The day of the Spirits

I didn’t know what to expect when we came to the funeral today.  I knew it was a strange coincidence that my grandmother’s funeral falls on Halloween this year, but I only just realized this in the car on the way there.   Like most everyone in Taiwan, people have dabbled in more than one religion in their lives, for a while, my grandmother was a devout Christian.  My mother has chosen a semi-traditional Buddhist ceremony for her mother’s passing, which seems to be the more common thing to do here in Taiwan.  I am thankful that there was a team of funeral helpers to guide us through the process, it keeps things going, as if it was left up to the family alone, the deceased would never quite properly cross over to the other side.

an anonymous, passing monk, en route

I found chanting with the monk to be strangely comforting; unfamiliar, but comforting.  The rhythmic monotony and strange melismas calm my unsettling thoughts and body, part of me observes the ceremony as a cultural experience, until my eyes settle on my grandmother’s picture, and then the image disappears into a blur.  In the photo, my grandmother smiles coyly with sparkles in her eyes, wearing a bright red scarf.  I can’t seem to connect the memories of her to the present moment, not even with the open casket.  I could barely recognize her.  I am grateful to see my grandmother for the last time, but I refuse to replace her in my mind with this body I see before me.

I found great comfort in words like ‘a celebrated life’ and the thought that she’s possibly reunited with my maternal grandfather, but the present moment still grasps me by the throat and my breaths become shallow.  I watch as my mother identifies the body and signs a sheet of paper in the mortuary.  I wait outside as we were told it takes one and a half hour for the cremation to be completed.  What does one do during this time?  There was a whirlwind of movements and sounds and colors everywhere I turned, all moving at an unsettling speed.  It seems like life accelerates once the heart stops beating, or rather, maybe death just surprises us no matter how prepared we think we are but we are never really ready for it. I listen to the incessant bells rung by the monk as each family follows hurriedly behind a casket going every which way.  I see big black limos, trucks load and unload golden statues of Buddha and flowers.  I watch the coroner as he picks out bits of burnt beads from the tray of grandmother’s ashes and asks if she wore a necklace.   I watch my uncle carry an impossibly heavy marble urn as he tries to place it in a ‘final resting place’ that is not much different from a bank vault, except it was adorned in gold, well, maybe even that is not much different from a bank vault in Asia, I imagine.  I try to imagine my grandmother living in these ‘eternal apartments’ (at least for the next 50 years or so), looking out to a dense subtropical mountain in a light rain, wondering if this was what she would have wanted, and if she is really finally at peace.  I watch, I feel, I imagine, but I can’t seem to breathe, it feels as if the weight of the urn is on my chest.

a forgotten and overgrown grave by the funeral home from decades ago

Hours later, here I sit, having a first moment to be with myself and my thoughts.  It feels strangely empty, as if one should walk away from a day like today with a prize or a souvenir, why?  I’m not sure.  I carried a large framed picture of my grandmother in an elevator to our hotel room with a heavy bag of fruit, another bag of fruit.  It seems like nobody knows quite what to do with so much fruit associated with a traditional funeral, it got passed around among everyone present at the funeral.  The day is finally over, as I sit here, waiting for that unbearable lightness to arrive, but all I feel so far is still the weight on my chest, and these heavy bags of fruit.

I salute you, NaiNai, may you rest in peace and be joyous in your next journey.


for my grandmother

My grandmother died last night.  Even reading the words in my mother’s email this morning felt empty.  She was 95 years old, or at least that’s what we’ve figured, and has been quite weak for several years, but still, when the news finally arrived, the words seemed unexpected, unreal, empty.  I have been fluctuating between feeling a profound sadness and being uncomfortable with the sadness and thus busying myself with superficial tasks around the house.  I told myself it may be helpful to just be still and let the sadness come through, but after a few minutes, I would get up and transplant plants, or clean the window sills.  It’s safe to say I am at a loss.

When I called my mother, she had been ‘reading prayers’ for the past seven hours throughout the night for my grandmother.  Her voice would periodically break up and she sounded exhausted.  She said this is something she plans to do for the next 7 weeks, once a week.  She flies from Shanghai to Taiwan to do this.  I told her I wanted to be there for her now, but she said it’s not necessary, but appreciates the thought.

When my grandfather died, the way I found out about his death was when I asked my mother when I could book a flight to see him, she told me that he had been gone for a few months, and she did not want to “worry me”.  I walked around for a few months after that, bursting into sobs at every inappropriate time imaginable.  When I finally got to visit my grandfather’s grave, I looked into the strange photo of him somebody embedded onto a marble and asked for forgiveness.  It didn’t help, I still break into sobs whenever I think about my grandfather.

We had booked 4 tickets for the whole family to go and perhaps see my grandmother for the last time in about two and a half weeks.  We had been doing this for the last five years or so, every time thinking it may be the last time.  My mother had emailed me about my grandmother going into the hospital again, and I did not call right away, thinking this strong woman would pull through again, as she always had.  Not this time.

