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Journal Musings

Greying Hairs

Barb wire
Barb wire fence choking a sapling at the edge of the royal gardens in Takao City, Japan.

It seems that a lot of people around me these days are talking about getting old or getting older. I’m quite sure that this is not a new phenomenon, so it must be that I am just more aware of it than I used to be. Certainly when I glance in the mirror every morning the white hair seems to have proliferated like wild grass in the lawn; I turn my head for a moment and when I look back the shadow seems to have transformed into a ghost of itself. I keep wondering, “Why white?”. Surely it would make more of a fashion statement if our hair aged the way leaves do: turning bright red or yellow with the coming of autumn. Just imagine all that fiery passion in the afternoon of life, and so dazzling in the evening sunlight!

Every morning I continue to shave. In fact, now I have hair growing along the rims and sprouting within my ears, gathering-rosebuds-while-ye-may within my nostrils, and, with overtures to lycanthropy, the fur hath anointed me backsides, yes indeedy. My elders have long indicated this path of degradation with the coming of age, but I never suspected it would mean bushwhacking through ever wilder forests of hair. And that seems to be just it: the opposite of youth is hair!

A friend of mine lamented to me not long ago that until she had turned 41 last year she had never fretted about getting older. She had even derided me for my preoccupation with the future and what it held for me, saying that Japanese weathered age better than foreigners because they accepted it. I wasn’t sure if that was entirely correct, seeing as so many Japanese constantly bring up their age at social gatherings… young women are often called “getting old” when they turn 23… but I thought maybe my friend had a point. Then she turned 41 and she said, “This is the first time I feel I am tipping over toward the other side.”

The dreaded Other Side. I guess most people, like me, cannonball their way from the womb toward the zenith of biological flight, before suddenly feeling that jump in their gut telling them that the elevator is going down. What makes it so holy-moly shocking is that the 40 years suddenly seems like no time at all… we were just getting started!… and all we have left is perhaps another forty. A puny, if you’re lucky, eighty years. Just enough time to awaken to the grand visage of the world, wonder at it, get hurt by it, discover that you can mumble at it and get some responses, find another like you who desires to spend some of that time with you, learn how to manipulate objects within that world so as to gather more objects from that world, perhaps glimpse for moment welcoming yet another like you into this world, look back and wonder what all the awakening was about, run down, and disappear.

And you think, “That’s it? All that anguish and confusion and taxing my resources, for this?” You see all the other creatures in the world following the same endless entering and exiting, doing it in the literal billions, teeming the world with their presences, and then literally dropping away like flies. Fighting for scraps of meat. It just doesn’t make sense. Why would individual lives struggle to preserve themselves at all, if, in the end, they are going to die anyway? Why not start with a single, undying life form and stay that way for all eternity?

Perhaps birth and death have something to do with versatility. As my white hairs remind me every day, this is a dynamic household. Things change all the time. Perhaps in its very essence the world is a nation of subatomic belly dancers. To hold shape and create meaning from the choreography of particle square dancing… “round-and round-and-doeceedoe!”… the communities and associations and companies and non-governmental organizations that result from cell citizenship need constant readjustment to make up for the ravages of change. If you can give birth and then die away to make room for the renewed leaves that follow, the scintillating, vibrating, eye-opening amoeba of life on Earth can weather the meteors and sun flares and oxygen attacks and cataclysmic earthquakes and floods and volcanic eruptions and wildfires.

Diversity means resilience with spare parts.

Perhaps then I should thank my lucky stars. As creatures go, 80 years is an eternity. And my white hair? Why albedo, of course. No, not albino! Albedo! I’ve got to do my part in reflecting all that ultraviolet light back out through the ozone layer. Just think, if we were all to join heads after reaching our forties and beyond, what a perfectly reflective surface we would represent! And you thought that the old fogies played no part in the balance of the universe!

Categories
6 Month Bicycle Circuit of Northern Europe Art of Living Bicycle Travel Journal Outdoors Simplicity Trip Reports: Bicycle Travel

Winding Down the Weathered Road

Cherry Blossoms Bright
Playing with the light around a cherry tree in bloom, Nogawa River, Tokyo, Japan, 2004 (It is well past the cherry blossom season, but I’ve only this weekend had any time to sit down and work on my spring photographs)

This is the 23rd installment of the ongoing place-based essay series at Ecotone. This week’s topic is Time and Place. Please feel free to drop by and read what others have written, and if you’d like, to contribute your own essay.


The white wagtail scurried ahead and stopped, to glance back at us, bobbing his tail and wheezing his shrill chirrup, urging us to “Hurry, hurry! Come, right this way! It’s just a little further! Hurry!” When our bicycles neared just enough to loom over him, the loaded panniers brushing the grass at the edge of the asphalt, he popped up into the air and darted further up ahead, to repeat his encouragements. For more than 2500 kilometers it seemed he led the way, the same wagtail, forever ahead of us, like the second hands of a clock.

That was the warmer half of 1995, the year my wife and I got married and decided to set off for a six month honeymoon by bicycle across the northern circle of Europe. We left our jobs, packed away all our belongings, drew wads of traveler’s checks from our bank accounts, rolled out our heavily laden bicycles, and flew over the expanse of Eurasia to Holland, where the wind waited for us outside the alleyways and canals of Amsterdam.

