Thursday 30 May 2013

A Piece Of Stone Setter's Magic

Some of the stones were of an enormous size, great dark blocks of stone, greater than a full-grown man in length, they had probably been transported to the garden from some distant location on the island. Shigoto’s mind kept wandering back to how these stones had been brought into the garden. Even dragging the stones with teams of oxen they must have taken a great effort. Did the setters of these stones have access to some secret knowledge; did they really know and understand just what they were doing? Did they know about the power the stones held? Sensei’s words, or rather what he had intimated, in that all too brief conversation, had lit up Shigoto’s mind, and he had to keep reminding himself that Sensei had not actually revealed anything of what the secret teaching was, merely hinted at its existence. Though in doing so he had confirmed to Shigoto its very potential, and that was sufficient for the moment, now he could realise for himself that there was more to this whole business than simply the ‘hard work and nothing but hard work’.

For the rest of the day the gardeners under the close direction of Maguro Sensei worked on resetting stones which had been revealed by the clearing work; stones which Sensei decided had fallen over were lifted back upright, others were simply moved a little one way or another. Before they tackled a stone, Sensei would look intently at it for a few moments, sometimes running his hands over its surface, sometimes stepping back a few paces to look at the stone from a variety of positions, before finally seeming to come to a decision as to how the stone was to be positioned. He worked with the focussed, purposeful air of someone deep in concentration, straining all his being to make a profound connection with the materials he was working with. To find some certain space in which he could hear what the materials themselves demanded of him, and not just to impose his will, however formidable it may be on them. There was no conversation or banter between the gardeners as they worked, and it was as if Sensei’s approach had infected them all. If there was logic or system to what Sensei was doing or trying to achieve, then he revealed little or nothing of that to the rest of the crew. Shigoto became aware that they were expected to work to a degree of precision, the significance of which often passed him by. “Lift that corner a little more, by the height of four fingers,” he would say, and they would push a long wooden pole under the stone, and bear down on the end of the lever to force the stone upward a few degrees, then Sensei would step back, his eyes never straying one moment from the stone. Then having checked on the effect achieved, fresh instructions would come. “Lift a little more … no, too much, let it fall back again. Now twist it this way a little, no not quite so far… there, hold that position. Don’t let it move.” When the stone was in exactly the position Sensei required, then they would force earth under the stone, pounding it again and again with the blunt end of a shorter pole to pack it in tight and hard. Once this was done Sensei 

would step back again, moving his position this way and that, his eyes always fixed keenly on the object before him, his brow furrowed in fierce concentration, until finally he would let them know that he was satisfied. He would with a gesture of the hand or an approving grunt signal his approval, and then the earth would be smoothed and tidied around the stone. Then once he was satisfied that they had achieved the best they were able, they moved on to the next piece in his sights.  Occasionally once they had fixed a stone in its new position and had moved on to the next, Sensei reverted back to a stone they had shifted previously to make yet another fine adjustment to its setting, often 
these further corrections were barely perceptible even to the gardeners themselves.

 There was one boulder that seemed to resist any effort on behalf of the gardeners to move to Sensei’s satisfaction. No matter how they pushed, pulled, levered, or dug about it, the stone intractably resisted their best efforts. It was the large piece that Sensei had been sitting on earlier, it was a very large stone, probably weighing far more than the combined weight of all the gardeners together, and Sensei was intent on setting it upright. Despite the combined efforts of the gardeners to raise it, it seemed to be fixed to its resting place at the top of a rise in the ground, for over an hour they applied their labour to elevate the stone into a position that Sensei would be satisfied with. They pushed at it again and again, heaved, pulled on levers and ropes, but every time Sensei stepped back to look at the progress they had made, one glance at his expression was sufficient to convey that they had not yet succeeded.

“Stop lifting, Kamaboku, prop the stone where it is, don’t let it slip back any further. Keep it where it is.” The gardeners did as they were bidden, and fell back in a group, bruised, tired and beginning to feel that they were attempting something beyond their powers. Round and round Sensei prowled, looking at the stone first from one position then another. Shigoto could tell that Maguro Sensei was clearly dissatisfied. He could see that there was not too much wrong, after all they had finally managed to get the stone more or less upright, and to him a few degrees this way or that would have made not a jot of difference. After all, who will ever know that the stone was intended to be any other way? If, as Sensei had said himself, the stones had been placed here many years ago, perhaps the people who set them here may have been satisfied with what they had achieved. His arms ached terribly now, and there was a growing sense of weariness spreading throughout his whole body. He just wanted someone, Sensei in particular, to call the day to an end, so that they might gather up their tools and equipment which was scattered about, load up the handcart and head back to the House of Gardeners, so that he could sink into the comforting embrace of a tub of hot water. After all, there was always another day, and what did it really matter if it was not perfect? Would it really be so tragic a misfortune that the stone was a few degrees out of an alignment that only Sensei himself could see? Would that really condemn the house of the Saeko clan to some grievous misfortune? He was coming to doubt it, even if he wanted to believe otherwise.

