Monday, December 21, 2009

Give Me Meaning or Give Me Death

I'm not convinced that everyone's path is the same. As an individualist, I hold my own life purpose and personal meaning as paramount. Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that the same is true or ought to be true for everyone. As an individualist, I must accept that some individuals came into this world to be collectivists. If an individual finds meaning in collectivism, what right do I have to question that discovery? The one thing I can say for certain is that I came into this world to be an individual, and that is the meaning that I'm finding at the deepest roots of my life.

Three years ago, I went to California with the purpose of getting a PhD in Linguistics from a prestigious California university. I was hired to teach ESL at San Jose State University. I wasn't accepted to any of the programs I'd applied to and by the end of that semester, the creeping clinch I'd felt climbing up my neck from teaching for ten years tightened to such a degree that I could hardly breath. Through a set of compelling synchronicities, I decided to take time off to write. The initial plan was for six months, but as it turned out, this period lasted more than two years, ending when the plane landed in Hiroshima on August 1 of this year.

In previous posts, I've discusses how I came to be in Japan teaching English. Within a week, I began to seriously question my choice to come to Japan to teach. When I set aside my teaching career to write, it felt right. When I started teaching again, it didn't. Not only that, I managed to get hired at what could only have been the worst-fitting institution on these islands. I've discussed this in previous posts as well.

When it comes to going forward, I'm looking at what appears to be a blank slate in my future. If I'm not going to teach, what am I to do? Well, the most logical answer seems "to write," but in my efforts as a writer, I'm not yet at a point where I'm paying the bills, yet I have felt the drive to stay the course, to stay in the barrel, even though it's approaching Niagara Falls. According to Maslow's hierarchy, our needs for self-actualization can only be realized if sets of other needs are met first. But what I came to see was that I could only actualize my destiny by facing my fears. What fears? It's amazing how the brain can catastrophize any future that does not guarantee a job and a place to live. This is where I found myself in October as I began to grapple with my future and how I would respond to the sense--the kinds of promptings I've been trying to learn to listen to--that I had to say "nuts" to Maslow's hierarchy and just walk into the storm.

These are not fears that you face once and are done with them. Each day, at many times, the questions emerge, "If I'm not going to teach, what am I going to do?" I worked through scenarios and possibilities, but it all comes down to simply having to have faith in my instincts. At the heart of this struggle is the personal journey I've been on to understand myself, my destiny, and my calling in this life. At the heart, I had to accept that nothing is guaranteed. If I step out there and destiny doesn't answer, if I fall into homelessness and poverty, I have to take responsibility for that decision. It's my decision. no one can make it for me, and neither can I blame anyone else if I'm wrong.

This is where the question of meaning emerged so strongly. Standing at the edge of this precipice, not knowing for certain that things are going the way I think they are, that my destiny is rising up to meet me, or that perhaps even poverty and homelessness is my destiny, I had to decide what was more important. Is it more important to feel safe and to have guarantees, and so look for a steady job with steady pay and accept something that just doesn't feel right? Is it more important to follow my instincts and do what I think is right and risk failure, being wrong, getting in trouble for not paying my bills, falling out of favor with so many people? This is the cauldron I've spoke of. Pacing in a dark back room of the school where I was teaching, day after day, I mulled over these matters. Each time, I came to the conclusion, "Give me meaning or give me death."

I have consistently drawn the Fool card since being here. At these dark moments, I struggled within myself, feeling my resolve so powerfully, but also hearing the voices of fear. I also was working on draft 9 of Wayward Son (incidentally, "Carry On Wayward Son" came on as I was writing this blog entry). In this most recent draft, I came to understand that the calling on my life is to be a spiritual leader in this life and that such callings do not come about without some kind of deep personal struggle. So, I made the decision to move forward, not knowing what's coming, but knowing that it will not be teaching or doing any other kind of cage job. I will no longer be a monkey (this is not to say that everyone who works is a chimp, only what I see for myself).

