Using Imagery as Writing Muse

Rummaging through some papers, I found this image from a magazine stapled to something I had written on July 18, 1998.

I was in a writing group then that met monthly – or tried to –  and re-reading it brought me right back into the small living room in the house where we’d meet. It was an old house, up rickety stairs, rooms all chopped up.

I was thinking how much fun it used to be to sit in that group, a bunch of magazine pages ripped out haphazardly, each of us taking turns choosing which image to pick so that we could scribble away during a timed writing exercise, letting whatever words come to us as they came. It was a form of writing meditation.  I think 5 minutes was what we settled on back then.

I was thinking how much fun it would be to let other writers look at a photo on the blog and see what they could come up with. It’s kind of a nice idea, a way to share. And then, you could post what you’d written after your own timed five minutes at home. No cheating!

If you feel inclined to try and time yourself and write to the above image, and then add what you ended up writing into the comments, it would make things a million time more interesting around here. I could then add a new image every week with whatever I’d managed to come up with in my own timed 5 minutes.

Here’s what I wrote back then although I will admit, I changed a few things after sitting down to type it out before posting it here. I changed her name. I decided this woman was Turkish and so Isabella didn’t seem like the right name.

Gülçin, a name bestowed eighty-nine years earlier, reveled in the spicy warmth of the nicotine as it streamed through the shriveled opening of her throat, lingered for just a few seconds, and was then expunged, pushing its way against the afternoon’s hot wind like an apparition.

She was safe in her chair, her favorite place. That same chair that had balanced her when the roundness of her thighs had not crept round the wooden corners of the frame but had fit snugly, like foam, atop the smooth wooden cup of the seat.

Her cane, carved by her grandfather over a few months the summer she turned eight, had been her most constant companion in the last few years. She had remembered him sitting near the red rocks, and bits of grass at the cliff edge near their home, the sparkling sea like a rug as far as the eye could see to the horizon.

She’d sit on her porch, perched above the dusty street in that town she’d lived in since she’d married more than 70 years ago now, and she’d watch the youth pass by in the way a factory foreman might watch assembly line workers. She never barked out orders or even greetings. 

When a neighbor or familiar face passed, she’d remove the cigarette and blow the smoke between the space where her two front teeth used to be and in that subtle shift, they’d know they’d been acknowledged, they’d been seen. And it was enough.

Most of the time she would not even notice the strays barking, the wrestling of small boys whose bare feet raised the dust to feather their ankles, or the bustle of women, beautiful full girls, and slap-dashed-together mothers hurrying back from the market in preparation for another day of the cooking, washing, feeding, cleaning cycle. She was there and she wasn’t. She was with all of them and she was with the images of her past that greeted her just as real as company, adding excitement and grief, love and energy to what would turn out to be just another 12 hours, like the 12 hours before that, wrapped in heat and routine.

 She’d think back to her best friend as a child and the hours they’d spent playing in the back alleyways, listening to adults they knew only by the first names their mothers used to refer to them as they gossiped. Mostly they watched. Anything to escape the one room they each shared with three generations who had perfected the familial folk dance, weaving around each other, ducking anger, ignoring bodily functions and even the tears everyone would have preferred to have kept hidden if they’d had the luxury of privacy.

Usually around midday, she would sometimes feel the phantom lips of her deceased husband as if they were grazing her forehead. A tear-dropped wet bead of sweat would seep from beneath her white headscarf and slip over the band of folded skin that decorated her chest like a handmade necklace.

She had loved the memory of his lips. Not just because they had become as familiar as her own but because they embodied everything they had shared together; framing the rite of two-as-one even though he’d been gone for decades.

Elevating the Ordinary

Creative Commons photo

One of my intentions this year is to do something that lifts the day out of the ordinary every single day. It doesn’t have to be anything big and let’s face it, most of what I find interesting doesn’t typically cost a lot of money. It’s usually related to the Arts or being in a natural environment or dredging up questions and memories, if not stuff, at thrift shops.

