Japan: Living Journal Tokyo

Spirit in the House

Balcony Garden 2

There really are no words that can comfort or explain why when a loved one dies. The death comes as expected or not, but in its wake we enter a room or a place that the departed called their own and find ourselves at a loss. A great, silent loss that no matter how hard we try to rebuild the blocks defies our comprehension. And so we turn to words to try to give it structure and provide a beginning and an end to what we shared. A story.

Georgio Casellato Lamberti (or “Lan” for short) was a Shi Tzu dog, that my partner M. had befriended 17 years earlier at a pet shop here in Tokyo. He had white, chestnut brown, and black hair and a face that immediately reminded me of an Ewok, with great, liquid eyes and a black nose and lips that never smiled. I first met him nine years ago shortly after M. and I became friends. He was a humorless dog, constantly snuffling and snorting and completely without interest in other dogs during his walks. His interest in walks remained limited, at least by the time I met him, to doing his bodily functions and that was it. As soon as the chore was done he yanked on the leash to go home. It was for this reason that, for a breed of dog that normally weighs about 4 kg, Lan weighed about 7 kg and waddled more than walked. I only saw him run one time in all the time I knew him.

He never barked. Violence and temper tantrums were alien to him. He was a lover and not a fighter, though even the allure of the female persuasion never seemed to cross his mind. One time when M. and I were shouting at one another he walked over to us, stood there looking up until we noticed him, and then reached out a paw to touch M.’s leg, silently pleading for us to make peace. M. and I broke down laughing, partly out of love for him, partly out of sheer embarrassment.

As he grew older he took more and more to sleeping. He was plagued with ailments and pain, from a weak heart, bad skin allergies that left his skin constantly red and itching (until I suggested using baby shampoo and the allergies went away), cancer of the liver, anemia. Four years ago he started going deaf and blind. When we moved here to this apartment last year his hind legs were giving out and the new environment terrified him. For three weeks he cried constantly while bumping around the unfamiliar corners and walls. I’d never heard him wail before and the worry about the landlord finding out about having a dog in a place where no pets were allowed made that first month stressful and uncertain. There were times when I got so fed up with his whining and doing his mess all over the apartment floors that I wished he were dead.

Kamiigusa New Years Charm

Sometime around the middle of July his legs got worse and he had a hard time standing up. He was still alert and full of his doggy appetite, never getting enough to eat. Without his eyesight and hearing he took to scanning the room with his nose and every time we made dinner the waft of cooking food would shake him from his stupor and prompt him to find his way to his feet. When no food was forthcoming he’d let out a huge snort and plonk back down onto his pillow and fall asleep. M. and I constantly teased him for his lack of contribution to the household upkeep.

When we returned from Canada at the end of August, after leaving him at the vet for a week suddenly Lan took a turn for the worse. His legs gave out completely and he was no longer able to walk. He took to sleeping with his spine curled in toward the left and he’d struggle in pain or dizziness when we turned him over onto his left side facing right. The doctor didn’t know what it was. M. spent every spare moment nursing him, getting up at 4:00 in the morning to quietly and patiently hand feed him, wash him, talk to him. He lost weight, lots of it, so that the pudgy, waddling gentleman of indifference slowly wasted away to nothing but skin and bones. Even then he had the energy to crawl across the living room floor and attempt to reach the potty spot at the end of the entrance hall, even though he had long since been enclosed in his fenced-in pen. He’d hold in his bowels until we got home late in the evening, unwilling to relinquish that last source of dignity that had defined his world since he was a baby.

Lan Daru Last Photo Together

M. was beginning to reach her limits around the middle of December. She was exhausted and emotionally just hanging on. Sometimes it seemed as if Lan would hang by a thread for the rest of eternity, breathing and shitting and eating and sleeping. He was a tough little monster, and wasn’t going to go out without a fight. Then around the middle of January he began to fade. He stopped eating for days then would wake up with a voracious appetite, then stop eating again. His breathing grew labored, raspy. When we reached into his triple layer of blankets and hot water bottle his feet felt cold and often he made no reaction, giving us a fright. M. had to take him to the vet several times to change his food since he refused to eat his usual fare and more and more would only take the best choices in canine dining. I guess he intended to die a gourmand, none of that fiber-filled, grainy cereal that he’d been eating day in and day out for so many years!

