With all the time I’ve been spending behind the computer screen, holed up in my studio, or sitting chair-bound teaching my evening English classes, it seems that of late looking out of windows connects me to the goings on outside.
I hardly meet people any more. My wife is gone by the time I wake in the mornings and she’s asleep by the time I get home from teaching. So I find myself ghosting around the rooms, wandering hallways while mumbling to myself, the action of my jaw reworking the sounds in my head in an autonomic endeavor to create a duality: You and I.
I find my own company comforting at times and perhaps I’m lucky in this way in that I can endure weeks of solitude and still float above my own insanity. All the stuff that rings in my head really does, to me at least, ring a bell, and no matter how still I sit a whole world revolves within that little dome. For the most part I rather like myself and love to seek out my own company.
But not always, though. When the connection between fingers and objects suddenly grows tentative the oscillating phantasm that resides between the blinders of my body loses its substance and form, and like smoke, tends to dissipate amidst my emotions. Loneliness is visceral, it hungers for flesh and bone.
Back in 1987 a friend of mine took me to see May Sarton speak at a church in Maine. It was a cold autumn evening and the deserted streets of the town brought the chill closer to the layer of my pea coat and in spite of walking with my friend I felt disengaged and out of water. The church door opened to a warm glow of lights and the hubbub of listeners eager to hear Sarton dispense her wisdom. And when she actually walked onto the dais, the spotlight catching her with a glare in her eye, she sat there squinting out at everyone, and perhaps not seeing them very well. She seemed reluctant to speak and held a copy of “Journal of a Solitude” as if the name of the book could say it all, and that if we would just read it, as she had intended, then she could safely retreat to her firelight and carpets and chair by the window. But she was kind… you could see it in her eyes and the way she smiled… and let not a trace of such yearnings falter in her voice. She spoke. She related her decision to break with expectation, with her family and safety, and take to living alone and chronicaling the experience. I watched her from the middle of the crowd, there, this hale, soft-spoken recluse, looking more at home with herself and more engaged than most of the people in the audience. And I thought, “Wow, she’s found a way in!”
By being alone the windows speak to me. Every morning, precisely at 8:15, a lone, brown-eared bulbul, a grey clown of bird that flies like a flicker and screeches and cries and chortles like a blue jay, whips up to the branches of the zelkova sapling outside my window and defies me to object. He cocks his eye and nibbles at the new buds, caring not a toot that I am rather enamored of the zelkova and would prefer that no one hinder its growth in any way. To make certain of my humiliation the bulbul, precisely at 8:21, drops to the fence rail where he lets out a jet of white poop, right on top my russian vine. And then, in that impudent way of bulbuls, he glances back, flicks out his pink tongue, and shoots off, leaving a vacuum in the morning stillness.
At work, when classes are slow, there is always a lot of time to gaze out across the gap between my school’s building and the building across the street… a distance of about five meters. My classroom window looks directly into the window of a manager’s office, and like a television variety show the life of the people over there daily unfolds. The manager, whom I’ve never met, often glances across the gap back at me and it is as if, during these last few years, we have come to know one another by sheer pantomime. Both of us have witnessed the drama of our interacting, however minutely, with other people, and, put together, each of our windows tells a story. I’ve seen the manager shout at someone on his cell phone, pace back and forth across the room worrying about God knows what, sitting with his feet up on his desk while drinking beer, undress to his underpants and walk about the room as if no one could see him, sit for several hours smoking a cigarette and never once moving, and read a manga while in a business meeting. Never once have I seen him smile.
For his part he must have seen the times I’ve laughed with my students (which is almost daily), sat drinking coffee while writing notes, the serious conversations that my students and I have had about different subjects, perhaps even the time when I broke down crying in the middle of class three days after the New York tragedy when one of my students innocently asked why the whole thing bothered me so much, or the time when I collapsed, thinking I had had a heart attack, later finding out that my anxiety over my upcoming visit to the States after nine years absence had me wound up a lot tighter than I realized and this had tripped the muscles around my heart.
I’m not sure I will ever discover the elixir for remaining comfortable around others for long spells. Solitude has driven and called me ever since I can remember, and I follow the siren like a star-struck lover. What I find at the end of every little excursion I take alone into roads and lanes and trails doesn’t always bring out a kick, jump, and a smile, but the hunkering down, gazing about, and absorbing that sense of lungs filled to capacity with air has happened often enough that I keep returning for more. I’m not sure if it is the pleasure that is the prime motivator for seeking out lonesome experiences, but there is something to be said for arriving wherever it is you set your mind to, no questions asked.
