After the Storm

The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I was hundreds of yards down the beach when I noticed the sign, a sun face painted on an upright concrete slab. Even from a distance, I felt there was something odd about it, although I couldn’t have said what.

As I got closer I realized the painting was more than a sign; it was a boundary marker.

Just beyond it sat the ruins of a restaurant. I knew if I went further, got closer to the abandoned building, things would change, although I had no idea what that meant.

A storm had smashed into the coast overnight. Gales tossed salty foam onto boat decks, bruised tender flowers, rattled the tree tops and disturbed sleeping birds. But it had moved on.

The turquoise and sapphire sea sparkled in the morning sunlight, calm and flat all the way to the horizon.

I glanced back in the direction from which I had come. In the distance people were splashing in the water. They seemed unaware that I even existed. A sandpiper scampered down the beach as I walked up to what had been the restaurant’s main entrance.

As soon as I crossed the threshold I heard echoes. Soft at first. Distant, yet distinct. People talking. Glasses and silverware clinking. Sudden laughter. A pan clattering to the floor. I felt dizzy, disoriented.  As I tried to steady myself, the echoes faded and died. I could hear the ocean again.

That’s when it happened. A swish. Footsteps skittering behind my back.  I whirled around just as a small two-legged creature jumped through a broken window and burrowed into the underbrush becoming little more than a pale green shadow before vanishing completely.

I stumbled out of the restaurant and ran down the beach. I didn’t stop until I was on the other side of the sun face sign. Only then did I look back at the abandoned building and the tangle of vegetation surrounding it. 

All was quiet and I was alone, except for a fat iguana sunbathing on a rock and a glistening emerald dragonfly hovering beside the painted sun face.

Burmese Astrology - Crazy Eights and an Undiscovered Planet

In Burma, the country also known as Myanmar, astrology is big business. People seek advice about everything from whom to marry to when to get a haircut. Astrologers are everywhere. They operate from their homes, in beauty parlors, restaurants and shops. Dozens of them lounge in lawn chairs, sit at rickety card tables and squat on the walkways leading to Buddhist temples. The magical formulas the astrologers rely on may be thousands of years old, but the advice they dispense helps  their customers navigate the complexities of life in the 21st century. Street corner animal shrine in Burmas

Burmese astrology is different from the systems that developed in other parts of the world. The Burmese version is based on the number eight. There are eight astrological signs, eight cardinal directions and eight sacred animals. In addition to the seven celestial bodies recognized by other ancient cultures - the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - the Burmese include an eighth, a secret planet named Rahu. It is the subtle and mysterious influence of Rahu that causes eclipses.

What's Your Sign?

In western astrology your birth date determines your sign.That information is irrelevant in Burma. The day of the week on which you made your first appearance is all that matters. If you don't know what day of the week you were born, enter your birthday here.

The Burmese divide Wednesday into morning and afternoon, which changes the seven day week into a form that accommodates the magical number eight. So if you were born on Wednesday, check your birth certificate to find out whether you arrived before or after noon.

Sunday belongs to Garuda, the mythical king of the birds. If you are Sunday-born, northeast is your lucky direction and the Sun is your ruling planet. The more difficult a task or subject, the more it interests you. You are energetic, focused, and very stubborn. You are also too generous and have a tendency to allow others to take advantage of you.

The tiger is a Burmese astrological symbol

Monday is the day of the tiger. If you are Monday-born, east is your lucky direction and the Moon is your ruling planet. You are patient, steady and reliable. Your ability to persevere against great odds is your finest trait. You are ambitious and like to succeed at everything you attempt.

Tuesday is the day of the lion. If you are Tuesday-born, southeast is your lucky direction and Mars is your ruling planet. You are opinionated, idealistic and you love a good challenge. People are attracted to your strong and honorable character. You respect dignity and prestige in others and are drawn to great causes.

The elephant rules Wednesday morning. If you are Wednesday morning-born, south is your lucky direction and Mercury is your ruling planet. You are impulsive and quick-tempered. You are independent and like to be in charge, but you also frequently take on more than you can handle.

The elephant is an astrological symbol in Burma.

If you are born on Wednesday afternoon, you are called Rahu-born because the secret planet rules your sign. Your animal is the tusk-less elephant and northwest is your lucky direction. You have a wide circle of acquaintances but few close friends. You are a tireless self-promoter driven by the desire for success, though you will go to great lengths to protect your privacy.

Thursday is the day of the rat. If you are Thursday-born, west is your lucky direction and Jupiter is your ruling planet. You are serious, intelligent and quiet. Even those closest to you would be surprised to learn how ambitious you are and how highly you value professional success. In business, your single-mindedness can lead to great things. It can also deteriorate into ruthless, destructive behavior.

Guinea pigs are astrological symbols in Burma.

Friday is the day of the guinea pig. If you are Friday-born, north is your lucky direction and Venus is your ruling planet. You are sensitive and emotional and you empathize with others. You are also restless and quickly tire of jobs, people and places. You have a strong artistic streak, but tend to be a dabbler. If you can stick with art or music long enough to develop your talents, you are capable of creating great beauty.

