№ 289 (Untethered)


There is a large park near my apartment of which I am particularly fond. From the day I first discovered it, within weeks of moving to Tokyo, it was a place where I was automatically comfortable. It’s a place where I can go to be surrounded by big trees, hear some legitimate (if somewhat limited) sounds of nature, and occasionally meet a friendly stray cat. There’s a murder of crows that hangs out in the forest canopy above the fenced-off area where Shakujii castle stood eight hundred years ago, adjacent to Shakujiihikawa Shrine. A beautiful place given a spooky edge by the history of the place set against the eerie calls of the crows (and Japanese crows are decidedly spookier-sounding than their North American brethren). There are ample cherry blossoms in the spring and big toads in the underbrush on warm summer nights. When it rains, alien-looking flatworms emerge from the topsoil, bright yellow and strange.

If you look up Shakujii Koen on Google Maps, you will see that it is in two large sections, divided by a road through the middle. Just south of the eastern end of the lake in the eastern half of the park is an open area with a few picnic tables, some benches, a public toilet, and a payphone. Two of the three picnic tables would form a line running east-west were you to connect them, with the third table forming a triangle, the long leg of which points roughly southwest. Crickets are the predominant sound there on a cool October evening like this, with trains on the Seibu Ikebukuro line ghosting by five hundred meters away, not seen from the tables but heard quietly. Were you listening to the scene through headphones, it would make a nice stereo effect.

I’m hearing it in person and in real time, as I’m sitting at that third, more southerly table with my laptop. It’s a quarter to midnight and the trains will run a little while longer, maybe another hour or so, but then they’ll cease for the night. If I’m still sitting here writing then, I probably won’t notice that they stopped until some time later when I realize I haven’t heard one in a while. That’s how it was with the cicadas this year. It seemed like they took their time to show up this summer, and were glorious in their intensity for a while, but then one day I realized that only a few were left calling, and within a week those last few were gone as well.

I lost track of the cicadas in a span of weeks during which I was trying to put my head back together and in a general state of tunnel-vision. My sleep had been bad. As in really bad. As in bad enough for long enough that I’d had a couple blackouts and hypnopompic hallucinations, which are essentially what happens when you momentarily doze off, but not all of your brain wakes up again, so you’re served up sensory hallucinations as if in waking dreams, but while doing something like teaching or waiting for the train. When the train platform feels like a floating boat dock under your feet and amorphous dark blobs are bouncing around in your peripheral vision, you don’t feel especially well-connected to reality. Nor do you feel especially connected to the passage of time in any normative sense when bad sleep is bookended by panic attacks and the patterns of everyday life become intuitively navigable through the use of relative stress levels as familiar features of an internal map.

I went to the doctor, who gave me something for the anxiety and something else to help me sleep. It was enough to break the stress/insomnia feedback loop, but as I regained more of a hold on general awareness of life beyond the basic requirements of employment and sustenance, I realized I had all but completely missed the departure of the cicadas. When had it even happened? What else had I missed in that time? My apartment had imploded again, but that was no surprise (though there were some surprises as I dealt with the snowdrift-like concentration of laundry that had accumulated at the foot of the bed – no longer was the whereabouts of my other work pants a mystery, for example). In that time, dates with the amazing woman I had met had ceased and she had made an exit. I’d continued to make photos as usual throughout those weeks, as doing so is pretty much as automatic a part of my existence as breathing. A thousand or so frames of obscure shadows and interstitial fragments of the urban environment: spaces in which float inexpressible things, just out of reach of exposition but always within range of feeling.

In the last week or so, my apartment has become more orderly, seemingly of its own accord, like the sky clearing after a summer storm.  I washed clothes, hung them to dry, and folded them dutifully when the wind had done its work. Dishes were washed. All of them. When I took out the recycling, I had a large bag bulging with the simple plastic containers in which one buys ready-to-eat foods at grocery stores in Japan. Black plastic tray, clear plastic lid, and between the two would have been something like pasta salad or a boxed lunch complete with rice, fish, and a couple tiny side dishes. When had I last cooked? It had to have been a month before, or at least close to it. The grocery store meals taste pretty good and are reasonably-priced. Their greatest advantage, however, is that the only thing they require of you is the simple physical action of transporting the food from container to mouth.

