Tales from outer turnip head...

Tales from outer turnip head...

Sunday, September 18, 2016

To live...

At the suggestion of a friend who knew I loved The Seven Samurai by Kurosawa I recently watched Ikiru.
Ikiru (生きる?, "To Live") is a 1952 Japanese film directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. The film examines the struggles of a minor Tokyo bureaucrat and his final quest for meaning. The script was partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, although the plots are not similar beyond the common theme of a bureaucrat struggling with a terminal illness.[1] It stars Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe.  
The film has a 100% positive rating based on 30 reviews from critics at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[2]
Ikiru ranks 459th on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.[3] Ranked #44 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[4] 
Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies reviews in 1996, saying: "Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us."[5] In his Great Movies review of Seven Samurai Ebert called it Kurosawa's greatest film.[6][7] --Wikipedia
I would like (but will choose to fail) to downplay the effect the film had on me, as too strong a review will only hurt other's chance of loving it as I did, but I was delighted by my experience of this film and overwhelmed (in a positive way) by its message...

"The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all":

What a sad place to start a story. A seemingly peaceful man, Kanji Watanabe, has maintained a boring and patterned life that is by some measure successful. But it is clear there is nothing dynamic nor alive in his existence. He goes to work each day and does the same thing he's done for years, nothing, and in his meek way this this is a good thing.

I am reminded of what Edmund Burke the 18th c. political philosopher said, that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." I am certain that doing nothing in the face of evil is a crime, but what is it when good men do nothing in the face of living? Is it also a crime? Is idleness the devil's workshop? Or is doing nothing in the face of living just sad? (It is not lost on me that doing "nothing" purposefully can lead to insight and enlightenment as well.) I am not completely sure, but I am starting to realize how terrible it is to not at least try to live each day, to search for the light and turn ourselves to face it, to strive to grow though forward movement and doing!

"What would you do if you had only six months left to live, like him?":

And a sad story of a man who does nothing quickly gets more sad. Watanabe is shuffling through life—widowed and distant from his son—when he discovers from a doctor's visit that stomach cancer will soon take his life.  

My father and I have had a discussion more than once about foreknowledge of death. He asks, "If the time and date of your death were stamped on your heal, would you look?" I have asserted always that I would. I am not sure of his answer, but suspect his interest lies more in how that choice is made, the effect of knowing the stamp is there more than the information itself. For me, not knowing something is a burning itch I struggle to not scratch. I value truth more than illusion, even if that truth is painful. I suspect knowing when my death would arrive would temporarily cripple me, but perhaps (I hope) would galvanize me to live more fully. Do we not get a second wind at the end of a race when we know where the finish line is?

"Because misfortune teaches us the truth.":

Watanabe meets a writer, full of profound ideas and intensity, and the two of them proceed to live wildly in a stumbling trip through Tokyo's nightclubs filled with women, drink, and song. It is a smokey and pleasurable adventure, although not sustainable.

When I was a junior in high school I visited five colleges on a midwest tour with my father. Notre Dame: too big. Dennison: too Greek. Wooster (my mom's college): too nice. Oberlin (my first choice): too "left". And Kenyon (my dad's college): just right! Everything from the feel of the campus, the visual aesthetic, and even the interview process (Oberlin's interview went so poorly I am convinced that had I applied, I would not make it onto even the large pile) fit like a glove...

"We only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death.": 

The interview question at Kenyon was "If you found out the world was going to end in a few days what would you do?" What a fun question! I was a little tired of trying to put on a likable face by that part of our college trip and felt comfortable enough in the Kenyon setting, that I just relaxed conversationally and answered honestly. [There is a lesson there perhaps about trying too hard rather than just being ourselves, eh?] I told the woman that my first impulse might be to behave recklessly and party like there was no tomorrow, but that idea did not sit well with me. I would realize quickly that people around me would be panicked and sad, and that although scared, the world around us is still beautiful. So I would try to calm them down, tell them it would be ok, but to quickly move on to find the people that I loved the most and try to spend some last good moments with them. there would not be much time for fancy adventures, but plenty of time to just sit and talk and "be" with those we care the most about. She seemed surprised at my answer, and commented that she had been asking that same question all day, and that each student had talked about selfish things like driving fast on highways, or breaking things for the fun of it. She smiled and told me she thought my answer was thoughtful and nice. I told her my answer was selfish too, to be with people I cared about comforting them and being comforted by them would be the best way to cope with such a short end. To lose the world and life would be tragic and devastating, but with the right mindset, knowing the end was near might make those last moments so, so, sweet, as long as it was with the right people.