It might be as simple as going to a different library. It could be cooking a new type of soup. Maybe I’ll visit a natural space in the Lower Mainland that I haven’t yet been to, or have been to and would like to visit again. I merely have to find enjoyment in the thought of doing it and then, here’s the tricky part, I actually have to follow through on those original intentions.

So yesterday on CBC Radio when I heard that it was PWYC (PayWhatYouCan) Wednesday at The Firehall Arts Centre and that there was a play there called And Bella Sang with Us by Sally Stubbs, I walked to the train for the requisite 35 minute sit into Vancouver and got off at the Chinatown station.

I walked down past T&T, past the Sun Yat Sen Garden, up past the Chinese grocers and herbalists and turned left at Gore Ave crossing Main Street, then walking back across the street to The Firehall.

The play is a glimpse into the lives of two female constables showcasing a part of Vancouver’s early history that I knew nothing about. That alone made it interesting. The cast was really good and the script was interesting.

I sat down and a woman sat down beside me in a small audience of mainly retired folk. It was 1pm. We chatted a bit, enough for me to learn that she’d recently graduated from Photography at Emily Carr. That little bit of info was enough for me to know I wanted to chat more with her.

After the play was over, we talked briefly before she asked if I’d like to go for a walk if we picked up her dog in her nearby co-op. So, we walked a little deeper into Strathcona and she returned with a curly-haired poodle named Bodhi. He was more than ready to get some fresh air.

We walked into Strathcona Park, passed a professional dog walker, watched as some other millennial dog walkers chased Bodhi around. “He loves to be chased,” she said, as we watched him scurry the way happy, fast moving dogs run, back slightly arched as his little legs took him on a big excited swath of a circle, the smile on his small black lips almost discernable.

We continued down a street near Union Market and then back up a street past Strathcona Elementary. Another woman walking a small cream-coloured poodle stopped to let the dogs interact before continuing on her way.

“Do you know who that is?” asked my new acquaintance.”

“No, but she looks familiar,” I said.

“That’s Daphne Marlatt. She lives around here.”

“Oh, I love Daphne Marlatt’s long poem on Steveston,” I said, a poem I’d read years ago and I’ve never forgotten its effect on me at the time, way back in the early 1980s. Long poems still amaze me in their complexity.

We talked about the challenge of being the age we are and finding work. We talked about art and photography and we made a plan to meet again, to revisit the Walker Evans exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery before it ends on January 22nd.

And there you have it, a fine example of elevating an ordinary day.

Travel blogging the humanity of connection

Miniature felted yurts

For quite a few years now, I’ve been following the blog of this wonderful young artist and writer named Candace Rose Rardon. She is an all-round creative entrepreneur who travels the world sketching and writing. By birth, she is an American and by choice she is a citizen of the world.

Some time in 2012 or later, she lived in a yurt on Salt Spring Island for a while and I too love yurts arising from the first time I experienced a yurt in Northern New Mexico. I was out with two other women who were staying at Ghost Ranch at the same time as I was. We were driving around sightseeing and we stumbled upon this yurt on the side of the road. Intrigued, we hopped out and descended upon it only to be met at the door by a guy who was inside.  I don’t actually recall much about him but you can see him in the photo below.

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A yurt in Northern New Mexico near the Chama River.

Following her experience of living in a yurt on Salt Spring, Candace wrote a fantastic post about yurts the world over.

Her dreams have unfolded as she’s utilized her double whammy talents of writing and sketching to make connections in very organic, free flowing and serendipitous ways.

Recently she was doing a giveaway on her blog that got an overwhelming response from readers who shared their travel tales with her as a way to entice her into picking them as the recipient of a newly published anthology.

Here’s her original post for that giveaway of the Lonely Planet Travel Anthology.

She was overwhelmed by responses. In a follow up post, she decided to draw a map and put the names of all who contributed onto the map that she sketched so inspired she was by readers’ responses.

