Bare branches of a cherry tree in a kindergarten near my home, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004I went with my wife for a long evening walk along the Nogawa River near my home the other day. A cold wind barreled down the corridor between the concrete walls of the river, laying the dead reeds flat to the ground and ruffling the feathers of the spot-billed ducks, pin-tailed ducks, little egrets, gray starlings, rock doves (common pigeons), jungle crows, carrion crows, and white wagtails that huddled along the ankle deep waters that gurgled by. Initially we had gone to share the experience of using our digital cameras together, but as I walked the accumulation of countless white plastic bags, discarded tissues, beer and soda cans, old mattresses, mangled bicycle frames, washed out shoes, a pair of panties, a motorcycle helmet, shampoo bottles, smashed liquor bottles, a collage of smut magazines laid open with pictures of young women in different poses, twelve (I counted them) fluorescent green tennis balls floating in the river, two car batteries wrapped in plastic, a bucket on its side spilling its contents of ripped lottery tickets, a plastic, red-checkered table cloth, a weathered printer, several snakes of computer wiring, a rusting motor scooter, and a humidifier in a soggy paper bag, well, they all just really got to me. My eye was dragged to them whenever I raised the camera lens and looked at the screen. I witnessed the birds wandering innocently amidst this and felt, simply, disgust.
When it comes to their environment Japanese are truly slobs. People simply don’t care. I’ve been pondering whether to go about painting some huge cloth signs to hang up along bridges and on the side of buildings asking, in Japanese, “Don’t you have any pride in your own country? I, a dirty foreigner, can see the awful mess of your land, why can’t you? Why don’t you at least clean up your garbage, if you can’t actually make an effort to make the environment healthy? Mt. Fuji is a disgrace!”
Knowing the Japanese, the police would be involved and I would be deported, most likely.
The scene and these thoughts killed the anticipation of taking beautiful photos. My wife and I sat down on a bench overlooking the river and watched a huge blue cloud obscure the sun and burst with god-rays, shafts of light walking over the cityscape, the edge of the light piercing our pupils. We held hands and talked about sad things, of endings. Of the final movement in a long struggle. A fat tabby cat squatted down just out of reach beside us, mewing for a handout. We laughed and in laughing broke down weeping. We turned our backs to the public path to hide in privacy, and cried together, still holding hands, the cold wind still brushing between our legs, our tears turning cold on our cheeks, and both of us reaching out gentle fingers to brush them away.
Three bombers pass by overhead as I write this and I ask, how can anything so abstract and faceless matter more than the difficulty of learning how to love and how to let go? Of knowing what is important to you and finding the language that would let you defend it and keep it near? I would say this is wisdom in the making, but I never knew until now that it hurts sometimes when wisdom comes calling. And that sometimes love involves conceding an absence that almost feels more than you can bear.
Kindness and grace sing alone in the evening, asking only that you listen. It is what you recognize in the heat of the setting sun, that last reaching out across a distance and feeling the warmth of someone who is necessary to your existence.