It’s only been about four months since I discovered it, but Waiter Rant has got to have some of the best writing on the internet. He must be doing something right, because he gets on average about 100 comments a post! Some truly moving work.
With all the time I’ve been spending behind the computer screen, holed up in my studio, or sitting chair-bound teaching my evening English classes, it seems that of late looking out of windows connects me to the goings on outside.
I hardly meet people any more. My wife is gone by the time I wake in the mornings and she’s asleep by the time I get home from teaching. So I find myself ghosting around the rooms, wandering hallways while mumbling to myself, the action of my jaw reworking the sounds in my head in an autonomic endeavor to create a duality: You and I.
I find my own company comforting at times and perhaps I’m lucky in this way in that I can endure weeks of solitude and still float above my own insanity. All the stuff that rings in my head really does, to me at least, ring a bell, and no matter how still I sit a whole world revolves within that little dome. For the most part I rather like myself and love to seek out my own company.
But not always, though. When the connection between fingers and objects suddenly grows tentative the oscillating phantasm that resides between the blinders of my body loses its substance and form, and like smoke, tends to dissipate amidst my emotions. Loneliness is visceral, it hungers for flesh and bone.
Back in 1987 a friend of mine took me to see May Sarton speak at a church in Maine. It was a cold autumn evening and the deserted streets of the town brought the chill closer to the layer of my pea coat and in spite of walking with my friend I felt disengaged and out of water. The church door opened to a warm glow of lights and the hubbub of listeners eager to hear Sarton dispense her wisdom. And when she actually walked onto the dais, the spotlight catching her with a glare in her eye, she sat there squinting out at everyone, and perhaps not seeing them very well. She seemed reluctant to speak and held a copy of “Journal of a Solitude” as if the name of the book could say it all, and that if we would just read it, as she had intended, then she could safely retreat to her firelight and carpets and chair by the window. But she was kind… you could see it in her eyes and the way she smiled… and let not a trace of such yearnings falter in her voice. She spoke. She related her decision to break with expectation, with her family and safety, and take to living alone and chronicaling the experience. I watched her from the middle of the crowd, there, this hale, soft-spoken recluse, looking more at home with herself and more engaged than most of the people in the audience. And I thought, “Wow, she’s found a way in!”
By being alone the windows speak to me. Every morning, precisely at 8:15, a lone, brown-eared bulbul, a grey clown of bird that flies like a flicker and screeches and cries and chortles like a blue jay, whips up to the branches of the zelkova sapling outside my window and defies me to object. He cocks his eye and nibbles at the new buds, caring not a toot that I am rather enamored of the zelkova and would prefer that no one hinder its growth in any way. To make certain of my humiliation the bulbul, precisely at 8:21, drops to the fence rail where he lets out a jet of white poop, right on top my russian vine. And then, in that impudent way of bulbuls, he glances back, flicks out his pink tongue, and shoots off, leaving a vacuum in the morning stillness.
At work, when classes are slow, there is always a lot of time to gaze out across the gap between my school’s building and the building across the street… a distance of about five meters. My classroom window looks directly into the window of a manager’s office, and like a television variety show the life of the people over there daily unfolds. The manager, whom I’ve never met, often glances across the gap back at me and it is as if, during these last few years, we have come to know one another by sheer pantomime. Both of us have witnessed the drama of our interacting, however minutely, with other people, and, put together, each of our windows tells a story. I’ve seen the manager shout at someone on his cell phone, pace back and forth across the room worrying about God knows what, sitting with his feet up on his desk while drinking beer, undress to his underpants and walk about the room as if no one could see him, sit for several hours smoking a cigarette and never once moving, and read a manga while in a business meeting. Never once have I seen him smile.
For his part he must have seen the times I’ve laughed with my students (which is almost daily), sat drinking coffee while writing notes, the serious conversations that my students and I have had about different subjects, perhaps even the time when I broke down crying in the middle of class three days after the New York tragedy when one of my students innocently asked why the whole thing bothered me so much, or the time when I collapsed, thinking I had had a heart attack, later finding out that my anxiety over my upcoming visit to the States after nine years absence had me wound up a lot tighter than I realized and this had tripped the muscles around my heart.