It’s such a great idea. You can see the map in her follow up post, The Geography of Connection. Readers’ comments were associated with 36 countries across five continents.

I submitted something related to my half day cycling trip to the Silk Islands off Phnom Penh.

Congratulations on your exciting news of being published in Lonely Planet’s literary edition for 2016. In 2013, on a trip through Thailand and Cambodia, I ended it in Phnom Penh and decided to go on a 1/2 day cycling excursion with Grasshopper Adventures. It meant arriving at the bike shop and gathering with a small group, getting a designated bike and helmet before heading off on a busy street right in the middle of the city which, at first, seemed very dangerous. Our guide was a young Cambodian woman who was really enthusiastic and we took off, traffic all around, which was a little scary and quite exhilarating. Luckily the ride to the ferry was very short (no more than 15 minutes) and once on the ferry we made our way across the Mekong to what are known as the Silk Islands.

It was so great to be on a bike, and to learn that a very rural existence was a mere ferry ride (10-15 minutes) away from the bustle of Phnom Penh. I loved the feeling of riding down an empty dirt lane way and as I passed by, little children would run out from their huts and yell “Hi” or “Hello” to us in English and we’d yell back. It was such a happy experience. Afterwards, we went to a silk farm, had a delicious fruit feast, and then on to another place with a temple and really unique wooden carvings that were quite ancient.

I felt like it was the S.E. Asian version of cycling a Southern Gulf Island in B.C., a place near and dear to my heart. We rounded it off with a feast at a local spot that, of course, our Cambodian guide knew would be really decent. A great day. A lasting memory.

Candace ends the blog post by saying, “There’s a lot happening in the world right now that would lead us to believe how disconnected we are from each other—but if this map says anything, I believe it’s that connection is real, alive, and important to us all.”

And that’s how you actually make blogs interactive. Something that I’m sorry to admit I’ve failed at miserably.

Monday, however, is a good day for dreaming about the next getaway, and for me, that’s as close as a visit to Candace’s blog. Check it out!

A tale of two Chinatowns

kingoftheyeesYesterday I went to Aberdeen Centre in Richmond for the first time ever in spite of it being around since the 1990s. There are usually only two reasons I ever go to Richmond: to get on a plane at YVR or to visit one of my favourite places, the village of Steveston. We CAN be creatures of habit, can’t we?

It was a dreary Sunday and I had no plans so I decided to act like a bit of a tourist. I’d heard that the food court is really good there with all sorts of authentic Asian cuisine and there was some photography exhibit that was on display. Okay, a plan was formulating, reason to get dressed and leave the apartment.

In addition, I’d noticed that a local playwright that I am acquainted with, Elaine Avila, had recommended on her Facebook page, a play, King of the Yees, by Lauren Yee, a San Francisco-based playwright.

The play was at the Gateway Theatre and conveniently there happened to be a 2pm Sunday matinee.  This play, according to Jovanni Sy, artistic director, as he wrote in the program, was “one of the most highly sought after scripts in the U.S. in the past year.”

There was also a good article inside the program written by a professor of history at UBC, Henry Yu, about what defines Chinatown? We could actually all just expand that question to ask ourselves what defines a neighborhood in general. Is it just the way it looks aesthetically? Or is it more about the feeling, the connections between people, the sense of belonging (or not)?  

Yu pointed out that the City of Vancouver still only defines Chinatown’s heritage through architectural details while many other places have accepted “intangible character” as a very important part of heritage policy. As an aside, I noticed that John Atkin, Vancouver Heritage Advocate, was in the audience.

Before I even got to the play, my experience of visiting Aberdeen Centre for the first time left me mentally comparing the experience of the old Chinatowns that I’ve visited — Vancouver, Victoria, and San Francisco —  to this newer version. The new version was like Chinatown in one of those snow globes, perhaps. I didn’t dislike it intensely or anything. I just couldn’t help feel a bit confused. Like I’d been left behind. Like, How did this happen? Is it good or bad or just different. And if THIS version existed did we really still need the old one? Who is the old version for? And when all the old Chinese people, the first and second generation, die off, would the old version still be relevant, and if so, why? These are the kinds of questions whirling inside my head.

