Journal Musings

Taking the Leap

Shetlands Puffin Beating Wings
Northern Puffin frantically beating its wings as it launches itself from a cliff and tries to make a soft plummet to the sea below, The Shetlands, Great Britain, 1995

I guess it was bound to happen. After years of uncertainty and longing to make changes in my life the pebble under the boulder that had been holding inevitability back finally let loose and the whole mess has started to come crashing down. It’s been two months since I was laid off from my ten-year teaching job, and very coldly at that. In hindsight I realize now that I’ve been a fool to hang on so long there; where I’d thought that I actually meant something to the upper level others I was working with, came the blow between the eyes that I was nothing but a convenient cog. It’s quite sobering to wake up to your own delusions.

On the same week I lost my job God played another hand, brushing away the rust from the spinning circle of doubt in my relationship with my wife. And, as such things inevitably go, with it came a torrent of pain and guilt, things which have orbited my life for far too long. The divorce now waits upon our convenience, which somehow never really seems to be the right time. How do you finally lay down the ultimatum to someone whom you still love and respect, and whom you never wanted to harm or, to be brutally honest with myself, abandon? Fourteen years. It seems like a lifetime.

That same week my diabetes took a bad turn for the worse, with blood sugars reaching into the stratosphere. I woke up one night with a pain in my stomach so bad I couldn’t walk. I kept retching up food and couldn’t stop coughing. This being Japan, with a two-month wait until my doctor would have an opening to see me, I was utterly terrified about attempting to go see the doctor for help, and, with the experiences I’ve had until now, just being given the same useless runaround about how to deal with my diabetic issues. So I decided to clamp down hard on myself and just do what had to be done. First I looked up possible diabetic complications with my symptoms and found information on gastroparesis, a result of neuropathy, or diabetic nerve damage from too much prolonged high sugars. I immediately cut out all sugar, excessive fat, high glycemic index foods, coffee, alcohol, and any snacks, and upped my intake of vegetables. I ate only what was necessary and no more, always going to bed slightly hungry. I started exercising, running every day, doing lots of stretches, weight lifting, and relaxation exercises. I completely stopped going to restaurants and instead of taking the train all the way from one place to another started getting off the train early and walking home.

The results are astounding, for me, and inspiring. I’ve lost three kilograms so far, gained some muscle, and can run ten kilometers again without huffing and puffing. The gastroparesis has completely disappeared and when I visited my doctor last week I was informed that for the first time in about a year my blood glucose levels have fallen halfway to the ideal level.

In the meantime I managed to secure a new job at a university out in the country. It’s not quite in the mountainous area I was hoping to start living in, but the job seems interesting and respectable, with quite a few more challenges than I’ve had until now. It’s a chance to finally start moving in the direction I’ve been needing to go, to pay off debts, to gain some valuable experience, to do some traveling, and perhaps meet some interesting people and make much-needed friends.

So I’ll be moving in September, making the break from this awful apartment I’ve been railing against for four years. And most likely a separation from my wife. That is the part that shakes my confidence and resolve. I don’t know if I have the courage to do it. Or the meanness of spirit. Or the blinders of a selfish fool. I know lots of people have gotten divorces, but I honestly don’t know how they manage to survive it or even know in their heart of hearts that they are making the right decision. After all, my wife is a kind, gentle woman who loves life and likes herself. I’ve learned a lot from her. I can’t imagine life without her.

But life has to feel right, I guess. I can’t forget myself or stop trying to find my personal balance. It’s been unbalanced for so long that I no longer really know what balance it is that I am seeking. I keep looking back at old memories of when I was happy and try to work them into who I am now and find that they just don’t go far enough. I need to challenge myself with new goals and new ways of perceiving. And to find some kind of nourishment that will wipe away my growing cynicism. I sense strongly that a much more rigorous connection with the natural world is imperative to my sense of fulfillment. But the question is “How?” How can I be close to the natural world and make a living at the same time? Must it always be an unacceptable compromise? Must I always be where I don’t want to be? Must I always settle for jobs that, as my mother recently stated, “most people in the world are not happy with”.

What is it exactly that makes up a satisfying and meaningful life? Is it still possible to reach the end of my life and say, “Yes, I lived my life fully and as best I could.” and to die with a full heart? Is the modern template for what constitutes a “successful” life the only option? For so much of what I see seems completely insane to me. So much of what so many people think of as important seems dull and without imagination, apathetic and blind to the world around.

