(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
More drawings and sketches from my journals and sketchbooks.
(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
More drawings and sketches from my journals and sketchbooks.
I realize that I have been away a long time. Lately I am finding it harder to get my thoughts together and to sit at the computer, writing. I start putting a few words down and then just give up. I become restless and distracted, feeling perhaps that the time I sit at the computer is time wasted from an active engagement with the real world, and as the years go by this time in the real world has grown with poignance and significance.
At the university that I am working at I’ve made a few friends with whom I get together three times a week after work to do Crossfit workouts. Besides beginning to finally get myself back in really good shape (after 24 years I did my first 53 pull ups again the day before yesterday), the time spent with these friends has made all the difference in emotionally handling being in this place. I find myself eagerly looking forward to the workouts and even when I am not feeling too well I try to make it there just to hang around with everyone.
It is almost as if I’d forgotten just how important other people are in my life, how much they reflect who I am and help me find purpose in making it through each day. I’m finding that so much of my reasons for getting so depressed and despondent over the past two years had to do with being alone and spending too much time with my own thoughts. Now I finally have people I can laugh with and share common experiences with and both let out the pain I am feeling and to listen to theirs. I still don’t like this place and the work, but with these friends it has all become a lot easier.
So two weeks ago when Kevin from Bastish.net invited me to visit him and his wife Tomoe on their farm in Nagano, north of here, I was both nervous and fascinated about the possibilities of what a different lifestyle, one based on sharing and sticking close to one’s beliefs, might be like. For a long time I had wondered if it would be possible to find a place in Japan where people still took care of one another and lived close to traditional Japanese values, in part a place where the land still meant something deeply spiritual and sustaining to those who lived on it.
For three days Kevin and Tomoe took me into their lives and showed me just how rich such a community could be. It seemed every moment of the day had some neighbor visiting or stopping by or saying hello on the street or driving by to offer some vegetables or bread or rice cakes. The other people Kevin had invited and I joined Kevin and Tomoe for walks in the hills to gather wild edible fiddleheads, or dig out rocks in their fields, or take a stroll through the town to look at the old farm houses and temples. There was talk of the hard winters such as this last one where the snow reached three meters (in 1945 the snow reached 7 meters deep!) and everyone had to pitch in to make sure all everyone could get through the winter. The first night three friends of Kevin and Tomoe, a family that supplied the village with delicious, homemade bread leavened with apple juice, dropped by suddenly and the modest dinner immediately turned in to a feast for nine. We laughed and joked and drank champagne and beer and wine while gobbling down barbecued local produce and I have not felt so at home and peaceful and satisfied in a long, long time.
It is what I long for.
I don’t know if I can be satisfied being a farmer, or if living in a such a rural community without access to books and talk with non-Japanese can be rewarding enough for me to put down roots in such a place, but it definitely is the right direction. LIfe is still uncertain for Kevin and Tomoe, and they both struggle with how they are going to make a living once their savings run out. But perhaps that is part of what living in such places entails, that you find a way to live there and that is what makes you strong and that is why you rely on the community to make it through hard times. It feels right.
That is the direction I want to go, and though, like Kevin and Tomoe, I am uncertain about how to go about doing it, I think my life will be the richer for bringing in community as the slate of my way of life. And I think it is the future for us all.
Today my blog is five years old. I’m amazed that I’m still at it after my first post in 2003. Since that time the blog worked its way into an important aspect of my life and the way I think. It helped me meet new friends and challenged me to sometimes think deeply about how I saw things or how I acted. Much more than a diary, it grew with my thoughts and often branched out from interactions I had with others. Intellectually and perhaps emotionally the blog acted as a slate to compare myself to.
So much has changed since I started the blog, so much of what I wanted to do here has mutated and adapted, so much of how I feel about myself and the world has evolved. The rage against the war has quieted and my very lifestyle has taken a big sidestep way off the path I had earlier imagined my life would be. If I am honest I can’t say it was for the better, at least not yet. I just spent two months almost totally solitary, without anyone to talk to or go see (my university doesn’t allow the teachers to go anywhere during the two month break). I’m just barely hanging in there mentally and with the university school year starting up again tomorrow at least there will be contact with people to offset the loneliness. But it is a rather empty poultice due to the school’s awful indifference to its employees and the terrible morale. In my whole life I’ve never worked in a place so unorganized, full of discrimination, and rife with resentment.
But I realize it is just a stepping stone and I must endure for a while. In the meantime I am making plans. I hope to get a degree in environmental education and eventually work with place-based education, hopefully while still using my background in writing and art. I’ve been researching online degrees and, for later, resident degrees at different educational institutions, places like The North Cascades Institute and The Antioch New England University Department of Environmental Studies. I’m not sure I can follow up the education with good jobs here in Japan, though I do hope to spend some time with Kevin from One Life Japan and learn a bit more about alternate lifestyles in Japan. I’m not even sure that getting yet another degree will help me in the direction I want to go at all. I’m more interested in grassroots education than the big, disconnected world of academia.
Socially Japan has been a disaster for me and as I see it right now it is time to move on. In August I hope to take a few weeks and visit Vancouver, Canada and take a look around at possibilities. I think it has all the advantages I am looking for in a place to live, including all the natural wandering grounds I need so badly, a diverse culture, a softer political atmosphere, connections with Asia, and relative proximity to my mother and brother on the east coast of the States. I also have friends there so I wouldn’t be starting out completely alone. I still think about New Zealand, and want to visit possibly next winter, but it is awfully far from family. But I haven’t completely ruled it out yet. Of course, I still have to find a way to get into any of these places I am looking at.
