Saturday, August 28, 2010

Channeling--who would you?

a term used in reference to the claimed process of receiving messages or inspiration from invisible beings or spirits.--from Wikipedia, the *only* place to go to get info these days (or so my students think).

I like the idea of channeling--or at least its modern version which is more like a cool way to say "she is my role model." Channeling sounds so much more sophisticated and grown-up.

Looking through other people's blogs of late I have seen the word "channeling" used fairly often. It made me think a bit about who I would "channel" as I saw the choices of others: Lucille Ball, Mrs. Cleaver, Sara Jessica Parker--or at least Carrie Bradshaw.

So, who would I channel? (ah--the chance for another list!)

My paternal grandmother--I channel her tolerance and love for her family and acceptance of the many changes life springs on us. In her ninety-some years she saw her own mother pass, her kids grow up, marry, divorce, fight, come out, struggle with financial problems and addiction. Every day, she inspires me to not take sides or hold grudges and to try to gracefully roll with the punches as they come.

My maternal grandmother--I channel her for her power and her fashion sense. She is still on the earth (bless her in her nineties) but I can still channel her and do every time I face a difficult decision by asking myself "What would Ina do?" Of course I have to take care channeling such a strong personality with whom I share my genes. Tough can be hard on the loved ones who surround us, so I try to balance the inspiration I derive between both of my grandmothers.

My cousin (actually my father's cousin--but whatever) M. I have only met her a handful of times. She was one of my "role-models" when I was in college and had--although she may not know it--a huge impact on my decision to come to Japan. Early in her marriage she lived in Malaysia with her husband. I heard vague stories about adventures she had including fighting off snakes in the house gardens and climbing mountains. I remember thinking "If she can do it--this cousin of my father--then *I* can too." And I did. She too has had an interesting and varied experience in this life--adopting two girls from Hong Kong, divorce, a non-self-serving career, embracing her sexuality after 50. And this most recent transformation into an almost ascetic life speaks to me of the potential for women to continue to discover their inner layers until our last breath on this earth.

My last "channel" is also a living person and not a woman. A man I used to work with offers great loads of inspiration in the way he deals with people and the trials that have been thrown at his family. My friend T. is a good, kind, considerate person and a great Dad. Last year his little boy was diagnosed with leukemia and in spite of months spent sleeping at the hospital and having to work two jobs to support his family, T. managed to remain upbeat and in communication with his far-flung family and friends. He helped his beautiful, young boy to beat this terrifying illness and did it in a country that is far from home. I admire his flexibility, solidness and steadiness. When I think I am too tired to email, or phone, I think of him and am ashamed.

So, that is my short list of who I would channel. There are countless other people whom I admire and want to be like. Who would you channel and why? Worth a thought eh?

Monday, August 23, 2010

August--festivals and ghosts

I have always loved summer. It evokes good memories of spending time with two sets of grandparents. In Utah I was with far-extended and many-generational family for picnics, dinners and drives in the high desert. In California I also had exotic and interesting relatives and an energetic Grandmother who offered visits to places kids like (LaBrea tar pits, the beach, a fabulous toy store and endless hours with us at the neighbors pool.) I remember swimming until it hurt to take a deep breath (Pasadena '70s smog) and running with my dime out the door at the sound of the ice cream truck. I have a summer birthday, so there was always the promise of cake and presents and a backyard party with lots of aunts and uncles. So, summer to me has always been magical--a time when one got a chance to be a child and run free.

Japan's summers are definitely not disappointing.
The end of July and August is summer in Japan. In the areas I have lived, it pretty much punctuates the end of the rainy season, and lasts till school starts up again in September. It is humid and the roar of the cicadas can drive you deaf or crazy or both. Sensible people would abandon cities like Parisians do and head for cooler, more civilized venues. But people here, sensible or not, don't have that kind of vacation time, nor do they really believe that the heat is something that they should try to escape from. There is a streak of stoicism in Japan that runs very, very deep and it is not just among the middle-aged or elderly. The heat of summer is something to be borne. The bearing will be made easier through props and ritual. I like the idea of props and ritual--like the beach mats and sun tea that was part of my childhood. I don't really mind the heat, (I just use the air conditioner, take showers and drink a lot of iced tea.) but I really wish people would admit that Japan has a sub-tropical climate and build houses with better insulation and/or central air. Nevertheless, I really love the props and ritual. I fell in love with them the summer I arrived and have not changed my mind about them since.