At the end of January he started wheezing terribly. We knew then it was the end. One night, after two days of refusing to drink anything we took him to the vet in an emergency in order to rehydrate him. The doctor gave him an intravenous saline injection, but suggested that it might be time to let him go. His gums were a deathly white from anemia and he was so thin the doctor had a difficult time finding a suitable spot to insert the needle. Lan vomited up nearly everything that he attempted to eat, but after the saline shot he quieted down and slept all night without making a sound.

Daru Lan Embrace

The next morning M. had to get up early to go to work. I had work, too, but remained home until the very last minute just to make sure Lan was alone as little as possible. He began to wheeze badly again and vomited bile and blood. I sat with my hand on his side until it was time to go and he had managed to fall asleep again. I hurried through everything at work so as to make it back home in time, just in case Lan was ready to let go. The silly and innocuous questions of a lot of the lazier and more immature students unprepared for upcoming tests made the waiting interminable. Their taking time and their lives for granted made me want to shout at them to start living and not waste the precious gift they had. Meanwhile Lan was struggling to breathe back home.

When my last class ended I rushed home as fast as I could. It was about 1:00. I reached to door at about 2:00 and unlocking the door and kicking off the shoes and dropping my coat and bag on the floor I ran to Lan’s side and kneeled down beside him. I held my breath and peered hard at him, hoping I’d see the slow rise and fall of his shoulder as he slept. It seemed like time stopped. There was no movement. I knew he was gone. I squatted down beside the pen and placed my hand on his head. Still warm. He had died only a little while earlier, but had died alone. That was the last thing that M. had wanted. That he would die alone.

I went numb for a long while, not knowing what to do or what to feel. All I knew was that I needed to let M. know what happened, but that I didn’t want her to break down in the middle of the street or at work. I contemplated what had to be done about the body, and thought about going to see the vet, but even though I was much less attached to Lan than M. was, I found that I couldn’t move and that I still didn’t want to see Lan’s body moved. So I went about cleaning his pen and neatly folding the blankets and sheet so that Lan looked clean and comfortable. Then I searched online for pet crematoriums and information on what needed to be done with dead pets in Japan. I got no where not being able to read the level of Japanese necessary, so I gave up and just sat beside Lan, stroking him.

Lan Last Photo Alive

At around five M. sent me an email asking how I was and then how Lan was. I wrote back briefly, in Japanese, “You should come home.”

She replied, “Is Lan okay?”

I answered, “Just come home.”

I went out to buy some dinner for M. and me, then some flowers for Lan, and while I was waiting for the take out food to be fixed at the store I got another email from M. telling me she was near the station. I stopped by another store for some candles for Lan and met M. at the station.

We said nothing, just walked hand in hand back toward our apartment. While we walked M. silently began to weep and I held her as close as I could.

M. being M. she was up at the crack of dawn the following morning. She spoke little, but was full of energy and purpose. When we had eaten breakfast she discussed with me what we ought to do about Lan, so we looked up information about nearby crematoriums and found a temple where there was a long tradition of cremating and keeping the graves of pets. M. made a number of phone calls and then we gently prepared Lan, wrapping him in his favorite blankets and placing his body in a big Boston bag so we could carry it in the taxi to the temple.

Looking back now I’m surprised by how beautiful and cheerful that day, two weeks ago, was. M. and I managed to joke about Lan’s bad humor and constant royal demands. Between laughter and fits of sobbing we brought Lan’s body to the temple and were ushered into a small reception room where Lan’s body was placed in a basket.

The funeral director was a woman about our age dressed in fashionable black slacks and jacket and speaking with a deferent and quiet voice. She explained what would take place and what we should do. We were led to the back of the temple were a building with a smoke stack stood among some huge gingko trees and asked if it was all right to burn the body with the blankets. Then we were led back to a traditional, tatami mat waiting room where we sat talking and drinking green tea. An hour later the funeral director returned. “The bones are ready to be viewed,” she said.

