Year of Grace. Day 96. My mother’s gardens

My splendidly blooming amaryllis reminded me of one of my mother’s pot plants — pink lilies that she doted on and called Lirio (Sp. ‘lily’). They could have been pink belladonna amaryllis, but the belladonnas that I’ve seen have a different petal shape – they turn up their tips like sultan’s slippers, much like the sensuous curves on my amaryllis.

Amaryllis, three days after the first bud opened.

The amaryllis petal’s sensuous curves.

But the petal tips on my mother’s stately lily were different in  my memory. It’s a pity I never remembered to ask her, and now that she’s gone, it’s much too late to ask. Alas. Perhaps they were actually hippeastrums, and this one in the photo below has a familiar colour, though the petals are unlike my mother’s Lirio.

Hippeastrum ‘Candy Floss.’ Photo: Raul654, Wikipedia.

Each time the Lirio‘s spathe (the leaf-like blade that encloses the flower buds) opened, my mother would eagerly count the buds peeking from within. And unfailingly each year as if responding to her infectious delight, the lily’s flowers steadily increased, until one year there were twelve in one cluster! We feared the stem would collapse, but it didn’t. My mother was in such raptures!

Before that phenomenal flowering, she couldn’t bear to cut any of the lily’s flowers, but that time, she cut one and put it in a very curious vase – a vase like no other. A clear glass sphere, about 20 cm (about 10 inches) in diameter, which she filled with water. Then she placed one perfect lily upside down in it, clapped the lid over it, and up-ended the sphere so that it rested on its lid. Such a strange contraption – the water didn’t flow out from the bottom. I wonder if that unusual vase is still in the family home.

The other plant whose flowering gave my mother a lot of pleasure was an aster. It was not as imposing as the pink lily with its tiny narrow leaves on thin, wiry stems – quite unprepossessing. But in bloom — it was transformed into a cloud of filmy violet and greeny-yellow stars. Thus its name, aster. Or as my mother called it, Estrella (Sp. ‘star’).

I also have never seen this particular variety of aster anywhere else. In a temperate autumn which is when asters normally bloom, I am ever on the lookout to find the exact one that I remember from my childhood. But I have never found it, much as I have never come across a lily just like the one my mother grew. Or is it because my perception of them as a child is quite unlike what they were in actuality?

As well perhaps these modern flowers are so far removed from the type species. They’ve been bred for size and colour and pest resistance and who knows whatever else, such that the flowers that my mother grew and that I knew a very long time ago are probably only to be found in some long-forgotten garden. Or even perhaps in the wild. Somewhere….

It’s a pity I only became interested in gardening in my 30s. Living continents away, I had not had the pleasure, and more, the privilege, of learning directly about plants and gardening from my mother. When my parents were living in San Jose, California, I was surprised to find Dama de Noche (Cestrum nocturnum) thriving in their front garden.

I well remember as a teen in the Philippines, in the then capital Quezon City, coming home late at night and being greeted by the Dama de Noche and its pale green florets at the gate, its intoxicating perfume mingling with the refreshing coolness of dew. Its scent is only released at night, which is why it is called ‘Lady of the Night.’ How could a tropical plant survive in a sub-tropical environment, I wondered?

That taught me to try and see whether a plant that I liked could survive elsewhere other than what I regarded as its natural environment. I took some seeds from that Dama de Noche and planted them and they germinated and went on to bloom. And it is only now that I realize that I was then moving it from one Mediterranean-type climate to another. And one of my children has been enamoured of the Dama de Noche ever since. I had tried to find a source for it when we lived in the UK, and there are a few nurseries that grow it here in Germany. But Dama de Noche is meant to be grown in a conservatory or a greenhouse, not outdoors. Or if so, taken indoors before the frosts.

On this 96th day of my gratitude journal, I am grateful for the memories of my mother’s gardens and the plants that she adored. And I am ever so thankful that my mother planted the seeds for a love of flowers and gardens in me and my brothers and sister. My friend Gillian once said of me that I am happiest in a garden. Indeed I am.

Year of Grace, Day 95. Miss Amaryllis in all her glory

Over the past few days, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the unfolding of the amaryllis’s first bud. Throughout these dreary winter days, Miss Amaryllis has been a source of inspiration and wonder and awe. Here she is this morning by the window, the first of her sumptuous raiments finally revealed in their incomparable glory.

Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet Solomon in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. –Matthew 6:28

Amaryllis, first bud fully open

The winter aspect of the back garden is normally bereft of bright colour, and relieved only by the cheering pale yellow of hazel catkins, blooming bravely in the bitter cold. Yesterday’s grey clouds made the outlook even more dreary. But the unfolding of the amaryllis’s first bud made up for such a gloomy view outdoors.

The unfolding of the amaryllis yesterday.

Yesterday evening

Yesterday evening


And here are more views of today’s glory!

Therefore …do not be anxious about your life…. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? — Matthew 6:25.

Year of Grace, Day 93. On skinship and the laying of hands

In 1971, my first year as a student in Tokyo, I became aware of the plasticity of the Japanese language, in particular with its ingenious adoption and adaptation of foreign words. The neo-Japanese term sukinshippu (skinship)  officially made it to the Japan National Language Dictionary (Nihon Kokugo Daijiten) that year, though another dictionary claims it was actually introduced in the 50s directly from the USA (!).  Skinship appeared on trains –- on the ads and diverse announcements posted high above the handgrips and which served as practice for my newly acquired language. Media commentators and columnists relished using the term. This Japlish word subsequently crossed over to Korea.

So what exactly does skinship mean? Well, we’re familiar with the word skin and the final –ship from the words relationship, friendship, etc. Skinship means the physical closeness or intimacy between a mother and child, between family members, or between friends.

One of the things that struck me in Japan in the 70s was the way young children – from infants to toddlers – were carried on their mothers’ backs in well-designed baby carriers. Not the metal-framed back carriers then used in the US for toddlers, but the belted ones that hold a child very close to the mother’s body. (Baby trolleys only became available in a few exclusive stores in the early 80s in Tokyo and were not a common sight.) One particular poster that caught my eye back then was of a working man in a suit (a salary-man — another Japlish term) with a baby strapped on his back — a highly unlikely occurrence. (Btw, I am heartened that here in Bonn in the 21st century, this once-traditional way of carrying babies is very much in evidence, not only with mothers but fathers too!) The rest of the poster caption has escaped my memory after all these decades, but I haven’t forgotten that it included the then neologism skinship.

This roundabout introduction brings me to the laying of hands in Reiki. For the past couple of days, I’ve focused on the first three Reiki keys to health and happiness — be in the present, let go of anger, let go of worry. The next key is to be thankful, and since my daily gratitude journal has had me writing my thanks for the past 92 days, I hope you don’t mind my giving it a miss today. Instead I am sharing what thoughts I’ve been having on the laying of hands that is at the heart of Reiki.

Once we outgrow childhood, we lose the close, regular skin-on-skin connection (our skinship) with our mothers or other carers. As babies, we were bathed regularly, our bodies and limbs were touched daily. We were constantly carried around, hugged, cuddled. When colicky, our tummies were soothed, our backs were rubbed. Once we could fend for ourselves, we lost most of these baby perks. Unless we have a love or erotic relationship, we rarely get to touch or be touched by other people on such a regular basis. (And that is also no doubt why having a pet or grandchild is enormously beneficial to emotional well-being.)

And there I believe lies the significant beneficial effect of  Reiki’s  laying of hands, especially as it is combined with the practitioner’s therapeutic thoughts and the positive state of mind (induced by Reiki ideals) of the recipient. Massage in various forms (shiatsu and so on) provides similar soothing and therapeutic effects as well. However, I feel it is the combination of the Reiki ideals fostered in the mind and spirit of both practitioner and recipient that enhances the physical effect of the laying of hands on some (though apparently not all) who experience it.

For me at any rate, my mind and spirit need physical reinforcement. When I felt worry beginning to creep in this morning, I whispered the Reiki ideals and then laid my palms on my head, my throat, and over my heart, and I eventually managed to allay my fears.

For the continuing progress of self-healing I have found in Reiki, I am grateful. And additionally, I give thanks for the amaryllis, one of whose buds is on the way to being released, poised to unfold into bloom.

Amaryllis unfolding

Year of Grace, Day 92. Letting go of worry

At 6:30 this morning, it was still dark as night. The sky itself was clear and cloudless and the moon shone directly into the bedroom. Just above the moon and to the right sparkled a single bright star. Glorious! And there must have been snow overnight as the ground shimmered white in the gloom.

Yesterday I pondered on anger and its less pernicious kin — irritation and impatience and resentment. Today my thoughts are on the second key to happiness and health according to Reiki – do not worry. I remember a catchy, uplifting song from decades ago – Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Centuries before, another man, a godly one, said much the same thing: worry is pointless. Do not worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow take care of itself. Your life is not made any longer [and more than likely shorter] by worrying (Matthew 6: 34; 27).