Give me meaning or give me death. My life is no longer worth living if I don't find the reason for which I came into it. I'm finding it, and I'm relieved.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hit the Trail

Of the three trees in my back yard behind the house I grew up in, the maple was the one I climbed most often. Its foliage was lush and its branches sturdy. I found a perch there, nailed a board to hold a book, a drink, or a sandwich, and I'd climb up there to just be in my boy-space. In the middle of summer, the cornstalks in the field behind our house had grown to eight feet, but my place in the maple allowed me to see over the sea of yellow tassels to the blue hills north of town. These moments stand out to me because a feeling came that I could not understand at the time and that I'm still grappling with. Those moments were portentous somehow, pointing to some part of my destiny that only now is beginning to take shape in my mind.

In my most recent draft of Wayward Son, I included a recounting of this episode because it in some ways related to the general malaise I came to while living in Ethiopia. For most of my life, I never considered those moments as a boy in a tree to be spiritual, but as look back over the arc of my life, I see more clearly the spectrum of light that came through at that time and how it resonated with the times of wonder I experienced in quiet moments while in Ethiopia. In the most recent draft of WS, I took it more metaphorically that the yearnings I felt thirty-five years ago were a kind of search for God, or god, or the Universe, or the self, or whatever. More recently, I'm wondering if it is a literal yearning, a desire to walk a long trail across some portion of the planet under the sun, sky, and stars and find myself in a more primordial context.

If I did such a thing, what would I find? For so long, I've searched for answers outside of myself, hoping someone, something, somegod, somesavior, would point the way. I see now, as I've faced some of my greatest fears here in Japan, that I must find the core of who I am, outside of fears, shame, guilt, obligation, shoulds, oughts, and whatever. It's time to get to the bottom. I'm considering taking a long walk and if I can figure out a way to do it and pay the bills at the same time, I will. This is the choice before me as I move into the new year.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Make Way for the New

A seed falls in the ground and is forgotten for some time, until it sprouts out of the earth. During that time, much is going on that escapes perception, even to those who are paying attention. As the plant grows, it slowly asserts itself into the environment, and then one day, it is heavy with it's own fruit.

When I first came to Japan, the rice fields near my apartment were in the mid stages where the cultivators flood the green fields. The bright green is striking. Now, the rice plants are yielding. The seeds come out and hang over the tops of the plants. In time, the rest of the plant turns brown and topples over. I haven't yet figured if this is because the cultivator stopped watering the field, or if the death of the plant is a natural sign of the completion of a process. I'm not the first to notice this cycle as a metaphor for growth and change in out lives. It is a pertinent example to me as I have been thinking about my life these past five weeks and watching the cycles of the rice plants. Recently, also, we passed through the full moon phase, a natural marker for the end of a cycle.

These pictures from nature were appropriate this week as I approach the two-year anniversary of Jin-Sang breaking up with me. Just as the rice plants are dying and making room for a new generation, and just as the moon now returns to the black face of a New Moon, I am at the end of my stages of grieving. For months after the breakup, I counted the months, keeping track of the markers. At the first anniversary, Jin-Sang was married, but I didn't know. Now at two years, I'm seeing the fruits of my own movements towards health and growing. It's time for the new, and I happily understand that the old had to pass, had to make way for something far, far better.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

New Filters

Growing up in a dysfunctional family is a double whammy. On one hand, you learn poor strategies for maintaining and nurturing relationships. On the other hand, once you realize these are working, you realize you also haven’t learned any strategies to replace the poor ones. Besides all of that, coming out of a dysfunctional family, until you realize you have learned such poor strategies, you tend to find people you feel comfortable with, in which case, you wind up with people who have also learned poor strategies and who may never wish or desire to develop new ones.

This is where I found myself at the ripe age of eighteen when I went off to Bible college in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota to study to become a missionary, but of course, I didn’t have the wisdom of the following twenty years of mistakes to guide me, so I found a woman who made sense to me in terms of the climate of my childhood home. Within those parameters, for anything or anyone to make sense, I think a healthy person would have run away, and quickly. But I plunged into a relationship that, even after it has officially and legally ended, still continues to create ripples of hassle and degradation in my life.

