Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

The decay of anxiety

It has been another wonderful end-of-the-summer day. I went out on a two block walk and the thing that most caught my attention was the wind rustling the leaves. Now, most of the leaves are green though a few forlorn apple trees have lost their dressings, but most of the green maples just shift their leaves in the wind and I look up, catching the underside of seeds yet to twirl down on us.
The wind does move. It is definitely time when feelings are changing and the maples and the oaks and the cottonwoods are anticipating the upcoming autumn. For when the wind passes through the trees, it sounds like all sorts of dryness and I expect a dozen leaves to come lazily catching in my hair after a descent- but they don’t. So it’s some sort of secret that all of us are hiding, this anticipation of the upcoming cold. We whisper it between ourselves but no one says anything outright about it yet. Except the apple trees and they look very bare and quite neglected. They rushed to the party and now they’re burrowing into their darker thoughts, sitting the evening out.
I took another walk this evening, this time, a very short walk. I can’t walk very far still but that’s okay. I can still roam around a little. In my thoughts were possible avenues of escape when a sort of soft-edged anxiety comes bumbling around in my head. It’s not a large sort of panic, really. It’s the grandmother-ly type, the type my mother’s mother and my mother’s grandmother were notorious for. Their mantra was “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear”, in soft sweet chiming tones. My own form of anxiety is something akin to it. It’s the side glance of everything around me. The possible diminish and demise of toilet paper is peril fraught, the cat fur in the carpet is a growing outrage. The dvds taken out from the library cease to be entertainment and turn into duty and the delightful books, that promised so much when I took them from the shelves are now heavy tomes bound around my neck. The simplest, the nicest things turn into chores and it seems that so often, I go around with ashes in my mouth. I throw away so much energy towards work and then stumble around, frantically cleaning and sorting and cleaning and reading and knitting and watching and…everything is a chore. Ashes in the mouth.
And now, it seems, that recovery is like recovery always is: telling yourself something else very distinctly and sticking to it. For me, it is something like…”everything is just fine. Everything has a place.” and pointedly thinking of something else, like a funny line from a book or a particularly nice flower I saw. It’s almost maddening how simple it is to fight anxiety. There’s no artillery, no flying bombs, no helicopters with black suited people getting out with state-of-the-art rifles. It’s just thinking differently and being stubborn about it. And already, just from a simple walk and a simple plan, I was reading an old addition of my favorite magazine and it hit me: “It is pleasant knowing that there are things to do.” It is pleasant knowing that I have to prune the rose bush, sweep the kitchen floor, figure out what to do with my mini shelves that sit out in the rain. It’s not like anything is going anywhere- the rose sure isn’t and the dirt on the kitchen floor is resolved to stick around and the shelves don’t scream in the rain.
If I feel this way tomorrow I don't know, but it is a start.

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Winter in the Time of Climate Change

There is a stream near my home and I walk along it nearly every day; I know its moods and seasons nearly as well as I know my own. We are family and our connections are pure: we’re both made of water.

Every day brings more distressing news about the environment. Big changes need to happen but whatever change that does happen is so slow. Global warming is now being felt by everyone, some more than others. I go out and walk along the stream when the news and all the unfortunate future unknowns press in too hard. Right now, it is running fast. This winter has been a series of freezes and thaws. November hit hard with a heavy, deep freeze and I expected this to lead to a  white Christmas but instead, it’s been a muddy, wet winter, full of more temperate days than frosty ones. The thermometer rides up and down, every day propelled by a bouncing ball rather than a steady progression of tiny fluctuations.

The stream locks and then unlocks. It accepts each freeze and thaw with inestimable grace. After reading the news, it is hard to know what is near or far, here and up in the sky, in the mind or in the present moment. But the stream is always present, it knows no other moment. It lives in eternity; as David Hockney said, “It’s always now. It’s now that’s eternal.”

The creek is still here, I think to myself whenever I see it, it is still living. It runs forward through this strange January, sometimes under the ice and sometimes not. Patches of green moss dot the banks nearby, beyond that the nearby plants are broken, brown, and dried. They are asleep, listening to things I cannot hear, dreaming of things I barely know of.

The Tale of Genji: A Timeless Novel of Messy Relationships

“Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.”

