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Journal Musings

I Am Forty Eight

Gumyo Tracks to Naruto

A little less than a month ago I turned forty eight. That morning I woke and lay in my bed as the dawn lit up my bedroom window and thought about nothing, just letting my breath draw in and release. I lay like that for a long time, until the town morning bell, which always sounded at 6:00, brought me back to this world and it was time to get up and head to work.

I hadn’t expected a memorable day. I had to work, after all, and most days at work left a lot to be desired in terms of getting through it with any sense of accomplishment. But for some reason my birthday seemed to shine this time, and by the time I got home later in the evening I couldn’t have asked for better time spent. All day students whom I hadn’t imagined thought twice about me outside of class dropped by to talk and wish me happy birthday, and two of them, who have started to become real friends, even asked me to join them for lunch and had a makeshift celebration waiting for me. All the well-wishes and casual greetings followed exactly the way I like interactions between people: simple and unpretentious.

JIU Office Clouds

It’s been a harrowing few months since I last wrote here. Harrowing and wonderful, all in one. Back in August, after the weeks of being bedridden with an infected leg I met a woman online who changed my life. Neither of us had expected it. One moment we were writing a few emails back and forth, the next minute we met and couldn’t stop talking with one another. It seemed everything clicked… our ability to open up to one another, our interests, our attraction as a man and a woman, our goals, even the way we laughed and got angry at one another… it all worked as if we were made for each other.

But like all these dreams, reality held its end of the bargain and we had to take a hard look at whether or not we really could make this work. She has a child and before anything else that is what we, especially she, had to consider. On top of that we lived a considerable distance apart and it wasn’t easy to both pay for and make the time for the journey as often as we wanted. More and more I felt that if we wanted the relationship to work then I had to take the plunge and head out to live near where she did, so we had enough time with one another, but also to make it possible to get to know her daughter.

Things didn’t work out that way, at least not yet. She wants time to think it over now and to decide whether to stay with me or not. We haven’t seen each other for more than a month now and for the past two weeks she asked me not to contact her. The waiting is absolute agony. While I perfectly understand why she needs to do that, the thought that the only woman in my life whom I, now 48, have ever been absolutely sure of might now slip out of my grasp just when I found her, hurts more than I can put into words. I have enough experience in life to know that there is nothing I can do but wait and hope, but I wonder what my life will be like afterwards if she leaves. I have never met a woman who made me feel this way before… so much so that for the first time I realize how much I’ve needed and wanted a family, even if the child is not my own, and, to my surprise, I’m not scared at all about dealing with the obstacles of living with a child. I even welcome the prospect of getting to know her daughter, with all the reactions the daughter will have… so the chance of my meeting another person like this is quite slim. And the truth is I just don’t want anyone else. I can’t imagine anyone else.

Naruto Tracks

All my life until now my life has been about me. Even when I got married, it was mainly about me. I’ve always focused on what I wanted and put my money and time into pursuits that mainly interested me and often didn’t take into account what my partner needed or wanted. Though I’ve always been aware of and tried hard to work on my partners’ feelings, often I stopped short and hurt the people who were closest to me. It was only recently as I was forced to take a good, hard look at who I am and what I wanted, needed, and had to do for my and my partner’s future, that I suddenly came face-to-face with my own selfishness. It was like a big, scary ogre just sitting there waiting to ruin everything. And I realized that all my life I had never really held something that was more important to me than I was myself, that I would unreservedly give my life for. Now I have. And I’m shaking with rue and humility. How small I am. And how much a fool I have been.

Naruto Train Crossing and Tracks

Last week my wife and I made the final decision to get divorced. It’s been a very long time coming, especially with these last two years living apart, still not one hundred percent sure. We both still love each other very much and perhaps that is part of what has made it so difficult to face. Neither of us wants to hurt the other or see the other hurt. Probably if we hated one another breaking up would be so much easier. We don’t hate each other, though, and never could. But for so long now we have coexisted with no real communication and no sense of being a man and woman together and no plans or goals whatsoever, the breakup was inevitable. And probably better for both of us. When we sat talking together last weekend we both openly hoped the other would find a partner so that neither of us would end up alone. I guess this is a different kind of love, one that let’s one another go without jealously guarding the bond.