Coming out of that relationship, I didn’t wait three months before I found another woman who made sense. While I’d grown and learned much in twenty years, I hadn’t learned enough to smell neurosis and personality disorder. She waited until our first date to tell me she had a boyfriend that she lived with and on our second date, she left thinking I was a serial killer. Part of this was that I’d told her of some of the struggles I had in Ethiopia, and part of it was the fact that Jin-Sang thinks there is a serial killer on every block in America, and everyone of them probably hates Asian people also. I floated through that relationship, seeing the warnings, experiencing the disorientation and confusion of living with someone who constantly vies to control the world in order to avoid all the fearful things in it. Horrible fights interspersed with tender moments, jealous rages interspersed with adoration. I was surprised the day she broke up with me and flabbergasted seventeen months later to learn she had married the Korean man she’d broken up with me to be with. Time to see the world in a new way.

I’ve spent two years now developing new filters. As I meet new people and involve myself in new routines, I see differently. I’ve learned my place in the world, at least to a degree, and I know what is my responsibility and what isn’t. I see strange behaviors from afar. I can accept a person for who he or she is, but I don’t have to invite that person into my life. It’s been wonderful to see this unfold and I can appreciate the difficulty I’ve been through. The road ahead won’t be easy, but at least I have a new way to see it, and the people who make sense will hopefully be people who want to do good in the world and find the abundant life that awaits.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

No One to Say "Let's go..." To

The road to health is a lonely one at times. Indeed, it seems that, for me, over the past couple of years, it's been all about learning to sit in my apartment or room, by myself and be okay that so many other things are going on in the world. This has been one of the most difficult challenges for me and I feel the challenge of it acutely as I approach my final weekend before I go back to working for someone.

It's a time to celebrate, to put a pleasant smile on the days gone by, and to welcome the days to come with good cheer. But I am alone here in Tamashima. My boss is still out of the country and any other person I know in Japan is in another part of Japan. During the initial days, the newness of this place was a kind of companion, but now that things are becoming familiar, I find myself wandering from one hot and muggy room to the next wondering what to do with myself.

This morning greeted me with drier air and cooler temperatures. I've been meaning to go to the beach and I think today is the perfect day to do it. It's only about 1.5 miles away, but I only learned that by looking on Google maps. When I was taken there my second day here, I thought it was in a completely different direction and considerably further away.

After today, my final free Friday, I will be working each Friday and Saturday night. I'll be surrounded by students. I won't be left wondering what I could be doing and what other people are doing. It's a question I've had to learn to take in stride as I face my aloneness each weekend, for those are still the most difficult times. Today, I am alone after a week of vacation. It should be a nice time, but the residual pain of losing someone continues to sting, if only just a little.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nonsense Syllables

Going to the store is a commitment to stick it out no matter what happens. For the most part, I'm on my own. I only know limited Japanese, though I'm learning, and most people here only know limited English, though they are learning. The net effect is a nearly complete breakdown in communication. So, I go to the store and know that it is fully my responsibility to find what I need. Paying for it is as simple as looking at the cash register and counting out the Yen.

It's a feeling of helplessness. You're going into a situation where you know that only you can really get yourself through it, unless there just happens to be someone there who speaks English, but you can't depend on that. I have to go in knowing that I may certainly meet with failure, embarrassment and/or shame.

As I was walking through Narita Airport in Tokyo, i overheard an American complaining that someone didn't speak English. It would have been easy for me to be disdainful of him, except that not long ago, I was expecting Jin-Sang to live her life in such a way to accommodate me. I lived thinking she had something to give me, something that IO needed from her to be complete, whole, and successful. Just like the Yank, who expected Japanese people to have all it took to make his life more convenient, I expected Jin-Sang to have what it took to make me happy and adjusted.

The easiest approach would be to shop completely from vending machines, but this approach denies one the experience of being among others while needing nothing from them. If I g into a store without the wherewithal to get what I need, I leave the store knowing something in my needs to change to remedy the situation. But even in that "failure," I got to interact with the cute Japanese girl who seemed happy to have us attempt to utter nonsense syllables to each other, just as I was happy. I didn't get everything needed at the store, but I left with an experience that helped me feel good that I made the attempt. It's worth it to try, and it's worth it to take responsibility for the failures. It's worth it to live. It's worth it to risk. I'm glad I came. I'm glad I'm here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

"Toto, I don't think we're in Addis Ababa anymore."