Most of the containers came from the same supermarket, the one on the ground floor of my train station. Finishing work a little after 9:00 PM many nights and then embarking on an hour-plus commute, it’s usually about 10:30 when I get off the train. By this time, the remaining ready-to-eat food options in the display case are getting sparse and there’s competition from other zombie commuters. There’s typically a worker with a barcode scanner and label printer working her way down the refrigerator case, too, marking down items as it gets closer to closing time. Behind her trails a small, rheumy-eyed crowd that decides what to eat based primarily on what’s cheap, not for economic reasons so much as because it’s easier to be motivated by a number than on the vague sense of what one supposedly wants to eat when the drudgery of the salaryman lifestyle dictates that one must still eat, but doesn’t afford enough energy for enthusiasm. If nothing catches the shopper’s eye, he or she might settle for instant ramen or embark on a listless perambulation around the periphery of the store, hoping for something to stand out (things rarely do) before drifting out the front door into the night, having given up and shuffling for the 7-Eleven.

There is so much of this spiritless drifting here at the ends of the day. A bone-aching fatigue that keeps one from sleep and an overfullness of the day-after-day that trends the heart toward empty. On packed commuter trains and winding down dark residential streets as we disperse into our neighborhoods from the station, rarely are we by ourselves but often are we alone. Some of those around me in transit are heading back to homes shared with people they love. They have concrete points of reference and purpose by which to navigate. Many of us lack those ties, however. We are untethered and drifting. Free, yes, and in ways that can be wonderful. But we are also free to drift into strange waters with neither map in hand nor wind in our sails. We get into trouble there sometimes, bobbing in the murk below unfamiliar stars.

On Friday, I walked home from an errand instead of taking the train because the train wasn’t running. Someone had jumped in front of it. This isn’t uncommon – there are nearly 70 suicides a day in Japan. These are people who have drifted too far and can’t find their way back home. In time, some find themselves instead at the edge of the world, hanging there for a long moment before falling off into the void. Not all, though. Some continue to drift until currents push them back into familiar waters. Others wake from their stupor, either with a start or a slow, heavy-lidded blinking recognition, either way choosing a direction and paddling, knowing the dark place the drift might take them.

If this untethered state is the world in which one lives daily, then the unlit, entropic topography may seem desolate. Still, there is freedom in it. What is the point of freedom amidst desolation, you might ask. The fundamental plasticity of existence, that’s what. Just as considering the total and complete insignificance of human affairs in the context of the unknowably-immense physical universe and the laughable brevity of human existence against the scale of geologic time can actually inspire a greater sense of personal agency and joy, the terrifying perceived helplessness of the unmoored drift can become a peaceful float on a friendly sea when we realize that, while we may often feel alone, we are only rarely by ourselves. Untethered is not untetherable, and no drift is unending.


№ 289 (Somewhere in Between)

Somewhere in Between

NB: Some sexual themes and strong language ahead. If you find yourself offended, I suggest being offended more often and not bothering me about it.

I’ve tended to delete the dating apps after about three weeks, on average, then reinstall them roughly a week after that. It makes for a month-long cycle of being a sad guy, a lonely guy who’s somewhat motivated to try to meet people, a disillusioned guy who is pretty sure the whole thing is rigged (this is when the apps get deleted), and then a guy whose frustration with still being single overpowers the frustration with app-based dating and so it all begins again.

The different apps have their various advantages and disadvantages. OK Cupid is time consuming but does tend to yield better results, at least in theory. The profile is more thorough and you can answer as many questions as you want to improve your results in terms of compatibility. Not a bad system, despite my results in general.

Tinder exists primarily for hookups in the USA, but here in Japan it doesn’t seem to exist for any specific discernible reason, at least not one upon which anyone can actually agree. The profiles tend to be a mix of women with NO HOOKUPS in all caps in their profiles and nothing to indicate what they’re looking for otherwise, women who are apparently only looking for friends because they already have great husbands, women with no text in their profiles and only a series of poorly-lit group pictures from which you cannot pick out the person who is the same between them, and the occasional man who hasn’t yet grasped how the whole thing works.

