Sunday, August 05, 2018

Daylilies, and the Art of Paying Attention

Shortly after we moved into Matsu House two years ago, I discovered a mysterious plant in our garden. Its leaves looked the same as irises, and its flowers like lilies, but with five or so buds on each stalk. There were lots of them, so I cut one and brought it into the house. To my surprise, by the next morning, the flower had faded, but a second bud was starting to open. I observed the flower, fascinated, over the course of several days, until all the buds had opened and faded, one by one.

I looked up the flower in my book of Hokkaido wildflowers. It’s called Ezo-kanzo, or Nikkokisuge when it is part of a flower arrangement for tea ceremony. I realized that it was the same flower we had seen covering an entire hillside on Rebun island several years previously.

See all those yellow bits?
I watched for it in eager anticipation at the end of May the next year, and it became one of my favorite flowers to display in my tea room.

In June this year, I said goodbye to my garden as we headed to the US for two months of home assignment. One evening at a friend’s house, while touring his garden, I saw familiar looking leaves and seed-pods. I turned to Keith. “Those look like…”

“Those are Daylilies,” our friend explained.

“Daylilies,” I repeated. “Because they bloom only for a day, and then the next bud blooms?”

“Exactly,” he confirmed.

It turns out I had seen Nikkokisuge flowers, which I now know to call Daylilies, before I ever went to Japan. I went to Boston, and found them blooming by roadsides in the suburbs. Then I went to North Dakota, and found them in the garden of almost every house, including the house where Keith grew up. They thrive even with winters colder than Sapporo’s, it seems, and they come in colors other than the orange-yellow variety native to Hokkaido.

In Southborough, Massachusetts 
In the garden at Keith's parents' house, after a rain storm
I had seen Daylilies, but I never noticed them. How many other lovely things am I missing because I’m not paying attention?

Friday, August 03, 2018

Parable of the Apple Trees

There is an apple tree in the backyard of the house where Keith grew up in North Dakota. He tells me that it’s about 20 years old, rarely pruned or cared for, allowed to grow wild.

Defying the wisdom that says pruning will make a tree bear more fruit, its branches are so loaded with ripening apples that they nearly touch the ground. No pesticides or fertilizers have touched this tree, but not an insect in sight.

How beautiful it must have looked in the spring, covered with pinky white blossoms! Even now, pale red of ripening fruit bursts against a backdrop of vibrant sage green leaves.

Apple growing in Japan, on the other hand, is an arduous process. Each apple is covered with a mesh bag to protect it from insects, and carefully turned to ensure even ripening. Thinned to only a few apples per branch, each large, shapely apple is intensely sweet with a perfect crunch.

Our apple tree in Ishikari is a spindly little thing, currently experiencing its second summer. Who knows when we will eat its fruit? We’re told it will take five, maybe seven years. We watched nervously this spring as one branch came close to breaking in the strong wind. Insects plague our poor tree, and torrential rains produce orange spots on its leaves.

Our tree, just starting to put out leaves this spring. It looked lonely, so we gave it some daffodils and shibazakura (moss phlox) to keep it company.
North Dakota apples, crisp and tart, can be had for free, in large quantities. In this town, even if you don’t have a tree yourself, surely you know someone who does. Japanese apples often cost more than 100 yen (about a dollar) each, even when they are in season. While in North Dakota or Washington, a person might eat apples every day, in Japan they are a special treat, to be eaten only when someone gives you one as a gift. Keith doesn’t like me to buy them, because he can’t stomach paying for something which has always been free.

I gaze longingly at the apples on this overgrown tree. If only our little tree could grow up to be like this one.

But it won’t. The climate, the soil, everything is different. Japanese apples are costly, hard-won, precious. But oh, are they ever sweet.

Monday, July 02, 2018

You're invited: Storytelling and Preaching at Westside Pres

For those of you Seattle-area friends who missed our lunch event at Newport Covenant yesterday, we're doing the same sort of thing again:

Sunday, July 15
Westside Presbyterian Church in West Seattle, 3601 California Avenue SW, Seattle
We will be telling stories and showing pictures during Sunday School at 9 a.m., and Celia will be preaching from James 5. The service is at 10 a.m.

Blast from the past picture with the lovely cherry tree at Westside Pres.
We hope you can come!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

You're invited: Lunch and Stories at NCC

Dear Seattle-area friends,

We are having an event at our home church, Newport Covenant Church, on Sunday, July 1! We will tell stories, show pictures of our work and life, and there will be a game and a cultural demonstration. And you even get to experience the traditional Japanese after-church-lunch, curry rice.

Lunch will start at around 11:45.
If you are also interested in coming to the service, it's at 10:00. Celia will play cello for prelude and offertory.
The church address is 12800 Coal Creek Parkway SE • Bellevue, WA 98006

Feel free to email if you need more information. See you on Sunday!