I’m not sure I will ever discover the elixir for remaining comfortable around others for long spells. Solitude has driven and called me ever since I can remember, and I follow the siren like a star-struck lover. What I find at the end of every little excursion I take alone into roads and lanes and trails doesn’t always bring out a kick, jump, and a smile, but the hunkering down, gazing about, and absorbing that sense of lungs filled to capacity with air has happened often enough that I keep returning for more. I’m not sure if it is the pleasure that is the prime motivator for seeking out lonesome experiences, but there is something to be said for arriving wherever it is you set your mind to, no questions asked.
The link to Wild Thoughts Magazine now leads to a defunct site. The essay is no longer available online.
Something about going through the winnowing process of an editor and acceptance of a written piece strengthens writing and makes you feel that the effort was worth it. Hank Green, editor of the online nature writing magazine Wild Thoughts, has published a piece I wrote about my maternal grandfather, one of the early inspirations for my love of the natural world. Please have a look at the essay, “Walking With Opa, and then take some time to read some of the other stories.
Late afternoon sunlight casting shadows amidst the sand dunes in Oregon Dunes State Park, Oregon, U.S.A.
Just when I thought all contact with old friends had somehow died away I received a letter from my oldest and dearest friend three days ago. I hadn’t heard from her in more than a year. It was mainly my fault for having shut myself away and frozen in time with my correspondence; the person who used to write twenty-page handwritten letters had fallen into silence.
That is the strange thiing with e-mail: the range of potential people to keep in touch with has expanded dramatically, with instant contact possible, but a person only has so many hours in a day and keeping up with everyone is simply not possible. Back in the days of writing letters by hand, supplemented by the occasional long-distance phone call, the number of people to regularly write to was limited to the list of people jotted down in an address book. Writing by hand took time, and only a few people made the effort to put that time in. The circle of pen pals remained small, but dedicated and the care with which we shared our letters showed up in such things as the choice of letter paper and envelopes, in small trinkets and photos we included in the folds of the paper, like pressed dried flowers or four-leaf clovers, locks of hair from a loved one, feathers, scented glitter, or even, once, the ragged wing of a mourning cloak butterfly. Some of us put great effort into getting our handwriting just right, often using fountain pens with flared nibs so that the vertical strokes thickened and the horizontal strokes thinned. And after all this work the letters took two weeks or more to make it around the world, sometimes bearing the effects of the real world on them in the form of wrinkles and coffee stains and washed out addresses. The letters themselves sometimes bore the evidence of the sender’s state of mind, from angrily crossed out words and kiss marks to greasy finger prints and tear drops.
A.’s e-mail letter arrived just when the downturn in faith in these old friendships had reached its lowest point. Handwritten letters from friends or even family had reached an all time low… the last handwritten letter I received was last August when, after I lamented to my father about the passing of the tradition of writing letters by hand, he sent me, just across town, a letter in sympathy. I check my mailbox regularly and, sad to say, more often than not, it is empty.
I first met A. in 1974 in a summer camp along the Elbe River in northern Germany, not too far north of my birth place, Hannover. We were both 14 then. I was a gangly, shy boy with shoulder length hair, a wide-brimmed denim hat with an azure-winged magpie tail feather, and bell-bottom jeans. A. stayed in the girl’s tent next to mine and I first noticed her talkiing to the other girls out in the courtyard, her long brown hair swinging behind her as she pranced about, constantly running. She was always laughing and had the most penetrating eyes, that, to this day, still stand out as the first thing you notice about her.
I fell in love with her, but was much too shy to make the first move. A ten-year-old boy named Dietmar, who slept next to me in my tent, full of boundless energy and absolutely nuts about soccer, noticed the way I gazed at A. He stood in front of me one afternoon during the siesta, with his hands on his hips, frowning.
“So, when are you going to talk to her?”, he demanded.
I had been dozing so his words caught me off guard. “Huh?”
“Come on, anyone can see you’re nuts about her.” He sat down next to me. “Just go and talk to her.”
“What if she’s not interested?”
“You never know unless you try.”
