Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking

Wind and Snow

Yatsugatake Windblown Hill

Her words still ring in my ears as I step off the ropeway onto the freezing, windswept plateau of the Pilatus terminal at the northern end of the Yatsugatake range. “I LOVE YOU, Miguel!” It is a confirmation of all I had been looking for and waiting for over the last few months, a statement that stills my stormy heart and promises to wait for me when I descend back to the world of trains and schedules and meetings and sullen students. We have overcome the woes of distance and newly immersed intimacy, at last announcing that we are truly together.

I lower my pack and survey the trails. Skiers up from the ropeway wait in line for head of the trail, to fly down the artificially-made snow to the snowless plain below. Though the thermometer reads -15ºC and it is early January, hardly any snow covers these alpine heights. The snowpack is so hard that walking in my running shoes is as easy as jogging along a beach. I remove my mittens from my pack, but leave the overboots inside and the snowshoes lashed to the front. I glance up at the balding white pate of the hill overlooking the plateau. A sharp, icy blue wind sweeps down from heights and fingers my collar. I laugh. Those old feisty fingers, ready to strip me bare and rush away with my shelter and food!

Yatsugatake Underbrush
Yatsugatake Looking Back

A voice calls out from behind me, naming me. “Miguel? Miguel from BPL?”

I shoot my head around, completely not expecting that. Two Japanese walkers, donned in ultra-lightweight gear stand there grinning. I have no idea who they are.

“You don’t know us, but we know you from the Backpacking Light site. Miguel, right?”

I nod in confusion. “How do you know me?”

“You’re famous in Japan! Everyone who does ultralight hiking in Japan knows you.”

“Really?” I pause. “Really???”

We introduce ourselves and talk about Mr. Terasawa and Mr. Tsuchiya, two people all three of us know who have done a lot to introduce ultralight concepts to Japan. They laugh and point at my pack, a specialized harness with waterproof drysack, instead of a traditional backpack: “Is that the BPL Arctic Pack?”

I nod.

One of them shakes his head and approaches with his camera. “May I take a picture of it? I’ve never seen one in person before.”

I laugh in turn. “We UL enthusiasts really are crazy about lightweight gear, aren’t we!” I spy his own pack and laugh again. “Just as I thought. How did you sleep last night? Tent or tarp? Or bivy?”

“We used a tarp coupled with a bivy. It went down to about -20 last night and I was worried that our lightweight gear wouldn’t be enough, but I was surprised that by using my clothing system with the layered bedding system I was actually very warm.” He eyes my pack again, “What about you? How are you camping?”

I shake my head in embarrassment, “I’m not camping. I’m staying at a mountain hut.”

Both their eyes pop. “You’re kidding!”

“I know, I know. Now my reputation in Japan is shot.”

“No, not that bad. At least you’re wearing running shoes!” They point at my light hikers. “No one but an ultralighter would do that on a winter mountain!” They laugh and nod to each other.

We shake hands, take a group shot, and promise to contact one another and get a whole band of UL people together in Tokyo some time, perhaps to go for a camp out here or in Okutama, west Tokyo. They head north towards Futago Ike (Twin Ponds) and I watch their silhouettes climb the through the rock garden and disappear at the crest.

The sun is already lowering toward the west and day walkers and skiers have begun to thin out. I have about three hours until sundown.

Yatsugatake Winter BPL Fans
Yatsugatake Track
Yatsugatake Krummholz

Only a few hundred meters out of earshot of the ropeway the forest settles into a deep hush. My shoes creak through the dry snow and my breath sounds loud amidst the snow laden fronds of the larches that line the path. Footprints from walkers who had passed all day break through the snow along the trail and tell stories of where they were going or how they were feeling. One set of snowshoe tracks breaks away from the main trail and wanders for a bit amidst the dark trunks of the larch forest before being forced back to the main trail by the thickness of the brush. Crisscrossing the human tracks I can make out hare tracks, ermine tracks, Japanese marten tracks, and another one that I can’t identify. Nothing seems to be happening as I plow through the landscape, but the tracks tell a different story. Life goes on all around and beings live out their family stories.

