Unsheltered Sky

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magnolia storm

Magnolia visible from my living room window in April, just before blooming, Tokyo, Japan 2004. (Please take note: this is a QuickTime file and is quite large_ 3.4 MB_ so you might want to refrain from opening the file if your bandwidth is slow)

It’s been a month of losses. Losses in time, losses in money, losses in confidence, losses in trust, losses in sleep. And recently a great loss for my sense of balance within my own home: the small, deserted lot just outside my living room window, over which I would peacefully gaze every morning as part of my ritual of waking up and feeling at least a little connected to the natural world, was suddenly converted into a two-story apartment building. Within one day the only view of the sky that I have in my apartment was wiped clean of any further connection to the horizon. And a disconnection to the magnolia tree that I have been gazing at every day for the past four years.

Here is what has been taking place (along with daily pounding of hammers and screeching of saws) You can see the magnolia tree in the back, between the scaffolding:

going_going_

gone

Now my home is completely surrounded by windows and walls. With the recently moved-in family on the other side of the apartment, complete with four screaming little kids (promptly waking me each morning at 5:30, effectively drowning out the birds, and continuing unabated all day until the first crickets begin to try their tentative chirps), and my wonderful college kid neighbors upstairs who love rearranging the furniture at three a.m., I feel as if the spirit of Tokyo has flooded my sanity with its hordes of restless crowds. This also being Japan, however, you are expected to grin and bear it, taking it all down to “shoganai” (It can’t be helped). But shoganai it ain’t, because my heart and soul remember much freer pastures and greener grass. Certainly I’ve never in my life felt this hemmed in before.

To make matters worse, the hotel project I was working on came to an end, finally, only to leave me with the news that I will only be getting paid about half of what was originally expected. Still not sure about the logistics behind this, but I suspect a disingenuous spirit on the part of my benefactors. It’s been, to say it mildly, a crappy sort of day. Now it looks like I have to put up my dukes and fight it out for proper compensation, though I have the sinking feeling that, as has happened five times before here in Japan, I will lose the round. If anything this experience has confirmed in me a great disillusionment with design work and any sort of foray into advertising and such. I knew it when I started this project, but like money always does, especially when you really need it, I listened to the clinking of coins.

I do have to say, though, that taking a run later in the evening, along the darkened proliferation of reeds and vines along the river, cleared my head quite a lot. Bats and toads and feral cats and a bellowing American bullfrog greeted me along the path, reminding me of the simple pleasure of moving and smelling the cut grass in the night air. And as I ran the knot of anxiety and feeling of being wronged evaporated. Perhaps it was a good thing that the project ended with a flop. After all, it was never what I wanted to do in the first place. So I finished the circuit around my neighborhood and slowly came to a stroll. A gibbous moon hung pregnant in the sky.

Is it just me, or does everyone feel a primordial need to live close to the seasons and to the breathing of the Earth? Does everyone else also feel an almost unutterable ache somewhere in the interior when it seems as if your life is disconnected from the very source of its heartbeats? Why can I just not feel happy with this citified world that has heaved up around me? Why do I constantly, every single blinking moment of the day, and on a deeper, soundless level at night, feel that my life is unbalanced and shallow and hungry? And yet I can sense the source of satisfaction and joy somewhere around the corner. If only I wasn’t so groggy and full of fog. If only there was just me and the open door, all the stuff released behind me.

16 Responses

  1. If there is no possibility of moving, rewrite the script to include the trees, the sky, the open air. Paint a shade with what your memory tells you should be there, and pull it down to hide the new reality. Write your scenes–you do it well.

  2. I know what you mean when you say “Perhaps it was a good thing that the project ended with a flop. After all, it was never what I wanted to do in the first place.” Several years ago, I tried a foray into commercial web design (just before the dot.com explosion). I discovered quickly that my heart was not in it and to proceed would do damage to my spirit. What a laughing stock we are to the mainstream capitalists!