Naruto Train Crossing and Moon 1

Reaching forty eight has opened my eyes to the passage of time. And little of it there is left. I realized on the morning of my birthday that there weren’t many breaths like that to go and that each one of them was precious from now on. Maybe that is why the whole birthday was so peaceful and full of joy, and for those moments I was very aware of how special every single detail of being alive was, that nothing was wasted or insignificant. It didn’t really matter if I was standing on top of a mountain or lying in a bed somewhere, all of the different manifestations of living held a complete mandala of time all its own, and it was perhaps my responsibility to recognize the preciousness in whatever situation I found myself in. As the younger years fall away behind me surely there must be value in what I have learned so far? Perhaps that being alive, loving someone, and being loved, are all that really matter.

Naruto Vending Machine

I can wait. Wait for her, wait for a daughter’s trust to flower, wait through the night for the dawn to come, wait for whatever I thought I knew about myself. Even wait for my wife to gather up the courage to say good bye. It no longer matters what I think or what I want things to be, what matters is that the ones I love are safe, that I can see why the dawn is so beautiful, and that, when all is done, I can admit that I really didn’t matter at all, that none of it was ever about me.

JIU Office View of J Building
Categories
Chiba Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings

Bated Breath

Hello everyone,

I’m really sorry about the long absence. I want to update the entries more regularly, but lately things have just been too busy or I’ve just been too tired to write. What with just having searched for and moved into a temporary apartment, moving belongings there, looking for an apartment for my wife, packing the original apartment (hey, I can now say, for a short time only, that I have three domiciles… including a place out in the country!), preparing end-of-semester tests and grading at the university while still trying to learn the ropes, and holding onto some semblance of sanity with all that is happening between my wife and me, well, I’m more than just a little overwhelmed. The other day I sat in my office for one hour in a kind of catatonia, completely unable to get my brain to compute what the next step was that I had to do right at that moment. At night all I dream about is year-long bicycle journeys and long-distance walks in the mountains. I think my brain knows better than my conscious self where the marbles are rolling toward…

Please be patient with me. I will start writing regularly again as soon as the silt has settled. For now, please take a look at Pohanginapete’s latest entry. Beautiful.

Categories
Chiba Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings

Rice Stubble

Things have been so hectic lately that I’ve had no time at all to concentrate on the internet, let alone blog about anything. I haven’t even had time to get out for a walk or run, to take, pictures, or contact friends and family. First it was the end-of-the-year business of student tests and make up courses, attempted semblances of preparing for the coming classes, and university administration. All the other teachers had already taken off while I sat in the office typing away. In one way it was good, because I was just too busy to think about being the only person in the entire school sitting there at night while a storm blew itself to smithereens outside the window.

The next step was looking for an apartment to move to. For the last two and a half months I’d been staying at the university guesthouse to give myself time to settle into the job, get used to the area, learn about where the best place might be to live, and relieve the enormous expense of continuing to maintain the old apartment where my wife will remain until I’m settled down and she can find a place in Tokyo, while at the same time renting a second apartment. I had to look for the cheapest place possible and think about something that would allow me to get around without a car. This of course limited my options pretty severely. The original area I wanted to move to, called “Toke”, which was actually quite nice and very convenient, ended up not having any apartments available in my price range, so I decided to use a so-called “short-term apartment service” with the nationwide company Leopalace. I found an apartment in a small town called “Naruto”, which, location-wise is not bad, in that it is about a 15 minute bicycle ride from the university, has a direct train connection to Tokyo, is about an hour bicycle ride from the Pacific Ocean, sits right near a big area of hills and forests where I can go for the long walks that I’ve so longed to do, and has the basic amenities needed for daily living, but it certainly is a run-down little place, and the apartment building itself located at the end of a drab and stark end of town. I keep wondering if I’m going to be all right, what with everything changing, not knowing anyone (and because I am a foreigner, very unlikely in making friends with any neighbors), and all that is happening with my wife still raw and uncertain. So far apartment hunting, within the maddening Japanese system (on average you have to pay six months’ rent when starting out, only two of which come back when you leave… and then even that maybe be dipped into by the landlord for “cleaning expenses”), is as always a frustrating and infuriating experience. Japanese renters don’t need guarantors when using Leopalace, but when I sat in front of the agent yesterday before signing the contract I was informed, “You will need a guarantor.” When I asked why, he responded, while wringing his hands and apologizing profusely, “Because you are a foreigner.”