Here's a few pictures from the last time we did this:

Save the date!

We're on home assignment! We decided to try out the quick-and-painless(?) short home assignment, in which we only had to prepare our house for house-sitters, rather than pack up everything for storage.

One last camellia was waiting for us at Celia's parents' house.
For those of you who are interested in connecting with us or attending a presentation (stories, slideshow, etc.), here is our schedule. We will be putting more details of the events on the blog, or feel free to email for more information. Looking forward to seeing you!

July 1 Newport Covenant Church: cello offertory and presentation of our ministry over lunch
July 6-7 Attending symposium (The Tears of Christ and the Silence of God) at Regent College (Vancouver, BC)
July 8 Keith preaches at Vancouver First CRC
July 13 Sharing at Covenant Shores (Mercer Island, WA)
July 15 Adult Sunday School presentation and Celia preaches at Westside Presbyterian (Seattle)
July 22 Sharing at the home of a supporter in Portland, OR
July 23-27 Celia visits friends and supporters in Boston
July 24-August 7 Keith visits family and friends in Grand Forks, ND; Celia joins him July 27th
August 12 Attending Newport Covenant
August 13 Sharing at OMF Seattle prayer meeting

Monday, May 07, 2018

Beautiful Scars

I like going to the beach. Not so much for the swimming, although I like doing that too, when the weather is right and the conditions are good. (Definitely not for sunbathing.) I think my favorite beach activity is looking at stuff and picking stuff up. My senses become so attuned to finding beauty in the tiny objects mixed in with the sand that I can only think of those things, or perhaps the things they remind me of.

We are at the beach this week, not on vacation, but to have time without distractions to reflect and write and prepare for our home assignment this summer.

Beautiful scenery and fresh air and exercise are aids to creativity, so I went out for a walk this morning between essays. Last time we came here, I was drawn to smooth rocks and moon-snail shells. This time, I have been collecting beach glass.

Beach glass is often used as a metaphor for the process of maturing through adversity: continually tossed by waves with sand and salt, the sharp edges are worn down.

I couldn’t help but remember, though, my Dad’s warning to me when I got my first camera: never let your camera come into contact with sand. The sand will scratch the lens, and it then the camera will be worthless.

The beautiful opaque surface of beach glass is actually made up of scratches and scars that will never “heal.” Until the glass is recycled, those scars will remain. These shards are indeed worthless for their original purpose, but not ultimately worthless: re-purposed, they could become something far more sublime than a beer bottle.

As I look back over these last two years, I’ve struggled to remember the encouraging things that happened, and even more so things that will be meaningful to anyone other than me. But this walk on the beach has made me hopeful that eventually I will see some beauty and purpose even in my own brokenness… maybe even this week as I write!

How will God use my scars to show his glory? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Which brings me to an important announcement:
Mid-June through mid-August we will be in North America on a short home assignment, based in Seattle. We are in the process of working out our schedule, so we will have more details soon. We’re looking forward to seeing many of you this summer, and sharing the stories we’re writing this week!

Monday, February 19, 2018

And above all these put on love

“Sit up straight,” said the Voice.

“Really? Is that all you want to tell me?” I responded, a bit nonplussed. “Are you my ballet teacher?” I still remember the comments on my bad posture and a particular piece of “art” on the wall of my dance studio as a child: the slogan, “You are what you eat” illustrated by a drawing of a slob holding a piece of pizza. This never stopped me from wolfing down a huge plate of Mexican food, slathered in cheese, every week after dance class. I guess that’s not the same as pizza, so it doesn’t count, right? Exercise increases one’s appetite. But I digress.

The previous day, I had gone for onsen and a massage, having strained my back clearing snow from in front of our house to make a space for tea-party guests to park their cars. (Lifting while twisting seems not to be the right way to haul snow around.) I didn’t realized how slouchy I had become until the massage therapist stuck her knee into my back and then pulled back on my shoulders… and my shoulders didn’t want to cooperate. Ouch.

With those thoughts in mind, I set aside my irritation and sat up straight, or as straight as I could. I noticed that the strain in my lower back eased a bit. I thought back to the previously mentioned tea party; of course I had been wearing a kimono. While I had it on, I completely forgot about my strained back. An obi, properly tied firmly but not too tight, is a wonderful support. I can’t slouch even if I want to.

A friend once asked me if wearing a kimono changed the way I think or act. At the time, I said no, but as I consider that question again, I think the answer is probably yes. There’s something about being forced to sit up straight, to take small steps, to move slowly, carefully, gracefully, deliberately. People who feel shame, I read recently, are likely to slouch, perhaps as a self-defending sign of submission. By straightening me up, my kimono restores my dignity, or at least the appearance of it.

