On Japan, Magic & Pillow Breath

Japan has been high on my travel lust-list for well over a decade; I even had flights booked to go there on my way back from Australia (via Bali) three years ago, but ended up forgoing them both to stay longer in Oz. Ever since, I have considered it, with yearning, each spring and each autumn (do I want the cherry blossom or the autumn leaves?) and have repeatedly had to cast the country aside for other ventures. I know I’ll go sometime and it will be magical; I think I want it to be a trip in itself – not just a stop on the way to or from somewhere else.

In the meantime, two of Japan’s most unrelated outputs (though halfway through this blog post I promise you a tenuous link) have shown up in my life recently.

Firstly (and I don’t want this to turn into a book review, but…), I have been caught in the avalanche of magnetising media surrounding The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, a recent, clutter-toppling phenomenon written by Marie Kondo and published nearly two years ago.

Now, this could easily have been the world’s most boring book – it truly is a book about how to get rid of things and tidy up – but I read it cover to cover in less than a day. The premise (the ‘hook’ which is gracing magazine blurbs all over the world) is this: you pick up an item in your house, you touch it, caress it, even, and ask yourself, ‘does this spark joy?’ If it does not, well, then you must get rid of it.

There’s no nonsense allowed; no guilt (hanging on to unwanted gifts), no ‘one day…’s, no ‘just in case…’. This is extreme keeping – you only keep what’s good for you; you lose the rest. It is OK if something used to make you happy but doesn’t anymore (you imagine her speaking gently to you as you read this); the thing has done its job; you can thank it and move on.

As Kondo (who is fascinatingly mad; childlike in her ruthless obsession and anthropomorphism of objects; shameless in her admission that she particularly enjoys throwing away other people’s things) says herself, you will have found yourself drawn to such a title for a reason. And now, here I am, proud non-minimalist (I am far too enamoured with beauty to live in a plain white box; I have travelled far too much not to have collected a vast and eclectic array of art and interesting things), throwing things away like an addict who can’t stop digging around for a hit.

Kondo claims that her thousands of clients (who must plug away at their belongings, category by category, folding things, stacking things vertically) have reaped magical rewards from this downsizing; they’ve left unhealthy relationships, they’ve blasted forward in dream careers, they’ve met lovers; even their skin has improved. I believe her.

I don’t consider myself a hoarder, but I do have a lot of stuff. And too many clothes. I can get by very happily on trips away with a thousandth of the band-width of clothing, but, at home and in my wardrobes (yes, plural and then some), my ‘only daughter’ syndrome has prevailed (my friends used to come to my house to get ready for a night out, and I’d gleefully let them borrow my clothes, which mostly still fit me now even if the styles have taken on a more comical edge… lime-green crop-tops were a particular fashion-high in my history).

Here are some other things I’ve thrown away so far:
– obsolete music formats (I turned just a few of my 400-ish minidiscs into a piece of art, instead; well, it brought me joy and lessened the pain; I still love physical music; the booklets, the lyrics, the images; but these never had those, and I listen to music digitally now)
– Roughly nine million various body lotions, hair products, creams and bubble baths. (It’s time for me to accept the fact that storing these ancient gifts out of guilt is insanity; especially when I make all my own hazard-free skincare, which also, frankly, is far more beautiful.)
– Roughly ninety-nine million skimpy thongs (look, they’re good for dance classes and also for when you’re a teenager on the pull, but really, I’m mostly a thong-snob now; I’d rather wear nothing at all)

…Well, I could go on, but let’s just say the charity bags over-floweth, and more importantly, here are some of the things I’ve found:

– A pair of old favourite earrings which are such a clear aquamarine blue my heart jolts when I look at them (I thought I’d never see them again!)
– A postcard I’d bought a decade ago which says boldly on the front ‘trust yourself’
– Love letters from a man, which made me see, a mere three and a half years later, that he really DID love me, after all – quite deeply, quite incredibly, but right there in black and white, and much to my surprise.

Notes to self, letters, projection… Good to sift through them all sometimes, caress them, one by one, let some of them go…

And here, Sei Shonagon, court lady to Empress Teishi circa 1000, pops up, with her anthology of just these things published later (in the 17th century) as The Pillow Book, a collection of her observations about men, court life, gossip, complaints, poems and fashion advice. The story goes that the Empress had been overwhelmed by her collection of beautiful notebooks (and had probably read Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying…), and so gave one to her court lady, Sei Shonagon, to fill with her own writing, if she should like to.