The gardeners had gathered together watching Maguro Sensei making his continuous inspection, each one silently praying that an end to the day would be called. Even the normally irrepressible Kamaboku stood looking down at the ground, lost in his own thoughts and shuffling his feet. They had after all managed with a great effort to lift the stone into a position where it was more or less upright, the huge slab of stone now reared out of the ground, dominating the position it held.

“It is still not right,” Sensei spoke at last, finally letting out the fateful words that the gardeners dreaded to hear, even if they did expect them. The light was now beginning to fall, it had been a long day, and above their heads the birds were gathering to roost in the trees.

“Kamaboku, “ Sensei spoke in a firm voice, his eyes never leaving the stone before him, even though he was constantly shifting his position.

“Yes, Sensei.” Kamaboku looked towards where the others were standing, their eyes avoiding his.

“It is still not right yet, we need to do more with it. It cannot be left like this.” The words that Kamaboku and the others dreaded to hear fell on them like a hammer blow.

Kamaboku looked at the silent, unmoving group about him. “Perhaps tomorrow we can bring a few more people with us, Sensei, and more rope and more levers,” he said tentatively, more in hope than expectation.

Maguro Sensei pursed his lips and a frown scorched across his broad forehead, deepening in the gathering gloom. “No, it would be better to get things right now while we are here. Tomorrow there is enough work to be done to tidy up the area around the stones. You can bring a couple of the others, Shigoto and Konnyaku, and lift some of the moss from deeper in the woodland and replant it about the stones.”

“Yes, Sensei. We can do that tomorrow, as you wish.” Kamaboku’s voice betrayed a sense of resignation and weariness that they were all beginning to feel.

It then occurred to Shigoto that there were three separate and seemingly irreconcilable forces in opposition to one another other: Maguro Sensei, who was clearly unhappy with the finished effect; the group of gardeners under his command, all of whom who were more than willing to call an end to the day; and then there was the stone itself. Who, apart from maybe Maguro Sensei knew what the stone was thinking? If thinking was what a stone was capable of. A stalemate existed, how much more sensible to call a halt for the day, and then return the following morning, refreshed, and maybe reinforced by additional helpers, to make what ever fine adjustments that needed to be made, after all nothing would change before then. Shigoto was just coming to the conclusion, which seemed to him to be a sensible compromise, which would allow all parties a degree of satisfaction, when Maguro Sensei once more slowly circled the stone. Then, standing a few paces away from the stone, which reached higher than his head, he seemed to lean almost imperceptibly to one side, as if he himself was the stone, and he was indicating to it the direction in which he wanted it to move. He then took a half dozen steps backwards, all the while fixing his complete attention on the stone, as if his eyes were boring into the very rock itself, seemingly challenging the stone, pitting his will against that of several tons of stubborn, mute, rock. Then he loudly clapped his hands together three times, and closing his eyes, he extended one arm straight out, his finger pointing to a spot just off centre of the stone. There was a low groaning, grinding sound which seemed to spring from the earth itself. With that, the stone shifted on its axis, bringing the head of the stone precisely up to a vertical alignment. 

The effect of this on the onlookers was one of disbelief and complete astonishment. Kakugari san, who was holding a long wooden pole, which had been used to lever the stones, let go of it as he took a few involuntary steps backwards. The pole, as it fell, caught Ekichuu san a glancing blow on the shoulder, making him to stagger back in surprise and shock, and with a loud crash it fell to the ground causing several birds to take noisily to the air. In the silence that followed a thin shower of light grey feathers and a few leaves fluttered down to the ground. Kamaboku was the first of the gardeners to react once an uneasy peace settled again about them.

“But… but… Sensei, what happened there? The stone seemed to move of its own accord!” his voice, slightly high pitched, quivering in shock and astonishment, eyes wide and disbelieving of the evidence before him. They all turned toward the figure of Maguro Sensei, who had not moved an inch, except now his face had a serene and pleased expression.

“Pack the earth around the base of the stone, before it decides to move again. Now we have the stone as it should be we can finish our work for today,” his voice was barely audible as if drained of energy.

None of the gardeners moved, they were staring at Maguro Sensei searching for, expecting some kind of explanation for what they had apparently witnessed. But also disbelieving what their eyes were telling them. They were held motionless by their surprise and shock.

"Why the look of surprise on your faces? When the stone is as empty as the mind, then there is no hindrance in its passage from earth to heaven. Did you think that creating gardens is simply a matter of planting trees and placing stones here and there? When a tree is seen only as roots, branches and leaves, and the pruning of the tree as a work to be done simply before the next task, then you have understood nothing of what the garden has to offer. The garden has no beginning and no end. As for the gardener, even with his strength of arms and legs, he is no more than the sound of wind through the leaves of the tree. Do not waste your time on seeking after that which you are standing upon." 

With that he turned on his heels and set off between the trees leaving the astonished gardeners to complete the task at hand.

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Five Cats and One Ant

Just beneath the stone Buddha
the cat kills a mouse.
He does not even flinch.

