Kyoto Diaries: Sept. 19-24

Sept. 19, 2016

Another irksome day scrambling to dry bedsheets and quilt covers for check-ins. All three of us volunteer staff were stressed and frustrated. Back sore from sleeping on bottom bunk (which is really nothing more than a thin mattress on the tatami floor). No headache today though, thank goodness. Feet already sore before I even got out the door to do exploring in late afternoon. Walking shoes not broken in yet.

Successfully used subway to access Fushimi Inari. At first the path had many people on it, but as it approached the top it thinned out considerably. Many, many, many torii, and many shrines interspersed almost like checkpoints along the path. Across from the shrines were shops serving food, drinks, souvenirs, candles, good luck charms. Vending machines too.

Torii are traditional Japanese gates that mark the borders between the mundane (and profane) world, and the sacred one.

Torii are traditional Japanese gates that mark the borders between the mundane (and profane) world, and the sacred one.


So many torii.

So many torii.


So. Many.

So. Many.


And then some.

And then some.


Some of them were in need of maintenance. Although I did quite like the worn look of it.

Some of them were in need of maintenance. Although I did quite like the worn look of it.


Finally a rest stop.

Finally a rest stop.

Many little shrines clustered together, replete with candle holders, an altar for an offering (some of which had little tetra packs of juice, milk or coffee–even a can of Asahi beer on one of them), and a slab of stone as the centrepiece with kanji written on it. Many of them covered over with green moss. Kittens and cats roaming the grounds freely.


The shrines were also accompanied by kitsune, or foxes, which guarded the shrine, and acted as messengers for the god Inari.

According to Japanese folklore kitsune possessed supernatural powers and great wisdom. They were even said to be able to shape shift into human form.

According to Japanese folklore kitsune possessed supernatural powers and great wisdom. They were even said to be able to shape shift into human form.

The repetitive nature of the pathway I was following had a hypnotic effect which put me for brief moments, in what I think is the best mindset for walking such paths. A mindset in which you become more receptive to the numinous. The immanent spirit of this place which is the sum total of the forest, the shrines, the cats, the wind as it sighs through pine and bamboo, the electric silence, punctuated by droplets falling from torii after rain. The genius loci, Inari.



Or at least I wanted to have that mindset, though the touristic part of my brain, and the over-analytical side to counter that, both together made such a feeling of reverence shallow. I wanted too many things at once, and my desires all cancelled each other out, and became burdensome, more than anything. Of course, I was projecting my own ideas on the place. I don’t even know how Japanese people feel at their own shrines, with what attitudes they approach them. Possibly nothing like mine. Inari is the Kami of rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry, and success in worldly affairs. Hardly what a Westerner would imagine a divine being caring about. But here, the sacred and the humdrum may not be so separate as some “spiritual types” would like it to be. In the past, people have prayed to gods (including Jesus) and saints for safe passage, success in a new venture, incl. business, war, etc. This is nothing new, and not so unfamiliar as one may first suppose. You just have to take off your secular specs. Religion has always to some extent relied on commerce. Yet all the same, to me this place was enchanting, even otherworldly.


The larger shrines looked almost like cemeteries.  Kept trying to get a good photo of the big spiders that made their homes above our heads, off to the sides, between the torii. And then there was the sound of the crows, that to me sounded like mad old men laughing. The cricket. A distant horn blowing from a distant temple, mingled with the sirens from the city down below.


A view of Kyoto from halfway up Fushimi Inari. Just left of this view you could make out the distant towers of Osaka.

A view of Kyoto from halfway up Fushimi Inari. If the trees on the left weren’t there you could make out the distant towers of Osaka.

Caught wrong train north. Ended up at Kyoto Station, a half hour away from guesthouse. So I walked from there, stopped by a “family restaurant”, for an unglamorous but affordable dinner. Nervously ate my vegetarian meal, wondering if I was spoiling the mood by being there. Wondering if I was even eating the food correctly. Didn’t know what to do with the egg they gave me. Was it hard-boiled, or raw? Didn’t want to experiment and end up making a mess of things, so I the wrapped the egg in some napkins and slipped it stealthily into my bag. Only when I was about to leave did I see a man beside me crack his egg over his bowl of rice and stir it all together. So that’s what you do with it.

Though I was tense the whole time, proud of myself for going in, not listening to the urge to run straight home, just because it’s intimidating and spontaneous. Inexplicably I had a lot of energy by the time I got back to the guesthouse. Will have to go back to Fushimi Inari before I leave Japan.

Friday, Sept. 23, 2016

The rock garden at Nanzen-ji

The rock garden at Nanzen-ji

At Nanzen-ji

Sitting by the rock garden

To my left, a young man reading Kurt Vonnegut

Then, past the garden with the waterfall, beyond my sore feet,

past the cicadas and crickets, and the thick heat

The deep and pure tone of the bonsho

Calling me, taking my body and sounding me like a bell

Followed by a sutra wafting through the air

Tempting me with Old Shakyamuni’s mutterings


Sitting in front of the rock garden at Nanzen-ji, one of the most highly honoured Zen temples in Kyoto.