Daru Funeral Altar

I really can’t express what it felt like when we were taken back to the crematory and we stood waiting as the door to the retort was opened. What slid out was a black tray of bleached bones and the shock of the transition from Lan to those bones almost made my knees buckle under me. M. broke down crying. The cremator was obviously familiar with such reactions and stepped forward to show us the second vertebra of Lan’s spine, which in Japanese is called the “Nodobotoke” bone ‘Throat Boddhisatva”), because it resembles a Buddha with his hands out. M. managed a smile as she peered closely at the bone. “Ah, that’s why the bone is called, ‘Nodobotoke’,” she said. The cremator gently placed the bone on the tray and handed us each a pair of bamboo chopsticks. My hands were shaking as I joined in the Japanese tradition of “Kotsuage”, placing, with chopsticks, the bones into the urn that we would bring home.

We then made our way to the pet temple proper, where rows and rows of pet graves lined the hall. Many of the graves were open with small offerings of the pets’ favorite foods lining the boxes. I stood at the end of the hall watching M. make her lonely way to the alter and regretted the anger I had shown during the last few months over her hanging on to Lan. Maybe for the first time in our relationship I clearly understood how devoted M. was to Lan and, strangely, in those circumstances, to me. She beckoned me to kneel beside her and together we lit a stick of incense and prayed for Lan.

Daru Lan Ashes

Two weeks later it snowed. I was sitting at my desk working on test correction when I glanced out of the window and saw snow drifting down in the dark. I called M. and together we stood by the window watching it come down.

“Lan would hate this!” M. said.

“He definitely liked his comforts,” I added.

“I’m sure right now he’s lying somewhere with his face pressed right up against an infrared heater,” observed M.

“I always wondered how he did that without burning his hair off or melting his eyeballs,” I continued. “Maybe he was made of asbestos.”

We took a walk in the snow and laughed at the stray snow bombs that the telephone wires dumped on us. The streets were empty and silent as most people slept, oblivious to the silent change the city was going through. M. and I snapped photos of one another, both of us smiling.

Daru Funeral Snow

Each time we return home Lan is waiting there in his corner. M. lights a candle and a stick of incense and cheerfully waves good morning. Sometimes it all hits home and she breaks down weeping, but she always looks up and smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m just happy that Lan lived a life in which he was loved.”

Lan Shrine
Diabetes Health Journal

Time to Get A Move On It?

I’ve been trying to deny it, but I’ve been feeling exceptionally cruddy these last few days. My boss informed me that one day of my classes will most likely be shut down, and that more days might follow, eventually maybe even this entire branch of the school itself. After eight years of very dedicated work here it feels like quite a letdown, especially because the boss has been getting on all the teacher’s cases about “doing their best” for the school and the students. That’s exactly what I did… but when push came to shove, I’m given one week’s notice.

I simply can’t make ends meet like this. With all the other worries I have I also can’t afford yet more sticks piled onto the camel’s back. I’m feeling shaky enough as it is.

Big intake of breath, big, big exhale. Everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right.

Yeah, that’s what I said when I found out I had diabetes. I’ve since learned that everything is not always going to be all right.

And maybe that’s part of the crux of the problem. I’ve lost the innocence and confidence in my own ability to keep myself safe in the world. When my heart skips a beat at night I wake up terrified that my body has abandoned me. When there’s an earthquake now I shake in my bones, fearful that this is the one. The thunder storms I used to love so much when I was younger now flash moments of terror in the back of my watching mind. At times, when my blood sugar is high, I start up some train station steps only to feel my mind loosened and reeling, and I wonder if I will be able to make it up the stairs. And whenever I sit waiting in the hospital lounge in my monthly visits to the diabetes center and watch one of the blind or amputees or patients headed for the dialysis machine my eyes are wide with sympathy and horror; that could very well be me there.

When did my faith in my own existence erode so badly? And how does one gain back the confidence and surety of waking up in the morning? I pick up a book on diabetes and the statistics unnerve me:

1) People with diabetes are 2 times more likely to suffer heart attack than those without.
2) People with diabetes are 2 times more likely to suffer a stroke as those without.
3) People with diabetes are 20 times more likely to go blind than those without.
4) People with diabetes are 40 times more likely to suffer kidney failure than those without.”
5) People with diabetes are highly likely to suffer debilitating nerve damage, that can cause all of the problems above.

*Quoted from “The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution” by Richard S. Surwit

Fun reading! It’s like a benign old librarian smiling and quoting simple figures for your trivia enjoyment… all the while a monster standing in disguise beneath her petticoats.

