I’ve been haunting the university halls until the midnight hours these last two weeks, trying to catch up on class preparation, and also trying to avoid going back to the isolation of the guest house I’m staying at. Not that staying at the university while everyone else is gone isn’t isolating, but at least I have an internet connection and can talk to people. And there is some privacy in the room that otherwise I wouldn’t really have. Still, burning the midnight oil is no way to freshen up for the next day, and so yesterday evening, tired of the monotonous, though healthy, offerings of the local Seven Eleven, I decided to head out the other end of the university and take the half hour walk to the Lawson convenience store located along the desolation of the bypass.
Fog had rolled in from the sea and hugged the fields all the way to the shadows of the nearby hills. As I walked along the road, my footsteps sounded loud in the stillness. I pulled the flaps of my cap over my ears to stem the chill, and softly sang a line of an Abba song that just wouldn’t leave my head. The round-trip to and from the convenience store resembled a circumambulation of a graveyard, even the huge lights of the billboards and pachinko parlors cast long shadows across the asphalt and denuded fields, so that as I walked a silent presence followed me with precisely timed steps.
I was passing the back gate of the university again, with its line of trees and bushes when suddenly above my head there was a soft rustle. I looked up and thought I made out the form of a very large sleeping crow. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Then the figure swiveled its head and gazed down at me with huge, moonlike eyes. A ural owl. The first wild owl I’d ever seen in Japan ever since I started watching birds as a boy. The elation that bloomed in me was hard to describe. It was like a lifelong gift, and the moment I recognized the bird all sense of loneliness, all sorrow, all the heaviness of the past few weeks dispelled like smoke. I wanted to run to the nearest birder and tell them… “Look! Look! I’ve got to let you know what I saw! A ural owl! I actually saw a ural owl!”
But what birders do I know around here? I smiled up at the owl and it seemed to nod in understanding. It turned its head away, looked up at the night sky, and lifted into the air like a whisper. I heard the almost tender swish of its wings as it flapped away into the darkness.
It was but a moment, but it is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
Funny how the mind works. After quite a spell of feeling pretty good about myself and the window into my own heart, suddenly this enormous feeling of close despair hit me for a week. Everything around me suddenly seemed too much, nothing was lovable or nurturing or wholesome. Even the words that I attempted to wrangle into some kind of meaningful dialogue about the world seemed to coalesce into beetle browed grumbles about any and everything. Worrying and seething over things happening in faraway Iraq and America… What an exhausting week.
Then, while riding the train and doing my usual reading I came across this quote from David James Duncan’s “My Story As Told By Water” :
“Aren’t one’s mental energies a bit like a knife-scoop of mustard and one’s geography a bit like a piece of bread? Isn’t it true that if your bread is thousands of miles across, you’ll be spreading your mustard mighty thin? The world, it seems to me, is awfully big, a human is awfully small, life is awfully short, and most of our plates are mighty full for our personal geographies to approximate the international or national geographies. When humans go global with their geographies, bad things happen to their thinking.”
He goes on to talk about the necessity for us to wrap our minds around what we are capable of grasping, that any more than that we risk losing touch with what make us what we are. There is a lot more than that, of course, but it hit me then and there on the train that one thing I lack is a true sense of dwelling in a place. Not just existing somewhere, but actually becoming wholly involved with the function and symbiosis of a habitat, including more intimate responsibility over the food that I eat, deeper knowledge of the creatures that live around me, and a stronger presence with a supportive community. There is none of that here where I live, at least with me as a foreigner, more or less outside any spirit of neighborhood goodwill that so far I have not seen to exist any where around my home.
These last three weeks have begun to awaken me to new goals and possible further errant steps in this haphazard track I’ve wandered down all my life. First it was a realization of a need to delve deeper into feminine ways of seeing the world, now it is an active search for a real place to call home. Quite a few people have criticized me for searching for “a perfect place”, chastising me with the worn phrase, “there is no such thing as a perfect place.” I’ve maintained that I have never searched for heaven on earth, but rather a more or less constant state of deep involvement with a natural place, that numerous times throughout my life have culled a state of grace and joy while I interacted with such places… even during the hardships that often accompany such places. Maybe other people can’t identify with natural things… but I know that when I walk in a healthy wood or along a wild river or even just wander an ecologically balanced human landscape, such as some places I’ve seen in Norway, Sweden, and a few small villages in the mountains in Japan, the sense of completeness fills my soul. When I see plants and animals in abundance, living their own lives alongside mine, then I feel the world is whole and wonder sustains me as much as the healthy food I eat.
It seems other people have been going through this sense of despair throughout the blog world. Quite a number of people have been voicing doubt about why they blog and what significance it might have in their real lives. A lot of it has to do with the awful things happening in the world and the sense that something fundamental is being lost. The words in the blogs funnel around a empty core from which people seem unable to escape. Hope seems to be evaporating with each proclamation the world leaders make.
But there are people pushing back the envelope of fear and hopelessness, too. Denny, of Book of Life has held on to those things that give meaning to each of our lives, the “personal geography” that David James Duncan speaks of. And Charley Reese’s latest article, “A Sense of Wonder” retreats from Reese’s usual preoccupation with the darker things happening, focusing instead on the joy that children experience of the world, and how we must find the childlike enthusiasm of the enlightened, delighting in the simpler things, the living things, the magic that is the very material of existence and the world.
I want to try an experiment: instead of keening about the terrible things going on, let me try to rediscover the old rhapsody that I carried with me while I wandered the fields and woods as a boy. Beneath the concrete surrounding me the soil still harbors seeds and little creatures, all the little live things. There is my door, there the sky, there the cracks in the concrete and the birds in the trees. It’s a start.
I used to sing a lot. Time to listen to the melodies again and love the world. To, as Denny put it, be grateful.