Andrew Johnston, “Boat”

For a long time, I thought anxiety a taboo subject. I was used to awful people in my life telling me that their abuse of me was justified because they were stressed. And I certainly lashed out at times, making the same terrible claim (1). When I focused on projecting confidence, being more assertive, I focused on specific skills, such as public speaking, writing and talking clearly, being more organized. This worked to a degree, but the limits of it are clear to me now.

All this is to say that I didn’t bother to find the source of the actual anxiety. I’ve gotten too many responses to “On Anxiety” already, and I had better say something practical, which is: if you’re feeling anxious, identify the source, then do something positive about it. Nowadays, I’ll write in my personal journal, trying to find the source of the feeling. From there, I’ll assess. What did I do wrong? How am I being wronged? What would I like things to be? What can I reasonably change? That’s identification and evaluation of the source. Doing something about it involves short-term fixes (listening to music, going for a walk, reading, talking to people I trust) and long-term fixes (getting toxic people out of my life, insisting on accountability, taking care of responsibilities, reaching out to others, finding the right job, going to counseling, doing something fulfilling, etc.).

I’m spitballing a bit, but I just want to emphasize that if you think you have a problem, do something about it. The worst of all possible worlds occurs when you paralyze yourself.

Alright. With that said, let’s talk about this gorgeous poem by one Andrew Johnston, a New Zealand poet who writes introspectively, carefully measuring every word. “Boat,” below, is about our expectations regarding thought itself:

Boat (from
Andrew Johnston

A boat though no more than a thought
might carry us, far from

the coast, as far as
we know. But

is it a ship then,
cresting and sounding? I think,

for its boasting, it’s just a boat
drifting down a difficult river —

now and then it runs aground
and that is where we live.


“A boat though no more than a thought might carry us, far from the coast, as far as we know.” Thoughts, however small, are boats of a sort. Both can carry us “far from the coast,” away from previously impassable boundaries, to “as far as we know.” Dreamily, Johnston introduces the question of how thought functions. Does thought go “as far as we know?”

If so, maybe a thought plumbs our minds, revealing us to be deeper than we regarded ourselves. For thought can carry us far from the coast, bringing us to somewhere wholly new. Should we exult in this? Johnston asks if he should grant the thought/boat no less than majesty: “But is it a ship then, cresting and sounding?” Does every thought, no matter how tiny, implicitly hold a conquering, epic scope?

Johnston hesitates. “I think, for its boasting, it’s just a boat drifting down a difficult river.” We’re not necessarily conquering oceans, for thought exists in a specific context. The earth we traverse is smaller, more particular than we thought it was. To be exact: thoughts are relative to the complications of our lives. This doesn’t mean we can’t have large thoughts that communicate across the ages. It does mean that truly thinking starts with recognition of where one is.

The proof that we don’t conquer oceans, that our thoughts about God and humanity and the fate of nations begin with what is personal more than what is universal, is that thoughts strand us. Even if you think through something well, even if you arrive at something original and groundbreaking, you do not automatically become a fountain of wisdom and impartiality. You still have limits, areas where your partial grasp of the whole truth provides for you, but in their own way obscure the whole. “Now and then it [thought] runs aground and that is where we live.”

I guess my hope for all of you is that as you resolve your anxieties, you work with these limits and don’t find them discouraging. I hope you can embrace the deep need for diversity which a proper appreciation of life entails. Sometimes, anxiety is born of intolerance, hewing to the delusion that if all said the same – if a universal truth were fully articulated – all would be well. It’s never that simple; often, how things are meant stands far more important than a literal meaning.


(1) The distinction between a more realistic anxiety and neurotic anxiety is useful here. Going back to the previous post, I stand by saying anxiety alone doesn’t justify anything. However, a clear, demonstrable pattern of abuse – perhaps trampling over people’s rights, or demonizing the powerless – is not a cause of neurotic anxiety. It’s the cause of a more than justified anxiety, the latter which cannot dissolve until the former is addressed.

On Anxiety

Down the highway she drove, accompanied by leather seats, a space-age dashboard, all the space climate control could afford. It was like she was completely insulated from the environment: the grime of the road, the noise of traffic, the personalities of other drivers. Yet she clutched the steering wheel tense, trembling, fearing something. I sat next to her, and I could only think that every atom in her was searching, failing to find solace, and therefore screaming.

