Sunday, January 21, 2007


I try to study Japanese every day, in the mornings and the evenings, and usually it is slow, and unfruitful, and frustrating, and the intended outcome -- fluency -- is essentially a fool's errand, the chances of success unlikely, and it is precisely for those reasons that I'm having such a good, enriching time.

One of the best things I learned as a teenage runner is the notion of working at something today for the (possible) benefit to come tomorrow. During the summer months you train for September, October and November: cross-country season. In the winter you put yourself through the paces to prepare for the indoor track season in January and February, and this season in and of itself is really nothing more than a means by which you can improve your speed and endurance for the outdoor track season in April and May. Then the summer comes, and you do it all over again.

Your run today is preparation for a race two, three months from now. If you skip today (assuming you're diligent every other day), nothing much will happen. Your fitness level won't slip all that much. You won't lose that future race. It basically means nothing, missing today's run.

And yet it means everything.

Years ago, in high school, talking on the phone in our basement pool-room with one of my friends trying to get me to skip my run so I could come over and watch a video, I told him I couldn't, but I couldn't explain why. Not really. It was early-winter, after all. The outdoor track season was, what, four, five months away? What was the big deal?

The paradox is (I would tell him now, not having the words then), even though I'm preparing for tomorrow, today is all that I have. And if I do not do what I am supposed to do today, then something important inside of me has been lost. My gamble at the future, essentially. My shot at something yet to come. By forfeiting today, I'm acknowledging that tomorrow, too, is unlikely, even unecessary.

Even being in and around cancer this past year has solidified this notion. Cancer makes the future seem frightening and uncertain, but steps must be taken to today for the mere possibility of tomorrow. Tomorrow itself is not guaranteed. But today's treatment will ensure the possibility, if not the probability, of its occurrence.

The ultimate irony, of course, of today's preparation for tomorrow is that it is not tomorrow that ultimately matters. It is the preparation itself. In the end, that's all we have. So many factors are out of our control, always. On race day it could be cold or wet, your shoelaces could come undone, you could get boxed in during a race, unable to make your long-planned move -- any of that could happen.

All you have is what you did to get you there. That's all you can rely on. Usually, it's enough. Sometimes (often?), it's not enough. And yet that, too, is life. The process of it.

Right now I have a vocabulary book designed for the Level 2 Japanese Proficiency Test (waaaay above my level), and a grammar book for that same test, and a few non-fiction books brought back from Japan that I'm trying to make my way through, page by page, dictionary in hand. It's boring and drudgery and wonderful and enticing. I don't know if I will end up taking the Proficiency Test later this year, or possibly next year, but that's not the point. The point is that I'm working on something, today, and it leads into tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. If I don't have a link between today and tomorrow and the beginning of next year, I feel bereft. I feel that today exists only for itself, and that feels unfulfilling.

Yet this process also, paradoxically, reinforces the necessity of today also being only for today, and today alone. The outcome is not what's important. What is the end outcome of a serious disease, after all? What is the end outcome of all of our lives? None of us are taking anything with us.

All we have are the moments at hand, the ones that fill our time now and earn credit for that all will follow.

Studying Japanese, for me, is not even about studying Japanese. It's about continuing to build on I something I already have, something I started in the past, something that can continue into the future, something that gives weight to my mornings and hints at future discoveries. Something that links all my yesterdays with most of my tomorrows.

It's about seizing the moments at hand, cradling them like a bird in your palm, then nudging them, somehow, into tomorrow, into flight.

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