It seems that a lot of people around me these days are talking about getting old or getting older. I’m quite sure that this is not a new phenomenon, so it must be that I am just more aware of it than I used to be. Certainly when I glance in the mirror every morning the white hair seems to have proliferated like wild grass in the lawn; I turn my head for a moment and when I look back the shadow seems to have transformed into a ghost of itself. I keep wondering, “Why white?”. Surely it would make more of a fashion statement if our hair aged the way leaves do: turning bright red or yellow with the coming of autumn. Just imagine all that fiery passion in the afternoon of life, and so dazzling in the evening sunlight!
Every morning I continue to shave. In fact, now I have hair growing along the rims and sprouting within my ears, gathering-rosebuds-while-ye-may within my nostrils, and, with overtures to lycanthropy, the fur hath anointed me backsides, yes indeedy. My elders have long indicated this path of degradation with the coming of age, but I never suspected it would mean bushwhacking through ever wilder forests of hair. And that seems to be just it: the opposite of youth is hair!
A friend of mine lamented to me not long ago that until she had turned 41 last year she had never fretted about getting older. She had even derided me for my preoccupation with the future and what it held for me, saying that Japanese weathered age better than foreigners because they accepted it. I wasn’t sure if that was entirely correct, seeing as so many Japanese constantly bring up their age at social gatherings… young women are often called “getting old” when they turn 23… but I thought maybe my friend had a point. Then she turned 41 and she said, “This is the first time I feel I am tipping over toward the other side.”
The dreaded Other Side. I guess most people, like me, cannonball their way from the womb toward the zenith of biological flight, before suddenly feeling that jump in their gut telling them that the elevator is going down. What makes it so holy-moly shocking is that the 40 years suddenly seems like no time at all… we were just getting started!… and all we have left is perhaps another forty. A puny, if you’re lucky, eighty years. Just enough time to awaken to the grand visage of the world, wonder at it, get hurt by it, discover that you can mumble at it and get some responses, find another like you who desires to spend some of that time with you, learn how to manipulate objects within that world so as to gather more objects from that world, perhaps glimpse for moment welcoming yet another like you into this world, look back and wonder what all the awakening was about, run down, and disappear.
And you think, “That’s it? All that anguish and confusion and taxing my resources, for this?” You see all the other creatures in the world following the same endless entering and exiting, doing it in the literal billions, teeming the world with their presences, and then literally dropping away like flies. Fighting for scraps of meat. It just doesn’t make sense. Why would individual lives struggle to preserve themselves at all, if, in the end, they are going to die anyway? Why not start with a single, undying life form and stay that way for all eternity?
Perhaps birth and death have something to do with versatility. As my white hairs remind me every day, this is a dynamic household. Things change all the time. Perhaps in its very essence the world is a nation of subatomic belly dancers. To hold shape and create meaning from the choreography of particle square dancing… “round-and round-and-doeceedoe!”… the communities and associations and companies and non-governmental organizations that result from cell citizenship need constant readjustment to make up for the ravages of change. If you can give birth and then die away to make room for the renewed leaves that follow, the scintillating, vibrating, eye-opening amoeba of life on Earth can weather the meteors and sun flares and oxygen attacks and cataclysmic earthquakes and floods and volcanic eruptions and wildfires.
Diversity means resilience with spare parts.
Perhaps then I should thank my lucky stars. As creatures go, 80 years is an eternity. And my white hair? Why albedo, of course. No, not albino! Albedo! I’ve got to do my part in reflecting all that ultraviolet light back out through the ozone layer. Just think, if we were all to join heads after reaching our forties and beyond, what a perfectly reflective surface we would represent! And you thought that the old fogies played no part in the balance of the universe!
Spring is in full swing, with the cherry blossoms billowing along the streets and in the parks everywhere. It happened all of a sudden, sudden because just a week ago today we still had the heater on in our apartment. Two days later the air switched dresses and the next thing you know the sun was wearing gauzy petticoats of humidity. And the dawn tiptoed in earlier, too, just before what anyone might consider a sane hour for the alarm to go off.
