When I tried to compose this my first song in Japanese, my native tongue, I quickly became acutely dissatisfied and even felt that I was just translating ideas which had originally come to me in English into clumsy Japanese. So after struggling for a while I gave up trying to write it in Japanese, and was pleased that then the new song started to come more easily. This also feels like a correct move because now more of our friends and a larger audience can understand what I am singing, rather than just hearing my Japanese words as pretty sounds. So here is my first song, “I’m a Little Worried.”
I’m a Little Worried
in a bowl of water,
apache plumes slow open into flowers,
white petals glow translucent,
in warm autumn light,
while full grown children over thirty,
for skills they will never use,
waste time at fancy schools.
no way these kids try
like the determined budding plumes.
deep in the forest,
sprinkled by icy streams,
royal blue columbines hide,
while high above them from sharp dry rocks,
their brave brothers raise proud heads.
those too good to clean their own homes,
too important to cook their own food,
do they deserve the respect
due this noble flower?
by the shore dandies dream to wave songs,
above the trees their golden petals tremble in the storm.
my enemies, I pull them from our garden,
but in the sweet spring,
smiling brilliant in the midst of dirty snow,
they make me want to bow.
the too proud dude in the tailored suit,
stuffed from a power lunch, tired from a hard trip on business class,
at home in jeans and a bandana, plays blues on his concert grand,
and dreams he’s right down there with the struggling masses.
he’s so much smaller than the humble glowing bloom.
if it’s humans like these who now truly hold the reins,
if such “masters of the universe” really are the ones in charge,
well I’m a little worried,
I’m a little worried…
Once I had completed the first draft of the song, Arthur and I worked together on it right through to the end of our recording and editing process, and for this I cannot thank Arthur enough. Not only did I rely on his native speaker intuition about things like where “the” should be used instead of “a”, and where singular was better than plural, but as we went back and forth many times about each verse, my song started to more accurately express my meaning even as the words got easier to deliver…
… Of course some people might say that if Arthur was so involved with my song, it’s not really mine. And it’s true that if I had been writing an English song just for the fun of it and to improve my English writing skills, I might have waited until I had struggled to exhaustion before I showed it to him. But since our goal was to get my song ready for posting on our blog, it made sense to take advantage of his developed writing skills, and in any case I feel this cooperative process jump started my English song writing. Also, working together is just the way we do things…
Years ago when we were singing with our guitar and pakhawaj, everything I sang, either my own words or those of my favorite songs, was in Japanese, and I still feel strongly that this was a very smart move because singing in Japanese gave me a chance to explore the relation between my emotions and the Japanese language.
However, since for the last 20 years I have been living my life in English, my ideas from these years have come in English, so nowadays whenever I try to express such thoughts in Japanese it’s not a matter of just replacing English with Japanese words, I have to search for a way of expressing the same ideas in Japanese. Which of course is far from automatic, and sometimes downright impossible…..
Furthermore, during the years when we were translating hundreds of Japanese commercial documents, in order to render them into coherent English, it was really necessary for me to understand what the worthless corporate prose meant to say (which was not necessarily what the words actually said), and as a result this finally taught me to read non-fiction.
I’ve long been a serious reader of fiction, but non-fiction such as philosophy, psychology and sociology, regardless of the language, somehow always gave me trouble, possibly because such non-fiction tends to be written in abstract intellectual language that did not give me any concrete images. So it was gratifying to discover that if I tried very hard, I could also make sense out of non-fiction. But still I continue to prefer fiction….
Living my life in English has certainly opened my world and broadened my perspective, as has reading widely in English. Of course, considering that such a very small part of the global population speaks Japanese, it’s remarkable how much world literature has been translated into Japanese (thanks mainly to the hard work of late 19th and early 20th century scholars and translators). However since so much more is available in English, being able to read English still feels like a gigantic gift from heaven.
Furthermore, though I’ve always liked reading old stuff, perhaps because of the mechanical way that Japanese and Chinese classics were taught in Japan, sadly I had developed an allergic dislike of them, and another lovely result of learning to read English has been that it’s helped me get back into Japanese and Chinese classics.
Let me explain myself… to enjoy reading in English I had to give up all hope of understanding everything and instead had to learn to guess the meaning of words from their context rather than always looking them up in a dictionary. Indeed, only after I had accepted that I would not understand everything in my first read, was I able to enjoy myself. Which is just fine since I tend to reread my favorite books anyway, and I’ve come to believe that any book worth reading at all, is worth reading more than once. I mean how can anyone think he’s understood a book by Dickens fully after just one read? To think this way is merely to deceive oneself.
Well what I realized was how much more true this is about books written many centuries ago in what amounts to a foreign language (classical Japanese) !
So with this new attitude I took another run at the Japanese classics. The first thing I read was “The Tale of Genji” which is mentioned in Arthur’s “Dynasties Fall” post. As part of our personal book club, Arthur read Waley’s English translation while I read Tanizaki’s translation into somewhat modern spoken Japanese. And amazingly I enjoyed it so much that I am looking forward to reading it again.
As for the Chinese classics, since I have abandoned entirely the idea of learning either ancient or modern Chinese, I’ve been enjoying them in English translations. Of course I remain open to finding translations of them into clear simple Japanese, but so far I have failed to find acceptable Japanese versions of Chinese poetry, the I Ching, the Analects, Lao tsu, etc. In the meantime reading them in lovely English translations has kept me quite happy. (This lack of good modern Japanese translations may be a left over from the days when in Japan studying meant memorizing the Confucian classics, and when “educated” people wanted to insure that their “learning” remained inaccessible to ordinary people.)
But to go back to my song, “I’m a Little Worried” expresses our long standing amazement that so many humans manage to believe that they are smarter, better, and more self-aware than other life forms. In this song I talk about plants, but when we lived in India, it was obvious that monkeys could tell good humans from bad humans while to humans all monkeys looked the same. Here in Taos we are quite sure that the magpies hanging out in our garden know us as individuals and are curious about us, even though to us they all look like indistinguishable gorgeous black and white birds. In the same spirit we’ve noticed that plants immediately start looking different the day after a solstice, that animals and plants know when they are hungry and thirsty, that they want what they need, and that given a chance, they do their best to be whatever they are….
Do we so-called “Lords of Creation”, do as good a job of being humans as these creatures do of being themselves? Do we know what we need and then provide ourselves with it? Do we try to be fully human?
You must know someone who is similar to one of the humans described in my song… and once you start thinking about it, if this person really is one of the “Hopes for humanity”…
…. you too, will be a little worried….