“What difference does that make?” I asked, feeling the bile quickly rise.

“Too many foreigners suddenly disappear without paying rent,” he said.

“Excuse me, Sir, but that is an outright lie. Japanese do the same thing. And I’m certain that if you look at your records you will find nothing to suggest that foreigners are less trustworthy than Japanese.”

He looked appropriately ashamed and then shook his head, “Be that as it may, you need a guarantor. And your guarantor must be Japanese.”

It was useless to argue. This happened everywhere in Japan, legally, and there was nothing a foreigner could do. I wanted then and there to make all the thousands of Japanese living abroad go through the same experience, many of whom have the audacity to come back to Japan and subject foreigners here to such racist policies, with the unending excuse, “This is Japan”, as if that explains anything.

“Oh,” continued the agent, “Even though the advertisement for Leopalace says that it doesn’t matter when you decide to leave the apartment… you can stay as little as two weeks if you like… we do have the stipulation that if you leave before fulfilling the year-long contract you will have to pay a “50,000 ($500.00) penalty.”

I thought I would grab his tie and twist it several turns too tight. “That’s cheating,” I said between gritted teeth. “After looking at all those apartments, reading your advertisements, and you telling me all this time that I could leave any time, now you tell me that I have to pay more if I leave before the year is done? Of all the underhanded…”

He smiled. “It’s still much cheaper than getting a regular apartment.”

And that was the catch. It was true. I couldn’t argue with him on that point. And I had no other choice.

Seething, I signed the contract and handed over the money. Things like this make me hate Japan and the Japanese. Constantly they have foreigners over a barrel and legally there is nothing we can do to fight back. My Japanese friend who was helping me with all this gave me a glance and I could see the anger there… that at least reminded me that not all Japanese are like Leopalace or agree with such practices. Afterwards my friend condemned Leopalace with a few fierce, reluctant tears. “I’m ashamed to be Japanese,” were the words that came out.

For the next week it will be packing boxes, throwing away accumulated junk, stripping the apartment of the last five years of my presence. It is almost like erasing myself. Meanwhile my wife lingers and the memories harangue her. She sent an email the other day talking of having had nightmares. It seems as if every other sentence we say to one another is, “Are you okay?” We both smile and answer, “Yes, don’t worry about me,” in an attempt to alleviate the worry and sadness of the other, but the truth is that we are both not all right. One person even said, I guess in an attempt to be understanding and helpful, “You are not the first to go through a divorce and feel this way.” How do you respond to that? It is almost as if I ought to feel guilty about being sad and broken up, as if I am somehow weak and immature for the devastation that my wife and I feel. Others say, “Make it swift and clean. Get it over with.” That might very well be the answer to how to deal with all this, but I suspect that there is no one in the world who really knows what to do or has the right answer to any of it. Personally I cannot for the life of me understand people who end up hating each other. It seems utterly selfish and immature, a complete unwillingness to accept that the other is a separate person, that things change, that just because something painful happens or someone you love needs to move on, you must therefore resent the other person for their wanting to do what they want to do. I will always love my wife. She will love me. We love one another simply for the other being who they are. And that love extends to each other whether we are together or not.

Gosh, I ended up writing about this personal topic even though I didn’t want to reveal such things on the blog. I guess holding it all inside is just too much. There is no one else to tell it to, so it has come spilling out here. I hope I haven’t stepped on anyone’s sensibilities.

One more day till 2007. I hope all of you have restful and memorable holidays. I’ll be thinking of you.

Hot tea all around!

Peace and Good Medicine.

