(“018/04/02: All this will move to a new group of galleries, soon)
For those of you who might be interested, I now have a photo gallery to go along with the blog. It’s still a work in progress… I have a lot to learn about processing digital photographs, and some of the photos may need re-doing. The site itself is also just rudimentary for now. I have too much other work to do right now to fiddle much more with the gallery for now.
It’s been quite a few days since I wrote anything in this journal. I want to apologize to anyone who has been checking in to see anything new and was disappointed. I haven’t been feeling well all week, what with the delicate balance of my diabetes deciding that it would commence its summer vacation without me.
And that is what diabetes is… an equilibrium of outer circumstances meeting with inner workings. Getting the disease has, of course, irrevocably altered my life and my reactions to it have ranged from rage to despair. Most people when they think of diabetes think of the scare scenes in movies, so often depicted as occuring when some hapless diabetic just so happens to be at the wheel of a car and blacks out. I’ve never blacked out, though there have been a few humiliating moments when I miscalculated my insulin dosage and, having fallen asleep, woke up sweating up a river and shaking so badly that water would spill from a glass I was holding. Luckily I was never alone when these incidences happened, but I wonder what I would do if ever something like that caught me while I was up in the mountains?
But really, diabetes, in its day-to-day manifestation, is no worse or better than managing your body in the same way that anyone who cares about their health would try to maintain themselves. If anything diabetes is like a strict coach, doing good by you when you treat yourself right with balanced food, exercise, rest, and right attitude, but punishing you when you trip up and act stupid. The symptoms that diabetes throws at you can really open your eyes at times, and remind you just how sensitive your body is to changes and things which aren’t good for it. I certainly will never forget the importance of exercising my legs and feet regularly after some excrutiating cramps that woke me from sleep screaming in agony. Those cramps in a swimming pool have nothing on these cramps… these are the kings of cramps!
Because diabetes follows you day in and day out every day of your life and never once loosens its grip on your throat it is hard to put thoughts of it aside. Like any human I have my moments and I just want to lie back and turn into a couch potato, forget about abstaining from the ice cream or potato chips or beer. At such times walking into a convenience store, or passing a pizza delivery store weakens even the hardest won patience. I want to EAT!
You would think that all this would leave me bitter and resentful. I admit that at times, like when I can’t coordinate my fingers to write clear letters or I miss steps as I walk up the stairs, anger flares up, but usually it’s learning to observe and understand myself better. The amazing thing is that diabetes has taught me to quiet the pall of anger that I used to carry around for so many years. I guess it helped me understand that there is nothing really so important or urgent as the ticking of my heart. And, for those times when the pain is great or the fear of not having enough food when my blood sugar has plummetted, really remind you of the preciousness of each moment.
I don’t know how long my health will hold out, if diabetes will one day claim victory over the equilibrium and take my life, but for now I want to coddle the daily spark that flickers in here and live each day as it comes as best I can. That is perhaps all we can hope to do. Nothing is certain, and there are no guarantees.
I’ve been re-reading a book on Buddhist thought (“When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron) that focuses on turning towards one’s fears and despairs and allowing them to fill your thoughts as much as you revel in pleasure and joy. It is a powerful antidote to panic and hysteria, opening your mind to its own inner workings and helping you to step back from constant impulsive reaction.
Two years ago, in the midst of a devastating personal crisis and the worldwide madness led by the United States, I thought my whole world was crumbling. Attitudes that I had taken for granted, friends that I always thought would be there, health that I had always counted on, debts, career goals, family stability, even my assumptions of who I was and what I thought was important, suddenly made no sense any more. It was so bad that for several months I could barely talk to people beyond the rote greetings, classroom routines, and obligatory daily practicalities. Something had died inside and no amount of self flagellation or pepping by indulgence in ice cream or late night movies could lift me out of the pall.
At such times so often people around you will advise you to carry a more “positive” outlook. The funny thing is that this advice always sprouts from those who are themselves not experiencing much anxiety at the time, and often cannot perceive the shaking loose of seemingly solid foundations. People in such a temporary state have convinced themselves that all is well and that the world around them will continue in its solid state. I have found that usually people who are going through the meltdown of preconceptions, who are experiencing loss or pain or confusion, people who have often known loneliness or fear or self-doubt, tend to be those who most effectively respond to and answer my questions when my own world falls apart.