The cat
asleep on his favourite spot,
the picnic table.

Sitting above the kitchen door
Waiting for the cat to be fed -
Blue Jays.

The poet’s blank page-
In favour
Of her ears being scratched.

Silk soft in my hands
The cat shows me where to stroke-
Tea growing cold.

Dear ant-
So fragile in my world,
I almost entombed you
Beneath the paving.

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Islands in the Sea

"The garden is the place where Nature is subdued, ordered, selected and enclosed. Hence, it is a symbol of consciousness as opposed to the forest, which is the unconscious, in the same way as the island is opposed to the ocean."                                         
J.E.Cirlot 'Dictionary of Symbols'

A memory came to me a few days ago of being with my mother in Sweden, we had gone to visit relatives who owned a summer house on a small island. One warm afternoon we took off, just the two of us to search for blueberries, and find any late wild strawberries. Most of the island was covered by a dense growth of trees, but here and there in open spaces created by the winter winds blowing down trees, there were carpets of blueberry plants as if someone had laid a thick duvet over the thin acidic soil. We wandered from place to place as if we were the very first mother and child; the only mother and child in the world. The blueberries mother picked were gathered into a container, my mouth and hands were soon smeared purple-blue. 

We wandered for what must have been several hours, hunter-gatherers roaming freely, our focus limited to searching out the treasure of luscious jewels hidden among the tiny leaves. Eventually, as children do I tired of the activity, my belly also no doubt satiated. It was after we had started to make our way back, when mother stopped, her eyes searching about trying to see through the dense foliage. "I am not sure which way we came now," she said. I instinctively drew closer to her. "But not to worry, you cannot really get lost on a small island, all you need do is to follow the water and eventually you will get back." As it happened her logic eventually brought us back in time for dinner.

The garden also teases us into believing we can be 'lost', that is detached from the everyday world. It is a place where our senses and imagination can roam freely and yet be safe in the knowing that there is a boundary which contains and holds the space.  Within this space the body and the imagination can wander. The wandering and roaming can occur so freely because there seems to be an reintegration between the 'I' and the 'It'. At least the distinction between the two begins a process of dissolution, just as the outline of the hills against the sky first softens, then blurs as rain sweeps across the landscape. 

No matter how naturalistic we may make it, the garden is not Nature itself. We draw on natural elements in our creations. We may even seek to imitate Nature in the doing, but the circle never quite closes. At least it can never quite close until we wholly relinquish the desire or need to control or guide that process, to project our 'self' on the process. If we do that then we are back to Nature. So the garden is a fluid compromise and arises out of a delicate balance between the hand which controls and 'being lost'. This ephemerality becomes part of the glory of the garden. It recognises that change and reinvention is at the heart of the garden. It would seem movement, implied or actual, is a quality of Beauty; a siren voice that leads us on such a merry dance. In truth, all we can do is but follow the music, which is a dictate of a spirit or essence beyond duality. The present moment, the absolute moment of existence, is every changing. Constant change and rebirth are embedded in the soul of Nature. If change and movement are at the heart of Nature, then it must also be so for us who are inescapably part of Nature. Islands in the sea.

“It is not a sense of identity nor tranquility that Zen sees and loves in Nature. Nature is always in motion, never at a standstill; if Nature is to be loved, it must be caught while moving and in this way its aesthetic value must be appraised. To seek tranquility is to kill Nature, to stop its pulsation. Advocates of tranquillity are worshippers of abstraction and death."
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Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Wisteria Festival

The fifth day of the fifth month was traditionally the time of the Wisteria Festival. It signalled and celebrated the beginning of the summer season. At this time of the year many houses and shrines were decked out with garlands of wisteria. The participants in the ceremonies adorned themselves with strands of flowering branches, the women dressed in their finest kimono, the patterns and colour of which reflected all the subtle shades of the flower in question. From early in the morning onwards crowds begin to gather from far and wide across the island to enjoy the dancing and musical performances that are staged in various locations around the garden. The settings for those events were located around those places where the wisteria is grown, by being allowed to scramble over a series of hooped frames, and in one place over a long narrow raised stage of polished boards. Thanks to skilled pruning at the opportune moments, the flowers now hung down in thick clusters over the heads of the performers, as if they were stars punctuating the night sky.

One of the popular highlights of the festival comes midway through the day, just as the sun begins to pass its zenith. When a troupe of dancers with slow, staccato movements counter-pointed by a building and increasingly frenzied accompaniment by flutes and drums begin the Wisteria Dance. At this point, Shigoto had been given leave by Maguro Sensei to join the crowds that had gathered near the raised stage where the dance was to be held. Shigoto had looked about, but he could not see his mother in the throng of onlookers. He managed to push his way to the front from where he could follow the action closely. He knew the story depicted in the dance well enough as his mother and grandmother had spoken of little else the previous evening.

