Categories
Art of Living Journal Musings Nature

Glint

I just finished reading Barry Lopez’s “Resistence”. After I read it I lay in bed as the sun arced past the window, weeping for a long time and yet feeling fierce, too. The questions the book asks threatened to split the fragile veneer of calm that I’ve fitted myself into over the last few years so as to survive this spell in Tokyo without going mad. And it is a form of madness, isn’t it, to hate the place you live, to sit days on end behind the window without ever talking to a friend, or to have lost the joy that once filled me every day in making food or singing songs? I want so desperately to step out of this costume I’ve fitted myself into and not be afraid to run naked and free. I’ve never done well with walls around me and yet, in spite of the turmoil inside, here I am.

Lopez’s collection of short fictional stories highlights defining moments in the separate lives of a group of people who are bound by a need to define their worlds in new ways. In many respects it is Lopez’s battle cry against the shape that society and our behavior towards the natural world has been taking. His lessons are quiet and inward, a plea that we begin to explore our inner landscape and seek value in our participation in the world. His premise, based on Navajo spirituality, that before everything the world is beautiful and we should be learning to fit ourselves into what already exists rather than throw ourselves at redemption, runs through all the stories. Lopez manages to put a face on the ambiguous yearning of those who try to define the value of nature and beauty, amorphous ideals so disparaged by those in love with civilization’s progress.

I’ve been reading a lot of books and websites about seeking an alternative way of living to what the whole world seems to bent on following (“Radical Simplicity” by Dan Price, “The Seventh Cross” by Anna Seghers, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond, to name a few…). I guess all my life something beyond the fray has been calling me and that is one reason why I have never been able to quite fit in anywhere, among any group of people. Recently, though, say in the last five years, the sense of, as Lopez describes in his book, “the premonition of disaster” has grown disproportionate to my own need for belonging, and I feel myself on the verge of making a drastic, and most-likely very unconventional change. I need to act before what is swelling inside me turns violent in some form or other.

Recently Andy of Older and Growing and I have been discussing what it means to live an authentic life and how one might go about achieving it. Both of us harbor an almost desperate compunction to reconcile our biological existence with the physical world around us and a mythical comprehension of what it means to be alive. We sense the possibility of such a way of life, but cannot see it around us, except in our jaunts to the mountains.

It just cannot be that the complexity and depth of our minds and hearts stop at the producing and acquiring of possessions. If I recall all the most lasting and joyful moments in my life they almost never involve things at the center of those moments. Even in work and health frugality has nearly always helped to keep things running smoothly. And mentally, freedom from the tyranny of possession has always allowed my mind less pull in too many directions.

At the end of the book, the character Eric Rutterman declares, “It is good to be fully alive.” I certainly don’t feel this at the moment. But it’s where I’ve been struggling to head toward. I hope the steps I am taking this year will help get me there. One part, I hope, will be in the new focus on the redesigned blog, soon to be up.

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
Diabetes Health Journal

Complications

Wow, I’m weary today. It’s more than the late nights as I try to learn CG software and work on my two books. I went to the doctor yesterday to have my monthly diabetes checkup. I’ve been working pretty hard at taking care of myself lately, but to hear from the doctor that things haven’t been improving just brought me down. After I finished work I made my way home and then sat outside in the nearby park, looking at the stars and singing quietly to myself. At times the bulwarks crack a little and doubt creeps in. It’s scary watching my body deteriorate while I so love the world that produced it and gave me the means to appreciate the wonder of living.