Nanzen-ji, which used to be a villa for the 13th century Emperor Kameyama, is one of the most famous Zen temples in Kyoto.

The temple roof’s tiles a steely blue in the sunset. The roof of the entrance hall an elegant black slope of Japanese cypress. The temple stands out in relief against the vibrant green forest billowing up behind it.


A secluded garden where the Emperor could retire and give himself over to contemplation.

A secluded garden where the Emperor could retire and give himself over to contemplation.

The red-pink frog in Emperor Kameyama’s pleasure garden, sitting absolutely zazen-still on the moss bed overlooking the pond.

Pseudo-Zen thoughts: What would the tree say if it could talk? It would say itself. It can only say itself.  With every sway of branch and peel of bark and burst of flower.  Just like you can only say yourself. You can’t not say it. It’s too late. Whether you want to or not. You’re saying it just by being alive, you are already an utterance, a phrase, a sentence on a page in a very, very, very large book. Even when you think you are hiding from the world, and perfectly silent, you are still saying yourself. So make a choice. What will your life-sentence be about?

Walking up the path to Mount Daimonji, walking right into a spider-web
Leaping, thrashing about, spitting, brushing myself off, praying to any local deity that nobody saw how much of an ass I just made of myself
Hoping I don’t see a killer hornet this far along the forest path.

The pathway up the mountainside just behind Nanzen-ji

Walking back, seeing a so-called “Samurai Musician” busker in a park. Drawing his shakuhachi flute like a katana, with ritualistic precision and ceremony. He plays to a moody and elegiac track on his speakers. He wears a wide-brimmed hat, like some wandering monk. He has a little dog with him, who also wears a wide-brimmed hat. Us tourists eat it up.

Saw a small Buddhist shrine by the subway station, and beside it a huge bundle of garbage and grocery bags on a bicycle. Its owner, woman, possibly homeless, nearby. So struck by this image. The shrine and the woman with her few worldly belongings. The symbol and reminder of compassion built next a person ignored by society. Honestly, felt the urge to take a picture, and resisted, disgusted with myself for having such an impulse. If I was a photographer documenting poverty for the purpose of raising awareness and combating it amid a callous and affluent society, I might feel more justified (although even then I would feel a strong ethical dilemma). But as things stand I’m just a tourist, a visitor in a country not my own. I don’t even know that woman’s situation; I’m projecting again. Regardless, whatever the striking juxtaposition, that’s still a person trying to get by. I don’t know if there’s a right way to be a tourist, but I’m certain there is a wrong way. That’s a line I hope to not cross.

Sept. 24, 2016

The days are passing me by. Finally cracked and bought Tales of the Heike from bookstore [Tales of the Heike is considered by Westerners to be a little bit like Japan’s Iliad]. Even though I told myself I wouldn’t buy books while I’m in Japan. It’s a slippery slope from here.

Saw two hawks dive-bombing for fish in Kamogawa. Some people driving down the street in go-carts, dressed as Mario and Luigi, and an amazing guitarist busking on Shijo-dori, playing an amazing instrumental version of Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa. Went up to him after and praised his jaw-dropping guitar-work, and bought a CD of his. This place is magical.


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Kyoto Diaries: Sept. 12-18

Back in September I took a trip to Japan. It was, for all intents and purposes, my first time abroad, and alone. I saved up for this trip for months. I stayed for six weeks, volunteering at a small guesthouse in Kyoto, and since returning I’ve been wanting to share my thoughts on my trip. However, I’ve been struggling to find a way to put it all into words in a coherent way. To be able to somehow synthesize it all, to organize my experiences into tidy themes. The problem is real life is messier, and if there are common themes to my experiences, they may need more time to emerge.

So, I opted to publish my daily journal (well, more or less daily), which I kept during my trip. I cut out any of my more private thoughts I’d rather not share with the wide world. Of the parts I kept, some of it I polished a bit to be more readable, and some of it I kept intact as I had written it.

Some parts I decided to expand upon for this blog, especially if it was something I found particularly interesting or in need of explanation. Other thoughts I’ve left as is, and may not be connected to the preceding or following thoughts in any coherent way; they are merely the recording of sense impressions (e.g. “Chinese women in kimonos on their cellphones”, “The thick, heady smell of incense”, “Mumbling konbini clerks”), right as they occurred to me in that moment of writing. Perhaps to add atmosphere, to display a stream of consciousness, without judgment or comment. They don’t conform to any narrative, they don’t mean anything. They mean themselves.

I jump back and forth in time. The tense changes from present to past, for no apparent reason (my slovenliness). I decided it would be easiest to present this all in a messy, sprawling form, partly because it’s convenient for me to do so right now, and also because I’ve come to really enjoy the diary as a literary form. I hope you enjoy this one.

Sept. 12, 2016

Got on flight to Osaka.

Sitting next to a woman named Shea (Shae?) mother of teenage girl in a Wado-ryu Karate team going to Japan for a tournament. She’s from Saskatchewan. VERY chatty. This concerned me, as I was hoping for a peaceful and quiet flight. But she proved to be good company. Fun, friendly, laid back.