I look out of my window and watch a bumblebee gather nectar from the flowers in the garden. The flowers bend under its weight and tip back their petals in perfect conformance to the bumblebee’s act, as if genetically everything was dancing to the same tune. A robber fly makes passes at the bumblebee, but turns back, perceiving the danger. Hoverflies and skippers flit among the fronds, whizzing through one another’s trajectories and circling these islands of green. A sulfur butterfly flutters along the ground, laying eggs. And beyond the houses come the electric buzzing of cicadas and the throaty calls of jungle crows. And I don’t know why but so often when I see such simple things I want to start weeping, as if I recognize that I am no longer a part of that world, but I need desperately to get back to it. It is a world that exists in and of itself, all components and members sharing in the workings of its web. Humans are part of this, I know in my head, but the presence of people always feels like a jarring off key note. I keep asking myself, “Where do I fit in? Why do I feel so unnatural?”

Perhaps that is why the teachings of the Buddha ring so much more relevantly with me than those of Christ. They talk of reconciliation with this world rather than the next. They say live today, here, rather than tomorrow and there.

Ah, a black swallowtail descends from the rain clouds into the garden like a dark angel, beating her filmy wings above the reaching hands of leaves. Then she is followed by a tiger swallowtail. And I have it. This one place, like all places, offers food for the gods. To find your own place, you have but to make your own, unique offering. It is the thanks that makes life worthwhile, not the satisfaction.

Journal Nature Spiritual Connection

Holding Back Tears

Nogawa Rapeweeds
Blooming rapeseed plants along the edge of the Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan 2004

It’s been a week of shuffling through the dungeons. I guess the fatigue of too much work, weeks and weeks with no other people to just talk to, little time outdoors (let alone amidst anything green), a cough that won’t let up, and news so bad that it’s hard to come up with words any more, have combined to bring on this enormous sinking feeling.

Chris from Creek Running North had recommended David James Duncan’s “My Story As Told By Water” so at the beginning of the week I started reading it on the train commutes to and from my evening work. The writing is sublime and gritty, and has a way of shaking up perceptions like low rumbles of the earth deep beneath me. Duncan writes about connection to place and how these places and their inhabitants shape you. The metaphors he uses strike with such concrete immediacy that numerous times on the train I felt myself mentally reeling, and had to close the book to regain my balance.

What I didn’t expect was the book’s impact on my emotions. Duncan relates a childhood that seemed almost to recreate my own, offering a world of rivers and intimate forays into the bushes and creature-laden hideaways that reflected the wandering among rice paddies and through the woods, hunting for insects and birds, that took over my whole understanding about what the world is about when I was a boy. Like Duncan I have never been able to square the mindless paving over of the forests and mountains and rivers, the cavalier attitude about such precious treasures as water and air, and the apathy and fear towards other creatures, with our grand hope of “civilization”. To me the world is dying. Our monotony and sterility, our cruelty and utter stupidity have turned the world into a gray playground and cesspool, and all that I love so much has gradually gone silent. Living in the heart of Tokyo doesn’t help, of course. I dwell in the midst of all that I despise most, far, far from that green tendril and the “sphere of eyes” that Duncan talks about, that never fail to awaken love and joy and all the other states of vitality, like fear and wonder, that make you feel alive.

The book slipped, like a needle, so surreptitiously under my skin that I found myself knocked to the edge of control all week. When one of the train lines I take to work was delayed by an hour due to an accident and the platform grew so crowded with commuters heading home like me that one man was pushed over the edge down to the tracks, I had to grit my teeth and find a nook within my mind in which to take a deep breath. I kept repeating, “Damn it, I hate this! Damn it, I hate this! Damn it, I hate this!”, over and over again, like a litany to the devil. “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here. This is madness!”

Or yesterday, while heading to have a quick dinner up the street from my school, when I noticed a pair of barn swallows alight upon the telephone wire above my head… I looked up and there they were, taking a brief respite across from their nest hidden under the eaves of a building. But it was just them, in the middle of this tumult of concrete and human waste, not another visible living creature around. All I could think of was memory and how these two creatures connected to a time long before, when this very location must have harbored trees and fields and rivers and glades full of insects. I paused in my walk and stared at them. When the male momentarily lifted his scissors-like wings, and like a weightless dancer lifted from and let down to the telephone wire, with such precision and effortlessness that it came across like a caress, I nearly broke down weeping.