When I arrived in Ethiopia, the harsh realities of that country weren't so difficult for me. It was the day in and day out of going from one compound to another. The first day I arrived, I was immediately introduced to the pummel and jostle of the intense begging in that country. Later, as I tried to get about in my new home, I learned that a white person on the street sends out a universal invitation, by virtue of having white skin, to every kid from the age of walking to early adulthood to say anything from "Give me money" to "Fuck you," from "I am hongry" to "You son beech." Within a week, I'd developed a phobia for going out on the streets and that phobia persisted until I left the country two and a half years later.

I've often told this to others, and people sympathize, but I'm certain they don't fully comprehend the intensity of the hassle, for a white person, on the streets of Ethiopia. Whenever I've told white people who've spent time in Japan about this, they have said, "That's what they do in Japan." I can't imagine Japanese children saying, "Hey you, you son beech, fock you," but maybe I'm wrong. At any rate, I've had a kind of dread in the back of my mind that I'd get hassled on the streets of Japan. I never realized this until the first morning that I went out, noticing that I'd think things like, "Let's get out there before all the school kids wake up," and "Are you sure you want to do this?" That first walk that first morning, I saw no children. Since then, I've gone on several walks, have seen people of all ages, and no one has said more than greetings to me.

As I walked to the pharmacy (kusuriya) earlier this evening, out on the main road here, I thought about my experiences in Ethiopia, how forlorn I felt and how much I literally hated living there. The converse is that I'm enjoying being able to be in Japan without having to grit my teeth and muster up patience and courage to even think about unlocking my door and going outside. The intense amount of energy given to this during my time in Ethiopia was astounding. When I wrote the rough draft of Wayward Son, I put a lot of words into trying to recreate this loathsome experience for the reader. I don't think it can be done. Without having gone through it, I think the reader thinks I'm making too much of it, perhaps exaggerating, or simply going on and on about it. I can understand that, but I'm also realizing how significant it was for me. I'm realizing now how significant it is for me that I am now in Japan and not in Ethiopia.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Message in a Cookie

Inside my wallet today, I found a cache of fortune cookies messages that I have saved over the last year or so. these little pieces of wisdom came to my attention on the day before I leave. Each one gives a measure of the path ahead.

"Others recognize your sweet nature."

"The current year will bring you much happiness."

"Many receive advice; only a few profit from it."

"Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together."

Onward I go, to embrace the life before me, to follow the path, wherever it may lead.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In the Mirror...

The Dark Side of the Force is one that is just as omnipresent as the Good Side. In fact, they both exist as a part of the picture we paint of reality. Jung called it the shadow self--that part that we wish to hide from others and from ourselves, though we tend to be most successful in this with the latter. At first, I found it baffling that Luke Skywalker sees his own face in Darth Vader's helmet when in a dream on Yoda's planet he has a fight with him and beheads him. I now understand better that our greatest enemy is often ourselves because we generate so much of the effects of our fears and then try to externalize the source of these fears.

As the time for departure to Japan approaches, I find myself a tad edgier than normal. I'm not sure why. I am nervous about a few things, but generally find myself far more ready for this journey than any I've ever taken. It isn't, however, as if I don't have concerns and anxieties; I'm just not letting them bother as much. I have found that I get aggravated and frustrated more easily than usual and much of this comes from interacting with my parents.

I realized yesterday, or was willing to admit it to myself, that these aggravations come from within, from expectations I have of my parents and myself and judgments I make when I or they don't meet those expectations. Admitting and facing the truth that these frustrations are my choice has not been easy. It's far easier to blame others for my failure to find happiness in all circumstances. One thing is certainly true: if I can be happy here, at the source of so many faulty introductions to the world and its interpretation, I can be happy most anywhere. Of this I'm convinced.