Perhaps the sharpest inkling I gained into beginning to comprehend what it means to be alive, just to exist, arose out of the Buddhist concept of all things having a dream quality, that nothing exists in permanence, everything is in flux. As Buckminster Fuller put it, “I seem to be a verb.” Viewing myself as merely gaseous, a temporary formation of passing clouds, helped me recognize the noise of my mind and the waves of emotions that wash back and forth within me.
I’ve always wondered why the sea shore calms me with its endless motion, or why the waving and whisper of trees in the wind seem to talk to some hidden ear in my breast. And it must have something to do with my own billowing flag of a soul. As the years tiptoe across my heart, I think of aging and of the clutching of memories, wondering at times which way to turn, back toward the pillows of childhood or ahead toward the unfathomable wall. And it occurs to me to just stand still, let all these swirling tides do what they will.
Following such advice, Pema Chodron’s instruction to be kind to myself and allow that the whole great granola mix of joys, fears, hungers, contentedness, anger, lusts, pleasures, and doubts are all grains in the shaken bag, has made a great difference for me. Something died in me two years ago, but then something new emerged. And while it is no less great a struggle, the focus has changed.
For me the natural world has always taught me these things, though I have not always been open to listening or looking. The natural world is reality, it is what is. And that, in my own winged participation, is who I am, too.
On my way home from work this evening a sweating, smelly Frenchman, wearing a bright yellow shirt and bug-eye glasses, his face a cloud of hoary grey and brown beard, decided that since I was another foreigner waiting on line for the train, it was perfectly normal and acceptable to just come up to me and start talking as if I was his parlor room guest. Never mind that I was reading a book or that there were any number of purely Japanese passengers sharing the same general vicinity who might just as easily have been liable to his attentions. I knew he was French because he blithely told me so, in a baritone chatter of French accented English.
His follow up words to me were, “You are from Europe, aren’t you? I can tell.”
Now just how could he tell that I was European? I look like a Mexican or Iraqi or Indian or Turk, or possibly Spanish or Portuguese, but at first glance people would tend to generalize toward Third World material. It couldn’t have been my clothes, because I was wearing a very American type of underclassed chino pants with short-sleeved shirt and mismatched, bright, flower-embroidered silk tie, a combination that I suspect any real self-respecting European wouldn’t be caught dead in. And it couldn’t have been my accent, because, if he deemed it at all necessary to actually listen to my reply, he would have filtered in a very American twang with un-“u”ed colors and un “ae”ed airplanes.
He proceeded to launch into a story about how his friends in Paris had held onto his apartment for two years after he’d left for Japan with his newfound Japanese wife. “Uh… Excuse me?”, you may ask with complete credibility. After all, stories usually come attached with reference and precedence. But he bulldozed on with his story, jumping back and forth between France and Senegal and Brazil and Hong Kong and Germany and naturally Japan (but not America because the food is awful and not Korea because the people hate Japanese), all places he claimed to have graced with his long-term presence.
The train pulled into the station, the doors opened, and the waiting passengers filed in and took their seats. I stepped into the car and bee-lined for the center of the seats, to avoid the tippiness of late night Japanese after-drinking commuters who tended to lean all over you if you sat near the ends of the seat. To my dismay the Frenchman positioned himself right alongside me, and pressed pretty close, what with the train accumulating passengers like a flooding tunnel. Now this Frenchman reeked of male bacteria and continued to babble nonstop as sweat poured down his face and into his beard and spittle flew from his lips onto my unappreciative shirt and face.
Why am I being so mean to this man? Well, let me tell you.
First he started on the Koreans, relating anecdote after anecdote about how every Korean he had met in his life had proceeded to enlighten him with how much they hated Japanese and what they would do to avoid letting any Japanese even come within arm’s length. When I attempted to open my little mouth to express how many Japanese friends of mine went out of their way to go to Korea and make friends there, he shook his head violently (spittle leaping unpardonable gaps) and told his Japanese wife’s story of being shunned by Koreans in her French class.
He took the next step of enlightenment and proceeded to downdress all Africans. “They are a dangerous people. Killing everyone all the time. Just barbarians.”
