The Rain family sets out for a summer in the Tipped Tea Archipelago.
A pen and ink illustration from a dream I once had. It is also a brainstorming drawing of a scene from a book I am writing.
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.
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.
In 1991, while attending a writer’s gathering I was invited to in Glenbrook, New Hampshire, Walter Clark recited this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, and favorite poems:
Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Fruechten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei suedlicher Tage,
draenge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Suesse in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein is, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin and her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blaetter treiben.
It is difficult to translate into English the inherently melancholy voice of the German language and even more difficult to ascribe the longer rhythms and consonant rich sound of German words that Rilke uses so masterfully in his poems. It is simply impossible to bring across the full beauty of Rilke’s poems in English. For the sake of most of the readers of this weblog, I’ve made my own attempt:
Lord: it is time. The Summer was so grand.
Lay thy shadows upon the sundials,
and upon the fields let the winds loose.
Allow the last fruit to grow full;
give them yet two southerly days,
press them through completion and throw
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who now has no house, builds none more.
Who now is alone, will so long remain,
will wake, read, write long letters
and in the alleyways two and fro
restlessly wander, as the leaves drift down.
German books are still published in small formats that are easy to carry in pockets. Japanese books, too. When I introduced a Japanese friend to The Lord of the Rings series last year, at first she recoiled when she saw the huge paperback volume in the English section of Kinokuniya, the giant six story bookstore in downtown Tokyo. “It’s too heavy!” she protested. “Who’s going to carry around a lump like that?” She was reassured, however, when she went downstairs and discovered that the Japanese versions had been split into seven volumes, each small enough to slip into her purse’s side pocket.
I’m puzzled why western book companies now issue most of their books in these huge bricks that barely fit into your bag and add up to the equivalent of a weightlifter’s barbell when stuffing a bag for school or work. During the Second World War publishers distributed the newly designed “pocket books” so that soldiers might carry a volume in their back pockets, but the mobility of these books still holds true today. Not only would carrying the latest edition of the Harry Potter series while walking the mountains make my pack a lot lighter (no I don’t bring such big books into the mountains!), but it would certainly make having books shipped from Amazon.com in the States here to Japan a lot cheaper.
I came across my first copy of “The Fellowship of the Rings” from J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” in 1974, when I was fourteen, while browsing a musty old used bookstore in London with my father. He mentioned the book in passing and I picked it up, curious. Since we were headed for Germany in a few days, I decided to buy the entire set, so that I would have something to read while in Germany. Little did I know that these books would turn over my world and grab a hold of something in my heart that to this day has never left.
The summer of 1974 etched itself into my memories in a way no stretch of time ever did before or since. It was the summer that my parents toured Scotland and left my brother Teja and me with my grandparents in Hannover, Germany. My grandfather, grandmother, and great aunt, whom we called respectively “Opa”, “Oma”, and “Tante Luise”, had planned a summer of travel and adventure for us. We spent a few days at a pension in the Harz mountains, where Opa took us on long walks in the woods and my imagination bloomed with images of Elves and Dwarves and Dryads among the great oaks. For two weeks we stayed at a summer camp along the northern Elbe River, where I fell in love with my first girlfriend (and one of my oldest friends) and experienced my first kiss. In Hannover Teja and I took skulling lessons on the broad expanse of the artificial lake, the Masch See. In my grandparents’ apartment the rooms filled with the aroma of boiled German potatoes, rolled cabbage, fresh sauerkraut, and rotisserie chicken. The grandfather clock on the wall chimed on the hour. The coal cellar at the bottom of the echoing wooden stairwell wafted up its breath of chilly air and the acrid smell of carbon and stored gunny sacks of potatoes. The voices of my grandparents and great aunt fluted through the rooms as they bantered, laughed, and bickered in German, a language that carries the texture of time and warmth for me. And all the while, whenever I had a chance to sit or lie back uninterrupted, the Tolkein books occupied my attention and loyalties. The world of the Ring sank so deep that, one evening, while walking back with my newly returned parents, from an outdoor Handel concert at the Herrenausen Gardens, I could swear I glimpsed a band of Dwarves marching amidst the woods surrounding the Gardens.
It took me years to recognize that something about Hannover stuck with me and described a solidity in my world that the actual sifting of day-to-day experiences never seemed to coalesce. While writing my travel book about bicycling through Europe alone in 1987 it came to me just how much the spirit of the people and the town of my birth rubbed off onto my inner chalkboard. I came to realize that much as you might like to imagine that your past is a blank, or that the places you sojourn in or pass through never leave traces, in reality all the places you awake in draw scratches in the slate that forms you. Each place speaks through both its landmarks and the voices of the people and creatures that you have encounters with. It is as Gregory Bateson described in “The Ecology of Mind”: all existence is a shifting of balance… nothing that happens is without significance or consequence.
While exchanging comments with Fujiko Suda over her recent viewing of the first movie “The Fellowship of the Ring” and her observation that in both the movie and the books Frodo never really made an impression on her, I spent the evening reminiscing about those first weeks with the Tolkein characters and why they seemed at the time to infuse in me an identification with the German landscape. The books invoked a yearning for connection with a place that I, with my life divided between Japan, the U.S, and Germany, never could quite grab hold of. The books took each of the characters away from the places they held most dear and which defined most succinctly who they were. The interesting development occurred in Frodo himself, who, of all the Fellowship characters, most wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins and who perhaps least fit into the Shire’s social structure. The further he wandered from the Shire, however, the less defined he became, and the more ephemeral and lost he seemed. For readers such as Fujiko Suda and me, Frodo never grew into a really likeable and identifiable personage… he just flickered out and turned to ashes, it seemed. On the other hand, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who characterized the very soul of the Hobbit people, and who least wanted to leave the Shire, all began to grow and develop into more than their original counterparts, until all the strangeness and need for calling up heretofore unused emotions sculpted them into characters in full bloom. Frodo didn’t seem to really learn anything, or even lose anything, perhaps because he carried little for the reader to identify with from his ancestral home.
I often wonder if that sense of identity and that sense of place, including knowing the ancestors who shaped you, arise out of being washed in the waters of familiarity with a community. Familiarity takes time and as such a drifter, by definition, cannot accumulate enough duff to be able to express the richness of a place. I’ve spent more than half my life living in Japan, including my childhood, and in many ways it speaks through the timbre of my vocabulary and in my body language and temperament. However, few Japanese myths or folktales have ever evoked such strong sense of identity that the myths, legends, and folktales of Europe have. The same goes for American folktales… somehow they never awoke excitement or longing in me and I easily bored of reading them. The Lord of the Rings breathed European mythology and as such sang the very notes of place that had me devouring the story. I needed something in the books that had to do with place, had to do with a long line that stretched back into time forgotten. And yet, today, I still haven’t found that sigh of relief in knowing exactly where I am and exactly where I wanted to be. Like Frodo the uncertainly hangs around my neck like the Ring.
I envy those who find no crack in the mirror of the place they inhabit and who can, without a moment’s hesitation, look around them and see their ancestors and feel the grounding. The place where your heart discovers rest cannot ask for description; it just knows, because all the voices down the ages rise up in one chorus. The place of belonging is a sound, not a name.
This website has since been discontinued, though I still very much want to finish writing the stories, now as “Letters From the Tipped Tea Archipelago”.
I’ve put together a new blog, this one written by my imaginary friend Sorrell, about his new home on the Isle of Wake. Join him as he explores a world of wonders!