“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” ~ Thomas Merton
A friend posted the above quote on Facebook the other day. It seemed connected to an article over at the inimitable Brain Pickings about memory and imagination. (Seriously if you don’t subscribe to Brian Pickings Weekly, you need to right now.)
The article talks about, among other things, how remembering the past and imagining the future are very similar, at least from a neurological stand point.
The article also mentions something that’s come up in my Japanese lessons. Japanese and English both use past tense to talk about a potential future. “He will have completed it by next Tuesday.” It is, in essence, remembering an event in the future, a concept I really really like.
The article, I contend, supports the good Mr. Merton. If we hold our looking-back loosely we’re better equipped to hold our looking-forward loosely, which then frees us to be in the present.
Explorers—the European sailing ship kind—didn’t know precisely “what was happening,” but they had some idea that it was worth doing. They knew they wanted to get somewhere, but they also understood and acknowledged that they couldn’t know or control everything, like maybe the wind. I see a beautiful picture of the present moment. Everything the explorers had come from, everything they were headed to, held viscerally together by this wind in these sails. The present moment holds the future remembering. Because of this wind in these sails, by Tuesday next we hope to have landed.
I’m reminded also of a recent visit to Douglas Coupland’s exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything”
The room entitled “Growing Up Utopian” displays two large pieces: “345 Modern House,” named after “the first and last Lego kit the artist bought as a child,” comprised of 100 perfectly repeated and repeatable lego houses arranged in a perfect grid. In the same room is displayed “Towers,” a collection of “crowd-sourced Lego structures created over a series of events where the artist invited adults and children to build towers in response to various themes and words.”
There is a simultaneous looking back and looking forward that I think encapsulates much of Coupland’s writing. The look back to childhood and past is both nostalgic and dystopian, solicitous and dreadful. The look forward to an accelerating technological future bears the same tension, affectionate and critical, hopeful and fearful.
There is clearly a fascination on Coupland’s part with Pacific Rim cultures, particularly China and Japan and their connection to Vancouver/Canadian identity, mostly by way of our common citizenship within an ecosystem of cheap consumer goods and pop culture. The piece titled “Tokyo Harbour” is a collection of 108 plastic cleaning product bottles Coupland purchased while in Tokyo. His thinking in making the piece, it is explained, was about the contents of the bottles ending up in Tokyo Harbour, which leads into the Pacific, which connects our two nations.
I was at Coupland’s exhibition with 5 Japanese friends. When it came time to talk about his work to friends who had never heard of him, let alone read any of his books, I quickly realized just how “Canadian” Coupland’s work is. In the course of our conversation I realized Coupland’s unvarnished looking forward and back, along with all it reveals, is perhaps key to understanding my own enigmatic encounters with Japan.
I wouldn’t call myself a Japanophile, I’m not into karate or anime, I’m not otaku or weeaboo. I’m an artist practiced in noticing, intuiting and connecting, so when I apply those practices to my own experiences of Japan, I sense something deeper is going on in me. Something at the centre of what it means to be Canadian and what, in a much as I might imagine, it means to be Japanese.
Canada is an exceptionally young country. Vancouver is a young city within a young country. Our look back doesn’t go that far back. Our remembering of the past, and as a consequence our remembering of the future, tends to be, in a positive sense, unfettered and free. As Canadians there is a lightness to what we carry with us into the future.
At the same time and in the same tethered way, our remembering tends to be, in a negative sense, compressed. The stretch forward tends to be as shallow as its stretch back.
By comparison Japan’s history goes so much deeper than Canadian history. There are wooden buildings in Nara that are over 1000 years old. The historic streets of Kyoto have remained the same streets with the same names since the 8th Century. There is, in a positive sense, a rootedness and deep connectedness. Remembering a deep past is tethered to remembering into a deep future.
At the same time there is simply more to carry into the future. In a positive sense there is more sophistication, refinement, culture, civilization. More beauty. Just plain sheer volume. There’s been that much more time to make that many more things. In a negative sense, being longer on the earth means more war, strife and struggle to survive. A deeper culturally accrued pain and hurt that gets carried into the future as well.
At the nexus of post-WWII, the sum of Japan’s remembered past, all of that remembered beauty and pain, crashed into its remembered future. The sheer weight and momentum of this remembered past has propelled an equally deep rush into the future. In some ways faster and further into the future than we in Canada now find ourselves.
This tectonic collision happening half a world away but connected by the same ocean, gives we Canadians eyes of possibility. By looking through Japan’s remembered future and remembered past, we are able to see further forward and further back than we might otherwise see. Glimpsing ourselves as we might have been, and as we might be.
Japan is ranked “very high” on the Human Development Index, placing 10th in the world and scoring 0.921. On the Moncole Most Liveable City Index, Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka are all in the top ten most liveable cities in the world. And yet… 60% of Japanese teens feel worthless, 80% feel always fatigued.1
Canada is also ranked “very high” on the Human Development Index, placing 11th at 0.911 on the Human Development Index. On the Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s livability survey Vancouver has ranked number 3 since 2011. And yet… in a recent Vancouver Foundation survey, “a third of the respondents said they found it difficult to make friends here. One in four people said they were alone more than desired.”2
The same tensions exist on either side of the Pacific. Canadian and Japanese remembering of both past and future, although separated by an ocean, is still overlapping and intermingled. Precisely because they are dressed in different clothes, and come to us through different language, our own familiar and unspoken tensions are made strange. We see them again for the first time, perhaps we even come to understand something new about ourselves.
Maybe we mutually arrive at the same niggling realization; there is something fundamentally wrong with our remembered future if the present moment is one of fragmentation, disconnection, and loneliness.
I return to the present moment, here and now. It seems to me the possibility for a better remembered future lies in here and now. This wind in these sails. But the reality of here and now is that Japan and Canada are literally and figuratively oceans apart. Without genuine connection we dabble in the wading pool of cliches and stereotypes, and we learn nothing.
The present moment, it seems to me, must be held in the breath of friends. Shared air, shared space, face to face. Friends who have, beyond reasonable expectation, managed to bridge a literal and metaphoric ocean. Adventurers not content with wading have set sail into language and culture not exactly sure where they were going, but knowing they wanted to get somewhere. Having bridged an ocean they find themselves, either here or there, with friends so different and so the same, sharing this one small patch of earth.
This is the hope for all of us who call ourselves human. Whatever our country, whatever our past, our hope lies in unlikely friends bound by common breath on common land, choosing to remember our intermingled futures, together. We do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What we need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.
Courage, faith and hope my friends.