Saturday is the day of the dragon. If you are Saturday-born, southwest is your lucky direction and Saturn is your ruling planet. You are intelligent, witty and industrious. You like working alone and controlling your own destiny. You find it tedious to be part of a group or team. However, if you can overcome your reluctance to delegate and can improve your interpersonal skills, you can become an outstanding leader.

The dragon is an astrological symbol in Burma,l

Fruit, Flowers and Incense

A typical session with a Burmese astrologer lasts several hours and can be quite expensive. When the astrologer is sure he or she understands the customer's dilemma, out come charts, formulas and tables of magical symbols. Through a series of complex calculations, the astrologer designs a ritual for the person and determines the day and time the ritual must be performed. The details and particulars of rituals vary. Much depends on the nature and severity of the problem or question. However, all rituals include a visit to one or more of the planetary posts located on the outdoor platforms surrounding Burmese Buddhist temples.

A planetary post is a type of shrine. Posts are situated at points aligned with the eight cardinal directions. Each post represents a particular day of the week and its corresponding astrological sign. The shrine includes a table for offerings and a brightly colored statue of that day's sacred animal. Large bowls of clear water and lacquered cups sit in front of the statue.

An astrologer may send a person to the planetary post associated with his or her birthday or may recommend visits to several planetary posts. For example, a Thursday-born could be sent to the shrines for Sunday and Monday.

The ritual begins when the person places yadaya - offerings of fruit, flowers, incense and small paper umbrellas - at the appropriate shrine. The person then pours cups of water over the sacred animal statue. Water is cool and pouring it helps restore balance to the universe. Calculating the number of cups that must be poured is part of the astrologer's service.

Even during the torrential monsoon rains, the temple platforms are crowded with people pouring water on the statues. As they pour, they whisper their hopes and dreams. Modern Burmese know, just as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, that when the rituals are performed in the correct way at the right time, a good outcome is sure to follow.

Basket of oranges

 

 

The Underground Railroad and the Anchorage

The Anchorage Marietta Ohio

Whispers of tunnels, secret rooms and runaway slaves have swirled around the Anchorage, Marietta, Ohio’s mysterious mansion on the hillside, for more than a century.

Family Ties

Douglas Putnam was the richest man in Marietta in 1855 when his strong-willed second wife Eliza informed him she wanted a new house. But Eliza did not want just any house. She wanted a mansion that was larger, grander and more beautiful than the one her friend in New Jersey had. Douglas agreed. It was easier than arguing. Besides he knew Eliza would manage the entire project from groundbreaking to drapery selection. All he had to do was pay the bills.

Eliza knew he'd say yes. She was used to getting what she wanted. She came from a wealthy, influential family in Zanesville. Her father was Levi Whipple, an ardent supporter of the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped slaves escape from Southern plantations and travel north to freedom. Eliza shared her father’s views on the evils of slavery. So did her new brother-in-law, David Putnam, Douglas’s brother.

When Eliza married Douglas Putnam she had moved to Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River. Today the opposite bank is in West Virginia. When Eliza was planning her dream house, West Virginia did not exist.  The other side of the river was in the slave-holding state of Virginia, enemy territory as far as Abolitionists like Eliza were concerned.

Eliza could see slave-holding Virginia from her mansion's tower

Hindsight

Local historians insist there was never a connection between the Anchorage, as Eliza’s mansion is known now, and the Underground Railroad. They point out that by the time construction on the house began the Underground Railroad was in decline. The vast majority of people who fled along its secret routes had already left the South. That’s clear now, but would it have been obvious in 1855? No. It wouldn’t.

Try to put yourself in Eliza’s place. She and her extended family were keenly aware of the growing likelihood of war. She, her father and brother-in-law were committed Abolitionists with access to unlimited funds. They were planning to build a mansion practically on top of the boundary between the North and the South. To think they would not have discussed adding secret hiding places is laughable. Of course they talked about it. Did it go further than talk?

Tunnels to Nowhere

There are tunnels in the basement of the Anchorage that lead into the surrounding hillside. The question is not whether they exist. They do. I’ve seen them. The question is why they are there and how far they go.

The Anchorage’s hillside is riddled with springs. It’s soggy and unstable. Geologists, engineers and construction experts believe the tunnels were designed for drainage. Without them, the weight of the enormous house would cause the ground to slip and possibly cave in. Henry Burke, local expert on the Underground Railroad, agreed with this explanation. However, just because something is designed for one purpose does not mean it can’t be used for another.

The Anchorage was once known as The Palace Beautiful

Imagine the mindset of wealthy people like the Putnams during the run up to the Civil War. They were worried about protecting their cash, jewelry, documents, paintings, and other valuables. A band of bloodthirsty Confederates could cross the Ohio River and raid Marietta. It could happen without warning. It would be critical to have a safe place to hide things quickly. The drainage tunnels may have served that purpose.