Props: Natural and otherwise:

fireflies and yukata (summer kimono), mosquito coils, shave ice (definitely not your average snow cone) cicadas (love 'em/hate 'em), traditional festival of the dead dancing, hand-held fans--the kind that fold with the lovely pictures on them and the kind that look like a big, flat lollipop, fireworks (yeah, I'm repeating myself, but it is better than the fourth of July here, 'cause there are always multiple opportunities for watching fireworks), watermelon, the sound of traditional wooden sandals and the sound of the de rigueur wind chimes that are supposed to help one "feel cool". Lastly, Japanese summer would not be complete without ghost stories and a good haunted house to visit with your girlfriend--the chill you get from being scared is supposed to cool you down.

Ritual 1: Festivals

I love a festival. Across the country they are all pretty similar--there are rows of food stalls selling grilled corn on the cob, cotton candy and shaved ice. There is beer and fried chicken. It is like a fair without the animals or the pie-eating contests, but there are some "only in Japan" kinds of attractions, like the beetles for sale and grilled squid on a stick.

For a fireworks festival, early in the evening policemen start directing traffic and soon people begin moving down to the river banks--families walking with little children in tow, old women pushing bicycles, young girls in bright yukata (summer kimono), groups of boys with their sleeves rolled to look cool and tough. They all meet up with friends, and wander among the vendor stalls eating and drinking and catching the local gossip. Everyone is waiting for darkness to fall so fireworks can begin. They start with a boom and flash, all around there are oohs and aahs, clapping and noise that says "wow". Then the finale comes flash after flash and with the smoke still lingering in the sky it is all over for another year. The mom's and dad's leave with the dead-weight of exhausted kids slung over their shoulders, girls turn back for one last glimpse of a cute, local boy and the old ladies are already talking about where they will set out their blue plastic tarps next year. That is a summer fireworks festival. : )

Ritual 2: Obon

There is one final thing that I like about summer here. It is Obon--the "festival of the dead". I guess this is "ritual 2" but it really is a ritual and not just a way for people to forget the heat. In August, the dead come back. When I first heard about Obon, I admit that I thought it was pretty scary. I mean, I thought "ghosts?" right? But it is not really like that. It is a connection with family who have passed. On the first day of Obon, you welcome them back. Vegetables, fruit and food dishes are set out as offerings and the idea is to embrace the spirits of your ancestors. (In rural areas the vegetables will usually be "sent down the river" and not eaten as they were intended as offerings and are kind of taboo. It was always creepy to be kayaking and see eggplants, cucumbers and green peppers floating by, knowing that they had been snacks for the dead.)

On the last day of Obon, there are rites to send these visitors back to the spirit world. The rituals vary from place to place, but two of my favorites involve fire or water. The "dai mon ji yaki" fire on the mountain is in Kyoto and it is really impressive. People write the death name of a relative on a long, flat piece of wood. The wood is gathered together on the side of one of the mountains (visible from downtown Kyoto) to make a massive bonfire that is in the shape of a chinese character "dai" (大) meaning "big". On the last night of Obon, the piles of names are lit and the spirits are given an impressive send off back to heaven. It may not be very ecologically sound, but it is very cool to see.

The other sending off ritual that left a huge impression on me is the candle-lit black paper lanterns floating down a river in the evening. I remember very clearly the first time I saw them. We had just kayaked a river in a very rural area, had gotten out of our boats and were taking a break before heading to the car. It was early twilight and suddenly I could see lights floating on the water. The only sound around us was the water. There was no one around, just the lanterns carrying the souls of those who had passed from this village. It wasn't creepy--there was this sense of reverence, like at church. It gives me chills just remembering. (people used to let the lanterns float "to the sea", but now to keep the rivers clean, someone waits downstream and picks them up.)

anyway, that is a long post, but I love summer and I wanted to write down what it was/is like. Traditions in Japan are fading as rural areas lose their populations and as young people embrace McDonalds, cell phones and more modern lives. I want to remember.
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