It’s really too bad that I couldn’t find my place here in Japan. Maybe it is bad luck or maybe it is my terrible social skills. It doesn’t help that I am shy or that I don’t like pushing my ambitions on others, though I know that in order to survive and get your way in the world you have to be aggressive. That’s the Japanese aspect of my personality, I guess. The only thing is that it doesn’t work if you’re not Japanese, so I end up being humble without the benefits. But who needs benefits? (^J^)/”
Keeping at the blog for five years has been an interesting ride. It still hasn’t ended yet and I hope to organize it better so that I can post more regularly and keep in better touch with those who visit. If anything it is the people I have met here that have made it all worth it.
Arrived in Champex this evening tuckered out from a harder climb than I had anticipated. Most of the early part of the walk wound through little hamlets with mazes of streets and crooked, weathered chalets that looked as if they had been standing there for several hundred years. Until now it was probably the most beautiful and cultural immersed portion of the walk, giving me a real sense of what the old Alps must once have been like. I wish I could see it in winter.
Don’t have time to write a lot right now, but during the last climb of the day I came upon a valley that so looked like what my grandfather used to take me walking to when I was a boy that all sorts of memories of my childhood in Germany, of relatives who died, like my grandparents and last year my aunt, from diabetic complications, that upon arriving in Champex and the still lake there with its tourist boats and little pensions, I almost broke down crying in the restaurant. I guess loneliness of the walk is getting to me… though I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, nothing really longer than a few hours, then I’m on my own again. In the restaurant a group of other walkers sat together relating the day’s experiences and it was hard just sitting there looking out at the lake with all those memories coming unasked. I closed my eyes for a while after drinking my coffee and wished each of my loved ones well, hoping everyone was peaceful and happy and not lonely anywhere.
The fight to keep your composure and make it through these trying moments is part of such a walk, of course. I hope I can make the walk something really worthwhile.
Wishing you all good night.
Late afternoon sunlight casting shadows amidst the sand dunes in Oregon Dunes State Park, Oregon, U.S.A.
Just when I thought all contact with old friends had somehow died away I received a letter from my oldest and dearest friend three days ago. I hadn’t heard from her in more than a year. It was mainly my fault for having shut myself away and frozen in time with my correspondence; the person who used to write twenty-page handwritten letters had fallen into silence.
That is the strange thiing with e-mail: the range of potential people to keep in touch with has expanded dramatically, with instant contact possible, but a person only has so many hours in a day and keeping up with everyone is simply not possible. Back in the days of writing letters by hand, supplemented by the occasional long-distance phone call, the number of people to regularly write to was limited to the list of people jotted down in an address book. Writing by hand took time, and only a few people made the effort to put that time in. The circle of pen pals remained small, but dedicated and the care with which we shared our letters showed up in such things as the choice of letter paper and envelopes, in small trinkets and photos we included in the folds of the paper, like pressed dried flowers or four-leaf clovers, locks of hair from a loved one, feathers, scented glitter, or even, once, the ragged wing of a mourning cloak butterfly. Some of us put great effort into getting our handwriting just right, often using fountain pens with flared nibs so that the vertical strokes thickened and the horizontal strokes thinned. And after all this work the letters took two weeks or more to make it around the world, sometimes bearing the effects of the real world on them in the form of wrinkles and coffee stains and washed out addresses. The letters themselves sometimes bore the evidence of the sender’s state of mind, from angrily crossed out words and kiss marks to greasy finger prints and tear drops.
A.’s e-mail letter arrived just when the downturn in faith in these old friendships had reached its lowest point. Handwritten letters from friends or even family had reached an all time low… the last handwritten letter I received was last August when, after I lamented to my father about the passing of the tradition of writing letters by hand, he sent me, just across town, a letter in sympathy. I check my mailbox regularly and, sad to say, more often than not, it is empty.
I first met A. in 1974 in a summer camp along the Elbe River in northern Germany, not too far north of my birth place, Hannover. We were both 14 then. I was a gangly, shy boy with shoulder length hair, a wide-brimmed denim hat with an azure-winged magpie tail feather, and bell-bottom jeans. A. stayed in the girl’s tent next to mine and I first noticed her talkiing to the other girls out in the courtyard, her long brown hair swinging behind her as she pranced about, constantly running. She was always laughing and had the most penetrating eyes, that, to this day, still stand out as the first thing you notice about her.
I fell in love with her, but was much too shy to make the first move. A ten-year-old boy named Dietmar, who slept next to me in my tent, full of boundless energy and absolutely nuts about soccer, noticed the way I gazed at A. He stood in front of me one afternoon during the siesta, with his hands on his hips, frowning.
“So, when are you going to talk to her?”, he demanded.
I had been dozing so his words caught me off guard. “Huh?”
“Come on, anyone can see you’re nuts about her.” He sat down next to me. “Just go and talk to her.”
“What if she’s not interested?”
“You never know unless you try.”
I glanced over at the girl’s tent, hope making my heart beat. “Yeah, I know. But…”
Dietmar lay down on his side and looked me squarely in the eye. “Look, how about this. You write her a letter and I’ll bring it to her.”
