The link to Wild Thoughts Magazine now leads to a defunct site. The essay is no longer available online.
Something about going through the winnowing process of an editor and acceptance of a written piece strengthens writing and makes you feel that the effort was worth it. Hank Green, editor of the online nature writing magazine Wild Thoughts, has published a piece I wrote about my maternal grandfather, one of the early inspirations for my love of the natural world. Please have a look at the essay, “Walking With Opa, and then take some time to read some of the other stories.
Late afternoon sunlight casting shadows amidst the sand dunes in Oregon Dunes State Park, Oregon, U.S.A.
Just when I thought all contact with old friends had somehow died away I received a letter from my oldest and dearest friend three days ago. I hadn’t heard from her in more than a year. It was mainly my fault for having shut myself away and frozen in time with my correspondence; the person who used to write twenty-page handwritten letters had fallen into silence.
That is the strange thiing with e-mail: the range of potential people to keep in touch with has expanded dramatically, with instant contact possible, but a person only has so many hours in a day and keeping up with everyone is simply not possible. Back in the days of writing letters by hand, supplemented by the occasional long-distance phone call, the number of people to regularly write to was limited to the list of people jotted down in an address book. Writing by hand took time, and only a few people made the effort to put that time in. The circle of pen pals remained small, but dedicated and the care with which we shared our letters showed up in such things as the choice of letter paper and envelopes, in small trinkets and photos we included in the folds of the paper, like pressed dried flowers or four-leaf clovers, locks of hair from a loved one, feathers, scented glitter, or even, once, the ragged wing of a mourning cloak butterfly. Some of us put great effort into getting our handwriting just right, often using fountain pens with flared nibs so that the vertical strokes thickened and the horizontal strokes thinned. And after all this work the letters took two weeks or more to make it around the world, sometimes bearing the effects of the real world on them in the form of wrinkles and coffee stains and washed out addresses. The letters themselves sometimes bore the evidence of the sender’s state of mind, from angrily crossed out words and kiss marks to greasy finger prints and tear drops.
A.’s e-mail letter arrived just when the downturn in faith in these old friendships had reached its lowest point. Handwritten letters from friends or even family had reached an all time low… the last handwritten letter I received was last August when, after I lamented to my father about the passing of the tradition of writing letters by hand, he sent me, just across town, a letter in sympathy. I check my mailbox regularly and, sad to say, more often than not, it is empty.
I first met A. in 1974 in a summer camp along the Elbe River in northern Germany, not too far north of my birth place, Hannover. We were both 14 then. I was a gangly, shy boy with shoulder length hair, a wide-brimmed denim hat with an azure-winged magpie tail feather, and bell-bottom jeans. A. stayed in the girl’s tent next to mine and I first noticed her talkiing to the other girls out in the courtyard, her long brown hair swinging behind her as she pranced about, constantly running. She was always laughing and had the most penetrating eyes, that, to this day, still stand out as the first thing you notice about her.
I fell in love with her, but was much too shy to make the first move. A ten-year-old boy named Dietmar, who slept next to me in my tent, full of boundless energy and absolutely nuts about soccer, noticed the way I gazed at A. He stood in front of me one afternoon during the siesta, with his hands on his hips, frowning.
“So, when are you going to talk to her?”, he demanded.
I had been dozing so his words caught me off guard. “Huh?”
“Come on, anyone can see you’re nuts about her.” He sat down next to me. “Just go and talk to her.”
“What if she’s not interested?”
“You never know unless you try.”
I glanced over at the girl’s tent, hope making my heart beat. “Yeah, I know. But…”
Dietmar lay down on his side and looked me squarely in the eye. “Look, how about this. You write her a letter and I’ll bring it to her.”
“What? You? What do you have to do with this?”
“Nothing. Just call me your local Cupid. Besides, I’m not sleepy and want to do something. And the girls will let a ten-year-old boy into their tent.”
So I hunkered down and hashed out a short letter in (awkward) German. Dietmar peered over my shoulder and corrected the mistakes. When I was done he snatched it from my hand before I could reconsider, folded it in four, and dashed out of the tent.
Twenty minutes passed during which my heart thundered in my ears and my hands turned to ice. I began to think the whole thing was a stupid mistake when Dietmar suddenly slipped back into the tent, grinning. He held up a folded piece of paper. “She asked me to give this to you.”