Bumble seems to have some promise, but isn’t widely used in Japan yet, so you swipe for two minutes on the train after work and run out of people. Being told regularly that you’ve run out of people does not tend to help the general feeling of being alone, especially not when you’re on your way back to your studio apartment, a place that is nice enough for what it is, but all the same more of a shoebox lined with your personal belongings than a place you really have any desire to bring a woman back to. The insecurity is persistent, even though you know that, if she’s a regular Tokyoite office worker like you, living alone on not exactly the best salary imaginable, her living situation is likely not dissimilar, though probably with less of a preponderance of miscellaneous bicycle parts and risqué comic books scattered about.

After a while, one begins to regard the idea of meeting someone great and starting a new relationship with something of a skeptical outlook and a gallows humor. It’s easy to lie in bed wishing there was a woman lying there next to you, especially a woman you love, and the imagination paints one rosy fantasy or another, but it’s much harder to feel like it’s something with a potential reality attached to it. It feels about as likely as a woman from one of the videos in that hidden folder on your hard drive suddenly showing up at your front door and saving you some manual exertion. And if she did show up, would you even know what to do at this point? I mean really, it’s been a while. There’s the fact, too, that as much as you’d really like to be having sex, you know that you miss other things every bit as much: things like cooking for someone you love and the pillow next to yours smelling like the woman for whom you lovingly cook.

Masturbation is a poor substitute for sex with someone you love, but daydreams of fictional relationships are an even worse substitute for the real thing.

That’s just how it is sometimes, though, and sometimes it lasts entirely too long. It seems to last impossibly long, with the occasional false start lifting the spirits momentarily before letting them fall again. And every time you see that glimmer of hope, you fight the battle of wanting to embrace that hope and give it the ol’ college try, but statistically know it isn’t apt to work, besides which there’s the fact that dating is a total shitshow and everyone knows it. This is, thankfully, where the gallows humor comes into play eventually. After enough rounds of disappointment, the complete absurdity of it all lends an air of surreality to the process and you begin to be at once less attached to any of it and more apt to throw yourself into it anyway because really, what the hell do you have to lose?

If you find yourself thinking that dating isn’t or wasn’t all that bad, you’re either lucky, naive, or delusional. When you find someone good, it is absolutely spectacular, but let’s not kid ourselves about the process that precedes that. Tim Kreider puts it very well in his essay, The Referendum:

It’s true that my romantic life has produced some humorous anecdotes, but good stories seldom come from happy experiences. Some of my married friends may envy my freedom in an abstract, daydreamy way, misremembering single life as some sort of pornographic smorgasbord, but I doubt many of them would actually choose to trade places with me. Although they may miss the thrill of sexual novelty, absolutely nobody misses dating. [source]

Let’s take a moment to reexamine what dating really is.

Dating is a process that usually begins with a sales pitch, by which one individual attempts to convince another individual that spending time together would be preferable to doing other things, like re-grouting the bathroom tiles or getting a root canal. If an agreement is reached, an event is scheduled (on a trial basis) for shared time-spending including the age-old ritual of presenting the best version of oneself one can muster while doing one’s best to keep one’s skeletons jammed firmly in the closet, as well as all of one’s desperate longing for approval swept neatly under the rug. If this preliminary meeting, or “first date” as it is known, goes well, subsequent meeting will likely take place.

In the best-case scenario, continued two-party talks will eventually lead to an agreed-upon and pleasant intermeshing of the genital apparatuses, as well as the possibility of a legally-binding agreement known as marriage, whereby the participants promise (among other things) not to engage with the genital apparatuses of anyone else so long as the agreement remains binding. Traditionally, this arrangement also involves slowly revealing all of the failings and misgivings that were so desperately concealed on that first date. In modern dating, this process of gradual disappointment also happens over the course of long-term relationships that lack the legal paperwork of marriage.

It doesn’t always work out that the first date leads to a second or that, after a number of months, things get more serious. Should the dating process prove unsuccessful at some point or another, several outcomes are generally possible. Preferably, both parties will, at the end of a date, indicate to each other that they had a good time and that they should get together soon, knowing full well that both points are outright lies but that it’s better to pretend (it is also assumed that no further communications will be passed between the two participants). Another possibility is that it will end amicably and both parties will remain friends, despite it not having worked out romantically. I have never seen this done. The third and perhaps most common outcome is one in which conflict arises. This conflict is largely dealt with via a three-pronged approach of the verbal confession of one-another’s sins, a sort of morose commiseration with one’s friends (she was never right for you, etc), and the quasi-therapeutic application of alcohol, generally in what would otherwise be totally inappropriate quantities.

