Going Nowhere

brick street

Can going nowhere be a journey?

The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.

It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”

Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing  The Lady and the Monk.

He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.

So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.

All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.

There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.

In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.

He does not promote or reject attaching a  religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.

I have written here about a good number of things that seem to fall into this non-category, such as forest bathing, Internet sabbaths, and lots of meditation and spending time in nature.

I will go in the woods near my home this week. Maybe I’ll read there a bit. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll just bathe and observe. All good.

More about Pico Iyer’s journeys at picoiyerjourneys.com

Van Gogh and Japanese Art

Vincent van Gogh: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print
Vincent van Gogh: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print

Last year, I was able to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and revel in the paintings of Vincent that I had seen only in books, online or as prints.

One section of the museum that fascinated me was devoted to the influence of Japanese art on Vincent’s paintings.

In the self-portrait at the top of this post, you see Vincent with his easel and a Japanese print on his wall.

cherry blossoms
Japanese painting of a cherry tree branch
almond branches blue
One of Vincent’s almond branch paintings

You can see the influence of Japanese art in places like his group of paintings of spring tree branches, such as the paintings of almond branches and blossoms he painted around 1890. This was when he was in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

He also reproduced Japanese artwork that he saw in books and as prints, such as Bridge in the Rain. a version of a famous painting by Hiroshige.

Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by Vincent, 1887

“All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”
―Vincent van Gogh
, letter to his brother Theo, July 15, 1888

I bought a book at the museum, Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, and learned that Vincent first encountered Japanese printmaking while working in Paris and he and his brother Theo bought more than 600 Japanese prints which they lived together there. Vincent often displayed these prints in his studio as inspiration.

What he found appealing were the strong colors and use of everyday subjects. Japanese artwork used unusual spatial effects which you can see in some of his paintings that have odd angles. The details taken from nature were very delicate. This was at a time when he was just beginning to develop his own style as a painter.

The winter of 1887-88 was holding on into early spring when Vincent arrived in Arles in Provence and he painted budding almond branches that he had brought inside and put in a glass to force blooms.  He loved painting the twisted trees and branches and also used the orchards outside of town as subjects.

Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with Book Arles March 5 1888
Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with Book Arles March 5 1888

He painted the almond tree branches in bright daylight, at night and with backgrounds of bright pinks and reds.

almond blossoms night
Almond Blossoms, Night

Vincent is often looking up at the branches into the sunlight or moonlight. Up close, I could see in a painting done as a gift for his nephew (at bottom) that the branches are blue-striped with shades of green, complimenting the reds of the blossoms. Some of the petals are bare canvas, some shades of whites and grays with center pistils of yellow.

almond red
Branch of Almond Tree in Blossom Red Vincent Van Gogh
Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (pink)
Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (pink)

Besides books about Vincent’s love of Japanese art, the museum also had books that I have found in libraries since I returned. One rarer book that I haven’t found shows the influence Japanese art had on other painters of that time and after including Monet. Van Gogh. and Klimt.In February 1890 in St. Remy, Vincent painted an almond tree in blossom against a blue sky background for his newborn nephew, who Theo and his wife named Vincent. He brings the painting to Paris for them and they hang it in their living room. When Vincent leaves Paris for Auvers, he will have only six months to live and so that painting becomes very special to the family.

Perhaps symbolic of this new life, Vincent painted the branches of an almond tree. It is a variety that blossoms as early as February in the south of France and is one of those signs of spring we look for in nature. It is one of more obviously Japanese -influenced paintings there.

At the museum, I was told that the white blossoms were originally more pink than white but have faded on exposure to light. Still, it is a beautiful example of his late work.

A painting for his nephew, Vincent

This Dewdrop World


Yesterday was the birthday of Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa. He was  born in Kashiwabara, Japan in 1763. He is one of the masters of haiku.

Haiku packs so much into 17 Japanese characters in three distinct units.

Here is one by Issa that seems appropriate for Father’s Day this weekend.

if my father were here –
dawn colors
over green fields

What do the green fields of dawn have to do with is father? How would you fill in that unfinished thought “if my father were here” for your own life? The empty spaces in haiku often hold the meaning.

Issa spent most of his adult life traveling around Japan, writing haiku, keeping a travel diary, and visiting shrines and temples across the country. He was a lay Buddhist priest of the Jōdo Shinshū sect. He is known as simply Issa which was his pen name meaning Cup-of-tea.

Where there are humans
you will find flies
and Buddhas

Along with Bashō, Buson and Shiki, his poetry helped popularize the haiku form in Japan and later to the world.

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

He was no slacker. By the end of his life, he had written more than 20,000 haiku.

In this world we walk
on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers

Issa liked writing about the commonplace. He wrote 54 haiku on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs and about 230 on the firefly.

Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.

I like Bashō’s haiku too, but he only wrote about 2000 in all

Kobayashi Issa died on January 5, 1828, in his native village.

This dewdrop world –
is a dewdrop world,
and yet, and yet…


The Kobayashi Issa Museum:Issakan in Nagano, Japan

Issa’s Haiku

Valentine’s Day Obligations and a Parlement of Foules


Valentine’s Day, Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Mother’s Day and Fathers’ Day all fit the “Hallmark Holiday” definition of a holiday. The word “holiday” comes from the Old English word hāligdæg. The word originally referred only to special religious days. The word derived from the notion of a “Holy Day”, but has evolved (or more accurately devolved) to its current form. Valentine’s Day is the second biggest card-giving day of the year in the U.S.

It’s a bit sad that it has all turned into cards and candy and restaurants charging extra that day for the same old food. So much guilt and obligation about buying or forgetting to buy gifts.