  3. It’s not just you. There are days when the city drives me mad. Then there are the other days when I stay inside my shell and resolutely ignore the noise, and turn away from the windows so I can pretend the buildings aren’t there, between me and the ocean.

  4. Back in the 60’s or 70’s, there was a popular book here called “Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow”. Corny title, definitely. But to some extent I think it’s true. I’ve done commercial design my whole professional life, and it’s been OK. Some aspects of it I really like. But Butuki, it seems like you are screaming to get out of there and make a major change. What are the obstacles? How can you plan to overcome them, one by one?

  5. I am glad to see you post.
    And if it helps any, I cry (literally, my kids are sort of horrified) when they cut down trees for development.

    I always felt like we were the too many rats in the cage preying on ourselves when I lived in close quarters in Los Angeles. I am not sure if it was me, or if people in general are not supposed to live like that.

  6. Sounds like yet another sign that you need to move. So far things are conspiring to push you out. Now you need some new opportunities to lead you out in the direction you want to go.

  7. Susan, rewriting the scenes is what I spend my time doing nearly every day… as a writer and artist. It’s what holds my sanity together. But as a writer and artist concerned with the very thing that he feels he is losing it is often hard to feel satisfaction in resorting to the imagination. After all it is the reality itself of the natural world that I so love.

    Mike, I should have learned by now. I left architecture for the very reasons that this recent project overwhelmed me, and yet there is something compelling about design, the love of the creative process and the interaction with other people who speak the same language. I should just concentrate on the kinds of projects that I can put my heart into: namely my writing and personal prject ideas. Hopefully they will lead somewhere financially, too.

    Pericat, It seems I spend almost all my time holed up in front of my computer these days. When I cast my mind out into the neighborhood more and more I cannot discover a place I would like to venture out to. It hurts to walk through my neighborhood and hear not a single living creature other than human noise. Luckily there is the river, in spite of its concrete sewer status. There are the mountains outside the city, too, of course, but they require a lot of time and money to get to. After all, Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Officially about 75 kilometers across, physically about 500 kilometers long, from just north of Tokyo all the way to Osaka.

    Beth, yes, I read that book, along with a number of others, like “What Color is Your Parachute”, and the best one, “The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satsifaction and Success”. Every time I went through the books I always came to the same conclusion: I need to write and to do something closely concerned with the natural world. I am very close to making a change; my mind has shifted into the leeway needed to forgive myself the deception of old habits, but as with so many people the problem is money, and also a feeling of deep guilt about leaving my wife in a lurch. But she feels the same way, so really there should be nothing to hold us back. But I am afraid, too. Of being alone. Of further falling into problems I cannot extricate myself from. Of failure. Of, course, I know very well that these things shouldn’t stop me from making the changes I need. After all, I left everything once before to return here to Japan…

    Susurra, Oregon has definitely got to be one of the best places to live in the world. I often miss it terribly. The balance of things there is in general very well distributed: you can be in the city if you want, but can also within an hour’s drive be right smack in the middle of wild places with huge empty spaces. When I lived in Oregon I felt more in touch with my surroundings than at any other time of my life. Things are not perfect, of course, but they’re close. Going back to the States right now is not a very viable or desireable option, however. So I’m thinking Australia or New Zealand.

    Leslee, I often wonder if there is more at work in the mechanism of everyday life than greets the eye. So often it seems as things really do, as you suggest, conspire to push you to live the life you are meant to live. I’m just very good at ignoring them or finding excuses. Having a vivid imagination has its benefits, but it can also weave a skein of denial all around your head until you see nothing but the clouds.