Yes, I’m taking it a bit far, but for the express purpose of illustrating the genuine absurdity of it all. Dating is absurd. It is a shitshow. It is absolutely one of the most frustrating and maddening of all human experiences. And yet we throw ourselves at it again and again and again, in a cyclical Sisyphean effort from which we are convinced we will eventually escape. There is reason to hope, after all. People do escape, people do find love, people do get married and have kids and all that. And yeah, they also have terrible lives together and get divorces and all that, but let’s ignore that for today because happiness is actually out there and, as cynical and dark as my outlook on dating may appear to you at this point, it remains that I do actually have a reserve of positive outlook tucked away.

I am focusing on the bleakness of it all for now because that’s the day-to-day reality for a lot of people and nobody seems to want to acknowledge it. You can’t change it unless you do, though — the first step toward addressing anything is naming it. So now that we’ve named the grand shitshow that is dating, at least we can try to laugh at it. Yes, I will probably download and install the dating apps again, and if I do I’m sure they’ll wind up deleted again not too long after that. There will be the days when I feel like I’ve fallen so far behind in life compared to what seems like every other person I know that I’ll want to just crawl into a hole and die, but there will also be the days when the cute office lady adjacent to me in the subway car smiles back and I’ll feel all wobbly as I turn red amongst the dead-eyed commuters.

There will be the nights when something unexpected happens, like a couple weeks ago when I actually went out to a bar (this basically never happens) and met an incredible woman who actually seemed to like me. Hell, we went on a date, and it was good! And I’m struggling to balance the hope and the cynical guardedness, because I’m hoping that the good first date will lead to an even better second date and so on, but I remain acutely aware that a few months from now I may find myself crying the ugly cry on a park bench in the rain at 2:00 AM. Not that I’ve never done that. Not ever. Nope.

Dating is a disaster and we force ourselves through it repeatedly because in the end we know it’s the only way to maintain any sense of hope. Hope is not manufactured and handed out by the universe, but rather must come as a byproduct of our own efforts. We have to bootstrap the stuff. So when he or she dumps you and you feel like the absolute scum you’ve been recently told you are, you have to maintain your sense of personal agency by saying fuck it and trying again. The shitpile of failure is where the flowers will eventually grow. I swear it. If I’m wrong then maybe we are all screwed and dating is a pointless act, but I refuse to think that way. At very least, I will continue to try and try again, doing my best to keep laughing at the absurdity along the way.



Behind me, from left to right: Candy, Sarah, and Maggie.
Behind me, from left to right: Candy, Sarah, and Maggie.

From late 2010 through early 2012, I lived in Taiwan and taught English in the Hsiaogang district of Kaohsiung. One particular day a few months into my job there, a little girl was introduced to my class, knowing no English and having no English name. In English class in some places, it is customary for a student to go by an English name, just as I went by Pedro in Spanish class throughout high school despite being named David in real life (this choice of name having to do with a comic in the back of Boy’s Life magazine in the ’80s). In any case, I was asked to give her an appropriate English name.

Having never named a child before, not even for the sake of a language class, I was a bit worried. A name is a big deal, and may be something a child comes to identify with. I’ve met people in their 20s and 30s who, in English, still go by the names given to them in English class in elementary school. Some students wind up with unfortunate names like Candy, which was the name of a girl in the same class who once coughed in my face at point-blank range and gave me a case of the flu that wiped several days from memory thanks to the related fever. Others, like a joyful girl who always danced in her seat named Maria, and Tom, in Maria’s class in Korea, wind up with names that seem to match. Looking at this energetic, enigmatic eight-year-old child, I didn’t know anything aside from just knowing I liked her, so I named her after my sister. From that day on, she was Sarah.