It was just this patting about to turn off the alarm that caused me to oversleep my Sunday wake up call meant for the day’s hike. I hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep and getting up was not a top priority, so I snoozed until about 9:00… by then too late for the longer hike I had had planned.
Without really thinking about where I would be heading I wolfed down a breakfast of tea and rice with natto (fermented soy beans… an acquired taste) and raw egg. Then I was out the door, just walking foot in front of foot, with no plans, or even a map. A bright, almost summer-like brilliance lit up the neighborhood. The sky stared down with its big ole blue eyes, unclouded by thoughts of rain and for once blinking away the usual smoggy grime. I sauntered along, and hot, stopped to remove my jacket, then continued sauntering all the way to the train station, and humming Tears for Fears’ “Call Me Mellow”, a song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past three weeks.
First I headed for the train that goes downtown, from where I had a vague idea about taking the Japan Railways train fro downtown Shinjuku out to Nikko northeast of Tokyo, but while standing on the platform and eyeing all those passengers heading toward the big parks I suddenly changed my mind. Instead I tripped down the stairs and climbed back up to the opposite platform, to wait for the train there and just see where it took me.
Forty minutes later I got off at Takao station… not the usual end-of-the-line Mt. Takao Trailhead station, but the big town just before it, the one that I had gazed out at countless times on my way out to the far off mountains. So many times I had glimpsed the hills surrounding the town and wondered if it was possible to just head out of the station and follow the ridges all the way back to the bigger mountains to the west. Idle thoughts, all those times, often at the end of a weekend of grinding walks, and then too tired to do much more than wonder.
A mountain walker would scoff at the petty little stroll that the town could only offer, but today I just wanted to follow my nose and to hell with always trying to prove myself on higher ground. Why not kick along the curbside like I loved to do so much as a kid, and take time to really look at things?
It was lunchtime by the time I exited the station so I trundled over to a “Moss Burger” joint, the local MacDonald’s offshoot franchise that specializes in high quality hamburgers and salads, to sit a while and just munch on a burdock root burger and gaze out the window at the Sunday strollers. And they were out in force, families browsing the streetside stores and all heading off in the general direction of the imperial garden north of town. Half of them wore surgical masks in a futile attempt to ward off the onslaught of the hay fever epidemic that plagued Tokyo. For the first time in months fathers walked about in t-shirts while mothers wore the bright colored, long sleeve shirts that spoke of summer but warded off the harmful effects of the sun while preserving their “bihaku”= “beauty white”.
Continuing my sauntering I crossed the train tracks and took the main road toward the hills that I could see at the other end of town. Along the way I watched an old woman wearing a white sun hat and a tiny back pack and hiking boots, bend down to the curbside, grab a handful of the pink cherry-blossom petalbanks that had accumulated there, and toss it over her head like snowfall. She followed the petals with her eyes, a big smile stretching across her face, and giggled like a little girl. I stopped discretely to watch her. Her laughter echoed in my own chest.
Camellia blossom resting in the late afternoon sun, Shirayama Temple Hill, Takao, Japan
The road led further into the throngs of tourists visiting from all over to gawk at the cherry blossoms. Busloads began to pass me by, and the sidewalk became more and more difficult to follow, as strings of people bottlenecked at the street crossings and by the overpasses. Eventually the sidewalk led to the gate of the imperial garden, where hundreds of people stood like packed cows waiting to pay the fee to enter the garden. It was hot and I hadn’t bargained for crowds of people so I stepped out of the crowd onto a side street. No one disturbed the stillness there and the further I walked along it the more distanced from the spring fever I became. To my surprise I found a neighborhood of small gardens and old, wooden, post-war houses, many of them run down and in disrepair. Flowers bloomed everywhere: in the gardens, on the rooftops, in planters by the entrance gates, along the tops of walls, from windows, from planters hung in the branches of trees, the trees themselves. Delighted, I followed this little road around the chin of a knoll until I was out of sight of the main body of the town.
There a little river gurgled along the side of the road. Houses kneeled at the very edge of the river, some spilling stairways down to its banks, some wading out over it with small terraces and sloping lawns. Crooked cherry trees and weeping willows, still waiting to bud, and plane trees lined the banks on both sides.
