Bon Odori Dances

For years, my holiday calendar contained a reference to the silent, gliding dances of the Bon Odori perfomed during the O-Bon festival in Japan. The image always seemed marvelous to me, and even more so, when I read this fantastic description of the dances written by Lafcadio Hearn, in 1894:

And at another tap of the drum begins a performance impossible to picture in words, something unimaginable, phantasmal—a dance, an astonishment. All together glide the right foot forward one pace, without lifting the sandal from the ground, and extend both hands to the right, with a strange, floating motion and a smiling, mysterious obeisance. Then the right foot is drawn back with a repetition of the waving of hands and the mysterious bow. Then all advance the left foot and repeat the previous movements, half-turning to the left. Then all take two gliding paces forward, with a single simultaneous soft clap of the hands, and the first performance is reiterated, alternately to right and left; all the sandaled feet gliding together, all the supple hands waving together, all the pliant bodies bowing and swaying together. And so slowly, weirdly, the processional movement changes into a great round, circling about the moonlit court and around the voiceless crowd of spectators.

The Bon Odori dances are part of the O-Bon festival honoring the dead, who return to visit their families at this time of the year. The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month in Japan (July 15; although in some parts of Japan it’s celebrated on August 15), but it used to be celebrated on the full moon of the seventh lunation in the Chinese calendar, which would be the full moon of August in 2016).

Like our Western festival of the dead, Halloween, this holiday mingles several elements: the traditional end of the summer retreat for Buddhist monks, the Full Moon of the Hungry Ghosts, and a midsummer lantern festival. The dances were designed to welcome and honor the spirits of the ancestors; one can see that reverent and otherworldly aspect of the dances in Hearn’s description.

A few years ago, my friend, Susan told me about the O-Bon festival held at the Betusin Buddhist Temple in Seattle. And I finally got a chance to see the dances. My first impression was that they were not particularly gliding. And they are not silent: each is accompanied by recorded music, which is played on a loudspeaker, accompanied by a drummer. The crowd gathers in the street and makes a long shuffling circle around the yagura, a temporary stage set in the middle of the street, from which the dances are announced and where the drum is placed. In Seattle, everyone is invited to participate, even if you don’t know the dances, and so the crowd is diverse, with people dressed in traditional summer kimonos and people in jeans and flipflops, some who perform the dance elegantly, others who look lost and are always off the beat. Some of the dances are quite playful and whimsical.

The Wikipedia article on Bon Odori describes some the various dances, some of which are quite old and others which come from popular culture, for instsance, the Pokemon ondo. Another website, which calls the Bon Odori dances, the spiritual dance in the midsummer night (I love that phrase), describes and provides videos of several types of bon odori dances.

I was a little disappointed in my first Bon Odori, although I enjoyed the friendly crowd, the camaraderie of the dancers, and the generosity of the Buddhist temple which opens its doors to make this festival possible. It has the atmosphere of any small community event, complete with princesses (beautiful young women wearing tiaras and kimonos), food booths, a beer garden, a display of crafts (including ikebana arrangements and bonsai trees), and little kids sitting on the curb to watch the dancers lining the street.

But the following year, I attended the festival again with my niece, Shayla, and this time I really did see the gliding dances of my fantasy. Perhaps this was because the temple sponsored practice sessions during the weeks before the event (you can see one in this You Tube video) and more of the dancers knew what they were doing ahead of time. Perhaps it was because of the elegant grace of the dance leaders, women in pink kimonos who walked alongside the dancers, demonstrating the movements. But suddenly, I could see how the gestures were intended to welcome and honor the spirits. I watched the dancers move slowly along the street, in a gliding, undulating line. And I saw all the elements Hearn saw in 1895: the swaying, the supple hands, and most of all, that sense of otherworldliness. No silence, but the beat of the drum and the repetition of the movements that began to have a trance-like, hypnotic effect. I even got up and danced to one song and felt I had truly honored the ancestors.

