June 28, 2006

Larger Than Life

Staying up late last night to watch the Brazil vs. Ghana soccer match was not that productive. Seeing as I had a conventionally unconventional day--floating my thoughts away on the waters of cyberspace for most of the morning/afternoon--I decided to counter such abstract thinking and doing by stopping in at the local "soccer cafe" here in my corner of Wakayama City late on Monday night to watch Ronaldinho and company take the wind out of Ghana's sails with expedient grace. As I watched the first half, I recalled a book that I read last year, my copy of which I sent to a friend in San Diego (who may now be poring over its pages at the Albatross Pub in Berkeley). The volume I speak of is a mock self-help book entitled "Lost in the Cosmos," written by Walker Percy. I'll spare you the long biographical account of his life, which you can find out for yourself if I have piqued your interest. Now, to dig into the experience I had, however vestigial, of transcendental exigence:

Percy elucidates the human need for transcendence, an experience of going beyond oneself within the limitations of one's mortal existence. This "going beyond" does not necessarily amount to something good, and can/does often lead us back to the exact same fork in the road one arrives at at when it was time to make the choice to leave oneself behind. Some people pursue science, scientism, scientific humanism, or whatever permutation of objective, classified, and specialized systems of human knowledge you want to put a label on, cork, and place on the shelf for posterity. Others seek religion, seek God, or seek some infinitely mysterious but equally real presence at the ground of being. R.H. Blyth found this illuminated sense in what a Chinese master called “無生念,” which translates literally as "non-life-desire" but is a perpetual evocation of hope in something that is neither life nor death, but livable in this existence. It is the closest thing to a creed, a principle or what not, that you find in haiku. The "something there" which is nothing, unable to be reified and yet infinitely and beautifully present. Some of us prefer much more concrete, accessible means to the pressing need of "going beyond" ourselves--living the 'good life' of fine dining, art, writing, music, travel, sex, violence, drink, drugs, and of course, sports. The most salient example of the latter being the "beautiful game," I thought to myself late last night (granted these thoughts were influenced by the humidity, my lack of sleep, and the excessive amount of suds imbibed in the last three hours) about how so much of this world is now experiencing transcendence, however momentarily and (dare you scoff) in such a trivial way as a game of soccer. More than that, I thought of the modern cliches about this game, the modern mythos of Brazil's legacy as the veritable heart of the soccer world. Why is it that we are sometimes able to discover the profound accord of human fellowship and freedom in a mere game like this? As I watched the Brazilian players race blithely around the field, making every pass look like a scene wrought on a stone engraving, or a watercolor painting depicting what Kundera coined "the unbearable lightness of being" (maybe the Brazilian players would replace "being" with a less abstract verb, "passing"), I wondered why is it that this game alone is unique around the world as the game which almost every nation knows and loves. Is there something in it, its likeness to so many other modes of transcendence--being "all of the above," an athletic, aesthetic, and intelletual engagement of one's being--that makes soccer one of the few things which our modern minds can still reflect on and enjoy in earnestness? Of course there are countless other factors thrown in which deter from this lofty vision of a sport that involves, among other things, flailing elbows, fliaing knees, and flailing egos; harsh rivalries, drunken revelry and its loyal retinue, mob violence (see other forms of transcendence); scandalous deals, coporate corruption, lives lived for and lost for the sake of a mere game. It starts to sound like life itself.

Maybe I have overestimated this game, which a lot of us still probably don't care about in the least. Despite the fact that my valuation of this game may seem to be a bit overwrought, stilted in its philosophical tones of grandeur, what I see when I watch the game is the same thing we forget so many times of the day, whenever it is I think to myself, "I need to get away." Granted this is not your R&R that is advertised in brochures offering a splendid five day holiday somewhere on the shores of a Cancun resot. No, what we often feel is the need to get away, not in spatial terms, but on an existential, a spiritual level. One really means, "I need to get away from myself." Why is it that people, who know so much about the world outside, still know so little about the world within? Perhaps these means of transcendence are something worth pondering, even if one finds oneself back at square one? They offer the key to somehing that may or may not be openable, but which is the only thing worth trying, the only choice worth choosing when feels the urge to "get away."

June 26, 2006


This morning the rain suddenly started falling, a deep, intense rain, deep and intense like Janis Joplin's voice. In Japanese they say
ZAAAAAAAAAAA ZAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Perhaps after three years I now realize how much rain my roots have been sent..,

June 22, 2006

Small Things

As the advent of the second test term dawns upon Koyo High School and Junior School, I find myself once again running short of classes, and thus running to the Family Mart for mid-morning treats. Today a cool, drizzly rain has started to fall on Wakayama, and while I passed Nichizengu, the local shinto shrine in the Ota/Akizuki neighborhood, I found myself recollecting last year's tsuyu. An image surfaced, of waiting in line to receive Noh tickets with a special someone, the warm rain collecting in small droplets on the pine needles. Revisiting this scene today, I have the sensation of having passed a whole year within the span of one breath. A year, what a short period of time. It is usually our standard meausuring stick for human life--five years, ten years, fifty years, a lifetime. All that has happened in the past year does not come to mind right now, but I do have a sense of something immeasurably small containing the immeasurable.