Categories
Chiba Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings

Ghost

Gumyo Ural Owl

I’ve been haunting the university halls until the midnight hours these last two weeks, trying to catch up on class preparation, and also trying to avoid going back to the isolation of the guest house I’m staying at. Not that staying at the university while everyone else is gone isn’t isolating, but at least I have an internet connection and can talk to people. And there is some privacy in the room that otherwise I wouldn’t really have. Still, burning the midnight oil is no way to freshen up for the next day, and so yesterday evening, tired of the monotonous, though healthy, offerings of the local Seven Eleven, I decided to head out the other end of the university and take the half hour walk to the Lawson convenience store located along the desolation of the bypass.

Fog had rolled in from the sea and hugged the fields all the way to the shadows of the nearby hills. As I walked along the road, my footsteps sounded loud in the stillness. I pulled the flaps of my cap over my ears to stem the chill, and softly sang a line of an Abba song that just wouldn’t leave my head. The round-trip to and from the convenience store resembled a circumambulation of a graveyard, even the huge lights of the billboards and pachinko parlors cast long shadows across the asphalt and denuded fields, so that as I walked a silent presence followed me with precisely timed steps.

I was passing the back gate of the university again, with its line of trees and bushes when suddenly above my head there was a soft rustle. I looked up and thought I made out the form of a very large sleeping crow. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Then the figure swiveled its head and gazed down at me with huge, moonlike eyes. A ural owl. The first wild owl I’d ever seen in Japan ever since I started watching birds as a boy. The elation that bloomed in me was hard to describe. It was like a lifelong gift, and the moment I recognized the bird all sense of loneliness, all sorrow, all the heaviness of the past few weeks dispelled like smoke. I wanted to run to the nearest birder and tell them… “Look! Look! I’ve got to let you know what I saw! A ural owl! I actually saw a ural owl!”

But what birders do I know around here? I smiled up at the owl and it seemed to nod in understanding. It turned its head away, looked up at the night sky, and lifted into the air like a whisper. I heard the almost tender swish of its wings as it flapped away into the darkness.

It was but a moment, but it is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.

Categories
Chiba Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings

Whirligig

Gumyo Tracks

The train tracks leading away from Gumyo, the little town I am living in now. The photograph doesn’t show you the incessant noise of the highway nearby, though.

Raindrops spray across the train window, the reds and blues and greens of street lights and neon signs, splayed across the glass panes, run like bleeding dyes, shimmering. The wind outside whips the water across the surface, distorting the night scene, tugging and streaking it, until the reflection of my face within the blackness is mixed like paints into the lights of passing neighborhoods. My good eye stares into a void, twixt the light and darkness, day and night, innocent making out with knowing. It is within this ball of calmness that the train hurtles through the empty hours, the limited express, destination: last call of the season. Leaves fly up in the train’s wake, whirling like bats, cold, helpless, and final.

Gumyo Station View

A town still asleep at dawn

House roofs and apartment buildings, telephone poles and high tension wires, train station platforms lined with dour-faced commuters wearing black coats, neon signs and clanging train crossings, all of them whip by outside the train windows. People nod off opposite me, others read books, or stare blearily out into the dawn grey. I follow their gazes, seeking… what? Clouds and birds, the sky untamed, rain imminent, a puff of cool air from the open doors when the train stops. It seems the years in Japan have always been characterized by the clackity-clack of train tracks, and I have always been following the single-file processionals along the rail lines, or waiting on platforms as my white breath dispells in the late autumn air.

Gumyo Bend

The main road from the station takes a slight detour along the train tracks. Here is where I discover the other face of Gumyo, the side that must once have made up the whole town here before the highway bypass ran roughshod right over the heart of the town.

