Holding Back Tears

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Blooming rapeseed plants along the edge of the Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan 2004

It’s been a week of shuffling through the dungeons. I guess the fatigue of too much work, weeks and weeks with no other people to just talk to, little time outdoors (let alone amidst anything green), a cough that won’t let up, and news so bad that it’s hard to come up with words any more, have combined to bring on this enormous sinking feeling.

Chris from Creek Running North had recommended David James Duncan’s “My Story As Told By Water” so at the beginning of the week I started reading it on the train commutes to and from my evening work. The writing is sublime and gritty, and has a way of shaking up perceptions like low rumbles of the earth deep beneath me. Duncan writes about connection to place and how these places and their inhabitants shape you. The metaphors he uses strike with such concrete immediacy that numerous times on the train I felt myself mentally reeling, and had to close the book to regain my balance.

What I didn’t expect was the book’s impact on my emotions. Duncan relates a childhood that seemed almost to recreate my own, offering a world of rivers and intimate forays into the bushes and creature-laden hideaways that reflected the wandering among rice paddies and through the woods, hunting for insects and birds, that took over my whole understanding about what the world is about when I was a boy. Like Duncan I have never been able to square the mindless paving over of the forests and mountains and rivers, the cavalier attitude about such precious treasures as water and air, and the apathy and fear towards other creatures, with our grand hope of “civilization”. To me the world is dying. Our monotony and sterility, our cruelty and utter stupidity have turned the world into a gray playground and cesspool, and all that I love so much has gradually gone silent. Living in the heart of Tokyo doesn’t help, of course. I dwell in the midst of all that I despise most, far, far from that green tendril and the “sphere of eyes” that Duncan talks about, that never fail to awaken love and joy and all the other states of vitality, like fear and wonder, that make you feel alive.

The book slipped, like a needle, so surreptitiously under my skin that I found myself knocked to the edge of control all week. When one of the train lines I take to work was delayed by an hour due to an accident and the platform grew so crowded with commuters heading home like me that one man was pushed over the edge down to the tracks, I had to grit my teeth and find a nook within my mind in which to take a deep breath. I kept repeating, “Damn it, I hate this! Damn it, I hate this! Damn it, I hate this!”, over and over again, like a litany to the devil. “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here. This is madness!”

Or yesterday, while heading to have a quick dinner up the street from my school, when I noticed a pair of barn swallows alight upon the telephone wire above my head… I looked up and there they were, taking a brief respite across from their nest hidden under the eaves of a building. But it was just them, in the middle of this tumult of concrete and human waste, not another visible living creature around. All I could think of was memory and how these two creatures connected to a time long before, when this very location must have harbored trees and fields and rivers and glades full of insects. I paused in my walk and stared at them. When the male momentarily lifted his scissors-like wings, and like a weightless dancer lifted from and let down to the telephone wire, with such precision and effortlessness that it came across like a caress, I nearly broke down weeping.

It felt the same as seeing the homeless old man, while thousands of commuters scurried by, kneeling down on a piece of cardboard, carefully placing to one side the shoes he had removed.

The same as the young toad that had been crushed to death by a passing bicycle, its tongue lolling out and innards glued to the pavement, that I lifted and carried to a nearby bush.

The same as the jolt of pain I felt the other day when I came across the empty lot near my house, and found that its grizzled old flowering dogwood had been chopped down, an asphalt parking lot in its place.

These days it seems as if nothing but pain and loss and carelessness have taken over the whole world. As if nothing mattered but a human agenda. As if the world, when it finally succumbs to our desire to build it in our image, would only then find completion.

If it is true that the body finds expression and wholeness by participating in the ebb and flow of the diversity of living things, then I no longer know who I am. Or where I am. It is strange living disembodied from the very circle of earth that I tread upon day in and day out.

8 Responses

  1. I understand. And I know that’s no consolation.

    One thing that helps me live with it is this quote: “Overcome any bitterness because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain entrusted to you. Like the mother of the world you are carrying the pain of the world in your heart.” Sufi

  2. Mike K.

    When I was living in Donegal, Ireland, back in the mid-90s, I visited the city of Derry – or Londonderry, as it is known by some. Derry has a history of conflict as the result of 400 years of British occupation and domination. (Some people refer to it as “stroke city” for the dash between the words London [prefixed by the British] and Derry [its original Irish placename]).