Well, it turned out Sei Shonagon did have a few things to get off her chest, and now her writings are considered a valuable historical document.

3 quick snippets (copied from here):

Elegant ThingsA white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Duck Eggs. Shaved Ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl. A rosary of rock crystal. Snow on wistaria or plum blossoms. A pretty child eating strawberries.
Things That fall from the SkySnow. Hail. I do not like sleet, but when it’s mixed with pure white snow it is very pretty. Snow looks wonderful when it has fallen on a roof of cypress bark. When Snow begins to melt a little, or when only a small amount has fallen, it enters into all the cracks between the bricks, so that the roof is black in some places, pure white in others-most attractive. I like drizzle and hail when they come down on a shingle roof. I also like frost on a shingle roof or in a garden.
To Meet One’s LoverTo meet one’s lover summer is indeed the right season. True, the nights are very short, and dawn creeps up before one has had a wink of sleep. Since all the lattices have been left open, one can lie and look out at the garden in the cool morning air. There are still a few endearments to exchange before the man takes his leave, and the lovers are murmuring to each other when suddenly there is a loud noise. For a moment they are certain that they have been discovered; but it is only the caw of a crow flying past in the garden. In the winter, when it is very cold and one lies buried under the bedclothes listening to one’s lover’s endearments, it is delightful to hear the booming of a temple gong, which seems to come from the bottom of a deep well. The first cry of the birds, whose beaks are still tucked under their wings, is also strange and muffled. Then one bird after another takes up the call. How pleasant it is to lie there listening as the sounds become clearer and clearer!

In the ‘Things That Make One Nervous’ section, she discusses the social convention of illicit relationships. There are certain rules that must be followed. After a night spent together, the man must send the woman a hand-written note the very next morning, with a flower or decorative branch, and the woman must respond. Both were judged on their timeliness, taste and calligraphy. Much was at stake.

In a very roundabout way, I’m getting to the fact that I was invited to read one of my poems yesterday, for the second time, at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, a world-class place, of course (it needs no introduction). The wonderful Jalina, whose encouragement I am deeply grateful for, directs a series of Ekphrasis Poetry readings there; a theme is given, a specific gallery or galleries of curiosities to consider, and poets are invited to respond to whatever inspires them. The theme for this reading was Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book.

Listening to the poems of others, as we followed each other around the galleries to stand in front of different exhibits, is such a fascinating way to see objects be brought to life and breath, with histories and voices that may or may not be imagined. You feel a bit like you’re in a dream, listening to the objects speaking themselves.

My input was a poem (below) based both on a painting I’d seen (by Almeida Júnior; here, if you want to see it) and a pair of chairs which caught my eye -placed starchly, laquer on wood – in gallery 35 (‘West meets East: Orientation Gallery’). The chairs are alleged to have been made ‘for the Dutch settlement in Nagasaki Harbour or to be exported’. My poem also ties in with my ongoing fascination (and ever-building collection) on art, modelling, the male gaze, projection and the human body. I hope Sei Shonagon might have enjoyed it; she had very particular opinions on this sort of thing.


An afternoon on his balcony.
I sat there, reading, while he painted
first my figure – the still, solid bulk of it –
then my detail. He blocked in the chair
and the mountains behind me;
the tiles beneath my feet, the carved banister
which stopped me falling off the page.

For a week I read his book, shifting one-handed
in small, managed increments;
smoothing my yellow dress with my other palm
between brushstrokes. I turned many pages;
learnt of starts and turns, bought worlds,
biographies of eminent men. I drank in words.

I sat, for a month, resting my gaze upon the final page
– no more to turn – and counted minutes in my head
as he pronounced my hair finer than silk; sought
my curves in gentle lines – reflected; spoke
of his own projection. The colours, he said; the colours

were changing every time he lifted his palette. He
was going to catch them all in his paper net
while I gave them up, drops of hemolymph.
But I changed too, over the year; I shrank

until his dress no longer fit me. I started to read his book
backwards, for years, in case I’d missed anything. My braid, grown
to the floor, snaked around his balcony and hung off its edge,

changing colour. He said he’d have to re-do the paint;
that I hadn’t stayed the same. The mountains had receded

and my hand had started to shake; dropped the book.


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