I glanced over at the girl’s tent, hope making my heart beat. “Yeah, I know. But…”
Dietmar lay down on his side and looked me squarely in the eye. “Look, how about this. You write her a letter and I’ll bring it to her.”
“What? You? What do you have to do with this?”
“Nothing. Just call me your local Cupid. Besides, I’m not sleepy and want to do something. And the girls will let a ten-year-old boy into their tent.”
So I hunkered down and hashed out a short letter in (awkward) German. Dietmar peered over my shoulder and corrected the mistakes. When I was done he snatched it from my hand before I could reconsider, folded it in four, and dashed out of the tent.
Twenty minutes passed during which my heart thundered in my ears and my hands turned to ice. I began to think the whole thing was a stupid mistake when Dietmar suddenly slipped back into the tent, grinning. He held up a folded piece of paper. “She asked me to give this to you.”
I took the letter from him and opened it. I read.
What nice things to write about me. I would enjoy getting to know you. Let’s meet at dinner and talk then.
And so began my illustrious foray into the world of women.
We spent the two weeks together dancing, going for walks, holding hands while watching the evening movies, eating dinner together, learning to sail, running in the foot races, in which A. beat everyone in the camp. Our dance song was “Lady Lay” by Michel Polnareff. I discovered the wonderful scent of her, which even today lingers in my mind like a veil.
One evening we were standing beside the camp’s small lake watching the sun set over the Elbe River. For once we were alone and we held hands tightly. I don’t know exactly when the urge overcame my hesitation, but our eyes met and we both knew what we wanted next. I awkwardly groped at her elbow, to which she grabbed my hand, placed it on her waist, and whispered, “Like this!”
We kissed. I remember it as one of the softest, warmest moments in my life, with the bright glint of the sun washing between our faces and for me, the whole world suddenly consisting solely of A., her hair, her fingers, the soft give of her chest, the sweetness of her breath, her lips.
It was what I had always imagined it would be.
But we only had two weeks. The camp finally came to an end and we all had to return home, first back to Hannover on the bus, and, for me, on across the oceans back to Japan, a lifetime away. The last I saw of A. that time was as she was greeted by her mother and sister while my grandfather and grandmother greeted my brother and me. The street car pulled us apart and the pain in my heart echoes even as I write this thirty years later.
We kept in touch. We wrote letters to one another every week for the first year, and gradually settled to about once every two or three months. Since the camp we met six times, the last time with my wife, when we stayed at her apartment. We’ve shared all our stories, the loves in our lives, the losses and joys. After telling me about one awful event in her life, A. wrote a letter expressing how she treasured our friendship and was glad that it had lasted through all the changes in our lives. The last time we met we spoke about those first two weeks together and she shocked me with the news that she hadn’t liked me at first, but had gradually warmed to me through the persistence of my letters. She hugged me then and said, “But am I glad that you did persist!”
A. is married a second time now, and has a child, whom I haven’t met yet. I hope to meet her husband and son some day. I look across the oceans and can frame a life there, someone whom I’ve met only a few times in a long while, but who remains one of the dearest and most enduring of friends. It isn’t often I can say this about people whom I’ve met and befriended. A.’s friendship remains a treasure that I value above almost everything else in my life. If I were to lose it life would be a much bleaker place.
A toast and great embrace to you, A. Thank you for being there for most of my life.
Random thought: With all the uncertainty of what blogging/ web journaling/ rippling constitutes, I wondered last night if perhaps it is kind of latter day, secular confessional. You’ve got the screen, the listener with the feedback, the anonymity, the focus on oneself, and even the worship of a huge, all-pervading organization, with its priests of information. The time that we spend spilling our hearts almost seems to be trying to make up for the years of silence we all endured as we gave up the old institutions…
Suggestion… For those of us for whom good writing makes up the most important aspect of web journaling, I would like to propose a vote for the best written entries of 2003. We could start with single suggestions from bloggers (except one’s own blog, of course), tallying up, say, 30 of the the most often named entries, then vote again to pare it down to 10 entries, that can then be posted on their own page. Any ideas on this? Can you even remember any specific entries? (I find it quite difficult…!)