Then it was Arabs in France, and on this subject he proved a grand master of irony and sledgehammer subtlety. “The Arabs in France are a bunch of degenerate, murdering, thieving, uneducated criminals who should all be put in jail. And you know what the problem is? French law. Unlike America, where everyone is allowed to carry guns, in France only the bad people can get hold of guns, knives, and bazookas (“Bazookas?” I tried to question with upraised eyebrows, but there was no response).” “France would be a better place if everyone could carry guns and kill those bastards and get them out of the country. And those blacks and Gypsies, too. Everything went to hell when the Iraq war started. Arabs taking over the whole world.”
So much for the lily white image of innocent French people. To my immense relief he stumbled off the train one stop before mine and continued to babble his way right out of the train, never thinking to ask my phone number or e-mail address. All I wanted to do was wipe off my shirt and face and step off into the night, where the air was fresh and clean and my Arab-looking face could soften a bit. And to clean that stupid grin off my lips… a grimace held in animated suspension as disbelief, disgust, and diversion bore the onslaught. I was too tired to do any telling off.
Returning from the mountains this last weekend was like descending from a great height. For three days I walked along fern festooned paths, my head literally in the clouds, all the while counting raindrops that seemed to have taken over the whole world. Originally the walk was meant to start along the higher, steeper crags of the South Alps, but with all the rain this summer landslides took out the one road that leads up to the riverine valley of Hirogawara. A whole mountain range that in normal years is overrun with hikers, this year sits in relative silence as most walkers avoid the astronomical ¥25,000 ($220) taxi fare for the long detour.
Yatsugatake was a good choice though. Keeping my tent staked out in one place allowed for light jaunts up along the ridges around the pond. Everything stayed dry in the tent. On the second day, while attempting to climb up to the ridge dropping off into a sheer cliff to the south, thunder rolled in like the stomping boots of some giant strider in the clouds. Two walkers came stumbling down from above, calling out that they had just recieved notice on their cell phones that a huge thunderstorm was brewing and that a deluge would accompany it. I heard the thunder pass overhead and rumble away south, so my experience told me that most likely the rain would pass. Big, fat, chilly drops began bombarding the trees and I stood hesitating, caught between the need for safety, and the desire to traipse along the ridge. Caution held out, and I retreated down the mountain, only to be greeted at the base with streams of sunlight through the trees.
Some slow walking along the perimeter of the pond revealed light, texture, and color of all the basic elements of water, fire, air, and earth. It was like stepping along with some slow music that caught the eye and begged to be taken seriously. And with each discovery of some subject for the camera, the steps slowed further, until at times I barely moved a pace before I was kneeling and examining something through the lens or just sticking my nose right up against the curiosities. Insects, roots, leaves, swirls of water on the pond, the light tiptoe of mist across the tree tips, the strings of lichen bristling from branch notches… There was too much to see. I could have lost myself in the passages from one discovery to the next moment. It had been a while, but the mountains opened their complexity and allowed me to wallow for a while.
Packing up and pulling up stakes brought back thoughts of the crowds and rush of Tokyo. Another world. Like a great magnet, the roads drew me back down out of the ether and back into the boiling pot. I’m still in a bit of a daze, straddling the stones between neccessity and desire.
Over the last few days I have received a number of letters from old and dear friends living far away in other countries. It was wonderful to hear from them, but I also felt the ache of their absence. One especially close friend brought back a lot of irreplaceable memories, of laughter and long walks and the fragrance of eucalyptus leaves and fried sole. Perhaps it is the concentration recently on writing about places that matter most to me that brought on the feelings of bobbing way out on the water, looking back at the shore, and making out the vague forms of kin and of kith.
Many people often remark to me how envious they are of my global upbringing and all the places I have seen and lived in. They remark how they, too, wish that they could see all those distant wonders and meet people who live such varied lives. This privalege is not lost on me, of course, and I hold dear the bouquet of experiences that reside in my chest and in my head. A glimpse into my own inner landscape reveals a sea with many shores and comfort in the wide swath of territory I have explored.
