It’s one of those momentous times in life when all the strings of the doily of life converge. Big decisions have to be made, whether I want to or not, and while I stand here in the clearing all the snow around looks fresh and untouched. Whichever way I go there will be new tracks. I love being the one to stamp into the new snow, but all the same it’s not a little scary. And not without its sorrow.
Since I was a boy beyond memory two main themes always reiterated themselves into the architecture of my thoughts and feelings: nature and art. The earliest light of my consciousness recurs with images of leaves and insects and the smell of soil. Most of my happiest memories occurred in places surrounded by trees or hills or living things. The sounds of wind and water infused the music in my mind, like a green concert hall, the orchestra still warming up. Whenever I wavered, when the fragility and uncertainty and cruelty of human interaction shook my connection to this ephemeral and ever-changing boat that I call myself I could always step outside and go for a walk. There was a reciprocative duality there that felt like one; the world and me. There was never any doubt in it.
Art has always done the same for me. Writing and books; painting and drawing; photography; singing, writing lyrics, playing guitar and violin, and listening to all the world’s musicians, from crickets to Peter Gabriel and Kiri Te Kanawa; movies and animation; cooking; gardening; pottery; architecture and interior design… Somehow all these activities defined the passage of time and effort for me.
Merely acting out the steps necessary for survival, without appreciation for the merit in every aspect of the things around you or of what you actually do, never seemed to quite fulfill the promise of waking each morning. People who tell me they get bored confound me… how can you get bored if you have imagination? Isn’t it the mind that defines the color of perception? And isn’t that just what art is, the painting in of the details? Art, for me, polishes the roughness in the old block. It is with imagination that you learn to see and by seeing you unfurl the wings within your daily grind.
I have the opportunity to once and for all combine the these two guides to my life. To not shunt onto another track out of self-doubt and fear. Writing, drawing, photography, wildlife, conservation, a lifestyle as close to nature as I can hope to make it. But I’m not sure how to go about doing it. Do I stay here in Japan? Try Australia or New Zealand? Go back to Europe? Or the States or Canada? Do I teach? Do I go back to university (perhaps to study biogeography or wildlife management or some such)?
The first step has already been taken. I finished writing a book two years ago, but it has yet to find a publisher. It was the first major accomplishment of the promises I made to myself when I was younger: to live according to the right vibrations.
A lot of this seems shrouded in clouds these days; I am not as sure of who I am as I was long ago, but I know what I miss most, and missing something that you love for too long requires the sacrifices and determination of a lover. And I want to be a lover of life.
Bare branches of a cherry tree in a kindergarten near my home, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004I went with my wife for a long evening walk along the Nogawa River near my home the other day. A cold wind barreled down the corridor between the concrete walls of the river, laying the dead reeds flat to the ground and ruffling the feathers of the spot-billed ducks, pin-tailed ducks, little egrets, gray starlings, rock doves (common pigeons), jungle crows, carrion crows, and white wagtails that huddled along the ankle deep waters that gurgled by. Initially we had gone to share the experience of using our digital cameras together, but as I walked the accumulation of countless white plastic bags, discarded tissues, beer and soda cans, old mattresses, mangled bicycle frames, washed out shoes, a pair of panties, a motorcycle helmet, shampoo bottles, smashed liquor bottles, a collage of smut magazines laid open with pictures of young women in different poses, twelve (I counted them) fluorescent green tennis balls floating in the river, two car batteries wrapped in plastic, a bucket on its side spilling its contents of ripped lottery tickets, a plastic, red-checkered table cloth, a weathered printer, several snakes of computer wiring, a rusting motor scooter, and a humidifier in a soggy paper bag, well, they all just really got to me. My eye was dragged to them whenever I raised the camera lens and looked at the screen. I witnessed the birds wandering innocently amidst this and felt, simply, disgust.