Evolution… A while ago I wrote that blogging is probably a new form of communication, still in its infancy and offering something that neither books nor magazines can. Beth of Cassandra Pages discusses this new trend, too, talking of our being pioneers in a new medium. Many of us have struggled with the sense of addiction that blogging brings out in us, and, for those of who are writers, the way it seems to invade the time we spend writing for print. William Gibson, the science fiction writer, went so far as to quit his blog because he found blogging to interfere too much with his writing. The funny thing is, blogging instigates us into writing everyday in a way that print writers only dream of! Many people who have never written before, suddenly find that writing is actually fun. What is it about blogging that gets you coming back, day after day, month after month, and probably year after year? Even online chatting never had me so hooked (I’ve completely stopped doing it). My hunch is that it’s fireside storytelling reborn. Where anyone round the fire can have a go. No hierarchies, no filters, no initiation process that stills the voices of those who don’t make it into some inner circle. The spreading of the word like wildfire. Minds suddenly set free.
An interesting development is that while this site receives quite a few visitors, my other blog, Harubaru: Far and Wide has from the beginning recieved almost no visitors. It is an illustrated fiction blog, originally intended for children, but I’m wondering if it just doesn’t work if done as an individual’s blog. Perhaps fiction in a blog needs to be created jointly, or perhaps it doesn’t work at all?
There is a lot of exploring to be done, and the imagination is rife with possibilities. It will be interesting to see what develops from here on.
When I got home from work this evening I switched on the computer, sat down in my trusty swivel chair, and flicked the cursor over to my e-mail client… and promptly got a load full of 160 e-mails, mostly spam. Among these there were several e-mails from readers, telling me that my ripple journal could not be accessed. When I opened the journal in my browser, I found all the posts of yesterday deleted, everything that had had anything to do with all the spamming that had been going on.
My first reaction was total panic and when it dawned on me that I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if there had been some malicious targeting of my site, deep, sinking depression. I was so down about the possibility that someone might wish me harm that I seriously thought about just giving up blogging altogether. I just didn’t want to deal with all the stupid technical stuff and was mentally exhausted from the onslaught of the past week. Months of working at and learning how to put together a blog had developed a sense of accomplishment and pride that left me feeling pretty vulnerable when the possibility of losing it to some creep who couldn’t care less hit me.
Sometimes my imagination gets the better of me, though. After pulling myself away from the computer to sit and watch a children’s animation on TV and just forget about all this mess (and eating a delicious tiramisu pudding in the process) I came back, renewed, and headed over to my server homepage to have a chat with the administrator. To my surprise I discovered that the server’s hard drive had failed right about the time I had posted my last posts. THAT explained the loss of my data. And WHAT A RELIEF THAT WAS! I contacted the administrator and right away he replied that he had managed to save my index file from earlier in the day. Phew!
An interesting side thought, though. While I pondered the effects of possibly not being able to continue the blog, I also realized just how wrapped up in it I was. I have to remember that the journal is not my life; it is what I am trying to write about that is my life. Hopefully I can remember this.
Now to get back to real writing!
I’ve been trying to restore all the data in my website from before the server crash, but unfortunately only my main blog content could be retrieved. All the recent comments that everyone made have been permanently lost. I apologize to everyone for this. It is my policy never to touch comments in any way, unless the content is lewd, overly belligerant, irrelevant to this journal (such as spam), or disrespectful to me or others who leave comments here. Since the crash I’ve backed up the whole site, just in case. Comments are part of the journal, so I would prefer to preserve them if I can. I hope the deletion of former comments doesn’t affect anyone leaving comments.
This was a surprise, coming across this, Neil Gaiman’s Journal. Interesting reading his words as a regular member of this world. And to listen to him speaking about everyday things. And as a writer, always good to hear the advice.
What a strange feeling to have had a steady stream of readers who commented regularly on my posts for the last two or three months and then suddenly it dries up for no discernible reason. Are my recent posts that boring and that irrelevant, compared to earlier posts? Did I do something wrong to the templates so that no one can find my page any more? Did I commit a faux pas in my comments somewhere on other people’s sites? Or is the content of my own site objectionable?