Very proud of her daughter, who’s the only brown belt on a team of black belts. Her daughter doubts herself all the time because of this, so Shea reminds her that she wouldn’t have made it on the team if her Sensei didn’t see that potential in her. Shea says that she, her husband, and kids, all have their own family “fight club”. Sparring in the kitchen, keeping each other sharp, alarming the neighbours with combative noises and kiai.

Shea is arguably the loudest passenger on the plane. Not a judgment, just an observation–considering we are surrounded mostly by Japanese people, most of them elderly, who are exceptionally quiet. It could also be they’re tired and don’t feel like talking much. I can relate to that. So, so tired.

We’re moving westward, with the sun, so it feels like we’re in a perpetual afternoon. I can’t see out the window, just endless white. It feels like we are nowhere.

Made it through customs!

So. Damn. Humid. For all my planning, I did not factor that in...

Emerging into Kansai International Airport, just outside of Osaka. So. Damn. Humid. For all my planning, I did not factor that in…

Sept. 13, 2016

Emerging from the train station to a view of Kyōtō Tower.

Emerging from the train station to a view of Kyoto Tower.

Got in to Kyoto the other night, after wandering about like a fool. Last night was hard. As I was falling asleep, I realized how alone I felt. Not knowing the staff so well, or what was expected of me yet, I felt useless. Plus not knowing the language, I felt doubly useless. And helpless. Yet even as I was freaking out trying to find the guesthouse, I was loving every second. Dodging out of the way of cars zipping down the narrow back streets. As I walked north from Kyoto station, the bright city lights stopped up ahead, met with a wall of darkness. As I got closer the “wall” became the purple evening sky and a shadowy mass below. As I approached I could see the outer walls of some great old building. My first temple sighting. Couldn’t go inside; it was a thrill just to know it was there.

Sept. 14, 2016

Conquered the supermarket “Happy” by the guesthouse. Was terrified to bring groceries up to the counter. Survived!

Walking down the street from the guesthouse to the local supermarket, "Happy".

Walking down the street from the guesthouse to the local supermarket, “Happy”.

Drank with staff and a guest from Belgium, and two guests from northern Japan named Kanta and Tetsu. Tetsu wore a Chicago Bulls jersey, with Michael Jordan’s #23. Walked down to the Kamogawa river. (Kamogawa means “Duck River”, so I’m being a little redundant.) Yuki, the only Japanese staff member, coaxed me into climbing down into the water, and she herself slipped and fell in completely, drenching herself from head to toe. The water was not cold at this point, or deep. I managed to not fall in spectacularly, but still banged my toe against a slimy underwater stone. Discovered afterward I was bleeding profusely. Kanta and Tetsu wandered off somewhere, then we were joined by two other young Japanese guys, and we offered them a drink. Dancing to smartphone speakers. One of them was an outstanding illustrator and showed me photos of his sketches on his phone. The other was a great dancer, popping and locking like a goddamn professional…though he was apparently very insecure about his height, which he was very vocal about. His height, and the dimensions of his…other, um, anatomical features, shall we say. Ahem. Probably just the booze talking.

My boss, who’s from New Zealand, drunkenly singing “Yesterday” on ukulele. Then singing a lovely song in Japanese. A love song? Don’t know. Trying to find something to fit the mood of the couple making out nearby. They had the moon, bright in the sky, so why not some ukulele?

All of us singing “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”, loudly, while stumbling back to the guesthouse.

Sept. 15, 2016

At Kiyomizu-dera. Kiyomizu means “Clear Water”, and it gets its name from the waterfall within its complex, although sadly I didn’t see it. Apparently in the Edo period, people used to jump off of that platform (in the photo below). If you survived the jump, your wish would come true.

But in the 1600s, 17 years after Shakespeare's death. Not a single nail was used in its construction.

But in the 1600s, 17 years after Shakespeare’s death. Not a single nail was used in its construction.

Walking up the hill, “tourist brain” taking over. Expecting to “feel something”. Whatever I feel is what I’m supposed to feel, no sense in forcing or manufacturing emotion. Shrine dedicated to Kannon, bodhisattva of compassion, fountain with schoolchildren dipping into it with wooden ladles, washing their hands and mouths with water to purify themselves. The large spiders looming over the path, blending in with the surrounding verdure, almost invisible until you’re right under them. The crane by the pagoda (no, not the bird, the machine, the temple was undergoing renovations).

The extremely loud cicadas in the trees. The ground-level view of the mountain, with the pines soaring up — very vertical. Collecting donations and prayers for the 2011 earthquake victims.Sore, sore feet. The shops. The thick, heady smell of incense

Apparently, of the people who jumped (237 recorded), the survival rate was surprisingly high. 85%. I still wouldn't do it.

I still wouldn’t do it.

Apparently, of the people who jumped (237 recorded), the survival rate was surprisingly high. 85%.

Feeling ambivalent about the exploitation and commercialization of a religious and cultural heritage site. Not letting myself fully enjoy it because of this. Uneasy.

