JOK Notebook

The Long and Winding Road

Last night, thanks to a wonderful drink called a Sazerac, I talked deeply with a friend about realizing visions and feeling a profound sense of meaning in life. I was surprised to hear myself saying something I never believed until recently. I used to think one should lay out goals quite clearly and do everything to make dreams come true. I now feel that life is far more imaginative than I could ever be, and I see a great deal of value in letting the path unfold little by little and doing one's best to stay present as that happens. Maybe the vision at the outset is far different from the ideal that will eventually emerge. If one squelches all the energy behind what should actually be, then it will lead to frustration and a lack of vitality. If something is trying hard to reveal itself, then let that thing lay out the path. Actually, that's not so much what I believe as what I'm experiencing.

For decades I've been drawn to the matter of shaping one's life path, and because of this, I find myself intrigued by road metaphors in Japanese. I'm curious about which ones are just literal and which have figurative pizazz. 

For instance, 道 (みち) can represent a literal road or a much more high-minded "way" of life (factoring into terms for martial arts and the fine arts). But because I've known 道 forever, that common word affords few surprises in that sense.

I was much more thrown off to realize that simply preceding 道 with その (that) produces a term with an extremely restrictive meaning:

その道 (そのみち: line (of business); profession; trade)

"That path" is your occupation! 

If you instead precede 道 with a person on foot, you produce a term for the whole span of a human life:

人の歩む道 (ひとのあゆむみち: the course of a human life)     person + to walk + path

Really? I might have taken that lengthy phrase for "sidewalk"! I'm also startled to see 歩む (あゆむ: to walk; go on foot) instead of the more commonplace 歩く (あるく: to walk). My proofreader explains that あゆむ sounds more archaic, あるく more contemporary, and that the Japanese therefore tend to associate あゆむ with the figurative sense “to live" or "to lead a life in a certain way," reserving あるく for the literal act of walking. 

Then there's this dull-seeming word:

販路 (はんろ: distribution channel)     marketing + road

The idea of a distribution channel makes me glaze over, but if I recast it as the Marketing Road?! That sounds almost as tempting as the Silk Road or the Road to Riches!

Speaking of travel, check out this term:

道筋 (みちすじ: path, route, itinerary)     road + thread

The 筋 kanji can mean "sinew," and I love the idea that something sinewy can thread through an itinerary, binding it together.

And oh my goodness, if you reverse the two kanji in that compound, you produce this word:

筋道 (すじみち: reason, logic; thread (of an argument))

How the meaning has changed!

In a sense, with that sudden transformation, we've come to a bend in the road:

曲がり角 (まがりかど: (1) street corner; road turn; bend in the road; (2) turning point; watershed)     curvature + corner

This word came up recently in my Skype chat with Kensuke, my Japanese-language partner. I was telling him that in my neighborhood, there's an unmarked street where I keep having bizarre experiences. Three surreal things in a row happened on that steep and winding lane, and I began to feel that there was something supernatural about the place. 

As I explained all this to Kensuke, I found that I couldn't sufficiently describe the street, so I found it on Google Maps. We started at 14 Avon, a cottage I unexpectedly visited last month. It was for sale, and I had just sold fruit crisp and Crazy for Kanji to a couple who had knocked on my door in search of the gluten-free baked goods I had advertised. In addition to buying dessert and a book, they wanted a small house, and I knew of the Avon cottage but couldn't possibly give directions, so we walked there together, called the realtor (whom I happened to know), and toured the place on the spur of the moment. All in all, it was a two-hour deviation from the afternoon I'd planned.

The next day, I was outside that very cottage, walking dogs, when a Nigerian-Cuban guy stopped me, searching for a florist. Google Maps had sent him to that tiny street. To my shock, a florist turned out to live at 33 Avon, and after knocking on her door for him, I ended up serving as the interpreter until he finally bought sunflowers 10 or 15 minutes later. As I spoke to him, the conversation became stranger and stranger (e.g., the guy grilled me about why I have no kids).

But never mind that. I've veered off the road of my discussion. The point is that because Google Maps afforded such a clear view, Kensuke used 曲がり角 to refer to the bends in that street, and I was charmed to find that 曲がり角 figuratively means "turning point" or "watershed." How perfect!

If the road of life doesn't bend from side to side so much as it goes up and down, then this word applies:

興亡 (こうぼう: rise and fall; ups and downs)

The first kanji is familiar from 興味 (きょうみ: interest (in something)), but I didn't know that 興 can mean “to rise to prosperity." In fact, here are the main meanings of this character: "fun, interest; to rise to prosperity, flourish; promote, develop; rouse up." So it is that 興亡 breaks down as to rise to prosperity + to go to ruin. This meaning of 亡 (usually "to die") surprises me, too.

As we've been talking about the shapes of paths, I'll introduce just one more word along those lines. Kensuke and I were talking about the meaning of "typhoon" versus "hurricane," which are exactly the same thing. The terminology depends on which side of the International Date Line the event is on. Kensuke taught me this term:

日付変更線 (ひづけへんこうせん: International Date Line)
     date (1st 2 kanji) + change (next 2 kanji) + line

Look at how different our names are for this place. As 変更  (へんこう) means "change," the Japanese refer to the "Date Change Line." That makes more sense than the English term, which sounds like a place where people from many countries go pick dates off palm trees—or pick up their dates for the evening!

Actually, the new essay is all about coral reefs, which tend to be in the Pacific, near the International Date Line, so there's a smooth segue! Here's a sneak preview:

Have a great weekend!


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