There are a few who complain about their anxiety and stress no matter what’s happening. I don’t want to spend words on them, not because they lack real problems, for many do suffer regardless of how much they do or don’t complain. I’d rather focus on how anxiety crushes one from the inside out, not allowing itself to be spoken. I remember another who wouldn’t leave the house in a Canadian rural town. Occasionally there were landscape photographs of a rugged beauty, but then they stopped. Life narrowed for her to a computer screen; her phone became silent. Showering regularly became an achievement, and being out in public was so stressful that it induced crying. You would think someone like this socially awkward, wanting to avoid people in general. On the contrary: she had been a fantastic public speaker, did cosplay, taught all ages, acted. Once, she did all the things for public performance which would make you think she was fearless.

So I’m puzzled. I see people embracing life wholeheartedly in one way, and scared to death of it in another. Anxiety almost seems to messily cleave life into two terrible, overlapping halves. There’s the part where you can function, more or less, and it is an open question whether shaking at the steering wheel counts as functioning. It is also an open question whether only functioning at moments where one has to step up constitutes functioning. And then there’s the part where you close down, or life is utterly miserable, and so even if you’re out in the world it feels like it would have been better if you stayed home.

On that last point, I think of someone from one of the most cosmopolitan, culturally rich cities who was more than a victim to himself. Over cups of coffee, surrounded by artists, students, and young people, it wasn’t immediately evident that his anxiety made him a ball of rage. But here and there he lashed out, saying the most awful things to and about others, things so vicious you wondered if he stayed up late at night thinking how to get others to kill themselves. Over a series of conversations, a portrait emerged: he was anxious about work, the lack of respect he got, the inability to get friends and lovers. However, you would never hear him complain directly about those things. He would deflect: everyone else is stupid, everyone else wastes life, here are all the amazing things he’s done today which he wants you to hear about but are actually good in themselves and do not need to be told to anyone. It was like he built layer upon layer over a foundation of anger, and the highest layers could almost pass for disinterested. Almost.

What does not allow itself to be spoken informs every word spoken. I wonder about a certain teaching regarding sin, where if you hold murderous hate in your heart, or lust after another’s wife, you have already killed and committed adultery. Maybe someone would use this to blame another for the ugliness within that they’re fighting. I wouldn’t be so quick to cast blame, though. The most hateful example of lashing out at everyone may simply voice the pain of the other two examples. There are times when hate isn’t really hate, when a confused fear reigns supreme in the individual. All the same, all three examples beg for remedy. Anxiety can bring forth empathy, but it can never on its own justify anything. To allow it the final say is to destroy the very concept of life in the process of destroying your own.

Kobayashi Issa, “Even with insects”

Even with insects (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

Even with insects–
some can sing,
some can’t.


Children, teenagers, and young adults complain that they are not understood, and so it feels horribly immature, even alien, when you’re older and you’re not understood. To be sure, not being understood is a strange condition. You’ll complain you’re not understood for a particular reason, a particular feeling. But when you think about it a bit more, it seems a more involved affair. You’re really asking for a number of things to be characterized a certain way, your way. And sometimes, you wonder how much it would take to get other people to see things your way, a way you don’t fully understand yourself. What could be said that would work?

I suspect all who have a certain maturity can divide our interactions into two categories: successful communication with other people, failed communication. What we want to say can be deeply felt and not easily articulated, and it’s easy to think there are other people who are much better at speaking what’s necessary, people who can talk well naturally. Self-expression, in that respect, is almost like one’s capacity to sing, and it’s possible to be in awe (as well as utterly jealous) of people who can sing. It’s also possible to let that awe or jealousy consume one to the point where one stops caring about expressing one’s own feelings.

Onto the poem. Issa presents us with a picture of someone complaining: “Even with insects– some can sing, some can’t.” One could say the noise of tuneless insects on a hot summer night bothers him, but that’s not quite right. It’s more that the man in question is bothered by whether people can sing or not, thus his introduction “even with insects.” Why on earth would he be bothered if people can sing or not? Why would he be bothered if he couldn’t sing?

That’s the funny thing about a world of indirect, oblique communication. In some cultures, not speaking directly has a high value. Being able to subtly show displeasure or aversion, able to demonstrate a feeling by simply recounting one’s actions or describing a scene, comes at a cost. It prioritizes the medium for the message. Here’s a man who expresses his discomfort at the heat of summer and a cacophony of insect chirps. The complaint concerns where he is, but while that phrase can resound deeply, it is only an invitation to understand him. Giving expression of one’s emotions an aesthetic value takes away from what is actually happening to a given person.

What is happening to him? “Some can sing, some can’t” provides the necessary clue. He’s honed in on the notion that some insects can sing. There’s something he recognizes as a tune in all that chaos, and that tune no less than characterizes an insect for the sake of this musing. If we extend this idea to human beings, that some human beings can sing a tune tells us what we need to know about them. So can the speaker sing?