When it comes to their environment Japanese are truly slobs. People simply don’t care. I’ve been pondering whether to go about painting some huge cloth signs to hang up along bridges and on the side of buildings asking, in Japanese, “Don’t you have any pride in your own country? I, a dirty foreigner, can see the awful mess of your land, why can’t you? Why don’t you at least clean up your garbage, if you can’t actually make an effort to make the environment healthy? Mt. Fuji is a disgrace!”
Knowing the Japanese, the police would be involved and I would be deported, most likely.
The scene and these thoughts killed the anticipation of taking beautiful photos. My wife and I sat down on a bench overlooking the river and watched a huge blue cloud obscure the sun and burst with god-rays, shafts of light walking over the cityscape, the edge of the light piercing our pupils. We held hands and talked about sad things, of endings. Of the final movement in a long struggle. A fat tabby cat squatted down just out of reach beside us, mewing for a handout. We laughed and in laughing broke down weeping. We turned our backs to the public path to hide in privacy, and cried together, still holding hands, the cold wind still brushing between our legs, our tears turning cold on our cheeks, and both of us reaching out gentle fingers to brush them away.
Three bombers pass by overhead as I write this and I ask, how can anything so abstract and faceless matter more than the difficulty of learning how to love and how to let go? Of knowing what is important to you and finding the language that would let you defend it and keep it near? I would say this is wisdom in the making, but I never knew until now that it hurts sometimes when wisdom comes calling. And that sometimes love involves conceding an absence that almost feels more than you can bear.
Kindness and grace sing alone in the evening, asking only that you listen. It is what you recognize in the heat of the setting sun, that last reaching out across a distance and feeling the warmth of someone who is necessary to your existence.
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:
â€¢ 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.
â€¢ 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.
â€¢ 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.
â€¢ 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.
â€¢ 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.
â€¢ 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.
My pet Red Slider Turtle Pepe, now about six years old, spends ninety percent of his time sleeping upon the sunning rock in his aquarium. Weeks go by without his doing more than waking, eating, defecating, and sleeping once again. I’ve often watched him as he slept and wondered what goes on in a mind like his. What insight of Nature, a practical and frugal taskmaster, prepared a creature like Pepe for passing the hours? Surely the “idle” time that I perceive must hide some purpose that contributes towards his survival? Or does the universe work upon the principle of expending the least amount of energy on awareness?
Wild cats do it, too, lying drowsy or alert upon a promontory, surveying the land below. They will spend hours doing this, days sometimes, just watching. What goes on in their minds? Do they work out tactics or is it a strip of fog, with only movement having any true significance? Would Nature waste the resources of a mind by letting hours go by without purpose or relevance?
So often I feel guilty when I allow time to slip by without making use of it. All my life the society around me has told me that time is a commodity, like money, and that when you don’t use it it goes to waste. And yet those times that I’ve allowed myself to drift have often pinned themselves to my history as the most poignant in my life; my six month bicycle trip across Europe taught me just how slowly the pace of the mind moves within the cycles of the Earth’s seasons and the rolling of the planet. The quick shutter release of city life somehow leaves my mind behind, forever trying to catch up, and never quite aware of itself or where it is.
Doris Lessing, in her book “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8” discusses the role of dreams in life and suggests that dreaming may be the awareness of reality as it really is, that the reason one cannot live without dreams, and why other creatures besides us also dream, is that perhaps reality consists of layers, of which this physical reality is but a facade for the final awakening we all must eventually go through. She asks why it is that so often what we dream seems more real than what we perceive in our waking life, but at the same time we can never find the words to describe this super-reality.
Surely with our knowledge of the insubstantiality of the universe, the way bodies are made up of such ephemeral particles as atoms and quarks and dark matter, should alert us to the possibility that the reality that we perceive day by day is but an illusion. Perhaps the colors and landscapes of our dreams and imagination are glimpses into who and what we really are.
Perhaps turtles and cats have front row tickets to viewing the world as it really is and without effort they are able to recognize creation as the dance that it is. Sleep and dreams may be more than down time for our cells to regenerate. Perhaps they are lessons for us to awaken to, for the next step in our evolution. Perhaps there is much more going on than we even have an inking of.