Schoolboys asking me my name and where I’m from; I took this as an opportunity to practice my extremely basic Japanese. Except they were trying to practice their basic English. Which was already lightyears better than my Japanese. So much for that. Ah, but the origami they gave me after! Lovely. And then another group of schoolboys came up to me, repeated this routine, and gave me even MORE origami. The Chinese women in kimonos, texting on their phones.

Shinto and Buddhism cross-pollenated quite freely in Japan, this particular Shinto ritual of washing hands and mouth in the basin being one example. Also, the schoolchildren are so cute in their yellow hats!

Shinto and Buddhism cross-pollenated quite freely in Japan, this particular Shinto ritual of washing hands and mouth in the basin being one example. Also, the schoolchildren are so cute in their yellow hats!

Sept. 17, 2016

Remembering to bow is a difficult habit to get into. Not that anybody here expects me to know when and how to do it. But still. I’d like to make a bloody effort.

Inside Kennin-ji temple complex. Believed to be the oldest Zen temple in Japan, founded in 1202 CE.

Inside Kennin-ji temple complex. Believed to be the oldest Zen temple in Japan, founded in 1202 CE.

Sitting in tiny restaurant on street in Gion district, after seeing Kennin-ji. Founded by Eisai, who is credited for bringing not only Zen Buddhism from China to Japan, but also introducing green tea to Japan. Good move, Eisai. I bet he could never have predicted just how influential Zen would become to the Japanese ethos, how it would infuse into almost all aspects of its culture, like a robust and delicious brew of tea. And how it’s been slowly steeping in Western culture for the past century…

In the Dharma Hall. A statue of the Buddha, flanked by two of his earliest and most influential disciples, Ananda and Mahakashyapa. Oh, and a bunch of us tourists.

In the Dharma Hall. A statue of the Buddha, flanked by two of his earliest and most influential disciples, Ananda and Mahakashyapa.

I’ve been making a point of including other tourists in some of my photos. It’s tempting to leave them out to try to preserve the semblance of tranquility in the temples, or cultural “authenticity”. But it would be dishonest, or at best inaccurate. They (we) are as much a part of these places as are the beautiful paintings, the Twin Dragons on the ceiling of the Dharma Hall, the moss, the rocks, the trees. No getting around it. 

Kennin-ji also where the arguably more famous Zen master Dogen trained, before he went on to reform Zen Buddhism and found the Soto school. Dogen was an intellectual heavyweight in the Zen tradition, and highly regarded for his original thinking in the way he turned language on its head to change peoples’ thought patterns, and revitalized Buddhist teachings, hopefully to make enlightenment just a little less unattainable.

Oh, and have you seen this painting before?

Fujin and Raijin. The god of wind, and the god of thunder and lightning. They make quite a pair, don't they.

Fujin and Raijin. The god of wind, and the god of thunder and lightning. They make quite a pair, don’t they.

Yep, this painting is in Kennin-ji as well. No big deal.

Was at Yasaka Shrine yesterday, and then Chion-In.

The Sanmon, or entrance gate, to Chion-In, the headquarters of Jōdo Buddhism.

The Sanmon, or entrance gate, to Chion-In, the headquarters of Jōdo Buddhism.

Struck by how massive this Sanmon is.

Here. Let's get a little closer.

Here. Let’s get a little closer.

Closer. Remember, this thing is made of wood. When was the last time you saw something this big made of wood?

Closer. Remember, this thing is made of wood. When was the last time you saw something this big made of wood?

The main hall is even bigger, but sadly under construction and so covered up with a protective shell that looks like a military hangar bay.

Sept. 18

Struggle with homesickness today. Raining all day. Damp. Smell of mold in the air. On laundry duty today. Stuck trying to dry bedsheets for hours, except the single working dryer is crappy and greedily eats up yen. With the rain outside the sheets hanging on the rooftop won’t be able to dry. A lot of people checking in at guesthouse today.

In better spirits by 3pm. Had food, less grumpy. Watching World War Z with Luisa, a volunteer from Germany. The smell of damp sheets and towels hangs in the air. Going up and down the stairs a bajillion times. Lower back acting up. Mumbling konbini clerks. The side streets at night. Remembering periodically how I’ve barely seen anything so far.

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Some thoughts after reading ‘Quiet’

I recently read Susan Cain’s bestseller ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. While I was reading it I had an experience I don’t think I’ve ever had before while reading a book. I felt like it was written for me.

Objectively speaking, this is complete nonsense. But the fact that there millions of people out there who have probably felt the same thing as I did will give you an idea of how resonant and, I believe, just how necessary Susan Cain’s message is. It’s been out for 4 years now, and I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading it.  I tend to avoid making hyperbolical claims, preferring a more tentative and qualified mode of communication, but this time around I’m resisting that urge by saying that everybody should read it–whether you identify as an introvert, and extrovert, or somewhere in between.

The funny thing is that Quiet hasn’t really told me anything I didn’t already know. I knew I was an introvert long before I ever heard the term, and I knew the term long before Cain showed up on the scene. So what’s the big deal? I don’t know exactly, but maybe there’s something about reading about this topic in a book that’s made things click for me. I certainly feel more justified in some of my behaviour, and the kind of life I want to lead.