I took the letter from him and opened it. I read.
What nice things to write about me. I would enjoy getting to know you. Let’s meet at dinner and talk then.
And so began my illustrious foray into the world of women.
We spent the two weeks together dancing, going for walks, holding hands while watching the evening movies, eating dinner together, learning to sail, running in the foot races, in which A. beat everyone in the camp. Our dance song was “Lady Lay” by Michel Polnareff. I discovered the wonderful scent of her, which even today lingers in my mind like a veil.
One evening we were standing beside the camp’s small lake watching the sun set over the Elbe River. For once we were alone and we held hands tightly. I don’t know exactly when the urge overcame my hesitation, but our eyes met and we both knew what we wanted next. I awkwardly groped at her elbow, to which she grabbed my hand, placed it on her waist, and whispered, “Like this!”
We kissed. I remember it as one of the softest, warmest moments in my life, with the bright glint of the sun washing between our faces and for me, the whole world suddenly consisting solely of A., her hair, her fingers, the soft give of her chest, the sweetness of her breath, her lips.
It was what I had always imagined it would be.
But we only had two weeks. The camp finally came to an end and we all had to return home, first back to Hannover on the bus, and, for me, on across the oceans back to Japan, a lifetime away. The last I saw of A. that time was as she was greeted by her mother and sister while my grandfather and grandmother greeted my brother and me. The street car pulled us apart and the pain in my heart echoes even as I write this thirty years later.
We kept in touch. We wrote letters to one another every week for the first year, and gradually settled to about once every two or three months. Since the camp we met six times, the last time with my wife, when we stayed at her apartment. We’ve shared all our stories, the loves in our lives, the losses and joys. After telling me about one awful event in her life, A. wrote a letter expressing how she treasured our friendship and was glad that it had lasted through all the changes in our lives. The last time we met we spoke about those first two weeks together and she shocked me with the news that she hadn’t liked me at first, but had gradually warmed to me through the persistence of my letters. She hugged me then and said, “But am I glad that you did persist!”
A. is married a second time now, and has a child, whom I haven’t met yet. I hope to meet her husband and son some day. I look across the oceans and can frame a life there, someone whom I’ve met only a few times in a long while, but who remains one of the dearest and most enduring of friends. It isn’t often I can say this about people whom I’ve met and befriended. A.’s friendship remains a treasure that I value above almost everything else in my life. If I were to lose it life would be a much bleaker place.
A toast and great embrace to you, A. Thank you for being there for most of my life.
For the first time in months the air was warm enough to go out in just a T-shirt. If I lifted my nose I could smell the perfume of flowers in the wind. Gray starlings, rufous turtle doves, and brown-eared bulbuls filled the still-bare branches of the trees and the rooftops with their chortling and cries, all getting ready for the hunkering down of spring. Grass lizards poked out of the cracks in the garden wall to sun themselves and a lone sulphur butterfly fluttered past the back door and nosed through the organic clutter of my unkempt garden, amidst the only greenery in the immediate neighborhood. The first hint of warmer months to come was getting off to a good start.
With my diabetes acting up lately, making me feel more exhausted than usual, I opted out of my usual 10 kilometer run, and decided instead to go for a long-overdue stroll with my camera. I packed a shoulder bag with sketchbook, extra pens, my pocket notebook, a telephoto lens, a pair of binoculars, and a chocolate bar for low blood sugar emergencies. The excursion had no particular itinerary; I just wanted to get out to stretch my legs and have a looksee. Like the birds the warm wind was making me anxious to get outside and explore.
Any direction would have been fine, but almost without thinking I found myself beside the Noh River. For four years now I’d been watching its changing character, always heavily impacted by the combined encroaching of the apartment buildings and human population along its crowded and concrete-contained banks. I passed this way more out of necessity than for any abundance of natural things in the water and riverbed.
The water ran ankle deep as it does most of the year, a bare trickle. Flocks of spot-billed ducks and mallard ducks paddled in the deeper pools, keeping eyes out for people tossing bread crumbs. The smaller pintailed ducks that had wintered among the other ducks since last November had taken off for parts north, in the more comfortable climes of Siberia and Kamchatka. The vast winter flocks of the gray starlings had recently begun to break up into the smaller mating groups. Dusky thrushes still dashed along the grassy banks, though within a week or so they, too, would set off for the north. American painted slider turtles, pets that had been released from captivity after they had grown too big for their caretakers, basked on stones at the river’s edge, and huge gray carps patrolled the murky brown riverbed, lazily muscling among the dozing duck flocks.