The light begins to fail and the shadows clench me in the gathering cold. With the light going so flees my daytime euphoria and the concerns about reaching the hut take over. My thoughts return to Y. and all the trials we’ve been through over the last few months. While it is true that she had told me that our relationship was sound, she had said the same thing only three weeks earlier, before her bout of silence. Just the fact that she cannot join me on this walk, like on almost every endeavor we talked to doing together, ensures that doubts begin to creep in again. I stop in a clearing and watch the fiery orange alpenglow touch the last brow of peak to the east, while standing down here in this blue forgetfulness. I feel small and vulnerable, totally alien to this snowy world. And Y., far away, doing holiday part-time work and not getting enough sleep, and feeling cold and frustrated as the wind blows through the station where she works, and losing confidence in her ability to keep a relationship going… Why was I not there, beside her, keeping her warm? Why all this distance? Why the vagaries of chance, that we would fall in love, only to encounter a minefield of responsibilities and lingering effects of past relationships?

I long to call her, hear her voice, counterbalance the silence and cold of these woods, but there is no reception. And I begin to wonder what that, “I love you” meant. It sounds like an echo, a sublime way of saying good bye.

The trail takes me up a ridge and drops into a bowl of rocks where it seems the shortened trees gather for a motionless conference. When I enter the space I almost feel like an intruder and a vague anxiety stirs somewhere in the center. I don my snowshoes when the trail begins to get icy so as to get the traction of the snowshoe crampons. Halfway down the descent the straps of the old snowshoes snap and render them useless. The light continues to fall and I scramble through the rises and falls, trying to keep from taking a spill on every descent and rise. It is not a long way, thank goodness, and I finally make it to the access road that heads up to the hut. I abandon the trail and huff it through the gloom until the familiar pointed roof comes into view above the treetops.

Yatsugatake Shadows
Mugikusa Heat

The owner of the hut, a soft-voiced man in his forties, stokes the stove for me and offers me a cup of hot barley tea. I gratefully accept and cup it in my palms. He hangs my gear on the rack over the stove and puts my broken snowshoes into the corner. He pulls up a stool and sits across the table from me, sipping his own cup of tea.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks.

“No, I’ve been here many times, even in winter, but this is my first time to stay.”

“It’s a good place. Quiet and friendly. That’s why I stayed,” he said. “You just missed the crowds, though. Yesterday there were more than fifty people here and it was full of music and laughter. I think there will only be eight of you tonight, though.”

I sip my tea, pensive. Then after I while I say, “The mountains are so beautiful, but without people you really can’t live here, can you?”

He shakes his head. “We have to work together to survive here. The high mountains can be really hard if you’re not careful.”

“Like relationships,” I murmur. He raises his eyebrows, confused. I shake my head. “I’ve recently gotten involved with someone and it is rocky and often so easy to lose our way. Here I am with someone and supposed to feel like I belong and full of hope for the future, but instead I feel lonely most of the time. When I try harder to reach out, she draws away, unwilling to set the path together. The harder I try to get closer the further away she seems to draw. I don’t know what to do.”

He nods and smiles, not knowing what to say.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Shouldn’t be talking about things like that. We’ve never even met before.”

He leans forward and points at my cup. “Another cup of tea?” He gets up and bustles about in the kitchen. He returns with big kettle and sets it down on the table. “Don’t think,” he says. “Have another cup of tea.” He pours more tea into my cup and smiles. “The fire is warm, no?” He nods and smiles again.

Comet Over Mugikusa

I wake from a deep sleep to the sound of laughter outside in the subzero night. Foggy-brained, I sit up and remember that three of the lodgers had decided to get up at four in the morning to look for a comet that only comes up on January 3rd. I pull back the curtain, but the window pane is covered in a thick layer of ice. I can make put a blurry wisp of light waving in the blackness of the window. Laughter again. And the sound of a door rolling shut.

I lie in the darkness of the room for a long time, debating whether to face the freeze of the room or stay here under the blankets, warm. I reason that life is about getting up and getting out there, but that it is also about lying a bit longer under the covers and getting some proper sleep. But then I figure that comets don’t come about very often and I really should get up and see one. So I haul the blanket off me and throw on my down jacket and march out of my room, down the dark hallway, and down to the warm glow of the stove room. I pull on my running shoes and, making the same racket with the door as the person earlier, I step out into the night.

