Monday, January 3, 2011


Tonight is the new moon that marks the start of the last month in the Chinese lunar calendar...the last month of the Year of the Tiger, my birth year animal. I'll be sorry to see the tiger year go. it feels special, a birth year, and of course will only roll around again in another twelve years. Yikes! We'll all be so much older...

I discovered recently that the days of the week in Burma are also associated with animals. Every temple has a series of small shrines, eight altogether, each associated with a day-of-the-week birth animal. (Wednesday has two: morning is an elephant with tusks and afternoon an elephant without.) Everyone, at least every Buddhist, in Burma knows what day of the week she or he was born on. I had to google my birthdate to find out something that if I'd been born Burmese I'd have known from an earliest age: that my birth day is Saturday. Saturday's animal is a dragon. My friend Trisha, like my son Dom, is a Monday, a tiger. That means she's a Tiger by year and also by day. grrr!

All these associations get filled in, coloured you might say, by us, by the meanings we attach and the interpretations we choose. Any and every year sign or day of the week animal or horoscope sign can be read as good luck and a positive thing. We know of good attributes for each. We can also read in warnings about risks and hubris and all sorts of other dangers.

Somehow I associate all this with the idea of karma. We have a destiny perhaps, but we shape it too. Life is unpredictable, but full of potential, and so the idea of karma or horoscopes or fortune-tellers is that it's up to us to try to realise the good potential and avoid the harmful or less life-enhancing possibilities that are inherent in each of us and in many life-situations. Maybe that's what some of the churches of various kinds are trying to tell us, but they lock it into dogma that feels so unreal and binding that the wise-living part of the message seems to get buried most of the time. Too bad for all of us.

Especially when organised religion feels empty of meaning and unreal, we are driven to look for meaning elsewhere. And in our search for meaning and connection, we look for patterns. If I feel a closeness with someone, it's comfortable to relate that to the fact that we share a birth sign. Maybe our shared birth sign is in fact part of it. Or maybe somewhere way back we share an ancestor. Or is it pheromones? Or shared culture? It's funny this business of the people we choose, those we feel an immediate affinity for and those who feel much more like strangers.

I met a woman in the airport in Rangoon a month ago. We were trying to check in for the same flight - a plane to Chiang Mai. And it was one of those encounters with a stranger where there was instant connection, a meeting of minds, yes, but also of spirit somehow, though we come from very different places on the globe and different generations... Surely the possibility of meeting fellow-travellers or unknown cousins-in-spirit or sisters-under-the-skin is one of the things that keeps me looking around the corner and anticipating tomorrow. It's fun. And perhaps the connection lasts only a short while, or maybe, with internet, we stay in touch. It's a nice idea, not empty, the possibility of staying in touch, but that matters less than that initial sense of possibility and connection.

If I were in a room full of people born in the year of the Tiger, in the sign of Cancer, and on a Saturday, would there be a greater likelihood that we'd connect with each other than if the room was full of random people of every sign? I dpn't think so. But I do think that when we know there is an overlap of "destiny markers" such as birth year or sign etc with someone else, then we are predisposed to find and feel a connection with him or her. It breaks the ice. It makes us less strangers to each other; it gives us a relationship of some kind.

I'm not sure where this line of thinking is leading me. This naming of the years and the months is another way of giving time a geography, making markers for ourselves in the flowing stream of passing time, helping us feel less helpless occasionally. In earlier times, when the stars shone brightly without competition from electric or gas lighting, the stars kept people company and could be "mapped" and known in some way. Now we read about them but don't often see them. And for sure we don't generally know our way around the night sky the way our ancestors did.

Every map, every landscape, actual or metaphorical, that we learn to navigate, gives us confidence because it gives us a sense of context. And so the geographies of lunar months and years and weekdays, with their animal and other associations, like the saints' days of the catholic church and the calendars of feasts and fasts in the other religions, from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism, are human-invented structures that shelter us; they're maps that give us a sense of our place in time and social space.

A young friend of ours dropped by this evening. We got to chatting about her exam anxieties and her general anxiety, which is occasionally crippling. We talked to her about trying to treat exams as a game, doing anything possible to feel some control in what is an inherently coercive and stressful situation. (One way is by answering questions in reverse order or mixed order, for example.)

I guess that earlier conversation about managing anxiety about life is what led me on this exploration. Humankind's efforts to take charge of a feeling of destiny by making maps of time and assigning properties to days and months and years have been pretty successful for many people. They want to believe and they do believe, either in life everlasting or in the power of prayer or offerings, or in the possibility of rebirth in a better form of life. And all this belief makes the fear of everyday dangers less strong.

How amazing, the human imagination, that we have the power to rescue ourselves from fears. Of course if we lacked imagination and the power to anticipate, perhaps we wouldn't be crippled by fear and anxiety. So our weakness and our strength arise from the same source, from the very attribute that distinguishes us from animals: our power to imagine. How wonderful.

AFTER THOUGHTS: I've been out for a couple of runs in the cold weather of the last days. They're exhilarating, but not as easy as runs in milder temperatures. I came across a small article that explained that part of the difficulty is that muscles all over are less limber in the cold, so that everything, from leg muscles to those it takes to draw breath, are stiffer and less powerful. It's great to have an excuse for feeling a little feeble in winter! I've found too that the cold is making me ravenous. Today, for example, I had two fried eggs, not just one, on my leftover rice. I fried some chopped shallots in oil with a dash of turmeric and the usual mustard seeds, before adding the eggs (all in a wok). There was green from rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) leaves left over from the bunch I bought earlier to make chicken salad for the dancing party. It's a wonderful herb, and keeps flavour even when fried. On top went my standby Burmese hot-sweet-tart chile sauce (the bottle now nearly gone so it's time to make more; maybe tomorrow?).

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