We’ve all heard rumors that there are or were tunnels from the house to the banks of the Muskingum River. Not true.  A tunnel that long would be unstable. It would need to be reinforced several places and there would have to be dozens of fresh air sources along the way. It’s just too complicated. It’s a myth.

My mother grew up in Zanesville. Oddly enough, she heard the same stories about tunnels leading from grand houses to the Muskingum. Her parents warned her to stay away from them. Like everyone else in the area, they were afraid kids would find a tunnel opening along the riverbank, crawl in and drown.

Competing Interests

Some people claim all you have to do is examine the life of Douglas Putnam to realize the Anchorage could not have been part of the Underground Railroad.  Assisting runaway slaves was a serious crime – even in Ohio.  Douglas was a cautious, conservative businessman. They argue he would never have put his wealth at risk, especially not for a political cause. That’s probably true. But this wasn’t just about Douglas. To see the complete picture, you must add Eliza, her father, and David Putnam. The fight against slavery was not a political matter or a business calculation for them; it was a moral and religious crusade. I suspect they had plenty to say about whether secret passages should be included in the Anchorage. Perhaps, once again, Douglas found it easier to say yes than to argue.

Full Circle

A critical piece of the puzzle comes from one of the last private residents of the Anchorage, Eddie MacTaggert.  He grew up on a farm outside Williamstown, WV, just across the Ohio River from Marietta. His grandfather was active in the Underground Railroad. He told young Eddie the Anchorage and the people who lived there were key players in the struggle.  After MacTaggert made a fortune in the Oklahoma oilfields, he returned to Marietta intent on buying the Anchorage. He told everyone the main reason he wanted the house was its connection to the Underground Railroad.

Eddie MacTaggert - in the white suit - knew the Underground Railroad rumors were true

There is one final clue. There is a tiny room directly beneath the kitchen in the basement of the Anchorage. You have to squeeze through a concealed opening to get inside. It’s little more than a large crawl space. I’m 5’2” and I can stand up inside, but just barely. Anyone taller would have to stoop or sit. The room is there. There’s no denying that. So far no one has come up with an explanation for it – other than the obvious. It’s a hiding place.

Based on what I’ve seen and read, I believe the Anchorage contains emergency hiding places for both people and things. Were they ever used? I sort of doubt it, but who knows? This is my opinion. Not everyone agrees. What do you think? What have you seen or heard? Post your comments below.

The Enduring Mystique of Chocolate

Chocolate candy

Does chocolate posses magical properties? The people of ancient Mexico believed it did. Delicious cookies

For most of its long history, chocolate was consumed as a bitter, spicy ritual beverage. It was recognized as a powerful aphrodisiac that conferred both mental and physical vitality on those who consumed it. Brides and grooms drank it on their wedding nights, warriors drank it to enhance their strength before battles and priests drank it to communicate with the gods.

The Serpent God of the Air

Chocolate's mystical powers were linked to its supernatural origin. According to legend, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god of the air, gave it to the Toltecs - people who lived in ancient Mexico.

Quetzalcoatl assumed human form and traveled to earth on a beam of light from the morning star. He was very tall and thin. His skin was pale and luminous and his beard was long and white. His appearance frightened the Toltecs, but they soon realized he had come to help them.

Under Quetzalcoatl's guidance artists produced colorful masterpieces, architects designed elegant pyramids, and priests learned to chart the movements of stars. He taught the Toltecs about agriculture and how to predict the cycle of the seasons. When the crops were flourishing, Quetzalcoatl told the Toltecs he had one more gift for them, something he had secretly removed from heaven. He opened his thin, white hand. Several glossy brown beans from the divine cocoa tree lay on his palm. He showed the Toltecs how to cultivate cocoa and to produce xocolatl (pronounced "chocoatl"), the sacred drink of the gods.

Trickery

The other gods watched with anger as the Toltecs enjoyed the drink that had been exclusively theirs. They sent the god of darkness disguised as a chocolate merchant to punish Quetzalcoatl. He  descended from heaven on the thread of a black spider's web and tricked Quetzalcoatl into drinking a poisoned cup of chocolate. The poison made Quetzalcoatl believe he had to leave his beloved earthly home.

Burning with fever and overwhelmed by sadness, Quetzalcoatl made his way to the coast of Tabasco. Promising to return, he boarded a small raft, drifted out to sea and disappeared over the horizon. The widespread belief that Quetzalcoatl would eventually return to Mexico led to disaster later on.

Secrets and Magic

The Toltecs passed the secret technique of growing chocolate from generation to generation. By the time the Aztecs migrated to the Valley of Mexico, enormous chocolate plantations were thriving throughout the tropical areas. Magic and ritual surrounded the cultivation of the cocoa trees. Men working on the plantations abstained from sex for the first thirteen nights of the two weeks leading up to planting time. On the fourteenth night they returned to their wives. The next morning as the men sowed the beans, priests in feathered headdresses prayed to Quetzalcoatl and waved smoldering cocoa branches over the fields.

