On Becoming A Hermit

1 05 2008

Two years and eight months ago, I’d had enough.  Physically, mentally, and spiritually I felt trapped, drained, disconnected, devoid of those energies needed to live the kind of balanced, joyous life I desired.  I needed to get out, get away, go somewhere else, to a place where the alphabet was different, where thinking was different, where the craziness of post-election misery, insane school bureaucracy, and the American “culture of fear” couldn’t reach me.  The Universe answered my plea in the form of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.  Quite literally a year and a day from the moment my need first manifested, I stepped off of a plane in Narita International Airport in Tokyo on my way to begin a tenure as an Assistant Language Teacher in the remote city of Miyakonojo on Kyushu island to the south.

For years I had taught students, both in public school and at Ravenwood, about the Heroic Journey–that archetype of storytelling that pervades all cultures and resounds within humanity’s collective soul.  I was well aware, from the very beginning, that I was about to take my own Journey beyond the boundaries of home, family, friends and all that was familiar towards a great Unknown that was equal parts scary and exciting.  In fact, the Statement of Purpose that I wrote for my preliminary application opened with a quote from Joseph Cambell on the nature of journeys.  During the interview process, one of the gentlemen on the panel commented that the quote had caught his eye, making him more interested both in me and in my reasons for applying to the Programme.

Throughout my first year and a half in this quiet corner of Japan, I had many quirky adventures, trials and tests.  I learned more about myself and my place in the world in six months than I had in the past six years.  And yet, I could not help but notice that my journey was not quite heroic in the classical sense.  Something else was going on–something wonderful and soul-affirming, to be sure–that I could not quite identify.  For a start, I was drawing inward, little by little, needing less of the constant contact from friends, both English-speaking and Japanese.  This coincided with a blossoming of creative expression in the form of a novel idea that took root in my heart and mind and began to grow and thrive.  As the subject matter was based in mythology and metaphysics, I went off in search of reading material.  I inundated myself in principles of theoretical physics, the writings of Israel Regardie and other scholars of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the thoughts of those who believed in the paranormal and those who demanded scientific proof.  My characters became my companions, and my need to get their story down on paper superseded most everything else besides work and basic necessities.

Of course, Japan–specifically, my little town–made this easy.  While I have been steadily learning the language and aquiring reading and comprehension skills, I am still, technically, illiterate.  Thus, my need for things like television, radio, and newspapers decreased dramatically.  When I came to Japan, I’d made a decision to limit my contact with news and media from back home–mainly because it had been a deep connection with those things that had driven me to distraction, anxiety and panic.  I had a few TV shows that I enjoyed and managed to keep track of via the wonders of internet technology, and what news reached me came through the filter of family and friends who saw less need to sensationalize an event and eviscerate it completely before moving on to the next big thing.

Moreover, as a foreigner in Japan–and a foreign woman to boot–one is isolated in a way that most people in the West cannot easily conceptualize.  The Japanese value the group over the individual.  From an early age, children identify themselves as part of one group or other, and Japanese people, in general, see themselves as a racial unit, separate and apart from any other on Earth.  The bonds of friendship are made early and last lifetimes.  Men and women don’t often make new friends in their 20s and 30s.  They make aquaintances,  casual connections, because their true friends are those other girls and boys they knew and went to school with back when they were junior-high and high-school students.  Thus, while it is possible to form friendly relationships with Japanese people, a foreigner doesn’t get the same sort of reward or intimacy from them that they would give to an old friend or even another Japanese person they might meet for the first time.

Furthermore, gender separation (and inequality) is the reality of this culture.  Men associate with men.  Women associate with women.  The concept that two people of opposite genders can have friendship without romantic or sexual involvement is completely foreign to these people, and much of my first few months at school was spent explaining to students and co-workers alike that, no, none of the young men in my photographs from home was my boyfriend, nor had any of them ever been my boyfriend or had designs upon being my boyfriend in the forseeable future.  I withheld the information that one or more of them were or had been each others’ boyfriends at some point or other out of fear that their heads would explode!  Homosexuality is not unknown here, but acceptance is limited to the big cities.  Being openly gay is still very much taboo in this conservative, rural community.  With the doors to the inner circles of my female friends firmly closed to me and with the threat of being labeled a woman of loose character if I tried to form friendships with men, there wasn’t much room for a social life.  Also, the bar scene here is firmly geared towards men and caters to them and their needs.  You rarely see women out in bars unless they are accompanied by male co-workers, relatives, or boyfriends/husbands/lovers.  Did I mention that people here cheat on their spouses at an alarming rate?  I had no desire to go to a bar and get chatted up by some married guy looking for a bit of adventure with an “exotic”, foreign girl.