This video was not taken in Seattle but at the Bon Odori at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. I think it gives you the feel of the dancing. In LA, they were dancing in concentric circles, which creates an interesting effect. Several of the dancers are very elegant and attentive to what they are doing; others have that dazed look of people just trying to keep up. And from time to time, passers by, oblivious to the camera wander by, making you feel like you are there.

First published 7/20/2010.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

A Poem for St David’s Day

FebruarySince March 1st is the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, I thought I would share a Welsh poem with you. And since March 1 is famously the start of a windy month (March either comes in like a lamb or like a lion, reversing its nature at the end of the month), I wanted to share a poem (see the YouTube video below) about the Wind by Dafydd ap Gwilym (who is named after the saint as Dafydd is the Welsh spelling of David).

Dafydd ap Gwilym is one of my favorites of the Welsh poets. He wrote in the fourteenth century and his poetry is clearly influenced by the troubadour tradition. His favorite topics were nature and romance and he combines them beautifully in poems about trysting with the woman he loves in a grove of birch trees. In this particular poem, the poet addresses the wind and asks him to carry a message to his beloved.

If you would like to hear the Welsh version of this, you can listen to it here.

For a really interesting (but somewhat academic) article on the meter of Welsh poetry and why Wales has produced so many great poets, check out this article on “Extreme Welsh Meter” by Gwyneth Lewis from Poetry magazine: I’ve tried writing poetry using Welsh meters myself while I was in Wales and it is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. Can still recite whole verses form the poems I wrote because the rhyming and meter schemes made it so memorable.

The photo of the bird flying over the ocean was used to illustrate the month of Windy in my French Republican Calendar in 2013 and was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The French Republican Calendar for 2016 is still available and Melissa’s wonderful photo of sprouting moss decorates March (the month of Germinal, Sprouting).

First published February 28, 2015.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Candlemas Collages

My New Year’s practice is to make a collage that represents the experiences I hope to enjoy in the new year. For the past few years, I’ve been making Soul Collage (R) cards to embody the themes I’ve chosen for the year.

To the left, you can see my three themes for 2010 as works in progress: Refreshment, Sustainability and Sovereignity.

On the other side of the table you get an upside-down view of the collage my friend Janis made.  We love this ritual which we have been sharing for years. We light candles, make wishes, drink tea, nibble on cookies and play with images.

In 2011, my theme cards were Spaciousness, Clarity and Surrender to the Mystery.



(I did note that most of the images in this card were out of focus and the goal remained fuzzy as well; however the bird theme really showed up in my life in 2011)


Surrender to the Mystery, a theme that stayed mysterious all year.

Here’s a photo from my 2013 session. This card is called Presence, not pasted down.

Once they are done, I put them up on the wall in the entry way of my home where they will remind me every time I enter of my themes for the year.

Here are my 2016 collages on the piano:

new year collages

From left to right, Creative Expession, Rising Above the Drama, [mystery card? maybe Flow?], Spaciousness and Abundance.

Originally published 2/9/2010.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This blog was originally written for the holiday lore blog at Amber Lotus. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, like the stringing of Christmas lights on trees and houses, and the lighting of the Advent candles, celebrates light during the darkest time of the year. The Jewish holiday calendar is still a lunar calendar and that means that the theme of light and dark can play out in the timing of the moon as well as the sun. Hanukkah always begins on the 26th of Kislev, three days before the dark moon closest to the full moon that is closest to the Winter Solstice, so at the darkest time of the moon and at the darkest time of the sun. Most Jewish holidays are linked to a pivotal moment in Jewish history. For Hanukkah, that moment is the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. But the temple contained only one sealed flask of oil, only enough to light the lamps for one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for the eight days of the ceremonies. But as Arthur Waskow points out in his wonderful book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees

were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.