In the new version, the herbal shops and the ginseng containers were tightly ensconced beside a Mercedes Benz dealership, under the shiny lights and the changing colours of the dancing fountain. The aroma of noodles and pho and steamy broths mixed in with the scent of refined petroleum products wafting from all that plastic in Daiso, the huge Japanese discount store. 

There was no honking or loud Cantonese ribbing between adjacent shop owners pecking the air in the new version. I didn’t see any chickens hanging upside down. Vegetables and fruits and things I was curious about weren’t nestled inside baskets along the narrow sidewalks. There were just shiny mall tiles and a world record for largest Pez container display.

It was like some altered universe. As if I’d just left the country for a short and curious interlude.

And with that experience lingering, I was primed for the play, King of the Yees.

It was a play that used some of a culture’s most obvious stereotypes– the dragon dance, the face-changer, the gangs, the benevolent Associations, the commitment to family and cultural organizations as fodder for entertainment.  At times it felt like a bit of a Chinese version of Harry Potter with the main female protagonist (actress Andrea Yu) on a quest to find her dad, Larry, the King of the Yees and there, again, was a disconnect between generations that occurs regardless of ethnicity.   

Some of the funniest scenes to me were the dialogue between the actress Donna Soares, who claimed to be Korean in the play, getting instructions from a Chinese guy, actor Raugi Yu, on the correct way to pronounce Chinese. She did such an amusing job.

It’s a creative, unique, and modern twist on an age old problem. What exactly is the definition of progress?  You’ve only got until Saturday, Oct. 22,  to play around with that question in your own mind, with the aid of this play.

Finding love and finding meaning, the human reasons to keep going

buddhaWhen we entered the temple last week we were told that we couldn’t go into the Hondo because a family was grieving and we’d have to enter in a little while.

Later we learned that it was actually the family of that young woman , Natsumi Kogawa, from Japan who had gone missing in September. Her body was found on the grounds of that mansion on Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End. They had come from Japan to plan her memorial service. It’s impossible to comprehend the sad reality that her family is now facing.

All I could think of was the excitement this young woman surely felt in coming to Vancouver, in improving her English. In thinking about all the new friends and experiences she imagined having before stepping onto the plane from Japan, and how unlikely it was that something like whatever transpired and that led to her death would happen to her here. 

As my attention focused back on the room, I wondered what had motivated all my fellow students to take an introduction to Buddhism course. I wanted to know their real motivation, deep inside, not the sanitized reason they shared about being interested in Buddhism and wanting to learn more.

For myself the past few years have all been about seeking, some people might say to my detriment. They would say that I just need to find a way to accept my life where I’m at. But I think I’ve finally recognized that it goes against my temperament to ever be satisfied for lengthy periods of time if things just stay the same and if I know I could be doing so much more, and I can’t seem to make that work where I’m at.  Isn’t that what “life” is about – experiences and moving through change?

Some things haven’t worked out, in fact, sometimes it feels like nothing has worked out very well in the past few years, and with  Salt Spring as the contrast where everything just felt like it was seamless and worked out with ease and little effort, the opposite has been a shock, another disappointment, an ongoing frustration and endless questioning about what I’m missing that surely must be right in front of me. 

On the other hand, the trying to make things work have led to the meeting of many people I wouldn’t have otherwise met and learning, and yet, I’m missing the key ingredients it seems: love in the way I feel I need it or would like to share it (which may be the problem and I’m smart enough to recognize that)  and meaning.

Zen Buddhism was the topic on our last week given by Reverend Michael Newton of Mountain Rain Zen Community at 2016 Wall Street and a professor in religious studies at SFU.

There were two things that really stood out for me from his words. The first was about how when we wake up from the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, stories that others have told about us since we were children that may or may not reflect who we really are, and we let go of those stories from the past, we can begin to step into the beautiful, clear presence, that’s the essence of Zen.