There’s nothing really special about this news; after all we are all scheduled for time in the Cold Room, but there is such a difference in knowing that the cogs and pipes and governors have loosened and jumped track, right here in your own backyard.

When I first saw the movie “Philadelphia” when it first came out over ten years ago, before diabetes sought me out, it moved me and stuck with me, but last night when I again watched Tom Hanks emerge from Denzel Washington’s office after being rejected and the look on Hanks’ face of knowing that his body had given him a legacy of hopelessness, I knew to my bones what he was feeling.

Two months ago my aunt died from diabetes complications. I wasn’t able to get time off to make it to the States to hold her hand before she died and give her whatever courage one diabetic could give to another. Afterwards an ocean of confusion overtook me, partly laden with waves of sorrow at the death of someone I loved dearly, partly awash with immense paranoia that I, too, wasn’t going to make it for much longer. The following week, when my doctor, who has an infuriating habit of talking on her cell phone during our consultations, again answered some call, I blew up and accused her of being unprofessional and not knowing what she was doing and of letting me slowly drift out to sea. Seven years of silence erupted. I am so scared and feel so helpless. And yet I can’t talk about it with anyone I know; the burden would be incomprehensible to them. Too often they brush off the mutters of low-blood sugar fears and days of bad coordination due to neuropathy or the unprovoked, high-blood sugar episodes when even the way a slip of paper might oscillate in a breeze sets me off ranting and shouting for no apparent reason. My father took me to task for “the chip on my shoulder”.

But they’re not to blame. They just don’t know. They don’t have this awful face staring at them day in and day out. Diabetes seems so benign and innocent… after all most diabetics are walking around as if nothing is wrong. They look fine and seem to do just about the same things as anyone else. It is just not apparent that the vision is blurred or that the ringing is constant and loud in the ear or that the feet hurt badly or a morning cramp so clenched the calf muscle that walking is difficult or that the drowsiness just won’t go away, no matter how much coffee you drink or exercise you do. It is silent, like a scalpel.

But my words are defeatist. It’s no joke that everyone is going to die. We all carry that. So I guess the only thing for it is to make best use of what I have and try to live as best I can.

Maybe losing the job is a good thing. After all I’ve long been talking about my need to make a big change in my life. I’ve always believed that you don’t get what you want out of life, but you always do get what you need. In the end what is really important is with just how much grace you can fit inside this tumbling world and how much meaning you can stoke out of the embers into the flickering flame of your life.

Journal Musings

Greying Hairs

Barb wire
Barb wire fence choking a sapling at the edge of the royal gardens in Takao City, Japan.

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!

Diabetes Health Journal Musings

A Parting in the Veil

AEro Beach Life
Beach life along the AEroskobing coastline, AEroskobing Island, Denmark, 1995.

Back in 1994 I had to visit a country hospital in a small town west of Tokyo where I used to live. I was having problems with a pain in my abdomen. The doctor poked around with his fingers for about 5 minutes then announced, “You have cancer of the pancreas. You have about a month to live.” I was, naturally, speechless. (what exactly do you say when someone you hope knows what they’re doing, tells you that you are going to die?).

I left the hospital with my wife and wandered across the street to the strand that swept past the hospital, east and west, for 20 kilometers of black sand in either direction. It is the very place lined with black pines you see so often in woodblock prints from Japan, with Mt. Fuji looming in the background. Once a stunningly beautiful place. Today the beach is strewn with kilometeer after kilometer of washed up and tossed away garbage, so that’s it’s almost impossible to take a step without treading on some plastic detergent bottle or shard of broken glass or bauble of aluminum beer can.

In all the times I had been here before I had walked around cursing under my breath and stewing with outrage. Why the **** do Japanese have to be so slovenly and apathetic in the way they take care of the land? (It’s like this throughout the country… any illusions that people may have of a pristine, nature-loving society ought to remember that this is one of the most crowded, industrialized countries in the world… there is a reason why they have been so successful)

But that time it was different. As I strolled along, the impact of the doctor’s announcement still fresh, everything seemed utterly beautiful: the way the sunlight glinted on the old bicycle half-buried in the sand; the practical and unself-consciousness of the strip of butyle rubber, bicycle inner tube hanging from the beak of a passing seagull; even the old man, in baseball cap and socks pulled over his polyester workpants hems, who was burning a pile of polystyrene lunch platters and used, wooden, throwaway chopsticks… the black smoke drifted up into the air like a skein of incense, platitudes to the dying god on the horizon. The whole scene took on a gloaming quality, of a world sinking in embers, and each and every element that constituted its existence quietly and desperately held on to the few moments it had left to be.

