Thursday, December 6, 2012

It's all a gift

The holidays in America seem to focus on gifts. No matter how enlightened we are finding a natural and wholesome way of approaching this is a challenge. What is clear to me is that "it is all a gift" . . . Every breath we take is given. The clothes we wear, the food that nourishes us, the devices that bring us news and messages and images, the bed and furniture that supports us . . . All gifts. We cannot escape this truth in my view. The oval seal in the left bottom corner of this painting expresses the idea of thanks to the creator for everything. The Christmas season can be a deep reminder of this.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Painting outside the lines . . .

Growing up I used to do the "paint by numbers" kits.  I always painted INSIDE the lines, carefully.  Now that I'm old I'm happy to see the paint drift wherever it wants to go.  Life changes. And, even the oozes are sweet.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Etegami and Naikan

Two things have occupied my imagination in the years since I retired from full time teaching.  One is a process: art.  I’ve been dong a lot of painting and drawing and faffing about with color, line and image.  I’ve taken classes in botanical art, drawing, watercolor, abstract art, Zentangle, bookmaking and plein aire painting.  I’m a little embarrassed at the volume of artwork that I have churned out.  Recently I’ve been teaching myself Etegami, a Japanese art form, with the help of some online friends, mainly women in Japan.  Etegami is to art as haiku is to poetry.  It’s small, uses few materials and has a purpose greater than itself: to communicate something to a friend. 

The second preoccupation is a perspective:  a way of coding reality that varies from the conventional view.  This way of seeing and valuing life comes from another Japanese practice known as Naikan.  Naikan can be considered a form of meditation or a psychological framework for examining relationships.  It declines from a rigorous and austere Buddhist practice called mishirabe. A Japanese businessman named Yoshimoto Isshin who was living until the late 1980’s in Japan designed the form.  His purpose was to give the ordinary person a rubric for seeing reality.

I spent a week practicing intensive Naikan in the summer of 1989.  That experience changed my worldview in a fundamental way.  The insights gained from Naikan practice (asking and answering three questions about my own life . . . what have I received, what have I given and what trouble and bother have I caused?) led me to the inescapable conclusion that I have been receiving far more than I have been giving.  I discovered this not in some abstract way, but rather through a systematic accounting of benefits received and those given back. I made a list.  After doing an intensive Naikan practice it is not easy to return to a view of myself as a “self-made” person. 

This “truth” about how it is for me, (and for everyone if we start to look at things more realistically) is a game changer.  The fact of this provides a moral framework.  On a practical level it makes me want to do something every day to thank those who support my life and who give to me in what seems a continuous stream.  It’s a challenge to keep up with the thank you notes.  And this is where Etegami enters.

First, let me borrow a definition written by Debbie Davidson, an American women who was born and raised in Japan and who has been teaching this art form to the world through Etegami blog by Debbie Davidson and through a Facebook page called the Etegami Fun Club.  I quote from her blog:

Etegami (e= "picture"; tegami= "letter/message") are simple drawings accompanied by a few apt words. They are usually done on postcards so that they can be easily mailed off to one's friends. Though etegami has few hard-and-fast rules, traditional tools and materials include writing brushes, sumi ink, blocks of water-soluble, mineral-based pigments called gansai, and washi postcards that have varying degrees of "bleed." They often depict some ordinary item from everyday life, especially items that bring a particular season to mind.

It is small work, always using a postcard sized paper.  Usually it begins with a simple drawing of just about anything, (a vegetable, flower or shoe) coupled with some words (a tiny poem or quote), then usually colored with paint and sporting a red Japanese seal (hanko).  I've been doing these for years and just discovered that it is a whole art form in Japan!  People send these cards to one another.  The deal is that if you receive a card you need to create one and send it to back.  “Be clumsy,” is the first rule of Etegami.

The reason I think Etegami is special is that the point of doing one and sending it is to notice the contributions of a friend. The focus shifts from “me as an artist” to “you as a person to be thanked/encouraged/inspired.” The best Etegami are tailored to express a sentiment that the person receiving it might need to hear.  It’s all about the receiver . . . and not the sender. The cards on this page are samples of etegami.  The Mt. Fuji card was created by Debbie Davidson.  The rest are mine.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Compassion in action

The Glove in the Subway Story

The improviser is in training to learn how to “take care of his partner” and to develop a mind that is looking out for the welfare of others.  How do we behave when we aren’t only thinking about ourselves? Today I heard a story that illustrates what this looks like in everyday life.