First the cold. Hard and bitter and right down from the stars. I have forgotten my gloves so I stick my hands deep into my down jacket pockets. The air, when I look up, seems gelid, like a still lake, and beyond it shine the stars. Thousands of them. All spilt across the velvet dress, so distant and impersonal that the cold seems perfectly suited to their needs. Below them, on the dark hillside, stands an almost insignificant little group of people, pointing their pinprick of a flashlight up at the heavens and remarking on the constellations. I shuffle through the snow and climb up to their lookout. Their flashlight swings down to identify me then back up at the stars. I see shadowy arms reach up and point. Voices murmur at close hand, punctuated by bursts of quiet laughter.

They never find the comet. We stand looking up until the cold finally penetrates our defenses and we all decide to head back to the stove room to warm up. We position ourselves around the fire, putting our hands out to flames to receive the benediction of heat. The hut owner brings out a tray of coffee and biscuits and we sit around for hours, until dawn, discussing Japanese youth, the effects of the recession, how to make a firebrand, even the way to read a star map. At one point, not having an answer to a question, one of the hut helpers takes out her cell phone and connects it to a specialized antenna, where she consults the internet. I ask if I might use the antenna to check for any messages I have gotten. They say sure.

I connect my cell phone and let the feelers scan the invisible voiceways for word from Y. Nothing. The receptacle remains empty. Feeling like the man on the moon, I write a short message and send it out to her, casting it into the dawn darkness, “I love you.” Letting it resound like an echo where no sound reverberates.

“I love you,” the message says. The words that draws together the strings of the universe and can make a measured difference in the strength of even the tiniest beating heart, if only it is heard.

Mugikusa Clan
Yatsugatake Snowshoeing

The comet group stays awake until breakfast is ready and, still bleary-eyed, but full of laughter, we sit over our bowls of miso soup and diced cabbage and omelette and continue our lively discussion on all topics from the four corners of the world. We get onto the topic of children, since one of the women there has only just recently started getting outdoors and the other members wonder how she manages to take care of her children while she’s out here. “Well, they’re older now and can more or less take care of themselves,” she says. “But, I figure it’s time my husband stay home sometimes and give me the chance to do some of the things I love doing. I’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains. I don’t want to get old and feel I haven’t done anything I wanted to do.” She beams. “Who would have thought I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning in the mountains to go outside to look for comets!”

I ask about children and if she thinks that when they are young it is impossible to do all these things together. She thinks a moment and shakes her head. “In fact, I think their lives are richer for the experiences and the chance to learn what the world is about. Learning how to mentally deal with climbing a mountain or riding a bicycle long-distance or even put up a tent and survive a storm all helps make you stronger and more confident. My family did a lot of that when the kids were younger and I think the kids grew up with an appreciation for what their abilities are. Not all of them like being outdoors, but none of them is afraid of being out there.”

The dishes are quickly cleared off the table and with a whisk of a towel the crumbs are wiped away and the company disperses. Five minutes after the room was filled with the banter of people whose eyes were bright with stars, the room returns to being empty. I stumble upstairs to the bedroom to pack and get ready for the walk out of the mountains.

Yatsugatake Snowfield Trees
Yatsugatake Windswept Sasa

While jogging along the trail in the late morning sun, the heat reflecting off the snow, my cell phone suddenly vibrates in my shoulder strap pocket. I stop and pull it out. I press the open button and check the message. One. From Y.

“If you have time, meet me at Kofu station around 1:50. Can’t wait to see you. I love you.”

Winter Yatsugatake Hare Tracks and Table
Categories
Journal Musings

I Am Forty Eight

Gumyo Tracks to Naruto

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

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

JIU Office Clouds

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

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

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

Naruto Tracks

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

Naruto Train Crossing and Tracks

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

Naruto Train Crossing and Moon 1

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

Naruto Vending Machine

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

JIU Office View of J Building
Categories
Journal Musings People

White Flags

With Chris Clarke’s call for an ongoing discussion about racism in Blog Against Racism Day my ears have pricked up and heard the buzz of blogs around me again, and I made the rounds of old, familiar blogs, and in the process tripping over some new ones. There certainly has been a lot to say by lot of people. Some of it quite moving.