My whole morning had been spent in front of the computer so it took a while for my eyes to adjust to noticing potential photographs. For the first part of the walk I mostly just drank in the fresh air. Other pedestrians, many of them sneezing incessantly from the clouds of cedar pollen that yearly invades Tokyo from the surrounding mountains, jogged and quick-walked along the footpath along the river, so I descended to the trail along the riverbank itself and waded through old dried stands of reeds. My shoes caught in the stiff bracken, sometimes tripping me up, but it was quiet here and I could stop with less self-consciousness to examine the tiny flowers and the fritillary butterflies that flashed their colors here and there.
I got so caught up in kneeling into the grass to take photographs of tiny, violet flowers, that I lost track of time. Before I knew it I had wandered a little further than I had intended and had to hurry to get back home in time to get ready for my evening job. I clambered back up to the paved footpath above and upped the pace. A chilly wind had stirred up and clouds began to close in from the west.
I was nearing the last section of the river before I had to turn away and head to my apartment when I noticed two jungle crows… the huge, raven-sized crows that have taken over Tokyo… harassing a lone, female spot-billed duck in the water. Oddly the duck refused to budge and instead sat huddled right inside the flowing water. The crows pecked at it and attempted to pull away feathers. The duck swiveled its head in weak attempts to drive off the crows, but other than that it didn’t attempt to get away.
Concerned I backtracked to the nearest emergency stairway, descended back to the river bank, and made my way over to where the duck lay two meters from the edge of the river. It was too far to reach. The duck made no attempt to flee, though normally spot-billed ducks always put at least five meters distance between themselves and me. The crows flew off to the treetops overlooking the river, joining a group of other crows peering down.
I squatted by the riverside, watching the duck and trying to figure out what I could do. She was obviously very weak; her head swayed unsteadily and when I moved she worked her bill in a silent mime of quacking, no sound coming out. Occasionally she shook her head as if trying to clear her vision or concentrate, but then she would drift off again into listlessness. I thought perhaps the white plastic bag that had wrapped around her tail feathers might be the culprit for her predicament, but the water moved it away somewhat and I realized that the duck must be sick or badly injured.
Just then the air above me erupted with the racket of a hundred or more crows cawing at me and at one another. I looked up and saw the air above the opposite bank of the river and above my head swarming with the black wings of crows. For a split second it felt as if it were me they were after and whose name they were calling. I glanced back down at the duck and a great sadness filled me. She watched me unsteadily, silently quacking at me to back away.
I didn’t know what to do. There is no animal rescue that I have ever heard of in Japan that could have been called for just this situation. Just to go home and seek the information would have taken so much time that when I got back the crows would already have done their job. I contemplated swathing the duck in my windbreaker and bringing her home, but I knew nothing about caring for a wild duck. And what if she were sick? I evaluated the water, only ankle deep, thinking that it would be so easy to just take off my shoes and wade barefoot into the water to retrieve her, but I didn’t budge. I glanced at my watch and realized that I had no more time to waste here; I had to get home and get ready for work. So I stood up and backed away from the edge of the water. Then I thought, I must do something to remember the situation and how I felt. Drawing out my camera I knelt along the bank and took two shots of the duck. She quacked at me silently.
I walked back up the emergency stairs to the promenade above.
Looking back up at the crows I justified my actions by telling myself that the crows were doing their job just as they were meant to. The duck would be dead by the next morning, her bones picked clean. The duck was too weak to survive much longer and hopefully the crows would play their role quickly. I headed home, glancing back only once. In the glare of the evening sun reflected on the surface of the river I could make out her silhouette, alone and waiting. I wasn’t there to help, and neither were her flock mates. The whole world had abandoned her.
Except the crows. They waited in the treetops as the wind picked up. Waited and cawed and watched me walk away.