It felt the same as seeing the homeless old man, while thousands of commuters scurried by, kneeling down on a piece of cardboard, carefully placing to one side the shoes he had removed.

The same as the young toad that had been crushed to death by a passing bicycle, its tongue lolling out and innards glued to the pavement, that I lifted and carried to a nearby bush.

The same as the jolt of pain I felt the other day when I came across the empty lot near my house, and found that its grizzled old flowering dogwood had been chopped down, an asphalt parking lot in its place.

These days it seems as if nothing but pain and loss and carelessness have taken over the whole world. As if nothing mattered but a human agenda. As if the world, when it finally succumbs to our desire to build it in our image, would only then find completion.

If it is true that the body finds expression and wholeness by participating in the ebb and flow of the diversity of living things, then I no longer know who I am. Or where I am. It is strange living disembodied from the very circle of earth that I tread upon day in and day out.

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


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.

America: Society Iraq War Journal Musings

Weltschmerz (“world pain”)

Windbreaks Holland
Alders lined up along fields to protect against the constant winds in Holland, 1995.

In the past two weeks a lot of discussions have arisen around me focusing on our spiritual and psychological conditions in the world today. My father and I discussed, on the phone, the necessity of reorienting our attitudes and expectations. At Ecotone there is a very interesting discussion going on about mobility and identification with place. At Cassandra Pages a discussion has ensued about the necessity of individual expressions of relating to a place. And Fujiko Suda and I have been exchanging e-mails about the disorientation of growing up in disparate cultures. Her post about such a small thing as riding a crowded train in Japan stimulated many thoughts in me about individual versus collective consciousness and how we, in this burgeoning, 6 billion-plus, human tide we tumble within, must learn to change our minds.

Beth writes “Somehow I feel that the past two years have been one continuous episode, starting with September 11th. I’ve been unable to escape the sense of being surrounded by suffering, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s personal or on a world scale.” These words struck with particular poignancy because they express much of how I have been feeling these past two years. A worldwide despondency has overcome us all, a sense that something might be coming to an end. When I told my father about how I’ve become reluctant to write about all that has happened in the last two years because I inevitably feel that my words remain helpless, he responded by saying, “It is talking about it that will bring about changes and understanding. I am not angry about the New York tragedy, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but profoundly sad. All that is happening is as human as we can be and it is utterly sad to see us so unable to come to terms with our natures when, supposedly, we should know better in the modern world.”

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk in Canada, in her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” writes,
“Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
“To stay with that shakiness––to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–– that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic–– this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation–– harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.
“Every day we could think about the aggression in the world, in New York, Los Angeles, Halifax, Taiwan, Beirut, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, everywhere. All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, “Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?” Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to go to war?”

I resolved two months ago to do the best I can to take the fork in the road toward practicing peace, down to the very tips of my fingers when I would do my best to refrain for lashing out even at a spider on the table or a mosquito biting me. Perhaps not everyone would see things this way, but for myself that is the discipline I need to follow if I am to truly understand peace. And to take people as they come, no matter how distasteful or frightening they might be. My biggest challenge might perhaps be to stop myself for a moment and truly see Bush as a fellow human being. Just thinking about this makes my stomach churn, but if I am serious, I will practice the exercise, for there is no other way to come to terms with the aggression and the fight or flight response within me.

At the same time I’ve been attempting to follow a path of simplicity and have found it remarkably difficult to implement. So many requirements around us, and temptations, chip away at what could so easily be accomplished with a minimum of fuss and equipment. Just attempting to throw belongings that I don’t need away is like a pack rat’s nightmare; I seem to panic at the onslaught of emptiness.

At the heart of the matter lies the willingness to confront the mirror and perceive that wraith that is our personal identity. It resides in the places we dwell in, shuttles back and forth between self and world around us. If we can only recognize that each and every individual in the whole world ripples with the winds of perception and awareness, that the little flame might so easily be snuffed out, and that every person holds the sight of their present position as precious, perhaps we might understand one another with more compassion and empathy.

