JOK Notebook

A Thread Runs Through It

A Facebook friend posted that he has gone running for 425 days straight, logging in a whopping 4,463 miles. In response, his Japanese friend wrote this comment:

Wonderful ability to stick to it!

素晴らしい (すばらしい: wonderful); 継続力 (けいぞくりょく: stick-to-it-ness)

The word 継続力 arrested me, and not only because I'd never encountered it before. At its heart we find this word, which I'll enlarge so you can fully appreciate its appearance:

継続 (けいぞく: continuity, continuation)          to follow + to continue

I love how the "thread" radical (糸) repeats here, creating a striking visual. And it makes sense that the "thread" radical would keep popping up in a word for "continuity." After all, consider the ways in which we use the word "thread." We might say, "Don't lose the thread of the narrative as you write this article" or "The thread running through everything you've said is ..."

I've actually been thinking a lot about continuity lately—in particular about the connection between the past and present. Both voluntarily and by chance, I keep revisiting my earliest years, trying to remember what happened and to bring a different perspective to it all. In my Nia dance class last week, for instance, the teacher had us "return" to an embryonic state and then move through infant development, eventually crawling and then standing. (She pronounced this profoundly healing for some people. I was not one of them!)

I couldn't always tolerate a return to the past. For years I envisioned life as a timeline in which the past faded into oblivion off the left side of the "page." I wanted to turn toward the future, the "right side," and I felt an almost reckless amount of license to ignore the past, as if none of it mattered anymore. After all, we hear plenty of messages about that. People often urge us to move forward, to let go of what has happened. We're encouraged to reinvent ourselves, to start fresh, to treat tomorrow as the first day of the rest of our lives. (Can I squeeze any more cliches in there?!)

But it's really not so simple, is it? The past remains alive in every part of me, often flooding me with memories against my will. Actually, this happened when I joined Facebook a few years ago. As I accepted friend requests (because it seemed safer to remain passive about the whole "friending" business), I was stunned to feel the past rushing toward me. So many people from so many schools and towns that I'd left behind. No one had stayed frozen in 1982 or 1990, though that's where I had left them. Rather, they were very much in the present, often with their own kids. Nevertheless, these old classmates wanted to reminisce about long-ago years. Oh, and people mainly seemed to have happy memories!

As I realized, Facebook reconnects you not only with people but also with vast stretches of time.

My classmates' reminiscing initially terrified me. I had walled off so much of the past in my mind, and their chitchat threatened to blast apart my "Berlin Wall."

But the longer this went on, the more I realized that the past is common space that we all inhabited. It's not just my personal material to reject as I please! And as long as other people remember the things we experienced and the places we lived, the past remains relevant and accessible.

The flat timeline stretching across the page isn't really an accurate image, then. What shape should it have?

When I wrote essay 1835 on 又, which primarily means "again," I kept coming back to the circular aspects of life. Every night turns into day again. Every year brings us back to spring. For instance, I included this sample sentence in the essay, noting that it seems to be full of hope.

Spring has come around again.

春 (はる: spring); 巡る (めぐる: to go around)

Of course, 又 could just as easily convey the return of typhoon season!

I decided that we’re preoccupied with daily and annual cycles, largely because these repetitions often bring us comfort, telling us what to expect and reminding us that we’ve survived similar challenges before.

As I considered the repeating rhythms of life, I kept hearing certain songs in my head, including Harry Chapin's "All My Life's a Circle." And, as I realized, it makes sense to associate music with the concept of “again.” After all, people often sing about upsetting patterns. Countless songs convey something like “He did it to me again” or “I’ve lost at love again.” What better way to heal from pain than to sing about it?

Then, too, songs contain huge amounts of repetition. Chords repeat. Choruses repeat. The repetition is the structure. When it comes to music, we actually love repetition. Once we know how a song goes, we feel a terrific sense of mastery and comfort. Unlike with most things, we don’t require a fresh experience each time we hear music. Rather, there’s a certain pleasure in going down a familiar road again and again, emotionally speaking.

Eventually, I decided to go with this strong association and to find a musical pairing for each nuance of 又, much as a sommelier finds wine to accompany any given dish. I ended up producing "Mata: The Musical," which just went live today! A preview:

Coincidentally, the theme of memory came up in a different way last night. I remembered that Rajorshi De had once sent me this wonderful photo (though in a worrisome lapse of memory I didn't recall where I had stored it and needed to dig out that old email again!):

Photo Credit: Rajorshi De

Hotel Kanji in Jaipur in Rajasthan, India.

I figured that this picture would be a great complement to the FAQ section "How Will Joy o' Kanji Help Me Learn Japanese Characters?" In that part of the site, I had mused about how the memory works. And as I realized yesterday, our brains are like "kanji hotels" with scads of rooms in which characters can lodge. Or at least our brains should work like that, but lots of characters seem to "check out" far too soon, don't they?!

It's so tricky, this matter of memory and of what stays in our minds forever while other things slip out immediately.

Enough of all this. I hope you have an incredibly memorable weekend—in a good way!



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