It’s the end of the spring term (finally) at my university in Kyoto, which means I’ll be getting ready for my yearlong sabbatical in Montreal soon. From September I’ll be back at a North American university for the first time since 1997.
On a lark, I signed up for a “BrandYourself” account a few weeks ago.
I’d read about it via a Quartz link and was curious. I’ve been living outside the US Culture Bubble for about two decades now, so I’ve largely missed the “OMG my employer is checking my SNS posts” terror that (apparently) has been sweeping the nation.
My first BrandYourself warning: You have 738 Risk Factors!
As I sit here in front of my computer late at night, on the verge of the 2016 US presidential election, I’m struck by the choice I had to make. Two different versions of a future US society: one that invites multidiversity and multiethnicity in all their chaotic, unpredictable combinations, and one that shuts the door and preserves a traditional us vs them, insider vs outsider mentality.
By all rights, I should support the latter. I’m from a small town of less than 3,000 inhabitants, close to 99.99% white, deep in the heart of Upstate New York. I grew up surrounded by people who basically looked like me, enjoyed camping and hiking, canoeing and fishing, playing baseball and football and video games. Driving. A lot. I did yard work when I was old enough to get my working papers (back then, you didn’t get your social security number until you applied for it after age 14). In the spring, I helped my father in the garden. In the summer I mowed lawns. In the fall I raked leaves. In the winter I shoveled driveways. In high school, I had a part-time at a local pizza place, then at McDonald’s, then washed dishes in a nearby town. All our customers were white. All of them spoke English. It was all just fine, everybody looking the same and acting the same. Everybody just like me. Continue Reading
Kyoto, where I work, is chock full of temples and shrines. Every day I walk to campus, I walk through a Rinzai Zen temple along the way. While the temple itself is not as famous or as old as others nearby, it is popular among tourists for its gardens, open public lectures, and guest houses. There’s a nursery school within the temple grounds, and TV crews occasionally can be seen filming for various end-of-year specials. Because it’s located in a residential neighborhood near several high schools, students and office workers alike travel through it daily. After a long, crowded train ride during the morning rush hour, walking through a zen temple is an incredibly relaxing experience. I’ve walked through the temple grounds every day for three years now; I have to remind myself how lucky I am.
Last week, after a typhoon crossed over Japan just south of us, I was heading home through the temple when I saw an older man squatting down in front of a small pine tree. He had taken off his hat, with a small white towel draped over his shoulders to prevent sunburn, and was silently contemplating the tree. I watched as he took a drink from a water bottle, then poured the rest of the bottle around the base of the tree.
I don’t know what he was thinking, of course, but I like to imagine: how long would it take for the sapling to equal the other pine trees in the temple precinct in size? He might no longer be alive then. How long ago had the older trees been planted, as saplings? Perhaps he had not even been born yet.
Pine trees (matsu) have long been associated with zen Buddhism and zen temples. Zazen (sitting meditation) is practiced by Rinzai Zen monks, and visitors to this temple are encouraged to join the morning zazen when they stay at the guest house. But really all you need is a tree, and your imagination, to understand how short life is. How mysterious. How tenacious. How precious.