It’s one of those momentous times in life when all the strings of the doily of life converge. Big decisions have to be made, whether I want to or not, and while I stand here in the clearing all the snow around looks fresh and untouched. Whichever way I go there will be new tracks. I love being the one to stamp into the new snow, but all the same it’s not a little scary. And not without its sorrow.
Since I was a boy beyond memory two main themes always reiterated themselves into the architecture of my thoughts and feelings: nature and art. The earliest light of my consciousness recurs with images of leaves and insects and the smell of soil. Most of my happiest memories occurred in places surrounded by trees or hills or living things. The sounds of wind and water infused the music in my mind, like a green concert hall, the orchestra still warming up. Whenever I wavered, when the fragility and uncertainty and cruelty of human interaction shook my connection to this ephemeral and ever-changing boat that I call myself I could always step outside and go for a walk. There was a reciprocative duality there that felt like one; the world and me. There was never any doubt in it.
Art has always done the same for me. Writing and books; painting and drawing; photography; singing, writing lyrics, playing guitar and violin, and listening to all the world’s musicians, from crickets to Peter Gabriel and Kiri Te Kanawa; movies and animation; cooking; gardening; pottery; architecture and interior design… Somehow all these activities defined the passage of time and effort for me.
Merely acting out the steps necessary for survival, without appreciation for the merit in every aspect of the things around you or of what you actually do, never seemed to quite fulfill the promise of waking each morning. People who tell me they get bored confound me… how can you get bored if you have imagination? Isn’t it the mind that defines the color of perception? And isn’t that just what art is, the painting in of the details? Art, for me, polishes the roughness in the old block. It is with imagination that you learn to see and by seeing you unfurl the wings within your daily grind.
I have the opportunity to once and for all combine the these two guides to my life. To not shunt onto another track out of self-doubt and fear. Writing, drawing, photography, wildlife, conservation, a lifestyle as close to nature as I can hope to make it. But I’m not sure how to go about doing it. Do I stay here in Japan? Try Australia or New Zealand? Go back to Europe? Or the States or Canada? Do I teach? Do I go back to university (perhaps to study biogeography or wildlife management or some such)?
The first step has already been taken. I finished writing a book two years ago, but it has yet to find a publisher. It was the first major accomplishment of the promises I made to myself when I was younger: to live according to the right vibrations.
A lot of this seems shrouded in clouds these days; I am not as sure of who I am as I was long ago, but I know what I miss most, and missing something that you love for too long requires the sacrifices and determination of a lover. And I want to be a lover of life.
For years now there has existed a kind of silent clawing at the air in my breast, the kind that led Henry Thoreau to remark upon when he penned the words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”, in his most famous book, “Walden”. Over and over again I have read Thoreau’s careful remonstrations, spellbound by the sheer music of his wisdom and consistency of his insight (his book “Civil Disobedience” was the manifesto that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King. jr. turned to when formulating their ideas on peacefully opposing injustice), and I vowed early on in my life that I would not allow myself to fall into the trap of missing the rough hand of the real world, the natural world, upon my soul. I sought hard for the subjects that would pave the path I took, reading the literature and taking on the experiences that culled understanding, until I was whittled into the kind of life that fit me, with the wind and trees, earth and sky weathering my face to the point where my body was indistinguishable from the place that I inhabited.
But it seems I’ve been spirited away into another world, a world where the potential that sleeps within me must needs be drugged and cannot waken. Here I am living in the heart of the biggest city in the world, far, far away from hills that I dreamed of roaming, where dew clung to my hair and wool sweater, the gentlest whisper of my breath hung in the dawn light. That is where I always imagined moving within, but somehow I ended up here. The daily fare is of thundering trains carrying hoards of people stuffed between doors, of bread and bananas and pale meat wrapped in crinkling plastic, of rivers stinking of sewage and crows tearing up bags of refuse, of weekend after weekend finding myself, as if lead along by shifting, magic trails, back downtown amidst the concrete, over and over again heading through the same stores, buying the same, heartless magazines and clothes, reacting to people who all look the same, wearing their ties and latest fashions all picked up (not even harvested) from the same, lurking stores, no one daring to cast them off, of cars and cars and cars and cars, of electrical towers strung from house to house, of deserted streets as houses glow, unmoving, at midnight while the moon and the stars wheel unnoticed over the rooftops, of flickering, blue television light, transfixing me and the ones I love so that we sit unmoving beside one another, of distances stretched to breaking with houses and buildings and dams and levees and water towers and roads, roads, roads and bridges and factories and stadiums and wharves and warehouses and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers, until the eye runs out of green to imagine, and no life exists but our own, and our own lives seem to exist only in the reflection in the windows of the trains at night, when hope passes through the darkness like street lights swooping past.
