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Art of Living Journal Simplicity

Poverty Speaks

Ose Shrine
Small shrine at the base of an ancient, black pine tree at Ose Point, Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka, Japan 1994.

For years now there has existed a kind of silent clawing at the air in my breast, the kind that led Henry Thoreau to remark upon when he penned the words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”, in his most famous book, “Walden”. Over and over again I have read Thoreau’s careful remonstrations, spellbound by the sheer music of his wisdom and consistency of his insight (his book “Civil Disobedience” was the manifesto that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King. jr. turned to when formulating their ideas on peacefully opposing injustice), and I vowed early on in my life that I would not allow myself to fall into the trap of missing the rough hand of the real world, the natural world, upon my soul. I sought hard for the subjects that would pave the path I took, reading the literature and taking on the experiences that culled understanding, until I was whittled into the kind of life that fit me, with the wind and trees, earth and sky weathering my face to the point where my body was indistinguishable from the place that I inhabited.

But it seems I’ve been spirited away into another world, a world where the potential that sleeps within me must needs be drugged and cannot waken. Here I am living in the heart of the biggest city in the world, far, far away from hills that I dreamed of roaming, where dew clung to my hair and wool sweater, the gentlest whisper of my breath hung in the dawn light. That is where I always imagined moving within, but somehow I ended up here. The daily fare is of thundering trains carrying hoards of people stuffed between doors, of bread and bananas and pale meat wrapped in crinkling plastic, of rivers stinking of sewage and crows tearing up bags of refuse, of weekend after weekend finding myself, as if lead along by shifting, magic trails, back downtown amidst the concrete, over and over again heading through the same stores, buying the same, heartless magazines and clothes, reacting to people who all look the same, wearing their ties and latest fashions all picked up (not even harvested) from the same, lurking stores, no one daring to cast them off, of cars and cars and cars and cars, of electrical towers strung from house to house, of deserted streets as houses glow, unmoving, at midnight while the moon and the stars wheel unnoticed over the rooftops, of flickering, blue television light, transfixing me and the ones I love so that we sit unmoving beside one another, of distances stretched to breaking with houses and buildings and dams and levees and water towers and roads, roads, roads and bridges and factories and stadiums and wharves and warehouses and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers, until the eye runs out of green to imagine, and no life exists but our own, and our own lives seem to exist only in the reflection in the windows of the trains at night, when hope passes through the darkness like street lights swooping past.

People seem to yearn for some measure of wealth pocketed in the clink of coins and slip of paper bills. They grin when their fingers close upon these symbolic messengers, their brains aglow with images of shiny objects, very much like the trinkets jackdaws and pack rats collect, big houses, fancy cars, exquisitely tailored suits, rare wines, and dazzling jewelry, shining fantasies made real at the expense of others and seeming the cul-de-sac of life’s endeavors, the very reason for being. It’s what seems to run the whole human world and charge up the great engine, so all-consuming and undeniable that even mountains disappear in the great, gawping maw, landscapes replaced by subdivisions and calculated risks. This is called wealth, called “reality”, called “the bottom line”. A cathedral of soaring desires, the very roof a crystalline structure built of vapor and mirrors, fantasy embodied in acquired tastes.

But I have never really wanted these things, from the earliest moments when the light in my eyes became more than just random events, and took on the complexity and dance and method that the natural world always exudes. I will walk into a desert and become awestruck by life, as I kneel down on the cracked soil and perceive the lizards or cacti or scorpions or toads holding on to tenuous moments. There is nothing really so desolate or abandoned as waste anywhere in the natural world, even the slopes of a black volcano, steaming, running with hot lava. I have never felt desolation in a wild place as I have in such burnt out districts as Brooklyn or the wharves of Tokyo at night or the gouged out bleakness of the empty crags around the Ashio copper strip mine, north of Tokyo, that, although closed down over one hundred fifty years ago, still evokes some ancient memory of what Hell must look like.

I am not a rich man. I have a few luxuries, such as a computer, a television, and a digital camera, but for the most part my life hasn’t been a preoccupation with acquiring a lot of things and thirsting after a big house or expensive car. Rather, what has always filled me with unending joy and a huge sense of well-being have been things like a great place to walk, or the sight of gnats dancing in a shaft of sunlight on a winter’s day or that wonderful feeling after a hard climb when your lungs settle down, the sweat cools, and for a moment you can rest and gaze over the valley below. As long as I am not too hungry or thirsty, I am dry and warm, and perhaps a friend or two to keep me company, what more have I ever needed? The time to appreciate living on this planet, to learn how it operates and moves, to listen to my own heart beating itself. When I think of the times I’ve been happiest in my life always, always it has been not when finding something new to stuff into my pocket, but when I felt as if I was owned by the world itself, an inseparable jigsaw piece in the joy of something hugely, but comfortably, greater than I am, when I had nothing to say because everything was as it should be. My wealth comes in sunlight and rain, in the taste of a handful of mountain spring water, in finding a lucky space to shelter in the rain, in the company of a fellow walker or watcher who can nod to me without a word because we both understand the pregnancy of the moment, in the flag of white breath on a frosty morning, in the ache of muscles as I knead some dough, in the silent steamroller of dawn approaching, in a cup of tea, in setting a butterfly free, or in singing as I stride along a ridge. These are my measurements of wealth, what I will most miss when I must finally turn away and die.

And I miss these things now, with all my heart, with all my soul. I miss loving a place, having it draw me until I belong to it. I miss the sense of responsibility for my surroundings and for those people who inhabit the place with me. I miss what it really means to be human and alive and free. My heart aches with loss and emptiness. This is poverty, the path that leads to despair. This is where I never thought I would be.

I’ve started to take steps to haul myself out of the pit. It begins with a shedding of skin and unnecessary baggage. It begins with remembering what is important. It begins with taking a deep breath, holding it, and letting go.