The dance depicts a story as old as Japan itself: amid a stand of tall trees on the slopes of the sacred Mt. Fuji, a wisteria vine is carried high toward the heavens. At the critical moment of the unfolding of a new flower-bearing shoot, a hawk that happens to be crossing the sky catches the movement out of the corner of its eye. It swoops down at blinding speed under the cover of the brilliant light, and plucks at the tender shoot with its talons before wheeling away back towards the sun clutching its prize. Out of a sense of sadness and loss, all subsequent shoots on the wisteria take a vow to the gods that they will never raise their heads towards the sun, lest they too be plucked before they may display their beauty to the world. The vine then transforms itself into a serpent in order to snare the hawk should it ever dare to return from the sun.

The dance climaxes with a single dancer on the stage crouched low on all fours, whose torso is covered by a large fine silk square of cloth, the colour a vibrantly shimmering, yet delicate tone of green. As the figure begins to uncoil and rise from the ground, the drums settle into a steady insistent rhythm and the flutes running out soft rising scales. The dancer rises further, and as the cloth falls back to the ground, it is revealed that the dancer wears two face masks; a white mask with pursed red-painted mouth to the front, and a bright red mask with black open lips and a long protruding nose, to the rear. As the volume and pace of the music begins to build toward yet an inexorable pitch of intensity, out of the intricate and complex arrangement of the wisteria coloured kimono of the dancer, unfold two arms that are slowly raised heavenwards. Clasped in the dancer’s hands, which become fully revealed, as the sleeves fall back, is a highly polished bronze disc. The music reaches its orgiastic climax as the dancer reaches up at full stretch, thrusting the disc skywards; all around the tumescent figure froths and cascades the billowing kimono cloth, and the sun glinting in blinding concentration from the highly polished surface held aloft. Few are the hearts that can bear witness to such a performance and not be moved to the very core, and the dance invariably concludes with a crescendo of applause from the audience.

At the hour of the rabbit (3 pm) a grand colourful procession headed by white robed, chanting Shinto priests from the Hatsukari Shrine, accompanied by the entire Saeko family, messengers from related clans and political allies, musicians bearing numerous instruments, loyal retainers with their flapping banners of rank, itinerant poets, painters, and priests, craftsmen of wood, stone and clay, fishermen, farmers, and shopkeepers, all gathered in a precisely ordained order to take a sacred mirror to the banks of the Great Dragon pond. There, gifts of food, gold coins and fancy jewels from the Palace are offered to the ‘Mover Across the Endless Sky’ and various esoteric ceremonies of purification and thanksgiving are performed amid a welter of hand gestures, recitation of ancient prayers and clouds of fragrant incense. From there the assembly would make their way to a part of the garden where there was a representation of a sacred mountain, a tall conically shaped grass covered hill encircled by a stepping stone path. Here more dances are performed, albeit in a lighter spirit, before the main party returns to the Great Hall for an extensive banquet. The crowd of extras, the curious, the hangers-on and the simply miscast, at that point begin to drift happily away to the makeshift stalls in the town for a cup or two of sake, thus as in other similar circumstances, what begins in great solemnity, draws to a close in a less than tidy and dignified manner for some.

As Shigoto was going about his last minute task he looked up and noticed that the knotted branches of the ancient wisteria plants running over their supporting frames would support the body of a young man of his height and build, whilst also allowing him a privileged viewing position of the ceremony by the Great Dragon Pond. He was just registering this interesting information, when to his surprise he noticed leaning casually against a leg of a framework supporting the ancient wisteria, a bamboo rake with long curved teeth. Thinking rapidly he snatched up the rake in one hand, and with a glance over his shoulder to check that he was not being observed, he nimbly sought out the sanctuary of the branches above. Spreading himself out among the branches Shigoto realised now he was out of view of the procession making it’s was towards him, as he was hidden by the bountiful foliage. He smiled to himself at his good luck.

The procession had arrived at the point where the leading priest bearing the sacred mirror in both hands above his head, was about take the final steps forward to the edge of the pond, his steely gaze fixed far in the distance. Here he would utter complicated ancient and incomprehensible prayers and incantations, all the while the beating of the drummers and the shrill sounds of the flutes reached toward an untidy crescendo. At this point of dramatic tension, a bee, which had been attracted by the scent of the flowers landed on Shigoto’s nose and without thinking he let go of his grip on the rake, and tried to swat away the source of distraction. As he did so the rake slipped to the ground, gracefully and with barely a sound, it fell directly into the path of the unsuspecting and oncoming priest. As his next footfall touched the ground, the handle of the rake leapt violently up and caught him utterly unaware between his eyes, fixed as they were on the far horizon. To Shigoto’s horror everything seemed to happen in slow motion, he saw every moment of the crisis unfold from his hidden vantage place.

All that those in the procession following on behind saw was the priest apparently stumble and the sacred mirror suddenly taking on an unexpected and accelerated upward trajectory. In what seemed to the assembled observers, to be a moment when all time and motion came to a sudden and wholly unexpected standstill. With the exception of the mirror, which continued along its path, eventually having described a graceful arc through space, it splashed through the surface of the lake. An unspoken exclamation mark, to a sentence that hung limply in the air.