The main ritual for Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a candelabra that contains eight candles in a row. The first candle on the right is lit on the first night (December 16 in 2014) and each night an additional candle is lit until all eight are burning. Since the lit candles are not to be used for any practical purpose, many menorahs have a space for a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is set above (or below) the others and used to light them. The candles are lit just s night falls and are left to burn for a half an hour. No work is to be done while the candles are burning (just as the candles are not to be used for practical purposes). Instead this half hour is a time for contemplation, for saying blessings and singing songs, eating special foods and playing games. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don’t work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a time of rest at this pivotal point in the year. hanukkah geltHanukkah foods are cooked in oil: potato latkes and fritters and jam-filled doughnuts, all recall the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Children play with a dreidl and are sometimes given gifts, particularly Hanukkah gelt. I’ve always loved those thin gold-foiled chocolate coins which remind me of the gifts of money so common at New Year festivals (the Romans, for instance, gave coins as New Year Gifts) and certainly,with the return of light in the darkness, the new year is born. Photo of Hanukkah gelt was taken by Liz West and posted at Flickr. Photo of the silver menorah (found at Wikipedia) was taken by Ladislav Flaigl and released into the public domain.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thanksgiving as Harvest Feast

PAINTING DETAILMost Americans know the semi-mythological story of the first Thanksgiving, how the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony after a successful harvest in 1621 shared a meal with members of the Patuxet People of the Wampanoag tribe who had helped them plant their crops. But what we may not realize is that they were both acting out long-standing cultural traditions. The harvest festival, although it is celebrated at different times of the year and with different foodstuffs, is something found in every culture around the world.

The English settlers probably brought with them memories of the Michaelmas feast (September 29), the harvest festival on the English holiday calendar, a time to return home to eat together. The Wampanoag tribe had their own harvest festivals which coincided with the appearance of green corn and the arrival of certain fish species. In many African countries, the harvest festival, Odiwera, occurs at the time of the yam harvest. In Ireland, the first potatoes. In Hungary and Italy and Argentina, the grapes. In Papua, New Guinea, the pigs. In Bali, the rice. Everywhere, the festival usually involves a lavish meal, dancing, drinking, and ceremonies expressing gratitude to those (the gods or the farmers) who provided the food.

I am sometime annoyed by the insistence on recreating the ideal big family experience that accompanies Thanksgiving, an experience that is elusive but even in sitcoms, always triumphs over the forces of dysfunction arrayed against it. But I am ever so grateful that we have one holiday on the American holiday calendar that has not been co-opted by consumerism, that gathers us around a table to celebrate the food we’ve raised and cooked and shared with those we love.

This blog post first appeared at the Amber Lotus website, as part of a commissioned series of weekly posts on holiday lore.

The painting is called “The First Thanksgiving” and it’s by Jennie Brownscombe. I think it nicely illustrates the semi-mythological nature of the first Thanksgiving.


SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Link Love: plants and people

I really liked my friend Joanna Powell Colbert’s idea of declaring Friday (or Freya’s Day) as Link Love day and posting some of her favorite links from the past week. (Love because Freya is the Norwegian goddess just as the name for Friday in Latin and other Romance languages refers to Venus.)

So I’ve been collecting some links that I loved this past week and wanted to share them with you. Almost all came from following the threads found in Pam Montgomery’s latest newsletter. (I took Pam’s wonderful Plant Communication workshop at the University of British Columbia’s Botanical Garden in October of 2010.)

Pam mentioned the TED talk about 6 ways mushrooms can save the world given by Paul Stametz which I found here. I wasn’t sure if I could believe Stametz when he said that fungi were more similar to humans than humans are to animals but I found this article on “Rearranging the Branches of the Tree of Life” by William K Stevens that makes the same point.

Probably my favorite link of the week also came from Pam’s newsletter: a link to this amazing video showing a plant singing in the Italian intentional community of Damanhur. It reminded me of one of the exercises Pam gave us when she was teaching us to talk to plants: we were supposed to sing to our plant. I felt very self-conscious about doing this but it did help me establish a connection with my plant (which was the lovely tree pictured in the photo above: a Japanese cedar).