Connie Moffit, a Buddhist and community activist (and one of my former Stanford graduate students) gave a moving talk at the Happiness Conference 2012 in Seattle.  At the end of her thoughtful explanation of how mindfulness can be a path to realistic and compassionate thinking, she tells this story.

A number of years ago the New York Times featured a Wednesday column that offered eyewitness stories of things that were “quintessentially New York.”  Connie remembered reading the report of an event witnessed in an uptown Manhattan subway station.  A woman who had just gotten off an incoming subway train stopped on the platform when she noticed that she was holding only one of her leather gloves.  Turning back to the train, which was still on the platform, she saw the other glove sitting on the seat inside.  The doors were just in the moment of closing.  Without hesitation the woman threw the glove she had back into the train where it landed next to its mate.  Now the two gloves were together. 

Connie labeled this action an example of “impersonal satisfaction.”  I wonder how many of us would even consider such a response.  What a good example of mindfulness and compassion in action.  Thanks, Connie.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Look carefully . . . Spider at work

Study this photograph carefully.  Really look at the detail.

My niece Emily is a professional photographer, and today on Facebook she posted a shot of a spider web that had manifested inside of her automobile.   Here is the photo.  If you look carefully you can see the detail of the intricate web.  Her comment that accompanied this photo was:  “Grateful to have been paying attention when getting into my vehicle. This lovely specimen had made it's web from my steering wheel to my headrest. Would have received a face-full of arachnid had I not seen it!”  

I was struck by the enlightenment of this observation and I was impressed that she took time to report this moment with her social network. There are at least two important lessons in this story.  First, it is our attention that is our first line of safety.  Careless attention is a common cause of accidents and overall screw-ups.  Careful attention has prevented many a hazard.  Alertness is a key factor in negotiating the ups and downs of life.  Spiders, slippery stairs, roadblocks, faulty handles, electrical cords in disarray, poison oak on the path, unpaid bills . . . you can see where I am going.  Attention to what is actually happening right now is central to our ability to make sensible choices that avoid obvious consequences: late fees on unpaid bills and overdue library books, tripping and falling over obstacles, ending up in the hospital with a rash. 

Of course not all disasters can be foreseen.  Even the most alert driver may be struck by someone who isn’t paying attention, driving too fast and who pulled out of a blind alley.  Crash.  But common sense tells us that attention is our most accurate defense strategy. So, wake up . . .  a lot . . .  in order to stay safe.

The second lesson leads us into the quality of life, into pleasure.  Not only did Emily miss a spider in the face and hair, she was able to stop and marvel at the miracle of it all.  In less than 12 hours this tiny creature had spun a fourteen inch diameter web reaching from the headrest to the steering wheel.  Oh, wondrous life.  The cliché that reminds us to “smell the roses” comes to mind.  How often do we speed through our days missing these precious reminders of the diversity and magic of our planet.  What is life if we don’t take the moment to see it.  Attention.  Attention.  Attention.  It’s all we have.
I am grateful to Emily’s spider friend and to her for reminding us to “slow down and notice the cobwebs.”  Blessed attention. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

How we use our time . . .

The photo below was posted on Facebook by my good friend and Japanese translator, Tomoko Nozu.  The pile of stuff comes from a package I mailed to her in thanks for a favor she did for me.  I was in search of some red stamp pads to use for my etegami art work.  These ordinary stamp pads are everywhere in Japan, but for some odd reason not easy to locate in the USA.  She very kindly (and swiftly) answered my request and mailed me some perfect stamp pads.  So, in thanks I assembled this assortment of tiny gifts.  She said she liked stamps, so I sent a page of current USA stamps along with some chocolates from the local farmer's market and a laminated bookmark (in the back) made from canceled used stamps from around the world.  I recently learned that this small packet of gifts created considerable trouble for her.  The story is a testament to how we use time.  See below.  Oh, the Japanese is her post that accompanied this photograph.)


How we use our time

The items in this photo were part of a small "gift packet" air mailed to Japan a week ago.  Tomoko tells me that there was a slight hitch in receiving it, however.  Instead of having it delivered normally to her mailbox at home, she received a notice that a package addressed to her had reached Kyoto and was sitting in Customs at the airport for her to come and pick it up.  Apparently there was some "trouble" with the package.  The airport is not really close to Kyoto proper, so Tomoko went on something of a long journey just to get to where the Customs office resides out in the "boonies."  