Obi (帯) is an interesting word, and an interesting garment. It is several meters long, made of stiff brocade fabric. It is the sash that holds the kimono together; a kimono has no buttons or strings or snaps, so without the obi, the kimono cannot be worn. To wear an obi, you wrap it twice around your waist, and then tie it in an elaborate bow, completed with several other decorative strings.

A friend from my kimono circle practices tying an obi in a particularly festive way
When I was preaching from Colossians 3 last spring, I came across the word “obi” in my passage. Here is Colossians 3:14, in English and Japanese:

“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (ESV).

「そして、これらすべての上に、愛を着けなさい。愛は結びの帯として完全なものです。」 (新改訳聖書第三版) (Taking a stab at a literal translation of this, I would suggest “And then, over all of this, put on love. Love is, as a binding obi, a perfect thing.”)

God’s love, wrapped tightly around me, is what keeps me from falling apart. God’s love holds me up straight and restores my dignity when I am bent over with shame and despair. God’s love, supporting me, reminds me that I am not alone; the battle is his to fight, not mine. God’s love wrapped around us holds us together as his people even when separation seems like the better option.

“Sit up straight” turned out to be quite a good suggestion, after I unraveled what it meant.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Snow, and Our Neighborhood Sports

Today’s coffee: New Year’s Blend

There was finally a break in the snow storm, so I ventured out of my cozy nest. I hadn’t been outside in three days, since Christmas morning, when we went out for breakfast at our usual Monday breakfast spot. The blizzard started that afternoon; I don’t think we had wind like that even during typhoons over the summer. Our trash can blew several blocks away (even when filled with pickle-weights) and somehow the lid of one of our compost bins unscrewed itself, blew away, and went missing. On the bright side, the tile on our chimney that looked like it was ready to fall has also disappeared. No more worries about having a tile fall on my head while walking around in the garden.

Although we have plenty of leftovers to eat, we ran out of milk, and our stocks of coffee and mikan (mandarin oranges) were dangerously low, so I headed out to the store. (The important things, you know.) Also, the compost pail was full.

But first, the snow had to be dealt with. It had drifted up in front of the door.

I took these pictures back in November... but it looks about the same now (except more snow)
Walking on unplowed sidewalk...
When it's blowing really hard, snow gets stuck to the windows. Definitely don't want to go outside when it looks like this.
Our neighborhood has two sports in which everyone participates, like it or not. One is snow shovelling. Recently there was a “snow shoveling for exercise” class advertised in the neighborhood news. I am not making this up.

I seriously don’t know how my neighbors live with their boredom over the summer when there’s no snow to shovel. At first snowfall, everyone is out there with their shovels, moving the dusting of snow into tidy piles. Then, on warm days, they dump the snow back into the street so that it melts faster and break up chunks of ice with pickaxes.

We are not quite as diligent about snow clearing as our neighbors, so they worry about us; we often open the front door and discover that the front walk has already been cleared by a friendly neighbor who got bored after they were done clearing their own snow.

The other neighborhood sport, of course, is complaining about snow shovelling. Even though our neighbors are bright-eyed and smiling as they clear snow, they are just as energetic in their complaints. For example:

Neighbor A: There’s so much snow this year!
Neighbor B: I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve never gotten used to it.
Neighbor A: I shovelled snow two hours this morning! Living in Ishikari is hard, isn’t it?
Neighbor B: Isn’t it? But there was so much more snow when I was a child…

And on and on it goes, multiplied by the number of people you meet in a given day.

In our neighborhood, we put out different types of trash for collection several days a week, but in the winter, you can also request that a truck come and take away your snow once a week. This is really helpful, since the snow plow dumps all the snow from the road right in front of our house, and then we have to move it somewhere if we want to get the car out. Today was snow-removal day, which means we have to pile up all the snow one shovel’s width out from the garden wall. Then, a snowblower truck blows our snow pile into a truck in the space of about 30 seconds, and then off it goes to the snow dump.

Now I’m done drinking my coffee, so I’ll head home and see if there’s any more snow to clear off the front walk, or any neighbors to commiserate with.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Celebrating 200 Years

Today’s coffee: Christmas blend

I had been planning this party for at least the last five years. My cello, built in 1817, turned 200 this year; how could I not have a birthday party?

Since it would be my cello’s birthday party, it had to be a concert, so I searched for music to perform. Beethoven wrote two sonatas in 1816--close enough. When to celebrate? Shino and I were occupied with the Rachmaninov sonata until the end of October, so we picked Shino’s birthday on December 3, giving us just enough time to learn Beethoven’s 4th sonata and refresh Beethoven’s 1st sonata, which we played at our first concert together at Christmas in 2009. Where to hold the party? It’s a birthday party, not a formal concert. We decided to try having a concert at home. It would be a good test-run for future arts ministry, anyway.

