Friday, September 10, 2004

The Solace of Mt. Fuji

Tokyo drizzle greeted my return from the Fuji Go-Ko. In the barely 36 hours I spent at the Mountain, I`ve been immersed in a microcosm of emotion and experience -- and now that I`m faced with a keyboard, I`m at a loss for words.

Over the past few weeks, I`ve been reading a great deal of apopathic theology -- theology that talks about God`s revelation (... if one can call it that ...) in the mysterious, in His apparent absence. Consider, for example, Moses encountering Yahweh in the cloud at Mt. Sinai -- from God`s hiddenness (... even Moses could not see His face ...) came forth Yahweh`s great covenant with the people of Israel. Apophatic theology is suspicious of anyone who would talk too glibly about Who and What God is or does -- it is a form of theology practised first and foremost by the Desert Fathers and Mothers and those following into their theological and biographical footsteps. Coming to Mt. Fuji then, and finding myself inexplicably (... despite the mountain being even out of season a great tourist attraction ...) alone and face-to-face with the Mountain for several hours both Thursday and Friday, it was no great surprise to find Japan`s highest peak veiled in clouds as well ... in fact, I might have been a bit disappointed, had it been fully revealed. (I lie, of course. Despite all apophatic pretensions, there is always the ego-driven desire for a *special* revelation, a *personal* sign. Belden Lane, an author of whom I cannot say enough good things, and whose book "The Solace of Fierce Landscapes" was both my companion for the last few days and one I heartily recommend to anyone who has ever loved mountains or the desert, or who has ever grieved, points out that in the end "we are saved by the things that ignore us" -- by the mountain that looks the same on the day of your divorce, your mother`s death, the loss of your job, etc. The constancy of a mountain or desert landscape in the face of what we perceive as life itself falling apart is, I think, indeed a grace -- albeit a tough one to swallow.)

My first encounter with the Mountain was almost accidental. Being the world`s second most directionally challenged person, I got lost on the way to the tram that ferries people from the main station to the "Mt. Fuji Viewing Platform" on a lower peak opposite of the Mountain itself. I realized this only after having half ascended that peak on slippery, overgrown paths and continued on until the tracks opened to a beautiful and deserted meadow a bit underneath the platform itself -- secluded and quiet, except for the inevitable sounds of the amusement park (yes, amusement park) built at the bottom of the valley. Altogether, I think this was a face-off with the cloud shrouding Fuji`s upper reaches rather than with the Mountain itself -- a curious experience, both vaguely indifferent (... having let myself off the hook from further forced "spiritual" experiences ...) and comforting. Sitting at the relative foot of the mountain, watching the ever-changing cloud-cover and hearing the thunder from within it (... and yes, there was thunder ...), standing in the place of the Israelites at the bottom of Mt. Sinai --- that was about as much divine intimacy as I could handle and felt deserving of that day.

The descent owes much to Master Santos` sublime summer-mix -- for the first time in two weeks, I pulled out my dilapidated CD player and spent the rest of the evening circling around the largest of the five lakes, singing along to "Summer of 69" and recovering the mojo I had largely left at LAX a couple of weeks ago ;) (I think that not even Mr. Cetera himself is aware how perfect "Glory of Love" is for a retreat from viewing Mt. Fuji.)

I spent the night at a local youth hostel in the company of a young Irish college couple, wisely investing their parents apparently ample funds in a no-holds-barred exploration of Japan. Their choice of a private room left me with the hostel dorm entirely to myself -- a blessing, as was beginning the day being serenaded by Haendel`s Water Music via the hostel`s speaker system in the morning while the elderly couple running the place were cleaning.

My second audience with the Mountain came on Friday before leaving the Fuji-Go-Ko to return to Tokyo. Having taken a bus to the least developed of the five lakes and hiked almost entirely around it, looking in vein for those famed "prettiest views" of Mr. Fuji, I finally sat down a few hundred yards away from some Japanese fishermen --- only to find myself face-to-face, once again, with a heavily cloud-enveloped Mountain. I pulled out my newly acquired set of watercolors here and painted for a while, as well as finished "Solace of Fierce Landscapes." As I said earlier, the entire book is a treat -- a display of the author`s theological training as well as gift for storytelling (... one of my favorite parts recounts his sitting around a campfire in a completely remote area of Utah and telling a Native American story to a number of young pine trees who had moved closer and were silently urging him for a tale.) The final quarter of it, however, was both tremendously applicable (... I left no page without marks, comments in the margin and the occasional "ditto!" ...) but also emotionally harrowing, as the author talks about his father`s death when he was still a child and his mother`s slow passing of cancer, more than 40 years later.

Narratives of illness, old age and death are almost always moving for me -- a reflection, no doubt, of the personal memories these stories hook into, tapping on keys and plucking strings that I cannot consciously manipulate but must rely on others` gifts to set in motion. Fists clenched, gritting teeth I was fighting tears, concerned that I would have no way to explain to the fishermen, should any of them pass me by -- and worse, that I had no words to reassure them that I really was quite alright (... funny how readily we weave a thin web of words over the reality of our very obvious not-alright-ness, and how readily we accept others` doing the same for us.) (Interestingly, for no reason apparent to myself, most of my grief and even anger turned towards the Mountain in its hiddenness -- and the Mountain duely, blessedly ignored me.)

I didn`t notice the first drops of rain until after I had packed up to leave -- the fishermen, more attuned to the weather`s fickleness than myself, had abandoned their spot a while before. As I walked back around the lake towards the bus-stop, I watched falcons soar and kingfishers rise up from the lake`s marshes. I felt a new and perfectly ordinary connectedness with the landscape, and a strange sense that the Mountain I was leaving behind was watching my back for me.


[P.S.: Wadester, I trust you`ll forgive my not taking your advice upon returning to Tokyo -- but the only right reaction to an attractive, well-dressed foreigner following me around is always to run like all the demons hell can spare were on my heels.]

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