One of my readers (Thanks Shah) pointed me to some of my old posts that I hadn’t read in a long time. One of the them, “Waking to”, which I wrote on February 2, 2004, surprised me with the way I used the language. I had always thought of myself as a terrible poetry writer, but this was something I felt I could actually be happy with. Some of you may have read it before, but for some of you it might be new. Tell me what you think.
Here, let me murmur a bit about the light today, the falling of heat
like a rain of down from some passing flock. The passage from sleep to
that soft transfer of thought didn’t stop at the window. I stepped out
and showered in peace, wings of stillness rising and falling about me,
where only yesterday the air shook with trepidation. I waited in the
bated morning, expecting a voice to shatter the emergence of it all,
but the interval lasted, pregnant with silence. For a time it was just
as I imagined, me and clouds scratching by overhead, heading
north-northwest. Speed or a trendy displacement had no place in that
brief perfection, as if I was given a reprieve. But I dared not blink,
lest, in that eternity of blindness, time forsook me, and the slow
ghosts of change failed the quickness of my eyes, too slow for
remembrance. Even to mouth the news turns the encounter to dust, so,
as I speak, the light is lost, sifting through wire, long, powdery,
and loved into absence.
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.
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.
Fast becoming one of my favorite blogs Journal of a Writing Man, there is something disarming and undeniably charming about Old Grey Poet’s daily stories. The fact that he focuses on the details of his daily life, peppering the anecdotes with bytes of such treasures as an annoyance with the residue left over on the back of a notebook after peeling away the price sticker, or the joy of riding a bicycle again after years of neglect, or the wonder of watching a water spout, brings me back for more every day.
I can relate to what he is writing and can fit inside the boundaries of such a world. It has made me think hard about what I want to write here, and though my last post was the usual weltschmertz griping, I intend to focus more, from now on, on this little ring of influence that I can manage by myself. The blog will undergo some changes, including new blogging software (WordPress), a facelift, and some added and rearranged categories. It will take a little while, but I hope it will streamline the site and focus the voice here.
It’s been a harrowing month, what with having been cheated in my payment for the spring hotel brochure design project (the cover of the main brochure is to the left. The colors are definitely not right online… the reddish brown on top is actually a lot deeper brown and the blue below is actually more violet) and having to deal with it all in some very convoluted Japanese negotiations (my Japanese is very good, but I just can’t keep up in such jargon-rich sparring, especially when there are two Japanese, thirty-year design veterans against one of me… and believe me, the Japanese know how to be convoluted and vague… their whole language revolves around saying things through innuendo! And no, I never was able to rectify my losses) without resources, without anyone to turn to for professional advice. It’s left me discouraged and not a little angry. I don’t think I will ever do design work in Japan again. This is the main reason I haven’t been blogging for quite some time.
But on the bright side, it’s become clear that design work is not my cup of tea (after having been cheated five times already… you’d think I would have learned by now!). Now, with all other possible career roads taken eliminated, like salt evaporated out of the bucket, I have no more excuses not to put all my effort into making it as a writer. I’ve tried every combination of vocation (except working as a field biologist) that I’ve ever imagined myself doing, and one by one eliminated them. Only writing holds fast and only writing fulfills all the criteria I’ve asked of my life. It’s hard, lonely, low paying work and I can get cheated in this field, too, but at least it’s in my language and at least I have resources and people to turn to. And most important, at least I love doing it as I do it, even when I’m struggling.
Here, let me murmur a bit about the light today, the falling of heat like a rain of down from some passing flock. The passage from sleep to that soft transfer of thought didn’t stop at the window. I stepped out and showered in peace, wings of stillness rising and falling about me, where only yesterday the air shook with trepidation. I waited in the bated morning, expecting a voice to shatter the emergence of it all, but the interval lasted, pregnant with silence. For a time it was just as I imagined, me and clouds scratching by overhead, heading north-northwest. Speed or a trendy displacement had no place in that brief perfection, as if I was given a reprieve. But I dared not blink, lest, in that eternity of blindness, time forsook me, and the slow ghosts of change failed the quickness of my eyes, too slow for remembrance. Even to mouth the news turns the encounter to dust, so, as I speak, the light is lost, sifting through wire, long, powdery, and loved into absence.
For those of you into the Lord of the Rings, there’s an interesting discussion going on over at Pericat’s Unlocking the Air, about whether the rewrite of the books for the movie works or not. Come join the discussion and say what you think!
Here is my version: ( “Nature Boy” was the nickname that I was given in elementary school and that stuck with me until I graduated from high school. I hated it in the beginning, but have come to feel that it describes me very well )
I am from cobblestone streets wet with oak leaves,
from the tantivy of pigeons circling.
From Tante Luise’s soft fingers grasping a worn potato knife
and Oma tiptoeing by the window sill, watching pedestrians.
I am from terra cotta roof tiles and forests of chimneys,
from a grandfather clock chiming at midnight.
From cherries and plums and dewey blueberries in bowls,
from echoing stairwells and the acrid bite of coal and potatoes in sacks.
I am from Opa’s tar-stained fingers grasping a hazenut stick,
from stock still hares and barking roe deer.