“What? You? What do you have to do with this?”
“Nothing. Just call me your local Cupid. Besides, I’m not sleepy and want to do something. And the girls will let a ten-year-old boy into their tent.”
So I hunkered down and hashed out a short letter in (awkward) German. Dietmar peered over my shoulder and corrected the mistakes. When I was done he snatched it from my hand before I could reconsider, folded it in four, and dashed out of the tent.
Twenty minutes passed during which my heart thundered in my ears and my hands turned to ice. I began to think the whole thing was a stupid mistake when Dietmar suddenly slipped back into the tent, grinning. He held up a folded piece of paper. “She asked me to give this to you.”
I took the letter from him and opened it. I read.
What nice things to write about me. I would enjoy getting to know you. Let’s meet at dinner and talk then.
And so began my illustrious foray into the world of women.
We spent the two weeks together dancing, going for walks, holding hands while watching the evening movies, eating dinner together, learning to sail, running in the foot races, in which A. beat everyone in the camp. Our dance song was “Lady Lay” by Michel Polnareff. I discovered the wonderful scent of her, which even today lingers in my mind like a veil.
One evening we were standing beside the camp’s small lake watching the sun set over the Elbe River. For once we were alone and we held hands tightly. I don’t know exactly when the urge overcame my hesitation, but our eyes met and we both knew what we wanted next. I awkwardly groped at her elbow, to which she grabbed my hand, placed it on her waist, and whispered, “Like this!”
We kissed. I remember it as one of the softest, warmest moments in my life, with the bright glint of the sun washing between our faces and for me, the whole world suddenly consisting solely of A., her hair, her fingers, the soft give of her chest, the sweetness of her breath, her lips.
It was what I had always imagined it would be.
But we only had two weeks. The camp finally came to an end and we all had to return home, first back to Hannover on the bus, and, for me, on across the oceans back to Japan, a lifetime away. The last I saw of A. that time was as she was greeted by her mother and sister while my grandfather and grandmother greeted my brother and me. The street car pulled us apart and the pain in my heart echoes even as I write this thirty years later.
We kept in touch. We wrote letters to one another every week for the first year, and gradually settled to about once every two or three months. Since the camp we met six times, the last time with my wife, when we stayed at her apartment. We’ve shared all our stories, the loves in our lives, the losses and joys. After telling me about one awful event in her life, A. wrote a letter expressing how she treasured our friendship and was glad that it had lasted through all the changes in our lives. The last time we met we spoke about those first two weeks together and she shocked me with the news that she hadn’t liked me at first, but had gradually warmed to me through the persistence of my letters. She hugged me then and said, “But am I glad that you did persist!”
A. is married a second time now, and has a child, whom I haven’t met yet. I hope to meet her husband and son some day. I look across the oceans and can frame a life there, someone whom I’ve met only a few times in a long while, but who remains one of the dearest and most enduring of friends. It isn’t often I can say this about people whom I’ve met and befriended. A.’s friendship remains a treasure that I value above almost everything else in my life. If I were to lose it life would be a much bleaker place.
A toast and great embrace to you, A. Thank you for being there for most of my life.
Back in college at the University of Oregon I knew a barrel-chested, hamburger-scarfing, gas-guzzling, giant macho-jock of an American man named Dave. He was a member of a fraternity and every Friday night would subject the dormitory halls to his obnoxious, booming laugh and kegs of beer drinking, sex-driven, rock music-blaring, Animal House-inspired (this was the University of Oregon in 1978 after all, the year after the movie of the same name was filmed on our campus) toga-clad-and-butt-naked-mass-dashes-across-the-courtyard parties. He was an outspoken member of the Republican party and had voted for Reagan. He would throw food at the table of Birkenstock-wearing earth people I hung out with in the cafeteria (those were the days of Animal house-style food fights, which, to my Japan-filtered eyes, represented the realization of all the horrors I had fretted over before I left Japan to attend univesity… a zoo of a country), shouting with a great, Viking grin, â€œHey, Granolas, why don’t you go back to California where you belong? (this was also the period when Oregonians broadcast beer commercials turning back Californians from the border).
I knew of course that I despised this asshole, everything he did and stood for.
During this time of my life I spent quite a lot of time with a new game I had become entranced with: Dungeons and Dragons. It involved sitting about with a group of friends, rolling dice, and imagining ourselves lost in a world of heros, dragons, elves, and orcs, role-playing long scenarios dreamt up by a â€œdungeon masterâ€, who would run the players through a fantasy world of magic and intrigue. With my love of fantasy literature and writing I used the opportunity to write a number of book-length dungeon master games (which sadly I threw away upon graduation, losing the chance to make a lot of money!) that soon became very popular in the dormitories and later throughout the west coast universities. People came from as far away as Washington state and California to play in my games. I saw a possibility in creating more than a novel here… attempting to create a world of the imagination that could be experienced by players, replete with both traditional heroic fantasy themes and further, a concentration on real human themes like love, death, friendship, hate, deception, sex, even religion and philosophy. I was so involved with the game that I would play for three days straight sometimes, forgetting to eat and to go take bath. Some games were so emotionally involved that players would rear back in horror or jump for joy. One scene in particular, within a darkened room in which cadavers lay under a frosted glass floor, left all of us so spooked that we decided to stop the game and go to bed, our hairs still standing on end.