People seem to yearn for some measure of wealth pocketed in the clink of coins and slip of paper bills. They grin when their fingers close upon these symbolic messengers, their brains aglow with images of shiny objects, very much like the trinkets jackdaws and pack rats collect, big houses, fancy cars, exquisitely tailored suits, rare wines, and dazzling jewelry, shining fantasies made real at the expense of others and seeming the cul-de-sac of life’s endeavors, the very reason for being. It’s what seems to run the whole human world and charge up the great engine, so all-consuming and undeniable that even mountains disappear in the great, gawping maw, landscapes replaced by subdivisions and calculated risks. This is called wealth, called “reality”, called “the bottom line”. A cathedral of soaring desires, the very roof a crystalline structure built of vapor and mirrors, fantasy embodied in acquired tastes.
But I have never really wanted these things, from the earliest moments when the light in my eyes became more than just random events, and took on the complexity and dance and method that the natural world always exudes. I will walk into a desert and become awestruck by life, as I kneel down on the cracked soil and perceive the lizards or cacti or scorpions or toads holding on to tenuous moments. There is nothing really so desolate or abandoned as waste anywhere in the natural world, even the slopes of a black volcano, steaming, running with hot lava. I have never felt desolation in a wild place as I have in such burnt out districts as Brooklyn or the wharves of Tokyo at night or the gouged out bleakness of the empty crags around the Ashio copper strip mine, north of Tokyo, that, although closed down over one hundred fifty years ago, still evokes some ancient memory of what Hell must look like.
I am not a rich man. I have a few luxuries, such as a computer, a television, and a digital camera, but for the most part my life hasn’t been a preoccupation with acquiring a lot of things and thirsting after a big house or expensive car. Rather, what has always filled me with unending joy and a huge sense of well-being have been things like a great place to walk, or the sight of gnats dancing in a shaft of sunlight on a winter’s day or that wonderful feeling after a hard climb when your lungs settle down, the sweat cools, and for a moment you can rest and gaze over the valley below. As long as I am not too hungry or thirsty, I am dry and warm, and perhaps a friend or two to keep me company, what more have I ever needed? The time to appreciate living on this planet, to learn how it operates and moves, to listen to my own heart beating itself. When I think of the times I’ve been happiest in my life always, always it has been not when finding something new to stuff into my pocket, but when I felt as if I was owned by the world itself, an inseparable jigsaw piece in the joy of something hugely, but comfortably, greater than I am, when I had nothing to say because everything was as it should be. My wealth comes in sunlight and rain, in the taste of a handful of mountain spring water, in finding a lucky space to shelter in the rain, in the company of a fellow walker or watcher who can nod to me without a word because we both understand the pregnancy of the moment, in the flag of white breath on a frosty morning, in the ache of muscles as I knead some dough, in the silent steamroller of dawn approaching, in a cup of tea, in setting a butterfly free, or in singing as I stride along a ridge. These are my measurements of wealth, what I will most miss when I must finally turn away and die.
And I miss these things now, with all my heart, with all my soul. I miss loving a place, having it draw me until I belong to it. I miss the sense of responsibility for my surroundings and for those people who inhabit the place with me. I miss what it really means to be human and alive and free. My heart aches with loss and emptiness. This is poverty, the path that leads to despair. This is where I never thought I would be.
I’ve started to take steps to haul myself out of the pit. It begins with a shedding of skin and unnecessary baggage. It begins with remembering what is important. It begins with taking a deep breath, holding it, and letting go.
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.
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.