My first reaction, as a person of very mixed heritage, was that the idea of setting aside one day to honor sentiments against racism seemed cavalier and irresponsible. After all, how can something that follows you everywhere from the moment of your birth, poisoning so much of what you touch, excluding you from a complete and fair experience of the society that you happen to inhabit, be vilified within an afternoon’s blithe hat-tipping? It just seemed illusory. Guilt-ridden without action. Pedantic by so many who I presumed never experienced the fruits of racism.

I decided to give the topic time to ferment, while reading more entries and letting the thoughts I read mix with my own experiences and conclusions. Bigotry comes in so many forms, much of it solidified into stereotypes based purely on presumptions of one’s skin color or cultural bent or sex. “Whites are racist.” “Muslims are all devoutly religious.” “Blacks understand discrimination.” “Asians study and work hard.” “Americans are arrogant.” “Jews don’t commit genocide.” “Native Americans have done no wrong to the European settlers.” “Women respect life and would never start wars.” Everywhere you look, in everyday life, in each individual you meet, you see the kernels of disagreement, misunderstanding, dislike, and ill will. Who’s to say that racism would not grow among any group of people, given the right conditions? At what point is an individual capable of distinguishing their own righteousness from the confusion of all others’ wrongs?

In my own life, living between the self-battering anguish of my Filipino/ American Black side and the self-searching, confused outlook of my German background, all I have been certain of is that people in my family have continually surprised me. I discovered that my German grandparents risked their lives during the Second World War attempting to protect a Jewish family, all of whom were eventually captured and sent away. My paternal grandfather, a Filipino who left the close-knit community of his childhood in the Philippines, wandered halfway around the world to South Carolina, there to marry a black woman, a woman who would never be accepted back in the Philippines. Another Filipino-American side of the family vehemently supported Bush’s attack on Iraq. My Brazilian-of-Japanese-descent wife resents people assuming that she can dance. Even in myself, in spite of my pride in my tolerance of all people and cultures, recently find flares of resentment and impatience with Japanese, especially on the trains where the worst of people’s ugliness comes out while crushed up against a train door. The other night a businessman, disliking being forced to share shoulders with foreigner, shoved me away and snarled, “Fuck you!” at me in English. I stumbled out of the train at the next stop, dazed, and soon after finding myself silently cursing at all the Japanese around me for this feeling of being knocked out of kilter. I know very well that few Japanese harbor any real resentment against non-Japanese, but the feelings bubbled out of me nonetheless.

The only way I can see overcoming racism is to forget identifying with any group and consider each individual you meet on their own merits. It is the very act of setting parameters by declaring “We…(fill in a racial group, cultural group, nationality, sex…)” that creates the breeding grounds for exclusion. Those who are passionate about rending the walls often differentiate the discrimination into neat categories: racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, fanaticism… But aren’t they all one and the same? People finding things to refuse or disrespect in others?

In the end it all comes down to me living within my own skin. I’ve lived in enough different places and cultures to realize that the tides wash both ways, that what you thought of as set in stone here, has been forgotten elsewhere. And that people will always surprise you.

When I studied at the University of Oregon I lived in an apartment a mile or so outside the campus. The apartment faced a tiny, intimate alley that didn’t admit cars and that set the houses and apartments close enough that many of the residents greeted each other on a daily basis. One day a woman moved into the empty cottage across the street from my apartment. She was stunningly beautiful, blonde, and white. From the first day she waved at me and shouted out a bright, guileless “Hello!”. I often sat out on my deck and leaned over the railing, conversing with her as she sat on her doorsteps. We learned quite a lot about one another, confessing details of our lives that normally we would not have shared outside the societies we both hailed from. I learned that she had been a model for Playboy and that her father was a millionaire. She eschewed sorority life, but spent a lot of time hanging out with men and women from the Greek world, something that I had never once been invited to, and which seemed to me a surreal form of hedonism catering almost solely to whites. She learned about my growing up in Japan and my father in the United Nations. And about my elementary school days at a school in Harlem and my activities in the Asian-American club in which members barred whites from participating in events (an attitude that eventually made me quit the club). These bits of information didn’t come between us and our friendship grew, to the point where I began to fall in love with her.

