Some of my earliest memories, from before I was two, are of sitting in the back seat of our family car, a book on my lap and my imagination deep into the illustrations. Each image opened a world of possibility. My mother said that was how I entertained myself on the long car trips between Illinois, where I was born and Wyoming the land of my grandparents. When I learned to read, my favorite book, The Birds of North America, was a great disappointment. In elementary school, I illustrated my stories of kings and queens and fairies with drawings. My painting stopped until I was introduced to brushes and ink in a calligraphy class my third year in Japan. I soon discovered that when I was out of ideas for the next scene of a play or chapter of a story, all I had to do was get out my brushes and ink stone and a blank sheet of paper. Soon, my brush moved into Chinese characters, that had become pictures after I studied their historical meaning, or simple paintings. In 1995, when a play that I had written was published bilingually in Japanese and English, I rediscovered my illustrations and the publisher wanted to add them to the book. Since then, painting has become a spiritual practice, a place where I return when I wonder where my writing is going or to illustrate a dream. I take out a piece of thick paper, my stick of fragrant sumi, my ink stone and brushes, my Japanese gouache and begin.
The illustrations from “The Village above the Stars” were inspired by the fourteen years my beloved and I spent in a village in the foothills of the Japan Alps. We found the hundred-year-old farmhouse just before the plum rains set in and if we hadn’t, the beautiful building would have been lost. As we saved the house, we saved ourselves and became part of a village that had existed for over 400 years in that place, terraced rice fields like stepping stones down to the misty valley below. In a typhoon, when I had to replace the tarp on our house that was keeping out the rain, I looked to the west and caught a glimpse of the Japan Sea. The day we moved in, we took a gift to our neighbors. A grandmother met us at the door and when we told her we had bought the house next door, she took our hands and said, “A mysterious connection has brought you to this place. With all my heart, I give thanks.” The story had begun.
The publisher who took the story and pictures was at first concerned about the cost of printing the illustrations but when I received a galley print, he asked for 15 more illustrations. When the Japanese Library Association chose it for their recommended reading list, my beloved and I traveled around Japan telling the stories in Japanese with music on the koto or Japanese harp. One of the villagers said of the book, “This is our village.” Since we arrived in the United States twelve years ago, our village has been expanding as you can see in the illustration here for this year's Christmas card: "Madonna Holding the Earth in the Form of a Bird."
The Madonna took the Earth into her arms tenderly as a bird fallen from a tree, the delicate bones palpable, the long experience with flight. Together, they paused for a moment and prayed for peace.