I stood for hours at the wrack line, my wife beside me, listening to the waves dump and wash away, dump and wash away, dump and wash away…

I had intended to write the whole story about the pancreas cancer diagnosis, but somehow I got mesmerized by my own preoccupation with pretty words… sorry about that… leading readers by the nose is a writer’s misdemeanor.

It’s kind of weird about the diagnosis. The doctor only poked around my abdomen for about five minutes and then pronounced pancreatic cancer. When I got home that day I kept thinking, how could he possibly have known that, just by prodding me? The more I thought about it, the angrier I got, that he would so blithely pronounce my death without doing proper check-ups.

The following weekend I took the long-distance bus into Tokyo, alone and full of trepidation, to be examined by my family doctor. After x-rays, a boron test, blood samples, lots more prodding of abdomen and chest, lots of questions, and then one week of anguished waiting, my doctor pronounced me fit as a fiddle… I didn’t have pancreatic cancer. Which made me even more angry with the doctor in the country. Since this is Japan though, taking the doctor to task for his negligence and misdiagnosis is nearly impossible. Doctors are treated like gods here.

I look back now and I wonder, though. None of the doctors had specifially checked for diabetes, though I had the beginnings of all the classic symptoms (I still knew next to nothing about diabetes then). Two years later after about three months of suddenly losing half my weight, constant needing to go to the toilet, ravenous hunger and thirst, I visited yet another doctor near my new home in Tokyo and he discovered that my blood sugar was in the 800’s… I could have died any day. I was immediately checked into the hospital with a strict regimen to lower my blood sugar. This was the start of my diabetes.

I’m not sure exactly when the diabetes started, but it must have been around a while, only mild. I remember the exact day and moment, though, when it got bad… and that is weird, too. I was bicycling alone along the coast of Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo, on a cold winter weekend. On the first night I took lodgings in a small seaside inn, the only guest in the entire place. The owner gave me the best room up on the top floor, a corner suite, with two huge picture windows overlooking the Suruga Bay, with its twinkling fishing boats out along the dark horizon. After taking a bath I returned to my room and sat in the armchair gazing into the night, when suddenly an earthquake hit, setting the whole building atremble. The next moment I got very dizzy and a sharp ringing awoke in my right ear. The ringing has not stopped to this day, and every time my blood sugar goes up, the ringing increases.

The way it all happened makes me wonder about the causes of diabetes. My diabetes doctor today denies that stress has much effect on diabetes, but two years ago, when I returned to the United States to spend five weeks with my brother after 8 years absence from the States and my family, mysteriously, though my eating habits and exercise routine didn’t change much during that period, the blood sugar stabilized at the normal levels of a non-diabetic. Upon my return to Japan, the old blood highs and problems returned, requiring use of insulin daily.

I wonder exactly what mental processes are at work here, what the great stresses of the last seven years have contributed to the demise of my health, and if the proper environment is as much a factor in preventing diabetes as diet and exercise and medicine. I find that my diabetes gets worse in the cold of winter and lightens up during the warmer months of summer. As the causes for all the anger and anxiety that plagued me in the last few years simmer down, so too has the grip of bad blood that coursed through me.

That week when I thought I would die remains with me, especially the first moments along the beach after the diagnosis. It is like a quiet song that plays in the background, arousing me to repeat the chorus. And I keep hearing the sound of the sea, reminding me of where and who I am.

But the biggest question still lingers: the diagnosis failed to confirm pancreatic cancer, but how did the doctor know that there was something wrong with my pancreas?

Coup de Vent ( of London and the North ) wondered about similar quandaries in a post (Changing Landscape) about the frustration and dismay of trying to protect land that is dear. Her thoughts further added impetus to thinking up my own post…

Drawings Journal Living Things Sketchbook


Calliope Hummingbird
Sketch of dead female Calliope Hummingbird found outside my house window, Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A., 1981.

