Lately I’ve been wondering a lot about the direction I’ve taken in my life. Here I am living in a city (Tokyo) that, while safe and stimulating and quite airy and quiet compared to, let’s say New York, or Boston, or London, still strays about as far from the kind of environment that I thrive in as I could have chosen. My work, aside from struggling to make it as a writer (not an easy thing to do from Japan if you write in English) and illustrator, teaching English in the evenings is fulfilling in that I love my students, enjoy the company of my colleagues, and have discovered over the years that teaching brings out the best in me, and stirs up both the desire to distill what I know in younger people and to learn from them in return. But that is not where I started out from or where I first set course for when I headed to the University of Oregon back in 1978, fresh from Japan. I look back and try to filter out all the fascinating elements that kept building up the layers of my learning and maturing to the bedrock of the person I always felt myself to be. The grasp of my existence that withstands even the hardest winds. And always I come back, basically, to two words: Nature and Words. When all else falters I can always count on these two concepts and ways of making sense of the world to wait for me at the bottom of the barrel.
I have always known these things as essential to who and what I am. My first glimmerings of awareness of the world around me inevitably arise, with an intensity often blind to other things around, framed in the light of how the natural world looked or how things were said. The most intense memories nearly always hover around natural places or creatures or around books that I’ve read or conversations that I’ve engaged in. Numbers seem to get filtered out, as well as all the popular attractions that other boys always go gaga over, like flashy cars, cushy jobs, team sports, or irreverent talk about women. It made me strange to boys and men around me, and even today many men don’t have a clue as to how to begin a conversation with me, and I often feel I have nothing to say in return. My heroes as a child were Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, and George Schaller. None of the men or women that I knew did anything close to these three.
After studying creative writing, literature, geography, and ecology (with an apprenticeship in animation under animator Ken O’Connell… he was quite disappointed with me when I left, and I often regretted the decision since then), all of which I loved, for some reason unknown to everyone in my family and close friends, I decided to study architecture for graduate school. I’m not sure of the reasons myself, except that I imagined some kind of marriage between art, social work, and sustainable development (not yet a term at that time). There was also an unspoken need to satisfy a restlessness in my father whenever he spoke to me about what I was planning to do. My talk of writing and my lifelong love for wild animals, especially insects, never seemed to elicit the reaction I was hoping for, but when he heard that I had been accepted into architecture school, his voice changed. I still remember the way his eyes lit up the first time I saw him upon returning to Japan for the summer. It was only just two weeks ago that I learned that he had dreamed of becoming an architect when he was just out of high school.
Architecture didn’t work out. While the studies were fascinating and the tumble of new ideas and the breadth of learning needed to develop into a master at this craft staggering, I never had the patience to sit for hours debating the orientation of a structure’s axis or to put up with the penis envy of all the star (almost always male) students and teachers. I soon discovered that, like Antonio Salieri, I could pick out and appreciate good design, I just didn’t have the knack for organizing spatial elements in a way that brought out the soul of a project. I found no joy in the process. It was always a struggle. One of my fellow students once remarked, when he came into the studio at 3:00 a.m. and found me cursing at my conceptual sketches, “If you dislike it all so much, why don’t you just give up? It doesn’t make sense to torment yourself like this.”
Still I persisted, convinced that it was only lack of knowledge that made me feel so frustrated and empty. I went on to live in Boston, where I struggled for five years to make it as an architect. Only three jobs came my way, one of whose bosses laid me off after one month, in favor of his nephew, who had never studied architecture. On my bicycle commutes to work along the Charles River, more and more something else began to rear its head inside me, a ghost from the past, drawn by the nighthawks swooping over the evening waters and the ice breaking up along the banks. I began to arrive late at work, drawing looks of disapproval and a few warnings from my manager.
During a month-long bicycle ride from Denmark to Paris all the voices from that earlier time when I felt I had been absorbed, body and soul, into the exercises of fulfillment that characterized close encounters with wild places, exploded into my awareness like a flock of skittish ducks. I knew what had been missing, knew what I ought to have been about. I returned to Boston heady with change, but scared. My boss, a nice man, overworked, with never enough time to see his newborn daughter, took me aside and said, “I hate to do this, but your heart just isn’t in architecture. I’m going to have to let you go. I would think seriously about what you want to do with your life.” Harsh words at the time, but perhaps the best advice I ever got.
It took a lot of sucking up my pride and working at dead-fisheye jobs to gradually swing the prow away from architecture. After all, there was all the money I had put into the studies, and all the years of self-prestidigitation to overcome. Japan harbored the old beginnings of my first foray and so back I went to pick up the string where I had dropped it. I’ve written my first book, decided that I want to teach, and am full of certainty that I want more of authentic time in the natural world. It is all there.
Perhaps, as Fujiko Suda expresses in the concept of “shu-ha-ri” used in the development of one’s thinking in marital arts, I had to go through all that to be able to come to this node that I am standing on right now. Like making a run around the rim of the volcano only to come back to this point. I’ve gathered all the tinder and kindling I need to start the fire; I know what I want to cook and then to eat. All the husks and peels have been pared away, and everything that I have built up until now has been discarded. My knife is poised and I must kill the Buddha.
But, damn, it’s hard taking that step! I’m terrified of that fall, without a bottom. It’s so much easier and familiar to just wait here, like a wolf whose cage has just been opened to freedom, afraid to step outside. My eyes know that there is nothing to it, but the hippocampus recoils. The mind is not always in agreement.
Perhaps I’ll just wait until tomorrow.
5 replies on “Fingers in the Loam”
I’ve read this post twice now and probably will do so a third time. There is so much to take in here. You are striking a chord with me – the burning question “What am I doing with my life; what direction is it taking?” with all the accompanying “What ifs…?”.
I have also come back to this post.
That you don’t have to get everything right the first time, or even the second or third time around, is a difficult thing to accept. At least for me.
You make an eloquent case for honouring all the time you spent prior to finding what it is you really need to do.
Good words. Glad I read them.
It took a long time to respect the time and effort I made over my life. Just after I made my final decision to give up architecture I felt guilty and quite lost: what was I going to replace it with now? And what a waste of all that time! But I’ve come to realize that nothing that you do in your life is without meaning or a chance for learning, even those things which you feel are a waste while you do them. If nothing else, you learn what not to do. And I’ve learned, too, that everything I’ve learned until now has a place in what I want to do in the future. It all fits a kind of pattern. You don’t get what you want in life, but what you need, and that isn’t always what you would expect.
I suspect I’ll be coming back to this post too; it contains so many things that sound uncomfortably familiar — but is inspiring too.
Good luck testing the waters!
My housemate is just starting her first year of veterinary school in nearby Westboro, Mass. She’s in her mid-30’s and her husband of 8 years is in New York, trying to launch his own career in photo-journalism. She studied landscape architecture in college because it seemed like a good career, even though she’s always loved animals and wanted to be a vet. She worked for a landscape architecture firm in NY and found she didn’t like it. So her husband encouraged her to pursue her dream. I guess it would be easier to have just gone after what she wanted in the first place, but as you say sometimes you just have to find out what you don’t want and come around full circle to what you love.
Gotta run – have a phone call! Thanks – great post!