When she finally found the office and someone who could pull up her "offending package" she discovered the problem.  It seems that several of the canceled stamps which were part of the laminated bookmark were from North Korea.  And, since North Korea and Japan do not have diplomatic relations nothing from that country is permitted to be shipped into Japan.  So, these old stamps, which were currently being used as "art" were disallowed.  I'm not exactly sure just what happened.  Perhaps they cut the "bad stamps" off of the laminated bookmark and allowed her to keep the rest.  Or perhaps she was fined or something . . . at least she did get to keep the chocolate and the art cards I'd sent.

It all struck me as incredibly amusing and such a waste of human effort.  I certainly "get it" that countries have lists of "forbidden things" and this tiny object was on this NO list.  What possible harm could come of some used North Korean stamps finding their way to suburban Kyoto?  Perhaps they just needed to be sure my friend wasn't a spy or something and that this gift was not in code.  

At all events, she took it in stride and wrote the kind thank you note to me.  So let this story be a cautionary tale.  Be careful what you do with used North Korean stamps.  Isn't life funny   sometimes?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Sending out Etegami

Here is a line of cards ready to go into the mail today.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Trying out different papers for etegami

 I have been exploring the same composition on different types of paper.  Some of these are rough, handmade paper, others are watercolor paper and several are of the gasenshi type used in etegami.  It's fascinating to see how the paper affects what the paints do.  I am using traditional gansai paints.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

By the sea pink ice plant grows

It was a cold and grey morning by the sea at the end of Mirada Road in the Miramar section of the coast side.  There is one house by the ocean that has a carpet of tiny pink ice plant in the yard.  It was hard not to be drawn to the explosion of color in all of that grey light.  Here is my attempt today. I also did a small etegami shown here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Shungo Asada: the King of kindness

In the mail today I received the most astonishing gift: Five hand carved hanko from Japan. Three of these were carved from a rubber stamp by Shungo Asada and two others were commissioned by Asada-san from a friend who makes these charming seals. The small red marks on oriental artwork are themselves part of the art. Placement of the stamps on the page is part of the aesthetics. Having a variety of seals to use increases the choice for placement on etegami. I shall have LOTS of fun using these kind gifts. How did I get so lucky? The card at the bottom is a pencil sketch by the artist who made the stamps. Isn't his work delightful? The card on top is part of my thank you to Shungo Asada. Arigato Gozaimasu.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Points for rebounds

On Facebook today a former student, Chris Esparza, now living and teaching in Oregon posted this thought:
"In basketball, they keep stats on rebounding.  In life, this is a skill to cultivate . . .  giving more attention to what happens after a missed shot vs. the miss itself."  This is superior advice for living.  We all get stuck curled into a ball of self recrimination when things don't go well.  What great advice: focus on what comes next!  This is, of course, where our power lies . . . in the actions we do each day to advance our purposes.  So, today's mantra is "BECOME a great REBOUNDER".  Thanks, Chris, for the metaphor.  

And, today's etegami is a gift from the Queen of Etegami in Japan, Debbie Davidson.  Here her touching poem is accompanied by a green onion painted with matcha tea and sparkling gel pens.  What fun.  I love the lamination which protects the card as it flies from Japan to California.  Thanks, Debbie.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Etegami for May

   This watercolor was done in 2006 in Denmark

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Real gansai paints for etegami are intense. 
 Love oranges in the winter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Good Fairy

Looks like the good fairy, Inez America Madson has come to bless her new sister, Lucia Anahi Madson.  All are well and enjoying the California spring.  Aren't little girls the BEST?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cleaning my art desk

So I spent a delightful evening cleaning my art desk and putting everything back into little pots and jars and boxes.  There is something cleansing about this kind of an activity.  The net result is a sense of order and to a certain extent, control.  Now, I have it all in place.  Of course it won't' stay that way long, but it does feel good today.  It's a little embarrassing to report on this. With all that needs doing in the world cleaning an art desk must not be high on the planetary bullet list.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

My lamp

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A day at the Museum . . .