Lisa of Field Notes posted an account of her encounter with a dead raccoon that had been hit by a car and how she was moved to stop and take it off the road. The story reminded me of Barry Lopez’s essay “Apologia”, from his book, “About This Life: Journeys to the Threshold of Memory”, and both Lopez’s essay and Lisa’s struck a recurring chord in me.

Just the other day I was walking to work and passed the crushed and flattened body of a pigeon that had been hit by a car and run over multiple times, until it was recognizable only by the splash of its grey feathers.

So many animals I’ve seen downed by cars, all over the world. In Japan it’s mainly birds and large insects, hit by cars or ramming into windows and street lights. In America it’s raccoons, squirrels, skunks, armadillos, deer, opossums, seagulls… In Europe it’s hedgehogs, badgers, pheasants, foxes, jackdaws… I still remember finding a badger in Northumberland, its paw still soft and warm, like a baby’s hand, and blood leaking out its eyes. I called the animal rescue service; there was, of course, nothing they could do.

On my walks I try to keep an eye out for where I step and for creatures that might benefit from a bit of helping hand. Grasshoppers, spiders, cicadas and cockchafer beetles sprawled on their backs, even bold-faced hornets, all get the tip of my finger to grab onto and hitch a ride into the verge bushes. On the trains, when a butterfly or hoverfly find themselves baffled by the false lights and cannot find their way out, I will swallow my embarrassment in front of all those unconcerned people (who nevertheless shriek when the insects get too close) and lift them to safety. Bees and wasps always present an entertaining diversion, because no one around me can understand how I would risk getting near them. It’s not risk for me, though; if you know how to move and to anticipate them there is no danger. I have never been stung. Can’t say the same for the people…

But the numbers of the dead always outnumber the living.

Perhaps the most searing memory of roadside death occurred while I was still living in Oregon, back in 1984. I was driving with a friend around the Dexter Lake area just after sundown. My friend was talking and driving and not keeping her eye on the road. Suddenly there was a loud thump on my side of the car. My friend slammed on the brakes and the car screeched to a halt. We opened our doors at the same time. I stepped out onto the tarmac and looked back. From the darkness came a high pitched screaming, like a woman with a very high voice. I trotted toward the sound and came upon a raccoon writhing on the ground, her stomach split open and her guts spilled over the pavement. I kneeled down, horror struck. My stomach heaved.

From behind came my friend’s voice. “What is it?”

“It’s a raccoon.”

“A raccoon? Is it hurt?”

“Yes. It’s not going to make it.”

A short pause. Then, “Well, let’s get out of here then. It’s cold. And that sound is awful!””

I didn’t say anything. The raccoon continued screaming and writhing, aware of me, and attempting to drag itself away. Its urine had spilled out. Suddenly across the road, from the grass I saw two pairs of eyes… her cubs. They watched unmoving, without a sound.

I stood up.

“What are you doing?” asked my friend. “Come on, let’s go!”

“I’ve got to do something.”

I stepped into the grass opposite the cubs and felt around for a stone. I quickly found one that fit in my grasp like a loaf of bread. The screaming behind me cut off, followed by quick gasps.

I stepped back onto the road, wielding the stone, and made my way over to the raccoon, who was sprawled halfway across the road now, a trail of blood painting a wet swath on the asphalt. I knelt down beside her and reached out to touch her fur. It was warm and soft, like down. Her ribs heaved quickly. Her tongue lolled from between her teeth. Her breath wheezed now.

Closing my eyes I lifted the stone and brought it down on her head. I felt the crunch of the bone and the jerk of her muscles. I lifted the stone away and stood up. Silence. An awful, nauseous hole bored into my stomach. I lifted the stone and tossed it into the grass, then kneeled down again, ripped out a wad of grass stalks, and then lifted the limp, wet body. As gently as I could, I carried it toward the cubs, but they dashed away at my approach, one of them mewling quietly. They disappeared into the surrounding shadows.

I lay the body down in the grass, away from the reach of car-strewn dust, under a blackberry bush. With a stick (I just couldn’t bring myself to do it with my fingers) I did the best I could to push the innards back into the gash in her abdomen. I sat back on my haunches and silently apologized to her, tried to find words to make some kind of recompensation. What came out was an awkward, self-conscious prayer. Then I stood up and headed back to the car.