And yet… a concert at home, especially in Japan, comes with a number of challenges. I invited probably 50 people, and expected about 30 to come; where would they put their shoes or hang their coats or park their cars? I quickly figured out solutions for shoes and coats, but the parking problem actually kept me up at night. We can only fit two or three cars in front of our house (if it doesn’t snow). Thankfully, a friend from church was able to arrange for us to use a local preschool’s parking lot in exchange for the promise of a mini-concert for the kids in the near future. Another friend from church agreed to help welcome guests when they came and direct them to the parking lot.

Then, of course, a birthday party needs cake. I made three: butterscotch cheesecake (since Shino likes cheesecake), a persimmon cake with dried fruit (seemed kind of festive and English, since my cello was built in London), and a classic rainbow chip cake out of a box (as I explained to non-American guests, this was the birthday cake when I was a kid).

As we got closer to the big day, I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake. This was a lot of work… and I’m still on leave for burnout. There were probably 40 party-related items on my to-do list. But part of being on leave has been a chance to remember and rediscover who I am--that God made me creative, and that he gave me a desire to make my home into a haven for us and for our friends. With that conviction, I kept on with the preparations, promising myself a very quiet December.

When we moved the furniture around and took the double-doors to the tea room and music room out of their frames, we discovered that if we set up for a concert in the living room, about 30 people could comfortably watch from all around. (I had lost count of who had said they were coming, so I gave up trying to remember and prayed for 30.) The kotatsu (low table with a heater underneath) ended up in the tea room; I was somewhat regretful that I would not be one of the people watching the concert from the comfort of the kotatsu. (Next time, perhaps.) Finally we brought lamps and candles from all over the house so we could avoid using the icky fluorescent overhead lights.

Clutter organized, furniture rearranged, atmosphere created, table set. Then we just had to wait for the guests to arrive. I forgot that in Japan, every concert invitation/advertisement will include the “open” time--what time guests can enter the hall. So some people came very early, and others came late. I made the mistake of having coffee during that pre-concert period, when adrenaline alone would have done just fine. The performance ended up being rather more… energetic than it otherwise would have been.

The event went over pretty well, I think. The guests seemed to enjoy themselves. There were even some old friends reunited who hadn’t met in years. The performance wasn’t perfect, but it never is (the problem being that mistakes in Beethoven are a lot more noticeable than mistakes in Rachmaninov). The general feeling seemed to be “let’s do this again,” because time spent together to enjoy art is time well spent. I’d say this was a successful experiment.

Now I’m having a very quiet December.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving Fried Rice

Happy Thanksgiving!

We had thanksgiving dinner yesterday with friends, and among them were people with gluten, egg, and nut allergies. But Thanksgiving dinner just isn’t complete without stuffing, so we came up with this alternative. Rice, like bread, soaks up meat juices and flavors nicely. I was very happy with the way this turned out—it could be a festive side-dish even alongside traditional stuffing.

Thanksgiving Fried Rice
A gluten-and-egg-free stuffing or side-dish

(Notes: These are approximate measurements, but precision really doesn’t matter with this recipe. Please be sure to check the list of ingredients on both the bouillon and the sausages to make sure they are safe for whatever allergies your guests have.)

  • 2 rice cooker cups (320cc) rice, cooked according to package directions (I used Thai jasmine rice, which was a blend of red and white. Very fragrant! Brown rice would work great too.)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 8 breakfast sausage links, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 ½ large onions, chopped (red and/or white; I used both)
  • ½ cup celery, chopped 
  • 8 mushrooms, chopped (I used some white mushrooms and some shiitake, because that’s what I had)
  • 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon (I used “Better than Bouillon”)
  • ½ cup dried apple, chopped
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • ½ cup pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs: I used a mix of rosemary, sage, and thyme, since that was what was accessible in my partially-snow-covered garden.
  • Salt and pepper to taste (the amount will depend on how salty your chicken bouillon is)
  • (Other possibilities that I thought about but didn’t include: chopped pecans or walnuts if there are no nut allergies, tiny cubes of pan-fried squash, tiny cubes of pan-fried tofu, a splash of rum or brandy or apple juice instead of some of the orange juice, fresh apple, other dried fruit)

Melt half of the butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Brown the sausages. Remove to a bowl.

Melt the remaining butter in the frying pan, then add the onions, celery, and mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and stir-fry for several minutes until they are soft. Add the chicken bouillon, apples, cranberries, and orange juice, and continue to stir-fry until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Clear a space in the center of the pan; add the pumpkin seeds and allow them to brown slightly. Add the sausage back into the pan, then the herbs. Stir to blend, then add the rice. Stir-fry to mix and allow the rice to crisp somewhat, 2-3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with the rest of Thanksgiving dinner, or on its own. It’s delicious with cranberry sauce and gravy.

You can probably stuff this in a turkey or chicken… but I really don’t know, since we don’t stuff our turkeys. Let me know in the comments if you try it.