#21 decembrance 2021

My daughter wrote the other day that they have passed the six week mark with our grandson. Her words partly read: “6 weeks of barely sleeping, 6 weeks of balancing plates of food above his little body, 6 weeks of learning each other, 6 weeks of a new identity, … 6 weeks of uncertainty and confidence, fear and love, chaos and silence.”

Six weeks ago was also the last email I had from Mikio in which he conveyed best wishes for Larkin— “A new member of the smiling family…!” He told us to rest well with dreams.

This morning I awoke from confused dreams before it was light and thought, “we did it.” We made it to the shortest day of the year under the moon’s gaze. I tell myself as it gets colder and seems grayer that I will go on walking. During the winter darkness I will watch the birds as well as listen to the coyotes and the geese. I look forward to getting back to clay work in the studio. Although it doesn’t feel like it yet the days will get longer. I will light candles and fires as a coping mechanism. Last year I began to think of time in six week chunks. Six weeks from now is the lunar new year, and a little more than six weeks after that is the equinox.

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

–Mark Strand, Lines for Winter from “Selected Poems,” © 1979 by Mark Strand

#20 decembrance 2021

I walked through the trees this afternoon looking for nests in the bare branches. For understanding the vulnerability I was feeling I wanted to find clues in the twigs nestled and woven in-between branches. I found a nest high up in a forsythia bush mostly made of broken twigs, but also a few pieces of brown tarp. The mix of natural and human ingredients raises questions about how I have come to make my nest in Virginia.

I have collected bird’s nests for many years because I find their construction inspirational. The use of found materials whether it’s horsehair, newsprint, or blue tarp continue to fascinate. No matter if it is moss or twigs the collage instructs me about the structure of my life. I love this house and the pandemic has driven it home more clearly how my intuition and Warren’s engineering have been woven together to make a life.

For so many years I felt lucky to have the fixed orb of my parents’ loft in New York City, a nest where I could land at a moments notice. Omen was so close, only a block away. I could arrive like a bird and settle down into the protective artistic shelter of my parents soulful home. I could walk a couple of blocks and dip into the contrasting heartbeat of city life.

My father liked to go out to lunch once or twice a week by himself when my mom was busy doing her own thing. For many years he liked to go to Elephant and Castle, a restaurant close-by on Prince Street. Mikio also liked to eat there at mid-day. They would sit at either end of the restaurant at their own tables, but trade off buying lunch for each other. My dad and Mikio were very different birds but had a great appreciation for each other.

“The old books on birds that lined my childhood shelves described nests as ‘bird homes’. This confused me. How could a nest be a home? Back then I thought of homes as fixed, eternal, dependable refuges. Nests were not like that: they were seasonal secrets to be used and abandoned. But then, birds challenged my understanding of the nature of home in so many ways. Some spent the year at sea, or entirely in the air, and felt earth or rock beneath their feet only to make nests and lay eggs that tied them to land. This was all a deeper mystery. It was a story about the way lives should go that was somehow like – but not anything like – the one I’d been handed as a child. You grow up, you get married, you get a house, you have children. I didn’t know where birds fitted into all this. I didn’t know where I did. It was a narrative that even then gave me pause.”

–Helen Macdonald from Helen Macdonald: the forbidden wonder of birds’ nests and eggs, The Guardian, September 2017

#19 decembrance 2021

Yesterday in my Zoom conversation about my exhibit at SHFAP in New York City, Beth Kaminstein asked me about color in my work. I replied that at one point Mikio asked me to make small paintings, four by eight inches, that he wanted to use to identify reserved tables not yet filled. On heavy, rough-edged, handmade paper I used acrylic paint and methyl cellulose to make the paint imitate how I use slip in my clay work. I painted loose images of grasses, fields, and a horizon line. The paintings were the same size as what I might make in clay for a small plate. Intrigued, I embarked on a little experiment using colored slips on white clay in our electric kiln. It was really fun, but I discovered I did not enjoy using the plates. I prefer a muted palette where the color is ever changing, created by the food one chooses.

I love this quality of beauty that has meaning and use beyond visual appreciation. These small paintings on handmade paper were like journal entries, representing my paths, the walks I took as if leaves from the book of my life. The nuance and texture of my marks were inscribed with my experience of the Virginia landscape. On a restaurant table they took on a new purpose.

When I remember the sharp coat of attention that Mikio wore at Omen I remember it as if in a trance. It is not just the photos that I have but the associated sensory details. He took so many opportunities to create beauty and connection through his many choices: hand painted menus, rough handmade lamps, his father’s calligraphy hanging on the walls, the particular pots or flowers scattered through the restaurant, the music in the background, and finally, of course, the food. All these memories remind me of the fragility of the moment.


noun: a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life, a mood whose only known cure is the vuvuzela.