The rainfall does not only recall but also presages another small event--the firefly season, which is most likely briefer and even less spectacular than the cherry blossom season. During my first year, I went to see the fireflies, or hotaru, with a friend of mine from Wakayama City. Out on the Kishi River, we wandered through groves of willows and various shrubs to a rivulet where the frieflies floated around beaming their soft light. It is a strange, wonderful memory, its greatness lying in the fact that it was nothing that special. A hot, sticky night out on a river with bugs that glow.

This weekend looks to be the best weekend for firefly viewing, now that the rain has come. I heard that fireflies are believed to be the souls of the dead. That means that they are like the experience of poetry--something insignificantly beautiful, hinting to us with a wink from the other shore of some sublime mystery. Call it the "trivial sublime," or whatever you will, but the small, greenish yellow flickering of the frieflies can easily demonstrate how something inexpressible can be contained in the brief span of an hour, a week, a year, a life.

All of this may bore you, the repetition of ideas that are romantically, if not tragically, attached to a past long gone, to nature as an indicator of our emotional and spiritual life; to a feeling of life being full of, as E.E. Cummings put it "intense fragility." More than what I am going to do, what I should do, or what I am doing, I find myself always hovering around the banks of this pool of fragility like a firefly around an evening pond. Keats called it the "vale of soul making," and Robert Duncan called it a "place of first permission." We can call it the imagination, the locus of abstract and emotional thought within the human brain, but whatever name you give to it--poetic or scientific--it is something small, intense, and very, very, fragile. It is that brilliant idea on the tip of the tongue, whose utterance is perpetually postponed. It is the next note after the song fades out, the soil with which our roots mingle and take life in. I am babbling on about this mysterious thing, the imagination, the soul, our being, but not to babble would mean capitulation to a notion of things set in an unchangeable scientific order. That order, of course, we all know, is slightly beyond imagining.

Hoping I will see the fireflies this year...

June 14, 2006

If I could...

do anything right now, I would strip off all of my clothes and plunge into a bathtub of ice cold water. Today the temperature is 30 degrees Celsius. My clothes have become a part of me, like butter melting into toast. It is particularly unbearable on my back and buttocks. Sitting in a chair the whole morning through this weather doesn't help. They will be turning on the air conditioners tomorrow, so I only have to stick this out for one more afternoon. My brain has also turned to mush in this heat. Really, there is not even the faint possibility of thinking in this weather, in this unbearably sticky and uncomfortable humidity. Someone please help. Get the ice and bathtub ready.

June 12, 2006


From a distance unknown, the sounds things make:

Interpenetrating each other, always
emerging from that ocean of sound these shell-like ears cast,
the stock of images proceeds to pile high
until the shelves cannot bear their load,
it is now time to make new room in the old space.
One repeats that chance is change,
the receipt for an eternal purchase.

The windchimes hanging
on the fourth floor veranda
mumble ceaselessly in the calm wind.
I drowse off to the sound of children in the park
who observe no time limit for their game of dodgeball:
It goes on forever.

When I wake, it is almost dusk.
The streetlights have been turned on, but the kids have gone.
I look straight up at the ceiling.
A pale, stained section of the synthetic wood catches my eye,
I am lost, it seems, at a time in which everyone is finding stuff out.

There are movements starting, hands shaking, names signed;
people are missing loved ones, without having ever known who they are.
Who are they? This question, drifts to you like an answer:
the kids in the park, the people that you miss, the first image of many,
buried deep at the bottom of the pile.