"Besides, It's time to buy a new hat to switch to a new self.":
Realizing that the fast life of Tokyo did not fill the hole in his lifeless gut, Watanabe tries to come to grips with his emptiness by attaching himself to youth. He platonically courts a young woman who seems to be filled with an exuberant joy of living. His lesson from her as he grasps and clings to her energy in the end is that he needs to find his own purpose, his own living.

And so I left my disenfranchised punk self behind in my high school days of Baltimore and embarked on the best four years of my life, adventures that led from that hilltop at Kenyon College in central Ohio: thriving in an academic playground, finding new fields of study, understanding the guidance of a mentor, finding love, working with the homeless, tempering my sobriety, finding my soul in Asia, and learning to express myself effectively. What a "new hat" I tried on in college. I worked for myself, and success snuck up on me when I wasn't paying attention to results, but rather, was just interesting in living. [Hmmmm, another lesson, perhaps?]


"The point is, the world is a dark place if his dedication was pointless."
"It is a dark place."
"But anyone of us could suddenly drop dead."
"We have to act like we're doing something but do nothing.":

Watanabe's colleagues grapple with his death and see in themselves the lack of purpose that he had also lacked for much of his professional life. They lament the darkness of the world, and drink, and bolstered their sadness and grief. They feel shame for their embrace of "nothingness," contrasted by  Wannabe's last months where he lived for a purpose. In the end the men around him ARE changed and vow to sacrifice for the greater good of society.

If we see great people do great great things, and talk about how great they are, without changing ourselves, we are just drunks crying in our glasses. It is not enough to just try. We must do! Yoda's great admonition to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back is "Do. Or do not. There is no try." I love the idea that we try new things, and we show up and "give it our best." This is doing. It is in fighting our inertia that trying is not enough; paraphrased: Shit, or get off the pot!

Turning to the light:

And so Watanabe did something meaningful for himself that improved the life of others around him, and affected still others who reflected on his efforts. He did not do it for recognition. While he worked, tirelessly in his illness that no-one knew about, he turned toward the light. He faced the shining sun and found life! He saw the world around him and became something more than he had ever been before. At one point when he is rebuked in his efforts, a subordinate pushes Watanabe to be angry. His response: "I can't afford to hate people. I haven't got that kind of time." As he moves quickly through his day he stops to look at the sky, the light pushing through the clouds, and remarks "How truly beautiful."

We all stumble. We all have those moments where darkness closes around us and we live in shadow. We have moments and perhaps years where we protect our place in the world by doing nothing. We all have moments where hate might seem like it could feel good. But the light is always there, the capacity to try on a new hat for our new selves is always there; and we do not need to be confronted with our impending death to see it; perhaps just a story of another who is, can compel us to live.

"Life is brief.":
Perhaps the most beautiful scene in the film comes near the end when we find Watanabe on a swing in a park—that for a select few, matters dearly—singing a song that he had sung while drunk in Tokyo's night clubs. It was a popular song in Japan in the nineteen-teens. It starts "Life is brief..."

The name of the film is Ikiru (To live) by Akira Kurosawa. It is a story about living in the face of death. The bookend usage of a song that is is about the brevity of life and which encourages us to love is  fittingly beautiful and poignant...

Gondola no Uta 
life is brief.
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow
life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before his hands
take up his boat
before the flush of his cheeks fades
for those of you
who will never return here
life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the boat drifts away
on the waves
before the hand resting on your shoulder
becomes frail
for those who will never
be seen here again
life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the raven tresses
begin to fade
before the flame in your hearts
flicker and die
for those to whom today
will never return 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A ramble about memory (memorial and celebration)...

[The soundtrack for today's blog is a montage of news items edited over REM's Everybody Hurts. It is an emotional rollercoaster and in no way is required to appreciate the entry below. The lyrics that are important for my entry are in the text of the blog. Nonetheless, I listen to this song every year on September 11th and thought I would share.] 

When your day is long and the night
The night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go
Everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes... 
It seems appropriate to have my first blog back from hiatus to be one of historical relevance and particular import to me. Fifteen years ago some terrible things happened on 9/11, and those of us that were there—present in the moment—know how time can stretch out into a terrible breath holding exercise of amazement, terror, and anticipation. Sorrow flooded in as the disbelief dissipated, and anger with despair pressed the sorrow down to places where it might fester, only later being flushed out slowly and patiently in a world-wide session of collective grief. Terrible things happen all the time in history, but that they would happen in the US to so many of the privileged made the whole world pay especial attention, including me...

Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (hold on)
When you think you've had too much of this life, well hang on...
It hurts me still, the feelings that arise when I think of that day fifteen years ago. I remember identifying with the 343 firefighters especially, even though I had yet to turn in my application for the local fire department; that identification is what finally pushed me to join the local hose company.  I have strong memories from that day that I can play back in my mind with cinematic clarity. I can feel what I felt and see faces of confused and distraught children quietly wandering the halls of my school that was no longer following the bell schedule. It was a quiet chaos that burned like hot iron, but there was no noise; the quiet was disquieting. When exploring those cinematic moments hurt me too much [forgetting that I can choose to not watch my own mind's screen] I choose to retreat to a moment at the end of the day when I was emotionally drained having been a teacher for the entire day a with wide-eyed and shocked students around me for the entire news cycle from first impact to 4pm: I have picked up my five months old son from day care and have NPR on the radio. I am thinking I want to cry for the loss of innocence I am projecting on him, and for the realization that the news he does not know will change his world. I worry that he might be taking in the raw emotions of the newscasters as they lose their ability to be objective in reporting the events of the day, and I choose to for the first time that day to turn off the radio. It's time to shut off the feed. It's the good parent thing to not allow this hurt to pour around the air space of my firstborn, my millennial born, my beloved progeny. I pull into the Duncan Donuts that has since become The Donut Man and ritually buy my son and me our Tuesday blueberry cake donut to share for the 1/2 hour ride home. And as I glance back in the rear view mirror and hand him his first piece, he smiles and laughs and my world is whole again for that moment...

Everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts
Don't throw your hand Oh, no
Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone, no, no, no, you are not alone
And here I am on another anniversary of 9/11 reliving some of those feelings again, allowing the hurt in, as a strange form of respect for those impacted more than me, a tribute(?) for those who have suffered more than I do. I allow the feelings in to witness the hurt, and perhaps to defy the hurt by feeling sad and then rising out of that sadness with a glow in my heart and compassion for those around me who persist; living today seems to spit in the eye of the feelings that were sought by angry men who wished to injure us fifteen years ago. Living today feels like laughter and smile from a baby, innocent and full, and wonderful!...

ABRUPT SHIFT IN BLOG FOCUS (but still following a thread of though about Septembers and memories... 
...Nine years before the attacks on Washington and New York I traveled to a Buddhist monastery in India to study near and under the grandchild-tree that the Buddha sat under so many seasons before. I allowed my eyes to open while studying in Asia. I woke up... It was the pinnacle four months of the most transformative four years of my life, and I am grateful for the person I have become as a result of my experience there. This is not the Sunday to process the lessons I received while on that trip, but suffice to say, I was not only transformed, but continue to receive the fruits of the seeds that were planted back then so long ago...

Living in the past vs. remembering...
I bring up my trip to India today, as it is in my mind a lot lately and has me thinking about the differences of living in the past vs. remembering the past. The former is stale and speaks of a soul no longer growing; the latter is fruitful and reflective, allowing for comparison and subsequently for me, gratitude. I recently joined a public group on FaceBook that is comprised of people who have visited that place in India and learned from the same teachers, and perhaps who have experienced the same sorts of transformation I did. It is a group that helps connect people who share a location connection from the past only, but so many who go there seem to open in similar ways, share similar growth, at a similar time in their searching lives. If the impulse to join such a group is only to relive the past, then the present is ruined. But if the desire to revisit the past in order to find a better present, then the future opens in a way that was not possible moments before. What glorious potential!...

Finding Things (like new friends who feel like long lost ones...):
So to be silly I asked Google how to find something lost. WikiHow toped my search results and listed the following steps: Method: Calming down. 1: Breathe in and out. 2: Empty your brain. 3: Remember that is is not the end of the world. 4: Put it in context. 5: Be confident.  How interesting...  How almost Buddhist, how apropos! ... So, to get back to FaceBook: I found a new friend from my Buddhist Studies past. I have been breathing lately and emptying my brain; I have been reversing any catastrophizing (sp?!) in my life and placing my experiences in context. I am working on my confidence... and then like magic, I stumbled on a new friend with old ties in the most implausible of circumstances... like "it" (this discovery) was meant "to be" even though I do NOT believe in fate! Coincidences happen all the time as long as we are open to observing them as they happen...

Realization and reflection:
So I wrote the following on the group page on FaceBook: "What is it about finding someone randomly in the world who just happens to have been on this program that feels exactly like finding a long lost friend? " You see, the threads of those memories back in 1992 continue to criss-cross in my life and it is rich and wonderful. I continue to find new friends as a result of my time in India, each time provoking me to revisit those cinematic memories that do not cause me to retreat, but rather, help me emerge. Our pasts explain our paths, reveal our progress, and provide a context for who we are. Buddhism does not deny the past and the future while it encourages us to embrace the moment; it merely places the past and future in a context that allows the moment to be the place where we live. And on this 9/11, as I reflect on my past, both fifteen years ago and twenty-four years ago, I have have my body turned toward the future, and I am living right now... glory be!