Although chocolate was plentiful in the Aztec world, its distribution was tightly controlled. It was the ultimate luxury substance and only the very wealthy had regular access. Cocoa beans were so valuable they were used as currency. Archaeologists have even found evidence of chocolate counterfeiters. They duped the unsuspecting by selling hollowed out cocoa beans filled with dirt.

Is chocolate an aphrodisiac?

Whispers on the Breeze

The process of preparing chocolate for drinking was elaborate and time-consuming. It was critical that the guardian goddesses of cocoa bless the undertaking. The beans were roasted and ground into an intensely bitter powder which was mixed with water spiked with hot chilies. The liquid was then poured from one cup to another until it became frothy. The magic resided in the froth. Without it, the drink was powerless. If the cocoa goddesses were properly honored, Aztec priests believed they would hear the voice of Quetzalcoatl whispering on the breeze as they sipped the foam.

Quetzalcoatl's Return

The Aztec emperor Montezuma was a great believer in chocolate's power. He always drank a golden goblet of chocolate before visiting one of his many wives. Each goblet was used only once. When Montezuma finished drinking, he tossed the goblet into a sacred lake next to his harem's quarters. This ritual was repeated several times a day. Though this story sounds apocryphal, archaeologists found hundreds of golden goblets in a dried lake bed near the ruins of Montezuma's palace.

Montezuma not only believed in the magic of chocolate, he believed in the legend of Quetzalcoatl's return. When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez arrived in Mexico during Montezuma's reign,  the Aztecs thought he was the returning serpent god. Cortez and his band of followers were tall compared to the Aztecs. They had white skin and long beards like Quetzalcoatl, and they came from the sea. Montezuma welcomed them into his palace and served Cortez chocolate from a golden goblet. By the time the Aztecs realized the conquistadors were not benevolent gods, it was too late. The destruction of the Aztec empire had already begun.

Chocolate Frenzy

Cortez returned to Spain with the riches of the New World - including cocoa beans. He regaled the Spanish court with tales of chocolate's amazing ability to boost energy and libido. The beans were entrusted to monks skilled in the cultivation and use of pharmaceutical plants. The monks analyzed the cocoa beans and reported that chocolate soothed digestive difficulties, pepped up sluggish metabolisms, and cured tuberculosis.

The monks modified the Aztec recipe to suit European tastes. They omitted the chilies, added sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, and served the drink hot. Before long, the monks and the Spanish royal court were as addicted to chocolate as the Aztecs had been.

Although the king of Spain tried desperately to keep the existence of chocolate a secret, his attempts were doomed. Aristocratic women took their cooks and favorite foods with them when they married. Cocoa beans and chocolate spread across Europe with Spanish brides.

Chocolate houses, which coffee houses were later modeled after, opened everywhere. The fashionable ladies of Paris served it in their salons, Cassanova drank it before visiting his lovers, and Catholic cardinals drank it as they elected new popes. Attempts to ban chocolate surfaced from time to time, but the church consistently ruled in chocolate's favor. Catholic officials were simply unwilling to give it up.

In 1897 the Swiss invented the milk chocolate candy bar. Mass production techniques followed, and soon inexpensive chocolate was available to everyone. Chocolate lost its allure. People considered it a junk food that caused acne and tooth decay. But chocolate's reputation has changed once again. It may actually be good for us. It is full of healthy antioxidants, and nutritionists recently acknowledged what chocoholics have always known - eating chocolate produces a mild euphoric state similar to the feeling of falling in love. The Aztecs knew chocolate was a precious gift from the gods. Perhaps modern science is finally catching up.

single piece of chocolate  

 

The Headache

Virginia glanced at her alarm clock as she fumbled for the phone. 2:55 AM. "Virginia! What took you so damn long? You let the phone ring six times!"

Mother always knew how many times the phone rang. She knew how many steps it was from the table to the stove, how many seconds it took for the TV to warm up, and how many cracks there were in the sidewalk between her house and the bus stop.

"Virginia! Are you listening to me?"

"Yes, Mother. I'm sorry. I was asleep."

Mother didn't need much sleep. She claimed insomnia ran in the family. Grandma Lou had done most of her sleeping in the late afternoon and Uncle Frank swore three hours a night was more than enough for him. Daddy had complained about the hours Mother kept for as long as Virginia could remember, but this was the first time she had called in the middle of the night.

"Virginia, you have to come over."

"Now?"

"Yes now! My head is throbbing. You've got to bring me some aspirin."

"Where's Daddy?"

Dial tone.

Virginia rushed to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Aspirin. I know I've got aspirin. She caught a glimpse of her reflection as she slammed the cabinet door. My hair's a mess. I should comb it. Brush my teeth. No. There's no time. Mother needs me.

She stuffed the aspirin bottle in her purse, threw her raincoat over her pajamas and ran barefoot down the driveway. Ten, fifteen minutes max. There won't be any traffic. I'll run the red lights.