Our surroundings are a mirror. When we are happy, the happiness that exists outside of us exists within by our choice to observe the world as it is. When we are fearful and angry, the world likewise reflects the inside of our souls back to us. It is when I am fully capable of and willing to accept this basic tenant that I understand how much power I have, and how frequently in my life I have chosen to accept that I am powerless and unhappy because of others.

Going forward, I want to try to look at this mirror, at the love and fear that is reflected back and know that the source is within me. Perhaps this is one of the lessons inherent in my visit to Ohio before heading off to Japan.

Monday, July 27, 2009


The cornstalks were well overhead by the middle of July. The silver maple in the back yard provided a way to see over them. From there, I could see the hills to the north of town, sitting with a somber, lonesome face. In those quiet moments, as I sat perched on a high branch, peeking through the dark green leaves to the blue bumps in the distance, a longing came that even to this day I don't fully understand. Some time later I learned the word "wanderlust," and when I saw that word, I immediately remembered those summers spent in the silver maple.

"What would it be like to start walking," I whispered to myself, "and just keep walking." I didn't know the direction was north then, but for the feelings that emerged, it wouldn't have mattered. The reality was in the emotion, in the deep-seated sense that my destiny lay elsewhere.

As time went by, neighbor kids made trails each summer through that cornfield. In my lonely wanderings, I'd come upon them and follow them back into the private land where there was an "island," a patch of land in the middle of the corn where the farmer who owned the land before it was sold off to developers had lived. But the house had burned to the ground, providing a hole in the earth where I could go and sit and think and wonder about the world that existed outside of what I knew. When I read The Lord of the Rings a few years later, I understood, again, somewhere inside that my life was a quest, and that I should go.

As I walk in my native State of Ohio, I remember those early days as the smell of cornstalks and the view of old farmhouses takes me back to those times. I stand, looking toward the future, knowing that I leave tears behind as the road opens before me. I'm not sure what I'll find, and I know that life won't get easier, but I have the sense that I'm finding the way to those long lost stirring felt in the boughs of that silver maple so long ago.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Ugly Duckling

The gosling thought it was part of the duck family. I came out of the egg, so how would it have known? It was only when it was grown that it realized that it's element wasn't a good fit. I can imagine that it just went along with it, making the best of it.

I've got this feeling that I hatched in a world diametrically opposed to my deepest sense of self, buried deep inside, unable to emerge. I took this situation on willfully to challenge myself at the deepest level to find my way to the top of the darkest waters. Once there, I found myself alone.

The most difficult aspect of meeting Jin-Sang was that she was a light in this dim world, this darkness that blinded me. She brought a faint light into that obscurity and helped me see just a little of what could be. The light was murky and flawed, but it was light none-the-less. When it went out, all that darkness came rushing in again and I thought certain it would completely overwhelm me.

So, I think I also agreed to allow Jin-Sang to come, and then to depart again, to help wake me up to the situation, to help remind me of why I came here. In her absence, I began a quest that for the longest time I thought included her coming back. Now, I see that the quest has led me to a place where I stand alone in the world, able to know who I am, able to stand in the darkness, or the light and be okay.

When the ugly duckling learns his true nature, it is that point he is no longer an ugly duckling, but a beautiful swan. He gets a new name. I've known since I was a boy that my name is a Greek work meaning "warrior." When I looked up that Kanji, I found "Samurai." I've never felt like a warrior. In fact, I feel like the opposite, being quite a pacifist. But I feel as if I got a new name to go with my new life. As I go to Japan, I go as one able to stand on his own feet, come hell or high water.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Immersed in a New Life

I walked out onto the St. Croix River near Hudson, Wisconsin under a frigid full moon in February earlier this year. The water had a skin of ice on top that looked far more sturdy than it was. I heard the crack too late and the next you know, I was falling. The water was only waste deep, but also only about 40 degrees F. I climbed out onto the ice and sloshed my way back to the van. Two days later, I found out Jin-Sang was married. Four days later, I set my determination to go to Japan.

Out on the frozen waters of the St. Croix, looking up at the full moon, before my immersion, I'd been wondering about my life and where it was going. I was wondering what I was looking for. Little did I know, the Universe would baptize me that night. It was the tangible beginning of my new life.