Heian-era diarist Sei Shonagon was known for the lists she made of things she noticed in 10th-Century Japan's imperial court. In her Makura no Soshi (Pillow Book) she wrote of ``Depressing Things,'' ``Things That Arouse a Found Memory of the Past,'' ``Things That Are the Reverse of Each Other,'' ``Scruffy Things,'' and `Things That Can Be Seen Comfortably.''
It's been a number of years since I last read Shonagon, and, just now was surprised to discover I don't have a copy of her book in the Japanese-literature section of my bookcase. So I can't check and see if she ever made a list of ``Beautiful Things.'' I feel sure she must have, given the refined sensibilities of the Heian court.
But today I am thinking of my own list of beautiful things, or, more precisely, beautiful things I have experienced recently. At the top of the list is last night's presentation of John Neumeier's ``Little Mermaid,'' performed by the San Francisco Ballet. This is a new work, at least for San Francisco audiences, and it is nothing like the Disneyfied version of the Hans Christian Anderson tale. This is a version for adults only as it deals with complex and sometimes tortured human relationships.
Tan Yuan Yuan danced the Little Mermaid role. She's clearly SF Ballet's marquee name, but for years I've intensely disliked her work, finding it technically brilliant but cold, if not heartless. However, after last night, all is forgiven. I think this will prove to be the defining role of her career. She didn't dance this part, she became the Little Mermaid.
I've never seen her so expressive, and the tenderness and joy in her first love for the prince radiated clear to the top of the Opera House's dress circle, where I sat. Her intense physical pain, when she surrendered her long flowing silken tail for human legs and feet was palpable, as were her shy and broken-hearted encounters with the prince on his wedding day. And the end, when she and the poet step out into the starry night of infinite space was breathtaking.
I've seen most of the great living ballerinas of this era -- and I don't use the title ``ballerina'' indiscriminately -- and have to say that after last night's performance, Tan takes her place in their ranks.
Aside from Tan's performance, the entire ballet was special. It's hard to imagine that Neumeier managed not only to choreograph the entire full-length story ballet, but also designed the costumes, the intricate sets, and the lighting, which magically brought us from above to below the sea. I read somewhere that he's a graduate of Marquette University, sister institution to the school where I got my undergraduate degree. Ah, the lengths to which a Jesuit education can be put!
Another beautiful thing I experienced recently was my coven's Ostara ritual, at which we welcomed Persephone's return. We held the ritual outdoors in my garden, which I had been carefully prompting to full bloom in time for the event.
Each member of the coven contributed to the altar cloth by making a fabric nosegay . Each flower we fused to a lacy background represented a particular gratitude for the gifts of springtime. We fused these nosegays to a piece of mottled green batik fabric, then laid the cloth on the ground in the center of the circle. We then surrounded the cloth with a 6" border fern fronds and flower petals. Persephone was represented by a vase of pink roses and baby's breath placed in the middle of the altar.
The two of us who priestessed the ritual passed out scissors at the beginning of the ritual for each woman to cut seven different flowers and five different leaves from the garden to make up nosegays of living flowers. Once they were assembled, the bases of these little bouquets were wrapped in floral tape, and pushed through the middle of small paper lace doilies, which we then laid on the perimeter of the altar. Later on we exchanged the bouquets, giving each woman a special Persephone wish for the springtime.
This was one of our rare rituals for which we were lucky enough to have little ones present. We had two tiny Persephones, both under two years of age. They played at the edge of the altar with potting soil, water, and any number of garden toys. The altar was so beautiful that I told everyone to take a mental photograph (I really don't like cameras at rituals), but I know what we really will remember with such fondness is the sight of the two little girls with their hands in the dirt, and the mud splashes they made on the altar cloth.
Nicole -- my co-priestess -- and I had a secret we sprang on everyone. I told an updated version of the story of Demeter and Persephone (in my recounting, Persephone becomes an impossible teenager who answers her mother with a whiney ``whatever'' when she's cautioned to be careful out in the big world; and Demeter is a have-it-all superwoman, distressed because she can't control her daughter the way she can manage the rest of the world). After I finished telling the story, we had everyone stand and call out to Persephone, welcoming her home and asking her to bring us springime.
And she appeared! She was aspected by a young woman in a long flowing pale green dress, wearing a wreath of pink roses in her hair. She brought a basket full of floral necklaces and gave one to each woman (and little girl) together with a wish that each recipient be filled with the joy and beauty of the season. Then she made the rounds of the circle and with a long-stemmed pink rosebud, cast blessings on all the pots of seeds we planted.
It was one of those perfect days, at least from my perspective. Not too hot, and not too windy. The flowers and all the women at the ritual were blooming, as was our beautiful Persephone. For the after-ritual feast, we had seasonal food, including a big platter of spring greens -- dandelion greens, pea shoots, tiny red onions, a finely divided mustard and fava bean thinnings -- my friend Mark Thompson bought the day before at the Santa Barbara Farmer's Market .
The third beautiful thing was also a ritual we held at my loft several weeks earlier. It was a puja honoring Sarasvati, a Hindu deity associated with knowledge, speech, and creativity. I do this puja every few years, and it's very different from the sort of rituals my coven usually has. The puja emphasized individual devotion to the deity, with each woman offering sandalwood incense, and making specific requests for guidance and inspiration.
For this ritual everyone wore a yellow or gold saree, and the donning of the sarees and the building of the altar occur within in the context of the ritual. There is something magical and transformative that occurs when we have put aside our western clothes and entered golden-clad into the presence of Sarasvati.
Again, I asked each woman to take a photo with her memory at the beginning of the ritual, when we were suddenly all arrayed in gold and yellow. And the altar that was built was beautiful. We used my portable design wall, covering it with several cut-up sarees. For a backdrop behind Sarasvati, we used a quilted wall hanging created by my friend Tristan Robin Blakeman.
People brought yellow flowers, and objects symbolizing the petitions they were making to Sarasvati. These were placed on the altar one by one. I used my purple ``Chinese children'' pincushion, symbolizing some of the unfinished art projects for which I needed a jump start.
After the ritual we had a feast of Indian vegetarian food. Brighde and I made an eggplant curry from a recipe I found on the Web. I've gone back looking for it, and haven't been able to find it again, so perhaps it was a delicious one-time dish.
And the second is of two of the women who attended.
Many of the sarees we used were used, and available at EBay.com. Some of the others were acquired from some of the saree stores on Berkeley's University Avenue. I think that putting on these garments did make a difference in the women's experience of the ritual. And to me, it was certainly a beautiful thing.
Some years ago I attended what I later realized was my first Pagan ritual. held to mark the end of a dear friend's life as male, and the beginning of her life as a woman. We who were there to support her were all asked to bring something that symbolized our lives as women.
I made a long garland woven of ribbons and all the flowers in my garden. I chose that because to me, one of the great joys of being female is the frequent opportunity to make beautiful things for the simple joy of the process. Beautiful things made and enjoyed just for the moment have the power to move me more than almost anything else. The ballet, our springtime ritual and our evocation of Sarasvati all fit into that category and rank high on my list of Beautiful Things.