In the split seconds that followed there was only one man present who had sufficient speed of thought and insight to save the day from an even greater disaster. Maguro Sensei by virtue his ordination as Zen priest, was allowed to accompany the head of the parade, he had in an instant taken in the cause of the sudden change of course of the mirror. As the eyes of the shocked assembly followed, open-mouthed, the sacred object's flight path, Maguro Sensei with the swift thinking action of a man absolutely alive to the moment, dashed forward to reach the tottering, star-seeing priest, now further blessed with a rapidly rising aubergine coloured lump on his forehead. With one hand to the priest's back to steady him, Sensei reached out and with the other, swept up the rake from the ground, and with a single fluid movement, thrust it back in the foliage from whence it had come. The end of the handle caught Shigoto firmly amidships, momentarily knocking all trace of air from his lungs and also igniting a constellation of glittering stars before his eyes too. The rake was swallowed whole by the mass of foliage and remained lodged out of sight of the assembly below, as did Shigoto too.

The mirror flashed briefly as it fell through the layers of water before it disappeared entire into a dark cavern that was the mouth of Oguchi, an elderly koi carp which had been a wedding gift to Mameko Saeko, the dowager princess, some sixty-two years earlier. After a general recovery of their wits, and the use of their tongues among those at the head of the procession, discussion arose as to how the situation could be recovered. The debates were long and intense, but in the end, the resolve of the company was unanimous, the ceremony had to be concluded and the mirror restored to its proper resting place at the Hatsukari Shrine, otherwise dire misfortune was predicted to surely befall all of Mikura. A party of farmers were dispatched into the lake armed with sections of bamboo fencing to attempt to herd the fish into a bay. The plan called for Oguchi to be cornered and somehow persuaded to relinquish his prize, thereby allowing the formalities to be drawn to their proper conclusion. The unfamiliarity of farmers turned hunter-gatherers in attempting to corner a slippery quarry in an unfamiliar environment, gave the excited and boisterous crowd on the shore much cause for comment (not always complimentary at that) and needless to say, much amusement. It was even rumoured for months after that fortunes were won and lost that day in wagers as to which of the non-swimming farmers would be the next to be completely immersed. For a time the atmosphere among the onlookers traversed the complete cycle from ceremony to carnival. Eventually the reluctant fish was cornered between the knees of a half drowned member of the chasing party long enough for a number of his colleagues to fall bodily on it. Despite their every effort though, the mirror remained stubbornly in its hiding place. To conclude the ceremony without creating offence to any of the deities, the bemused and arthritic fish was placed in a temporary wooden holding tank, and in due course, the fish after much patient persuasion and prodding, which provoked a bout of indigestion, the mirror was spat out from the depths of Oguchi and fell to the floor of its container. Now the mirror resumed its place in the hands of the still bemused priest, and all was well with the world again, the natural order of things was set back on its course. Though the priest was to wear a distinct bump in the shape of a fish on his forehead for the rest of his days, and Shigoto was destined to spend many a long month consigned to sweeping leaves and other such menial tasks, under the stern watchful eyes of Maguro Sensei.

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words words words

Evening sun
Birdsong and the garden –
Your voice lingering too.

As the shadows lengthen
The poplars seem taller,
Vapour trails criss-cross.

In the shadows
of sinuous water weed-
silver flashes.

The water’s surface
A mirror
Stained by fleeting reflections -
Even this silence
Brings you to mind.

Knows no resistance.
It knows Itself
No less
No more.

Bending to the force,
I caress this flower before me.
Soft it opens shy, and gently draws me in.
Now taste becomes ardour,
ardour becomes passion,
and passion unfolds as vision.
Sight reveals such a tender landscape,
its tides, its mountains and valleys.
Verdant, richly embroidered spaces
beyond time and place,
all held in love's generous embrace.

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The £800 mower

For no reason at all it seemed he pushed the lever into neutral, then when the machine was finally at rest and enveloped in the scent of freshly cut grass and petrol, he rested a moment where he was. To his left a bank swept upwards; crowned by a light defensive line of brambles and beyond that darkening thickets of young willow herb plants beginning their journey towards the light.

With his long, easy-limbed strides, fuelled by youthful zest, he crested the top of the bank easily, breathing steadily with barely a tingle in his muscles from the exertion. Below him now the lawn swept away in a vain, but grand gesture of defiance, then his eye could sweep on out over the ancient spread of the cedar: out into space unrestricted by any way or mark, only perhaps a passing bird skittering across the line of sight. Further out the smudged line of the far side of the valley, then just the sky, clouds coming and going, dissolution and reformation, and space and time beyond imagination.

From his pocket he drew a crumpled plastic packet of tobacco. Fishing inside he withdrew a packet of thin rolling papers, his favourite brand for no reason other than the sky blue of the packet. They looked neat, efficient and orderly to him. At least whilst the packet was brand new, as within days the cardboard would be shredded meticulously small square bite by small square bite, to be tightly rolled up as a filter. With the cigarette now well alight he squatted on the top of the bank, eyes lost in smoke and the infinity of space.