It is as if I have entered the doldrums and there is no wind. I keep trying to convince myself that this is only a blog and not really very important, but then, I worked so hard on making this come true, put my heart into it. Blogging out there in the ocean of bloggers and not being in hailing sight of a single fellow sailor makes for pretty lonely sailing. What is the point of writing a blog if there is no interaction? Might as well just keep my diary here at home.
I shouldn’t complain, of course, at least I’ve had visitors and comments. I drop by Pacific Tides quite a lot, and he has never gotten a comment, other than by me, so far as I can tell. It’s curious, because the site is beautiful and the writing is interesting and relevant. Thomas has traveled quite a bit and has a delightful outlook on people and travel. I once asked him if he was at all concerned about the lack of traffic to his site, but his reply seemed like a philosophical shrug; perhaps it is just enough to get the thoughts and creative mappings down.
I would like to be so nonchalant. Perhaps I take this blogging business way too seriously. But then, for me, writing is important stuff. And I want to be true to my own thoughts and feelings when I write in the blog or make comments elsewhere. I am good at joking around in person, but not so good in my writing, so perhaps I come across as this monumental bore who has to philosophize about everything. But why not? So much other stuff that you come across on the internet revolves around nothing, around passing on information simply for the passing on, like electronified gossip, e-gossip. It has been good to find other bloggers willing to discuss things in depth, and willing to write more than a sentence or two.
So the web of contacts that I’ve connected to through this blog have come to mean something, especially in my discussion-starved lifestyle here in Japan. The discussions have kept me thinking daily, even while walking to the train station or sitting on the train or eating dinner at the ramen restaurant near my workplace. Often I jot down topics or threads of ideas as I walk. The discussions have gotten me reading more philosophy and meshed with the storm of opinions and theories and introspection that whirl around in my mind these days. And by writing about place and nature, I’ve taken more time to look around me and look closely, with my eyes, my ears, my fingers, camera, pencil, my feet. A kind of census of locale and a personal embracing of hope.
I will continue to write, throwing these words out into the void and hoping the seeds land on some fertile ground somewhere. But as long as I sit here writing soliloquies it will be more like a hermit mumbling to himself, than a member of a forum. Then again, didn’t the sages and wise men, pundits and gurus all sit alone somewhere on some inaccessible mountain? Perhaps I would be better off to contemplate it all in silence.
For three days my internet connection was down and it was like a bag had been thrown over my head. I couldn’t do my design work, or communicate with my family and friends far away, or open the browser and lose myself in the blogging for a while. It is somewhat frightening just how dependent upon the computer and the internet I’ve become.
The interesting side effect is that, because of blogging, and some of the recent discussions that have been swirling around me and neighbor blogs, my mind went into “topic overload” as more and more ideas shuttled into the waiting list and ideas began to crowd each other out. It got so that, while browsing an outdoor store this afternoon (in between a morning at the hospital and an afternoon hunting for a bit disk and information on routers at the computer store), I started stopping every other step to scribble down whatever mess of words passed between my ears. This is the state of creative anarchy that I’ve longed to stimulate daily in my drive to become a writer and blogging is the medium that has awakened it.
I came to the conclusion today that blogging is truly something new. It isn’t writing as in a magazine or book, which remain more or less static and set their feet down upon a solid surface, but more a fluid flow of words, one step complemented by the next. It survives and thrives on the interaction between participants; without the interaction a blog goes still and exists only in an imagined reality. The best blogs are ones where the writer and the readership grow together and get to know one another, a state of affairs that writers of books and magazines have until now only dreamed of.
A blog is like a dialog, and come as varied as there are people who write them. Those who have not involved themselves in them much might conclude from the name “weblog” that they are online diaries, and perhaps many new bloggers use them as such, but with more experience and exposure the blogs somehow change, and a community is born for each blog. Just like writers a following develops, too, and people return again and again for the continuation of the story.
Today it became clear just how much stories run through the fabric of our daily trains of thought. We are story animals. And if there is anything truly worthwhile about the internet it is the return of the round-the-fire oral tradition, albeit in written form.