As she turned onto Main Street, an ambulance whined in the distance. It got louder. Closer. My God, they're going to Mother's. The siren faded as she turned onto Elm. Someone else's mother. Not mine. Not this time.

She ran her tire over the curb as she pulled up to Mother's house. Leave it where it is. No time to back up. It's all right. No one will notice. The front door's locked. Go around back. Hurry. She's waiting. Virginia checked her watch. Only eight minutes. Mother likes to time things. She'll see how fast I got here. Mother will know.

She jerked the storm door open and dashed into the dark family room. "Mother, where are you?"

Silence.

She looked in the kitchen. The faucet was dripping. Her parents had discussed the faucet many times over the years. Mother said she could hear the dripping no matter where she was in the house. Daddy repaired the faucet when Virginia was in the fifth grade. Mother said he made it worse.

"Daddy?"

Virginia's feet didn't make a sound as she crossed the cold linoleum floor. Mother's sewing room. The living room. The den.

Empty.

The dining room. Mother and Daddy glared at each other from opposite ends of the long mahogany table, a full bottle of aspirin like a tiny nuclear warhead exactly half-way between them.

 

 

 

 

Overlooked

Luxor, Egypt, 1896. An English woman walks slowly along the outer wall of the temple. The hem of her dress is torn. Coarse, black threads drag behind her leaving serpentine trails in the dust. Oblivious, she shields her eyes from the sun and continues searching the hard-packed ground for treasure.

She has no interest in contributing to an academic journal or expanding the body of knowledge. She has wasted too much time politely knocking on closed doors and attending scholarly meetings where she is not allowed to speak. A member of the weaker sex blending into the background like a shadow. But she knows what the others do not. She knows where to look.

A crew of local workers digs inside the temple. Ropes. Pulleys. A growing pile of rocks. Theban consonants as rigid as hieroglyphs echo in the afternoon heat. Screeching wheelbarrows. French overseers cooing like river birds.

She presses her hands on the enclosure wall, absorbs its heat and listens for something else. Something quieter. An ancient secret whispered in the accents of an undeciphered language. The voice the others cannot hear.

When she finds the treasure, she will protect it. She will not let it sit inside a glass case in a dusty display. Or even worse, in a drawer in a dark basement. She closes her eyes and imagines the catacombs beneath the British Museum. White-gloved hands. Her treasure is tagged, labeled and placed on a tray. The drawer slides shut. Hidden from sight. Permanently abandoned. Buried deeper than it is now as it waits patiently in the earth. As it waits for her alone.

Not a broken bit of pottery. Not bright flakes of paint. Not a brittle yellow tooth or a desiccated foot. Something older. A fragment of myth. A scrap of religion. A feather from a gryphon's wing.

She senses its closeness and looks down. A golden speck glitters at the toe of her boot. She stoops, digs carefully, kneels and brushes the dirt away with her fingertips. A delicate earring. Pale, shimmering blue beads. The color of her eyes. She cradles it in her hand. It warms from the heat of her body. Warm for the first time in three thousand years.

Celebrating the Seasons Japanese Style

The tradition of observing the changing pattern of the year is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. All aspects of the landscape are honored, but over the centuries certain plants and natural phenomena have gained special significance. Snow on Plum Blossoms

Parting the Seasons

Moments that seem to capture the transition from one season to another, such as spring snow falling on plum blossoms, are especially revered. These transitional moments, called "partings of the seasons," inspire artists, poets, factory workers and students to pause and reflect on nature's eternal rhythms.

Lunar Cycles

Like other Asian peoples, the ancient Japanese used the lunar calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon. However, the lunar calendar does not account for all the days in a solar year and it cannot predict the dates of solstices and equinoxes.

The lunar calendar's shortcomings caused serious difficulties for the Japanese. They were farmers and forecasting the annual cycles of rain, drought, heat and cold were critical to their survival. Astronomers solved the problem by dividing the year into 28 moon stations or sei shuku, which signaled subtle changes in the seasonal cycle, star positions, wind or weather.

The lunar calendar and moon stations were officially abandoned in the 19th century, but the habit of carefully monitoring natural changes survived. Even though the Japanese people live in one of the most technologically advanced countries on Earth, they maintain their connection with the land, sky, and agricultural traditions of their ancestors by honoring the unique beauty of each of the four seasons.

Spring

The highlight of spring is the opening of the sakura or cherry blossoms. The appearance of the blossoms is so important that TV stations chart the progress of the "Sakura Line" from the moment the first tree opens in southern Japan until the last petals fall in the northernmost islands.

People travel great distances to participate in hanami, flower viewing, and to picnic under the trees. Cherry blossom season is a time to celebrate the arrival of spring and to compose poems known as haiku. But because the delicate blossoms' flowering cycle is so short, it is also a time to contemplate life's impermanence.