Removed as I was from the obligation to worry, to be socially engaged, to be culturally current and savvy, I devoted my time to storytelling, reading, and thinking.  I’m not sure when I started to refer to my apartment as, “my little cave”, but I know it was an expression that I began to use on a daily basis–particularly throughout the summer months when all anyone wants to do here is escape out of the steamy, broiling sun into a cool, dark, air-conditioned room.  I started to notice that when I ran into people I knew on the street, or in the grocery store, they commented on how long it had been since last they’d seen me.  The first moment of clear realization didn’t occur until May of last year when the Universe gave a strong tug on my strand of the web and revealed to me a fundamental truth about my role as a teacher–not just in a professional sense, but in a deeper spiritual sense.  It is one thing to think of oneself as a teacher by profession.  It is quite another to realize that one’s very mind, spirit and soul exist for the purpose of teaching others, no matter how insignificant one feels, no matter how trivial the lessons might seem.  Truth laid bare like that is often frightening, and it took an entire summer and fall for me to meditate upon it and grapple with all of the implications.  Then, in January of this year I began to research the Fools Journey within the Tarot as a possible underlying guide for my novel’s protagonist. At the same time, I was experimenting with new blog layouts.  I decided that I liked the imagery of The Hermit–the solitary figure in the dark who is the bearer of light–because that was how I was coming to see myself.  If Fools go on journeys to become Heroes, then what becomes of  Fools who are teachers? They become Hermits.  The Hermit, after all, is a teacher.  He helps the Fool answer the pervading question, Why?, but in order to do so, he must remove himself from the world of men and live alone in meditation and contemplation.  Obviously I wasn’t going to that extreme, but I could see how my situation was similar.

How is it even possible to be a hermit in the 21st century?  I’m certainly not alone atop a hill somewhere sleeping on straw and eating bugs!  No, I still listen to music, catch up with my favorite shows, update my blog, and converse with my friends and family via email and instant messaging.  However, I choose to limit my interaction with the world at large and restrict the number of connections I keep.  So, I’m walking a balance beam of company and solitude.  As society changes, so does the concept of hermiticism.  Throughout human history, there have always been those individuals who hear a distant call, lay down their work and walk out into the far-off places where people seldom go.  These days the wilderness is less of a physical place and more of a mental and spiritual one.  It’s also much more dificult to achieve.  Now, more than ever, there are so many ways to be in contact with our fellow human beings. There’s also more “chatter” in our lives, not only from the usual suspects–TV, newspapers and radio–but also from bilboards, stores, the packaging on the things we buy.  Even formerly “sacred” places–churches, shrines, national parks, nature preserves–have gotten cluttered with signage, little messages, multi-media.  True quiet is a difficult thing to find and maintain.

Coming to Japan certainly helped my transition from clutter to serenity, but really I have to give the credit to the language barrier more than anything else.  To be honest, Japan is even “chattier” than America.  Media is on a contstant frenetic sugar buzz.  Everything, even the news, is full of brightly colored graphics, subtitles, cartoon characters, or flashing bursts of onomotopoea.  The hosts of the seemingly endless string of TV variety shows sound like the cast of Sesame Street on methamphetamines.  This is the land of the sound-bite, the cute jingle, and the signature character.  Hearts and happy animated critters even adorn such staid and somber institutions as police stations, insurance companies, and banks.  You can’t enter a major store without being assaulted by some insidious “ear-worm” of a song chirped out by a hyper-cheery, high-pitched female voice at top volume and top speed.  Sometimes, in the case of supermarkets, the music varies, depending on what department you’re in.  One of my local shops even has a “fish” song.  I’m not kidding.  It goes:  “Fish, fish, fish!  Oh, delicious fish!  Fish, fish, fish!  Everyone loves fish!”  It would even be cute if it didn’t play over and over and over and over….

