I started a bullet journal last fall. Everything started out well: I had color coded charts, washi tape decorations on the pages, and all sorts of lists (like Emma Woodhouse, my list making game is strong. especially when it comes to books and movies). But then, the newness wore off as did the color coding and keeping track of every little goal I made. And then I started gritted my teeth whenever I opened my bullet journal. And then I started gritting my teeth whenever I thought of my bullet journal. And by then it was over.
I mulled over what went wrong. I knew it had to do with goals, the wretchedness of constantly trying to achieve goals and how the desire to meet goals can lead to hellish micro-management of life. It’s fortunate that life is much more than this. but from my bullet journal? It was hard to tell.
I’ve left a lot of empty journals in my wake but it was hard to abandon a journal with a such cute fox sticker on the cover. So I thought of a new idea and a few weeks ago ago, I gave it a try. I began to keep a list of all the things I enjoyed in a day. I recorded small happenings like the joy of listening to Oscar Peterson play the piano while I drank tea in the morning, eating a pork bánh mì sandwich from the local Vietnamese restaurant (don’t underestimate this sandwich), reading great new manga (check out Moto Hagio), and listening to the rain dance on the roof. I scribbled down the everyday pleasures that my life gave me every single day. And no, nothing life-changing has happened from doing so. But what I do notice is that I’m writing a new way. I’m learning to write about the pleasantries in life instead of the goals and the hindrances in my way. Noticing what gives my body and soul rest and enjoyment takes a new kind of seeing and a new kind of a style. As a human being and a writer, this is exactly the kind of exercise I want to be doing.
I don’t know how long this new kind of list taking will last but for now, my bullet journal is giving me exactly what I need. It is working for me instead of the reverse.
I ask for a center cut of salmon. The butcher smiles, picks a beautiful pink rectangle, and places it on the scale. It is three-fourths of a pound, the exact weight I want. The scale tips to my favor.
I had come straight from the lab, where my blood had been drawn to test for different types of arthritis and Lyme disease. The nurse was funny and we had a few laughs but the gloomy part of my mission remained: I needed to find out if there was an underlining cause for the tendinitis that had spread through my body, a reason it hadn’t fully healed after 3 years. None of the probable answers were great but it would be something at least, a way to clothe the suffering in medical language, a quick shorthand to use when someone asked about it.
At home, I cut the salmon fillet in half lengthwise and admired the skin side, how the white scales merged into the black. The skin shimmers and it is easy to imagine the original body flashing through the water, magnificent, glinting, gloriously alive.
I soaked the fillets in sake and salt, patted them dry and then sprinkled salt over the flesh. They rest now in the cool dark refrigerator and soon I will take them out, rinse them off, and broil them under a flame.
Salted salmon is not hard to make and it goes well with rice and green tea poured over the top.
During these preparations, my left elbow aches and moans. The nurse had asked me to make a fist as she looked for a vein to draw blood and I had held the fist a few minutes long, unsure of when to let go. That short lived clenched fist aggravated the tendinitis in my left elbow. It swelled as I drove away from the lab and aches constantly now. I held a book in my left hand after I got home and instantly regretted the action.
Everything has a price, even this simple recipe, even reading. My elbow burns and flares, hot and sore to the touch. Medication has never worked. I prepare salmon slowly and listen to the elbow’s pain as if it is a dead radio channel turned on in the background.
“It could be fibromyalgia,” the doctor said, popping his head back in after he had already left. “I forgot to mention there’s a good chance of that.” He nodded, then left.
The day in 1st grade that I graduated to writing from a pencil to a pen was a tremendous occasion. I had labored for months on holding the pencil correctly, mastering the art of (somewhat) straight and curved lines, learning to write with a light touch rather than a lead grinding one. I no longer made holes in my pencil from sharpened pencil tips, I could shade in shapes and above all, I was beyond tired of envying my parents for using pens whenever they wanted. The moment had finally arrived: my 1st grade teacher announced I was ready and handed me a blue Bic pen.
My self-satisfaction and smugness soared through the roof. Not only was I using ink but I was among the few who did. Not everyone else had worked as hard. They must continue to labor over alphabet worksheets with infantile pencils that must be sharpened by hand every day. How demeaning.
And so began my love affair with pens.
In many ways, I never moved past my 1st grade achievement. The goal had been to write with ink and when that hurdle was cleared, any pen would do. Ink was the point. It wasn’t until college that I developed any sort of pen preference and that was do more to the fact that I didn’t have a laptop and was handwriting on paper constantly. Pentel RSVP Ballpoint was my first favorite and later on after college, Papermate Flexgrip Elite 1mm black ballpoint was the preference.
And then last fall on a visit to Seattle, WA, dear Amanda escorted me to Kinokunyia’s Bookstore and I was flabbergasted. There were rows upon rows of pens, pencils, highlighters, gelpens, refills, erasers, and sample pens were everywhere. I had heard of such places but I had never been to one.