After the cherry trees finish blooming, the shobu or irises open. The iris is an ancient symbol of male virtue and perfection. The long pointed leaves resemble samurai swords and the flowers' full range of hues from white to purple are considered masculine colors. Although not as important as cherry blossom viewing, many people visit parks and public gardens in late spring to admire iris displays.

Summer

Summer is the season to celebrate bamboo and rice, the most revered plants in Japan. Take or bamboo symbolizes strength through flexibility. It is honored for its versatility and many practical uses. The tender young sprouts are delicious and the mature wood is used in projects ranging from  light construction to the manufacture of chopsticks.

The powerful and complex symbolism associated with rice or ine includes nationalistic elements. Rice represents Japan's ability to feed its population, resist foreign influence and maintain its independence.

August is tsukimi or moon viewing time. In medieval Japan poets toasted the August full moon with rice wine or sake and allowed its "pure brilliance" to shine upon their faces. Even in today's crowded, light-polluted cities, people gather at dusk to relax on mats and spend the evening watching the August moon float through the warm night sky.

Autumn

The kiku or chrysanthemum is the symbol of the Imperial family and the most beloved flower of autumn. In Japan, chrysanthemums are not used as outdoor garden plants. They are grown exclusively in pots. Hundreds of exotic varieties have been developed. People appreciate the hybrid forms for the obvious patience that goes into their cultivation. Chrysanthemum shows are popular fall events.

Autumn is also mojimi or tinted leaf viewing season. Families and groups of students and workers travel to the mountains in September and October for leaf hunting excursions, to gather mushrooms known as "children of the forest," and to listen to the humming cicadas or "voices of autumn."

Winter

Winter is the time to walk through the countryside and admire the quiet beauty snow gives to rocks, frozen streams and bare trees. In the bitterly cold northern islands, huge bonfires are built from pine branches. The pine tree or matsu symbolizes long life. Burning its branches helps chase away the cold and encourage an early spring.

Just when it seems winter will never end, another parting of the seasons occurs. The ume or apricot blossoms open and the cycle continues. Soon the insects will awaken, the tiny buds on the cherry trees will begin to swell and the icy moon will be softened by the warm mists of spring.

 

 

The Ancient Allure of Fragrance

Smell is the most primitive of our five senses. Aromas have the power to uncover buried memories, trigger emotions, alter moods and ignite sexual passions. Scents also have the power to connect us to the spiritual realm. Fragrance has been an invisible element in magical ceremonies and religious rituals for at least 5000 years.The smoke of incense has carried messages to the gods, cleared negative influences from sacred spaces, helped mystics achieve altered states of consciousness and lifted the souls of the dead to paradise.

Ancient Egyptian Text

Egyptian Magic

The ancient Egyptians used vast quantities of incense and other aromatics. Priests anointed themselves with perfumes, fragrant unguents and scented oils several times a day. Flowers, spices and herbs were essential elements in the sacred art of mummifying the dead. When King Tut's tomb was opened early in the 20th century, 3000 years after it had been sealed, a faint whiff of perfume still hung in the air.

The most famous Egyptian scent was kyphi, a very intense concoction with the power to induce hypnotic states. Kyphi contained sixteen ingredients including honey, wine, bitumen and frankincense. The number sixteen was significant in Egyptian magic because it is the square of a square (four times four). Only priests were allowed to make and use kyphi. They mixed it according to a secret ritual while chanting sacred texts.

Each day at dawn, the priests offered frankincense to the Sun god Re. At noon they burned myrrh. Kyphi was saved for the daily sunset when it was ignited with great ceremony to encourage the Sun to return to the sky the following morning.

Egyptians also used perfumes as cosmetics. Women placed scented cones of wax on their heads. As their body heat warmed the cones, the wax melted down over them and scented their hair and bodies. Young men wore as many as fifteen different scents at once and Cleopatra perfumed the sails of her royal barge.

The Classical World

The Greeks and Romans were as addicted to fragrance as the Egyptians. The Greeks roasted spices on braziers, used aromatic oil in lamps, poured rose water on hot rocks to produce fragrant steam and filled fountains with perfume. The intoxicating fumes inhaled by the priestesses at Delphi allowed them to predict the future of kings and empires.

Romans burned incense to the Lares, their household gods, and before civic ceremonies. The Emperor Nero used more incense every few months than Saudi Arabia could produce in an entire year. The most extravagant use of fragrance was reserved for grand Imperial Roman banquets. Dinner guests rinsed their hands and feet in perfume when they arrived. Mists of fragrance and showers of rose petals drifted down on them from time to time as they ate. Doves whose wings had been saturated with perfume flew overhead, further scenting the air.

Frankincense and Myrrh

Throughout the ancient world, incense meant frankincense, a resin that comes from trees. Its spicy, sensuous smoke filed temples from Babylon to China. Frankincense quieted overactive minds and focused mental energies. Ascetics in India inhaled its smoke to achieve deeper levels of meditation.