Work is a team sport in Japan.  Teachers in the States enjoy the luxury of a classroom to themselves and a door they can close–even if it’s only for two or three minutes in the middle of the day.  Not so, here.  Teachers sit in huge staff-rooms surrounded by everyone else’s stuff, their chatter, their gosip, their student conferences, their energy….  Everyone is always reading over your shoulder, listening in, watching.  You’re not even safe at home.  On any given morning, one might be awakened by the sound of a cannon going off–announcing the commencement of some event or other, chimes from the local city office, the local high-school baseball team chanting out their warmup exercises, or eager politicians driving about in their cars squawking out campaign slogans at top volume by way of a PA system.  Seriously, if there was ever a way to get me NOT to vote for someone, that would be it!  Still, in spite of all this, I have managed to carve out a somewhat hermit-like existence–at least one that allows me to do what hermits have been doing since time began.

The first, best thing any modern hermit can do is invest in a couple of good pairs of high-quality noise-stopping earplugs.  I have a set I use at home and another set that I keep tucked in my wallet.  These things are a marvel!  Contrary to what you might think, I don’t wear them to bed.  Freed from the absurdity that is Daylight Savings Time, I wake naturally with the light–or usually fifteen to twenty minutes before dawn.  It’s only after I wake that the earplugs go in, and thus my morning ritual of reading over a pot of tea goes uninterrupted by cannons, chimes, baseball teams, screechy politicians, and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness or NHK salesman. They also help with other “noise” from neighbors’ washing machines, cars, and squealing children.  I’ve stopped patronizing most of the supermarkets that insist on blaring out crazy jingles in favor of small fruit and veggie stands run by local farmers, however, sometimes the big “supers” can’t be avoided.  Ear plugs to the rescue!  I put them in, grab what I need, and take one out when I get to the register (in case the cashier has to ask me a question).  Noise-blocking is also effective at work.  I can’t change my seating arrangement and the inherent distractions therein, but I can block out most of the chatter.  My ability to focus improves exponentially on the days I’m forced to sit at my desk all day.  Sometimes, I substitute my iPod for complete quiet, but more often than not, I like to go “soundless”.

Something else I have in Miyazaki that I didn’t have in Atlanta is a close proximity to truly remote places.  I live in a city–okay, an ambitious town–but if I drive fifteen minutes in any direction, I’m in the middle of rice fields and mountains.  One of my favorite things to do is to get in my car, hit one of the major roads out of town, drive about 20 minutes, and then turn off onto a side road and see where it goes.  Because it is highly illegal to drive and talk on your cellphone at the same time, Japanese roads feature an abundant number of small off-the-shoulder parking spots where one can pause and make or answer a phone call.  I turn my phone off when I’m driving, but I still make use of the parking spots.  Sometimes there are little sidewalks or walking paths just off from them, and I can stop, get out, and walk around admiring mountain views, fields of vegetables, or sleepy mountain towns.  It’s especially nice when I stumble upon a small shrine or temple, because those places tend to have spots where a person can sit a while and rest or reflect.  Then there are the parks and the beaches.  The trick is going when others aren’t.  Thankfully, my aversion to heat and humidity allows me to avoid the late-Spring and Summer crowds that appear at my favorite places in May through September.  That’s when I retreat to the air-conditioned bliss of my apartment.  Fall and early-Spring, however, are prime times to get out and enjoy a bit of Emmersonian immersion in Nature.

What does all this isolation get me?  Well, the richest reward is the stillness, which allows me to think, un-distracted and un-influenced by the world outside.  When you detatch yourself from your home, friends and family, there is a certain level of perspective gained, even at the base level.  However, when you pull even further away, that perspective deepens, and you begin to see patterns and connections that are only present from a distance.  You also start to understand that modern human beings waste so much energy and time on useless endeavors and meaningless distractions.  Even worse, you realize how much the average person is manipulated by market manufactured minutiae.  You think, “Wow!  If only people could just cut through the clutter and the chatter, turn off the sound, shut off the blinking lights and just breathe for a few moments, imagine how much better off we’d all be.”  If only that energy wasted on worry could be re-directed towards positive thoughts and endeavors!  But then again, not everyone is cut out for this level of inversion and introspection, not everyone is “guided by voices” to deliberately cut themselves off and go on walkabout.  In point of fact, the world often heaps derision and disapproval upon those who do.