A Complex Issue

One aspect I appreciate most about Cain’s treatment of her subject is that it doesn’t oversimplify the introversion/extroversion dichotomy, which you see so often in the memes, infographics, articles, listicles, Buzzfeed videos, and blog posts (this one included) that have popped up on the internet in the wake of this book’s release and the “quiet revolution” it’s inspired. Sure, those things are probably good in some ways for tossing a decades-old term into the pop culture whirligig. But they’re just primers, no more. They are often too simplistic, reductive, and sometimes even patronizing, to really get to the heart of the matter. Nevertheless, Cain’s book manages to avoid those pitfalls, which I find refreshing.

It’s also a good reminder that there really is no substitute for a thoroughly researched and well-written book to do the job of penetrating and permeating the reader’s consciousness (hopefully for the better), and allowing for a more nuanced discussion of a subject. As a result, reading Quiet has had a far greater impact on me than all of the former bite-sized morsels of information on introversion I’ve seen floating around on the interwebs combined.

Still Waters Don’t Always Run Deep

I detest the implication that introverts are always deep thinkers, more sensitive, more bookish, more intellectual, etc. etc. than their extroverted counterparts, and that the latter are as a group more shallow, insensitive, impulsive, anti-intellectual, and straight up stupid. An incredibly offensive oversimplification if there ever was one (i.e. bullshit), and thankfully Cain doesn’t commit this fallacy. She pays due respect to the sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent, and caring extroverts among us that have and continue to make this world a far better place than it would be without them. But she understands that we have placed too much weight on the extrovert as a cultural ideal, to our own detriment. Introverts are not better, but if what Cain is writing about is true, they are not heard nearly as much as they should be because of this cultural bias.

Social Interactions

Introversion has influenced literally every aspect of my life. The most obvious one is my social life. Throughout my 20s, I’ve often felt embarrassed, even ashamed that I have nothing to tell people I haven’t seen in a while when they ask “What have you been up to?” All I can say is “oh you know, just working, being with family, friends.” Which is true, but doesn’t cover the half of what I’ve really been up to.

I spend a lot of time reading, for example. A LOT of time. It’s not the only thing I do, but it is a major activity in my day-to-day. It’s something that’s easier to justify when you’re in school and therefore expected to be reading; when you’re out of school you’re expected to be Doing Things! So when somebody I haven’t seen in a while asks me what I’ve been up to and I say “oh I’ve been reading”…it doesn’t sound very interesting, even though to me it’s one of my favourite things to do. So I don’t say that. I say other things that might sound more impressive, or at least “useful”, but which I care less about. (Unless you don’t feel like talking at all, another perfectly legitimate introvert-ism.)

Which is absurd, because I know many people who are like me, and yet if I ran into one of them I STILL would keep up this pretense of being busier than I actually am, which in turn might prompt them to keep up the same ridiculous pretense for their own lives, and so you have a whole exchange between two genuine and thoughtful people who are just “faking it”, and nothing of substance actually gets said! What fools! How unsatisfactory!

How About That Local Sports Team?

The problem is that the questions I really like, most people never bring up in small talk. And that’s the part of conversation introverts typically have no stomach for.  So already it’s difficult to put your best foot forward and make a good impression at the beginning of a conversation when the social etiquette is not designed with your personality in mind. So you just have to suffer through it as best as you can and hope they don’t lose interest and walk away before the really interesting stuff comes up.

Imagine if people opened with “What are you reading?” “What are you thinking about these days?” “What’s inspiring you?” Ok, even if you did ask me the above questions I might still stutter and stammer and mutter something only half-audible and half-intelligible, but I’d still appreciate the effort you’d be making. I think I’ll be awkward no matter what the initial chit-chat is about. So be it. But if you stick around long enough, or ask me the right questions, I probably won’t be so quiet anymore.

Making Work Work for Introverts

Ah yes. Work. How to navigate the choppy waters of the work world as an introvert? The biggest hurdle for me has been that there really aren’t a lot of entry-level jobs that are good for introverts (that I know of, anyway.) So it can be a major struggle. It can take a long time for me to feel at ease in a new job. I’ve often chalked this up to some lack of moral fibre on my part; I’ve wondered why I was so unambitious, why I tend to hold back in group discussions, why I dislike being in charge and am ok with following the lead of others, why I had little desire to ascend any sort of hierarchical ladder and lead a team of minions peers, even if it meant a better standard of living (like, if it’s not captain of the USS Enterprise, I’m not interested, ok?).

Why did I not want what others around me want? What was wrong with me? You can see why potential employers might see these qualities as a lack of initiative. Honestly I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long in the workforce. I thought it was because I was lazy and irresponsible. I’d even wondered if I was clinically depressed.

The truth is, when I’m on my own, I feel significantly happier. I can work through problems with more ease. Only when I’m alone is my sense of self not being filtered through the expectations of other people. I feel more free. I even like myself more. I’d nearly forgotten how much of that has to do simply with my natural predisposition, rather than some flaw in my design. Nothing is wrong with me for having those preferences, simply because society around me wants me to have different ones.