Over most of the next year, I spent ten hours a week with her class. Eighteen little kids, me, and a dusty old blackboard doing our EFL thing two and a half hours per class, four days a week. They drove me crazy sometimes, as a horde of small people is apt to do, but I mostly found them to be a delightful gathering of children. There was Sarah, of course, and Candy (the one who gave me the flu), but also kids like Maggie, Adam, Cindy, and Yoyo. Maggie was the brightest in the class, the one who would grasp a new word or grammar rule far before everyone else, occasionally leading the class in epiphany with a single word of Chinese that brought the rest of the kids spontaneously to understanding. Adam had a great attitude and worked harder than most. When he got things wrong or did poorly on a spelling quiz, he didn’t take it personally, only worked hard to do better the next time around. Cindy was an animated stick-figure of a girl, the kind of kid who had shot up in height so quickly that it had the same sort of effect  as pulling on a Stretch Armstrong, exaggerating vertical proportions in a near-comical way. Yoyo had trouble with language sometimes, but had such great spirit. One day, he came in while I was grading tests and listening to music. He asked if he could hang out, essentially, instead of taking a nap with the rest of the kids. I said fine, and he proceeded to go about the classroom in some hybrid of dance and martial arts movements that demonstrated a kinesthetic genius. It remains one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

The class was full of great kids. Sarah was my favorite, though. Rarely have I encountered children so full of spontaneous joy. Her laugh was contagious and her happy energy rubbed off on the kids around her. On many occasions, I thought to myself that, if I were ever to have a daughter, I hoped she’d be like Sarah (I still hope this). It came as a shock when we did a unit talking about age and I discovered that her father was not only close to my age, but only about a month different. While I had academically known that, in my late twenties, I could certainly be a father, it became far more real of a thing when I realized that all these kids in front of me were the age that my own kid would be, had I started a family right out of university.

Leaving a teaching job has never been easy, and I have always missed students quite a bit, both kids and adults. Leaving that particular class in Taiwan was the hardest of all, though, and I still sometimes wonder about those kids. I wish I knew how they were doing. I certainly hope they’re all doing well. It was saying goodbye to that class that had me in tears in the bathroom, getting to know a new kind of sadness. I hadn’t expected it to be that hard. I had underestimated how much those kids had become a part of my life. I am not a father, but I realize now that I had become a part-time father figure to many of them, and they part-time children of my own. It was a new experience, and one that remains unique.

My sister has since had a daughter, making me an uncle. I’ve met my niece once, and there’s a picture of me in Tokyo from when they visited a year ago, holding the first baby I ever actually thought was cute. My sister sends pictures and videos every week, and I love it. I’d rather see her grow up in person, of course, but I’ll take what I can get. Watching this tiny girl grow from a distance has made the idea of having kids less strange than ever, though still very far away. I’m presently at the stage of attempting to date again, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not doing very well so far. When I find myself tweaking my OK Cupid profile on a Friday night while sitting in my studio apartment in Tokyo, and then check Facebook to see posts by old friends who are married with a house and kids and all that back in the USA, it often feels like my life is impossibly different. Doubt creeps in, as well, and I wonder if I’ll ever find the sort of person who will want to be with me as much as I want to be with her, the sort of person with whom I’d be eager to reproduce. Even now, writing this, just the idea of meeting someone who makes me come alive seems only fantasy.

I’m not here to be all morose and dejected, though. I know from experience that those people to whom we most strongly react typically come out of left field and I very well may meet her later today or some time this week. Doubt comes and goes, and I stubbornly press on, as one must. I know that if I keep trying, in time I will meet someone special. We will build something spectacular together. Who knows, we may even have kids together. And if we have a daughter, I may well name her Sarah.

№ 287 (Expat Memory)

Early one morning in Korea, deep in a strange winter, wandering after a night out drinking. I was walking a friend home, and took her up a road she’d never been down before. We stopped halfway up a hill that was halfway a mountain, and on the hill was a temple. Set back from the road, shrouded in densely falling snow,  windows lit with a dim yellow light smoldering through the darkness, the darkness amplifying the sound of the chanting monks inside.

Sutra spreading outwards, like ripples in still water. As when a single berry falls in a quiet pond, in a silent forest. And there, in darkened morning, the words shook the snowflakes, writing the chants invisibly, on the ground where we stood, scrawled in cursive in the snow that piled around our ankles.

Months later, I stood in stillness, alone in the forest behind the temple and further up the hill, listening to a gentle rain filtering through the pine boughs and watching low clouds through a gap in the trees.

Following that flowing fog, witnessing it enveloping hills, swallowing whole neighborhoods. The contents of the valley dissolving, dematerializing as I stood inert while wondering if I, too, might so dissolve.

I remembered the monks chanting through the snow. I could feel the vibration, still resonating in the rocks and trees. The words had taken residence there. How many times had those sounds flowed through here? What knowledge had the trees come to possess? Had they the means, what could the bedrock tell me?