Each person according to their past and their uniqueness finds unique truths and that is why the truth cannot be told. Someone else cannot tell you your truth. You must find it within. Truth comes from your own experiences, your own practice.

That really resonated with me in the moment because I feel that looking around, looking at others isn’t giving me the answers I need, isn’t showing me my own very personal path. Their answers, their way of living, is not mine. So it requires that I get to the heart of what matters as my own very personal truth about my own life.

Yesterday as I was driving to a friend’s place to hear about her recent trip to Morocco, I was lucky to catch a radio show, Meaningful Man, on CBC Sunday Morning. It was about Viktor Frankl, the former Holocaust survivor, a brilliant man, and the author of  the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that apparently poured out of him in nine days, and one that he had to dictate into a recorder to capture the manic stream of thoughts.

Today on Twitter, I’ve learned that Oct. 10th is World Mental Health Day, and I think some of the ideas spoken within the above documentary have the potential to bring comfort, or at least food for thought, to anyone who is struggling.  Please set aside about 50 minutes to listen to it.

Acronyms as paths to peace

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Turtles lined up at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC

If you’ve been following the blog lately, you’ll know that I’ve been taking an Introduction to Buddhism class at Vancouver Buddhist Temple.

As part of the 5 week introduction, Dr. Adrianne Ross from BC Insight Meditation led us through a really good meditation check in about two weeks ago and although I can’t recall everything she said, she had some really good acronyms to share.

ELSA

  • Embrace : good and bad
  • Let go of reactivity
  • Stop
  • Act

WAIT

  • Why am I talking?

She explained the Eight-fold path is divided into three sections including mind, using effort wisely and concentration.

RAIN

  • Recognize it
  • Attitude towards it
  • Investigate it
  • Not taking it personally

She talked about recognizing a feeling as outside the body, not taking it on as being a reflection of good or bad. For example, if you are depressed or angry, you acknowledge it: Depression is here. Anger is here. Sadness is arising. That way, you can recognize emotions as a temporary state.

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Fluttering at the feeder

Set an intention for the day and remind yourself of that intention throughout the day.

Take a 3-minute breath break and stop. Ask yourself, Where am I? How’s the body right now? Where’s the mind? How am I feeling? Recognize the emotion and name it.

Envision your body and mind as connecting with the space around you and just passing through that space into something much larger which has a diluting effect on whatever you are experiencing in the moment, especially if it is highly energized in a negative way.

How big is your wanting? Exaggerate it to let it move through.

Introduction to Mindfulness and Meditation

If you’re interested in mindfulness and/or starting a meditation practice, then you still have time to sign up for a class beginning on Tuesday, October 11, 2016 at St. Marks church on Larch Street in Kitsilano and offered through BC Insight Meditation Society. The cost is $40.

Fall Food Bazaar

Something else to note in your calendar if you’re so inclined. The Vancouver Buddhist Temple will have their Fall Food Bazaar on Sunday, Oct. 30th from noon – 2pm.

Buddhism for Dummies at the Vancouver Buddhist Temple

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Vancouver Buddhist Temple altar with Amida Buddha

I was at the Powell Street Festival in August when I walked across Oppenheimer Park and noticed the Vancouver Buddhist Temple at 220 Jackson Street.

I climbed the steps and walked in. A gracious man whose name I would later learn to be Patrick [Couling] was taking questions from the few people dotting the pews. Yes, pews! In a Buddhist temple. Go figure.

In my brief visit, I learned of a 5 week course offering a very elementary introduction to some main types of Buddhism by knowledgeable speakers. At $30 for the five weeks, the opportunity was a no brainer.

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At San Fran temple

I’ve been interested in Buddhism ever since I set foot in a Buddhist temple in 1988 in San Francisco during a walking tour that began in Chinatown. I still have a photo above my desk that I took of the smoke wafting up from the incense sticks into a space that had a great view of the nearby Transamerica Pyramid. 

