Reading the Air: the gravitational pull of rooms and lips

reading the air 2

There’s nothing more to say, and nothing much has been said. Quantities of talk are measured carefully like rice and tea, and so we revert to our mother culture in such times of impasse. You immerse yourself in sucking up countable buckwheat noodles and exactly one-measure of scorching green tea with your full pink-beige lips, while I spread butter thoroughly on crisp home-made bread and silently sip endless cups of expresso with my thin pale red.

lips

When we can no longer communicate, we busily occupy our lips in contrasting ways, modes which are alien to each of us: Sucking is frowned upon in Christian countries. We silently receive the body and the blood of Christ, and our lips are thin so sensitive to high temperatures, somehow better designed for ice and cold winds. Hard and crisp foods are usually avoided in Japan, soft creamy and jellied textures are delighted in, dry foods and vegetable/fruit skins believed to be impossible to digest and awkward to pick up with chop sticks. Therefore, these lips are supremely suited to sucking and humidity.

It is winter, so you retire to your tatami kingdom, comforted by the smell of dried-reed flooring and its springiness, kneeling at a low table in front of the butsudan laden with offerings for bringing good fortune in the New Year. You glue your eyes to News and Discussion programmes on a wide slim TV screen with the sound turned down as low as possible. The latticed shoji screens close out the detail of the thin segment of sky above the apartments opposite, but not the light. Meanwhile, I stay suspended on a tall summer stool at the kitchen island of Swedish design next door, in a long room surrounded by windows within view of the balcony filled with yellow winter pansies and cardinal phlox. I must never lose eye-contact with the same sliver of sky. I can hear you sucking your sormen behind the closed double sliding doors, but you are unable to hear my butter-spreading and crunching, the gooseberry jam pot lid clicking shut, the growling of the expresso machine as it forces hot water through coffee grounds.

shoji in tatami room

With darkness, the low sun dropped like a coin from a pocket behind the conifer-clad hills, you invite me to your ritual bath time –o furo hairimasu? Do you want to enter the bath tub? The craving for hot steam and moisture never ceases, even in foreign places where such things are difficult to find. Your lack of body-fat and addiction to scrubbing yourself, to the sluicing away of all impurities in the Sacred Way of the Gods (kami-sama) style, compel you to bathe every evening for long periods of time. I hear the swish of the home-made noren as they part, the metallic closing of the tub-room door, the clanking of the low pink plastic stool you sit on and the splash of the water scoop you take water from the bath with to douse yourself. Once the sluicing and scrubbing has subsided, you will lower your perfectly clean body into the sacred water and become still.

o furo

Earlier in the day, I, with my layers of body-fat and my impurities lingering, showered standing in a tiny space at the side of the small but deep tub. It is usually filled to the top and keenly covered with three lids that fit together to maintain the temperature of the water. I have to move into the corner as much as possible to avoid shower water accumulating on the tub-covers, because this soaking water, devoid of any soap or body debris, will be re-heated to use several times more, and eventually fed into the washing machine. I scrub briefly, rinse thoroughly, and leave. I rarely use the tub because is it too small to fold my long legs into.

But different cultures and languages, and our mother’s models of living efficiently in daily life for our respective physical types and environment, and what we naturally gravitate to if there is a choice, have nothing to do with this particular impasse. What we eat, how we clean ourselves, what we like to cast our eyes on from our dwelling, is a diversity which creates interest and intrigue, not domination and control. Our lips, our quantities of body fat, our preferences to stand or sit when we wash, are no grounds for separatism. Surely it is our willingness to express our appreciation of and compassion for each other that count most. Expressing, demonstrating, making how we feel crystal clear, outwardly displaying like rare birds or fish is what matters most. Demonstrating our depth of understanding and acceptance first of ourselves, exactly as we are, and then of each other, exactly as we are, in the environment we have chosen to position ourselves or to remain in, is precisely what being human is.

Can we ensure that we know ourselves sincerely now, here, inside our grand diversity? If we do, without blaming the infinite differences between us, we can bring our virtue into full view. The international harmony we long for between us can never be more than a flambe or an accident, unless we first know and accept ourselves. Then virtue can shine out, synchronizing and tuning our lip shapes and our voices to create true resonance.

gods of the earth

 

 

notes:

In Japan, most people live in small apartments, sleeping on futon on the floor often as a whole family which they fold away in cupboards to make space during the say, and storing their possessions in tall built-in cupboards fitted out with sets of plastic drawers to classify and collect items of a kind. Rooms are wonderfully adaptable to cold and hot weather, privacy and publicy, light and dark, due to light sliding doors which run in wooden tracks without metal fittings or springs with a distinctive hushed sound. Instead of curtains at the windows, they often have sliding latticed shoji like movable windows backed with paper, which can be removed entirely to let in daylight if necessary.

The entrance to bathrooms areas and kitchens are often adorned with noren, 2 jaunty short curtains on a simple wooden stick held up by hooks, and when we enter we must part the curtains and announce Konichiwa, Good Day. The entrance hall or genkan is also important with its rows of well-positioned shoes, various-sized shoe horns, and extensive cupboards to house the wide range of footwear.

Butsudan is the Buddhist home altar built as a free-standing tall cupboard, filled with ancestral death plaques and photographs, ritual instruments and offerings.

Flambe is a dramatic cooking method which ignites alcohol with a flame to singe and caramelise food.

Kami-sama are the spirits or phenomena worshipped in the religion of Shinto. They are elements in nature, animals, creationary forces in the universe, as well as spirits of the revered deceased. 

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