But I noticed that all her boyfriends were white, well-off, and straight from the cover of GQ. My whole experience of wealthy white women, dating from my high school years in a school of amabassadors’ children, consisted of exclusions from conversations, being beaten up by older brothers outraged at my temerity at even thinking that their sisters might have an interest in me, condescension by the girls themselves in the form of coquettish dismissals, as if I couldn’t understand where my place was, “the skinny Indian”, as one French girl, the darling of the class, dubbed me during a chemistry class one afternoon. So though I fell in love with the woman across the street, I kept it to myself. My perception of her was reinforced by her never once attempting to come up to my deck and sit with me. I just assumed that she would make friendly talk with me, but always at a distance. Several times she invited me to have dinner with her in her cottage, but I always declined, citing the need to spend time at my architecture studio. When she started dating this athletic, he-has-everything man I backed into the woodwork of my apartment, leaving her to be with a man who most likely wouldn’t give me a second glance.

Then in the middle of the night my phone rang. It was the woman from across the street.

“Miguel, can you come over? Please?” Her voice was shaking.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

There was a sob and then a thin wail, “Oh, please… Miguel. Please…”

“Okay, I’ll be right over.”

I threw on a jacket and ran across the alley to her door. No lights were on. I knocked. No answer. So I pushed the door open and peered inside. She was curled up in a ball on her couch, wrapped in a blanket. She lifted her head and turned to look at me. Her face was streaked with tears. There were clothes all over the floor.

I rushed to the side of the couch and kneeled beside her.

“God, are you all right?” I asked in whisper. I dared not touch her.

She broke down sobbing again and after some time I tentatively reached out a hand to touch her shoulder. I rested it there, feeling her body shudder. She cried for a long time. Then, “He… he…”

I shook my head. “It’s okay… Don’t speak. Just let it out for the moment…” She cried again for a long time. When she seemed a bit calmer, I asked, “Would you like me to call your father?” Her mother was no longer alive.

She shook her head, her eyes wide with alarm.

“Okay. Then we’ll just sit here like this for now. How about I make you some tea?”

She nodded.

“Okay.” So I got up and put some water on to boil. When the water was ready I made two cups and brought them over to my friend. I handed her cup to her, sat down beside the couch, and together we sat in the darkness, not saying a word. We sat like this until dawn, when the curtains began to glow with the first light.

And all the while my mind shifted between the strange numbness of realizing that this white woman had all along accepted me for who I was, and the odd peacefulness of being handed her vulnerability and trusted with it. I had been carrying around a racism all my own, blinding myself to the genuineness of her smile, and allowing stereotypes built up over past wrongs to shape her in my mind. I’m not sure if her acceptance of me was without exclusion, but perhaps it was the very fact that I did not live inside the sphere of her white world that she found safety with me at that moment. My visage differed from the familiar faces of the men she knew. She had trusted me enough to allow those quiet dawn hours, before the telephones rang and the officials came asking questions.

To blog against racism. Perhaps it is the very act of sitting and thinking about what you are writing and attempting to make some sense of it that points to the value of the exercise. You come away with the feeling that the mote in your eye has splintered and dispersed. Upload the act and it is like the smoke of incense at a temple: the gods will surely hear your confession.

Categories
Art of Living Blogging Journal Letter Writing Loving Musings People Writing

First Kiss

Beach pole Oregon
Weathered wooden pole in the Honeyman State Park beach in Oregon

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.

Categories
America: Society Art of Living Iraq War Journal Nature Society Stewardship

Statement

Winter Cherry
Bare branches of a cherry tree in a kindergarten near my home, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004

I’ve had a lot of time to think. And the conclusions are not quite so cut and dried that I can claim enlightenment, but there have been some tightening of convictions and brushes with clarity. Here are some of the pebbles of insight into myself that I found:

• I love the Earth. Ever since I can remember it has been a more than average, deep anima within me. When close to the natural world, when interacting with other living things, when walking between the ground and the heavens and no human intervention to obscure the view, when the childlike excitement and fascination envelopes me while I crawl through thickets or wade up to my waist in swamp water or climb a tree to get a closer look at a nest or walk for days and days along a mountain ridge, those are the times I always feel most alive. I live in the heart of Tokyo now and am denied these things. It goes against my nature. Like Dersu Uzala (from Kurosawa’s film and the book by V.K. Arseniev) something dies within me when cities are the only connection to life that I have access to. For those who love cities this is impossible to explain.

