Art, Poetry, Music, and Nature for the New Year
Thursday, January 14 2021
The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim….Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:6–11
If you watched Monty Python’s spoof of Jesus’ life story spelled out in The Life of Brian, you are familiar with the song “Always look on the bright side of life.” A sing-songy ballad smack-dab in the middle of the crucifixion scene, it pokes fun at a stoic lemons-to-lemonade approach to life, and lives in the tension that is created when someone tries to shallowly see the good in hard times. (The song is now, apparently, the number one song requested at funerals in the UK.)
This poem by Izumi Shikibu does have some of that spirit in it (as if to say “it may be freezing here, but at least we can see the moonlight”), but because it comes from eleventh century Japan, it jettisons the stiff-upper-lip attitudes of twentieth century British culture, and with gentle sincerity, seeks to convey something else: love, loss, and the impermanence of things.
Shikibu was from Heinan-kyo, a bustling cultural center larger than any European metropolis at the time, and while she was entangled in the politics of life in the Heinan court, she eventually left the court to live in a small Buddhist mountain monastery. As translator Jane Hirshfield puts it, poetry for Shikibu was “an irresistible and effortless answering within the individual to the continual calling of the Other.” Her poetry was, at times, intensely religious, but also portrayed the “evanescence of the natural world,” as this poem does.
I wonder how Izumi Shikibu’s poem might speak into today’s troubles, seeing the gift and beauty of life on this ever-shifting planet—persistent moonlight through the roof planks—without trying to shove under the rug the terrible wind, the leaky roof, the ruined house. It gives me comfort and hope for a way through hard days.
O God who knows inside and out the terrible wind, leaky roof, and ruined house, let the moonlight in, and find a way for warm peace. Amen.
“Although the wind …” By Izumi Shikibu (Translated by Jane Hirshfield)
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.