My main criticism of Cain’s book is that it focuses disproportionately on the world of business and politics, arguably the most extroverted fields of all, and there’s less in it for introverts for who have no interest in entering either of those fields. But whether we like it or not those fields influence virtually every other livelihood in one way or another, so I can see why she paid so much attention to it. Also, because those are difficult fields for introverts, their success stories seems to stand out that much more. Regardless, her insights apply everywhere, to all walks of life.The more we can organize our workplaces to accommodate introverts, who make up roughly one half of the population, the better. And that goes for entry-level “joe” jobs too.


There is a chapter of Quiet where Cain focuses on the neurophysiological factors in introversion.  Now I want to be careful here. Science has often been invoked to justify current human behaviour as “the natural order” of things (see: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homo- and trans-phobia), and any time I see that argument I get suspicious. We must always scrutinize our reasons.

However, I think we’d also be foolish to deny that biology does play a part in personality psychology. There is a lot of science to support the claim that introverts (broadly speaking) are wired differently than extroverts: they are less motivated by extrinsic rewards like money and status and prefer work that is more intrinsically satisfying. They have a higher sensitivity to novel stimuli than extroverts. This is why extroverts need more stimulation to feel alive, and introverts need less. This is why introverts get exhausted more easily by social interaction than their extroverted peers. This is one reason why they are more cautious, and yes, more shy.

It’s not all nature, of course. There are cultural and social conditions that factor into it as well. A painful experience can make anybody just as if not more risk-averse than someone who was predisposed to being that way. But that’s the key: introverts are people who are predisposed to it from the beginning.

It’s made me consider my own reaction to the world around me. I’m typically a cautious person. I can be spontaneous, but my default is to be more tentative. Take an extreme but nonetheless true example: it can take weeks, some times months between the moment I see a book I might want to buy, and actually deciding to buy it. I’m slow to act. I’d make a great Ent.

However, while it may be harder for me to adjust to novelty than it is for others, it does make me able to go more in depth into the things I am already interested in. There are upsides to being this way, something our culture that worships innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t always see.

Quizás, Quizás, Quizás

Anyway, this can be a huge obstacle to living a full and rich life, which I fully acknowledge. But too often we cast these traits in a negative light. Reading Quiet has shown me that there are still virtues in in the word “perhaps”.

“Perhaps” can be infuriatingly non-commital when misused. But with it I’m able to see ambiguities and complexities in life that others might miss. It makes me more able to agree with seemingly contradictory opinions without losing my mind. It even makes me more understanding of people with different points of view from my own. Too tolerant, sometimes, to the point that I can seem to lack conviction. In other words, I might come off as cowardly. But I think it can make me more considerate of other peoples’ feelings, which may look like a weakness to some people. In interpersonal conflicts, I tend to play the diplomat.

Free Traits

And the key piece of information in all of this is that if, as contemporary personality psychology claims, our temperament is more or less fixed, then we should learn to work with it, not against it. We all may have “free traits” as psychologist and acclaimed professor Brian Little claims, so people like me can pretend to be extroverts for a time (and I do, lots, having been an actor for some 13 years), but we eventually need to go back to our “default setting”. It’s frustrating to recognize the limitations to your personality, but it can also be a huge relief. It’s no excuse to stop challenging yourself and growing, but this must be done in a way that plays to your strengths.

Here Come Some Contradictions

Ok, so let’s be honest. The whole introvert/extrovert thing is silly, if you really think about it. There are a lot of reasons why a person is who they is. How I was raised, who I associate with, what ideas I’ve come into contact with and at which times in my life, what I had for breakfast three days ago, what time of day it is. I am conflating introversion with other traits (shyness, cautiousness, introspection) that are not introversion itself, and effectively making the very mistake that Susan Cain manages to avoid. I’m aware that throughout this blog post I am oversimplifying.

Labels Are Constructs

I reject the idea of basing my entire personality on a single label. In fact, whenever I’m labelled anything, it can feel like a straitjacket being put on me and the first thing I want to do is wriggle out of it, set fire to it and bury it in the cold, cold ground. Also, I get a lot of enjoyment out of subverting peoples’ expectations. Human beings are far too gobsmackingly complex; the heart of our mystery cannot be so easily plucked out as that. Anybody who’s gotten to know me knows I can be outgoing, direct, bold, even zany.

I’m wary of labels, because holding on too tightly to them is what causes suffering, and it all quickly devolves into the worst kind of identity politics. But when you come across such a label, which contains within its borders a constellation of traits that overlaps with your own with a high degree of accuracy–even if at the end of the day it’s just a construct–it can be extremely useful. Even liberating.

I don’t believe temperament is destiny. I believe it’s more like character, as old man Aristotle once said. It’s what we do with the raw material we’ve inherited in life that really defines us. But whatever we do, we can do it in a way that honours ourselves.

I highly recommend this book, wherever you may fall on the vast and marvelously varied spectrum of personalities. It has helped me to accept myself a little more, and I hope you’ll get as much out of it as I did.

