Monday, 15 August 2011

full circle

We're back where we began, and look how far we've come.

I've been talking a lot to a friend/guru who is big on Buddhism lately, about cutting ties with the past and shedding all our expectations for the future, the idea being that we live entirely in the present and no other time exists. I can accept that there is no future, that it's pointless dwelling on events that have yet to (or may never) pass, but how can we sever ties with the past? The past is everything that we are, and while a lot of the experience that we've accumulated does little but weigh us down, carrying that knowledge with us is how we learn, playing with it and building on it, and if we're not learning then what's the point? 

Speaking of points, I do have one somewhere. My point is that my past took me right back to where this whole journey started, eight or so years ago: Hachijo-jima. It's a powerful literary device, this framing technique, and I should have spotted that that's what I was doing; tracing my steps back to the start for a better picture of how much has changed. Eight years ago I landed on that island, a cripplingly self-conscious teenager with no serious intentions (because that wasn't the time for intentions) and a stack of uncompromising ideals that had yet to be tried and tested. It's where, on a whim, I decided to learn Japanese, which is a decision that has changed the course of my life beyond belief.

Now here I am, living in Japan with a degree in Japanese, doing a job that makes no use of my knowledge whatsoever, once again clueless about where to go next. But I think what I had forgotten is how easily I made the decision to learn this language, before it took on so much meaning and dreams became metiers. I thought it would be cool to live in Tokyo, to speak a language most people are clueless about, and it is - but it's not my everything and it was never going to be. 

Going back to Hachijo, which was as seductive and enthralling as the first time, reminded me that  this seemingly key decision was totally arbitrary - and it's impossible to regret the consequences. The future didn't exist for me then, so I used my imagination and committed to something big without fear of regret, and what do you know, it actually worked out (I think my 16-year-old self would be pretty proud of me). Obviously we can't go through life making decisions like a teenager at every juncture, but right now it seems as good an approach as any, and frankly I could use a little more faith.

I recently read a novel called The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago, and one idea really stayed with me. As a convoy consisting of several men, some royalty and a very valuable elephant travels through the perilous alps, the narrator describes the royal carriage tumbling down the mountainside and the mahout heroically leading his elephant to the rescue. The episode is described in some detail before it's revealed that it's all in the wandering imagination of the bored and under-celebrated mahout, but just the fact that he imagined it means that it had the potential to happen, which is significant in itself. So: there is no future, the past is not how I remembered, and imagination = possibility.