From an open top Morgan purring down the Autobahn,
from clanking trains pulling into iron framed halls.
I am from Mama’s worn diary and sepias of country lanes,
from Papa’s white lab coat and Vespa touring the tarmac.
From ship smokestacks gliding atop a levee,
from a first kiss in the westering sun.
I am from brick walls laced in ivy,
from mantis nymphs spilling down a papery shell.
From smashing a neighbor’s igloo and squirrels clattering along eaves,
from a blue blizzard toppling my friend, a weeping willow.
I am from the tales Joseph told of elephants in Rhodesia,
from the Planet of the Apes and a bone tossed into space.
From hoola hoops and Hot Wheels,
from pansit served with yams and cranberry sauce.
I am from candle balloons filling the air and cherry bombs in toilets,
from Auntie Soli dancing the tiniklit, between bamboo poles.
From Josh’s sister abducted and never seen again,
from Tatsuro’s Egyptian cartoons and Bitsy’s flying tackle with a kiss.
I am from a short-eared owl staring from a barn roof,
from the white teeth of children in a black Brooklyn school, streets shouting, “Integration!”
From horseshoe crabs washed up on Jones Beach,
from hoary firs standing silent as I land.
I am from limestone walls bulging from muscling zelkova trunks,
from sweet straw mats and shoes kicked off by the door.
From cicadas electrifying the summer haze, making trees speak,
from wooden sandals clip-clopping along train platforms.
I am from helmeted students shouting, “No war!”,
from pantomiming five comedians on black and white TV.
From shaved ice with melon syrup and glass balls punched into bottle necks,
from the girl down the street who never said hello.
I am from Jonathan shouting, “Jumbo Jet!”, everyone rushing to the window,
from Peter’s water pipe and my bloody nose.
From a family of foxes pausing on the dirt road up north,
from rhinoceros beetles and luna moths and azure-winged magpies.
I am from hitting tennis balls at a wall, sobbing and wishing for friends,
from jam-packed commutes and girls in sailor uniforms.
From lying beside the Okhotsk Sea with my brother, watching Perseid meteorites streak the wide ink sphere,
from clouds drifting across the face of Fuji, crowning her in white.
I am from the North,
I am from the West,
I am from the East.
This was a surprise, coming across this, Neil Gaiman’s Journal. Interesting reading his words as a regular member of this world. And to listen to him speaking about everyday things. And as a writer, always good to hear the advice.
In the midst of reading her book, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, the fourth in her “Space Series”, Doris Lessing talks in depth about the relationship of the impermanence of the world with the concept of self. Two of her characters go through two long soliloquies as they attempt to come to terms with the knowledge that they will become extinct. Three concepts emerge: dreams are collective, the body is but an ephemeral container, and the self is but a manifestation of other selves that came before. I’ve been reading the book on my commutes to and from work, while sitting with a wall of bodies lined up right at my knees, individuals each, but one person little differentiated from the next. The book and all these people often left me sitting with my eyes closed, trying to pull aside the veil that hides comprehension.
It is true what Lessing says, each morning I wake to the conviction, “Here I am. This is me.” And yet each day my experiences tell me that this is not really how things are. This determination to define “me” in the context of the world around always flutters out into disappointment when I realize that I am not really so important in the scheme of things after all. We cry when something dear to us dies or we lose something that we value. And yet eventually all things die and disappear. We know that. The cake we made rots. The book we read disintegrates. The dog we cherished dies. Even the mountain we roved in a reverie crumbles into dust. It is the way of the world and we are all an intimate part of it.
But it seems we spend most of our time denying it and resisting the going.
Perhaps it has something to do with getting older, and realizing that this body that I’ve inhabited all these years is steadily letting go, that eventually it will give and wink out. More and more I’m coming to realize that this youth oriented society that we push so strongly is ill-prepared for the awakening to the ephemeral nature of our lives. We spend so much time buying the make up and working out in the gyms, that we’ve left no space for the habitation of our minds, which must take time to grow into the acceptance of eventually letting go.
I watched a program the other night about a Japanese businessman who gave up his lucrative job as a salesman to live as cheaply as possible and concentrate on taking photographs. He bought a run down old farmhouse just on the outskirts of Tokyo, threw away all modern appliances, learned about how farmers in the poverty stricken days before the war kept themselves warm, cooked, and ate. He adopted the simplest, most technology-independent lifestyle he could find and settled down to enjoy his lifestyle. What he found was that a person barely needs much to live relatively comfortably, and that his time expanded into hours.
“When you’re spending less money and time on the items that are supposed to make your life better, you gain back all that time. And what I’ve found is that there is more space for my mind, now. I hadn’t realized just how gratifying the older lifestyle was. There is something that feels complete in cooking fish over an open fire or putting a vegetable from your garden onto your plate. It is a satisfaction that you just can’t derive from TV or cell phones or computers.”
I am wondering more these days if the richness of close association with the surrounding world that a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity seem to embody actually helps you incorporate the ephemerality of life into your outlook and works in better with the birth and death of your precious self. For it seems to be the clinging to self that most harms the cycle of things.
Would that our societies let go of “prosperity” and learn to transcend the limitations of desire. We could concentrate on our collective dream instead.