As his attention came back into the world he was hunkered down in, he found himself staring down at the mower, standing alone to face the sea of un-mown grass, it’s motor stilled, the machine immobile, waiting upon his command. It looked beautiful to him. Beautiful in a way he had never perceived beauty before; even as he was registering his own sense of surprise at this, images of Kat swept into his mind. Kat in the flowering of her adolesence when he had first come to meet her; Kat full and gloriously pregnant as she had been just a few weeks ago; the angry Kat when they had discussed the money for the mower. Not just some of what they had, nearly all of it.

‘You are part of the family now. So you’d better work, buddy’, he muttered to no one in particular as he pressed the shiny starter button, and the grass become his universe once more.

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Saturday 25 May 2013

Baby, Baby

When she took the coins I offered there was the inevitable disappointment flickering in the depths of her eyes, injustice even. A sense of having been hard done by, denied a greater stake of that which could be hers too. Should be hers. The hand remained outstretched, fingers limp in empty space, the gesture pleading for more. For pity's sake, more.

“Baby, baby”, she said.

In her voice there were the thick swirling currents of multi-layered geo-political currents, of a bittersweet passage of history; of lands possessed and lost, repossessed then lost again many times over. The many shifting tides of forgotten, now faceless, restlessness. Now she was here in a small town in the west of France presumably a long way from home in the bitter cold, standing in a street populated by a thin scattering of well wrapped people whom cared little for her.

Momentarily I wondered about offering her a meal someplace warm and welcoming. But that was not what she wanted. She desired what she assumed I had, and that which she felt should also be hers by right, despite the indifference of the tides of fate. It amounted to more than a meal; it was perhaps a whole life, a different history, a different outcome even. Maybe a place of her own, with solid, dark time-stained wooden furniture, with a print of some eternally sunny sea-kissed beach hanging on the wall, food in the larder, and outside a patch of land thick with vegetables and fruit trees, and a husband who wiped his feet at the front door. All those things remained stubbornly beyond the reach of a few coins emptied from a stranger’s pocket.
“Baby, baby”, she said.

She took the coins anyway, perhaps it was what she had been told to say.

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Friday 24 May 2013

"What is a gardener, Sensei?"

In this episode from the 'Shigoto Chronicle' by Robert Ketchell, the aspiring garden apprentice Shigoto Okugi has been invited by his teacher Maguro Sensei to tour the gardens of Hirame Palace where they work. Becoming a garden apprentice in Japan has never been a simple matter in any era. For one thing it is for the student to prove to his teacher that his is worthy to be taught ..... 

August 1587

When he joined Maguro Sensei, he exchanged his ritual greetings with his teacher. Maguro Sensei said little but gave his young apprentice a quizzical look that once again made Shigoto feel that he was being observed from the inside out. “Come on then Shigoto, we cannot be standing about all day,” said Sensei, then he strode off with his long strides, Shigoto almost had to run to keep up with him. The pair of them had reached to top of a small hill that gave a view out across the Great Dragon Pond, here Sensei paused, and a distant look came into his eyes. Shigoto was gradually becoming more sensitive and observant as to his teacher’s moods, he knew not to intervene, and he buried his chin deeper into the collar of his kimono and waited patiently for the instruction to move on. Having taken in the scenery for a few moments, Maguro Sensei turned to Shigoto.

“Well, Shigoto, what do you make of that then?’

“That, Sensei? Umm, I’m sorry, what exactly is that, Sensei?”

There was no reply from the tall man with a shaven head that gleamed in the light,, he seemed as far away as ever, as if he was travelling in some distant place known only in his own thoughts. Maybe even lost in there someplace trying to find a route back for all Shigoto knew. Stillness hung between the two contrasting figures, as if a drape of thin gauze had been lowered between them.

“Do you have any questions, Shigoto?” Sensei eventually asked, his voice seeming to come from a long way away.

Shigoto had been caught ill prepared, and he blurted out the first thought that came into his mind that appeared reasonable to share with his teacher. “What is a gardener, Sensei?”

“That, Shigoto, is what you will find out in good time.” Then he turned about on his heels and left Shigoto hurrying to catch up with his quickly retreating steps. Once more Shigoto felt the anger born of frustration with his teacher coursing through him, he had asked he felt, a perfectly reasonable question, and received by way of reply an answer that answered nothing. He felt his patience slipping. Having once again run to catch up with Sensei, he appeared right at his teacher’s side, and for the first time spoke directly to him.

“But Sensei, excuse me Sensei, but what is a gardener supposed to do?”

Maguro Sensei stopped where he was, having been caught by surprise, for there was real urgency, even passion now to Shigoto’s voice. The tall figure carefully observed the upturned face of his student for several minutes before carefully replying.

