Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Different Silence

“We always did feel the same . . . we just saw it from a different point of view.”

Bob Dylan


What? Felt the same? Saw things differently?

It wasn’t until Monday night that  I decided to climb Ryuso Mountain Tuesday morning. (Don’t worry, it was a national holiday.) And it wasn’t until I invited someone to go along and he said, “I heard there’s about a foot of snow up there,” that it occurred to me that that probably would be so. On Saturday, Tokyo had gotten its biggest snow in years, and though we mainly got spitting snow and rain in Shizuoka City, it made perfect sense that Ryuso would’ve gotten a good bit of snow–and that up that high it couldn’t have melted yet.

And you know me, it wasn’t until I was at the beginning of the trailhead–and I saw hikers strapping on boot irons–that I realized, “Hey, boot irons probably are a good idea. You know, slippery slope, steep grade? Don’t you remember the hour of horror you experienced halfway down Mt. Shirouma back in August?” Color me stupid. Fortunately, it ended up being fairly easy going, the snow still soft, more of a cushioned carpet than an ice rink.

And well, what can I say? With all the pristine snow, I was hoping for a major dose of that shinpi (mysterious, spiritual, mystical) feeling. But there my feet were, crunch, crunch, crunching with every step, and it was impossible to stop and watch the woods fill up with snow–because the woods were already as full as they were going to get.

140212_trail_300 140212_trail_ridge3_300

But it did take less time than usual to get to the top . . . or so I thought, until I looked at my watch. Hmmmh. Well, at least the trail wound  and climbed in a completely new way . . . didn’t it? Yes, I was sure, someone had gotten hold of one end of it and given it a good shake.  And the hikers I passed were more joyous than usual. Okay, maybe the cold did have a lot to do with their rosy cheeks, but there was something special in their expressions . . . wasn’t there?

Recently I re-read some bits  from Franny and Zooey, and now I sometimes find myself thinking about the letter in which Buddy explains to Zooey his encounter with the young girl in the grocery store:

“The little girl was about four, and, to pass the time, she leaned her back against the glass showcase and stared up at my unshaven face. I told her she was about the prettiest little girl I’d seen all day. Which made sense to her; she nodded. I said I’d bet she had a lot of boy friends. I got the same nod again. I asked her how many boy friends she had. She held up two fingers. ‘Two!’ I said. ‘That’s a lot of boy friends. What are their names, sweetheart?’ Said she, in a piercing voice, ‘Bobby and Dorothy.’

Buddy tells this story because he wants Zooey to understand that it wasn’t until that very moment that he was finally struck by the profundity of something their eldest brother Seymour had once told him in a crosstown bus:

[A]ll legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.”


I just knew that the shinpi feeling would come if I could only make it to the ridge, the ridge on which I always found myself thinking of Thoreau . . . but when I did get to it, it looked, well, lovely, yes . . . but there was something a bit too crispy about the snow. Looking down the ridge, trying to will my vision to encompass all, I didn’t see even the slightest extra burst of snow-driven shinpi-ness. And when I tried to take a picture (you can always doctor a digital file), the camera battery decided not to cooperate.

I stood there with my camera stuck up under my shirt–trying to get the silly battery warm.

Nothing special. Nothing  different. Just a dead battery.

But I did get to the top without boot irons! Didn’t fall once! And I did see a foxy Fuji sneak out from under the clouds, just far enough that I could see a hint of her grin.

No differences. Sorry, Charlie. It’s all the same. Just a different point of view.

For what it’s worth, my belly did get the battery going again.


Did I imagine

The magic of sun-lit snow?

All the glowing cheeks?

140212_leaf_snow_350 A secretive breeze.

A leaf skitters across snow.

A different silence.

Thinking about Uncle Tom . . . in Shizuoka

Here, on the left, is one way to look at my neighborhood. My little cave is a few hundred yards/meters from the MacDonald’s. Look close. Me, I’m standing just above the graveyard at the foot of Yatsu-yama (Mt. Yatsu). But in the neighborhood, you can stand just about anywhere you like . . . see whatever you like, as the shot on the right shows.


And of course, time changes what you see. Here are the kumquats I have growing in my little backyard, the rain clinging . . . in October.


And today, in February.



Every time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I see it a little differently. And every time my admiration for it grows. And this  time, there is one scene in particular that has set me to thinking.

After Uncle Tom is purchased at auction and carted off to the Red river plantation, his owner, Simon Legree, decides to “break” him by having him whip another slave, a worn-out woman who can’t get through as much work as Legree expects of her. This whipping of a fellow human being is something that Tom cannot possibly do—and he decides to take the high road: he’ll suffer brutal beatings and whippings himself rather than inflict pain on another.

