Ichi-go Ichi-e

Japanese Garden

I’m going to come clean with you today. Give you a peek into one of those drawers I usually keep bolted tight.

I do most things half-assed.

Yeah. That feels really good to admit.

Sure, I can rhapsodize about excellence and the well-designed life and having a Virgoan’s superior attention to detail. But I’d be kidding both of us. There’s so much more to my capabilities than I recognize and develop and a whole lot of potential that’s just growing hairy penicillin in the back of my medicine cabinet.. If I don’t reverse this, rigor mortis of my art and work may just set in.

When I was living in Roppongi, the ex-pat neighborhood of Tokyo, a few years back, I was part of the opening team of a new restaurant. I knew a lot about the business, and was expert in our company’s culture. What I didn’t realize was that the Japanese generally give a new venture ONE chance to prove itself. If we didn’t win our guests over during their first visit, they would never come again.

This brought a whole other level to our preparations, because once the novelty wore off, our best foot forward is what we’d be judged on. That’s pressure enough to change the game. In the more forgiving U.S., we’re all about innovation, tweaking, upgrading – it’s ongoing, but in Japan, more goes into the design process before the debut, to present the best possible product or service, than we probably do by the time we get down to our fifth version.

We live in a ‘good enough’ society. We settle. We get by. Sometimes that’s OK, and sometimes we suffer for it.

There’s an ancient proverb in Japan, derived from the grace and beauty of the tea ceremony:  Ichi-go Ichi-e. “One lifetime, one encounter.”  It means to bring full attention and complete sincerity to your actions, because each moment only exists once and must be fully realized and lived.

I was reminded of this last night, as I was dining with friends at Bizen in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The owner, Michael Marcus, is not just the sushi chef, but he’s also a potter who apprenticed in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture and creates all the dishware used in his restaurant. His unglazed pieces are fired for 12 days, just once a year, in a large kiln he’s built on his property nearby. Talk about getting it right the first time!

We connected over a shared love of trekking and all things Nippon. He gave us a tour through his private tatami rooms dedicated to chado (tea ceremony) and kaiseki (a seasonal, multi-course meal), and his stunning, hand-crafted collection of vases.

The care, dedication, and passion he brought to both his pottery and our dinner was without question. He won us over by giving his full attention and heart to our experience. I used to do this, too, when I was serving others. But now that I’m in the service of myself, I think it’s time my inner CEO call a board meeting.

My best work is lying fallow. There’s a reason, yes, and that I’ll explore in my next post, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m committing – with you as my witness – that Ichi-go ichi-e is my new mantra.

Because once I devote to giving it EVERYTHING ~ to being my own best critic before I step in front of the mic ~ to crafting the most exquisite container for my bouquet ~ then I will truly be alive.

Hold me to this, I ask of you. My life depends on it.


Down The Road A Piece

On my drive back from metropolitan madness last week, I notice almost all the trees are bare here in tranquil, small town Maine.  My eye immediately goes to the few with their golden and siena leaves still intact.  There’s more trees here than people and more people in the big, bad city than here and this makes me wonder if I turned the world upside down and inside out if it would all balance in the end, like some topographical quadratic equation.  Yeesh, all those malls and Applebees I passed must have addled my brain.

These musings suddenly disappear as I am accosted by the loud grating sound of metal on asphalt.  I pull over to the side of the road and jump out, trying to ascertain if my trunk has just fallen off or if I ran over some kid’s bicycle and I’m dragging it down the street.  What could have made such a ruckus?  I look at the rear end of my car.  Oh.  My muffler.  Greaaaaaat.  I just left my mechanic in the rearview 400 miles ago and now I break down?  I want my money back!  And perhaps some big burly guy to come rescue me, too.

Even though it seems I live up here now, don’t be fooled – I’m not fully committed. It takes me a long time to say ‘I do’ to a place and I’ve never uttered those words under oath, either.  I have yet to hang curtains anywhere I have ever lived and I still have those Empire State plates marking me as an outsider.  My accountant, dentist and mechanic are all back in New York and Connecticut;  I don’t take lightly who gets to look in my mouth, under my hood and through my bank statements, you know?  So when I visit the old hometown, I schedule back to back appointments, looking to pick up that 7/10 split.  Therefore, my car had just been checked out, winterized and given the stamp of approval.  But I guess anyone could have missed that rusty muffler clamp.  Right?

As my luck would have it, and thankfully it usually does, I am parked only a mile from home.  Maybe I’ll walk there, grab a hanger and improvise.  I look up at the house in front of me.  Or maybe, just maybe, the big burly guy lives there.  I bop up on the porch and knock on the door.

A pretty woman about my age answers, peers over my shoulder, and sees my dilemma.  She welcomes me in and we introduce ourselves.  Not the knight in shining armor I was hoping for, but I’m happy there was someone home.  I still have my Maslowian priorities in order.  As she searches for a hanger, I scan the rooms:  there are strewn toys (young kids), a craft-covered table (the creative type), and bold-colored wall paint (confidence).  She returns without one, and I realize that most metal hangers originate at the dry cleaners and this isn’t exactly the cashmere and 3-piece suit kind of town.  However, it turns out she’s a jewelry maker and goes one better when she hands me some wire and a pair of pliers. MacGyver never had it so good.  A few moments later, my car is jury-rigged in designer style, but now my white jeans have the dark grey imprint of the road on the butt.  Ah well…

As I return her tools, she invites me in again, and hands me her card with a local mechanic’s information handwritten on the back.

“Ask for John,” she says, “He’s good.  We’ve been going to him for years.”

“Thanks,” I reply, thrilled to have a local’s recommendation.  Maybe I will settle in here.  Even more so, though, I feel that this woman could be a friend.  Her home is comfortable, and she’s clearly personable and helpful.  I make a mental note of returning her kindly gesture with some homemade carrot cake.  I hope she’s not gluten-free.  Or on a diet.

“So, where do you live?” she asks.

“Just up the road, fourth house on the right, after the mill road turnoff.  White farmhouse with the red barn,”  I say.  Not that this is distinguishing enough in rural America.  Every fifth house fits that description.  But it’s a small enough town that she nods in agreement, and probably knows exactly where I’m talking about.  Everyone knows where everyone else lives it seems, whether they know you or not.  One of the most common exchanges I’ve had around here is people explaining where they live.  I met a bird hunter and his dog a few weeks ago and after chatting for only 15 minutes he, unsolicited, described how to get to his place.

“My wife and I are retired now and usually home.  Stop by any time – if the red pickup’s in the driveway, go ahead and knock,” he says, good-naturedly.

And the other week I was taking care of some bank business and the manager helping me detailed the route from my house to his, after we realized we lived off the same road.  We’re practically neighbors.  This information comes after an hour of chit-chat:  my life as a writer, his life raising four young boys, discovering we both know Brooklyn.  But an hour!  Can you imagine?  I’ve never spent that much time before in a bank, even when I applied for my mortgage.  I guess the recession has upped the hospitality quotient a bit.  Or maybe it was our shared pizza reverie.

All these intersections with all these people:  are they random?  Is it coincidence that I broke down in front of someone’s house with whom I could likely develop a friendship?  You may say there’s no such thing, but I love finding relation in a seemingly chance event. It could have been any other spot on my eight-hour route.  That I drove almost all the way home and broke down right in front of her house, well, there’s a lot of trees in the forest.  But the trees with the leaves still on it, they’re the ones that catch my eye, and the ones I end up sitting under.  I look for serendipity and therefore, I find it.  Or maybe the people around here just look out for each other, making connections because we are few and far between.  I don’t know.  But I think I might go check out some curtains tomorrow.

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