If he can sing, then the haiku is merely a complaint that the world is annoying to him. If he can’t, if he identifies with tuneless insects, then this poem acquires a certain gravity. He feels naturally unable to express himself. It is quite an oppressive feeling, if not one of the most oppressive feelings. It makes the world nothing but noise, nothing but hell. The tunes others weave don’t act as a model, but as a display of unattainable skill. One joins an ocean of unknown melodies. I guess I shouldn’t be too bleak – Issa’s tone is more that of mild annoyance. Still, I can’t help but feel a general aimlessness or listlessness will lead this direction.

Blog in Review: “Resentment as the fuel for a dark art,” 3/10/17

Appropriately, this blog has been concerned the last few weeks with our sense of what is tragic. An irritated haiku by Issa, “The snow is melting and the village is flooded with children,” made me wonder about the conditions which can breed anger. They weren’t quite as simple as being old and needing quiet. They were less about actually obtaining what is good for oneself and more about the possibilities and limits which one perceives. To that end, one can use resentment as the fuel for a dark art, that dark art being no less than democracy. See Batsirai Chigama’s “Democracy” for more.

Resentment is only one part of tragedy, though. Disappointment characterizes Emily Dickinson’s “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know.” She’s stuck giving her love to some clod who is hopeless: how much more can she give? Should she give at all? Dickinson, for her part, understands her value. Issa brings us (again) a portrait of someone irritated: “Mosquito at my ear– does it think I’m deaf?” A moment’s reflection, though, informs us that the speaker is far less angry about a mosquito than the condition of his own life.

Basho in “Climb Mount Fuji” and “Even in Kyoto” brings us to what is inevitable. All things pass away; we will grow old and die. He confronts these stark truths with full artistic command. “Even in Kyoto” powerfully resolves the problem of our being what we create. “Climb Mount Fuji” gives us a picture of an aging man who cannot keep up with a snail, and makes that inability seem like the truest, grandest virtue.

My younger, immature self would not have appreciated how careful, how musical Amiri Baraka is. My write-up doesn’t nearly do justice to the majesty of his words. It’s just a first attempt by me to try and understand his power, his pain. Maybe one day I’ll write a hundredth as well as he does. Amiri Baraka, “Legacy.”

Matsuo Basho, “Even in Kyoto”

Even in Kyoto (from Modern American Poetry)
Matsuo Basho (tr. Robert Hass)

Even in Kyoto —
hearing the cuckoo’s cry —
I long for Kyoto.


“Even in Kyoto… I long for Kyoto” brings to mind the never-ending invocation of real America. Everyone is searching for it, apparently, from journalists knee-deep in coal mining country to union organizers among city transit employees. I’m mocking this notion of “real America,” but we do use it quite seriously, quite often. Sometimes, it serves as a crude club with which we beat opposing partisans. A much better use is when it introduces skepticism about conventional wisdom, trying to see through sloppy data or select anecdotes.

Still, “real America” only superficially resembles Basho’s cry. “Real America,” at its best, tries to see beyond partisanship to justify, um, partisanship. “Even in Kyoto — hearing the cuckoo’s cry — I long for Kyoto” concerns something far deeper. How do we find that concern, though? The haiku gives us so little to work with that it invites all sorts of speculation. It’s alright to make mistakes in interpretation – there is no such thing as an absolutely “correct” interpretation – and enjoying the work of an author does not require rigorous amounts of historical detail. This poem, however, is ripe for quickly going off the rails.

The safest way to proceed is by putting ourselves in the speaker’s place. He’s in a large, populated city which either bustles with activity or sleeps. Whether he’s watching shoppers crowd a marketplace or the moon illuminate rooftops, the cuckoo cries, breaking his experience. “Hearing the cuckoo’s cry” brings him into another present; Kyoto subsides, becoming merely a place.

Why is the cuckoo so significant? The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, tells us that the cuckoo could signal the beginning of summer, or that its call might be that of the “spirits of the dead.” The latter fits the poem, but radicalizes what’s happening. Before, it was possible to say that the cuckoo naturally interrupted an urban reverie. Now, one has to identify nature with death, as Basho hears the cuckoo cry and realizes the life of the city is only cyclical – people in motion, people at rest – to a point. Everyone in the city will permanently pass away. This truth is natural inasmuch there is an order to the world beyond our conventions and creations.

He ends the poem with a short cry of his own: “I long for Kyoto.” All things will pass away, but what of what we have made? What of our whole investment? His desire is not for permanence or the realization of an ideal. What is most significant is that the desire for Kyoto itself is justified. Life not only exists, but also gains a certain grandeur in the face of death. What’s funny is that death does not steal away that grandeur.