Dave the Bear would, of course, come barging in on these lounge room games and hassle us for our kiddie pursuits and out-of-touch-with-reality hobby. He’d sit on the arm of one of the lounge chairs and peer over our shoulders, guffawing at the crude pictures and odd-shaped dice. â€œWhat I see here,â€ he once jeered, â€œis a bunch of long-haired fags wanking out together ’cause they can’t fucking figure out the buttons of those dames out there.â€ (seemingly oblivious to the fact that three women were sitting right there playing the game) â€œJeez, get a life!â€
I couldn’t imagine someone I would less want to spend any time with.
But one evening one of the players invited him to play a game with us. Dave joined us, somewhat bashful at first, but soon getting right into the excitement once he figured out how the game was played. Within two weeks he had bought his own set of dice, had built up his own proud character, and sat with us at the cafeteria tables discussing strategy and plans for upcoming campaigns. He talked with me about the philosophy I was trying to infuse into the games, focusing less on fighting and war, and more on building up relationships between characters and people within the stories. Somehow these discussions turned from the game itself and began addressing both of points of view out in the real world. The boorish man who terrorized the dormitory halls transformed, in my mind, into this compassionate thinker who, in spite of all the noise he made, honestly cared about the people around him and even vehemently opposed the vast military spending that Reagan upheld. One evening Dave and I sat in the student center (yes, that place where the food fights took place in Animal House), doing our English literature homework together, when he sat back, rubbing his, eyes and began, out of the blue, discussing the dilemma of Macbeth. i couldn’t believe my ears. I had assumed so much, not knowing the first thing about the depths of such a man.
We became close friends. He even invited me to his home in Washington for Thanksgiving one rainy autumn day, something I was deeply thankful for, since I had no place to go home to (Japan was always too far away and expensive to get to) and would spend most Thanksgiving holidays during my college years alone in the deserted dorms, tossing playing cards at the walls. Dave grew into a caring, responsible ally to whom I could open my heart and, even though we often disagreed about politics and religion, splay my feelings about what was happening in the world. Dave helped me grow as a person and to see America from under its wings, in a way that no amount of perusing news articles abroad could ever hope to in revealing the inner workings of the country.
We lost touch with one another after we graduated and I have no idea where he is now. I often think about him and all those other people I grew to love during my college years, people who changed my life and how I see the world. Everything seems so much bigger and more complex now and rich beyond my capability to comprehend. But, within it all, the context of simple, friendly words, of gestures of understanding, and of a willingness to listen on both ends has made all the difference.
Dave, where are you? It would be a great time to have one of our talks right about now.
This is the twenty-second installment of the ongoing place-based essay series at Ecotone. This week’s topic is Sound of Place. Please feel free to drop by and read what others have written, and if you’d like, to contribute your own essay. (Note: Ecotone has since disbanded and the site is no longer available, though many of the writers still keep popular blogs and stay in touch on Facebook. Many of us have become close friends.)
I wrote this essay quite a number of years ago, about a two day hiking trip I took with some very close friends in New Hampshire, U.S.A., in the autumn of 1989. The sound I heard up in the mountains has haunted me ever since.
(a note: my experience and style of mountain walking have changed considerably since this trip. I now walk with a full pack weight of about 4 to 9 kilos (10 to 20 lbs)…. much lighter than previously, and much safer and more comfortable)
I can’t say why wild places draw me. The call originates somewhere out there where four walls end and the horizon catches the last light of the sun. It is something old and frightening, sets my heart drumming, and comes upon me when I am least guarded. I seek it again and again, as if expecting an answer to a question that was asked before I was born.
The call was with me again one gray day in the middle of autumn, when I had a weekend free and asked some of my friends to join me for a two day camping trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My friends Steve and Julie, my brother Teja and his girlfriend Barb and I all hopped into Steve and Teja’s cars and off we drove. It was the height of the leaf-peeping season, with families out to view the Foliage. We crept along with them until we were able to break free of the crowds up by Franconia Notch and escape to the quieter northern area of the White Mountains. We sang songs in the car, dredging up old favorites, and making up new songs on the spur of the moment. The night before, consulting the map for possible places to camp, I had found a secluded route going up to Mt. Hale and Zealand Falls which would allow us a two day circuitous walk.
Up here the foliage fire was already waning. The gray bodies of the beech and maple trees showed through the threadbare layer of leaves and the darker blight of winter encroached upon the lingering greens and reds and yellows. The forest floor was carpeted in leaves turning brown.
After we parked the car and hefted our packs onto our backs, we started up the steep trail into the woods, our boots crackling among the dry leaves. If any birds or mammals lurked in the surroundings, our noise warned them of our presence long before we arrived, and the woods were silent.