My head swam and I was shook but I set my teeth. I would try out as many pens as I had time for and take away a few. Amanda was a patient saint while I made my long and vacillating journey. I think I tried every pen they had. I came away clutching a handful.
Autumn and winter have passed since that fateful day. I’ve narrowed them down to one tried and true favorite workhorse, the Zebra Surari .7mm Emulsion Ink Pen.
Zebra is a Japanese pen and writes much smoother than the usual American pen. The writing line is deep and precise, plus the narrow body is a great fit for my hand. There’s a great pleasure to be had from a smooth flowing pen that I hadn’t known before Zebra. My next favorite is the Zebra Surari .5mm ballpoint. It has the same narrow body, smooth flow but with an even finer line. I tend to go for wider lines but sometimes a fine line suits the mood of the day.
A big perk is that refills are available for these pens. No more buying a box of pens and throwing them away as they cease to work, an issue I’ve always hated due to the waste.
The pleasure of a fine pen is a very great thing, indeed. No doubt I’ll learn more as I pop into pen shops and chat with pen connoisseurs. If you’re someone who writes a great deal by hand, I’d encourage you to discover the pleasure of trying out different pens from different countries. It’s an unexpected delight. And please feel free share your favorite pens here. Simple or elaborate, pens are part of everyday pleasures.
In the shade of a huge chestnut tree at the edge of town, a monk made his hermitage a refuge from the world. Saigyō’s poem about gathering chestnuts deep in the mountains refers to such a place. I wrote on a slip of paper: The Chinese character for “chestnut” means “west tree,” alluding to the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha; the priest Gyōki, all his life, used chestnuts for his walking stick and for the posts of his home.
Almost no one sees
the blossoming chestnut
under the eaves
An excerpt from Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, trans. Sam Hamill
It is resting to read about Bashō’s account of his travels through Edo period Japan during this fever pitch time of ours. He quotes famous poetry and writes his own, recounts the weather, mountains, landmarks, legends, and friends he visits along the way.
His haikus are numerable and they begin to sink into the soul. Nature becomes a deep, rich place, the surest area to connect with the finest thoughts and feelings.
And when I look up from reading, I remember one moment in earlier in the day. I was driving along and I beheld: the black arm of a streetlight become a tree branch of iron beauty, a perfect blue sky hung like a backdrop behind it.
I drove underneath the iron tree and was full of gratefulness that I was alive enough to see such everyday wonder.
I wish the same for you.
Artwork: Lingering Snow at Asukayama (Asukayama no bosetsu), from the series “Eight Views in the Environs of Edo (Edo kinko hakkei no uchi)”, c. 1837/38, by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重, color woodblock print, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/25293
The cool dry weather had shifted during the night and when I went outside in the morning, I walked into a sauna. The front welcome mat was soaked like an old rag but the cement steps were dry. The cracks in the driveway were damply dark but the road glinted white grey in the sunshine. I strolled down the street, fierce pleasure flooding over me when the sun poured down onto my wide brim hat. I felt the heat through the hat’s crown and on my arms but underneath the umbrella of my brim, my face and shoulders remained cool. I gave up on the Pokémon game that everyone’s crushing on and instead, took pictures of the maple leaf shadows on the street. The leaves were pointed like stars, too eloquent for language. I heard them rustling overhead but down below, I studied them through my phone’s window, marveling at their everyday foreignness. They are closer to something, more pure and true because they are closer. What they are close to? I am not sure but I can guess: a land I live in but can rarely see, a melody I strain to hear in the breeze and on good days, I catch one chime or two. I glide further down the street, away from the maples and towards the oaks, red and bur. They do not cast shadows on the street; they are too dignified for shadow play at the noon hour. Maybe later when the work hours are over and they feel free to let down their hair. They are strength; they hold up the sky, push down the earth. They are closer to something but we don’t talk about these things together. We listen instead. Oaks are strong because they are tuned into things that I can barely see and songs I can barely hear. I would like to see more, like to hear more. I would like to hear them. When I arrive back home, I take off my hat and the wind ruffles my hair. I climb the dry cement steps, take one step on the ragged doormat, enter the house, and close the door. H is for hearing. S is for song. T is for time.
(Influences: LaRose by Louise Erdrich, Lucky Romance starring Ryu Jun Yeol, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan)
This is the opening quote in White is for Witching. Here is the full poem with title:
my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell
I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can tell when I may dine again.
No man can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.
Sometimes the brain needs a rest, a small vacation enjoyed with the night. Tonight the vacation is with Prince and his first album, “For You.” It’s a sweet groovy album and as he plays, I sew, my fingers darting with need and thread as my mind stills.
Now playing — So Blue by Prince