Frankincense's value was surpassed only by myrrh, another resinous substance obtained from shrubs. Myrrh calmed turbulent emotions and provided strength and endurance during times of difficulties. Some find myrrh's scent vaguely medicinal. For others its smoky, sweet aroma evokes the very essence of spirituality. Myrrh was so expensive that only the super wealthy had access to it. It was so precious that "my myrrh" became a term of endearment.

After the Roman Empire fell, people continued to use herbs and flowers to scent their homes, clothing and bodies and the wealthiest churches still burned frankincense, but the art of perfume making was virtually lost in Europe. Luckily, the entire world did not slide into the Dark Ages.

The Queen of the Night

As the Europeans struggled with basic survival, the Persians, who believed a flower's fragrance was its soul, continued working on ways to extract botanical essences. Attar of roses, an intensely fragrant scent that is still used in perfume making, was developed in Persia during the Middle Ages.

Although attar of roses is powerful, most agree that the ultimate floral fragrance is jasmine. In India jasmine is known as the "Queen of the Night" because its creamy white blossoms open in the moonlight. Everywhere it grows jasmine is considered an aphrodisiac. Its sweet scent is so sensual, it borders on the erotic. It is entirely too much for some; for others it is as addictive as a narcotic.

Inhaling the scent of jasmine strengthens intuition, encourages artistic creativity and elevates the mood. In the last fifty years natural jasmine has become so expensive it is now out of reach for all but a few. It is the myrrh of our time.

The secrets of perfume-making returned to Europe with the Crusaders in late Medieval times and perfume shops began to open in London and Paris. The perfume makers cultivated auras of mystery around their establishments and themselves. Most dabbled in alchemy, astrology and the occult. Their dimly lit shops were filled with drying flowers, rare spices and odd-looking roots. Bits of mummies were strategically placed here and there to remind customers of perfume's historic connection to ancient Egyptian magic. The strong scent of camphor and thick frankincense smoke added to the exotic atmosphere.

People were convinced that certain perfumes possessed magical properties. Some made the wearer irresistible to members of the opposite sex. Other scents guaranteed eternal youth. Still others had the power to destroy one's enemies. The names of today's perfumes - Beautiful, Eternity, Obsession - would have made as much sense in the 16th century as they do in the 21st.

 

The Secret History of the Ouija Board

Ouija_Board_Wallpaper_JxHy
Ouija_Board_Wallpaper_JxHy

Many people believe the Ouija board has an exotic and mysterious past. Its real history is a modern tale of market dominance and brilliant promotion. The Wonderful Talking Board was invented in Maryland in the 1880s. The developers claimed the game named itself by repeatedly spelling "Ouija" during a session. They said the board told them Ouija meant good luck in Egyptian. Several archeologists and historians came forward, insisted the word was not part of an ancient language and accused the developers of inventing more than the game. But the public was not interested in the opinions of experts and the first Ouija legends began to spread. America was in the midst of a Spiritualism craze in 1892 when William Fuld acquired the rights to produce the Ouija board. Record numbers of people were consulting mediums, holding seances and using a variety of other methods to try to contact loved ones who had crossed over to the "Other Side." Fuld capitalized on the public's obsession by marketing Ouija as a parlor game that facilitated communication with the dead. The Wonderful Talking Board caused such a sensation that Fuld had to expand his Baltimore factory several times to meet demand.

In an attempt to duplicate Fuld's phenomenal success, dozens of other companies introduced talking boards with mystical sounding names such as "Genii," "The Wireless Messenger" and the "I Do Psycho Ideograph." Unlike the drab black and brown Ouija, the new boards included colorful images of turbaned swamis, pyramids, camels and crystal balls. However, none of them remained on the market long.

Fuld decimated the competition by suing anyone who dared to copy his design. He also intensified his marketing efforts. He spread outlandish rumors about Ouija's supernatural powers; obtained false testimonials; expanded the legend of the board's ancient origins; and concocted the story that Ouija was a combination of "oui," the French word for "yes," and "ja," the German word for "no."

Thanks in large part of William Fuld's relentless promotion, Ouija's popularity did not fade when the public lost interest in Spiritualism early in the 20th century. Parker Brothers purchased the Ouija trademark and patent from Fuld's heirs in 1966 and has produced the game ever since. The company introduced a deluxe, glow-in-the-dark version. Otherwise, Fuld's basic design has remained unchanged.

Not only has the board's reputation as a gateway to the spirit realm survived, many Ouija superstitions and tales have evolved into full-fledged urban legends. Defendants in court cases have testified that Ouija boards forced them to commit crimes, including murder. Others swear they won fortunes by playing lottery numbers revealed by the board. The game has allegedly reunited lovers, driven careless players insane and destroyed the lives of countless teenagers.

Parker Brothers' boxed sets include instructions for playing the game. However, a separate, unwritten set of rules also exists. Cleanse yourself before consulting the board or the spirits will be offended. If you burn a Ouija board, it will scream. Everyone who hears the scream will die within 36 hours. You are vulnerable to spirit possession if you play while you are sick. Never play alone and never, never ask Ouija when you are going to die. The list goes on. William Fuld would be proud.