Saturday was going to the museums alone . . . a favorite way to spend a day.  First I went to the De Young Museum to see the spectacular "Jean Paul Gaultier" show.  A high fashion and theatrical designer for the past forty years  Gaultier has produced a body of work that defies description.  You really need to see this show before it closes in August.  To clear my mind after this blowout I went to the Asian Art Museum for a cup of coffee.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bad Art Night etegami

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rhododendron at last

Shortly after moving into our El Granada home we planted a few hardy bushes and shrubs. Among them was a peach colored rhododendron. It has grown over the years--always a full coat of glossy leaves. But no flowers. Every year in the spring we watch this plant put out miniature buds that never come to flower. We have pretty much given up on ever seeing a peach colored blossom. And then, miracle of miracles this year the bush burst forth. What a joyous thing.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Recently I've discovered an art form from Japan called "Etegami"  E stands for picture and tegami stands for words or message.  So, a small picture accompanied by words which are written on the painting itself.  In Japan many of these are done simply with black and white Sumi ink.  A distinguishing characteristic of these little treasures is the use of a red seal (chop) that gives the artist's name.  
Years ago when I was spending time in Japan every year I had a number of these chops made by a local seal maker in Kameoka.  I use them on watercolors to sign my pieces.  Now I'm enjoying embarking on an adventure doing etegami.  I've made a new friend in Japan, Debbie, who has been promoting etegami with a delightful website:  EtegamibyDosankoDebbie.  For  a while I plan to post my humble attempts at this form on this blog.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

On Kindness

One of the pleasures of retirement is the freedom to spend the morning in a contemplative way.  A favorite early beginning for me is to turn on our gas fireplace to combat the morning chill, make a steaming pot of Earl Grey Tea and sit in my chair by the window.  I may simply sit quietly and breathe into the morning or reach for something to read that can help set my intention for the day. 

Inspirational books are piled by my place.  This morning I turned to the Celtic poet John O’Donohue.  His early death at the age of 52 robbed us of a poignant and powerful voice.  His book, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, published in 2008, is full of rich insights. 

         There is a kindness that dwells deep down in things; it presides everywhere, often in the places we least expect.  The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself.  . . . The word kindness has a gentle sound that seems to echo the presence of compassionate goodness.  When someone is kind to you, you feel understood and seen.  There is no judgment or harsh perception directed toward you.  Kindness has gracious eyes; it is not small-minded or competitive; it wants nothing back for itself.  Kindness strikes a resonance with the depths of your own heart.   . . .  Despite all the darkness, human hope is based on the instinct that at the deepest level of reality some intimate kindness holds sway.  This is the heart of blessing.  To believe in blessing is to believe that our being here, our very presence in the world, is itself the first gift, the primal blessing.  As Rilke says: Hier zu sein ist so viel—to be here is immense.       P 185-186 from  To Bless Space Between Us.

Kindness has been on my mind lately.  Recently on a trip to Denver my husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of a former Stanford student who had graduated nearly twenty years ago.  Jason and his wife Tonya and their two lovely daughters, Olivia and Ramona were living in a beautiful home with views of the surrounding Colorado mountains.  A young academic now, Jason was involved with the environment and public policy issues.  His wife had just launched a new career as a professional photographer.  They had just come back from a family weekend of hiking and frolicking in the mountains.  Thanks to the miracle of GPS we found their suburban neighborhood in Golden, CO and were welcomed warmly.  We proffered some ice cream to add to the dinner, which was swept away to the freezer until time to serve it.  

The meal was a wonderful roasted pepper pasta with a cashew sauce, made freshly in the kitchen where we set a family table to share the meal.  It was such a pleasure to catch up with the twenty year passage of time.  For dessert Jason brought forward a chocolate mousse cake that the girls had chosen at the Safeway along with the two cartons of ice cream which we had brought.  We all served ourselves and enjoyed the sweets along with some excellent herbal tea. 

Dessert was followed by a rousing game of “Apples to Apples” a family game that matches random words with some category or adjective.  Everyone tries to “win” each round and lots of laughter is let loose as we all vie for the best choice of what is “weird” or “green.”  After the score was tallied (I think Jason won) the girls said their goodnights and Tonya took them to bed.  She later joined us for a little more conversation and telling stories of old times before we made a modestly early departure.  It was one of those evenings that felt perfect.  It was wholesome and happy and natural. 

This morning as I was thinking back on the pleasures of that visit I had a satori.   “Ron,” I said, “It just hit me: Jason’s family is vegan.  They don’t eat dairy.  I remember now that they offered the girls soymilk for dinner.  VEGAN!!  Oh, my goodness, and we brought ice cream.  Ice cream.

And, the remarkable thing was that not once did anyone mention this.  And, when the ice cream was brought out each of them had a spoonful or two.  What is astonishing to me now is the unbelievable kindness of this. How marvelous that their young daughters knew how to handle this situation.  No one ever said, “Oh, thanks anyway.  We don’t eat dairy.”   Instead they all accepted our small but misguided gift and breaking their own preferences made us feel completely accepted.   What a miracle.  What a stunning act of kindness.