Catching a little time to work on the social business in Kathmandu. Happy to be back in the Himalayas after two years, regardless of the strikes, road blocks, and other disturbance that goes with the Nepalese writing the constitution.
(Kathmandu, Nepal; January 2015)
Last fall we flew into the dark night. This morning we flew to meet the sunrise. Our wing caught the first tip of daylight somewhere over the Baltic Sea.
Winter days are short. Are they perhaps longer at 33,000 feet?
(Over the Baltic Sea; January 2015)
Once upon a cold winter’s night there was a grand house that, if you stepped inside, whisked you back into the roaring twenties. Hot blazing torches welcomed the guests of the night. The most stylish ones arrived in horse carriages of pure light.
There were pearly white balloons floating about. There were strings of pearls cascading down from palm trees, white wispy feathers, and crystal chandeliers. And later there were neverending showers of golden confetti.
There were jazzy pearly ladies floating about. There were more feathers, black ties, and gentlemen who rivaled the great Gatsby in style. And later there was dancing in the showers of golden confetti.
It was a night of celebration and magic. As the guests stumbled back out into the frosty snowy morning, it was a night with two hours of sleep left.
(Ziemeļblāzma Culture Palace, Riga, Latvia; January 2015)
Red velvet, a huge crystal chandelier, and four kilograms of gold make worthy premises for tonight’s performance. How lovely it would be to sit up there on the first balcony when the first tunes for the Barber of Seville shoot into the air. But alas, it was not to be this time.
Upstairs was a gorgeous red room with high windows that was once used as the rehearsal room for the ballet. This time its walls heard the most soulful arias accompanied by a single piano. And this was no rehearsal but a lovely surprise. How lucky we were.
Hello Latvia! Hello Riga, the city of music, art nouveau, and hearty winter food. Yours is one of those artsy chique spirits that is the result of mixed heritage and merchant’s money. Poles, Swedes, Russians, Livonians, Lithuanians, and Germans all left a stroke each on your canvas. Sorry I missed most of it, but I will return soon. Perhaps when your trees are green and your beavers are playing in the river again.
There were white surfaces, and light wooden floors. Clean edges and no frills. There were practical tables, durable chairs, and simple lighting. And it was all so Finnish we did not think it was all too marvelous. We shrugged; of course the home we grew up in had several Savoy vases. Of course we ate our kindergarten lunches on the Stool 60 and the table with L-shaped legs. They were designed by a Finn to be used by Finns.
And so it was difficult to set our minds on the wavelength of quiet reverence of the American party that joined us on our tour of Alvar Aalto’s home. What did they see that we did not? I washed my thoughts with images of American homes, focused really hard, and stared squinting at the Tank chair. After some effort I began to catch glimpses of how different the zebra upholstery and the simple curved frame was from everything that was ordinary across the Atlantic. How our fellow tourists saw the boxy, minimalistic shape of the house so extraordinary, and how everything Aalto is both Finnish and resonates so with the Japanese. I blinked – and the magic was broken. I was back in a room that felt homely and familiar.
Aalto is wired into our cultural inheritance, and it surfaces with symptoms of inherited blindness for things others consider singular. Things we consider for granted others collect as design items.
As I stepped back out into the bleary January Saturday I wondered how much we could learn about ourselves if we could only step out of our own cultural contexts? And how much more beautiful and wonder-full the world would suddenly become?
Do you also have something you used to love to hate, and then one day you woke up and noticed it had turned into a thing you hated to love? And then slowly, slowly, the hate subsided and you found yourself at least ambivalent, if not slightly attached to the challenge? Did you ask yourself what changed? Was it persistence? Ignorance? Motivation? Or something else?
They say yoga happens when you connect your experience on the mat to your life off the mat. One of the walls I ran into on the mat early on was Wheel Pose. You know the backbend we all easily lifted into as kids, standing on our straightened arms and legs, hanging our heads upside down. Easy-peasy, yes? Since we did it as a kid we can naturally kick into it 15 years later, yes?
No. That pose we all kicked ourselves into as kids seemed impossible to me. I could not budge the crown of my head off the floor. “It is not about arm strength but leg strength”, my teacher said. “It is not about strength at all as much as stacking your bones right”, my sister said. I felt like Neo in the Matrix, trying to understand that it was not my body that was supposed to bend but my mind.
I clearly recall the shock of one of my first led ashtanga yoga classes, where the teacher asked us to go into the pose. I was still working on a Bridge pose variation, where the shoulders and head stay on the floor while the back arches up. Suddenly, there were strange figures lifting up all around me and as I lay on the floor it looked like the shala was invaded by Orwellian, long-legged Martian war machines. Hell’s bells, I thought, these must all have been doing wheel poses straight through their twenties into their thirties. I thought I was the only one in the world whose body forgot how to do it.
And then suddenly one day I mis-aligned my hands, too far from the head. Without noticing what happened I was up, looking at the world upside down. It really was all about forgetting strength and just stacking the bones as they felt most comfortable. It was bending the mind more than bending the body. The next few weeks I worked the pose into something I hated to love, until the one day when I straightened my arms and felt the luxurious stretch in my abs and hips and decided to increase my repetition count from two to four just because it felt so good.
Where did the transformation happen? We never catch the actual “click” as we only pay attention to the effect. The magician snapped his fingers and was gone before we knew it. The end result is all we have, and it can be a marvel. And so here is a challenge: next time I will try to catch the magician in the act. I will try to catch his hem to understand what changed, and why. Perhaps, just perhaps I will be able to understand how to bend the mind after all?
(top image courtesy of yogabloga.tumblr.com. Bottom image from Kathmandu, Nepal.)
There it is, standing nonchalantly on my kitchen counter. Disregarding the clutter and the snow outside, this Cycas revoluta proudly stands as a messenger from 250 millions years ago. Yes, before the dinosaurs. What a joke, then, that I bought it at Ikea, that paragon for modernity and human everyday life, instead of a specialty garden shop offering a more worthy handling.
People go gaga for cycads. Some feel the presence of dinosaurs, others a cosmic connection, and many are fascinated by its botanical secrets. And then there are those who make money in cycad trafficking.
Yes, cycad trafficking. Indeed. Just like tortoise trafficking, or ivory trafficking. There are those who go to great lengths to smuggle rare, CITES-protected cycads, in order to cash in thousands per plant. Not only botanists collect cycads, but also celebrities wishing to build a world-traveled, connoisseur image of themselves.
Even some botanists have faced jailtime. “Botanists in jail?!” you may ask. Indeed, botanists are usually not associated with rogue behavior. But there is something about the cycads. Is it persistence from the Permian age, regardless of herbivorous dinosaurs, ice age, and pollution? Is it in the palm-resembling looks of a plant that is closer related to the spruces and pines of our time? For me, cycads have been magical ever since the age of five when I went gaga over dinosaurs and the Jurassic age. The fascination was reinforced when I read Cycad Island by Oliver Sacks in my early twenties.
And so I carefully place my little cycad on my windowsill, sending it a silent thought to produce at least that one expected leaf per year. Perhaps it will befriend my bonsai trees and decide it, too, is here to stay.
(Helsinki, Finland; December 2014)