January 18, 2005

Thinking on this morning

I am now used to the cold here. Though it rarely snows, and even then the snow melts away in an instant on the unfrozen pavement, it is cold enough to see your breath, to have your ears go numb on your bike, and as Wallace Stevens would put it, to "have a mind of winter." I have recovered from my terrible cold and throat infection, which forced me to leave the kerosene stove on at home until the point of passing out, not to mention chain-drinking cups of tea, or a warm Japanese sore throat remedy called "shogayuu"--hot water, ginger, and (inevitably) an indecent amount of sugar. Every day a different teacher says to me "Kyo wa nukui deshoo," or "Today's pretty warm, isn't it?" I take it as a good sign that spring is poking its head through the winter's curtain of grayness--even right now it is absolutely clear outside, a beautiful sky.

One might think that I am obsessed with the weather these days. Maybe, like my mom, when there is nothing to say, one clings to this neutral, natural topic of conversation over which no one will be hurt. I probably only started this small reflection on winter to avoid thought, or to mask it behind something as innocuous as the meteorological phenomena of southwest Japan--the Kii peninsula in particular. Nevertheless, I usually hate myself if I leave it at that, and thus I have to mess up what I write on all these blogs by going into a more personal, psychological realm for which one could feasibly postulate myself as its only capable reader. Going on, I will forget what I have written, such as this last sentence.

I am thrust, as I was last year, into the situation of a decision. It is the same decision--to stay in Japan or go home, this year with the slightly more difficult twist of having promised my mom, family, and friends that I am coming back in August. Biking around Wakayama Castle this Sunday, I realized that despite everything, I feel a necessity and goodness about my being in Japan. Despite the ambiguities of life here that I have never seen in America--even something simple, like a female teacher asking me after the school play, "Tabe ni ikimasuka?" and me unable to decipher whether it was an interested inquiry or not, whether it was "Are you going to get something to eat?" or "Would you like to get something to eat (together)?"--or perhaps because of these—like me answering "hai" so as to be luminous on either end of that question--I am swerved off the set course of going home, getting a job that will probably get me stuck in a rut and not open to the world, the people, around me. Anyways, that event of incomplete communication saw me eating alone in a yakitori restaurant named "Bird Man." I don't think there is any reference to the “Bird Man” of Alcatraz Island, but their food sure is good.

The prominent theme here being indecision, I will merely mention some somethings that I love in Japan only because I keep meaning to write them down and never do:

Maeda sensei and her smile in the morning--every day, the first thing I do after parking my bike is walk down the hall from the tiny little doorway, through which I stoop to get in, all the way to the teachers room at the far end. Along this hallway, I cross the kocho sensei's (principal's) office--which has no windows except for a darkened, blurred glass (the type through which you can only see vague forms when they get very close to the glass)--and the reception area /processing office. This is where all the bureaucratic magic happens. Maeda sensei sits at the right end of the desk in the center of the room. She is young compared to the other teachers and staff, perhaps somewhere between 25 and 28. She is always smiling, but her smile is always slightly restrained, though at ease, and not restrained in a pejorative sense. Maybe unpretentious is a better word, or honest. Her smile is neither obnoxious nor timid. She has big, beautiful, eyes and speaks very slowly to me because she knows my Japanese is still pretty choppy and disjointed. Other than filling out a form for vacation time or a business trip, and also the occasional stop in the office for supplies, I rarely get to talk to her. She sits in the office all day, and I in the teachers room. Every day she appears to me as if it is again the first time I am seeing her. Perhaps with all this thinking and doting I appear to be a goof, and yet I also realize that to do or say more or less would be unnatural, unwanted. Whenever I forget about Japan, about little things that make me happy wherever I am in the world, I pass by the hall on my way to the bathroom or to class and carry the soft light of Maeda's smile with me for the rest of the day. Perhaps I will need this smile in order to leave Japan.

Another thing. That first example took very long. I will try to be brief. I first went to tea ceremony at my old school in Kibi. It was our school festival in the fall of 2003. The school was a raucous circus of kids cooking, spilling, eating, talking, dancing, goofing off (unsurprisingly they are much more amicable and calm when given this free festival day) and having fun at whatever they were doing. I went and sat in the tearoom to drink some tea. All was quiet. I drank tea, ate my snacks (two different types of mochi cakes with azuki--red bean paste--stuffed inside), and left. I still cannot sit in the correct seiza posture, with my legs folded like the arms of a fold-in table beneath one's body. I have to sit "Indian style," which definitely makes one feel a bit more of an outsider, a spectator. Tea ceremony has been and probably is my only contact with the Japanese concepts of wabi--an "appreciation of transcendental aloofness in a world of multiplicities," and sabi--a loneliness characterized by a crude, "primitive uncouthness," by incompleteness, simplicity, bareness, contentment with not much.. Sitting and drinking tea at the Osaka bunraku festival this weekend, I felt sharply aware of my life and noticed an irreducible goodness of this single moment.

I don't think I need to be a success, and in fact maybe I should avoid success. Who would say that our dreams always tell the truth, or lead us in a direction that is in accord with our hearts, or with anything? Sometimes I mention that I want a girlfriend, a family, a job as a professor or some vocation that enables me to read books while thinking about, discussing, and appreciating them., but maybe I would just like to live well and help others to do so. Living in Japan has helped me try to find out how to do this by starting and staying with things more essential (we could call them basic, though that would still be speaking from a different set of orientations) than ideologies, theories, and a whole swell of motives whose current sweeps one up like a shell getting sucked back into the sea. I feel like I have more drying off to do.


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