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Pursuing the Great Perhaps

Full Piece for Scholarship Entry

USA | Saturday, 20 April 2013 | Views [424]

In the event that anyone would like to read the full piece written for the scholarship, I have included it below. My official submission was scaled down to one part of this piece, due to the character amount requirements.

Catching a Moment

The Temple

Awaken. The hour is just before sunrise and the house is full of strangers’ sleeping breaths. The morning calls me outside, and I spend a while listening to music and wandering down different roads until I wander off the road completely. I’ve taken out my headphones now, content to listen to the world stir in this strange and beautiful place. The humid air tastes green, though I know a color cannot be tasted, and I wonder how my lungs will feel when I breathe the dry air of my home once I return. There is a small path, and a hill, and a playground long forgotten. I sit for a while on a swing and watch the sun lighten the sky to the east; the stars fade in the west. The path continues past the playground, and after a time I follow it, compelled towards the woodland.

In this place there are many parks, filled with the remains of spirit houses covered in moss, crumbling marble statues of ancient great men, and the animals and insects which have made these places home. I am from Colorado, where all parks are carefully kept and nothing is left forgotten, and these pockets of history thrill me with wonder and curiosity.

I enter the wood expecting to find it groomed and the path well-trodden since I have only wandered a short way from the suburbs where my host family lives. But no, the path is overgrown, the trees and undergrowth wild and untamed. From above me I hear a yell—almost human—and look up to see a thousand crows, blackening the branches. I ease my way carefully down the path, feeling as though I am an intruder, the prickle on my spine warning me to tread softly. Soon there is a wooden gate, overgrown and reaching far over my head. I stop before it, uncertain, arguing with myself over ghosts best left forgotten. From outside the gate I can see three small houses that look like temple outbuildings; wooden structures raised off the ground with crumbling steps and decrepit roofs. Between these buildings is a large open area with some pieces of wood left, as though a temple had once stood there but had rotted, burned, or faded away. Spirit houses frame the gateway and are speckled around the surrounding wood, covered with moss, hidden by dirt and leaves.

 My curiosity finally outweighs my sense of disquiet, the sense that I am not welcome here, and I cross the threshold of the gate. With my second step and a cacophony of beating wings, the crows above me scream and take flight north, leaving me alone with the temple ruins. My uncertainty increases, but I force myself to take more steps and have a look about, wondering all the while what had happened here to make this place disappear from the minds of those around it, invisible and decaying.

I am not a religious person, and nor am I given to flights of fancy, but in this place I caught a glimpse of something hidden. I could nearly feel the kami watching me, flitting from the stream to the moss and the trees. I could sense a complex history far beyond my own understanding, a truth behind appearance, a brief flare of meaning in what was otherwise an abandoned holy site.

Eventually I checked the time to find that my host family may be worried about me by now, and with reluctance I left the sacred grounds. I asked after the place later, but either the language barrier or something more ethereal kept my host family from understanding what place I was asking about.

Weeks later, when I finally arrived home, the sky was suddenly larger to me, and the earth more vast than my mind could compass. I had grown.

The Desert

I call it The Sunset Land, where the rocky faces are alive with color if only you look. Not the lush green that bespeaks bounty and life, but the brilliant colors of blood, sun, and metal. It is a harsh land that only the strong and cunning survive. Nothing ever moves here; there are no trees rustling in the wind, no babbling brook or rushing river, no wildlife that doesn’t creep and crawl, no chorus of noise that calls out, life to life. The wind doesn’t move; it speaks. It howls through the canyons, tearing at the immovable rock walls and gravel floor, it calls and echoes across empty spaces, and whispers in the night for so often and long one begins to believe that the stars themselves are speaking.

And the stars! No place has a better view of the galaxy surrounding us than the desert. The flat lands always make the sky seem larger, whether they are plains or desert or tundra. But the desert is filled only with stone and shrub. There is no grassland that will not whisper and rustle at each touch from the wind, and no snow and ice-covered ground that does not groan and crack and mutter. The stones and shrubs keep their silence in the dead of night, and the stars are the brightest, brought out by the darkness between them and the silence around them. Looking up from the desert, one may truly feel and see and know that our planet is in fact a planet; a speck of rock much like the one at your feet, caught in the gravity of a star currently unseen, surrounded by the light of dead stars and live ones, infinity written in the sky as our hearts beat out the rhythms of mortality. 