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To the Mountains
I missed last week’s post. I don’t have much for this week, writing-wise, so I thought I’d post a sketch. I did this one last year. It’s on one of the last pages in the sketchbook I’ve had since grade 9. There are about 5 or 6 blank pages left. I am determined to finally fill it…

I moved from Saskatchewan to Alberta when I was 7 years old. Although I did make peace with it, I resented living in Calgary for years. But one thing I loved was the view of the mountains. I read The Hobbit in grade 6, and not long after, a copy of The Lord of the Rings which I got from my scholastic book order (undoubtedly the finest allowance-money purchase I made from that eagerly awaited catalogue). The Rocky Mountains themselves supplied their own majesty and awe without anybody’s help, but Tolkien’s mythos imbued my view of them with a sense of adventure, though wild and treacherous. And magic. Perhaps one of those mountains is really a rock giant asleep? And perhaps there are goblins, gollums, or something stranger still, gnawing at their roots? I would often look out and imagine I was looking at the Misty Mountains, not the Rockies. It gave me a desire to create my own stories that took my characters over hill and under hill, on trails long forgotten (at least by human-folk). However, they would have to be a different mountain range…I’d rather not risk the copyright infringement.

You might notice the date on the bottom corner reads May 4–        ,2015. That’s what I did that day, and then I abandoned it. I want to finish this sketch at some point. I still might. The lines in the sky are still in pencil–the moon, the wheel of stars–as is the tiny little wanderer on the bottom right corner. But maybe they’re better left undefined. After all, the heavenly bodies are very far away, and the wanderer could be anyone–even you. Why spoil these vaguenesses with the harsh definition of ball-point pen?

For some people, the open sea signifies possibility. For me, a landlocked prairie boy for most of my life, the mountains are and will always be it.

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I Wish You Hell

I wish you darkness
if only to know what the sun on your face is worth

I wish you the shadow
or the nightingale won’t sing

I wish you the chrysalis
or the wings won’t mean a thing

I wish you the storm
ark and rainbow need tempest tossed

I wish you the woods
found first needs to be lost

For home just isn’t home
until you’ve gone away

And courage isn’t courage
until you’ve been afraid

The Other Shore won’t reach you
until you remember
your hungry ghosthood

So I wish you hell
if only to know
how to love its prisoners

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30 Days (and a bit) Later

Now that I’m finished this 30-Day story-writing challenge, I have a few thoughts to share on the process, in the hopes that some of you reading this may find it of use.

I cheated a teensy bit
Probably literally NOBODY but me will care about this, but 40% of the material I posted was not written on the day of. In some cases they were written years ago. One of the goals of this challenge was to develop a daily writing routine; I wanted to see if doing this could help me establish a habit that would carry over until after the challenge was done. So the fact that I completely evaded the act of sitting down and writing something on some days kind of defeats the purpose of the challenge. So in this regard the results were mixed. However…

Sticking with something
I still made a point to post SOMETHING. So it became about posting something, even if it wasn’t “fresh”. I felt a twinge of shame in doing that, but I still posted. And for the days that I write something new, whatever emotional resistance I felt on the day, I learned not necessarily to ignore it, but to recognize it for what it was, and to see that it was less significant compared to the satisfaction of following through to the end. I didn’t want my insecurities as a writer to define my choices. Especially for this exercise, because I had nothing to lose.

Recognizing my go-to’s
In writing something new (almost) every day I was able to see quite clearly the habits I fell back on as a writer. When you have little time to plan and polish something, you reach for the closest, most familiar tricks, to get words on the screen. While I do consider some of these habits to be strengths in my writing, I know I won’t improve unless I’m challenged to not reach for my creative go-to’s, and reach a little further instead. There’s a reason writers have editors. This free-wheeling challenge doesn’t necessarily help me to overcome those habits, but at least it helps me recognize them. And at least in the mean time I can improve simply by being prolific.

Deadlines Are Great
In a very masochistic way, I love deadlines. My soul is naturally very lazy, so I need them, or else the thing don’t get writ.

Posting on social media makes me always in “performance” mode
This has its pros and cons. The upside is that knowing that a piece is going to have an audience (of at least maybe 1 or 2 people), so I have to make sure it is at least coherent. I can’t be quite as lazy as when I’m just writing for myself.

The downside is I was unable to resist the urge to try be entertaining, funny, or clever. Even though what I needed was to be simpler, more direct, even if it meant what I wrote was completely uninteresting. One of my favourite pieces of advice I got from acting school was “dare to be boring”. I think this applies to writing too.

Another reason I recycled older material was because I was so afraid of posting something I knew was completely mediocre that I opted for things that I at least believed had some merit. I wasn’t brave enough to be boring.

That is the problem when you’re publishing what are essentially rough sketches for other people to see. It’s expected with an art form as immediate as improv. I think it’s less of a convention with the written word, something typically less spontaneous, more studied. Again, probably nobody cares about this but me, but still…

Going for walks
It makes an enormous difference to get your body involved in the writing process. I would typically write at night time, and if I was not in the mood to do so as the hour approached (which was most days, let’s be honest), going for a walk helped a lot. Many writers, past and present, walk as a part of their creative process. This is a fairly well-known, well-documented aspect of creativity in general. And if nothing came of it, at least I got some good, light exercise.