Beth writes: “In fact, I sometimes think we are the aberrant ones, thinking that technology and money can fix every problem or deficiency, and losing the ability to find solace in nature, realtionship, and simple living.” Few of us in the ultra-developed world have any inkling of what real poverty and deprivation and basic survival (real survival, where you have no choice and the wrong turn means death) are like. When I traveled to the Philippines in 1992 I went armed with 10 years of university, studying third world development, and the arrogance of someone who thought he knew what should be done. What I saw and learned shocked me to my very core. A friend, Francisco Sionil Jose, the well-known Filipino social novelist, there took me to visit and get to know people who live in Tondo, Manila’s huge ghetto, and Smoky Mountain, the__ now removed by the Philippine government for publicity reasons (but replaced by another)__ literal mountain of garbage that scavengers built their homes upon. It’s beyond words to describe the clash of perplexity in my mind, arising from the juxtaposition of that awful, awful smell, the sight of little children rummaging in the filth, and such unforgettable scenes as ramshackle piles of cardboard shacks in which people live, hanging over the banks of a river so cluttered with human debris and dead animals that the water could not be seen, while a little girl sits with her bottom poised over the bank, shitting into the drinking water, while at the same time meeting these children who never tired of smiling and laughing and singing, while mothers sat at the edge of smoke blasted highways proudly washing clothes and their husbands stood beside them washing from basins, and there was always someone beside you who cheerfully asked how you were and where you were from. The confusion of emotions and ideas that developed from these enigmas forever changed my views of poverty and hope, and left me little sympathy for the aloof elitists of the Filipino rich, and no sympathy whatsoever for people who whine about conditions in America, a place so sickeningly wealthy that there is absolutely no excuse for the poverty and violence and ignorance that does exist in America.

What happened on September 11, 2003, in New York (yes, other things did happen in other places in the world on that day) was an awful, awful tragedy. Anyone who saw those indelible images will always feel the tremor of horror that they invoke. And for any people who were in proximity to the catastrophe (yes, there were people other than Americans who watched in terror and afterwards felt the deep grief), especially Americans, even two years of distancing from the event has still failed to soften the pain of what happened. So much anger and denial and obfuscation has followed that it is now difficult to disentangle from the morass and see the pain for what it is.

And yet the pain and confusion and sense of loss are something that perhaps Americans need to go through. It is an awakening, and awakenings are often limned in pain. What showed its ugly head in New York was the telltale heart of an identical pain that people in other places have carried in silence for a much longer time. The news and those who would choose violence for solutions to any complicated, social dilemma prefers to paint the faces of those who committed the crime as monsters, inhuman agents of that obscure term “evil”. But painting monsters as an adult carries no less penalties than a child hiding from nightmares under the covers: monsters cannot be understood or defeated unless you choose to turn around and face them, talk to them as being the same as you are.

Perhaps part of the initiation into adulthood requires some kind of immersion into pain. Almost every rite of passage ceremony in the world employs some kind of painful act that awakens the individual into an awareness of the responsibilities of being part of that world that surrounds them. In many ways America has been dreaming an adolescent dream for so long that it has almost forgotten that it is part of the world as a whole and that its often oblivious, bull-like infancy has come to an end. Americans still talk of the “Forefathers” as if waiting for a berating, unable to forge ahead and think for themselves, preferring to indulge in old dogma and to languish in something that amounts to idolatry. So many of them take something like the New York tragedy and fail to see it in its worldwide, social context, taking no time to comprehend that nothing happens in a vacuum, that what others do is all human, no matter how awful it is, that men flying planes into buildings in New York is exactly the same thing as men dropping mega-bombs on a residential area in Iraq, that all these human foibles are all forged upon the past and on the attitudes that one people decided to adopt. Most Americans still haven’t taken responsibility for their own past actions towards people in other countries, even those Americans who react with knee jerks to criticism of “all” Americans… thinking that holding peaceful convictions and marching in rallies makes an iota of difference to an Iraqi mother whose baby was just blown to bits by an American bomb.

Perhaps it is that Americans are learning what it is to live in the world and that the world is full of pain, Weltschmerz. That America’s idyll existed only because of insulation from the real world, both geographically and in their not being required to socially interact with people of other nations. That Rambo and the Terminator are inappropriate models for living in a world community and that in the modern world there are no more remote islands to escape to and all people must learn to participate in a world community. If anything, the proximity and familiarity of the pain of New York ought to teach people in the most decisive terms what it feels like to be wronged, to have death visit even your most undeserved innocents, and just what exactly others in other places feel like when you inflict pain and wrongs on them. Everyone is responsible; that is the cost of true, untwisted democracy.

As much as song, pain can cross borders to give its message. If approached with an open heart and an attitude of reception, pain can teach us to see. And if the message gets through, then the world as one place, shared by all, a teardrop in the Void, will recognize itself as a living being, subject to death and sorrow, open to the perception of beauty wherever we may find it.