The maid who hated to go,
Crying with nostalgia
For the house where she’d been mistreated. . .
All of this, inside my heart, is death and the world’s sadness.
All of this lives, because it dies, inside my heart.
And my heart is a little larger than the entire universe.
Alvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa)
Translated by Richard Zenith
Or, What Became of Home
I remember the first day I was ever in Yanaka. Walking past the old style shops and temples to the enormous cemetery, I couldn’t get over the extent to which it seemed. . . an entirely different Tokyo. People were so different in Yanaka, so open, so relaxed. Even the air, I swear, seemed different to me.
I burbled on like this to a table full of Japanese octogenarians for ten minutes at least before one of them finally took mercy on me and said,
“The Americans fire-bombed 97% of Tokyo. Yanaka, they missed.”
I am someone who tends to make HUGE DISCOVERIES – of things that were completely obvious to everyone else.
For example, my first few days walking around the city were difficult – until I realized that it is only necessary to keep track of the floor you are on. There are overpasses and underpasses, there are skyscrapers, there’s the subway, but – they all take care of themselves. It is enough for me to keep an eye on the sidewalk and the strangers I’m careening towards. The rest – is on another level -- it can and must look after itself.
In the same way, I have recently discovered that the only way to not be a disaster is: one moment at a time. Just the moment that I’m in. There is no way to not be a disaster in advance.
Un-disastering, after the fact, is also widely acknowledged to be a real mess.
This man here with me in the toilet at Starbucks: thirty-nine years old, unshaven, shopworn, puffy eyed, big chest, gray beard, no underwear, one ear like a satellite dish, a lug.
One the other hand, when I was 22 this was exactly the sort of man I liked. All I need now is a generous dash of devil-may-care.
My father, it is reported, has recently resorted to kindness. Which is laudable. Though it is unfortunate that he has turned to it so late, and only as a last resort.
He reminds me of a general who, having bombed a town to smoke and cinders, now appears on the ground, smiling for the cameras, passing out sandwiches to the last of the survivors.
In the unlikely event that some summary of me is needed, this may be said: I was the one who never succeeded in leaving Tokyo, NH.
Prague, Santiago and Trivandrum may be visited. Tokyo and New Hampshire never budge.
I remember my family told me, when I refused to learn to drive, “You’ll never go anywhere!”
They were correct. All I ever managed to do was to go for rides on aeroplanes.
The overwhelming gentleness of Tokyo – so evident and so easily misconstrued – so easy to rush into the botched thought, those Japanese are so polite!!!
But it’s not that kind of gentleness. It’s not tender, and it’s certainly not fuzzy. It is the gentleness with which you stroke the petal of a rose – as well as the gentleness with which you pick up a dead cockroach by the leg, so as to throw it in the trash.
There’s care in it, and attention, and distaste. It is, indisputably, gentleness. And it is no reason to rhapsodize or put on airs, or to condescend and make the Japanese adorable against their will.
Oh for fucksake it is 2012. We can do this without ever saying Gretchen said.
For all I care we can call it a waffle iron.
It’s kind of funny really, the way I spent many of my days writing on little cards, and many of my nights – fucking in little boxes.
Limitation allows me – to really let loose.
That, or it’s shame.
Walking down the Musashi-koyama covered market just after 9 a.m., I see there’s already a line in front of the Angel pachinko parlor. About a dozen people waiting. Old mostly, men mostly, but there’s one granny and two young men – one sleek and in gray, one sturdy with a leather jacket and enormous sunglasses, as if he really wanted to be a gangster -- but this was as far as he dared.
I am always interested to see specialists in other branches of addiction: it seems natural that we should have some fondness for each other, like invertebrate zoologists with different areas of specialization. They’re looking at horseshoe crabs, say, and I’ve got sea cucumbers.
The gamblers seem unaware of this kinship. Neither do they acknowledge each other. The gamblers are focused, ready to go straight to the machine they have chosen, the one that they are sure today will win.
Just be inconspicuous.
Why is it, whenever I tell myself – JUST BE INCONSPICUOUS – I immediately feel as if I have been stuffed – beard, biceps, leg brace, hairy everything – into a teeny tiny Holly Hobby dress, one with lace around the edges and little embroidered Scottish Terriers – yes, and adorable green leather pumps?
A Coordinated Effort.
Tokyo can still bring my mind screeching to a halt.
Except me, every man on this train is wearing the same short-sleeve blue dress shirt.
On the train
The line of exhausted faces beneath the advertisements for beer, full of smiles. Down here below, most everyone stares into their phones which, come to think of it, are very much like the witch’s magic mirror in a fairytale.
In between the seats and the ads are hanging plastic handles, for use by standing passengers. Every once in awhile you might see a buzz-cut high school boy doing pull-ups with them – though not nearly as often as you’d hope.
A few weeks ago, Kraft did a promotion. Above each handle was a perfect replica of a Kraft Parmesan Cheese can. You wouldn’t believe what cheese costs here – like maybe seven bucks. And that’s just for a little.
It’s very possible someone is having a good time in Tokyo – but you wouldn’t know it from looking around on the train.