But a person can only spread their hands so wide before they lose contact with the intimacy of touch and talk. We are animals designed to cling to one another and face the world together. Alone our nakedness leaves us cold and vulnerable. And while I love to step out of the crowd and stride along the unpeopled trails, revelling in solitude, inevitably I return to the fold to take comfort in welcoming arms and warm greetings. Even out in the high mountains that I so revere, meeting another soul during storms or in the dark nearly always brings me joy. I am not the hermit that I so often dreamed of becoming when I was a boy.
And so the long distances from friends and family haunt me. I miss what I shared with those closest to me, and wait for the days when I can once again knock on one of their doors, embrace, and shout, “It’s so good to see you again!” Life is so short and our time with loved ones always so inadequate. Those uproarous parties are always so ephemeral; the moments sitting together on the beach watching the sun go down, so elusive; the arguments that seemed so important at the time, so frail and seemingly misspent; the saying of good-bye, so abrupt and final… I lean forward with a keening heart and try to reach out across the telephone lines, hoping that perhaps the world will close in and distances collapse. But it is never so…
The remedy is sleep. Sleep and a letter, some sweat over good work, and then a long walk. And of course, those friends just around the corner (“…one is silver and the other is gold…”). And you keep the fire burning just in case. You never know just who will drop by.
On the night my family arrived in Tokyo from New York we were driven into the city from Haneda Airport. It had been a long flight, with a transit in Honolulu for refueling, and we were all tired and a bit dazed. A representative from my father’s company met us at the arrivals area and escorted us out to the street, where he had his car waiting for us. The air was heavy with humidity and insects whirled around the street lights over the taxi stand. The air smelled of burning oil and something else, something sweetly organic that a newcomer like me couldn’t identify. And all the while a numb sense of dislocation surged up in my belly, like having my sense of balance ripped out from inside me, a sense of being physically there, but my soul lingering in another time far away. When I think back on that moment, it is curious that I can remember the details of arriving in Tokyo, but can’t recall a single image of the moment we left New York…
As we pulled out of the airport and made our way into the city, Tokyo rose around us, the dark walls of the buildings lit up by a carnival of bright, flashing neon lights, every building seemingly decorated with gay, vertical signs to silently cheer our arrival. My father, gazing in amazement with his face pressed to the window exclaimed, “Why do they call New York the City of Lights? This is the City of Lights!”
Tokyo would be my home for the next ten years and would shape me in ways that I could not have imagined while I was still living in New York.
Since that day, Tokyo has grown like an insatiable rabbit unmindful of the horde she has been giving birth to. Areas that I once took the train out to to spend time in the country have transformed into chic shopping neighborhoods where the fashionable meet for Sunday brunch and cappucinos. Downtown West Shinjuku, the heart of big business and government today, with its soaring skyscrapers and wide avenues, still billowed with barley fields when I was a boy. It was a Sunday adventure in junior high school for my best friend Alex and me to spend our weekend afternoons riding all the high speed elevators to the top of the brand new buildings and have a look down. By the end of the day we would head home with splitting headaches and nausea, but heady with the elation of having topped all the tallest building in Japan in one day.
Japan has no American halfway point of suburbs. There just isn’t the space. You either build or you don’t, and where there are no mountains, every available vacancy is paved over and framed and shored up and walled in. You can take a train ride from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of about 500 kilometers, and looking out the window, never once see the repetition of single family homes and apartment buildings and factories interrupted by any significant stretches of untouched green. In the outskirts of Tokyo proper, where people used to go hiking in low-lying woods and fields, now housing developments, Japan’s closest equivalent to the American Back to the Country movement of the 50’s and 60’s, gobble up hillsides. Entire chains of hills have been leveled to make room for all the people who want to own their own homes, especially during the heady Bubble era, when no one thought twice about the environmental consequences of all the building they were doing.
I was lucky. Tokyo was still down-to-earth enough in the 60’s and 70’s to allow me to get dirty in the fields and accumulate a repertoire of close encounters with wild creatures, especially birds and insects. I was lucky to have been one of the last children to watch fireflies winking on and off over the susuki fields by the rivers near my house. I had the opportunity to listen to the sad cry of the dusk cicada ( higurashi-zemi, Tanna japonensis. See Cicadae in Japan. Open “Songs of Cicadas”, choose your platform sound format, open sound page, and scroll down to “Tanna japonensis”. The higurashichorus3.mpeg or .wav file is the best recording.), which is just about impossible to describe to someone who has never heard it (the closest I can come to it is if you take the sound of a pencil being drawn over the slowly moving spokes of a bicycle, alter that sound into that of a locomotive whistle, but with the quality of a harmonica, and multiply the numbers to several dozen all singing together at different intervals) and I feel it is a great loss to the children of Tokyo never to have the chance to know one of the most beautiful sounds of Japan.