№ 286 (In Loving Memory)


Lura Emily “Pat” Smith

June 17, 1920—May 14, 2015

Today, my mother’s mother passed.I found out this morning, but in the night I woke up suddenly and felt that something had changed. I knew that she was gone. So when the news came this morning, it was hard to read but not a surprise. When we lost my grandfather (her husband) in my senior year of high school, I had a dream about him just before he died.

When both of my grandfathers died, I was a pallbearer and helped carry their caskets. When both of my grandmothers died, I was in another corner of the world, too far away to help. These are the only times I’ve ever truly felt far from home. I would like to have been able to carry them, too, if only to say goodbye and thank you.

When a woman is born, she is born with all of the egg cells she will carry. So when Lura Emily Smith gave birth to my mother, in some sense my sister and I were there as well, at least in part. I loved all of my grandparents very much. They were all wonderful people who helped me become who I am. I miss them all. Still, there’s something different this time. My mother’s mother was the last to go, and maybe the hardest to take.

She will be missed every bit as much as she was loved.

№ 285 (Horizons, Time, and Death)


Yesterday morning I woke at about 8:00 AM to the sound of a hundred children cheering in unison, singing a chant I did not understand but found wonderful to hear. The closest thing I can relate it to is being woken by a cat that loves you and nuzzles your face when it can’t stand your being asleep any longer.

I now live adjacent to a middle school and above a day center for senior citizens. It’s usually about as quiet a locale as you could find in a metropolitan area of 38,000,000+ people. So when I was lying there half-asleep, suddenly listening to many ecstatic voices coming from somewhere nearby, I was initially confused. But it was such a happy sound that I couldn’t be annoyed by it.

As it turns out, there was a tennis competition on for the day, and the cheering lasted a solid ten hours. As background noises go, one could do worse than the rampant enthusiasm of youth.

I also woke to an email from my mother about my grandmother, informing me of her declining condition, a move into hospice care, and the uncertain but probable shortness of the time she has left. She’s in her mid-nineties, has led a long life filled with wonderful people who love her deeply, but I don’t think she could ever live to be old enough that it didn’t seem to be too soon to say goodbye.

The nice thing about looking out at the horizon as you go along on your travels is that it’s always out there, always somewhere further to go. Never do we find it under our feet suddenly, thinking, “Well shit, I guess that’s the end of it.”

But the end of life is a false horizon. As far off as it looks, we will reach it. Eventually we will all reach that precipice, toes curled over the edge, looking out into the unknowable. Vladimir Nabokov wrote something in a short story calledTerror that has stuck with me:

Another thing: At night, in bed, I would abruptly remember that I was mortal. What then took place within my mind was much the same as happens in a huge theater if the lights suddenly go out, and someone shrilly screams in the swift-winged darkness, and other voices join in, resulting in a blind tempest, with the black thunder of panic growing—until suddenly the lights come on again, and the performance of the play is blandly resumed. Thus would my soul choke for a moment while, lying supine, eyes wide open, I tried with all my might to conquer fear, rationalize death, come to terms with it on a day-by-day basis, without appealing to any creed or philosophy. In the end, one tells oneself that death is still far away, that there will be plenty of time to reason everything out, and yet one knows that one never will do it, and again, in the dark, from the cheapest seats in one’s private theater where warm live thoughts about dear earthly trifles have panicked, there comes a shriek—and presently subsides when one turns over in bed and starts to think of some different matter.

I have known that terror in the middle of the night, suddenly sitting upright and as stiff as a board, heart racing and breathing panicked. But it doesn’t happen much any more. Instead, I think about people like my grandmother, who I love and will miss. I think about how very long she’s lived. And I think about friends I’ve lost, like Debbie and Ezra, who never got nearly enough time but are already gone.

We do not know how much time we have. We cannot know. And so I suppose I’ve decided it’s not worth worrying about. Easier said than done, of course, but bit by bit I have been shifting my awareness to the experience of life here and now, knowing that life moves swiftly but is long nonetheless, and that we are able to fill it with good people and meaningful experiences, if only we make the effort to do so. Time doesn’t pass so quickly when we pay attention to life as we’re living it, and the horizons of life don’t seem so important when we’re appreciating where we currently stand.