June 07, 2006

Calm Before the Storm

June 7, 2006. A bright and warm Wednesday morning sun gleams over Koyo's school buildings and gardens. Outside the staffroom, under the shady canopy of zelkova trees, a single hydrangea bush in full bloom glows with a hue too vivid for reality. It is a painter's compound: of baby blues, sky blues, tinges of rapturous turquoise and empyrean pearl. My thoughts rest in this sight for a second, then begin to grow restive aagain, like someone obsessively counting the change in their pockets. A Murakami protagonist indeed. Lately I have felt myself and my life to be resting upon a crux, a strangely wonderful and unnerving point of displacement. With only a little less than three months to go in my stay here, I feel far too many mixed emotions to get a clear picture of what I have decided to do in my life. There is a voice in me that urges me to start something permanent, but there is also a voice that beckons me to roam more. "Roam" comes from, as far as Dictionary.com tells me, the Middle English word "romen," which probably bears the same or a similar meaning as the present form. Thinking about this word in connection with my life, and the fact that I have grown fond of things like books, travelling, and improvisational music, I recalled that the word for "novel" (the literary entity) in German is "Roman." Unfortunately the connection between the German "Roman" and the Middle English "romen" is tenuous at best. I am sure that any serious etymological investigation would uncover different sets of roots for each word, but if we dig deep enough, we find an existential geology of sorts, a common soil in which both words, all words, are grounded. Thus, in a characteristically illogical and cryptic fashion, I have begun to realize how a journey, or in this case true "wandering" (i.e. a journey without a forestated purpose), is much like a novel. They are both forms of pilgrimage, in which the journey itself creates prupose. The how.. So I take back what I said about that forestated purpose. There is a purpose, but it is not seperable from the acts and days of life itself. While reading parts of a very intelligent book of literary criticism that examined how a walk is a type of poem (or vice versa), I have started to consider how a long period of wandering is the novel itself. It is a section of life. If it were in fact possible, the novel is life itself speaking in its own voice. How abstract I have become! since first sitting down to reflect on the flowers in the garden, the peaceful June sun, the clarity of thought early in the morning (with aide of freshly brewed coffee), and yet this digression seems to me a natural part of my mind's progress. Like Emily Dickinson said, "My business is Circumference." One starts at a point, i.e. conception (whether existentially--i.e. being conceived in the womb, or mentally--i.e. the birth of a "concept"), and then moves in concentric circles outward. Like tree rings. Shuntaro Tanikawa, one of the most successful and lucid modern poets of Japan, says that humans also have tree rings, however ambiguous they may seem, and that the poet's job is to go back to different rings, inhabit both their growth and stagnancy. Maybe it is just another from of 'emotion recollected in tranquility' (I forget the actual wording of that Romantic's dictum), but I know too viscerally the ache of things repeated, both joys and sufferings, how pain hurts less and joy begins to dull with time--for a time, at least. Even though one could play language games endlessly, and say that none of us really have a center, that it is all just relative to my position as a subjective reader of my life; we could give in to the temptation to consider life itself of no real importance and that if we have fun, that will be enough; but just this point of view too floats off with the pollen in the spring wind. But when everything is swept away, what is left? You are. However wonderful or terrifying that is, is up to you, is up to how.

June 01, 2006

How To Disappear Completely

This morning the title of Radiohead's wistfully melancholic track floated to mind, a mind seemingly without a body or a name. What do I mean? Perhaps I can postpone the initial shock of the factual evidence by merely suggesting a means by which the said existential displacement, which Thom Yorke & co. set out for us some years ago, can be brought about. The answer to "How to disappear completely" may be this: become an ALT for multiple years in a high school in semi-rural Japan, then watch yourself vanish into thin air.

Why do I say this?

No it is not the fact that I have had no classes for the first three days of the week, nor the fact that I have had only four classes at the high school in the past two months; it is neither the fact that I sit in the staff room waiting for a sign of work, which never comes, nor am I expected to do anything (they even consider it an undue burden to my mental faculties to operate the new coffee maker); nor is it the fact that our school's principal asked me yesterday morning, "So Jeff, aren't you leaving this month?"; no, it is not the fact that the head of my school does not even know, nor can guess somewhat accurately, the general area, give or take a few weeks, of when my contract ends; it could not be the fact that despite sitting here writing this list, no one has approached me to ask what am I doing--for to them I have probably become part of the background (when they tour visitors of the school, some teachers might be heard saying, "Here is the staffroom: the computers here, the Japanese and English department desks, the copy machine, coffee machine, oh, and our ALT."); no it is none of these disheartening elements of my daily routine. For today, on the 1st of June in the year 2006, after almost three years on the JET program, I went to put my hanko (seal) on another day of not really being here, and as I did this, I realized that the office had forgotten to put my name on the staff list. There was no line for "Jefurii Niiruson" to verify that he was here, or more accurately, that he stamped and then performed his magical disappearing act. I thought that maybe this meant I could just go home, but then I figured that my logic was unsound. However, maybe the staff is on to something. Maybe my hanko means nothing. Maybe they have come to their senses and realized that all this stuff about "keeping face," or maintaining the social harmony, about putting your seal on every day, even if you don't come to school, is neither effective nor significant in the case of missing ALTs. Whatever the case is or isn't, I was granted to write my name on the list, after which I put my seal on another day of not being here.

For those of you who have read this, please don't mistake my flippant reflections as a sign of cynicism. If you were in my shoes, I am sure the need to laugh about it all would be one of your first gut reactions. That is, if there were voice to laugh with. Certainly my sarcasm has gone too far. Today I have an unthinkable three classes, which I am heading off to now to regain my name and body. It will be a welcome homecoming, to be here again. Oh, Jeff! How I miss your monosyllabic ring, your tenderly mellifluous double f, even if your students butcher it into two syllables! Je-fuu, Ja-fuu, Jo-fuu, Jo-se-fuu(??) O hands! O voice! How long has it been since you and I last met, when cognition and action convened and that sweet something of Doing transpired? Even something as deep as me, a singularly confused and underused mind, cannot recall such a distant age. O sweet reunion! O glorious apparition of my being, back from days and months out on the sea of Murakami novels, copies of the International Herald Tribune, and endless cups of bitter coffee!

Until we meet again, keep it real everyone...