  8. “Is it just me, or does everyone feel a primordial need to live close to the seasons and to the breathing of the Earth? Does everyone else also feel an almost unutterable ache somewhere in the interior when it seems as if your life is disconnected from the very source of its heartbeats?” Butuki, your words really are a cry from the depths. Beautifully expressed. When I am away from my woods now, I feel a scary kind of reverse claustrophobia, and an aversion to the mindless noise all around. I can hardly wait to get back to the trees, birds, murmuring wind, my piano and cookpots, husband and dog. I walk every day to see and feel the seaonal changes, which are many, even here in the Panhandle of Florida. I could just feel your beating heart in your words, and was so sorry to learn of the building.

  9. Miguel, if you weave clouds into the picture, there must be something there too bright to look directly at. But maybe it won’t always be too bright, or maybe eventually you’ll decide the glare is better than the gray.

  10. Hi Miguel:

    I read your site often and just want to come out of lurk mode to tell you that indeed, you’re not alone. I am here in the States, 45 minutes north of the nation’s capital, doing everything I can to remain sane. The homogenized, suburban place where I live, filled with complacent SUV owners is frightening and the suburban sprawl (new homes, no new schools) makes me grieve. The ocean is two hours away and the only nature experience I have is the guard of trees that line the perimeter of my backyard. It’s tough when you’ve got the first part of the question answered, that is, knowing that you don’t want to be “here.” The hard part is figuring out the “where next” and the “howto get there.” I yearn for the West Coast, San Francisco or Mendocino, but I’m not even sure about that. Sometimes I think of moving abroad but even that takes careful, careful planning (I have young children).

    All that I can say is try to bloom where you’re planted for now. Take the time to delve into your art. Blogging allows you to meet really fantastic people but at the same time can often usurp your creative energy. As a writer too, I come to it when I need to, trusting that the friends I’ve made will understand and greet me warmly when I return.

    Best to you,
    ANGEL

  11. As I look at my own life, it seems that the biggest struggle is not necessarily only in forming and shaping one’s life into an ideal that feeds and nurtures well being and encourages those pure connections you speak of, which no doubt is important. But I have come to realize that it is equally important to find these connections in spite of whatever circumstances surround a particular moment in time. Because even in the most ‘ideal’ of situations challenges and setbacks occur, you will never escape them. I think of someone like Nelson Mandela, who took what could be seen as a situation that is furthest from nurturing but was able in spite of this to find a place of continual connection. (I say in spite of, but perhaps it was because of.) Which in turn makes me think of a saying by Gurdjieff–‘The worst the conditions of life, the more productive the work, always provided you remember the work.’

    I’m sorry to hear about the squeezing out of the magnolia. I wish you well. aki

  12. Angel, it is an honor to come in contact with a reader, and I’m very glad to have connected with you. I’ve stopped by your site and would like to take more time to read your own thoughts from now on. In particular it is heartening to see someone not well represented on the internet become part of this little circle of people I’ve been getting to know. One thing I’ve been trying to encourage is more people of different ethnic backgrounds getting involved in online discussion, to expand the voices that we are all reading and learning from. I just wish more people from countries outside the prescribed English speaking world would join in, but that is quite unlikely with the language barriers.

    Aki, you have twice now caused me to stop and consider what I am saying and to give myself a hard look. I like your perspective and the way you flip the stone over to look at the other side. There are always more ways to perceive things than you initially imagined.

  13. It’s odd, but for me the city is so deeply entwined into my consciousness that I could not imagine living beyond its tall buildings, its pulse of people hurry from place to place according to rhythms of work and play, and the overwhelming _presence_ of millions going about their daily lives.

    I take trips outside of the city, but for me they are vacations, chances to see something different, but not the way I could imagine living for any measure of time. I use that time to relax, cut myself off from almost all my usual communication channels, and at the end I return gratefully to the encompassing web of the city, and feel completed by the way it enfolds me and feeds me with information, with light and sound and the physicality of others, moving according to a symphony I can almost hear.