On the first night of the course, a fresh-faced young guy was tasked with explaining the mythology of Siddhartha.  Casey Collins, a PhD student in Asian Studies at UBC, ended up being one of the very best storytellers I have heard in recent memory. He wove contemporary references into the ancient story to make it entertaining and memorable.

Think of it this way. It would be like if one of the Kardashian sisters suddenly woke up and thought, this isn’t enough, I want more, I’m dissatisfied, but not just any dissatisfied, a very specific type of ennui. I want to know the meaning of life. I want to know why we have to get old, get sick and die. I think I’ll sit under a palm tree off Rodeo Drive, night and day, and then after renouncing Mac Cosmetics, Coach bags and Pilates, gossip, bitchiness and martinis, I’ll venture out into the world penniless to see what I might learn. And at the end she’d arrive at the four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold path.

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Green Tara poster bought from the OM guy on Salt Spring

Mr. Collins didn’t use this analogy — thankfully — but as someone who has sat through many, many stories in the past few years, I found it ironic that an academic-in-training would end up being the most exceptional story teller I’ve heard in a very long time. Yay for him.

The second evening was presented by Lama Rabten Tshering. I’m guessing he might have been in his 40s. He was dressed in his maroon robe, one long maroon sleeve, one short, golden, cap sleeve. His shaved head gleamed under the lights. He did, fittingly, seem pretty darn happy. An iPad for notes was propped up in front of him. I think I saw a cell phone as well.  Not sure why I expect monks to renounce technology in this day and age but I do. If you’re a grown man wearing a robe in public, it just seems wrong that you should be carrying tech gadgets to taint your spirituality. My bias. Partly kidding. He’s associated with a temple in East Van called NalandaBodhi.  

I enjoyed taking in his presence and my mind drifted back to my time in Thailand and Cambodia. I had so much curiosity towards the monks that I saw there, all ages, wandering the streets or cloistered on a mountain top (Sampeu Hill) just outside Battambang, Cambodia.dsc_0151

Every time I’d see them, they’d elicit so many questions. What were their days like? Were they content? Did they wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘oh, if only I’d just gone into engineering when I was 21 like my dad said I should have.’  I realize that whenever I see monks, I always assume they’re happy. Maybe they’re miserable. Maybe their misery is what drove them to become monks in the first place.

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in Angkor Wat compound

Back in the temple, Lama Tshering was drawing us in with long silent pauses while he gathered his thoughts. I filled those gaps by observing him intensely. I followed the irregular cadence of his voice that accompanied his slow sentences. I tried to stay awake as he used words I’d never heard, a challenge compounded by his accent.

He explained how important lineage is in Tibetan Buddhism. The right teacher and teachings handed down generation upon generation is really important.  He spoke of the Common and Uncommon paths. The Common path focused on recognizing human preciousness, death and impermanence, cause and effect, and Samsara, circuitous change.

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favourite print of mine

All I recall about the Uncommon Path is how many times you have to do stuff – 100,000 times – which for a full time monk, could take just two months to achieve. But, for the rest of us, possibly more than one lifetime. I see a disconnect with my way of being here. Ya think?

We did some meditation. Spine very straight. The lama sat in the lotus position, “not necessary,” he said. Chin not up, not down. Straight ahead, relaxed glance. Mouth not open, not closed. Huh? How does that work? A slight smile. Relaxed focus on the breath. Tibetan Buddhists do not close their eyes when they meditate. He had a lot of eyes staring back at him that night.

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Another favourite print of mine that hangs in my bedroom

The temple is right down there in Vancouver’s Downtown East side. Ambulance sirens blared every so often as we sat inside the Hondo hearing what might have been yet another call to another fentanyl overdose, just one type of struggle in a world where wandering off the “right path” seems to have become the predominant theme. And maybe that’s why staying curious, staying open, and seeking, in a spiritual way, feels like a necessity.