    Derry is encircled by Medieval walls. During my visit, I looked at the walls and wondered at the anger and fear they embraced. It seemed to me like one had only two choices in Derry: to live within its walls (literally and/or figuratively) and submerge oneself in the sea of destructive emotions they protected or to escape them and seek a place removed from the pain.

    But, as I learned more about the city, I discovered a third option that was not immediately apparent. One could climb to the top of the walls themselves and walk along them (I saw people doing just this). This new position afforded a view of the world on both sides of the boundary. Most of the people of Derry are generous and kind; the world outside its gates is much the same. The walls’ placement is arbitrary.

    From the top of the wall, one can dispel the delusions that come from both submersion and escapism. When confronted by a world gone crazy with anger and fear, I seek the perimeter and look for a vantage point from which to see things clearly. It’s there I know that I can cultivate compassion and patience.

  3. Both of you offer food for thought (it’s really wonderful to hear from you Mike). A lot of my feelings this week simply come from being too tired. I can’t think straight and the lack of sleep must be having a strong effect on my metabolism and the way I see things. I tend to get a little morose when I’m too tired.

    Normally I can handle all the crap in the world with a thicker skin that I’ve developed with age. But at times the cracks leak. And at times I rebel against protecting myself from the “real” world. In order to properly experience and understand natural things I must be open to its vagaries, and putting walls up just dilutes the whole.

  4. I feel your pain, I really do, and know even as I type it that “feel your pain” is such a trivial wording of the feelings I’m experiencing. You know that poem I wrote recently, “Thin Skinned”? It came out of a place very like the one you seem to be in now. The last few weeks I’ve been storing up pain and anger and grief, and finally it was just too much. I wasn’t getting enough sleep (my sleeping patterns are still wacky, but getting better), and I felt incredibly brittle and touchy. I even yelled at a total stranger (who was deserving of it, but still) and spent the evening filled with inchoate rage. It wasn’t until I was able to cry (able — hell, I couldn’t stop myself) that I’ve been able to think if not happily, then more clearly.

    They say being open to love is being open to pain, and I think it’s another trivial wording of a profound truth. But you need to include yourself among the things you love, too, and from time to time give yourself permission to be a small, tired creature in pain and care for that creature, before you try to care for the world as well.

    peace — we all need it, these days. (And more sleep.)

  5. I read this the other day and couldn’t think of a thing in the world to say. But I continue to think about the post. I heard someone on the radio the other day wondering if it was possible to be emotionally healthy given the conditions in which we live. Your description of the train platform gave me the chills. So I just had to come back and tell you that I have been thinking about you and wishing you more time by a river and the comfort that nature gives our bodies.

  6. Thank you, Tish. It really meant something to hear from you. Since almost none of the old regulars to my site have posted any comments in quite a long time, I was getting pretty down. Was wondering all week if I have somehow ranted myself into oblivion, and offended or turned off a lot of people, especially with my anger toward the States. I’ve never been one to say pretty things simply for the sake of saying something pretty, so I guess when the darker things are eddying around me, I must come off as pretty hopeless. I talk here on the blog because it is better than sitting alone brooding and getting even more down. The conversing helps ease the heaviness of all the bad news and sense of hopelessness. So thanks. I appreciate your presence, even if you don’t say anything earthshaking. I know that I am not alone afer all.

  7. The problem is, Miguel, that the planet really is reeling from a series of death-blows from humankind. What you sense from time to time is real. What’s depressing is that what’s happening is so huge that it’s hard to see, hard for us and hard for scientists who care. Depressing because we don’t know what to do, individually. We need to learn to do and not do specific things, one at a time, and just do them, individually. And to post impassioned expressions such as yours, both in blogs and elsewhere.

  8. Kathleen

    There is darkness but there is also light. The balance in life is focusing on neither to the exclusion of the other.

    Sounds like you’re due for a time of self-kindness. A period of appreciating and caring for yourself–in the same way that you would comfort a dear friend. Physical comfort–rest, good food, mental reprieve through nature, art, music, love. Recognition of your strengths, joys, achievements and potential. Care actively for yourself.

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