–John Koenig, in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

#18 decembrance 2021

Today I gave a Zoom talk in conjunction with my exhibit at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects in NYC. I wanted to keep my focus on the shadowy qualities of my woodfired work. But Steven brought up a momentary focus on blue. Mikio had visited my studio when I was working on black glaze tests. He saw a small bowl that had come out with a deep blue as dense as gravity. Mikio lit up like the full moon when he stumbled upon it. “This is what I want!,” he exclaimed. I tried to dissuade him, believing that blue is such a cliche in ceramics, but he convinced me to make him a series of shallow bowls. Despite my fears, the deep blue with soft concentric ridges sparkled in the dark restaurant like it was the heart of night. They were used at first with a white sashimi sliced so thin you could see the color of the glaze through the fish. In a later incarnation of gentle contrast they were used to serve fresh fruit for dessert.

“What does the heart of night have to say? It dares you to enter its perilous uncertainty. I used to fear that below the shadows were more shadows, a dark so dense its gravity, at some point, would grow inescapable. (It was for Pizarnik, who swallowed a handful of Seconal, a pill to treat insomnia, and went to sleep forever.) But the moon opens the night jar of the heart and inside, beneath the layers of fear and shame, lives another form of light. It does not glow like moonlight and it does not shine like sunlight. It is like no light any of us have seen with our eyes, a light like bells. When the moon draws out the shadows it can guide us to this light in the darkest center, in every heart pulse and in every pause that breaks the eternity of a sleepless night. There it is, this light, and it is—can I say it? Why this shame? This light, brave animal, can I say it? It’s love.”

–Nina MacLaughlin from Long Night Moon, The Paris Review, 12/17/2021

#17 decembrance 2021

This month I have been resurrecting small pieces of memory about Mikio. It never occurred to me to think of these little jigsaw pieces as stories but they are. I remember when he came to visit us in Maryland. It was cold outside. I was nervous about having to cook dinner for someone who owns a hip restaurant. We lived in a tiny house. It had once been the separate summer kitchen for the farmhouse next door where our landlords lived. The night before Mikio came two left hand burners on the electric stove went on the fritz. Given that one burner had never worked that meant we were down to one. I still had to come up with a dinner. Later it turned out that a mouse had electrocuted himself, spread-eagled between the contacts for the burner switches. I put some sweet potatoes in the oven and baked trout in aluminum foil packets filled with the last bits of dill from our garden. We also cobbled together a small salad. Mikio was so impressed by the simplicity of the potatoes it was as if he had never before had sweet potatoes.

The next day we went to the studio three miles down the road to talk pots and review what I had been making. These memories demand accuracy, which is sometimes fleeting. The fibrous nature of smell, the waning light of a short day and the consistency of clay triangulate the specifics of my memories.

Memory demands so much,
it wants every fiber
told and retold.
It gives and gives
but for a price,

–Denise Levertov, from Memory Demands So Much, in This Great Unknowing: Last Poems, New Directions, 1999

#16 decembrance 2021

When I made my first round of pots for Mikio and Omen in 1982 I thought it was a one time thing. I couldn’t see into the future of a year, much less fast forward to 2021. It is in my nature to question and to swim through doubt. Mikio surprised me by continuing to ask for more. Sometimes he would call us up and say, “we are changing the menu for the next season; could I come visit and pick out some new pots?” Those trips were always a revelation. Perusing our shelves he might find beauty in plates I saw as failures because they were too flat or rough. He might choose to use the extras I had edited out of the first round of making. One time he took tiles to use as a plates. Another time what I thought were cups became small bowls. He was always imagining new uses for objects I had made with other intentions. It was a small thrill to see the pots transformed through use.

This afternoon was very warm for December. I did a little garden clean up. When my energy flagged I made a coffee and took it down to the dock on the pond. The trees across the way are bare, the colors muted but rich in the thin December light. Through my work with Omen and the food they serve I have come to understand the shifts in seasons on a micro level not only as I take my daily walks in Virginia but as the pots are used with seasonal ingredients in the restaurant in New York City.

“It’s my nature to question, to look at the opposite side. I believe that the best writing also does this … It tells us that where there is sorrow, there will be joy; where there is joy, there will be sorrow … The acknowledgement of the fully complex scope of being is why good art thrills.”

–Jane Hirshfield from an interview The Fullness of Things with Krista Tippett, “On Being,” December 16, 2021

#15 decembrance 2021

In 2017 we had a dinner for fourteen which Mikio named The White Evening. It was a celebration of our collaboration over 35 years. Omen has been a meeting of minds, hearts, families, and tastes. Our group assembled and experienced a meal that was a beautiful cross between a parade and a feast. We enjoyed the company and the recounted stories.