Home seems far away all the time these days. Four weeks have passed since moving out to Chiba. The two pairs of pants and two shirts that accompany me for the week out at the guesthouse, the heavy laptop computer with its retinue of hard drives, mouse, A/C adapters, and notebook of serial numbers and passwords, the drawing case that holds a few pens and pencils for drawing and its sister journal, the two books I’m reading (I’ve been trying to get through “Queen of the Night” by Arturo Perez-Revert, but have been so tired that I always end up nodding to sleep on the trains as I attempt to read it), the change of socks, underwear, and t-shirts, the toiletry kit, the diabetes kit, the camera, and extra, warm jacket… are beginning to outstay their welcome on my back. I wake each night to the slapping of a stranger’s slippers shuffling to the toilet outside my bedroom door, sit every night with strangers at the dinner table in a room decorated with gold-plated clocks and cheap Chinese painting prints and dominated by a huge, wide-screen TV always running the same news program again and again, while these strangers puff away at cigarettes and overload on bottles of whiskey and shochu and vodka, and wait for strangers to finish in the bathroom so I can brush my teeth. It’s as if my life is not my own and my home back in Tokyo a place where someone else has moved in.

Gumyo Leaves

The first rays of the sun graze the brooding roof of a farmhouse.

Gumyo Jidohambai

Remnant of a town long gone. As I entered this area there was lots of wind and flapping sheet metal and rotten wood. It was too early to see most of the townsfolk, but those who had hauled themselves out of bed greeted me as if I was a regular neighbor.

Gumyo Grove

A carefully tended grove protected from the wind by thick hedges and windbreaks. Nothing moved, the leaves seemed to be holding their breath.

The key turns in the lock, waking the tumblers inside, and allowing me to pull back the creaking door. The air within the apartment is warm. An aroma of cooking curry greets my nostrils. As the door bangs shut behind me my wife steps out from behind the kitchen door and smiles. She looks both tired and sad, but full of life, as always.

“Welcome home,” she says quietly, in that self-assured way that always makes me feel safe. “Put your pack down and take off your shoes.”

I lower the pack and feel the weight of the day lift. Everything is familiar. My wife holds out her arms to receive an embrace.

“How are you?” I ask, a little shy.

She smiles, knowing there is no need to answer. “I’ve made some curry,” she says.

“You look tired,” I say. “Have you been sleeping okay?”

She lowers her head and forces her smile. “Same as you,” she says. “It’s strange here without you.”

“Yeah,” I agree. We stand holding each other without saying anything more, letting the sound of the wind rushing against the windows and the tap dancing of the water boiling in the pot in the kitchen play against one another.

Gumyo Sunrise Grove

A fallow rice field still holding rainwater from the storm the night before. Mist was rising over all the fields

Gumyo Dawn Fields

I couldn’t believe this was the same area I had been grumbling about for the past three weeks. The farther I ran the more the old towns drifted back into sight.

Gumyo Shrine

An old wooden shrine listed as part of the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” (Kanto Plain Communal Road), a footpath that arcs from the far side of Tokyo, up over the north along the Tanigawa range and extends down along the east side here, a distance of over 400 kilometers, much of it in the mountains and through backroad countryside. I never knew that Gumyo was the place where the path came to an end. So in many ways I had reached the End of the World…

Gumyo Fountain

…and found the Well…

It was dawn again. The wind still blew, but colder now. My pack bulged with the essentials again and sat by the front door. I lifted the pack, switched off the hall light, and pushed the front door open. A cold finger of the wind wriggled its way inside and lifted the cloth hanging over the kitchen door. Before it could explore further I stepped outside into the darkness and pushed the door gently closed behind me. I didn’t bother using the umbrella… it would only snap out of shape any way. The train was waiting, so I hoisted the pack into a better position, and headed toward the train station.

Gumyo Leaf Tunnel

My wandering took me away from the main roads into fields that welled straight up out of my childhood.

Gumyo Footprints

I love it when the tarmac slowly erodes away and turns to dirt, and then finally just peters out .

Gumyo Onions

The risen sun streaming light on a patch of onions.

Gumyo Crossing

Much of Japan once looked like this. I really miss walking along such roads. Now that most people rely on cars and the bypaths no longer connect little enclaves that once held the strings of communities together, there is a sense of desolation and emptiness, as if these places no longer hold value. All eyes now turn to Tokyo. As more rural communites turn into these dying landscapes, the future of Japan seems to hold no center. A city without its surrounding past, a rural community without its reason for being…

Gumyo Gingko