Those ancient Romans loved festivals. They had a fertility festival in mid-February called Lupercalia. It honored Lupa, the wolf who saved Romulus and Remus, who then founded the city of Rome.

Lupercalia was a pagan festival and included sacrifices of goats and dogs. The festival was still very popular even when the Roman Empire was officially Christian. Of course, the Church wanted to replace it with something more acceptable. Something with a saint would be nice.

That early Christian priest, St. Valentine, who was martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D. actually has a good story. According to legend, due to a shortage of soldiers enlisting, Emperor Claudius II forbade single men to get married in order to increase his army. Valentine rebelled in his priestly way by performing secret wedding rituals. He was discovered, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. While awaiting his beheading in jail, he fell in love with the daughter of a guard who visited him. On the day he was executed, the priest left a note for the woman professing his love and he signed it “Love from your Valentine.”

But Chaucer often gets credit for making St. Valentine’s Day more of a secular and romantic day. When he wrote in the 14th-century his “The Parlement of Foules” he returned to that springtime idea that “on seynt Valentynes day” the goddess Nature watched all of the birds choose and seduce their mates. (“Foules being fowls or birds not “fools” – though these days the latter may be a better description for our behavior on this day.)

Chaucer wrote the poem for a patron poem to honor the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. There are no records of St. Valentine’s Day festivities in the English court until after Chaucer’s time. he nicely blended the nature and fertility associations, especially the rural English belief that birds choose their mates on February 14th, to the courtly love conventions of the day.

This put pressure on us (mostly males, as with the birds) to choose, seduce, including with gifts.

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is observed by women who present chocolate gifts (handmade ones are considered better) to men.

Honmei choco (“true feeling chocolate”) has also become “obligation chocolate” as women are expected to not only gift boyfriends, prospective boyfriends, and husbands, but bosses and almost any guy who has done them some favor.

The Honmei chocolate is higher-quality and more expensive than giri choco (“obligation or courtesy chocolate”) which is given to male coworkers and other men to whom the woman has no romantic attachment.

Don’t get mad ladies. There is also a reciprocal “holiday” called White Day which is celebrated one month later on March 14th when men buy candy and gifts for women. This is also observed in South Korea and Taiwan.

On White Day, males who received a honmei-choco on Valentine’s Day are expected – obligated – to return the favor by giving gifts, usually more expensive. Popular White Day gifts are cookies, jewelery, white chocolate, white lingerie and marshmallows.

Would you be surprised to find that White Day is a modern holiday first celebrated in 1978, or that it was started by the National Confectionery Industry Association?

But wait – there’s also Black Day a month after White Day (April 14) which appears to be more of a South Korean informal tradition for single people.  Not being a big candy eater, I like this day when singles get together and eat jajangmyeon (white noodles with black bean sauce). It’s a day for those who did not give or receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day.

So many  “Hallmark holidays” (a disparaging term that is not encouraged by the Hallmark card company) designed to sell things and make us feel guilty for being alone or not a loving as we should be. Next to New Year’s Eve, I would say that Valentine’s Day (now more often used without the Saint part) is a day that splits people between happiness and sadness.

Under Pink Petals

cherry blossom ani

Cherry blossoms are a staple of the haiku poets as a sign of spring.

3 poems by Basho

Leafless cherry,
old as a toothless woman,
blooms – mindful of its youth

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms

Kannon’s tiled temple roof
floats far away –
clouds of cherry blossoms

(Kannon is the Bodhisattva of Compassion)

3 poems by Issa

cherry blossoms scatter –
snap! the buck’s antlers
come off

cherry blossoms
under every tree
a Buddha on display

on the paper amulet
cherry blossoms

(inmons are paper charms or amulets sold at Buddhist temples)


Branch Brook Park in bloom with the Cathedral in the distance
Branch Brook Park in bloom with the Cathedral in the distance

Washington D.C is famous for the thousands of cherry trees sent there as a gift from Japan more than a hundred years ago. In my home state of New Jersey, we have the cherry trees of Branch Brook Park in Newark which actually has more cherry trees than D.C.  Every spring, residents and visitors can see the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States there.

Branch Brook Park has more than 2,700 Japanese cherry blossom trees that burst into full bloom during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival that features various events for visitors of all ages.

The park itself is historically unique for being the first county park in the United States opened to the public. It was designed by the famed landscape architectural firm of Olmsted Brothers, a successor to Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City.

The neighborhood on the east side of the park, Forest Hill, is Newark’s most affluent and is the setting for the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Basilica, the fifth-largest cathedral in North America.

From April 5-13, the park hosts its spring festival under pink petals. (see essexcherryblossom.com)

Festival of Lanterns

In Japan, this month is Obon, the 3-day Festival of Lanterns. This Buddhist and Shinto celebration honors the dead. It is a time when homes, altars, shrines and tombs are cleaned and decorated. Gardens are hung with lanterns to light the way of the dead so that they can join their families for the festival.

Obon (also just Bon) was originally celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. But Obon celebrations vary in different parts of Japan and the world since the lunar calendar is no longer followed. In many regions of Japan, Obon is celebrated from August 13 to 16.

Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the departed but it has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. The spirits of those ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars.


The festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of lanterns. Paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers symbolically signaling the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the dead. This ceremony usually culminates in a fireworks display.

In the United States, the “Bon season” is an important part of the present-day culture and life of Hawaii. Bon Odori festivals are also celebrated in North America, particularly by Japanese-Americans or Japanese-Canadians affiliated with Buddhist temples and organizations. Buddhist Churches of America temples in the U.S. typically celebrate with both religious Obon observances and traditional Bon Odori dancing.