The number 40 is linked to so many stories and events. There is Ali Baba and the 40 thieves and the 40 years that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert before finding the Promised Land. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, and so did Moses and Elijah. And of course there is Noah and his ark where life was sustained when the earth was inundated by 40 days and 40 nights of rain.
I too have one story of 40 days and 40 nights – it features not rain, but snow. When I lived in Japan’s Snow Country, it began to snow just after New Year’s Day and did not let up until mid-February. By then everything was blanketed thickly with about 2 meters of it. The roof of the ancient (possibly over a century old) wooden house where we lived had to be cleared several times, lest the roof collapse. It is often unthinkable that snow — such seemingly light stuff — can weigh so much once packed.
But is there a deeper significance to the number 40? The traditional number of days of rest for a woman after childbirth in diverse cultures is 40. Forty years is also often regarded as the age of maturity. I found one interpretation — a rabbinical one based on gematria or numerology — that the number 40 represents new beginnings or transitions; that the number 40 stands for a period of change, of challenges. Over the past 40 days, I have documented my thanks for things and events and people that have graced my life. If I include the first week of gratitude that started off this year of grace, altogether I have logged 47 days of daily thanksgiving. For the opportunity and the capacity to do so, I am deeply grateful.
I am also thankful for friends and other readers who follow my journal, and they encourage me and support me on my journey towards perhaps a new beginning or a transition to a different way of being and living. I believe that the daily writing of my thoughts and sharing them openly is a journey of sorts, a virtual pilgrimage if you will, towards a life that is more aware. Certainly my senses are more aware of and awake to what is going on around me and of the joys – the simple joys — of every single day. I am also aware that in doing so I am essentially opening myself up to the world, an act that I had not the courage to do before. I have this gratitude journal to thank for making me brave enough to do so. This grace journal has also set a new pattern to my life: my first act of the day is to sit and write and give my thanks. They are, in a sense, my morning prayers.
Yesterday I lost the post I had been working on because I had been rushed and my mind was on other things. My mind was not in the moment. But perhaps the “loss” was meant to be, because today – on the 40th day of my gratitude journal, a day that marks a possible new beginning and transition — is probably the most suitable day to give thanks to the islands and some people from those islands that made me for the first time fully and truly aware of being blessed with grace.
As a child of perhaps 7 or 8, I had come upon two photographs in a geography book, a large, hardcover one. They were monochrome – most likely sepia, as it was a very old book. One of them was taken somewhere beyond the Khyber Pass. I vaguely remember animals – camels, goats, possibly sheep. Around them were groups of people in what looked like an open-air market. Everything about that scene was like nothing I had ever seen before, and to me it was the epitome of the exotic. To this day I dream of making a journey to those countries beyond the Khyber Pass – to the ‘stan’ countries – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan. Their names sound so fabulous to me.
The other photograph that had equally caught my eye in that book was of stone cottages and people standing in front of them, with long, pale locks, quite coarse looking. It was captioned “Batanes Islands, Philippines.” How strange, I thought, to have thatched stone houses like those and to have people with blond hair in my country. Someday I vowed I would see those islands for myself.
Six years ago, more than a few decades from my encounter with those photographs, I eventually did. I did not know anyone there but I knew I had to go. I had been warned that it was a risky journey — not only by sea but also by air. There was always the possibility of being stranded for days, as flights don’t take off under stormy conditions. I took the risk — I would most likely not have the opportunity again, I thought at the time. As soon as I decided, everything fell smoothly into place – somewhere to stay, whom to contact, a guide – and all thanks to the unstinting kindness of the Alascos (Sal and Nati and their kin in Basco) and the Abads. Nati, or Knots as she prefers, in particular is foremost on my mind as it is her that I associate with having been blessed with grace throughout that time. Her links to everyone in Batanes ensured that I was in safe hands throughout. It was Sal, my elementary schoolmate, who had enlisted his sister Knots’ help. To Knots and Sal I owe my deepest thanks for such an unbelievably fabulous sojourn in those wondrous islands. And likewise to my extraordinary guide Roger Duplito, whom Knots recommended. I was so impressed that he was as familiar with the botanical names of the local flora and their medicinal and other uses as he was well versed in the islands’ history and ethnology.
The astonishing stone cottages of the Ivatans were in yesterday’s post. And the blond locks? They turned out to be traditional Ivatan raingear. The “locks” are made from the finely combed fibres of an endemic palm tree. I do hope someday to go and be in those magical islands again.