I grew up with my grandparents until I was 11 years old.  I was very close to my grandfather throughout most of our lives together, although he was not related to me by blood.  My grandmother has always been a difficult woman, she had the typical characteristics of a Chinese woman from another era, and a woman that has survived a war.  She was stubborn, possessed a sharp tongue that could cut through the strongest integrity in a person,  extremely opinionated and very, very charming while being all of the above.  We had a slow falling out since I left home at the age of 18, mainly because I couldn’t stand the way she treated my grandfather.  My grandparents slept in two single beds next to each other with a nightstand in between, and on which she had a photo of her previous husband, my mother’s father, and according to grandma, her only love.  A few years ago, I was visiting her in Chicago, and I wanted to know about her childhood, so I asked her how many siblings she had with her while growing up, to which she answered, ‘ by which mother do you mean? my father had a few wives, so we had quite a few siblings.’  It was comments like these that reminded me how far she has come: growing up in the imperial China, escaping the Communist regime by fleeing alone with two young children to Taiwan, leaving behind an older daughter and losing a husband who stayed and fought the Communists as a high rank leader.

Throughout the day today when I would cut a piece of bread, or wrap up a piece of left over melon, I would remember how she was a passionate cook, and eater, picky in every ingredient she used.  She would eat spicy food even when her blood pressure would rise and the blood vessels in her eyes would burst, but she would hide the spicy sauce in her fridge and add it to everything she ate.  When I visited her in her home, I would raid her fridge and throw it away, and the next time I return, it would be there again.  I remember cutting her hair for her in her home, and laughing over how skilled (or not) I was.  I remember wheeling her to a nice restaurant in her wheelchair for one of the only annual outings she gets to go on, and the faces the other customers would make because of the inconvenience of having to move their chairs in order to access the wheelchair.  I remember the smile she had when I complimented on how beautiful her hair looked when it was thin and white, and I remember how she told me that everyone who is thinner than her was too thin, and those who are heavier are too heavy.  She never apologized and rarely shed a tear.

I recognize my grandmother’s traits in my mother, and my mother in me, and recently, all of us in my daughter.   It isn’t something worth trying to escape, but maybe something to recognize and embrace.  The strength, the determination, and the fragility and need to be loved but are too stubborn to ask for it, the thick wall we built in order to show that we don’t need the very thing that sustains us as a family, the connection between one and another.  Between the four generations, we lived on  3 continents and 5 countries.  It sounds impossible, but it’s true, it’s our life.
We are used to being independent.  I salute you, mom and nai nai (what I called my grandmother): you are my lineage and I cherish the you that have created me and is a big foundation of who I am today.


Notre Dame de la Goutte – integrating art and spirituality in life

Normally in the summer, we have a lot of picnics, or as one would spell it in French: pique-niques.  However, we ran into a bit of pickle last week on our way home.  There wasn´t a table to be found anywhere and we were about to arrive home (God forbid we might have to eat lunch in our home and on our own table) when we saw this familiar sight which we always assumed was a cemetery. 
Notre Dame de la Goutte, Montardit   What we didn’t expect, was the post-picnic tour around the ‘cemetery’.  It turned out to be a space of worship built by an abby, he collected anonymous stones from the forest and brought them to light, sort to speak.  And as far as we know, may have sculpted and single handedly built this amazing space for meditation and contemplation.  The artwork: stained glass, metal and stone sculptures are absolutely inspiring and stunning. Abby Jean Marie Piquemal was a stonemason at heart, and thus built the stoned chapel with a small gorup of volunteers in the neighborhood. There is a wonderful picture of the chapel interior attached to the link listed above under the first photo.

stained glass reflecting from the stone floor

two little bell ringers

a little boy kissing Jesus, something if you knew his mother (the boy’s, not Jesus’), you would know it came straight from the boy, and not the mother.Abby Jean Marie Piquemal wanted to devote this space for people to gather and return again and again, if not to practice Catholicism.  I think we will be coming back again and again, for sure.  It was a surprise find, and so close to home (about a 5 minute drive).  Who knew?

dig this

We were strongly discouraged by many people about using an old hangar area as our vegetable garden plot, but since it´s the only bit of land that´s flat near the house, and I´m simply a stubborn cookie, this is what we have so far:

ok, it’s true, this plum tree was already here when we moved here, but meet our new kitten (I’m tempted to name it Rooster for the trade we did)

What I have learned (through my stubbornness/laziness):
1. weeds grow much faster than children, weed often and early, otherwise one loses a child in the waves of grass.

2. one can never leave enough space between squash plants.

big leaves…

3. between two young children, snails, slugs and birds, one can never plant enough strawberry plants (we have 20 this year, and I still buy them each week)

4. hold on to your seedlings until they get very big (and then some more), never trust Mother nature, hail storms come, well, whenever you put in your seedlings, really.

5. cats are not gardeners’ best friends.