• I love the human race. People can be capable of so much beauty and grace and generosity. When they open their minds and care for one another and the places they live in, our imaginations are limitless. As a integral participant in the dance of the natural world, our role is as the steward of this world, with the means and awareness to protect all that is around us. Other animals have their place in the scheme, ours is to protect. And therefore I want to see that I position myself within my own life to fulfill my role as steward. And to resist with all my heart and intellect and abilities those who would destroy our world.

• The planet is in danger. How long are we going to sit around squabbling about this? It is not some parlor room debate where the “winner” gets to make a toast. It is the lives of millions and millions of our fellow creatures and our very own survival that is at stake. The danger is NOW! And yet we sit around like crash victims, staring with disbelief out the window. Meanwhile we play like fools with our weapons, our chemicals, our water, our air as if there isn’t a care in the world. The whole scenario seems to be following, step-by-step, Kim Stanley Robinson’s warning, from his Mars series books, where the Earth falls into worldwide catastrophe. We are on the verge of meltdown and still denying it. The planet cannot take this abuse any more.

• My anger is not impotent or inconsequential. When I react with anger to what the United States and Bush are doing it is out of pain and love for the planet and for all people. I cannot sit idly by while there are those who would destroy it all. Meditation and a letting go of self is all important of course, but what self will there be to let go of if there are no people to examine themselves? Before Hitler took control so many people had opportunities to voice their anger and prevent him from coming to power. If the Blacks in America had not voiced their anger at and opposition to their suppression, where would they be today? Certainly much worse off than they are. Or the Indians. If Gandhi had not seized upon the strength of his anger with Britain, where would the Indians be today? No, I will not back down and whimper in a closet. I am angry. I am opposed to what is happening and, though I am but a small voice and cannot do much, I will do what I can to oppose the world order that the United States is forcing on everyone. This in no way means that I am not angry about other countries and what they are doing, or that I think other places are perfect, but the United States poses the biggest threat to the world today. If the United States cannot learn to live in harmony with the rest of the world, if they continually shake the tree without thinking of others or the tree itself, then I will work to oppose it.

• Bush is a criminal. Not just a local criminal within the U.S. itself, but an international war criminal. He has attacked and murdered thousands upon thousands of people. He has started two wars, based on lies, and defied the international community. He has upset the balance of the entire world, possibly putting the stability of the world’s economy in jeopardy. Personally, I believe that he was responsible for the New York tragedy… there are just too many coincidences, lies, and sleights of hand to see it any other way, much as Americans are just too horror-struck to admit the possibility of such a heinous act on the part of their own president. Almost no one in America has even entertained the possibility of this, in spite of the awful lies and acts that Bush has already committed. The fixed election; denying access to the information about what happened before the New York tragedy; tripping up the investigations; planning the attack on Iraq long before the tragedy; the inability to find bin Laden (who was in the employ of the CIA for many years…which is suspicious in itself); the convenient death of Senator Paul Wellstone; the illegal and humiliating internment of people denied even the most basic human rights at Guantanamo; the backing of Sharon’s atrocious subjugation of the Palestinian people… just how many more outrageous and “evil” acts must cross the television screen before people wake up and inquire into the goings on behind all these things? Bush should be subjected to an investigation at least… really he should be facing trial in an international court.

I am certainly not going to back down and quietly “accept” the state of affairs. Bush losing the election this year allows a great criminal to get away without answering for his crimes. That simply is not enough for me. Someone has got to say something, even if the outcry is ineffective. At least I am trying and not simpering in some cage. If Bush manages to get you to cower, then he has won. He’s managed to gain the crown without even really making much of an effort.

• I will find peace. If I hold fast to my convictions and practice loving what I love, if I get out there and protect the world and people who mean so much to me, if I don’t let someone bully and intimidate me, I will find the steadfastness within me and know who I am. THAT is what I will meditate upon, not some wilted stem that forgets who and what it is.

But it would certainly be easier and the going a little lighter if others of you would join me, if we would join hands and stand up together. Many small voices can chorus into a roar. Even mice have strength in numbers.