochiai.   Yearly since 2009 the residents of these parts of the city have commemorated the rich history by creating a gallery of Kimono cloth and noren, stringing beautifully painted cloth along the river and throughout the streets. Noren are the cloths that hang outside of businesses in Japan in front of the entry doors.  Shopkeepers and restaurant owners put them out at the start of the business day and pull them in when the day is done. Calling the festival Some-no-Komichi, in addition to just showing beautifully dyed and painted cloth, the city opens the gym of the local elementary school to let people dye or paint their own cloths.  The gym is also a gallery of stunningly painted kimono and obi with descriptions of the artists and their techniques.  With the bright sunshine and lovely breeze leafing through the cloth, we could feel the echos of ancient times as we wandered the streets of Nakai. Enjoy the photos from the day.

The dyed cloth strung along the river

The dyed cloth strung along the river

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A description of the dying processes

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More cloth along the river

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One of the 90 or so noren we saw in shop windows in the city.

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Another example of a hand-painted noren

This man is a local artist; he is carving a woodblock to make woodblock prints.

This man is a local artist; he is carving a block of wood to make woodblock prints.

Celebrating a Holiday in Japan

matsuri picMonday was a Japanese holiday – Foundation Day, where the Japanese celebrate the monarchy and ascension of Emperor Jimmu, but according to my dear friend Ms. Miki Hathaway, it’s also the day General MacArthur approved the draft of the modern constitution in 1946.  Lots to celebrate, and the Japanese don’t shy away from celebration.

One of my favorite Japanese ways to celebrate is with the Mikoshi, or portable shrines, which they carry through the streets while dressed in traditional garb. This video was taken in Omotesando, widely regarded as the Champs Elysee of Tokyo with it’s wide, tree-lined street and excellent shopping.  The shrines paraded one after the other, making their slow bouncing progress, for more than an hour. Here is a brief video of the parade of Mikoshi.  Enjoy the Japanese way of celebrating a special holiday!

Another New Year Celebration in Japan

shishimai2The Japanese really know how to celebrate a new year.  In addition to the traditions of going to the shrine, eating soba, and pounding rice, there’s Shishi-Mai, or the Lion Dance.  The Lion dances around to the beat of drums and the tune of flutes. As it dances, people can put money in its mouth for good luck.  Because most Shishi-mae troupes originate from a shrine, all money goes to support the shrine.  The Japanese lion consists of a wooden, lacquered head called a “shishi-gashira” (Lion Head), and a characteristic body of green dyed cloth with white designs.  One family at my daughter’s school sponsored a shishi-mai demonstration at the International School the children attend.  It was quite a treat to watch.shishimai1shishimai5