6. unless you have years of experiences with a weed whacker, don’t attempt to whack your weeds in your vegetable garden, long awaited full head of lettuces may become instant victims under untrained distance judging and a lack of coordination.  Suck it up, get on your knees, either pull out or dig out your weeds.

lettuce tic tac toe

summer squash shading lettuce

7. wear long boots to harvest your overcrowded summer squash jungle…when the stems of the plant rub against one’s skin, it feels like acupuncture, but in a medieval torture chamber type of way.

summer squash jungle

porcupine stems…(note to self: wear long glove too when harvesting)

on the seed packet, they call this ‘8-ball’ zucchini :)

apparently, zucchinis can be beautiful, too.

every year (well, this is the second year), there is a mysterious melon plant that I didn’t plant which produces fruit, and this is this year’s winner.

little h’s favorite little yellow pear tomatoes

herb spiral: basil, dill, rosemary, curry leaf, oregano, parsley, thyme, and mint.


here and now

It was around this time last year when we sat down with a notary, a real estate agent, and the former owner of our house, and signed a large stack of paper that was not much thinner than a regular French dictionary.  The process took nearly four hours. Afterwards, we all went to a pub next to the notary office together and everyone had a juice to celebrate the finishing of a lengthy but surprisingly not painful procedure, and off we went, driving 4 hours back to Barcelona and try to wrap up 10 years of experiences living in Catalonia.

In a way, it feels as if we have been living here in the Ariège area all our lives, and the adaptation has been tremendously gentle, joyous, and smooth.  And it’ true, we have been coming to this area for summer vacations for nearly 5 years, and since we moved here last year, I still go back to Barcelona every 2 weeks to continue my former position at the conservatory, so yes, in a way, it feels like very little has changed.  But, occasionally, during a short lesson on conjugating French verbs in passé composé form, my head would start to spin, and I wonder if I may be too old to start all over again, in a country where I did not speak its language, at all.

But, that anxiety passes and dissipates as quickly as it came, and I am back to my quietly joyous self again.   So, what really has changed since we moved here?  Did the change improve anything that we thought it would?  maybe it’s still too early to tell, but then again, since nothing really stands still, let’s checking in now.

I am still very much the ~type A – me~ that I have been for the past 4 decades.  I was hoping with a beautiful bucolic setting behind me, I would slow down and at least from the outside, look calmer and more centered.  I can safely say that this has not changed.  Very often, I still find my mind racing at an insane speed, multi-tasking during a bath, or a cup of tea: making a list of what to do’s and looking around the room for things to ‘improve’, all at the same time listening for any sudden head cracking screams that may come from a child in a distance.  After a few weeks of these non-stop cerebral acrobatic exercises, I would inevitably have a melt down/explosion/migraine, and we’re good to go again for a few more weeks.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, what I have noticed, is in between my running around, explosions, migraines, and making lists, very frequently, and often catching me at unexpected times,  I am stopped in my path on the way to the next task, by things like: a surreal pink glow in the sky from a post storm, the smell of an unknown flower that has been blooming in the garden that has been occupying my mind, or being soaked slowly by a mist and basking in the intoxicating experience only rain can bring. But more intensely, how I have been drawn by and know myself better from these moments of inspiration and pauses when time simply stands still and feels like a second of eternity. I am led briefly to an opened door that allows me a glimpse of what obsesses me, and where my passions lie, and a quiet voice from the inside reminding me that it is okay to follow what feeds me, both emotionally and spiritually, and yes, even physically, and that checking off a to-do list is not a priority, but a bad habit.

The moment that I answer an yearning, for instance, to work on a certain piece of music that I have put off for the past 20 years, simply because there hasn’t been an occasion or urgency when it was required (as in a last minute ‘gig’), is when I check in with myself and honor an insistent voice that comes from within, and not superimposed by another.  It feels good exhilarating to honor it, to honor me.  It’s essential to find out why it has been asking for my attention, so stubbornly. It’s a part of that type-A determination, but transformed and used conscientiously, and with gentle care.

I have noticed that this is a revelation to me, but not to many of my friends.  It took me a long way to get here, but for the moment, I can truly say that when I wake up in the morning, I am giddy with joy from what awaits me for the day.  Sometimes, I don’t even know what that may be until it catches me off the guard, again, but I can be sure that I will be there to listen to it.  May it be to read and dream about taking up beekeeping, or to make a tree castle in the forest, or to take up proper horseback riding lessons.

So, although I may be found in the rainy dusk trying to chase down a cocky cock in the forest, or on my knees in the pouring rain, digging up weeds with my bare hands, all the while my heart is humming, obsessively, the Rachmaninoff sonata or a Johann Christian Bach sonata, I can be sure that I’m checking in with myself, and that this life belongs to me, and if I can get back to this place which I call home, even if it’s just from time to time, those around me will also benefit from this core/’cor‘.

my ~cor~: my home. (pun indeed)


first glimpse of a young garden – the slow coming of a dream

common milkweed probably planted by the previous owner, beautiful scent and foliage.

my very ~rustic~ herb spiral

nursery babies waiting to join the garden

exploding rose

flashes of color

linden – one of my new favorite trees. Picking linden blossoms is intoxicating for all senses!!!

best looking wall flower I’ve ever seen (mauve)

weed? not in this garden!

more rustic beauty

milkweed up close and personal…

walnuts!

ms. M taking after her mom, framing what others may label as weed

one of my favorite flowers

a visitor

early harvest = dinner tonight


pirates in the forest

Pirate's mas-cat, can you find him?


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