  14. Lashlar, I think it always helps to live in a city that vibrates to the same tone as what makes you ring. I have nothing against cities. I love Amsterdam and my birth town of Hannover (Germany), San Francisco, Vancouver, Copenhagen, Eugene (Oregon), Stockholm, Barcelona, and Braga (Portugal), not just because they are beautiful, but because they vibrate with health and good energy. I’m sure there is a city or two in Australia that would fit me just fine, too. But Tokyo is different. Have you been here? You don’t know hordes until you’ve been to Tokyo. You don’t know crowded or small homes until you’ve lived here. (though Manila and Bangkok and Jakarta and Shanghai and Karachi all seeth with people, too…in ways that are sometimes very hard to believe… but I’m trying to focus on cities that I would consider living in).

    Also, I think I am just not hardwired for places without a lot of natural things around. While many people I know would love to spend their time shopping and going to movies and dining in restaurants (all of which I love doing, too), if I had the choice I would be up in the mountains hiking or on the ocean sea kayaking. Or in the woods or fields watching birds and gazing at insects… things that a lot of other people don’t particularly enjoy. I’ve been like that all my life, ever since I can remember. While other boys were playing soccer or baseball, I preferred to wander in the fields collecting insects or reading about wild animals. I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors with a butterfly net. I know more about animals and the ways of insects and birds than any other subjects, and can even mimic the way a praying mantis moves, or catch a dragonfly or hornet with my bare hands, or find a queen ant at the heart of an ant nest. I love jumping spiders and bombadier beetles and robber flies and ichneumon wasps. Perhaps the best example of what kind of person I am would be Jeff Corwin from the Animal Planet cable TV station. I simply love nature and wild things and, in the way that you can’t imagine life without the hum of the city, I can’t imagine life without the hum of insects and birds and reptiles and overwhelming greenery. They make my life sing!

    Wow, here I am answering my own confusion. I guess writing it helped put it in perspective, huh?

  15. Ah, Butuki, that’s precisely it. We’re all different, we love things in different ways. I did not mean my comment to be a criticism of your way of looking at the world. I meant it simply as an expression of how I feel about cities.

    I’m afraid my sole exposure to Tokyo has been the inside of an airport while flying from Singapore to San Fran. :-/ There probably _are_ cities that I would find utterly unlivable, too… Lord knows I didn’t much like Memphis, and even LA and I did not get along. New York, SF, London, Roma, Firenze are all cities I love, though. I have an odd love-hate relationship with Sydney and Kuala Lumpur, both cities which at once attract me and repel me, but on the whole the love bit tends to predominate.

    Sometimes writing something down, and possibly looking at the different perspectives of others, may be helpful. I know I’ve often found that reading your words makes me stop to think, and to attempt to comprehend a way of looking at the world that is different from how I’ve tended to view the world… Even if at the end I still consider my way of viewing things as the appropriate way, I’ve had to examine my beliefs and defend them…

    Any way, I’m glad you seem to have come to some conclusion regarding your confusion… And an apology if my earlier comment may have come across in a way contrary to how it was meant.

  16. Lashlar, no offence taken in the least. I recognized your love for cities immediately in your first comment and I think it is wonderful that you feel so at home in that environment. It is how most of the Japanese I know feel about Tokyo, and quite a common feeling among Asians in general, I think. I was simply trying to compare the way your love for the city and my love for nature are very similar in origin. Both of them bring satisfaction for those who find their place. As you said, we are all different and love things in different ways.

    The only time I have trouble with this idea is when one way of thinking limits, or even destroys, the possibility for the other way of thinking. When natural places are overwhelmingly being eliminated, as is happening all around Japan, something that is precious to me is eliminated at the same time, and unlike cities, cannot be brought back. Cities are fine, so long as they don’t destroy the other part of the world, a world which does not belong to us, but as I think you know by the Chinese characters for nature (???Shi Zen, in Japanese, basically meaning “Whole In and of Itself).

    I know it is utopia to think of a world in harmony between cities and natural places, but I would like to believe that we are capabable of such generous and wise acts.

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