Critics of Uncle Tom’s Cabin often lambast the novel for the characterization of Tom, saying that he is too noble, too willing to bear all that comes, and too forgiving of his tormentors to be real. He is too perfect, in essence, to be human.

On the other hand, Cassy, a woman who has suffered Legree’s savagery much longer than Tom, has been overwhelmed by anguish and despair. She can only cope with the horrors of her existence by subduing her natural sympathy for others—and by despising Legree with all her heart. She would gladly murder Legree if she had the chance. For readers who find Tom too good to be true, Cassy provides a realistic model of a true “human” reaction to the horrors both she and Tom face. Which is what makes the conversation between the two of them in Chapter 34, “The Quadroon’s Story,” all the more interesting . . . all the more compelling.

140203_cassy_and_tom_400Engraving by Hammatt Billings, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1852) p. 198

Tom is “groaning and bleeding alone”—when Cassy, amazed at his power to resist Legree, comes into the gin-house to comfort him. The urge to comfort is not something she’s felt for a long time. She has also come to convince him that he’d best look out for number one—himself—if he wants to survive. His response touches a nerve inside her, one she had thought completely atrophied.

* * *

“There’s no use calling on the Lord,—he never hears,” said the woman, steadily; “there isn’t any God, I believe; or, if there is, he’s taken sides against us. All goes against us, heaven and earth. Everything is pushing us into hell. Why shouldn’t we go.”

. . . . . . . . . .

The woman sternly continued:

“And what are these miserable low dogs you work with, that you should suffer on their account? Every one of them would turn against you, the first time they got a chance. They are all of ’em as low and cruel to each other as they can be; there’s no use in your suffering to keep from hurting them.”

“Poor critturs!” said Tom, “what made them cruel?—and, if I give out, I shall get used to’t, and grow, little by little, just like ’em! No, no, Missis! I’ve lost everything,—wife, and children, and home, and a kind Mas’r,—and he would have set me free, if he’d only lived a week longer; I’ve lost everything in this world, and it’s clean gone, forever,—and now I can’t lose Heaven, too; no, I can’t get to be wicked, besides all!”

“But it can’t be that the Lord will lay sin to our account,” said the woman; “he won’t charge it to us, when we’re forced to it; he’ll charge it to them that drove us to it.”

“Yes,” said Tom; “but that won’t keep us from growing wicked. If I get to be as hard-hearted as that ar’ Sambo, and as wicked, it won’t make much odds to me how I come so; it’s the being so,–that ar’s what I’m a dreadin’.”

The woman fixed a wild and startled look on Tom, as if a new thought had struck her; and then, heavily groaning, said, “O God a’ mercy! You speak the truth! O—O—O!”—and, with groans, she fell on the floor, like one crushed and writhing under the extremity of mental anguish.

* * *

Those readers who can’t quite believe in Tom’s nobility may find themselves writhing under the “extremity” of Stowe’s writing (and sentimentalizing), but I find this exchange—and Cassy’s “conversion”—both convincing and moving. Of course, much of Tom’s strength comes from his strong faith in God and his certainty of eternal life in Heaven, and at first, it is the eternal life of which he speaks to Cassy. However, when she counters that God will surely understand who’s accountable for any cruelty committed by abused slaves robbed of all hope and cornered like dogs, Uncle Tom agrees. Yes, he says, God in Heaven would understand that any “wicked” behavior on his part would not be a sin he would be responsible for. Then comes the thought that moves Cassy so: “It’s the being so,—that ar’s what I’m a dreadin’.” In essence, Tom is saying that no matter how God may judge him, he will not be able to live with himself if he feels he’s done something wicked.

With God taken out of the question, Cassy can now see deep into Tom’s heart—into his human heart. And there she realizes is the greatest courage any human being in this world can exhibit: an absolute refusal to be wicked, whether there’s any heavenly reward or not, whether there’s any earthly reward or not—and no matter what’s to be lost thereby.
Tom’s situation is of the greatest severity. He has lost everything in this world, “wife, and children, and home,” and knows that without wickedness—a “wickedness” that not even God in Heaven would deem a sin—he has absolutely no chance of finding an earthly home again. And still, he can say, “It’s the being so,—that ar’s what I’m a dreadin’.”

Not a bad principle to live by: I just want to be good, no matter. Not bad at all.

No wonder we see Cassy, the realist, slump down to the floor in anguish. No wonder we hear her groaning, “O—O—O!”