Sleek For the Long Flight

This week, I read Narrow Road to the Interior, my sweetheart caught swine flu, and my friend Gabe threw away his old love letters.

Narrow Road is Basho’s 1689 haibun (prose punctuated by haiku) account of a Zen pilgrimmage through northern Japan. At his fame’s height, Basho dropped his students, shuttered his home, cancelled court social calls and journeyed, disguised as a Buddhist monk to shame off bandits, for seven months. The prose of his little book is allusive (study your Confucius and Tu Fu), his journey’s arduous particulars (fleas eating him in a guard shack, a horse pissing on Basho’s pillow) probably fiction, the descriptions sometimes soaring. At Ojima Beach:

Small islands, tall islands pointing at the sky, islands on top of islands, islands like mothers with baby islands on their backs, islands cradling islands in the bay. All covered with deep green pines shaped by salty winds, trained into sea-wind bonsai.

And Basho’s asides, despite their density, simplify. His scholarly and literary references point him back toward Zen, his late-life philosophical preoccupation. So, pausing in chestnut shade outside a town called Sukagawa, he informs us that

the Chinese character for chestnut means “west tree,” alluding to the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha; the priest Gyoki, all his life, used chestnut for his walking stick and for the posts of his home.

Near the eaves
the chestnut blooms:
almost no one sees

Preoccupying Basho– grouchy and curious, sated and spartan– was the “self empty of independent existence,” the poem’s animation of seen particulars possible only in a clutterless mind.

Well: do you feel safer ensconced or bared? On Tuesday, Gabe had me up for coffee (“it’s medium roast”) before I went to my office and he taught preschool. I told him about unloading, lately, my family’s storage locker: mathbooks, mixtapes, and mash notes, crated now in my living room.

Is the itch these things give me the pilgrim’s or the archivist’s?

Gabe talked about feeling nimble, and about a “minimal-object past.” I’m tempted to throw every crate away. The seeming danger of keepsakes is self-sentimentality: the slide from respect into simple susceptibility and weakness. As sentimental love is stunting (turning the beloved into a living cancellation, a monster or doll), sentimentality toward one’s own past preoccupies, turns back, crimps, sticks.

When do you reread old letters? Poor Basho died at 50, five years after Narrow Road, stomach-ailing on another pilgrimmage. Did he find the interior he hiked for? Understand: I haven’t thrown a letter away in seven years.