Essentially — be here.  Today.  Now.

When someone says to me don’t worry, I end up doing so anyway. Perhaps I am still on an extended contrary terrible-twos phase — doing the opposite of what I’m told. I do realize I tend to be a worrywort. I say it in an active way instead –- let go, just let it go. Shoo! Worry be gone! Just for today. This hour. This minute.

“Shoo!” calls to mind what I had always thought of as an Ilocano word – “salaki!” As children, a few of us female cousins used to relax in the hot summer holiday afternoons with our unmarried aunt, Nana Sianang. Her cottage was located in the northern edge of the “compound” –- the cluster of houses of my grandmother’s family in Santiago, Ilocos Sur –- and, shaded by trees and exposed to the breezes that blew in from the sea, it was always refreshingly cool. Now looking back, it was cool because, unlike the other houses, it was the one that remained the simplest and stayed true to traditional architecture. Its roof of thick thatch insulated the interior from the sun’s heat, and the spaces between the bamboo slats, as well as the  floor raised 2 meters above the ground, enabled breezes to freely circulate up and into the house as well.  While we girls chatted or napped or tried our hands at Nana Sianang’s quaint hand-operated antique sewing machine, we would hear her occasionally calling out, “salaki, salaki!, clapping her hands at the chickens who tended to fly into the open verandah kitchen at the back of the cottage (bangsal). And just like another word that I thought was Tagalog (tianggue) that I encountered in a market in Chiapas in the Yucatan, Mexico, it turns out that the Ilocano “salaki” is the Spanish “sal aqui!” But I digress.

Worry — I know it’s not all that easy to let go. We make plans, we arrange parties, trips, all manner of things for the future. The planning is fine. It’s the worrying about the outcome that’s the problem and sours joyful anticipation. More often, I end up with less than satisfactory results because of worry.

I remember reading about a dinner that a famous chef — it might’ve been Julia Child — had planned for the visit of another famous chef, James Beard. She fussed and worried whether her cooking would be up to snuff.  And of course, it didn’t turn out as she’d expected. She herself realized that it was because of stressing about a perfect outcome.

Anger or, more precisely, resentment about something that someone has done to me, translates to a past action. Thus the past.

Worry is more about a future outcome, at least for me. And so the first key to happiness and health according to Reiki is –- focus on the present. Not the past, nor the future. Next, do away with negativity — anger, worry.  That’s the way I interpret it, at any rate.  And the laying of hands? They have a role to play too, and I shall share my thoughts on that later. Together with the affirming words, I continue to find  warm hands over the thyroid area extremely calming.

Thank you again, my friend Hong Ching, for the introduction to Reiki. Thanks to the early morning moon and the star for lighting up my bedroom. And thanks to my friend Carme who serendipitously emailed; I had thought about her yesterday.  Thank you as well to the progress of the upper bud on the amaryllis, now with three interior buds exposed and such an intense vermilion! Nature indeed comes with perfect packaging!


Most of all on this day, I am grateful for the power of the mind and the spirit to set into motion the healing of the body.

Year of Grace, Day 91. Why “just for today”?

For the past few days, the five ideals of Reiki have been on my mind. To paraphrase, they are — “Just for today, let go of anger; let go of worry; give thanks; work well; be kind.

Why “just for today”?

By specifying “just for today,” perhaps Reiki founder Mikao Usui was ensuring that adhering to the five ideals would be perceived as doable. Not feeling anger for a day –- I can perhaps manage that. A whole week, a month, a year? Erm… possibly not for the likes of unsaintly me. One day, each day at a time – that I might be able to achieve. Or at least I can give it my best shot.

As well it is because, I realise, todaythis day — is as much a span of time as we can be certain of. Actually it is not even all of today’s 24 hours. Accidents happen, illness or natural disaster strikes, something unexpected occurs, and we may not see tomorrow. Or this afternoon, this evening. At least not in the same condition that we are in as of this moment. In essence it is merely this very moment that I can be sure of.

At this very moment I am writing in my gratitude journal – my 91st day to be precise. The very word journal is based on the concept of one day – the French jour. If I had, from the outset, thought about this undertaking – of a daily or almost daily habit of writing down my thoughts for 91 days — I might have baulked at its scale.

Yet here I am, approaching just about a third of a year along on my journey of daily thanks. Journey – incidentally that’s another word with jour in it. It originally meant “as much distance as one can cover in one day.”