№ 284 (In The Wind)


Long ago I pried open the shutters
And simply let the hinges rust
Allowed them to corrode in the salt spray
Declining shelter in favor of honesty

When the wind blows in
The wind blows clean through
Sometimes a slacking breeze
Sometimes a howling gale

Carefully I watch the instruments
Thermometers and anemometers
Hygrometers and barometers
Doing my best to anticipate each storm

I have no choice but to weather each one, regardless
Awareness doesn’t lesson the impact
But mindfulness calibrates the response
And informs the nature of the experience

№ 283 (A Tiny Gear With Wings)


On the morning of March thirty-first, I and five bags containing the bulk of my relevant possessions boarded Delta flight DL296 from Shanghai to Tokyo. This was long overdue, as anyone who has known me for any amount of time would tell you, and in ways a very fulfilling experience. However, it came at an extremely difficult time and was not the wholly positive experience I had always hoped it would be. It was, for example, a transition that signaled the failure of a five-year relationship, despite my best efforts. Also evident was the realization of what not having had the confidence to pursue what was truly important to me had cost me.

I had followed those I wanted to be with for the previous decade. Aside from a period of six months right in the middle, I had spent the prior ten years split more or less evenly between two long-term relationships, neither of them representing a time in which I had honestly stood up for myself after a while, choosing always to try to make the other happy at the cost of my own needs. In the end, I no longer knew who I was on my own.

This is a time of truth-finding.

And so it was that I experienced a success that felt like a failure. When I got into the city and dropped my luggage, all my baggage remained firmly in place. I was out of China but two weeks into flying solo here and I don’t yet have any idea when I’ll be out of the woods.

That this is a difficult time, filled with uncertainty and doubt, is a given. I’ve been having nightmares. I’ve cried more than I’d like. But thankfully, there have also been periodic moments of feeling good, like I’m precisely where I need to be, that I am finally following my correct path, and in doing so making up for years of time lost to unintended detours while honestly trying my best to love people with whom it ultimately wouldn’t work.

The second relationship in particular was something I wanted to make work more than anything else in my life I’ve ever experienced. But it didn’t, and it was this in particular that has added the crushing weight of failure to what should be a joyful and exciting time. This is why these moments of clarity and purpose carry so much weight. In these moments, I feel as if I am a tiny cog that has miraculously fallen into its correct place in the infinite clockwork of the universe after many years of wearing down its teeth trying to force itself into places it didn’t fit.

These instances of positive experience are extraordinarily important right now. They are packed so densely with a sense of belonging and being in the right place for once. They act as a vital counterweight to everything, real or imagined, that would threaten to pull me down into depths of depression I vowed years ago to never allow myself to visit again. They are ballast to keep me upright in the midst of a great storm that raises waves so high that I sometimes lose sight of the sky above me.

These moments are now indispensable in the process of working through problems and doing my best to remain open and vulnerable, thus allowing healing and growth to take place. I could shut out the pain, wall myself off from it, but we don’t get to choose what goes and what stays when we do that. Separating ourselves from our pain also insulates us from our capacity to experience joy. So as much as I would like to no longer have moments of waking up in the middle of the night to sob bitterly or swear furiously in the dark at someone I still can’t help but love, disallowing such things would also mean failing to remain open to experiences like the simple joy of appreciating the cherry blossoms with a group of friends in a lantern-lit park at night. It would mean refusing to allow myself to be moved by the music of an experimental vocalist in a tiny basement venue in Tokyo filled with people standing perfectly still, being vibrated inside and out by what the pretty girl in the angelic dress was sending down her microphone wire. It would mean ignoring the comedy of rounding a corner to see a fat dog waddling down the sidewalk with a flower petal stuck to its nose.

These things are lines on a map, helping me to navigate and orient myself to better times ahead. They provide hope at a time when feeling hopeless is only just slightly more of a chore than breathing.

In making this transition, I have thrown myself off a cliff and must grow wings on the way down. Each experience that shows me that I’m headed in the right direction is a feather added to my plumage. It’s a long way down, but soon enough I will find that I am able to fly, at a point when the lift provided by my wings overpowers the ever-decreasing weight of sorrow.

