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East and West: Place

October 16, 2014

By Angela Jeffs

This time last year I was returning from Leonard Jacobson’s retreat-vacation HEAVEN ON EARTH in Provence. Ditto 2012, when it was my bridge between leaving Japan and arriving here in Scotland.

A lot of water has passed under that bridge since then and two years on, I’m wondering where I am exactly on this long and often difficult journey. I do embrace transition, with gratitude and acceptance, but it’s not exactly a pain-free process.

This year the retreat was for Chinese students only, such is the demand in China. I smile to imagine the tiny village of Roaix so invaded: the supermarket, boulangerie, the restaurants…  Smile but with the feeling of being slightly homesick.  Those two weeks were so special.  So tough. So life changing.

What am I homesick for? The place and familiar faces for sure. But also more life-changing experiences. More being 100 per cent unexpectedly turned upside down and inside out.  In year one I faced spiritual complacency and the familiar upset of feeling hurt and misunderstood. Year two? Economic responsibility and dependency, which again resulted in a certain “re-arrangement”.

What would have happened this year? No idea. No point in even thinking about it. Instead, here I am, facing a third autumn into winter…

Without any idea of what to write about this time around, I submitted to the melodramatic but still alarming possibility that I was written dry, my writing life at an end. But apparently not… not quite yet, at least.

Last year my local town launched a literary festival called BOOKMARK (Blairgowrie, Rattray and the Glens).  As an incomer, I felt too new to push myself forward, but did join a group of independent local authors (in a fringe event beyond Fringe) reading from their books. Which is how I came to meet Marion (who writes novels with a Welsh friend under the name Mirren Jones) and Bruce (science fiction aficionado), who organized the event.

BOOKMARK 2014 has just finished and – surprise, surprise – I found myself involved on a larger scale. With the theme of PLACE, October 10-12 involved two days of mainstream events – literary lunches, workshops, talks and readings – and a third described as Indie. That was us, Marion, Bruce and I. Three independent authors offering a day for writers and wannabe independent authors.

Sunday morning, while Marion facilitated a workshop (Is there a novel in you?) I offered one upstairs on Proprioceptive Writing.  Ticket sales had been slow but both ended up being well attended. In the afternoon, after Edinburgh-based literary agent Lindsey Fraser had offered somewhat dispiriting advice on trying to get into print via mainstream channels, Bruce offered a brilliant presentation on independent publishing, which also drew a respectable number of attendees.

The previous afternoon, on the Saturday, I had found myself reading a 300 word piece called Tora’s Labyrinth. It was one of 20 pieces (from just under 60 submissions, ages 6-77)  selected for an anthology to be titled PLACE, by children’s writer and author Joan Lennon, Blairgowrie’s Writer-in-Residence for the previous six months.

It made me realize how the creation of the labyrinth – and placing Tora at its heart – had somehow rooted me to the cottage and the surrounding land in a way that quite surprised. Akii had planted gobo (burdock) in late Spring,  tended it over the summer and yesterday pulled it up, using some roots to make Japanese kinpira and prep the bulk for freezing. Pulling ourselves up from here now may be harder than we think.

A workshop on PLACE on the Saturday morning resulted in the 15 minute piece of so-called automatic writing that follows. This too confirms that certain choices have been made.

For a year the house stood empty. Waiting. Waiting for the occupants to return. Dust settled on gleaming parquet floors; paper on shoji screens yellowed and grew brittle.

In Spring (2013) the house warmed, grew hopeful. Kobayashi-san came to bonsai the garden as he had done every year since 2000. But then as the months passed, and heat and humidity intensified, tiles in the ofuro (bathroom) began to green with mould, tatami matting reek with lack of use. By August the rooms smelled rank and abandoned, as indeed they were. But with autumn came the black and yellow striped spiders , festooning books and crannies with the intricate weavings of cold weather homes. Cockroaches that had used the corridor between kitchen and genkan (hallway) as a summertime runway crept down into the wooden foundations, or up into the mysterious vaulted spaces of rafters and heavy grey tiles.

In October, several of these kawara (clay roof tiles) flew off in a typhoon, joining in the garden outside several others dislodged by repeated quakes and tremors.

By the year end, the seasonal cycle passed, the landlady wondered what to do. There was correspondence: Was Ueda-san and English his wife coming back or not? But still the house continued to resist new occupancy; it wanted the old tenants back. They had lived there a decade, made it their own, their home, filled the beautiful spaces with laughter and tears, storytelling and writing.  And oh, the parties! The house had swelled with happiness and pride over the years; it had become such a happy rewarding and rewarded place.

But it began to grow anxious, hating to lie empty. So it gave Angela and Akii another month (they had said they would be gone a year and then would see…). Then, with no sound of doors unlocking and sliding open, glass rattling happily in frames, and familiar voices calling familiar phrases of return , it sadly but submissively let go. They were obviously not returning, at least within such a time frame.

It allowed the Hayashi-family to move in.

Tonight, we go to the Perth Art Gallery and Museum for an event that will celebrate (for one thing) Joan’s anthology. Asked to create an installation around the project, she apparently laid all 20 selected pieces on her living room floor and then picked one phrase or sentence from each to form a composite prose poem. It lies now on the floor of the museum. Printed words, together with 20 accompanying artworks, are to be bound into a book: Place.

This word, “place” –
     seeing, hearing, remembering…
     ancient willows, youthful ash –
     fog rising with the start of dawn –
     stags lock horns to do their battle –
    fists of ferns and gold letters on a grey metal plaque –
    rumble and thrum of tyre hitting the metal of the road –
    chanting of rain, insistent as drums –
    dears (sic) roar loudly –
    blackened end walls that surely once made up
           the breast od a chimney –
    jam jars for tadpoles, and grand nichts,
           and the mannie in a tin hat –

Stories are made and written down…
     I flew in the air and the crocodile went home –
     talking to Mr Tree, a lifelong friend –
     climbing down the ladder, I breathed a new beginning –
     Have we learned? Have we learned?
     How can I stay away?
     This is my place.

This is my place?
Maybe not forever. Certainly for now.

Also by Angela:

- East and West: The Healing Labyrinth

- East and West: Purposive drift

- East and West: Growing in the Broken Places

- East and West: Bitch of a Month

- East and West: Stepping Stones


About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs ( stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within. Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via
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