Satisfaction of having completed something
Over the past year or so I’ve been doing a lot of little one-off creative pieces. A song, a sketch, a story. It’s fine doing that for a while, but there’s nothing like working on a larger project that requires a sustained effort over time to remind you why you love what you do. That, I find much more satisfying. That, I have sorely missed.

Quite honestly, having something bigger that you work on over time can become a helpful constant when your life is not so constant; as far as emotional well-being goes, a long-term project can be a kind of compass, a baseline to give your inner life a sense of consistency. It takes effort. Obviously it takes effort. But it can’t not be worth it. The creative projects that I am most proud of took a lot of energy and time. As I’m about to do the 52-week blogging challenge, this is worth keeping in mind.

My life has changed a lot recently. And I anticipate to change a lot more in the coming year. I don’t even know what I’ll be up to, or even where I will be, 48 weeks from now. But having done these little January exercises has renewed my resolve to stick with it, so that wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I know I’ll be doing at least this one thing consistently, once a week.

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Writing Challenge Day 30

What will emerge when the good night comes?
What new skins will you try on?
What deep wounds will you sing from?
Will you roam the rooftops, like smoke? Like a cat? like a thief?
Like a man in a home-made Batman suit?

In the Dark, you are safe from your sins.
Even if you weigh and measure your life
And find it wanting
It’s dark out
You can’t do a damn thing about it.

In the Dark
You are free from
Choice, a ghost that haunts the day
In the Dark, not so
Here in the Dark
You trade your tough decisions,
For visions of angels and revelations
Of bodhi liberation,
Of clues to crack the code
And ease the load
Of the debts you owe the daylight
In the dark, you say:
will be better
In the morning
I will be wiser.
I will be
Another man

I will steal the heart of a braver man than I and I will eat it raw
Tomorrow I will be a warrior, I will choose rightly
you will not dare fight me
For righteous fire will burn in my blood
I’ll have crawled through the mud and now
I rise to the company
Of philosophers and children, the joyful citizens
for whom the road is long but mirror-clear
Though fear is not far, and the drop is sheer,
The answer comes unbidden, no path is hidden
With a pillar of fire of wisdom of love
To guide me through the dark
It will light my way it will lead me to the water to drink
No longer fodder for the ghost–I will think
For myself.”

All the while, witless is your lover at peace and asleep
Beside you, who fed the ghost long before you,
While you make your vows in the dark, stars be your witness
Before you slip away,
These things you say you will do. You will do them:
Tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.
But before you can sign your declaration, your great emancipation
Before you can mind your Q’s and P’s, dot your i’s, cross your t’s,
You slip away, sleep.
Goodnight, moon. Goodnight stars. Goodnight, pillar of fire.

And then it’s day.
Night has betrayed you.
You are no warrior. You are not Batman.
The braver man has found you lying face-down in the gutter,
Muttering platitudes in a puddle of puke.
He has taken back his heart, half-digested in the dark
And you lie there wondering where you’ve parked.

The sun is a parody of light.
The sun is a most cheerful asshole.

You rise.
You feel no fire, no blazing spirit
No spittle, no spite, no bile, no ballast:
It was all one big Eye of the Tiger fallacy
In the morning your blood is ash,
your soul soggy as your bowl of cheerios
No fury, only weary and defeated
The daylight blinds and burns,
The world is flat again
The ghost returns, fat from your dreams, teeming
With new heads that sprung overnight
And your chest tightens, “god I am so frightened”
You say, for now you must choose again, and chase the day:
Rise and work
Or roll over and die,
Fight or fly,
Business or pleasure,
Duty or love,
Pragmatism or principle

And what the hell are your principles?
The question makes you shudder
To be a ship without a rudder
To be the mouse caught in the butter,
A hoarder caught in his clutter
To leave a good word un-uttered
And in the daylight you wonder what difference it makes
What road you take?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Maybe you’re as good as bug splatter on Satan’s windshield
And if you peeled back that shit-eating grin you may find within
A tiny man at the control panel who’s lost the instruction manual
And is pressing buttons at random, praying he doesn’t
Blow the whole thing up.
Admit it: you’re a fake…

So fuck it.
Fake it.
Only please stay awake. The road is long, and clear as mud
So when in doubt, just muck about
Your life is wet clay on the wheel you will get the feel of it in time
There’s wisdom in that mud
And maybe now there’s no fire in your blood
But there is kindling,
Just wait for the spark of nightfall
Wait it out and it will call you, it’ll come around again
Wisdom is writ in invisible ink
So go back to the well, go back and drink, deep,
Go back to bed and sleep
Go back to bed get busy have fun
Go dream until your work is done
Work on your night visions, till the garish dawn comes
Go back so often
You can drive this fucker with your eyes closed
Go back so often
You will hit your mark
Go back so often
You can do it in the dark

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