I said nothing to my friend, just wiped my hands on the dry grass, got in and waited for her to join me. Without a word she started up the car. We made a u-turn and headed back to town.

Nineteen years later that event still flashes through my mind. It was perhaps one of the most authentic experiences I’ve ever had with a wild mammal. And one of the most troubling.

I am still unsure how to utter a proper prayer.

Raccoon Skull
India ink and scratchboard drawing of young male raccoon skull. Body found and moved off the road in Lincoln, Massachusetts. A year later, returned and found the skull. Cleaned it in bleach. Drawn in Watertown. Massachusetts, 1988.

Diabetes Health Journal

Skirting the Border

Herrenhausen Fountain
The Great Fountain in the Herrenhausen Gardens in Hannover, Germany, my hometown, 1984.

One thing about having diabetes is that it does a good job of reminding you about the fragility of your life. Aside from the daily struggle with manually maintaining that metabolic balance that most people take for granted because it is automatic for them, just the sight of the insulin needle four times a day or the countdown of the blood sugar meter as it measures the level of sweetness in your heart, or even the waves of numbness and pain that ebb and flow with the tides of your body’s mood swings, can sometimes stop you short when you realize that what you are doing is gauging and resetting an hidden clock. And the clock keeps ticking, regardless of whether you want to set the snooze button or not.

Once a month I must haul myself over to the hospital to have my extremities jabbed and poked and probed, internal juices sampled, irises dilated and retinas blinded, veins pressed and released, substantiality of bodily presence in this world weighed, and rude questions posed about such private matters as what I ate for breakfast or how often I visited the toilet. It is like a reckoning; the Lord of Life and Death beckoning, to sit observing me while I bleed. Every time, about a week before the appointment, a cloud of guilt envelopes me, tightening my arteries and causing the banging of my heart to ring loud in my head. Was I good? Did I live up to what the doctor expected? Would all those other patients sitting in the lined up benches in the waiting lounge, expecting their names to be called next, notice that I hadn’t done my exercise or that I had eaten a MacDonald’s hamburger, or spent too many stressful hours at the computer screen? Would I somehow be punished?

There are times when the hours pass at the hospital and I watch the other patients who are my silent peers in this frightful contract. All kinds of people sit facing the blinking appointments monitor, little children in strollers, young women with their knees pressed together and shoulders hunched, old men gazing about bewildered, and overweight businessmen who fold their arms and shake one knee, still defying vulnerability. If I stare alert and don’t allow myself to slip into the stupor that the stuffy air ought to cause, I see the shadows hovering behind these people, claiming them. One afternoon an old man who had lost his eyesight recently stood ramrod still in one corner of the lobby while his wife carried out the responsibilities of getting him through the check up. He stood as if facing me, his eyes hidden by dark sunglasses. It was disconcerting because he almost seemed to face me directly, but his eyes seemed to face away just off to the side. As I sat gazing at him more and more the sink hole of empathy shuddered through me as I came to understand that he could be me, especially if I don’t take care of myself. The prospect of losing my eyesight, a very real and common verdict for people with diabetes (I hate the word “diabetics”, as if we are some kind of pariah or an impersonation of the disease itself), knocked me over the head and shook me awake. And this kind of awakening happens every time I go to the hospital; just yesterday a trio of elderly women sat beside me discussing their diabetes, like gossip over the garden wall. One of them said, with a finality that hushed them all up, “You really have to be careful. If you lose your eyesight then you’re really in trouble. I mean really in trouble!”

All this may sound macabre and morose, but in actuality it keeps you on your toes. Almost every person with diabetes that I’ve met who manages a well-balanced control of their blood sugar, gets regular exercise, and has stress lowered, seems to be correspondingly energetic and cheerful. Just look at the famous people with diabetes: Halle Berry, Mary Tyler Moore, Jerry Mathers of “Leave It To Beaver”… they all project this. Perhaps it has something partly to do with daily turning around and facing the possibility of death and not running away. It is like a Buddhist koan, an intimate comprehension of the ending of things right there a finger’s breadth away. And with the recognition of this ending, a converse eye opening to the breath of life. You can’t help but live awake and full if you face the reality of being snuffed out. Diabetes helps to remind you that, as Buckminster Fuller mused, “I seem to be a verb”. This body, doing all these unconventional misdemeanors, occupies space as a swarm of ideas, even the sensation of physicality but a synapse of one idea relating its theorem to another idea. Sitting in the midst of that swarm is the globule of the self, like an astronaut, drifting like light through the aether. You have to harness the gist of who you are and feed it with reminders of its own ephemerality, to rein it in and determine how the life you have been given, but a mere gesture, is to be lived. Reminders, although they can be scary, are good. They scoot the pebble across the pavement.

