I was hardly a Japanese scholar, but studied it enough in college to be semi-literate when I arrived in Japan to teach English nearly two decades ago. Nor am I a calligraphy master, though I enjoyed practicing. Zen brushwork has always appealed to me; I was gifted a scroll by a Zen monk upon leaving.
I don’t practice it anymore, my command of the language has virtually disappeared, all the skill fading into history and nothingness.
In these days I find myself thinking a lot about life, about transience, about how there is no other world but this. No other life, no other self, no other place to be but here. While I would not identify myself as being a Buddhist, Zen Buddhism has had a profound influence on my thinking in this regard.
I remember a particular lecture long ago, a monk discussing the illusory concepts of past and future, illustrated by two sides of the same coin, with the present being the thin metal that binds the two faces together. The two faces of the coin could not exist were it not for the substance between them; it is the thickness of the coin that creates it. One cannot have a one-sided coin. Thus there is only the present; what lies on either side of it is illusion. All we can grasp is the thin, ever-changing space between what we call past and what we call future.
When I was eighteen years old I was awakened to a phone call pronouncing my father dead. Up to that point, I always assumed there would be more time. I immediately quit school and quit my job and sat in a canyon for the better part of two days. When I eventually slowed down and stopped thinking, stopped allowing my mind to race, things eventually became clearer; the leaves were turning and fall was approaching. As winds stirred the branches and leaves fell, I realized my family had shed another father. And that eventually it would be my turn. And in turn everyone after me. That was my first real experience with the fact that the only constant is change. Conceptually, I had always understood this. But now I was living it.
Thinking back on the surgery I’ve recently gone through, as well as the complications and troubles I’m still dealing with, I have to marvel at the fleeting nature of who we are, what we are, how we define ourselves. I used to think myself healthy. Until I suddenly found myself in a hospital bed. And now that I’m recovering, waiting to see if the surgery worked, I am a person recovering, I have to take things slowly. I’m still a husband and father and artist and teacher and many other things. But I feel I must add recovering to the list as it so greatly affects how I can do those other things. As much as I do not want to define myself as someone who is recovering, the experience has been profound enough that I feel I almost don’t have a choice. It is invariably now a part of my past. The danger of getting too wrapped up in the idea and identity of recovering or being recovered is that this might not be the end of it, that I might find myself back in a hospital. One day at a time, staying centered in the present, is the only way to stay sane.. But I have certainly learned and cannot forget that the health we have today is as fleeting as anything else. It may be gone tomorrow.
I wish I was a better calligrapher. Thinking about the coin metaphor, I believe that ink on rice paper might be more appropriate. I imagine a scroll, the character for “Past” painted on one side, “Future” painted on the other. The present, the sliver in between them, impossibly and almost imperceptibly thin. The ink from “past” bleeds through the paper , mixing with and obscuring the ink for “future”. And vice versa. The stories and narratives that we carry from the past influencing what we will become; what we hope to be in turn changing how we see our history. I wonder what story I am creating right now, how much of an influence it will have on my future.
My heart went wild in the middle of a lecture on aesthetics today. I played it off well enough that I don’t think my students noticed, though I was sweating for a few minutes. My immediate thought was that if it kept it up, I’d have to call an ambulance. And then it went back to normal. All of this in a few seconds. I was told to expect episodes like this for the first few months post surgery, fits and starts and misfires as my heart is adjusting to its new electricity patterns. This hasn’t been the first time. Honestly, it’s terrifying.
The only antidote to the fear it causes is to take a firm grasp of the now, to live in that sliver of time where there is no room for anything else. The present is so thin that fear and anxiety and anger won’t fit.
If we can just learn to be quiet enough to catch it, to bring the mind back home, to remember what we’re forgetting.