We were a ragtag bunch. Most of our equipment was picked out of the shadows of our closets after years of disuse. We hung and strapped and stuffed the utensils and gear onto or into our various bags and sacks, tying them off and hoping the whole conglomeration would hold together until the following day. Steve trudged under an old canvas Boy Scout backpack, loaded down beneath by an enormous, rolled, navy blue sleeping bag that was nearly as big as he was. He wore a new pair of leather mountaineering boots which thudded over the loamy soil as his muscular legs forced their way up the hill by pure, dogged determination. Julie, the most fashionable in her azure, Gore-tex jacket, bright yellow day pack, and lightweight hiking boots, lagged behind under the extra weight of those things that were strung from all sides of the daypack. We had relieved her of most of the heavy equipment, but still her slender legs, not having encountered such steep trails in a long time, did not have the strength to keep the pace we started with. Teja labored under an old external frame backpack I had given him. He carried most of the canned goods and refused to delegate the weight to the rest of us. He strode easily up the trail and deflected our attention from his heavy pack with a constant flow of jokes and witty remarks. Listening to him we could almost forget that the walk was a strain. And Barb, on her first camping trip, wearing sneakers and a jury-rigged shoulder bag-turned-backpack, led the way with the stubborn silence of hers which seemed to be directed at the men in the group. I carried my trusty old navy blue internal frame pack and my camera fanny pack, and wore my ten-year-old leather hiking boots. I lagged behind to accompany Julie so she would not have to walk alone and so I could also snap photographs of the group and linger with my camera in the stillness of the forest in our wake.
We soon left the trail head far behind and the hush was disturbed only by the murmur of our voices and boots kicking leaves, or during the moments when we halted in our tracks to listen, the creaking of a tree trunk rubbing against another tree trunk or the whisper of the breeze among the remaining leaves in the forest canopy. We encountered only three people—— a young couple bouncing noisily from rock to rock, and a lone young man who offered no smile.
This time of the season allowed views between the tree trunks to the surrounding hills. We could make out their purplish-blue forms and occasionally catch glimpses of hawks or crows beating their way over the tree tops.
The sunlight was beginning to slant through the trees after two hours of steady trudging uphill. We were all soaked with perspiration. Julie, though she said nothing, was lagging further and further behind and obviously having trouble. I suggested we stop alongside the trail in a little clearing. The clearing lay at the same steep angle as the trail and four big outcroppings protruding from the mossy soil offered no level surfaces to sit on. Slipping off our packs we squatted amidst the leaves or up against the sharp surfaces of the rocks, but none of us could find a comfortable position in which we could stretch our legs and relax. Steve’s face was apple red and Barb massaged her shoulders where the narrow straps of her makeshift backpack had dug in. My own shoulders were aching from the weight of my pack. Teja sat back and closed his eyes, seemed to fall asleep. It had been years since we had camped together and gazing at him now, both of us older, with years of separate lives between us, it was as if no time had passed at all. Yet Teja was a man now and I could see the air of self containment and worry in his face.
We shared swigs of water from Steve’s water bottle, then decided to push on. The clouds began to clear and a weak sun shone like a pale bulb through the chilled air. Our aim had been to climb to the top of Mt. Hale and find a campsite nearby, but the sun was beginning to get low and we wanted to set up camp while it was still light. We also needed to find a source of water that would be accessible from the campsite.
The hillsides angled down everywhere we looked, providing no level pitch for our three tents, and when we did glimpse level ground it was grown over with impenetrable tangles of thorn bushes or boggy from water settled in the kettles. The sun sank further and further among the trees, until the shadows stretched long and parallel across the forest floor. A stone-littered stream joined the trail for a way, then dropped away far below, and its rushing gurgle became a whisper rising from the unseen depths of the ravine.
Steve and I began to worry about whether we’d find a campsite before dark. The trail entered a shadowy area surrounded by steep outcroppings that allowed no space for camping at all. Here we found the stream again, splashing down between the dark, moss-covered rocks, right across the path. Imprints of lugged boot soles from earlier hikers marked the bare mud along the trail at both edges of the stream. The trail beyond the stream made an abrupt upswing along a much steeper rise. When Barb saw the steps of natural rock leading up into the dark crown of the mountain, she groaned. Julie stood panting and pale, unwilling to admit how tired she was. Steve complained that he had developed a bad blister on his right heel and couldn’t walk much farther.
Barb left her pack on a rock and clambered up the trail to get a look at what lay ahead. I conferred with Steve and Teja while she was gone and we decided that we had to find a place near here, where we could have access to the water from the stream. When Barb returned, with news that the trail continued on at the same steep angle beyond where she had gone, we headed back down the trail to the place where we had been able to hear the stream at the bottom of the ravine. I left my pack among the leaves on the ground and bushwhacked up the embankment along the rise. I struggled for a hundred feet or so through thick underbrush, out of sight of the group. There I found the ground leveling off, and finally, amidst a stand of white birches whose trunks seemed to shimmer beneath a canopy of glowing gold and orange leaves, discovered a series of small, terraced, leaf-strewn clearings that looked out over the valley to the mountains in the east.
I stood transfixed by the tranquility and autumn color and light. A lone birch branch oscillated amidst the stillness, catching some slight stirring in the air, and giving the impression that the tree was waving at me. A warbler that I couldn’t name, like a brown leaf, twitched and darted amidst the shrubs, alarmed at my unexpected presence. He shot away when Steve’s voice punctuated the short reverie, asking if I had found something.
I showed him the clearings and he nodded. We both went back to retrieve our packs and lead the others back.
Setting up camp required removing pebbles from the ground beneath where the tents would lie and in my case, tying back some of the thorny bushes to open space for my tent. All three tents were pitched in about twenty minutes, We laid our sleeping bags and packs in the tents, then prepared for dinner.
There is something nostalgic and comforting about a campfire and we would have loved to have built one, but the woods are no longer our homes. We lit our two white gas stoves instead. I thought of the heat of former campfires in my face and chest and knees, and of the cold of the night and forest at my back, and remembered that balance between the familiarity of our tiny dome of light and the immensity of the darkness around. The pressing inward of all that non-humanity urged my companions and I to talk, tell stories, and stave off the great silence. A writer once suggested that the hissing of the escaping gas of the stove could be used as an alternative to the firelight, that the sound was an auditory shield against the silence that rushed in when the stove was turned off, but it just was not the same.
Still, our company spoke through the hissing and settled back among the cushioning piles of leaves and between the tree roots, to savor the taste of canned chili con carne, curry rice, lentil soup, steamed rice, and cranberry juice. The warmth of the food coursed through our insides and loosed the tension of concentrating on our climb. Teja started a round of puns that set us all off, groaning and laughing and eager to up the others. Barb hummed a tune that was on her mind and we all fell silent to listen as her trained soprano voice rang through the woods. Julie sat back with her cat-like self-possession, curled into a ball, and wrapped up in all her layers, until nothing was visible but her half-lidded eyes. Steve busied himself, as always, with the cooking. There was something almost maternal in his attentions, as his fingers gently prodded a can open or stirred a bowl of soup, and one could see the pride in his eyes as the mechanics of throwing ingredients together and the possession of the tools that worked the ingredients coalesced into a finished arrangement of texture and flavor. I sat helping him, but mostly absorbing it all, watching these friends sharing with me these rare moments of a past time that went deeper than most activities I had joined them so often in in the city.
As we heated up a pot of water for hot chocolate. a sudden movement in the darkness outside the circle of our electric lantern and candles, caught all of our attention at the same time. We peered up at a branch dipping and swaying and caught a glimpse of a large, dark shape balancing amidst the darker canopy. Without thinking, I pulled out my flashlight and shone the beam up at the figure. The light caught two enormous yellow eyes staring back down at us. It was a short eared owl, swiveling its round head. It glared at us with an outraged flare of its wings, then leaped into the darkness behind. The branch that had dipped under its weight swung back up to its original position and nodded up and down in the light.
“What was it?” came Barb’s whisper in the ensuing silence, in which the hissing of the stove seemed to fill the woods.
“An owl,” said Teja.
“Did you see those eyes?” whispered Julie.
“I didn’t know that owls were so big,” said Barb.
We all sat silent for a few moments more, each of us hoping the owl would return or call out of the woods.
Steve asked if anybody needed the stoves any more. When we replied no, he turned them both off. The sudden silence held us still. We listened to the leaves rustling in the wind, to bark creaking against bark, to occasional twigs and branches dropping to the forest floor. Steve leaned forward to start cleaning the pots; Teja bent to help him. I heard an immense sound, like the roar of a freight train, sweep across the distant dark mass of the mountain opposite ours up from the river below. I listened as if I were hearing the hunter of my soul calling me; a strange, disturbing sound. It came again and I wondered what it was. I looked at the others and noticed that none of them seemed to have heard the sound, and I felt a chill run up my spine. The mountain called again, a deep booming roar, and at that moment the full moon’s shining edge peeked above the horizon. All of us stopped what we were doing and stared. The light seemed to pierce the fabric of the night and changed everything. We watched spellbound as the full disc rose, becoming larger and larger, slowly defining the serrated, tree-lined outline of the distant dome of yet another mountain, and stealing the shadows from among the tree trunks around us.
We scrubbed the pots and plates with silent haste, as if we were afraid we might lose something precious if we didn’t get back to the serendipity in those moments. After the light of the moon, the grease and mess of the pots on our hands, the cold shock of the water, even the abrupt banging and clanking of the metal jarred with the emotions we felt. As if to mask his disconcerted reaction, Teja played with oozing food remains, joking about how it would probably grow eyes and legs and chase unwary travelers through the hills. We laughed, our voices somehow too loud. We stacked up the washed pots and put away the stoves and extra food.
“Nature’s calling,” said Barbara. I didn’t understand what she meant the first second, then understood. “Will you come with me, Julie?”
The two stalked off into the darkness among the trees, their footsteps snapping and crackling among the leaves until the spot of their light winked out behind the rise of the hill and we could no longer hear them.
While Teja and Steve went to busy themselves in their tents, I climbed up to the rise behind my tent from where the valley below was clearly visible and settled back against the base of a large birch tree. The moon had lifted above the distant mountain and hung in the blue darkness like a silver bubble. Its luminescence seemed to cascade over the entire forest. As the light penetrated the shadows beneath the heaviest canopies, infiltrating at an angle nearly horizontal to the ground, it lit up the white bark of the birch trees until the birches shone with a silvery radiance. My eyes could feel the glow like a soft breath upon my retinas. I was so moved by what I saw that my chest ballooned with emotion and tears spilled from my eyes. Just then that enormous roaring sound swept across the opposite mountain again and I realized it was the combined rustling of thousands, a whole mountainside, of trees in the wind.
I heard a snap beside me and Steve joined me. He crouched down without a word and sat gazing at the view. I watched the glint of moonlight on his glasses and wondered what he was thinking and feeling. Just a year before, both of us, at the same time, had spent a month traveling alone by bicycle in Europe, he through Ireland and I through Denmark and Germany. Often during my trip I had wondered where he was and what he was doing. Upon return we put together a joint multi-media show, with separate slides of our separate journeys coordinated to music and visual effects, as a big presentation in an auditorium where Steve worked. We often conversed about the incessant rain that had hit both Ireland and Denmark that September and our loneliness and fatigue showed in our pictures. As we crouched there beneath the big birch tree, watching the moon, we both seemed to understand without words what the other was seeing. This night brought to rest, for an instant, the searching unrest that our trips had exacted from us. No words were needed.
Teja moved into the scene a moment later. He glanced back at us and I caught the look of seriousness on his face that always came as a surprise on his usually animated features. He hunched down upon an embankment beneath a beech. More snapping and crackling followed and Barb and Julie appeared. They sat down beside Teja.
We watched the moon climb above the hill and high into the sky. Time seemed to lose the momentum of its march. The long shadows of the trees wound upon the ground like the cast umbra of a sundial. I didn’t even notice when my left calf fell asleep. As the light spread out, the shadows withdrew until the contrast between brilliance and darkness quelled clarity of texture and form and the surroundings lost their preternatural secrecy. The forest became just a forest again. The others stood and retired to their tents. Steve patted me on the shoulder as he stepped past me. I sat for a long while after they left, waiting for the roar of the mountain, but it never came.
The window has been beckoning more persistently these last few weeks. I pull the curtain open and find myself confronted by the sky, by unfettered clouds journeying past my eyes towards the back of my mind, by birds momentarily netted in the up reaching fingers of the magnolia (its huge buds close on to bursting into Spring), by clouds of gnats dancing in invisible columns of warm air, and by ideas of light creeping across the ground or walls of the surrounding houses, like fish at the bottom of a fickle pool of photographic film. I always start toward these fancies, feeling the thrumming of open time infusing my lungs, drawing near the window pane till my breath fogs up the glass, but something always interrupts… the hum of the computer, the phone ringing, that shaking in my finger or foot, telling me to make the moment real, take responsibility for it, hurry up and bite in.
And so I turn away and settle back in the chair, forcing my mind into concrete abstractions. Projects must get done. Money must be squabbled up. Joy must be set aside in favor of goods passing through the door, to laden the table. Come evening, when the dealing ought to balance into an agreement with rest, the tasks ahead demand preparation. And so the mind folds in upon itself, fatigue lapping up old heat, boring into past promises, and trembling even in sleep.
In the middle of the night I sometimes sit gazing at my hands and feet, or pass my fingers over my eyes, trying to remember what they are for, or how they came to be.
And when the nights are cold, like tonight, I sip mugs of steaming tea, coaxing my muscles to recall the heat of days spent walking. I murmur the names of trees or mountains, attempting to fix the water within the memory of things far older and stiller than I am. They exist outside the doorway. And they will never come inside, even when invited, much preferring the cold to boxes.
Funny how those without arms or legs or eyes know better than to limit their movement.
So I wait for morning, hoping that with the first light I will drag myself out of bed, no matter how frigid the air, and step outside, for a walk. For a spell away from captivity. Out among the fancies, where my hair is as wild as the wind.
For almost a year now I’ve been lurking within the frame of this computer screen scratching words across the light, but only distantly associated with others who have come by this site to read or converse. On Wednesday, however, Steve, of OnMyMind, and I had a chance to meet in Omote Sando (the chic neighborhood of Tokyo where all the coffee shops and people dressed in the latest fashions come together) and have coffee. I was running late from a hectic preparation for a big graphic design project I am working on, and then further delayed because of a huge fist fight between two young men on the Inokashira line, both of them bloodying each other’s faces and screaming with such vehemence that the train conductor refused to open the train door until some security guards could be found.
So I arrived about 15 minutes late, hoping that Steve wouldn’t be too put off by his first impression of me. But he was downright easygoing, with a warm smile and a backpack full of newly purchased English books, which he had bought that morning while wandering through bookstores downtown (Steve lives in the boonies of Shimane Prefecture, where English books are as rare as Spoonbill Cranes). I was still pretty stressed out because of the work and so it took a bit of wandering the sidewalks, searching for (and getting lost) a certain Italian coffee shop that I had been to a number of times about five years before, before I could settle down enough to relax into conversation with Steve. Not finding the coffee shop we decided on Starbucks, mainly because, as Steve hinted, it offered a large coffee (and for me, the attraction of a smoke free place to sit… Japanese restaurants and coffee shops could probably serve well as mosquito eradication testing chambers or mountain whiteout conditions simulation rooms).
The delightful thing about talking to Steve was the sheer variety of subjects we touched on. If I had any worries that we would focus only on blogging, the liquid shifting from blogging to teaching to books to computers (especially, oh joy! Macs!) to American and Japanese politics to white water rafting and backpacking to marriage, children, and living out in the country as opposed to living in the city, quickly dispelled them. Steve, with his connection to country living, far from the excitement of the big city, talked of coming back to live in Tokyo, while I, with my yearning for mountains and walks free from crowds, talked of moving back to the country. Somehow I think we understood a sort of compromise. Both lifestyles have their attractions.
All in all it was an engaging first meeting, and my first through this blog. So I guess real things do come out of blogs, not just talk. And all of you out there are really real, not just some pigment of my fantasies.
Thanks, Steve! Looking forward to seeing you again.
Good night to all those tapping keys.
Wow! That’s a lot of comments I got for my post the other day and yesterday. Thanks, I appreciate it. I hope we can all create a great community this year. I look forward to reading more of everyone’s thoughts and stories and to watching the blogs grow. To the great number of new bloggers (I’ve been quite surprised by how many newcomers there are… maybe everyone got blog subscriptions for Christmas? TypePad must be making a bundle!), welcome! It is exciting to hear what the new voices will have to say.
It is interesting, in my absence from the web for the past month (I must have logged on to the computer maybe five times) how many people have stopped by here. It reminded me, as I went for a walk this morning, of a flock of birds gathering in a deserted garden: you never see the birds when you step out, but there they are at the feeder, crowding along the fence rails and branches, when you leave them alone. Easily startled. Easily stirred up. And wary of the feeder until time tells.
By taking time away from blogging I’ve come up with the theory that blogging is a kind of consumerism, a kind of accumulation of newness and ideas, much like gossip and bargain sale shopping and advertising. The difference from a book lies in its constant change and attempt to present all ideas as something as yet not told, when in actuality very little new is being said at all. Books require you to sit down and concentrate. They sit still and wait, whereas blogs flit by like the information before a blinking eye, a kind of verbal animation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that animation, video, digital music, cell phone communication, and blogs are all gathered together in the same place.
Like others have written, I didn’t miss the blog very much when I was away. In fact it felt a lot quieter in my head and a lot simpler. What I did miss were a number of people who I’ve really come to like as people, and whom I’ve started corresponding with offline (one person here in Japan I almost had a chance to meet in real life, even). The ideas people discuss are great, too.
Tonio, at Savoradin holds a very well thought out and provocative discussion about blogging and friendship, basically spelling out his belief that without the immediacy of touch and presence, without all the dirty work of real life, a true friendship cannot develop over the internet. Perhaps he is right about the start of friendships… the trust and belief in its existence and in the substantiality of the other person rests upon our mammalian need for touch and physical presence. Without a reference point with which to locate another within the landscape of reality, without the knowledge of what is happening in their real lives, without, as Tonio suggests, the finality of such things as disease, departure, or death, real concern for another cannot develop. Perhaps this is true. Parting is such sweet sorrow. (could Shakespeare have made a good blogger?)
But it is also true that a few of my closest friends I have known for more than 30 years and during that time I may have seen them in person maybe five or six times. The rest has developed and maintained affection, long distance, through letters. I believe there are all kinds of friendship and love and that distance and ephemerality do not diminish some kinds of bonds. I know, without doubt, that I will be friends with and hold them dear those who I’ve been in touch with all this time. And new friends will also join the flock.
Like birds there are so many varieties of friends. Some wing by in the night, some flit up to your windowsill, stare at you a moment and are off. Still others linger, get to know you, and then fly away with their own concerns. And a few remain, day in and day out, whatever weather, through all the seasons. Like birds there are no right or wrong friends, just different shades of plumage.
All are welcome to my garden, even if they do not talk to me. And all must apply their wings as they see fit, including my own. Freedom is what birds are all about, aren’t they?
Animal tracks highlighted in the snow just after an ice storm, Mikuni Pass, Shizuoka, Japan, 1993.
I want to apologize to everyone who drops by here for not being around for a long while. This time of the year always gets to me, especially since I live far away from my family and I haven’t seen them in years. Not only does the Christmas season just have no counterpart here in Japan, seeing that it is quite hard to really get close to Japanese people, to be accepted as one of them, I also end up spending a lot of time alone, most especially during this season.
I don’t like to share the more personal aspects of my private life here on the blog, in part to protect people who are important to me, but also because I believe that some things ought not to be handed out to just anybody. There are some things going on in my life that I try to glaze over here, but they are big things that seem even bigger during the holiday season. Since it will be yet another Christmas and New Year’s alone I’ve been trying to compensate by pulling away from the blog a while, so as not to think so much. With 2 weeks vacation ahead of me it would be better if I got out of the house and cleared my head a little.
One thing that has been bothering me again is the effect of blogging on my time and my mental life. When I last put an entry in it had gotten to the point where any idea I happened upon or even some small anecdote in my day would immediately translate into how I could use it in an article in the blog. I even dreamed of topics and ways to write sentences in my sleep!
I knew then that I had to break away, if just to quiet the noise in my head so that I could open my eyes and see the world around me, not the computer screen. With quite a period behind me now I can say that my mind is quiet again and I’m taking time to get out there.
I know that the tendency to immerse myself in the blog rises out of too much time alone and no friends. When you find yourself wandering the city streets, feeling lost, constantly whispering to yourself that you will be okay, then the voices that surround you in the blog world offer great comfort. All of you out there who have grown into something approximating friendship, thank you.
So I must strike a balance, continue to release the words that well up in me for this ephemeral place, and to get out there and find my home. I can’t continue to live like this. I must find substantiation.
I hope everyone is finding their way through the holidays. To those who are lucky enough to wrap themselves in a winter warmth, cherish it and give it to whoever else needs it. To those who suffer a kind of silent grief, hold on. The darkness will pass. And don’t forget to look up and let the fabric of your spirit clear itself among those clean, untouched stars. These long nights allow us a window into whole of our world and all its possibilities.