I grew up with walls around me, for towns in Japan traditionally wall the streets in up to shoulder height or more. Streets are enclosed on both sides, with houses coming right up to the edge, and traditionally, the entrance hall open right out to passersby. Neighbors and salesmen and people on official business would step right into the entrance hall without ringing the doorbell and announce their presence. It gave a strong sense of belonging and neighborhood watchfulness, with every one aware of what was going on around them, though, as foreigners, we were more often than not thought of as weird and unconventional. I grew used to the paradox of walls enclosing streets while doors allowed anyone in, so much so that, though I visited my relatives in New York on occasional summers, the mowed grass patchwork that constitutes so many American homes, to this day feels alien and exposed, and yet oddly uninviting.
What Tokyo has become I do not love. There is no longer any heart to the growth of the city. The newly developed area I now live in is made up mostly of young families just starting out with their careers and child-rearing. Most of them intend to move on. Since moving here three years ago, not a single person has ever returned my greetings, and half of them give me suspicious stares. One older couple, which unfortunately lives right behind our bedroom window, went so far as to growl, “Go home you foreigners!” And, seeing that I looked somewhat like a Pakistani or Mexican, added as an afterthought, “You probably don’t even have a visa, do you? You’re here illegally, aren’t you?”
It is not possible for me to find peace with myself in a place that I cannot find the motivation nor means to care about. It is like living a half-life, mostly in my head. And so it may be time to move again, and once more face the tearing feeling of dislocation. But I will always carry the old barley fields in my heart, where my childhood lives and where the old roots still drink up a sense of belonging to this place, whatever the dull neighbors may assume. And the dusk cicadas will always sing where none can hear them any more.
During my Saturday evening walk along the Noh River near my house, the clouds teased the air with tastes of drizzle, more threatening with the rumbles of thunder, than with dumping the buckets overboard. I needed to get out of the house, away from the computer, and just walk, feeling my heart pump and seeing otherly creatures inhabit the space that we humans have been so miserly with. The river reeds had grown tall with the rains and mosquitoes soon had my bare ankles itching with bites. But I stalked slowly nevertheless, wanting to see and to listen and not rush anything.
Dark damselflies propellered among the underbrush, and I tried to photograph them, but it was too dark, and I didn’t want to use a flash. So I put the camera away and just moved through the greenery, feeling the dry scrape of grass blades and the slight shock of dew against my legs and arms. Spot-billed ducks huddled in the middle of the river like a spellbound audience, keeping an eye on the shadowy form sliding past. It was the sort of evening when you expected to come upon elves dancing under a bush, their music was that close. But the lights that glinted in my eye always turned out to be just the street lights reflected in the water.
I got to thinking about just why it is that a place like Tokyo so disturbs me, to the point of making me unable to get out of the apartment at times, the depression is so great.
Ever since I can remember there has been a fierce need within me to break away from company and spend time alone in wild places. It isn’t “alone” in the usual sense of “having no one else”, but an alone away from humans, away from the pressure of monoculture and intolerance with the world. Walking alone there was a sense of dialog with things other than myself, and often it afforded me insight into what it means to be alive. It helped me understand that I, and the world of people that I was born into, is really not all that very important, at least no more than any other world.
And in Tokyo, such chances to be alone are nearly non-existant. Even small alleys behing houses will have people walking along them or or standing by the side, watching. Watching. Always watching.
Worse, it is the sense that for someone like me who needs live things, who needs clean rivers and stretches of untouched trees and lonely paths, that what I am relegated to are these slivers of nature eked out of the concrete of the city. When trees are cut down, nothing but more concrete replaces them. The city grows hotter in the summers, and yet the inhabitants think nothing of chopping away the trees. They think nothing of paving over the river banks and trapping the soil beneath.