It wasn’t all beauty and joy, though. All along the river plastic bags and discarded cans, rusting bicycles and tires, wads of toilet paper, some tossed out mattresses, and once even an old refrigerator marred the river’s charm. Typically Japan, this. For a people who take so much meticulous care of their bodies, they certainly are slobs when it comes to taking care of their land.
The road entered a hidden vale that only walking up to this point could have revealed. It degraded from asphalt to gravel, then to simply to dirt, dry and dusty now from more than two months of no rain. A cemetary lay just off the left side of the road, surrounded by dogwoods just budding and the air golden with the haze of pollen and strands of spidersilk. Bird songs lifted from the quiet corners and I saw my first Siberian Meadow Bunting fluting to anyone who would listen from atop a newly budding Japanese maple.
The road narrowed to a crumbling path strewn with windfallen branches and unmoving eddies of old leaves. At the end, nestled in the crook of the ravine, stood a dilapidated old house that had been abandoned long enough that the windows had cracked and splintered and a sumac tree had grown through the rear end of the roof. The timbers had rotted through and carpenter ants thronged like the cherry blossom viewers in the heat of the afternoon sun. It was so still that instinctively the tension lifted from somewhere behind me and for the first time in a very long time I was unselfconscious enough without all the overly prying eyes of Japanese curious and sometimes disapproving of a foreigner in their midst to be able to stop and take a look at things the way I love so much to: slowing to a crawl and mimicking a praying mantis with incremental steps taken with the breaths of wind and then standing still for uncounted moments while peering hard at things around me, sometimes even getting down on my belly to see things from a different perspective. I lost myself in the trickling of a tiny brooklet that had created a new path from the slope overlooking the house, watching a water strider flick wavelets across a puddle.
Behind the old house a derelict shed revealed itself. It was strangling on thickets of bamboo and two flax pants growing right up against its crumbling wooden walls. In the corners two old delivery bicycles hid in the shadows, their tires blistered away.
Derelict shed being reclaimed by the forest
I discovered paper wasps building nests under the eaves, baby orb web spiders hanging motionless in the sunlight, blue bottle flies fiercely buzzing over the roof of the house, fritillary, cabbage, and sulfur butterflies… hardy species all… protecting their little islands in the new sunlight, wolf spiders dashing up the blue painted outsides of the house, and a lone inchworm hanging from a thread more than 20 meters long from the tops of one of the surrounding trees.
A look through the broken window of the front door of the house revealed rooms abandoned with many of the former dwellers’ belongings still scattered about: a calendar of a young woman in a skimpy bikini advertising Kirin Beer, a pair of rotting slippers, a ceramic tea cup, two floor pillows covered in dust, and a sticker of Hello Kitty plastered to a paper closet door. A dank, acrid odor rose from the floor and gave the interior a slightly sinister feel, in spite of the tranquility of the area.
After making a round of the house I started back down the road the way I had come. Earlier I had spied a side path leading up along the hill overlooking the road so I went back to find it.
This path took me up over the little vale through a cedar forest, to one of the ridges I had seen so often from the train. i was surprised that there was not another soul around. The wind blew with a moan through the trees and lent the end of the day a mournful feeling, so that when I found a glade atop the hill surrounded by a council of old chestnut and beech trees, still naked against the sky, I had to sit down and take a deep breath. I was so happy and lonely at the same time.
The trail led over the top of the hill then back around to a clearing where an ancient and grizzled old camphor tree, its trunk a mass of cracks, wrinkles, and growths, stood guard over what must once have been a shrine to the deity of the hill. The tree was so badly in need of pruning that people must have quit coming this way long ago. The trail led back down the hill from here, passing through stands of bamboo and camellia and eventually ending up behind a ancient temple so old it was housed in a protective wooden latticework house (the oldest temples in Japan used no paint and often had thatched roofs). All the artificial trappings of a usual temple had been removed except the two guardian dog statues and the stone entrance lanterns. A huge cherry tree branched out across the temple square, aching with white blossoms that no one came any more to see. Japanese often say that viewing cherry blossoms, while beautiful, is also profoundly sad, even frightening. Standing there alone in the last rays of the sun, in a place that no one had set foot in for many years, while not far away hundreds of people thronged to see cherry blossoms with more star status, I could feel the sadness and fright of being abandoned, of beauty left unnoticed, of something that must once have been loved left here to fall to ruin. Part of me rejoiced in this return to nature, but I couldn’t help but see that we weren’t following along. This was nature making a comeback, but with no respect on our part.