Tokyo, NH / 2
I am at all times at home. And in my home it is always the same story:
Life and beauty are first (1) threatened, then (2) demolished, then (3) found to have survived in spite of everything, then (4) new perils are devised on the spot.
In the same way I find my family everywhere, in strangers in the train, in the minute kindnesses smuggled in by members of the staff, and, most of all, in my neighbors just across the way, who stare into my windows all day long and never once acknowledge me, even if I stand a foot away and wave my hand in their face.
There’s no such thing as faraway, there are no strangers. There is no family either. Even in each other’s arms, we are by no means close.
Looking around Tokyo, one may be inclined to judge, or even fall aghast unless you realize that this is a population which recognizes that rendering oneself a vegetable on occasion (or every night) is simply the most direct means of getting some relief.
Which also explains why so many of us jump in front of trains. Because, it seems, on several levels, the most pragmatic option.
Alcohol / 2.
Alcohol is essentially a means of tricking oneself into proximity with pain. It is a feint. A ruse. Like a cage from within which you may dive deep into the ocean. And watch sharks feed.
Of course it is not uncommon for scientists to pull from the water a bloated but unbitten corpse. Honestly, it happens all the time.
Most people, when speaking of the fate of the Earth, will end by admitting that they do not care what happens, as long as they and their children are dead.
The way words change. The way that pussy is now a whole lot of vagina and only a little bit cat. The way that ordinary is now ordinary and extraordinary both.
Great Bear Tree.
One very odd thing is the way that, if you read very closely, you will inevitably find the same thing: the end of a family farm.
Those who see deeply will recognize it. Though it is not nearly so satisfactory, or as fragrant, this will shortly be all that is left of Orchard Number Twelve.
This is what I get for growing up in the vicinity of my father. I know that I do not matter, that I would like to matter, and that mattering can run rampant and become a disease.
My father mattered terribly. I watched him: mattering all day long, mattering all over the farm, mattering up and down rows of apple trees in his diesel Rabbit, mattering at town meetings, mattering in the farm market, mattering, mattering so incredibly loud –
I never quite managed to matter. It’s a habit I’ve kept all my life. As if by avoiding mattering, I might also avoid becoming, like my father, a complete raging asshole.
Unfortunately, it turns out that there are many paths to becoming an asshole. A man who hasn’t become one by the age of 40, has probably worked really hard at it.
I have a theory that the world languishes when no one looks at it. (And does best when observed by a great cat.)
Of course, I am a ridiculous person. On the other hand, every inch of this city argues my point.
It is also true that, almost every time you see something beautiful in Tokyo, it is the result of the obsessive attention of a very old woman.
I would like to work exactly like the last bird will sing on the last day. Except that’s too pretty.
I intend to squawk, as the last crow will squawk, delighted to find itself perched upon an endless expanse of trash –
the crow squawks, flaps its wings a few times, and falls over.
Tokyo, NH / 3
Nearly three centuries ago, my ancestors came to Londonderry, NH from Londonderry, Ireland. See: even though it was another country, it was still Londonderry. In the same way, I left Londonderry (where I never made a bit of sense) and moved to Tokyo (where I continued to not make sense) and it was years and years before I recognized that I’d never succeeded in leaving New Hampshire.
My family’s farm began in the love between a laborer and the mayor’s daughter. It ended eight generations later, in a mad old man’s love of himself.
A bitter and unsatisfying ending, to be sure. That the farm shares in what may well be the fate of the world – to be wiped out by narcissists – is cold comfort.
I would only ask the last condor – to be a condor. The last lemur, to be a lemur. The last Artic ice, the last tellurium, the last helium, the last coral reef, the last potassium, the last primeval forest.
Is it enough for the last humans – to be human? Or is something more expected of us? What does being human actually entail?
Is there anything to this question but one last gasp of self-importance?
Then there are the people who enthuse, “We’ll just colonize another planet!” And their tone implies that, if you got into it now, whoa, you’d make beaucoup bucks.
It is as if the brains of these people have a special Space Age coating, which prevents intelligent thought from sticking.
We may not be the last of the humans. But we will be the last to play pretend. And playing pretend may turn out to have been the most important thing about us.
If there are more generations of humans, they will call themselves something else. Simply to disassociate themselves from us. And they won’t call us sapiens either – I bet you anything.
People in the future, what’s left of it, will be obsessively focused on making do with a little. Because that is what we have left them.
When they see our printing presses, they will only wish they could extract the precious metals from them. When they stumble into the dark recesses of our abandoned libraries and see our mountains of memoirs, and walls of self-help, they will wish only that they could eat and drink them.
Why the Cards?
Because it often seems to me that there is nothing else, but to practice beauty and attention in the tiny window we have left.
My father is a pilot, encased in his own speed and noise, a mile above.
He cannot see the suffering here below. Anyway, he does not care. It is inconceivable that we might be the same as him, that we might think and feel and matter as he does.
We must be some other species of man.
As if we were actually something separate.
As if we weren’t, in a billion ways, made for this Earth.
As if you could jettison your lungs, your bones, your heart, your skin.
As if you could say to your shadow, Baby – you’re on your own.