Advice from a Rat

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Stay underground – the lower the better.

Lie in wait.

Come out at night.

Stick to the sides,

watch out for traps.

Be quick on your feet.

Get there first and feast

before they find you.

Retreat in silence,

head down, belly full.

And if that fails,

show them your teeth.

(Copyright 2021 Heather Dixon)

No TV

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I don’t have a TV. I haven’t had one since the country changed its broadcasting system about 10 years ago. I don’t miss it. I never think “Oh I wish I had a TV”. I have so much more to do with my time than watch TV. Read, write, study languages…. how would I fit TV into my life?

A friend came round for the first time a few days ago. The first thing he asked was “Where’s your TV?”

“Haven’t got one,” I replied.

He looked at me like I was some kind of freak. “But….but….how do you get your news? What do you do when the house is quiet?” he asked.

“I have the Internet. I listen to music if I feel like it,” I said.

Apparently, he has the TV on all the time, droning away in the background. I would find that really annoying and stressful. I don’t spend my days in silence, like some kind of convent nun, cloistered away, oblivious to what is happening in the world. I listen to music when I’m not studying or working. I read online newspapers. I use social media. I have a good grasp of current affairs. I just don’t need a TV in my life.

In Japan, everyone with a TV is supposed to pay the NHK license fee. The company NHK uses to collect the money is quite persistent. “The NHK guys” (and it is always guys) visit at all hours of the day and night, demanding that you pay. They don’t believe you when you say you don’t have a TV, and say that even if you really don’t have one, you still have a smartphone, right? And that can pick up TV signals right? So you have to pay.

I’ve never checked to see if my phone can pick up TV signals. I don’t think it can. There’s no TV icon on the screen or anything. I sent the last NHK guy away, telling him I didn’t have a TV. He was back a week later, asking me if I had bought a TV yet. He doesn’t believe me. I guess he’ll be back in a few weeks or so. Is it really so unusual to not have a TV in this day and age?

The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa

Is it possible for a book to be too beautiful, too haunting, too spellbinding, to read? I hadn’t thought about that until I picked up The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith).

I started reading it four years ago, and I still haven’t reached the end. Not because it is extremely long, laborious or boring, but because it is just so beautiful and intense.

Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) was a Portuguese writer, poet and translator. He was prolific, so prolific in fact, that he attributed his writings to heteronyms, not just pseudonyms, but “people” with histories, life stories, and their own authentic voices. He “invented” around 75 such people. Each one had their own writing style. When you read some of “their” poetry, it really is hard to believe the poems were actually written by the same person, i.e. Pessoa.

The Book of Disquiet comprises writings, passages and snippets which were left behind in a trunk when Pessoa died. I read it with a pencil in hand, to underline phrases and passages that resonate with me, or are just so beautiful to let pass by. As such, my copy is covered with pencil markings, as I mark practically everything.

I just opened the book at passage number 92. I’ve marked it. This is how it starts:

“I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. My worst sorrows have evaporated when I’ve opened the window on to the street of my dreams and forgotten myself in what I saw there.

I’ve never aspired to be more than a dreamer. I paid no attention to those who spoke to me of living. I’ve always belonged to what isn’t where I am and to what I could never be. Whatever isn’t mine, no matter how base, has always had poetry for me. The only thing I’ve loved is nothing at all. The only thing I’ve desired is what I couldn’t even imagine. All I asked of life is that it go on by without my feeling it. All I demanded of love is that it never stop being a distant dream.

In my own inner landscapes, all of them unreal, I’ve always been attracted to what’s in the distance, and the haze aqueducts – almost out of sight in my dreamed landscapes – had a dreamy sweetness in relation to the rest of the landscape, a sweetness that enabled me to love them.”

It is a book to settle down with, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and savour.

Early morning run

I usually go running as the sun is setting. The other day, though, I got up early. It was a national holiday, and the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, so I thought why not make the most of it?

I’m lucky enough to live in a traditional castle town. The castle is just a short drive away, and is surrounded by woodland, parkland and a moat. It’s the perfect place for a morning run.

I do a lot of writing while I run. Not physical writing of course, but mental writing. I get so many ideas for my latest novel or story. Things that seemed impossible to work out when sat at my desk suddenly make sense while I’m running. It must be a mixture of the physical movement, rhythm and fresh air. Sometimes I compose haiku as I run. They tend to just pop up in my head more or less complete.

I’m currently in the planning stages of my second novel. I got some good ideas for it the other day. Now that spring is on its way, I’m going to try and get out in the mornings more. Running at sunset has its benefits (beautiful views for one), but there is something special about a morning run, especially through woodland. The scent of the trees, the cool air, the light, the quietness before the day wakes – they all add up to create a special moment, and put me in a positive and creative mood for the rest of the day.