And I am expected to tolerate it, as if this is the way the earth should be. As if there is simply nothing to be done about it.
Perhaps I am a dreamer and don’t take this reality very well. But as Peter Gabriel once sang in his song “Mercy Street”:
“All of the buildings,
All of the cars,
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head.”
What is this dream we are living today where we tolerate, even condone, the destruction of all that we are and that has made us? There are 6 billion of us on the planet now. If we don’t start caring now how we see things and want things, just when will we start? When there is no more water?
The rumbling thunder during my walk drifted away as evening fell. And all went silent as I walked home in the dark.
After reading two posts ( “Wyrrd”, by Lisa Thompson of field notes: and “Elderhood”, by Robert Brady, of Pure Land Mountain ) that addressed thoughts about getting older, plus having an involved discussion with three of my early-twenties students, I got to doing a lot of thinking over this last week. I am rolling through my forty second summer this year and in many ways it is like stepping through another door. I still remember when I was a teenager witnessing my parents go through the troubling time of their middle years and coming upon a book that my mother was reading then, “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life” by Gail Sheehy. I remember thinking at that time that when I reach forty I would not let myself go through what they did. Somehow I would prepare myself for it and find a way to sail through. Now the years are here and as Sheehy predicts in her book, the weathering of the storms cannot be prepared for. Even battening down the hatches does no good. All you can do is stick through it and keep your eye on the light.
The thoughts and emotions of getting older have changed me. Where once I was so certain, almost glib at times, of what is right and wrong, and how I ought to be waking up each morning, with what attitudes and goals hence I ought to be taking, the edges have frayed somewhat and the colors softened. The whole body of life enveloping me eddies past with a deeper urgency, at once more poignant and precious because more and more there seems less of it. And because I realize more acutely that I am not really so very different from anyone else; a discovery that has helped me empathize more with others’ struggle with life.
Whenever a youngerly person announces that they have experienced no real heartache or disappointment, that bounty has dropped in their laps without cuffing their knees or scraping their elbows I have to wonder if they have really lived. For me, at least, living means half pressing into the blurry promise of dreams and stepping forth blindly when there is no promise of return. Taking chances. Staying out alone in the woods and wrestling with the early fears until you can close your eyes and rest, safe in the knowledge that alone you are all right. And it means facing the possibility of rejection, and plunging into the waters of love. People will come and go all your life, but they also constitute some of the truest reflections of yourself and of intimacy with the world.
Over the last two years a nameless fury, fueled by the state of shock that the world went through, raged through me, over childhood injustices, over failures on my parents part, over my marriage, over growing older without having stepped into that state of grace that I always imagined I would have by now.
And then, last winter, it petered out. The rage just seemed a tendril from the past that I had to learn to let go of. To learn to forgive and move on. A sense of tranquility, yet not complacency, wafted through the clouds. And it was as if I had woken from a long sleep.
Such understanding, though there might be precociously mature kids around, cannot be garnered from books or from acting cool or tough. It has to be earned, step by step. You have to rise and fall and then get up again, to feel it and know it in your bones.
And that, perhaps, is the attraction of getting older. And what perhaps the media today sorely misses.
It’s supposed to be hot and sultry these days, but it seems as if the sky has taken to wearing too much sunscreen lately. It’s making for sluggish insectine culture. The paper wasps huddle on their nests, looking bored. The ants tiptoe along the asphalt, wary of incoming raindrop bombs. The damselflies flutter up half heartedly from the riverside brush, perhaps crestfallen that this summer so far has failed to show off their usual brilliant coppers and emeralds and cobalts. Even the tiger beetles, usually so intent on doing their 100 meter dashes along the baking, open stretches of earth, sit dejectedly beneath the grass stems, trying to look mean while trying to conserve calories.
Yet out there, since last night, there is one lone cricket that began singing. In the chilly air, his wing strokes lack the normal vigor of heat induced ardor, and so it is like listening to a beginner learning the violin. He plays for passion of course and if you sit and listen for a while you will notice the slow tango quality of his verses. But he is alone in the cold. Either the other musicians haven’t arrived yet, or they decided to jump ship with the few remaining lifeboats.
One brave cricket named Cassanova. Here’s a toast to languid summer heat and long, breathless nights under your grassy bower!