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

My Favorite Calendars

Photo by Melissa Gayle West

[this is a reprise of the article I wrote two years ago, but I’ve added a few gems here and there, including reader recommendations]

I love this time period between the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, when my new calendar is still empty and the old one is full of memories. I comb through one and look forward to filling up the new one. Here’s a list of some of my favorite calendars. Calendars make great gifts, for you and for your friends.

Jim Maynard’s Pocket Astrologer

If I could buy only one calendar a year, this would be the one. It contains all the calendrical information I need for the year: the dates of major Christian, Jewish and other festivals, plus moon signs, moon void of course, eclipses (and where to view them), the best meteor showers of the year, planetary transits (including Mercury retrograde), and much more, all for my time zone (Pacific; there’s also one for Eastern time). I’m not sure why I love this calendar so much. Other calendars — Llewellyn’s astrological calendars and the WeMoon almanac — provide the same information. Maybe it’s the compact size. Maybe it’s because Jim Maynard was the first person to teach me about that mysterious time interval called “moon void of course” (a transition time when the moon is “in between” signs). Maybe it’s because so much is information is packed into such a small package. You get everything I mentioned above plus a blank horoscope wheel for writing in your own chart, a visual map of the planetary motions, explanations of the qualities of each zodiac sign and planet, an article on planting by the moon and much more. Orrder one at this web site.

Planner Pad

In a totally different realm, the realm of scheduling, I would be lost without my Planner Pad which is like the control panel for my complicated, multi-faceted life. Unlike traditional planners in which one tends to write mainly the dates of external obligations (appointments, etc.), the Planner Pad system encourages you to think of what you want to do in different areas of your life and then assign them time in your schedule. (I imagine this is similar to the Covey system which I’ve never used, though I have incorporated many insights from his books into my schedule, like putting first things first (my spiritual life, then my writing) in both my schedule and my day.) I’m going to adapt some of the Planner Pad ideas into my Natural Planner. I just found a great post online from Diane who loves using a Planner Pad for organizing as much as I do and she breaks down the process in great detail. If you are interested, you might want to read her post. For years I used the 8-1/2 by 11 size, but the year I ordered the smaller size, I had a lot more time (not so many lines to fill up with tasks), so I’m going back to the smaller size in 2012. To order go to the web site.

Wall Calendars

Besides my handy astrological guide and my planning system, I always like to keep a beautiful wall calendar on my wall. Both Pomegranate and Amber Lotus offer many beautiful choices. I think you can use calendars as a focal point for your dreams, which is why I sometimes give friends calendars as New Year Gifts, calendars that feature places they want to travel (Greece, Italy, etc. ) or activities they love (yoga, writing, knitting, etc.).  One year I chose a William Morris floral design calendar which helped inspire my flower essays.

For the past few years, I’ve been enjoying my own French Republican calendar. The lovely photo of frosty leaves was taken by Melissa Gayle West and illustrates the month of November or Frimaire (Frosty).

Weekly Journals or Engagement Calendars

I often use beautiful calendars as journals. I have one I kept the year my daughter was turning two and it’s full of hilarious stories about her adventures and a detailed record of her vocabulary acquisition. We both still enjoy reading it.  I also have a Book of Days that came illustrated with Japanese seasonal paintings which I use as a phenological journal, where I track the seasonal changes in my life, noting the first whiff of sweet box in January, the first ripe raspberries in my garden in June, the first time the radiator comes on in my apartment in September. I put each entry under the appropriate day and write the year in parentheses, so that over time the book has become a palimpsest of over a decade in my neighborhood. I can say with certainty, “the lilacs are blooming earlier this year.”