For instance the gallerist Peter Freeman described how years ago he was planning on having a dinner party at Omen for one of his gallery artists. Mikio invited him to have dinner at the restaurant on a crowded night to discuss the planned meal. Despite the crowd, all night the table next to them sat empty. Towards the very end of the meal Mikio asked Peter if he would like to talk about the dinner and what they would have. Peter said, “of course.”

One of the waiters began to bring empty plates, setting them down on the table next to them. Peter didn’t initially understand why was he looking at bare plates. But as Mikio picked up each plate Mikio could imagine the potential composition. Mikio described the food that would be served in a given bowl, how it might echo the surface or contrast with the glaze. A tray became a frame. Each vessel had its own intrigue and character. Symmetry was avoided. There was a rhythm and tension chosen to create a space for a meal to exist. The plates allowed Mikio to compose the layers of moments that go into a meal, the layers of choices, and finally the layers of flavors which would all combine to create a nourishing experience of the season.

Omen is like that. One goes and has a beautiful meal, but it’s hard to pull apart all the effort, imagination and care of which it is composed. There are the dark walls, the paper lamps like rough moons, the music, the plates, the attention, the tastes and textures. All reflect a natural world of beauty. The choice of ingredients, the arrangement of food on a range of vessels–ceramic, glass, bamboo, lacquer or metal–and the service realize a dream. One of Mikio’s arts was to craft a stage for food and an opportunity for beauty reflected in the light of friendship and family.

Pots are formed from clay,
but the empty space within it
is the essence of the pot.

–Lao Tse

Mikio Shinagawa, 2017, The White Evening

#14 decembrance 2021

When we were kids my older brother Shawn was the inventor and constant manipulator of rules. I remember at one point he declared the album Something Else!!!! by Ornette Coleman to be our new sneaker music. So every time we had new sneakers it went on the turntable. Then we would dance and squeak around the living room, improvising our moves to the music, showing off our new Keds to the beat.

As an adult I think of the times we delivered new bowls and plates to Omen. It was usually late at night after things had quieted down at the restaurant. Before we opened our boxes and showed off the new work I was often nervous. After we had spread out the pots and put something on a plate or imagined the use of a bowl we poured some tea in cups. The soft jazz tunes of Coltrane and Miles Davis playing in the background became my happy bowl soundtrack.

Biting into a persimmon
The great bell tolls
–Horyuji Temple

–Masaoka Shiki

#13 decembrance 2021

I have boxes of my mother’s poetry archives. I dip into these pages every now and then and it feels like time travel. The writing is not always coherent or pretty, but it was a fire that kept her going. Sometimes I open a folder and find her words about experiences I had no idea she was pondering. These pages of poems set my mind ablaze. It’s a privilege to visit with my mother’s mind again.

There was a period of time before Mikio got sick when he liked to make Japanese breakfast for us. Sometimes we would meet him at the restaurant in Soho for breakfast. At other times he would visit us in Virginia and he would make breakfast laughing at our poor quality of mirin or enjoying the greens from our garden, adding umeboshi (pickled plums) from Kyushu. One time we met for breakfast in Kyoto at his mother’s house. He was jet-lagged arriving from New York and I was departing to head back to the states. He told me that when he was in Japan he would make breakfast and write a poem for the day. I began to send him bits of poems I was reading and enjoying that spoke of the day, the light, and the season. At some point he carefully thanked me for my missives but gently suggested that I write my own poems.

Sometimes I think poems are what help us deal with our regrets, for instance, that I did not send him my own poems or I did not appreciate my mother’s poems enough in her lifetime. At other times it feels like experience has been burned into my being. Writing is like gathering firewood, getting thoughts down keeps me warm like my bonfires. Forgetting is not an option for me, so I write my own truths using the currency of memory.

Life begins from now….
A new page…..!
Keep in touch.

–an email from Mikio, September 2021

#12 decembrance 2021

The other night Peter Hoffman talked about his early experiences at Omen Azen. Peter, a former chef and restaurateur in New York [his memoir: What’s Good? was just published], described his response to the first time he ordered the house sake at Omen. First he recounted the easy possibility of ordering a glass of wine at a New York bar and being served a skimpy pour. So, he says, you look at the bartender and say, “really, that’s all?” So maybe you nudge them and ask, “please a little more?”

Thus, Peter was startled when ordering sake at Omen. What arrived at the table was a wooden box, often on a woodfired saucer with a high foot and deep sides [one of mine]. The waiter or perhaps Mikio himself would begin pouring into your box from a spouted ceramic serving bowl. They would pour, filling the box until it was overflowing into the saucer. Peter noted that this gesture of of abundance and kindness in New York City was so welcome, so surprising, so enjoyed that for him–and all of us–it became emblematic of the man behind the restaurant and his spirit of generosity.

Last night Warren and I ate our dinner at Omen. We ordered the house sake to experience Mikio’s kindness lurking in the shadows of the sanctuary he has created at Omen-Azen.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye from Kindness