Wednesday, November 02, 2005

In the Details...

There is only one road in Utashinai, running the length of the narrow valley from the sprawl of Sunagawa to the Akabira tunnel. Back before the coal mines closed the town was big enough to support several neighborhoods that filled out the hills and hollows, but now the roads leading up into the hills are unused and overgrown, houses reduced to scraps of plywood, rusty nails and moldy fragments of straw tatami mats. The town is drawing in on itself as it wastes away, shutting off non-vital functions like a starving body until someday, probably before too long, only the road and a few gas stations will remain.

These days, one trip along the road is enough to see pretty much the whole town, and after 15 months of riding my bike up and down the valley I know every bulge in the sidewalk by heart. Navigation is reduced to two dimensions – up valley for trips to the grocery store, pub and elementary school, and down valley for the junior high, high school and public bath. When I move on to a new town, it will take some time to get used to the added complication of width, the ability to travel from side to side.

Last Monday, pedaling home from the high school on a gusty afternoon, I struggled with the question of whether to stay in Utashinai for another year. Familiarity is cousin to sterility, but on the other hand, by seeing the whole town every day for over a year I am privy to a depth of understanding, an awareness of context and connection, that enlivens my ride home in a way that traveling a new road every day could never provide.

The building on my left now, that little yellow house wedged between a barber shop and shuttered liquor store – see those geraniums in the window, bright and cheerful, see how the entranceway is swept clean? The single mother who lives there will be out front shoveling snow again this winter, her face as red as the flowers. Her son is the best athlete in his class and was elected student body president last week.

The gas station up ahead – the girl running out into the road in a bright orange uniform to block traffic for a car leaving the pump - she graduated from the high school last year, one of the few who might have gone on to college. Looks like that didn’t work out, but at least she has found a job.

Or the girl and boy across the street, walking as slowly as possible down the bike path in the blue jumpsuits that mark them as junior high school students. No wonder notes were flying around English class last week. I wave and the girl – Miki Iwasaki, volleyball captain – throws her hand over her face and giggles with embarrassment, while her new boyfriend – Takuya Sasaki, baseball catcher – waves back and yells, “Hamu, Hamu,” his variation on my name. I’m almost home when I realize why Takuya’s homework (and handwriting) have improved so suddenly.

These are little things, details impossible for a stranger to notice, layers and links that form the fabric of community. Living on a desert island with just a few people can be as stimulating as watching the world go by from the MTV studio in Times Square. Gilligan’s Island anyone?

Time to go to class – but I’ll post a continuation of this train of thought soon.


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