I heart the inspiration for the Ecological Calendar, which is available both as a wall calendar and as an engagement calendar. It’s beautifully designed and meant to help you notice the natural rhythms of the year. In the engagement calendar, each weekly page shows celestial events, the ratio of sun to darkness, natural seasonal events, the tides and a preview of what’s to come. The right hand page offers space to write in your commitments or comments. It begins on Winter Solstice, as every calendar should. I love it that the creators have named the months and the days fanciful, seasonal names, just like the creators of the French Revolutionary calendar. Winter is Celeste, Sleet and Bluster. December 24 is MoonGlow, December 25 SnowLine, December 26 Ice Floe and December 27 Frozen Lake. But these names point out one problem of seasonal calendars: they don’t fit all regions. There are no frozen lakes in Seattle, and I’d be surprised if the emphasis on snow in winter works for residents of Florida or Southern California.

Pam from New York state asked me what I thought about the Sacred Journey Daily Journal which is available from Pomegranate. I actually haven’t seen a copy of this engagement calendar but it looks like it would be wonderful. There’s a grid for each month and also a pair of pages for coming up with gratitudes, affirmations, opportunities and goals. It looks like it offers room for considering goals as well as tasks like a more typical engagement calendar.


For the past four years, I’ve been enjoying the treasure trove of seasonal information collected by Bill Felker who publishes Poor Will’s Almanack. Felker started paying attention to the weather patterns where he lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio after his wife gave me a gift of a barometer, and that expanded into a passionate devotion to all indications of seasonal time. He predicts weather patterns, lists flowering plants for every day of year, provides a pollen count and a SAD index (hours of sunlight available), describes what’s happening in the night sky, and writes a perceptive and elegant essay to begin each month. You can order the 2012 edition at his web site.

Creative Calendars

One year when I was really struggling to find balance in my life, I made a collage calendar showing the year as a circle with different slices of pictures for each month. December and January were time off months, months for dreams and visions, which I depicted with a starry sky background. February, April, July and October were months I wanted to focus on my teaching, indicated by fields of lavender. March, June, September and November were months I planned to focus on my writing (I used the image of a page of handwriting). May was my month for sending out my work (I figured if I could get it all done in one month of the year, I’d be relieved of the pressure I always feel to market my work). I indicated this month with flowers and a hummingbird drinking from them. August was a vacation month (camels in the desert). This calendar proved to be enormously useful to me since every time I was feeling frantic, I simply looked at it to figure out my priorities.

Twyla Tharp describes using a circular calendar in her book The Creative Habit. She says she keeps track of multiple creative projects by drawing circles within circles on a piece of paper with the deadlines scrawled inside the borders. Although each circle is unique it rubs up against or enfolds other circles. She writes; “If I follow my circles and match things up with my calendar, the progression begins to make sense.”

It’s easy to make your own calendar. Many convenience stores, like the Walgreens in my neighborhood, offer templates you can fill in with your own photos. I’ve used their template for the last few years to make a calendar featuring photos of my daughter’s Chihuahua, Pepe (who is also the hero of my novel, Dial C for Chihahua). We give them as presents to Pepe’s fans (he has many).

A few years ago, after finishing a big genealogy project on my mother’s family, the Wittaks of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I made a calendar that featured significant family dates on the date grids and displayed photo collages of the ancestors of the family and the houses they lived in. I sent a copy to all of the relatives who had helped me with my research. It made a great gift.

As you can see I love calendars! I’d love to hear about the calendars you love.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Uncluttering Time

Last month, my theme was Spaciousness and I decided to work with this theme in four different ways. The first was to create spaciousness in my time by getting rid of clutter time.

This concept came to me courtesy of Rebecca Ross of the Composed Domain. I took her clutter class at North Seattle Community College. It was a great class and helped me shift the mountain of stuff under which I am buried (you can get a glimpse of what I’m facing in this photo of my living room).

Many of the techniques Rebecca taught were ones I had learned before, like the sequence of sort, purge, contain and maintain, a maxim which I first picked up from Julie Morgenstern. It matches the way I normally clean which felt validating.