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

I read through The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu over the course of the summer and autumn, and I finally finished last week. I’d read it in the early morning with my first cup of tea and cat in my lap. The cat becomes upset and depressed if I don’t hold her for a little while in the morning so it was a good fit to settle in and read as much as I could from the 1200 page novel before moving into the rest of the day, accompanied by one happy cat. Now when I get up, blearily make myself a pot of tea and settle down, it’s a strange sensation not to reach out for the massive, multi-generational novel.

Set during the 11th century in Ancient Japan, The Tale of Genji spans three generations and is loaded with all sorts of characters, locations, and religious observances. It deals with the relationships between people, nature, the arts, and the gods. Emotions are celebrated in waka poetry, seasonal changes are closely noted and cherished, religious observations of Buddhism and Shintoism dominate daily life, and people’s lives change due to the current Emperor in power. At the center is the story of Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji) and later on in the novel, his descendants. Despite having a father as Emperor, his mother was a low-ranking consort and as such, he has commoner status– but for all that, lives a wealthy, fabulous life. Added on top of this is his intense, near-otherworldly beauty and grace, acknowledged by both men and women. Loaded with money and charm, he seduces and sleeps with many. Hundreds of pages are devoted to his thoughts and feelings on his lovers (to whom he sends piles of poetry and presents) and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of his lovers are revealed privately to the reader. Nearly every woman who comes in contact with him (and a few men) has deeply conflicted feelings about Genji and his behavior.

Noble women’s lives in the Heian Era are so delicately arranged that any mere whim of Genji’s can affect their futures deeply. The women live entirely at home, tucked into the deep recesses of their houses. They rarely even stand—though if a noblewoman does get up and walk, life is about to get spicy. To express their sadness and depression over Genji’s cavalier behavior, they watch the seasons change through a veil of tears, lie face down on the floor, refuse to talk to him, or can’t stop sending him messages. Whatever their behavior, they ultimately have accept his treatment of them. It is not an easy path to walk. They find consolation in the surrounding world: by reading, writing, playing music, observing the seasons, flowers, and birds, caring for their children, and talking to other women.

Seasons, religious observances, and rulers flow by and the main characters change too, from Genji and all the people surrounding him, to his grandsons and the women they love. There is a possibility that different author wrote the story of the grandsons, Kaoru and Niou. The style is different, somewhat smoother, and the characters’ thoughts and motives are revealed in more depth. I like to think that it was Shikibu’s work, a return to her great story after many decades of refining her craft.

“The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

The final third of the book centers on a succession of autumns, and a melancholy light flickers through the last few hundred pages. Genji is remembered but in passing—little of him is left except for his great house and his descendants. Kaoru, Niou, and three sisters that they love are on center stage. Genji’s grandchildren live in much the same way he did and though their personalities are different, their lives are just as fleeting and as frail. People make many of the same choices as the previous generation; the circle of life wheels around and around as the seasons flash by. The story has no neat conclusion: the book ends abruptly with protagonists still navigating their lives and affairs. I imagine Kaoru, Niou, and Ukifume out there in another dimension or time, wrestling with their lives, emotions, and circumstances, trying to make do with the choices available to them.

The Tale of Genji is an immersion into another life and era; it is an ancient gift that has survived for nearly a millennium. It is a book of shadows and barriers, a world that exists in lamplight.

“In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

It is miracle that so massive a book, copied out by hand year after year, decade after decade, century after century, then at last into print, should survive into the modern era. Due to its venerable age and old language, many translations of The Tale of Genji have been written: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s in Japanese and Edward Seidensticker’s in English are among the most well-known. I read Royall Tyler’s translation, occasionally dipping into Arthur Waley’s and Seidensticker’s earlier ones. What comes through strongly, regardless of the translation, is how incredibly easy The Tale of Genji is to read despite being nearly 1000 years old. Part of this is Shikibu’s very modern skill of weaving plot points in and out of characters’ motivations and thoughts. Shifting narrative perspectives and stream of consciousness prose both play a part; but an even bigger contributor to the story’s strength is its centering of relationships. If readers love anything, it’s hot, messy love affairs, tangled family and friendships, and all the accompanying emotions that go with them. Genji, full of tumult, even ghosts and possessions, is ultimately about human nature and all the triumphs, frailties, and failures that come with it.