Oh plum blossoms!

東風 吹かば 匂ひをこせよ 梅の花 主なしとて 春な忘れそ

When the east wind blows

let it send your fragrance,

oh plum blossoms;

although your master is gone,

do not forget the spring.”

Sugawara no Michizane

COVID in rural Japan

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My family and friends back home often ask me how I’m coping in lockdown. They keep forgetting that, in the area where I live, there is no lockdown. I live in one of the least populated prefectures in Japan. My home is in the main city, which has about 200,000 people. That sounds like a lot, but the city is made up of villages that merged about 15 years ago, so it is spread out and very rural. You only have to drive for about ten minutes or so out of the city centre and you are in rice fields. A little further, and you are in the mountains, or by the sea, in one of the fishing villages.

We have had about 200 COVID cases in total. I think there are about two active cases. There are no restrictions on our movements, although we are told not to go to other prefectures, and to refrain from going out unnecessarily. Most people abide by the recommendations, so restaurants and bars are suffering. So are hotels. The city is popular with tourists, and they have mostly stayed away.

I don’t go out with my friends at night, but apart from that, my life is going on as normal. I can move around freely. I wear a mask, as does everyone (and I mean everyone!) and disinfect my hands at the entrance to shops when I enter and when I leave, but that is about it. Maybe if the number of cases rises, the situation will change, but at the moment, everything seems normal, especially compared to what I hear about back home and see on the news. Living in rural Japan can have its challenges, like isolation and loneliness, but at times like these, I’m glad to be living in this small corner of the world.

Mirror – Sylvia Plath

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I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

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How did I get this far in life without reading this book? The first section is tough reading, as Frankl describes life in concentration camps. The second section explores his philosophy of logotherapy. I have a strong interest in existentialism, and found the way he combines this thought with psychotherapy fascinating.

His idea of the existential vacuum, in which the sufferer, out of boredom mostly, feels that life is meaningless resonated with me. I have been in the vacuum many times throughout my life. I am prone to bouts of existentialist despair. The protagonist in my first novel is trapped in its depths. Is there a way out? Yes, according to Frankl.

Despite its deep subject matter, it is an uplifting book. There is meaning, even in suffering, if we are prepared to give meaning to it. We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can choose our attitude towards it. Suffering is an inevitable part of life, and the way a person responds to it gives meaning to his life. This reminds me of the end of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Through revolt of the absurd, Sisyphus gives his life meaning. We have to give our lives meaning, but how? These two books give us a lot to think about.

What is the meaning of my life? Why am I living? What am I aiming for? What do I want my life to look like? How can I find peace and meaning in suffering, day-to-day troubles, and periods when life isn’t going well? Frankl had some good advice for anyone pondering these questions.

Favourite quote from Man’s Search for Meaning: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Story Engineering

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Over the years, I’ve started writing novels, only to give up part way through. I thought that novel writing was not for me, that I was more suited to short stories. I found plot development difficult, and my stories never seemed to go anywhere.

Then I watched a video on YouTube (I think it was by Joanna Penn) which talked about the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I bought the book and read it, and read it again. It gives clear directions on how to drive a story forward – sections and plot points that you have to hit, in addition to character development techniques and much more.

I applied the concepts to my novel in progress, mapping the story out according to the sections and points highlighted in the book. Once I’d done this, the writing was easy. I never got lost. I knew exactly where I was going and where the story was heading. I wrote one draft of the novel and then spent some time tidying it up. I often hear about novelists writing draft after draft. I didn’t need to do that. I had a well-structured story with all the bits in the right places from the first draft.

I have no affiliation with the book Story Engineering, or its author, but I recommend it if you are struggling to write your novel. I’m now applying the concepts to my second novel, which has been swimming around in my head for about five years. I’m finding the story is coming to life as I place incidents in the story in the right places. And that is what it is becoming – a story. Before, it was just a jumbled mess. I’m going to take my time to make sure I have the structure firmly in place before I start writing it. That will make the writing process a lot easier.

Strangers

I could see into your bedroom window
from my seat on the bullet train,
even though I was travelling at 170 mph,
I could still catch the picture on your wall,
your beige shirt hanging from the curtain rail
and you,

standing in the middle of your room
staring out at the speeding train,
and I wondered if you could see me
sitting in carriage five,
forehead pressed against the window,
eyes straining to catch glimpses
of whole worlds like yours
through the falling dusk.

(Copyright 2021 Heather Dixon)