The Arctic Circle

You would arrive at midnight, with the sun between its apex and the horizon, for it is summer and here the sun does not sink as it should each night. You will be tired, but your mind will insist that it is not time to rest, with the daylight streaming through your blinds. You will try anyway, knowing but not knowing that here the sun doesn’t set in summer, and eventually you will give up the exercise as futile and bumble about your hotel until you reach the point of exhaustion. The next few days you will try stubbornly to adjust your sleeping cycle, and eventually you will succeed.

 You would like to see the fabled aurora borealis, but you are here in the summer and it will likely not be possible. Instead, you visit your relatives, who make this place their home. You meet their tame goats and go hiking to see real mountain goats, up close but not too close. You will tread beside the runoff of a glacier that was once of magnificent proportions, now reduced to the size of a small apartment. Perhaps you will even taste the glacier water, to find that true cold can also carry a surprising sweetness under the metallic tang.

You are not here as a tourist, so you did not bring that much money and you have no plans to visit the world-famous sites. Your ability to travel is handicapped by your wallet; you will not rent a car nor take a long flight, bus, or train-ride. Your relatives with hike with you, and drive you to every destination. It is likely that you will not have many chances for solitude, and you and your relatives are not as close as you once were thanks to many years of living apart. But that does not at all mean that the experience is not worth having.

You will taste moose for the first time, at first with ketchup in order to make the new food more familiar, and then without it once you realize that ketchup ruins the taste. You will be a handbreadth away from a goat, or perhaps even a bear. You will go fishing and learn how to live closer to nature. You will relearn the people around you, and you will learn to love the ever-sunlight nights. The lakes and streams and rivers will put the greenbelts at home to shame, reflecting the towering majesty of the largest mountain you’ve ever seen. Snow will fall while you are there, and you will be grateful both for the experience and for the fact that you live where it doesn’t snow in the summer.

You will become changed, and return home a new person.

The Raining Beach

I had never seen the ocean. I had lived most of my life in Midwest America, and the first time I tasted the salt of the ocean was during my trip to Japan. At first it was supposed to be easy. My group had planned on visiting Sendai, but there was an earthquake while we were in Yamagata which led us to change our plans. In Kumamoto, my host family listened to my questions about the beach with seeming uncertainty. I could not understand their hesitancy, but they seemed disinclined to take me to the beach. Still, they wanted to please me, and we set a date to go to the beach, conditions willing. I wasn’t sure what that meant, either. Conditions willing? I had never seen a beach, I didn’t care if it was snowing; I wanted to see one. To see the ocean. Even from a car window.

The day we had planned on began dark and gloomy with a high chance of rain, and my host family asked me if I still wanted to go, their voices and faces full of concern. Remembering my manners, I made it clear that I was still willing if they were, but if they didn’t want to go I would be okay with that. They decided we should still go, and it dawned on me that their earlier hesitancy was born from the weather forecast, and their concern was solely for me; they wanted my first beach to be sunny and special. Once it was clear that I was still incredibly excited, my host mother, father, and both little sisters and I piled into the family van. Taka, my host father, even brought a Beatles CD so we could all listen to something we had in common. I still cannot listen to ‘Yellow Submarine’ without hearing Taka singing along in what was more tune than words.

When we arrived at this nameless beach we found it deserted, and the rain had begun just as we parked. It wasn’t the kind of rain I was used to, which was thin and heavy by turns, always tossed around by wind. No, this rain was a thick downpour with no wind at all; warm and heavy and wet.

We all ran from the car to the edge of the water in unspoken agreement, tossing our shoes off as we went and stripping down to our bathing suites’. Taka and Kumi, my host parents, stayed on the shore and watched as Nagi, Ao and I entered the water. It was warm, so much warmer than I expected but still colder than the heavy rain. I felt as though I was in an underwater world, caught between the downpour and the ocean, a creature of rain and sky and water and nothing else.

I edged my way farther out, looking to Nagi and Ao to warn me if I was going too far. My mind was filled of the words I’d read in hundreds of books that spoke of the ocean, but none of it compared. Undertow had no meaning until I felt a current catch at my toes as I stood on an unseen rocky ledge. Lapping waves made a pretty picture to a mind that had never seen the ocean, until I felt them suck the sand from under my feet, and sensed the power beneath the beauty.

 Nagi and I stayed in the water the longest, long after the others had grown tired of it, fascinated by the colossal expanse of ocean. She was the youngest of us all—barely six—and her thoughts and mine were most alike and most aligned at that moment, in simple and true wonder.

Tags: alaska, japan, utah


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