“A garden creator, Shigoto, is an artist, an artist and a magician dealing with energies and spirits. A gardener is someone striving to become a garden creator, somebody searching out those tools to be able to create with Nature. Looking everywhere, all about him, in the rocks, in the earth, in water, in mountains and valleys, trees, and in flowers. Searching above, searching below, searching inside, turning everything over, to find what it is he is looking for. A true artist, Shigoto, will pay any price for that which he searches for, any price at all. A garden creator is someone who builds whole worlds through which people pass, yet the likelihood is that they will only see but a small part of what is actually there. Knowing nothing but a fraction of what exists. There are three parts to our art, the past, the present and the future. The garden creator sees them as one, as a continuous flowing, like a stream running past his feet, which is as it should be. To the outsider, they are separate parts that may or may not connect in time.”

He paused to gather his thoughts, Shigoto stood before him entranced by the flow of words.

 “When we walk under the tree, do we take it all in and know every twisting branch, every leaf? Of course not, we see the only tree and we recognise it for what we know it is. That type of tree there, Shigoto,” Sensei pointed a long bony finger in the direction of a tree growing nearby where they stood. “It has a name people have given to it. That plant growing close beyond it, the small one with yellow flowers, its roots when mashed together and mixed with water will produce a dye people have learned to fix the colour of silks with. These are the useful things many people know about them, beyond that…” he paused as if to re-gather his thoughts. To give Shigoto a chance to catch up with him.

“…Beyond that, beyond that there is another world of the garden all together, Shigoto. For example an incorrectly placed or badly balanced arrangement of stones can bring disorder and illness to the master of a house, can condemn him and his family to suffering, ill fortune and death even! You think I exaggerate? The ancients knew all too well of these matters. If the gardener does not learn what is the difference between right and wrong, between the right way and the wrong way, he can bring misery and destruction, not beauty and life to the household.”

Maguro Sensei paused once more, as if to draw breath and let the import of his words sink in. When he resumed expressing his thoughts his words came raining down on Shigoto, and he did not pause this time to consider if his young charge was following the meaning of what he had to say. He made no concession to Shigoto’s age and inexperience, the words seemed to bubble up from someplace deep within him, coming up from a wellspring of unfathomable reserves. He spoke from a place beyond words. It was as if he spoke for himself.

“A garden creator is searching for a truth Shigoto, that is all. It is as simple as that. Trying to work with that which may not always be manifest to our eyes, but that which is always there. The true nature of our work is that we are working with energy, the ebb and flow of energy. I call this force energy, there are some who have called it love. It matters not one bit what label we attach to these things, for labels are changeable, perishable, and even liable to be lost and forgotten over time. But what the garden creator seeks to do is to see beyond the surface of things, to know their true heart, to understand them as well as he recognises his own hands.  The true gardener, Shigoto, is always searching for the tools he needs to be a garden creator. Anyone can work in a garden, be a gardener, Shigoto, and that does not take any particular skill or even strength of body or mind. Not everyone can be a garden creator though, for that you are chosen by the garden, by the place itself, you do not choose that, it chooses you. Never forget that, it is the first lesson, the first step on a very long path.”

Maguro Sensei fell silent again, and Shigoto felt himself spinning about by the force of what he had just been told. He went and sat down on a rock that lay nearby where they were standing and rested his chin in his hands. No one had ever spoken to him in such a way before, it opened up a flood of images, and thoughts and feelings that threatened to engulf him. Then, he could see in his own mind an image of a wave falling back to the ocean from a stony beach. He was walking, walking alone; to his right side a lively sea was pounding with relentless energy against the shore, to his left the trees were crowding thickly together, jostling one another for space and light. A wind was blowing hard from behind him, pushing him onward, its impatient blasts filled his hearing. Though he could see the canopies of the trees surging, first one way then another in a maelstrom of motion, all he could hear was the wind. Pushing him onward.

“When will I become a proper apprentice, Sensei?”  His voice quavered with an excitement that bubbled up from a profound place within him. He felt a desire to be accepted, a wish to be taken in to the fold, as he wanted to go deeper, much deeper into this world that Maguro Sensei had sketched out before him.

“Is that what you have chosen for your own self, Shigoto? Is that the path you choose to follow, or are you choosing that route because you have been told to do so, by your clan lord and master Lord Saeko, or by your parents, perhaps out of filial respect to them?”

A dense silence fell between the two of them. There was only the rustling of leaves in the trees and the excited chatter of birds, but Shigoto heard none of this, he had arrived at another place all together.

Now Shigoto was walking along that same shore, but the wind had gone, stillness had replaced the wild motion of the wind, the sea softly lapped against the shore. There was no sound in his ears, no thoughts in his mind, no effort in his legs as he walked along a narrow path with the sea reaching to infinity on one side, and land stretching away on the other. Shigoto looked over toward Maguro Sensei who was standing but a pace or two away and he looked up towards his face. With the light above and behind him Sensei’s face was in deep shadow and his features all but indistinguishable from Shigoto’s position below. The gulf between them, as pupil and teacher, as man and boy, was enormous, yet the rising, filling pressure in his chest pushed him on, he was prepared now to take the risk of speaking directly. He knew then that he had the complete attention of Maguro Sensei, who was prepared to set aside any distinction between them, to listen without prejudice to what Shigoto may have to say.