A short while ago Jack Nicholson’s movie “About Smith” finished and for quite some time after the credits finished rolling I sat very still. It wasn’t just Nicholson’s genius for understatement and facial expression that made the movie so funny and tragic at the same time, but perhaps the way it brushed up hard against many of the feelings I’ve been going through myself in the last three years. At the very end, when he’s speaking in his mind to his sponsored foster child in Africa, and he says, â€œWe are all so very small. I am a failure. I cannot think of anyone to whom I’ve made a difference in my life.â€ I had to grit my teeth to keep from blubbering all over the place.
But it’s true. Lately it seems so much that days and weeks and months, and now years, go by with a growing sense that the threads that had attached to various people I got to know when I was younger are all snapping. And the older I grow the less my presence seems to mean, (truly mean, not just polite gestures) to anyone. Daily the sense that the years will pass and my time alive will have moved no one flickers at the back of my mind. I morbidly wonder sometimes just who would bother to come to my funeral were I to die tomorrow. My family, yes, but precious few others.
And so much of this state of affairs rests on my own failure to be there for others.
Back in 1995 when my wife and were bicycling around Europe for six months for our honeymoon we encountered a man in Sweden whose charisma remains as potent today as the day we met him. His name was Boudewijn Wegerif. We had been cycling through a wilderness area surrounded by spruce forest as far was we could see, down a straight road with not a car or soul to disturb the stillness for most of the day. It was hot and when we came upon an old stone well we joyfully set our heavy bicycles down along the verge of the road and helped ourselves to some of the ice cold water from the well bucket. The well sat well back from the road and we worried a little about being out of sight of the bicycles, so when suddenly we noticed this big, bearded man wheeling what looked like a baby carriage up to our bicycles and stopping to examine them, our heads popped up. He waved to us and we went down to meet him.
It turned out that he was walking from Kiruna in Northern Sweden down to South Africa, walking for peace and love and a society of sustainability and less reliance on a money economy, or, in his words, “Love’s Victory Over the Debt and Guilt Cross of the World”. The sun had burned his bare arms and face bright red and he was sweating, so when we offered him a swig of the cold well water he beamed us a big smile. We took to talking and for half an hour we conversed about setting up and living in gentler and more earth-friendly communities. His enthusiasm was infectious, so much so that even after he continued down that long, hot road, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
What was especially strange about the encounter… actually about most of that trip… was that part of the goal of the journey was for us to find a community with which we could become a part and to change our lifestyles from the hectic urban runaround towards something with more cooperation and attendance to the land. One after another we seemed to meet just the kind of people we needed to talk to, in the oddest and most unlikely places. Boudewijn Wegerif, I later found out, was quite well known in Europe and his 2 and a half year walk to Cape Town, South Africa was produced as a documentary film called â€œLong Walk Homeâ€ by the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
Yesterday I discovered he died last year. Though I had only met him for an instant, the news shook me. Coupled with today’s Nicholson movie, Wegerif’s death and the gentle influence he had on so many people made me think about just how I might be able to make a difference in people’s lives.
Because it is not too late. And there is no reason whatsoever that I should give in to sadness. As Wegerif asked the people who read his web site, “What matters to you?”
No matter how small we may be, the spark still makes a difference.
Just as spring seemed about to step into the garden another snowstorm has hit Tokyo. For Tokyo this is unheard of… four snowstorms in one winter. Something is definitely amiss in the planetary teacup.
Weeks have now gone by since I announced that I would go on hiatus and I think the decision to take the time away helped a lot with both figuring out what I want to do with my time and with the kind of relationship I want to have with computers and the internet. More than anything is the conviction that taking a lot of time to engage with the natural world must be a top priority in my life. It may not mean as much to other people, but ever since I can remember the natural world has been the defining element of what makes me happy and what brings a balance to my emotions and my understanding of what it means to be alive. Whenever I’ve been apart from natural things I’ve always felt unbalanced and always felt as if that necessary extension of myself that completes the feeling of “embodiment”, but which exists separately from my physical body, is missing. I am more than just myself, and just like a member of a community, my relationship to the natural world has always felt like a completion of parts. I honestly don’t think that individuals can find fulfillment in themselves alone; somehow the natural world, as we like to call it, but which I would rather call the “real” real world, acts as an engine for our identities as physical beings in a living community. Without the Earth we are incomplete, because the Earth itself is the summation of its vital parts.