Neither of us had ever taken off 6 months to just follow our whims and the first few weeks tailed us with the worries of Tokyo, and the Bullet Train accuracy of speed timed to within seconds. That first day pushing the pedals beyond the sign for the city limits of Amsterdam felt like being flung out the door into the cold; the hardness of the road under our tires seems to present a vast horizontal wall beyond which we could not perceive. In a kind of reverse deadline panic we raced from town to town, urging each other to make the kilometers count, tallying up the numbers on our cycle computers, and feeling unsettled when, because we were still out of shape and exhausted from the wedding preparations, the average day’s distance added up to no more than 30 or 40 kilometers. We shouted at Holland’s seething winds, holding us back, and bickered when darkness fell too soon in the campsites. The weight of unenclosed hours and days, and when we paused to accept them, weeks and months, whispered for us to hurry, not waste any time, and make up for the guilt we felt from taking so much unproductive time off.

Under a stand of dark leaved chestnut trees on the western edge of Germany we threw our bicycles down and threatened to each return to Japan, alone. It seemed the trip would be over before it had even started.

On the road, cocking its black capped head, stood the wagtail, tsk-tsking. It left us to stand silently gazing out over a field of flowering yellow rapeweed, the heads billowing like waves in the breeze and the slow whale bellies of clouds overhead dragging their shadows across the rolling hills. We munched on bread rolls with gouda cheese, and in chewing calmed down enough to look at each other again.

“It hasn’t entered our heads yet, has it?” I offered.

“What hasn’t?”

“We’ve got six months. Six whole months! What are we hurrying for?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one in a hurry!”

That almost stoked the fire again, but I nodded. “You’re right. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Ever since we arrived you’ve been racing to finish the day. I can barely keep up.”

“I guess I don’t know how to get my mind around this. How do you plan for six months?”

My wife had a way with time. She always turned toward the sun and closed her eyes. “We’ve got six months. We can take our time.” A gust of wind brought the fragrance of some distant flowers. My wife inhaled deeply, smiling, and then opened her eyes again. “Didn’t we come here to look around? Isn’t that why we chose to go by bicycle?”

I sat silent a long time, just seeing the fields and the swallows swooping through the air. A damselfly alighted on my bicycle handlebar and slowly relaxed its wings. I felt something deflate inside myself, replaced by a quiet beating.

“I think I was scared,” I said.

“Of what?” inquired my wife.

“Of frayed ends.”

She looked at me with a frown, but said nothing. She brightened and picked up her bicycle. “First we have to get rid of a lot of this weight.”

Everything changed that day. The whole journey. We slowed down to the point where moving forward invoked less headwind and trees and passersby fell behind with less sharp reduction. We stopped when something nicked the corners of our eyes or the sky swung us into stillness under its great pendulum. The kilometers rolled by day after day, week after week, more as expressions of movement in the scrolling panorama than as signposts. Much of the journey hovered above the bicycle handlebars, each of us lost in long reveries during the spells between towns, and much of that time as partners in a silent traverse of newness, leaving unanswered questions in our wake.

Our perception of time and our participation in the revolving of the globe reflected in the mornings and evenings, when we woke with the calling of the hooded crows, jackdaws, and robins, and with the first light filtering through the walls of the tent, and when we retired to books held up in the coolness of the evening air and the stirring of hedgehogs and shrews in the bushes, before turning out our lights and sleeping with the whole night wheeling through our minds. At times we happened upon a place that so merged the inner stories we bore with its character of wonder that we lingered for a week or more, tasting the place to its very fruits and vegetables and getting to know its hoary old inhabitants. The bicycles moulted into wings that flew between rest stops for our eyes and feet. We became like the wagtail, landing somewhere to root around among its rocks then flitting a few pedal strokes to the next sunny vantage point.

By the time we reached the Shetland Islands and the Orkneys our muscles took us without protest to where we pointed our front wheels, the rhythm one with our bicycles. Our breathing seemed to exhale from the soil, and we headed on and beyond in all weathers, thoroughly entranced by the light of the sky. We walked for hours, sometimes alone, and returned to the tent with sprigs of flowers or seashells that we handed to each other as if they replaced the money that we used now only for food and occasional transportation. At the campsites other long term travelers joined us over hissing camp stoves to converse and relate tales until deep in the night. Our time and their times brushed together like passing veils, always with the light glimmering through.

We had ceased to exist wholly in the modern world.

So when it came time to return to Japan and back to jobs and four walls and alarm clocks, we floundered along the highways and took every opportunity to escape them. The last days of the journey wound down in the copper light of late autumn, among the wet country hills of Northumberland, England, and the gray tangle of backroads in Belgian town outskirts. Neither of us could find words to protect the dream we had just woken from. Six months had passed and it all seemed like a single instant, like shaking loose summer leaves from a tree.

Japan crashed into our ears, cut into our eyes. We slept for two months with the apartment windows thrown wide open, welcoming the bite of winter air, feeling our breath stoppered in our chests, our muscles aching for resistance. And gradually, insidiously, the clocks ticked louder and the television screen held our gazes longer, and that lone figure tramping along the sandy lanes retreating further and further down the road.

It’s been nine years. My beard has sprouted white hair. The bicycles stand furled in the kitchen by the window. Days pass when the sun creeps past the curtain. Sometimes I wake at dawn, after a evening laboring at some other person’s dream and falling into dreamless sleep, and hear the wagtail calling. He bobs his tail, like a finger beckoning. “Hurry! Hurry! No time to lose. It’s out here where the heart beats like thunder.” Like a storm moving across an endless field, and the road leading straight into the dark, gathering clouds.