At this precise moment, I am grateful that M has brought me coffee. He has even accompanied it with a Madeleine – the last one from his second batch. M has recently taken up patisserie making, enticed by the cookbook that came with this year’s house Christmas present – a Kenwood mixer – for both of which (M’s baking and the mixer) I am thankful. My previous one, a multitasking Osterizer, lasted well over 3 decades. And I hope this one does as well.

At this very moment, a red squirrel is scrambling among the branches of the yew tree nearest the house. I am happy and grateful to be able to see red squirrels, right here in my Bonn garden. They are a rare sight in the UK, as North American grey species brought over during the colonial period have out-reproduced the endemic red European ones.

Update on the amaryllis: the taller bud has been increasing in girth, its profile looking more and more uh … pleasingly pregnant. Just now I am reminded of the Spanish equivalent – embarazada, whereas the Japanese term is more positively celebratory – omedeta; omedetou being the usual greeting for a happy event — thus, congratulations, best wishes. Yesterday the upper bud had slightly opened to show its vermilion inner garments. And today, have a look —  this picture says it more eloquently than my words can say.

For the beauty of flowers – their infinitely diverse and splendid colouring and outrageously fascinating shapes — and for the joy that they bring. And most of all – for the wondrous, glorious, and miraculous phenomenon of flowering — I am deeply in awe and exceedingly grateful.

Just for today, I let go of anger. Resentment, frustration, exasperation, annoyance, jealousy, irritation, bitterness, impatience. Anger — that corrosive emotion — has many forms. It does not only come as rage, after all.












Year of Grace, Day 87. The promise of an amaryllis

This morning began with snow flurries. The sky then cleared and the sun peeped out, only to have the snow come back, driven by gusty winds. But as before, the snow stopped soon after and all that remains is just a dusting of white on the driveway. The sun is lighting up the birch trunks now against a striped grey and pale blue sky. I feel this is going to be one of those indeterminate weather days, but the forecast is for alternating sun and snow in the morning and continuous snowfall from the afternoon until night. It is weird but lovely to have a cloudless caerulean sky lit by the sun one minute, and a few minutes later a drab sky with threatening clouds. Never a dull moment today for sure!

Over the past days I’ve been working flat out to meet a deadline, and at the same time enjoying the company of houseguests – very good friends from way back, Hong Ching from Malaysia and Carme from Catalonia. Savouring these precious moments and delighting in the sharing of ideas and experiences, and even more, our joy at being together after so long — take priority over journalizing, any day! For these rare and pleasurable visits, I am truly thankful.

Garden update: outdoors the skimmia (Skimmia japonica) bushes are looking very handsome with their maroon buds clustered among shiny evergreen leaves. They’re fattening up and getting ready for spring when their sweet scent will carry throughout the garden. Spikey leaves of the scilla (grape hyacinth) have come up under the twisty hazel tree, and a few flowers have opened precociously on one of the forsythia bushes. It’s the one in a more sheltered spot among other shrubs. Their company keep it protected from the chilling east winds. The artichokes seem to have come through being buried by the last snowfall.

Indoors, the lemon tree continues to bloom and deliciously perfume the sitting room. It obviously loves its position by a south-facing window with lots of light and sun (on those rare sunny days we get in winter here in Bonn). The calamondin (calamansi) on the other hand keeps dropping its leaves, signalling its displeasure at its current location facing west, and although there it gets lots of light, it is certainly deprived of direct sun. I shall have to move it next to the lemon if I don’t wish it to drop all its leaves altogether. Plants requirements trump interior design, and I shall have to forego the pleasure of having the calamondin’s fruits and perfume next to an armchair.

Lower bud cropped

On a brighter note, one of my pots of amaryllis has not just one, but two, buds stretching upwards exceedingly fast. I’ve only taken the bare potted bulbs out of their dark “winter quarters” (the boiler room) a week ago, and in that time one of them has managed a bud close to 30 cm (12 inches) showing a sliver of the palest red. They’re both on a window ledge that gets plenty of light but not direct sun. The other only has leaves at the moment. It was the one traumatized by a ferocious snail or slug attack on its flower bud last year, and perhaps has never quite recovered. I’m hoping it will have forgotten and perhaps put out a bud too. Normally amaryllis is in bloom around Christmas, but perhaps because these pots spend their time outdoors in a not very sunny location, they take much longer to build up their reserves of energy. The bud that had been devoured was just on the verge of emerging from the bulb last summer.

For plants that are at their best in winter when other plants are dormant, I am so grateful. The amaryllis’s buds carry a special message –- during the darkest and coldest and most dreary of times, that is precisely when this stately and elegant lily shows its mettle and blooms.