Rebecca also encouraged us to honor our own way of organizing. Two years ago, I rearranged all my file folders and I’ve been confused ever since. I am going to restore them back to their original order in my next wave of cleaning.

But this is not a blog about clutter in space but about clutter in time. Rebecca gave us a list of possible kinds of clutter, many of which I recognized.

Masquerade clutter is something that is valuable but you don’t use it, like exercise equipment.

Bestowed clutter is something someone gave you that you will never use, like a book you will never read, or an item of clothing you will never wear.

Memorabilia is anything you are keeping because it reminds you of a person or event that was precious. Rebecca suggested we deal with this by preserving the memory, for instance in a photo or piece of writing, but letting go of the item.

Bus stop clutter is simply clutter that is on its way somewhere else, for instance, items you are going to return or take to the Goodwill.

Dust me décor” clutter is the name Rebecca gives to tchotckes, all those decorative items that line your shelves and cover your windowsills. For me, this category mostly consists of rocks which I pick up every time I go some place.

Someday clutter consists of items that you will do someday, like magazines you will read someday or, in my case, the shattered remnants of favorite dishes I will make into a mosaic someday, or the scraps from old clothes that I will turn into a quilt someday.

I amused myself after the class by trying to come up with comparable kinds of clutter in time. I couldn’t come up with exact correlations but I did notice a few kinds of clutter in time.

No Longer Meaningful Time Clutter: This is an activity that was once meaningful but now I’m only doing it because it’s a habit. I was able to get rid of several instances of this kind of clutter.

No Longer Prime Time Clutter: Some activities that I used to do regularly at certain times of the day, like writing my blog entries in the evening, had not been done at that time for over two years, yet I kept writing them into my schedule for that time. Clearing this kind of clutter simply means noticing what I was really doing and accepting it. If I really want to write the blog entries, I might have to find a different time.

Brain Wasting Time Clutter: TV is the prime example of this. I watch it because it’s on and it catches my attention and then it’s hard to turn off. So I put myself on a TV diet: one hour a night is all I’m allowed (some exemptions are given for Project Runway and So You Think You Can Dance).  Then I turn the TV off. Although at first, the house feels weirdly quiet, I soon get totally absorbed in my writing or my computer research.

Doing Someone Else’s Work Time Clutter: This would be time you spend doing something that really belongs to someone else. In my house, this would be an uneven distribution of chores, which it really is time to sit down and list and then parcel out in a more fair way.

Unrealistic Expectations Time Clutter: This is sort of like Someday Clutter in that I think I can really do 12 hours of work in 4 hours. I’ve had some luck correcting this kind of time clutter by actually estimating how long I think it will take to do all the things on my to-do list (for instance, last Monday I had on my list 1) make breakfast 2) sort out the trust 3) take all the files to the storage place 4) edit the Pepe novel 5) sort out the books 6) finish the Waverly Fitzgerald web site. I figured out how much time I thought it would take me to do each one, then worked through them in order of priority and actually got 5 out of the 6 done.

Too Many Choices Time Clutter: I’m always working on a number of different projects and this can become its own kind of clutter, as at any given moment, I could choose to do one of 20 things on my to-do list. To deal with this issue, I limited myself to six ongoing projects (writing a mystery novel, working on my non-fiction book on nature in the city, taking a photography class, teaching a writing class, updating Living in Season and uncluttering the house). I assign only one thing to do each week on each project and give each one its own day. It’s been weird but gratifying to experience the sensation of having completed a task and having nothing else to do that day. Wow!

Someday is Right Now: I’ve also decided to move some things off my Someday list to my Right Now list so I signed up for the photography class I’ve been wanting to take for three years. It will mean my Fall is a bit crowded but I don’t wait any longer for some day.

I’d love to hear about your Time Clutter and how you deal with it.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend