Categories
Blogging Journal Musings

Year Five

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.

Categories
Art of Living Journal Musings Self-Reflection

Adapting the Fire

Everyone’s comments have made me think a lot about my own attitude, and how my own attitude probably helps in shaping my misery. Though my love for nature is genuine, and I do need to find the kind of natural environment that brings me close to a sense of balance within myself and the surrounding environment, I also knew what kind of environment I was getting myself into when I moved here (though this place is exceptionally unfriendly and developing way too fast, with little thought given to the quality of the neighborhood. My last apartment may have been too small, but, even in the heart of Tokyo, it was quiet and the neighbors were so friendly that we had parties together and took care of each other’s children and pets). Aki’s comment particularly rang true with her insistence that it is how you choose to view a situation that in the end determines how that situation affects you and the people around you. Her example of Nelson Mandela was powerful. Here was a man who had been locked up and abused for years, and still he managed to get out of it with hope and grace and respectability. Instead of nurturing hate and revenge, he insisted upon fairness and understanding and thus managed to end a state of affairs that was intolerable for the black people of South Africa. And to relinquish power, too! What a generous and wise spirit!

I further read some thoughts by Robert Bateman, perhaps my favorite wildlife artist, in which he speaks of the need for people to learn, as he did in Europe, how to live within one’s circumstances. While I don’t intend to start another diatribe against America, I do think that the expansionist, pioneer attitude of Americans today is inappropriate in a world so overcrowded, and that it is this attitude, in great part, which has contributed to the intolerance that began the Iraq war.

I have to look at my own development, too, when I speak of “nature” and our relationship to it. Before I left Japan after high school, to attend university in Oregon, I loved Japan and Tokyo so much that I wanted to become Japanese. I saw no ugliness in the city and the crowds and jumbled development actually felt normal to me; it was the world I had grown up in. Upon arriving in Oregon everything felt odd and overgrown and frighteningly over-spacious. For more than a year I couldn’t get used to the empty streets and never bumping into people. The stretched out lawns in front of people’s houses, without walls, and the vast concrete wastelands of parking lots seemed a shocking exploitation of precious land. The gargantuan invisible wall of wilderness, where bears and cougars and men with guns roamed, was so alien and vast that for years I couldn’t wrap my mind around it and never dared venture too far into it without friends.

Living in Oregon for ten years, though, gradually eroded my conceptions of space and humanity. Concentrating on courses revolving around the environment and listening to passionate professors speak about the “loss” of this wilderness and the supplanting of old growth forests with human plantations, biased my ideas about what was a fair assessment of “nature”, and what an ideal human habitat might look like. The ideals were particularly American, home grown from a land of people used to great open spaces, abundant wealth, complacent in their expectations of land and standard of living. When I began studying architecture the mantras of relevance and respect for existing historical precedents meant thinking of buildings like an American, building with an American sense of size and personal comfort, ways of seeing the built world that were completely outside of my own experiences in Japan and Germany.

I returned to Japan carrying this new load of cultural baggage, my eyes newly attuned to a different wavelength of tolerance and expectation. Whereas Tokyo, before I left, had seemed beautiful in its details and the people finely accentuated for living within the environment that had shaped them, I now saw only seething crowds and a mess of unkempt buildings. And I hated it. Try as I might I couldn’t restore the old faith in things Japanese and join the people in delighting in the trivial trinkets that so plague the society today. Part of what I sought had been lost during the social shakedown of the Bubble Era and I was returning to a different world, but in large part it stemmed from my own changes. I had lost the Japan of my youth.

Perhaps this learning process comes in big steps that you take at certain junctions in your life. First was the pastoral wonder of the world in childhood, then the reinforcement of ideals to reach for in America, the plunging into reality in my post graduate period, an awakening to the enigma of arrival in my early middle years, and now, something new, a further step in awakening and change. It is an often painful struggle, like the writhing of a moth pupa when something dangerous touches it, but cleansing, too. Perhaps the step to be taken is not some harboring of resentment against the people around me, but to actively take part in transforming the world I inhabit, to embrace it and mark it with my own brand of charm and vision. Certainly sitting here fuming alone in front of the computer can’t spell an iota of influence upon the neighbors. But if I were to offer something to admire and like, something beautiful and open, with my heart ready to suffer the gauntlet, then perhaps my own spirit will emerge free. After all it is a pact with humanity that I seek, not nature. Nature is there of itself all the time; it is the vagaries of the human experiment that so troubles me.

Categories
Art of Living Journal Musings

Fingers in the Loam

Oregon Log
Driftwood log washed up on the Oregon Dunes State Park beach, south of Newport, Oregon, 1984.

Lately I’ve been wondering a lot about the direction I’ve taken in my life. Here I am living in a city (Tokyo) that, while safe and stimulating and quite airy and quiet compared to, let’s say New York, or Boston, or London, still strays about as far from the kind of environment that I thrive in as I could have chosen. My work, aside from struggling to make it as a writer (not an easy thing to do from Japan if you write in English) and illustrator, teaching English in the evenings is fulfilling in that I love my students, enjoy the company of my colleagues, and have discovered over the years that teaching brings out the best in me, and stirs up both the desire to distill what I know in younger people and to learn from them in return. But that is not where I started out from or where I first set course for when I headed to the University of Oregon back in 1978, fresh from Japan. I look back and try to filter out all the fascinating elements that kept building up the layers of my learning and maturing to the bedrock of the person I always felt myself to be. The grasp of my existence that withstands even the hardest winds. And always I come back, basically, to two words: Nature and Words. When all else falters I can always count on these two concepts and ways of making sense of the world to wait for me at the bottom of the barrel.

I have always known these things as essential to who and what I am. My first glimmerings of awareness of the world around me inevitably arise, with an intensity often blind to other things around, framed in the light of how the natural world looked or how things were said. The most intense memories nearly always hover around natural places or creatures or around books that I’ve read or conversations that I’ve engaged in. Numbers seem to get filtered out, as well as all the popular attractions that other boys always go gaga over, like flashy cars, cushy jobs, team sports, or irreverent talk about women. It made me strange to boys and men around me, and even today many men don’t have a clue as to how to begin a conversation with me, and I often feel I have nothing to say in return. My heroes as a child were Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, and George Schaller. None of the men or women that I knew did anything close to these three.

After studying creative writing, literature, geography, and ecology (with an apprenticeship in animation under animator Ken O’Connell… he was quite disappointed with me when I left, and I often regretted the decision since then), all of which I loved, for some reason unknown to everyone in my family and close friends, I decided to study architecture for graduate school. I’m not sure of the reasons myself, except that I imagined some kind of marriage between art, social work, and sustainable development (not yet a term at that time). There was also an unspoken need to satisfy a restlessness in my father whenever he spoke to me about what I was planning to do. My talk of writing and my lifelong love for wild animals, especially insects, never seemed to elicit the reaction I was hoping for, but when he heard that I had been accepted into architecture school, his voice changed. I still remember the way his eyes lit up the first time I saw him upon returning to Japan for the summer. It was only just two weeks ago that I learned that he had dreamed of becoming an architect when he was just out of high school.

Architecture didn’t work out. While the studies were fascinating and the tumble of new ideas and the breadth of learning needed to develop into a master at this craft staggering, I never had the patience to sit for hours debating the orientation of a structure’s axis or to put up with the penis envy of all the star (almost always male) students and teachers. I soon discovered that, like Antonio Salieri, I could pick out and appreciate good design, I just didn’t have the knack for organizing spatial elements in a way that brought out the soul of a project. I found no joy in the process. It was always a struggle. One of my fellow students once remarked, when he came into the studio at 3:00 a.m. and found me cursing at my conceptual sketches, “If you dislike it all so much, why don’t you just give up? It doesn’t make sense to torment yourself like this.”

Still I persisted, convinced that it was only lack of knowledge that made me feel so frustrated and empty. I went on to live in Boston, where I struggled for five years to make it as an architect. Only three jobs came my way, one of whose bosses laid me off after one month, in favor of his nephew, who had never studied architecture. On my bicycle commutes to work along the Charles River, more and more something else began to rear its head inside me, a ghost from the past, drawn by the nighthawks swooping over the evening waters and the ice breaking up along the banks. I began to arrive late at work, drawing looks of disapproval and a few warnings from my manager.

During a month-long bicycle ride from Denmark to Paris all the voices from that earlier time when I felt I had been absorbed, body and soul, into the exercises of fulfillment that characterized close encounters with wild places, exploded into my awareness like a flock of skittish ducks. I knew what had been missing, knew what I ought to have been about. I returned to Boston heady with change, but scared. My boss, a nice man, overworked, with never enough time to see his newborn daughter, took me aside and said, “I hate to do this, but your heart just isn’t in architecture. I’m going to have to let you go. I would think seriously about what you want to do with your life.” Harsh words at the time, but perhaps the best advice I ever got.

It took a lot of sucking up my pride and working at dead-fisheye jobs to gradually swing the prow away from architecture. After all, there was all the money I had put into the studies, and all the years of self-prestidigitation to overcome. Japan harbored the old beginnings of my first foray and so back I went to pick up the string where I had dropped it. I’ve written my first book, decided that I want to teach, and am full of certainty that I want more of authentic time in the natural world. It is all there.

Perhaps, as Fujiko Suda expresses in the concept of “shu-ha-ri” used in the development of one’s thinking in marital arts, I had to go through all that to be able to come to this node that I am standing on right now. Like making a run around the rim of the volcano only to come back to this point. I’ve gathered all the tinder and kindling I need to start the fire; I know what I want to cook and then to eat. All the husks and peels have been pared away, and everything that I have built up until now has been discarded. My knife is poised and I must kill the Buddha.

But, damn, it’s hard taking that step! I’m terrified of that fall, without a bottom. It’s so much easier and familiar to just wait here, like a wolf whose cage has just been opened to freedom, afraid to step outside. My eyes know that there is nothing to it, but the hippocampus recoils. The mind is not always in agreement.

Perhaps I’ll just wait until tomorrow.

Categories
Gender Journal Society

The Company of Men

Great Meadows
Early autumn afternoon at Great Meadows State Park, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1991

One of my women students told me the other day, with complete conviction, looking me straight in the eye, “All men are just foolish things.” Coming from a Japanese there is a certain cultural bent in the statement, inherent in the meaning of the Japanese version of the word “foolish” (ooroka) which carries the connotation of the Japanese desire for the ideal of humility, which I had to take into account as she said these words. I realized that she did not intend to insult or even criticize me, but still, it got me thinking.

Cody, of Overflow made reference to an article he read by a doctor named Frank Pittman, about What Are Men For Anyway?. It is a question that has often crossed my mind, perhaps because throughout my life I’ve never been able to quite find the right shaped masculine block to fit into the social hole. If I follow the carrot that my genes and upbringing have strung in front of my natural tendencies, I rarely feel chiseled into a masculine ideal, but rather more like a series of whims, powered by an invisible engine that reacts to what is happening around me. Rarely do I limit myself to thinking, “I am a man and so I must…”

And yet so many men around me expect that of me and of themselves. They grow up watching the hero cartoons on TV and the action hero movies and a litany of bells gong silently in their minds about being strong and never showing any signs of weakness, preferring instead to reveal the chinks with anger. It is what I went through for years and years, not knowing how to drift through the net of rage that separated me from the kernel of my consciousness, the inability to shift and loosen the strands only stepping up the growing ire until I could rarely speak without shaking my mane. It was only last winter that I finally realized that I could loosen my grip and sweeten the recipe boiling in my mind enough to refocus on the shy, easy-going, laughing sprite of my boyhood, the unblemished sheet of paper upon which my story began.

Women, especially in the West, have taken responsibility for redefining themselves in the modern world, and have done so by banding together and exploiting their general unity to create a chorus. Perhaps that is the advantage that those who recognize the poverty of their circumstances have; deprivation forces invention. The evidence of the maturity of the women’s movement shows up in so many little daily events, such as the number of women compared to men that you see out in the evenings jogging, or the numbers of women compared to men taking self-improvement classes. Or even, here in Japan, the numbers of women setting out to travel abroad and discover new ways of seeing things.

Men, on the other hand, seem lately to be languishing in nostalgia, looking back on the captains of industry of the 1800’s or the warrior kings of the Mongolian steppe. If you look at the old black and white photographs from before the turn of the last century, there is something hopeful and forceful in the eyes of those men, something lacking in today’s men. Those men knew who they were and thrived on the energy that their world view could translate into their adventures and inventions.

That world view died with the advent of such things as airplanes, conquering Chomorangma (Mt. Everest), settling the American West coast, and stepping on the moon. The world became such a small place that heroes and glory lost their relevance, and even survival value. As today’s men continue to jostle for the elusive head of the pride position (isn’t that all Bush is doing, with his strutting and smirking?), they fail to see how ridiculous their aging attitudes have become and how damaging to their own self-development, and disastrous for the husbandry of the planet.

Men must find a way to stop using the urinals as gauges for their self-worth and learn to talk about and among themselves. Just like with women men must find a way to overcome the drawbacks of their traditional roles and outlooks and discover the advantages and strengths that being a man might be. So far just getting a man to admit that he needs help, without slipping into self-pity and over dependence on women, remains a major hurdle that all us men still cannot even feel past, let alone see. We need more men who can define role models and a valid ideal of masculinity. Finding it amidst a hostile political and social climate makes for an enormous challenge.

Women, though, are as much to blame in the deterioration of male identity as men are, in part because so many of them help perpetuate, personally and socially, the myths of what the ideal man is by indulging in the same old demands on men. They, too, want their heros and their knights in shining armor and their gentlemen, without taking time to evaluate what their desires mold in the hearts of the boys they raise. It certainly doesn’t help when, for instance, in a situation I actually experienced, a woman, frightened, gives me a withering glance when we are confronted by some violent men armed with clubs, in effect telling me that I am not a man if I can’t handle their brutality.

Why is it that men must always be associated, both negatively and positively, with violence? Why is it okay to send young men (many against their will, and many willing because it would be dishonorable and cowardly to refuse) to be soldiers, learn to kill, go to war, and die meaningless deaths? Is it our Chimpanzee-like heritage? Can we not find a world view of men similar to that of Bonobos instead?

Two weeks ago I stepped into a large bookstore here in Tokyo and headed for the toilet. When I arrived the stall was occupied, so I waited for the occupant to finish. As he pulled the sliding door open it slipped off its rail and jammed into an angle that made it difficult to get a hold of the door from the inside and slide it back into position to open the door. The occupant struggled for about two minutes with this, until, wanting to help, I stepped forward and tried to grab the door. The guy inside begged me not to interfere, but I continued to help a bit more. Finally the door loosened and he was able to lift it back to its rails and slide it open. When he stepped out he couldn’t look me in the eyes, so ashamed was he. As he washed his hands he berated me angrily, “You shouldn’t have done that! You had no right to interfere. That was so uncool! So uncool! I’m a man, god dammit!”

God, if we can’t even help each other with a stupid toilet door without falling all over ourselves, how in the world are we going to come to terms with such an enormous macho issue as a war?

Categories
Journal Musings

Dewdrops

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.