On the twenty minute walk from Shin Okubo station near the hospital to the hospital, I often pass a wizened old homeless woman huddled on the sidewalk. She never looks up and usually barely moves. Her clothes and skin are always dark with filth and drool often slips down the side of her lips. One time I found her passed out on the verge of the street, cars passing just an arm’s length away from her head. No one passing by made a move to help her. Since there was a police box a minute away I ran over there and told the officer in charge about the old woman. He laughed, as if she was a common problem, and told me that he would send someone over. I wrestled with going back to see that she was taken care of or rushing on to my hospital appointment. I decided to get to the hospital appointment, but to this day I feel I missed an opportunity of squarely facing life, of relating my experiences in the hospital and with the quirks of diabetes to the reality of a little old woman whose inability to rise to the challenge of her daily brushes with death. It is a bridge that crosses a vast, but incremental gap; and if I can but cross that bridge I will have discovered the very justification for such a disease as diabetes.

Journal Musings


Rhodiolo Rosea
Alpine wildflower “Rhodiolo rosea”, living at 2,000 to 3,000 meters, Kitadake, Shirane Range, Yamanashi, Japan, 1994.

I’ve been re-reading a book on Buddhist thought (“When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron) that focuses on turning towards one’s fears and despairs and allowing them to fill your thoughts as much as you revel in pleasure and joy. It is a powerful antidote to panic and hysteria, opening your mind to its own inner workings and helping you to step back from constant impulsive reaction.

Two years ago, in the midst of a devastating personal crisis and the worldwide madness led by the United States, I thought my whole world was crumbling. Attitudes that I had taken for granted, friends that I always thought would be there, health that I had always counted on, debts, career goals, family stability, even my assumptions of who I was and what I thought was important, suddenly made no sense any more. It was so bad that for several months I could barely talk to people beyond the rote greetings, classroom routines, and obligatory daily practicalities. Something had died inside and no amount of self flagellation or pepping by indulgence in ice cream or late night movies could lift me out of the pall.

At such times so often people around you will advise you to carry a more “positive” outlook. The funny thing is that this advice always sprouts from those who are themselves not experiencing much anxiety at the time, and often cannot perceive the shaking loose of seemingly solid foundations. People in such a temporary state have convinced themselves that all is well and that the world around them will continue in its solid state. I have found that usually people who are going through the meltdown of preconceptions, who are experiencing loss or pain or confusion, people who have often known loneliness or fear or self-doubt, tend to be those who most effectively respond to and answer my questions when my own world falls apart.

Perhaps the sharpest inkling I gained into beginning to comprehend what it means to be alive, just to exist, arose out of the Buddhist concept of all things having a dream quality, that nothing exists in permanence, everything is in flux. As Buckminster Fuller put it, “I seem to be a verb.” Viewing myself as merely gaseous, a temporary formation of passing clouds, helped me recognize the noise of my mind and the waves of emotions that wash back and forth within me.

I’ve always wondered why the sea shore calms me with its endless motion, or why the waving and whisper of trees in the wind seem to talk to some hidden ear in my breast. And it must have something to do with my own billowing flag of a soul. As the years tiptoe across my heart, I think of aging and of the clutching of memories, wondering at times which way to turn, back toward the pillows of childhood or ahead toward the unfathomable wall. And it occurs to me to just stand still, let all these swirling tides do what they will.

Following such advice, Pema Chodron’s instruction to be kind to myself and allow that the whole great granola mix of joys, fears, hungers, contentedness, anger, lusts, pleasures, and doubts are all grains in the shaken bag, has made a great difference for me. Something died in me two years ago, but then something new emerged. And while it is no less great a struggle, the focus has changed.

For me the natural world has always taught me these things, though I have not always been open to listening or looking. The natural world is reality, it is what is. And that, in my own winged participation, is who I am, too.