Ancient cultures are not dead. They are around and within us and offering lessons for those willing to listen. Indigenous cultures, for instance, are teaching us the power of community, environmental responsibility, circles, cultural approbation, collective responsibility, and resilience in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds. Let us consider the lessons of the ancient Japanese culture: patience and simplification. The lessons lie in the bonsai.
The Japanese tradition of tending a bonsai tree has its origins in China and can be traced to around the year 1200. Buddhist monks began the practice of tending tiny trees as a reflection of their lives devoted to quiet, slow, gentleness, and spiritual contemplation. A seed was planted in a small container. As it grew, the sapling would be supported by string. The monk would imagine the shape of the tree that he wished to create and then nurture that part to grow while carefully pruning leaves and branches. The process would take years but slowly, as it was lovingly tended, the tree would develop into the shape imagined. The monk’s job would then be to maintain the shape by continuing to trim superfluous bits.
By the end of the 1300s, monks had taught the practice to Japanese rulers. By the 1800s, it had become a proud traditional among all Japanese people. Ironically, considering what was about to happen, just before the Second World War there was a burst of interest in Japanese culture, and the bonsai in particular, in Europe and North America. The World Bonsai Friendship Federation was inaugurated in 1980. It convenes enormously popular conventions every four years at cities around the world.
(Photo: Bonsai Tree Gardener)
As in the beginning, it’s really not about the tree. It’s about life. To create a fine one, one that brings joy and about which happiness and satisfaction can be felt, recall what you must do: imagine how you want it to be, nurture it, trim the superfluous bits.
Consider those parts of our lives that are merely habit – the superfluous bits – those that add no value, that distort it. They are misshaping our bonsai. Imagine the merit in trimming a few people, places, and experiences that really bring no joy. Picture living with fewer things that are really just clutter or stressful responsibilities. What happiness would come from reading a book, listening to or playing music, or spending time with a loved one rather than scanning a screen to perchance see and unconsciously judge or compare what someone else is up to.
I wish I had more wisdom to envision the shape and the courage to trim. Perhaps I am getting better at it. But then again, another essential aspect of the Japanese culture, and one shared with Indigenous cultures, is reverence for elders. Maybe, if I continue to work hard at remembering and recognizing what truly matters and trim all that does not, I will, someday, with the gift years allow, have the bonsai I’ve imagined. Someday. Good luck with your bonsai.
Summer is easy. What’s not to love about you in summer? Character, however, is only built and revealed in adversity. So anyone wanting to know you, anyone wanting to know us, has to know winter.
The leaves and temperature fall and everyone knows it’s on its way. Summer stuff gets stored, the outside water is shut off, and the sky goes purple-gray and silent as the last of the cowardly birds betray us and go. And then comes the day, snow’s first day, when we stand at the window and watch with a child’s eyes; as if for the first time. We marvel as snow too white to be real sparkles diamonds in the sun. It blankets leafless trees standing defiantly brittle amid sagging spruce and pines. And the yard becomes art.
Winter slows us down. There is no such thing as rushing out when having to first don boots and coat and hat and scarf and mitts. Thank goodness for Velcro, but a child’s snow suit still demands patience and time and then more of both when disassembled for the pee that is somehow, again, forgotten. And then there is the path to be shoveled to the car that then needs to be unburied, de-iced, and warmed.
Speed limits are for summer. All but main roads are snow-packed for months and the occasional melts turn them to pock-marked Passchendaele. Streets scoff at the oceans of salt and Sierras of sand so we bounce and creep, especially around corners with their paint-smeared telephone poles reminding us to be patient. The days shrivel. We make our way to and from work in inky darkness smudged with ghostly plumes of exhaust. Snowflakes that would be pretty if we were home with a fire and a glass of hearty red are instead headlight-engorged rockets that fire mercilessly into windshields inducing a hideous hypnosis.
Things do not speed up upon arrival. Three feet inside every public doorway stands a momentary community with their fogged-up glasses all exchanging knowing, blurry glances. Then it’s the slow, walking strip-tease, because everywhere inside in winter is warmer than outside in summer. Work places resemble used shoe stores with wet boots on soppy mats. Everyone’s hair is the shape of their hats. We approach door knobs with dread and sometimes actually see sparks. After a while, every place smells the same – wet wool and cough drops. It isn’t exactly bad and it doesn’t really matter because with the cold we’ve all been fighting for weeks it’s hard to smell anything anyway.
Winter can sometimes stop you altogether. What is more glorious than a snow day? We hear it on the radio and we’re suddenly all children. The radio also brings reports from the city’s “Thank God it’s Monday” crowd who slide and smash into one another to get to the vertical ice cube trays where they are apparently indispensable; unaware that no one’s keeping score. The wind howls hurricanes down concrete canyons that are empty of all of but the intrepid as the city-below-the-city bustles in its high-heeled obliviousness. Just a few miles away it’s all quite different.
My yard, last snow day
Township and county plows tend to the main roads but it’s always a long while before they get to most streets, so there’s time for another coffee. Kids who usually fight to stay under covers burst outside with wide smiles and bright eyes and without a screen in sight. Folks are soon in driveways, leaning on shovels and speaking with neighbours who lean on theirs. Why not? Everyone knows the game. We scrape and shovel and throw it high onto piles that seem taller than last year. The plow waits until it senses we’re done and then, only then, it thunders by with three feet of plowcrete. The shoveling army mobilizes again; there’s nothing like a good minus-ten-degree sweat.
Climate change’s thaws and freezes have euchred all but the most dedicated backyard rink masters, but the little bay still goes stiff. Nothing’s ever organized but somehow it always gets scraped and there is skating for all. Windswept days between snowfalls sometimes provide the magic of pick-up hockey with nets a ridiculous distance apart. It seems fittingly patriotic to finish a hundred yard breakaway on a frigid sunny afternoon in the world’s only country with a hockey player on its Bill of Rights.
Gravity games rule. What’s not to love about skiing, tobogganing, and sledding. Kids love the snow-mountains that grow beside the school parking lot. Look up every big or little hill and see somebody in a primary-coloured snowsuit sliding down. Evening walks offer the joy of the crisp boot-fall crunch and the smell of woodstoves that stir a deep and primal yearning that’s lovely in its mystery. The stars seem closer and clearer. Lungs burn, breath freezes, cheeks redden, and there is nothing more romantic than holding hands through down-filled mitts.
Muddy April is marvelous but brings fixing and raking and cleaning. The gifts left by months-worth of wandering dogs present themselves along with the recycle stuff that cycloned from blue boxes Tuesday after Tuesday. Purple crocuses pierce the last bits of crystalline snow. The magical, riotous tulips remind us that the world is not black and white after all. There is always that one last storm with snow as pretty as the first but we damn it this time and steal its power by steadfastly refusing to shovel it; there, that will teach it. We convince ourselves that it will melt soon enough, and sure enough, it does. And then there is green, oh green, glorious green.
Winter defines. Winter slows, and winter stops. Winter reminds us that we are not the boss. It ignites a humble admiration for the power and majestic beauty of the true boss. It invites community. Winter says that work can wait and time with family is the only wealth, recognition, or reward we need; everything else is by the by. Winter reminds us that, like those dark nights with gently falling snow or those bold, defiant tulips, nothing lasts forever – nothing. But it’s all good right now, and right now, that’s good enough.