Did Fuld know the Ouija board would still have the power to capture the public's imagination more than a century after its introduction? Did he realize the rumors he created would become part of American popular culture? Could he have predicted an army of teenagers would step in after his death and function as a de facto marketing force? We'll never know, but one thing is certain. The fact that we continue to play the game and repeat Ouija rumors is a testament to William Fuld's marketing genius and his ability to spin a timeless tale.

The Voice of the Sea

When he cried in the car, Mommy promised the two weeks would fly by. She told him he would love the seashore. She said he'd have so much fun at Grammy's, he probably wouldn't even want to come home. He stood at the edge of the ocean and let the warm water rush around his ankles and wash the sand out from under his feet. He thought he saw a giant spider, but Grammy said it was just a crab. She told him there were thousands of them on the beach. Then she walked away, sat down on her towel and began digging in the sand with a long stick. He wasn't sure what to do, so he stayed right where he was and watched the waves. He was glad when Grammy called him.

"Come here, honey. Look what I found."

He scampered across the hot sand and squatted beside her.

"Oh my," she said. "Look at the size of this seashell. Isn't it beautiful? Pick it up, dear. Go ahead. Now hold it to you ear and listen. I think you'll be surprised."

At first he didn't hear anything. Then the seashell spoke.

"Put me down at once," it said. "I do not wish to be disturbed. You'll be sorry if you don't do as you're told."

He let the shell slip from his fingers and drop softly onto the sand.

Grammy laughed and picked it up. "You heard it, didn't you? That was the voice of the sea." She grabbed his wrist, pulled him closer and pressed the shell to his ear. "Listen again."

"I'm going to teach you a lesson," the shell gurgled. "I haven't decided exactly how or when I'll do it. But rest assured, it will be soon and it will be very unpleasant."

He took the shell from Grammy and carefully placed it at the water's edge.

"That's a good idea, sweetheart. Let the surf rinse it off for a minute. There. It's clean enough. Put it in your sand bucket." Grammy smiled. "Go ahead, honey. Put the seashell in your bucket. We'll let it dry on the balcony this afternoon, then we'll sit it next to your bed. If you miss your Mommy and Daddy again tonight, the voice of the sea will help you fall asleep."

The Letters

The letters were two weeks late. No one could understand why. They were sure the letters would arrive any minute. But another week passed and the letters didn't come. Everyone stopped going to work. They stayed home and watched for the mailman. So many people were waiting for letters that most of the stores and businesses closed. Everyone understood why. It was unreasonable to expect people to shop or to concentrate on their jobs. The letters hadn't arrived. No one could think of anything else.

At noon each day the neighborhood became silent. No cars passed. No one walked dogs. The children were brought inside and made to stand quietly with their arms at their sides. The adults stood at the windows. They hid behind their curtains and spied on the mailman. He drove down the street at the same time everyday. He parked in the same place and walked up to each door at the very same time as the day before. Never early. Never late. But no one was ever ready. They tried to be prepared, but they never were.

Today when the mailman came, he brought bills, catalogues and discount coupons for the car wash. No one had expected that. They weren't sure what to do. So they thanked him and carried the mail to their dining room tables, shaking it and turning the pages of the catalogues to make sure the letters weren't stuck inside.

The Lake

The lake didn't look right when I got up. It was green. The sky was green too. A sailboat was out on the water. It was small and wooden, red and blue. It looked like an old-fashioned toy boat. But it wasn't. It was real. I'm not sure how I knew that. But I did. The wind whistled around the tree trunks and shook pine needles into my hair. The boat bobbed and turned and almost tipped over. It bounced back up and headed toward the shore. Toward me.

The hull scraped and screeched over the rocky beach as the boat slid out of the water on its own. I walked toward it. But just a little way. It didn't look right. It looked like a French painting. A man climbed out. He was my father and he was dead.

Omen

Three crows glide over the telephone lines and land in the tree next to the garage. They peck each other, beating their wings and squawking until black feathers shower onto the roof. I hear my mother's truck coming down the road. I don't look. I don't need to. I know the sound of that truck's engine better than I know my own name. As she pulls into the driveway, the crows screech and scatter. I stand staring at my feet. The truck door slams. I listen to her tiptoe across the crunchy brown grass. She taps me on the shoulder and tugs my hair. I ignore her and begin gathering the newspapers that have blown all over the yard. I try to read the headlines on a yellowed scrap, but the letters won't form words.

She's right behind me. I can smell her lipstick and feel her cool breath on the back of my neck. Maybe I can trick her. Catch her off-guard. If I'm lucky, I'll be in the house with the deadbolt locked before she even gets to the porch steps.

I whirl around and heave the newspapers at her. The pages flutter momentarily in the dying breeze, then vanish. I look at the empty driveway and wonder if it's all a dream until I notice my fingers, black from the newsprint and the crows' feathers on the roof of the garage.