№ 282 (Of one who came and went)

I am precariously perched

So high up
So far to fall
So much at stake

This is something I cannot sustain

Thinking still thoughts,
Breathing measured breaths,
(No) (sudden) (moves)

And you’re up here too
Trying to look the other way
Concentrating on keeping your balance
And not letting on

(Just the same as me)

But temptation is terminal
Desire is our undoing
A stolen glance, a sidelong look
A mind that begins to stray

That balance, so hard won, is harder still to keep

One wobble and the heart skips beats by the handful
Balance and composure regained with an effort
But for how long?
That effort takes its toll

The longer one struggles, the less one resists the possibility of failing in the end
Fatigue leads to acceptance

I’m getting tired

And so I wonder
What would happen?

What if
we were
to fall?

I say we because the distance between us
Is less than it seems
And if I go, I’m taking you with me

You see, we’re tied
We can’t explain by what
But we know it’s there
And we feel it as we try to bear
The weight of understanding

But let’s say we fall

We fall and we give up and we give in
And let gravity follow its whim

We might expect the worst
We have so much to lose
But there’s more to it than that

Disaster is easy to imagine
One’s life reduced to ashes by the flames of failure
The withered remains of joy shrouded by swirling smoke

Good fortune is more of a challenge
Takes more of an effort to envision
And doesn’t always look like we expect

In a flash, we lose our footing
Whatever supported us a moment ago
Well, it just isn’t there any more

First, a momentary weightlessness
For an instant we feel we might rise up
The possibility of flight
Lifted up by our desire
Just before consequence takes hold

And then

The drop

The moment of the drop is followed instantaneously by a conscious loss of any sense of security

A hopeless situation, we are powerless against gravity
So all we can do is give ourselves over to it
Because really, what other choice do we have?

Spinning in space, we circle each other
Drawn together by our own energy
Orbiting a common center
Like a pair of binary stars

We glimpse our rippling image below us
Reflected black on among bright lights on the water as we plummet
Winded and wordless
Holding tight as we can

Faster and faster, accelerating
The empty space below us diminishing
The surface rising up to meet us

Can I save us?
Can I protect you?
Can I swallow the sea?


We part the waters
A momentary cavitation before the cold
And wet
Close in around us

I pull you in close
The feeling of your nearness
The bliss welling up inside me
Overwhelming in its magnitude

I imagine my heart
See it fill and overflow, then burst
Shimmering fragments in an expanding cloud
Carried outward by the shockwave of our impact
Iridescent and sparkling, particles in suspension

The light of your being refracts through me
And sprays a rainbow on the void around us

All the color and joy of being together
Set against the abject terror of letting go
But the terror is an illusion, at best
So in the end the beauty stands alone

Because the color fills my soul
And as far as I fall down, so too do I rise up
And thus we might move together

I fear no fall, nor any impact

So come and shake me loose, already
I won’t fight it if you do
But rather welcome the invitation

I would gladly fall with you

[Originally composed November, 2014, copyright David R Munson, all rights reserved]

№ 281


“Suppressing the fear of death makes it all the stronger. The point is only to know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that “I” and all other “things” now present will vanish, until this knowledge compels you to release them – to know it now as surely as if you had just fallen off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Indeed you were kicked off the edge of a precipice when you were born, and it’s no help to cling to the rocks falling with you. If you are afraid of death, be afraid. The point is to get with it, to let it take over – fear, ghosts, pains, transience, dissolution, and all. And then comes the hitherto unbelievable surprise; you don’t die because you were never born. You had just forgotten who you are.”

― Alan W. Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

We are vapors and fine gray ash, riding the currents of our own spirit, rising to meet and mix with the clouds of our dreams, both joyful and ghastly. It’s all ephemeral. Marvel at it as it roils and flows, no shape remaining for long. Just as no man can stand in the same river twice, we cannot exist in the same universe twice. It is ever-changing and so are we. The greatest mistake we can make is to cling to it, to try to hold on. That is, of couse, unless you enjoy the feeling of loss as it all slips through your fingers. Better to let go and relax, see where the currents take you. Breathe deep, loosen your grip, and remember that impermanence is a gift. Grasping at the ethereal is un-faith in your own existence.

So let go, already. Realize what you are and aren’t and that neither idea amounts to much. Accept it. Accept that we are all lost. Accept that nobody around you knows what the hell they’re doing and that’s OK. We’re all on the same beautuiful sinking ship, and that includes the sea.