JOK Notebook

Ears Falling Off

Last week, a Facebook friend from high school posted several pictures of our classmates from the first day of 10th grade. My photo was among those she selected. And as it reflected, I was so shy then that I couldn't even look at the camera straight! 

All these decades later, gazing at the unmarred baby faces that we all had, I can't help thinking about our innocence at the time. We knew nothing of what was to come—the unimaginable peak experiences and the unbelievable low points in our lives.

That's the human condition, of course, and there's no getting around the fact that we live in just one direction. 

Still, I keep wondering whether it was it good or dangerous that we were utterly oblivious to what life would bring.

The Facebook thread about the photos was lively, so I took the opportunity to ask my former classmates the following question: What would you tell your 15-year-old self all these years later? I received some answers, including one passionate comment from a guy about how innocence led to an HIV infection and addiction that he could have avoided if he'd been more aware. 

Even after hearing people's responses, I didn't know how to answer my own question. If I could have cut through my considerable innocence with one sharp piece of advice, what would have been helpful, and what would have been too much to handle too soon?

This theme keeps coming up in a different way in my life, as well. For the first time, I find myself almost unable to tolerate people who haven't lived. I don't want to hear shallow comments from people who have no idea what the years can do to a person. I don't want to tell chronologically or emotionally young people about my own experiences, only to have them respond with blank looks. Lately, I'm drawn to the elderly set, hoping they have the wisdom I seek. The 80-something crowd has never before seemed so appealing!

With all this on my mind, it was surprising for me to run into themes of innocence and experience in my work lately. The newest essay, which is on 鐘 (bell), contains this CD cover:

Here's the title:

Inexperienced Evening Bells

未熟 (みじゅく: inexperience); 
晩鐘 (ばんしょう: evening bell)

The famous singer Kei Ogura released this CD when he was around 60. The word 晩鐘 alludes to the way he was getting on in years, and the 未熟 is a humble way of describing his career. 

The two words contradict each other (as one cannot be both old and inexperienced), but that just adds depth to the short title!

I found more innocence in the forthcoming essay 1838 on 漫 (rambling; random), which contains this term:

天真爛漫 (てんしんらんまん: naivete; simplicity; innocence)
     naivete (1st 2 kanji) + in full bloom (last 2 kanji)

What an interesting word! 

According to my proofreader, the first half, 天真, means “true (真) characteristics given from heaven (天)," which is to say "natural quality" or "the way one is built." The 爛漫 must mean that that quality is on full display and entirely "in bloom." 

The "naivete; simplicity; innocence" definitions of the whole term are rather negative, whereas the explanation about 天真 is quite positive. My proofreader says that 天真爛漫 has a mostly positive nuance when it comes to children but that the Japanese sometimes use the term sarcastically for adults, implying that person is acting childishly. 

Here's one example:

Naivete is his only redeeming feature.

彼 (かれ: he); 唯一 (ゆいいつ: only);
取り柄 (とりえ: redeeming feature)

I believe I can hear the sarcasm in that! The speaker likes nothing about the man in question and just pretends to frame the guy's naivete in a positive light.

I come back to the image of my 15-year-old face and how little knowledge of the future it held. It breaks my heart to think, "If only you knew ..." I suppose the tragedy really goes in both directions. We're doomed to screw up over and over, thanks to our inexperience. If we simply live by other people's rules, we really haven't lived authentically or figured out anything for ourselves. But all that scraping up against reality is bound to leave scars and maybe bitterness, not to mention problems that can last a lifetime, as my friend with HIV has found.

People gush about the innocence of children, but apparently there's a sharp cutoff. If you hold onto any innocence after, say age 12, you become a huge target for bullies, as well as adults who admonish you to grow up. And sooner or later, however long it takes, you'll encounter a whole lot of reality.

It seems there's little love for innocence in adults, as 天真爛漫 shows. But just as I despair about this fact, I remember my repeated discovery that playfulness is the way out of the morass—out of almost any morass!

Playfulness is at the root of creativity and innovation, and without creating something (whether it's as grand as artwork or as commonplace as a plan for the future), we cannot have renewal. Playfulness wakes up the child inside and invites that child to be mirthful. Playfulness, like sleep, makes light of our problems. 

And so, as always, I return to kanji as the answer to all of life's woes. If there's one thing kanji consistently affords, it's the possibility of play.

Let me find an example, as I've become awfully abstract.... Okay, here are three words I jotted down years ago from stories by Kawabata and Mishima:

年増 (としま: middle-aged woman)     years + to increase

素っ気ない (そっけない: brusque, curt, blunt)     naked + spirit 

即席 (そくせき: impromptu, improvised)     instant + occasion

There's gold in them there breakdowns! 

I just looked up 年増 in Breen and found this spinoff:

耳年増 (みみどしま: young woman with a lot of superficial knowledge about sex, etc.)     ear + years + to increase

So that's the difference between our 15-year-old selves and the current versions—the ears! The 耳 implies that the young woman in question has simply heard about sex and whatever "etc." represents, rather than living it herself. Or else ... as we age, our ears fall off!

Have a good weekend and don't forget to check out essay 1414 on 鐘 (bell). Here's a sneak preview: 


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