“When will I become a proper apprentice, Sensei?” Shigoto repeated. “I want to be a gardener.”

“You know, and I am saying this because I happen to like you, if you are going to survive in this life, then you are going to need to be strong. I am warming to who you are, Shigoto, and I am not just saying this to annoy, or put you down in some way, but … to be an apprentice is a hard choice, you will have to commit yourself completely to me as your teacher. Whatever you may think you know now, it is nothing, nothing but smoke in the wind. You will be called to loosen all attachments.  Do you understand what I mean by that? There is something called fate, which all human beings have to accept. What I mean is that there are circumstances in life, which we have to come to accept, because that is what we have been given to do. This we have to accept without question.”

“You mean that now you are my father, and the person who I thought was my father is no longer my father.” Shigoto had no prior warning of the words, they just seemed to form in his mouth and emerge of their own accord.

“That is correct, Shigoto. Your father and mother are no longer here just to be your father and mother. Your mother and father will still exist, but you who were their son no longer will be there before them as before. The reasons for this are complicated and will pass beyond your understanding for now. It is better that you simply accept the workings of fate and not to question this matter further for now. Our master Lord Saeko has asked me in his infinite wisdom to be your teacher. That is a duty in fate given to me, and one that I have had to accept. In time you will be trained as a gardener, and it is your fate is to accept that your life and work is to be at the service of the Lord Saeko, just as it is mine. Shigoto, we are simply two leaves at the mercy of being tossed and turned by the wind.”

“You mean fate,” a concept with which Shigoto was not at all familiar, but was beginning to appreciate implied something in which he had little or no choice, “it is something that I have to agree to?”

“Yes, Shigoto, in a way, you have a choice to make, yet there is really no choice to be made. You just have to come to accept life as it is, for what it is. There is something called fate, which all human beings have to accept. What I mean is that there are circumstances in life, which we have to come to submit to. Your fate I suspect is to be a gardener. My fate is to be your teacher. You can just take it all as a light-hearted matter, just see it as spending time in a pleasant place, but, there is more to it than that. I suppose what I am saying is that you will need to be tough to cope with it all. Build strength from the inside out, then you will stand firmer on the ground. Remember Shigoto, things are not always what they appear to be, that is always very important to bear in mind. Perhaps it is the most important thing of all. When you really understand that, then things will become easier for you. We all have had to face that, it’s part of learning to be an apprentice, as well as learning how to be a human being, you know. I do not know you too well right now, maybe you have had an easy life so far, and you are young after all. In this world, Shigoto, one thing is for sure, you are going to need to be tough on the inside, as well as becoming strong in the arms, back and legs.” Having spoken Sensei took a step back as if to give his young charge the time and space to consider his words.

It seemed like more than one thing to Shigoto, but he was beginning to get a grasp on of that what he was being told, even if at that moment he could not really appreciate the full implications of it all. Shigoto knew Sensei was warning him of the difficulties of what lay ahead, and yet was seemingly also holding the door of change open in invitation for him to step through, should he so wish to do. It dawned on Shigoto that the path along the shore he had seen in his mind, that he had been blindly following at first, and then had been driven along by the wind, must have been made by others passing that way before him. Yet he had noticed no one else, and was only aware of being quite alone, yet he had felt unthreatened and unafraid.

 He was back on that path once more and now a side path, narrower than the one he had been walking on, branched off to his left, and began winding its way through the trees. He took it and was soon swallowed by the woodland crowding down towards the shore. The light changed as he entered the woods, from a sharp contrast out in the open to a soft focus, the air was cooler and lighter here than before, rich scents rose up from the damp ground. The path wound first one way, then another, though slender it remained clear enough for Shigoto to follow, he felt he was walking without walking, and so he could give all his attention to what he was seeing and experiencing. The path reached the top of a rise, where the canopy retreated sufficiently above his head and was now open to the sky again, Shigoto realised he was in the Hirame Palace gardens, but he could not quite place where. It felt comfortable to be back on what felt like familiar territory again, when he turned around he could neither see nor hear the sea any more. He pressed on expecting to catch a glimpse of the Great Dragon Pond, as he wound around a group of evergreen shrubs clustering together, he looked up and saw the figure of Sensei in the distance. He waved towards Sensei, who returned his gesture, Shigoto forged on toward the unmistakable shape ahead on the path. As he came up to the spot where he had seen his teacher, he found himself alone again, there was no one there. He shook his head to clear his mind.

“That will be all for today then Shigoto.” Sensei’s voice brought him back to the rock he was sitting on. “You can make your own way home from here I am sure. When the time comes, Shigoto, you will become an apprentice gardener, according to the wishes of Lord Saeko. Whether you become a garden builder of repute, who can say for sure. The mountains and water knows but does not speak of that, at this point. Live your life as it comes, one day at a time. Your fate is laid out before you Shigoto, those choices have already been made and cannot be undone. Hurry along now your mother waits for you.

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