I bowed to the temple and also said a silent thank you to the Shinto hill deity still residing up by that old tree. Then I took the steep, broken stairs back down the hill to the level asphalt roads below, from where I slowly made my way back home, my eyes filled with silence and the heat of life persisting even through our efforts to remain immortal.
Old stovepipe protruding from the roof of the old abandoned house
Yesterday morning three men suddenly appeared at the my garden fence, climbed over it, and started dismantling the fence. I just happened to notice this as I was working on the computer in my study, glimpsing movement and hearing men’s voices just outside. I rushed to the living room door, threw it open, and demanded what they were doing.
“We’re going to put in two sewer pipes just on either side of the garden,” they replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and what was I making such a fuss about?
“You’re going to what? Who are you and what right do you have to just walk into my garden unannounced?”
“We’re working for [some organization I had no clue about… I just assumed it was my ever insensitive landlord]. We were told to come here and put the pipes in.”
Sputtering with indignation I nearly shouted, “You don’t just come barging into my home and start doing construction work! You contact me first and make an appointment! You have no right to invade my privacy like that!”
They just looked at me as if I was another one of those insane foreigners, an altogether far too common attitude among Japanese. One of them, carrying a shovel, stomped over my rosemary bushes and brushed past me, ignoring the glare I gave him. He bent down, lifted away my compost pile, and tossed it over the other end of the fence. He started digging.
The thing is that my Japanese is just not good enough to handle such unfamiliar legal situations, especially when I am so hopping mad that I can barely get my English out. I didn’t know what to do. What were the proper social expectations here, since people’s ideas of privacy and acceptable behavior are so different from America and other places? If it was my landlord who was responsible for this, how could I keep my advantage as a tenant and whom could I turn to if something illegal had been committed?
Being unsure I let the men go about their business and called my landlord. He knew nothing about it and told me he would look into it, saying that it was probably the ward office, putting in public utilities.
“Yes, but without contacting me about it?” I asked.
“They were wrong to do that,” he admitted.
I had to go to work so I didn’t have time to stay around to see what the men were up to. When I returned I found the fence replaced, but two huge white concrete manholes planted in either side of my 2 meter by 8 meter garden. My rosemary had been ripped out of the ground, one of my zelkova saplings chopped down, all the plants on the ground tromped over, my shiitake mushroom seeder log left exposed to the sky, and my planter shelf upended at one end of the garden.
Something broke inside me. I stood gazing at all of this and for a moment I hated Japan and all Japanese. I just had enough. All the unending construction around my house for four years straight, with almost no days of peace, all the unfriendliness of the neighbors and their inconsiderate banging and conversing very loudly in front of my bedroom window at five in the morning and things like flooding my apartment with washing machine overflow from upstairs and not even coming down to apologize, all the monotonous attitudes and predictable behavior and obsessive concern with things cute and public propriety and staying within the lines on the notebook pages, all the times I’d been cheated by partners in my freelance work, while being subjected to racial disdain…aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I felt like destroying someone else’s home!
Then it all collapsed into sadness and a kind of exhausted numbness. I’ve had enough of fighting and finding fault and using my mind and heart to shore up defenses and attacks. I’ve had enough of war of any sort.
In the light of day I stood outside gazing at the garden again today. All I could think was I had to leave. Soon. Find some way to make enough money to finally pull away from here. The avocado tree stood at one end of the garden, the remaining zelkova sapling at the other and I wondered how I would be able to keep them safe, bring them with me. But I couldn’t of course. They would have to take their chances in this garden of changes that has erupted around them since I planted them five years ago. I wish now that I hadn’t planted them; what a waste of hope and love and life.
What do you do when you try so hard to nurture serenity in your life and little things like this keep cropping up to challenge what you love? I know I’ve been pulling away more and more into my shell of a life, meeting people less, becoming reclusive and mistrusting, so I wonder if this is the banging on the door that I really need to get my attention and start engaging life headlong again. When did I ever become so fearful? Nothing scared me so much when I was younger. Change had always been a welcome development, a chance to breathe fresh air, meet new people, and reinvent myself. Just how do trees do it, lasting through the ages, looking on at all the familiar things being ripped up, and never once wincing? They surely must have more forgiving eyes than I do.