When I was a kid, I owned the Milton-Bradley game of LIFE.  What a piece of work that was!  Hidden within an innocuous children’s toy was a powerful agent of social conditioning that encouraged young people to believe that an Ivy League college diploma and a high-powered business job was better than an ordinary college diploma and a teaching position–never mind a high-school diploma!  It taught that getting married, buying a house and having loads of kids equals cash from the government but staying single and childless means more taxes (which is, unfortunately, true), and that a mansion and a wealthy retirement at the end of the road was the only way to “win”.  But what about those of us who thought that being teachers, remaining childless and retiring to that humble philosopher’s cottage sounded like a pretty sweet deal and much more of a winning combination?  It still sounds beautiful to me.  Why should life be all about “getting and spending, late and soon?” Why should success, happiness, and achievement be based upon the car one drives, the house one lives in, or the amount of high-priced and ultimately useless stuff one is able to buy?

These questions don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the mountain of thoughts that tumble around in my brain now that I’ve gotten far enough away from the noise and the din of society.  Mainly, I’ve contemplated the idea of learning–how it’s done, its stages and applications, the role of teachers and schools, education as preparation for a life of work versus education as a gateway to the greater knowlege of the world and the universe.  I see that educational theory moves in cycles like everything else in nature.  My “new” thoughts are “old” thoughts shared by many famous teachers, philosophers and educators in bygone eras.  I also see where our current educational practices are leading us, and sadly it’s not towards a place of wisdom and fulfilment.  I think about ways we could change things for the better.  I think about the years of social structuring and manipulation that make implementing these changes a Herculean task.  I think about why people in charge of our childrens’ educational wellbeing might want to deliberately sabotage or cripple their ability to think, question and reason.  I consider the larger societal implications of a dumbed-down populace lulled by infotainment and so-called reality TV.

Not all my thoughts are so dire.  I spend a great deal of time thinking about simple beauty, the inherent goodness of people, the importance of family–both born and chosen, and, of course, writing.  The hallmark of a good book is a cast of characters who “live” on the page.  Those characters should drive the action, wherever it may lead.  In the end, an author is really nothing more than a glorified scribe, taking dictation from their brain-children!  I have several notebooks in key places where I can jot down ideas, revelations, past histories–all sorts of things that make my characters people.  Kanji study provides a fascinating look into the Asian psyche and helps me understand why Western logic doesn’t always work here.  In my rambling travels, I observe people, their quirks and customs, and I am aware that people are fundamentally the same everywhere you go.  I ask a lot of “why” questions, particularly when confronted with things I find amusing, or interesting, or strange or unsettling.  I strike out onto paths less traveled, pause to stare off into space and contemplate, and I am neither lonely nor bored nor anything other than blissful and content.

In matters of Spirit, I find that my solitude in Miyazaki brings me to a special place of understanding.  Shintoism involves the belief that the gods share the earth with humanity–they actually live upon it and within it–and that each group has a responsibility to live in harmony, one with the other.  Shrines exist to honor the spirits of mountains and rivers as well as men and women.  All are welcome to pray there for good fortune, good health, success at work or in school, luck in love, in marriage, in having children.  Yearly festivals here commemorate mythological events, honor ancient princes and princesses, keep old stories alive.  Obviously these rituals aren’t as meaningful to me as they are to my Japanese neighbors, but what is meaningful is the similarity, the connection to the rituals I attend and perform at Ravenwood, half the world away.  The spring festivals are full of flowers and celebrate the re-awakening of the earth.  Summer festivals are joyous, happy affairs and they always feature fireworks, colorful sunbursts even in the night sky.  Fall festivals celebrate the harvest and reaping the bounty of the myriad crops grown here.  Even the New Year celebration in January is akin to Yule–a gathering of friends and family in the midst of winter to celebrate the closing of one door and the opening of another, the promise of renewal and a fresh start.  Our Elders tell us often, “All stories are One, and Love is the Law.”  They speak the truth, and Truth speaks through them.

Like Henry David Thoreau before me, I realize that eventually I will have to go back, to embrace the world again.  While there are benefits to temporary detachment, prolonged isolation is frought with pitfalls and dangers.  Stay too long out of the world, and you lose touch with it, lose your ability to feel its pulse, to be a part of it with all its faults.  Besides, what good is wandering off to contemplate and consider if one isn’t willing to return home and share the insights gained and lessons learned? Isn’t that the point?  My contract with the JET Programme ends in July of 2009.  That leaves me a little over a year to enjoy the Hermit’s life, to think, process and then write it all down.  When I return, I will face new challenges that will shape and change me just as much as the ones here have.  Then again, what is life but a singular journey made up of many smaller trips and travels?  It’s never about the destination.  It’s the stuff in between that matters most.



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