The time away from the blog came in part from a major systems failure on the part of my former web host, losing all data and promptly going bankrupt. It all happened last November, with a failure to notify me. So one morning in January, when I tried to log on to the blog to do maintenance on spam and outdated links, there was nothing there. It’s taken me all this time to get the basics back on line, most of it in the form of manually writing in all the old entries from seven months ago. This was all made possible by a happy coincidence of using ecto for the offline blog writing. (for anyone who uses ecto… and in my case the Mac version… and needing to retrieve lost old blog entries, just go into your home/library/application support/ecto/entrydata.plist file and you will find all the post data there. Unfortunately the whole retrieval procedure must be done by hand, which takes a lot of time) I was able to get back all the old entries, though I lost all the wonderful comments that went along with them.
So the blog is back up in basic, default theme form. I also migrated away from Movable Type and am camping out in WordPress for now. The whole web page will undergo major changes, with more focus on writing about nature, travel, and cultural identity and as much cutting out of political comments and personal gossip as possible. I am putting together a multiblog/gallery/online store/online nature and community magazine/freelance illustration and design business/ page that I hope will bring together all my interests and better exhibit who I am and what I love to do. Eventually I hope to be able to run a business with enough income that I can support the kind of lifestyle that I’ve always wanted to live… namely living part of the year in one place, doing stationary work, and the other part of the year traveling, visiting all those places in the world I’ve wanted to see and actively working toward learning about, helping to protect, and actually spending real time in the world’s natural places, while at the same time coming to terms with the unrest of being from a multicultural background and never feeling at home anywhere.
In a way I hope to make the web site a learning tool, a teaching tool, and a storytelling tool that will both communicate with other people while entertaining them, and showcasing my skills in such a way that people might buy my books and illustrations, possibly join a paid membership “online theatre” (at first with static drawing stories, called “Kamishibai” (paper play) in Japan, but eventually and hopefully with flash animated stories, and, for Japanese readers, possibly even online English-teaching story service) or ask me to do projects for them. (In some ways similar to FusionSpark and FableVision, though with a much less “canned” outlook, perhaps more like John Shelley Illustration) I have no idea if this is going to work, but I’d like to give it a try.
Ever since an online misunderstanding I’ve become wary of the way things are expressed on the internet. Too much is taken for granted and too much is enclosed within the limited language of the written word and the faceless, gesture-less, expressionless world of online communication. So much of how one is perceived hinges on the careful selection of words and not enough on who one is in real life. It is so easy to misconstrue one’s intentions and to write one thing, but mean something completely different. I’ve often wondered why it is that from the start I had to be careful about opening myself too much on the internet; now I just think that it is like any time you meet people you don’t know well… too much information without the proper context can come across as threatening or unfriendly. Those times that I’ve met or spoken to people I got to know first on the internet have proved to reveal personalities remarkably similar to my original impressions, but with subtle differences that only meeting them in real life could affirm. And it is the substantiality of the meetings that made the difference.
I’m not sure what lasting effect any of my online comments have made in the past. I know I have been offensive at times and at times too whiney. I’ve tried to speak with earnestness and have never meant anyone harm, but in my anger or neediness I may have asked for too much or assumed too much before thinking or taking the time to understand. I’d like to be more careful from now on and to use the internet less as a bouncing board than as a pool of words to contemplate, listen to, and learn from. If I can’t give the best of myself to this pool then there are no words to be added. In the eight years that I’ve been deeply involved with the internet I’ve found that little of the critical contributions I’ve made or read have made much difference in how I feel about things overall or perceive things. Even all the information I gleaned about the Iraq war and the goings on over the environment have only served to raise my hackles and punch out. I’ve lost a few friends. Little was gained.
What has made a difference are the stories people have told and the way they have done things and the beauty in things they have seen or created, things that have moved me like Subhankar Banerjee’s photos or Beth’s sensitive and searching ruminations or haunting work like Plantage by Jakub Dvorsky of Amanita Design. Such encounters have shown me the wondrous possibilities of the internet and after coming in contact with them I can honestly say that I sat back and felt deeply satisfied, the way a good book gets you.
This is my intention on the internet. If I am to speak and to show my hand in drawing or photography or storytelling, it must wind around the heart and leave people with a seed. And hopefully a flicker of movement in their souls that they can take with them into the light of the real world. Otherwise my speaking here has no meaning, and my time in the real world no connection to this electronic vision.
To me my time in the real real world is everything.