“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work,” Kierkegaard admonished in 1843 as he contemplated our greatest source of unhappiness. It’s a sobering sentiment against the backdrop of modern life, where the cult of busyness and productivity plays out as the chief drama of our existence — a drama we persistently lament as singular to our time. We reflexively blame on the Internet our corrosive compulsion for doing at the cost of being, forgetting that every technology is a symptom and not, or at least not at first, a cause of our desires and pathologies. Our intentions are the basic infrastructure of our lives, out of which all of our inventions and actions arise. Any real relief from our self-inflicted maladies, therefore, must come not from combatting the symptoms but from inquiring into and rewiring the causes that have tilted the human spirit toward those pathologies — causes as evident to Kierkegaard long ago as to any contemporary person who crumbles into bed at night having completed the day’s lengthy to-do list yet feeling like a thoroughly incomplete human being.
How to heal that aching spirit is what Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) addresses in a spectacular 1905 essay titled “On Little Joys,” found in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us the beloved writer and Nobel laureate on the three types of readers and why the book will never lose its magic.
More than a century before our present whirlpool of streaming urgencies, Hesse writes:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.
Decades before the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his prescient case for liberating leisure and human dignity from the clutch of workaholism, Hesse laments how modern life’s “aggressive haste” — and what a perfect phrase that is — has “done away with what meager leisure we had.” He writes:
Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.
Noting that he doesn’t have a silver bullet for the problem, Hesse offers:
I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: Moderate enjoyment is double enjoyment. And: Do not overlook the little joys!
A century before psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his compelling case for the art of missing out and the paradoxical value of our unlived lives, Hesse considers what moderation looks like in the face of seemingly unlimited possibilities for what to do with one’s time, and although the options available have changed in the hundred-some years since, the principle still holds with a firm grip:
In certain circles [moderation] requires courage to miss a première. In wider circles it takes courage not to have read a new publication several weeks after its appearance. In the widest circles of all, one is an object of ridicule if one has not read the daily paper. But I know people who feel no regret at exercising this courage.
Let not the man* who subscribes to a weekly theater series feel that he is losing something if he makes use of it only every other week. I guarantee: he will gain.
Let anyone who is accustomed to looking at a great many pictures in an exhibition try just once, if he is still capable of it, spending an hour or more in front of a single masterpiece and content himself with that for the day. He will be the gainer by it.
Let the omnivorous reader try the same sort of thing. Sometimes he will be annoyed at not being able to join in conversation about some publication; occasionally he will cause smiles. But soon he will know better and do the smiling himself. And let any man who cannot bring himself to use any other kind of restraint try to make a habit of going to bed at ten o’clock at least once a week. He will be amazed at how richly this small sacrifice of time and pleasure will be rewarded.
Learning this difference between binging on stimulation and savoring enjoyment in small doses, Hesse argues, is what sets part those who live with a sense of fulfillment from those who romp through life perpetually dissatisfied. He writes:
The ability to cherish the “little joy” is intimately connected with the habit of moderation. For this ability, originally natural to every man, presupposes certain things which in modern daily life have largely become obscured or lost, mainly a measure of cheerfulness, of love, and of poesy. These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
He points to the most readily available, most habitually overlooked of those joys — our everyday contact with nature. A century before throngs of screen zombies began swarming the sidewalks of modern cities, Hesse writes:
Our eyes, above all those misused, overstrained eyes of modern man, can be, if only we are willing, an inexhaustible source of pleasure. When I walk to work in the morning I see many workers who have just crawled sleepily out of bed, hurrying in both directions, shivering along the streets. Most of them walk fast and keep their eyes on the pavement, or at most on the clothes and faces of the passers-by. Heads up, dear friends!
Hesse offers his prescription for breaking this trance of busyness and inattention:
Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.
In a sentiment which Annie Dillard would come to echo many decades later in her beautiful meditation on reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder, Hesse adds:
A stretch of sky, a garden wall overhung by green branches, a strong horse, a handsome dog, a group of children, a beautiful face — why should we be willing to be robbed of all this? Whoever has acquired the knack can in the space of a block see precious things without losing a minute’s time… All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.
And with seeing come cheerfulness and love and poesy. The man who for the first time picks a small flower so that he can have it near him while he works has taken a step toward joy in life.
Illustration by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, a wordless ode to living with presence
Noting that these small joys take the form of different things for each of us, Hesse adds:
[There are] many other small joys, perhaps the especially delightful one of smelling a flower or a piece of fruit, of listening to one’s own or others’ voices, of hearkening to the prattle of children. And a tune being hummed or whistled in the distance, and a thousand other tiny things from which one can weave a bright necklace of little pleasures for one’s life.
He ends with an offering of counsel as valid and vitalizing today as it was a century ago, perhaps even more:
My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.
Complement this particular portion of Hesse’s wholly transcendent My Belief with philosopher Alan Watts on how to live with presence, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on the art of looking with attentive awareness, and this lovely wordless picture-book about living attentively.
In 1966, while leafing through an obscure book, a 19-year-old Japanese aspiring poet by the name of Setsuo Yazaki discovered a poem that stopped him up short with its staggering generosity of empathy and existential truth conferred with great simplicity:
At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!
On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold
for the tens of thousands dead.
The poem had been written many decades earlier by a young forgotten poet named Misuzu Kaneko (April 11, 1903–March 10, 1930). Yazaki hungered to know more about her life and work, but was met with a near-total vacuum. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family.
Yazaki spent sixteen years trying to track down this ghostly genius. In 1982, by then in his mid-thirties, he finally made a breakthrough — he found and met with Kaneko’s 77-year-old younger brother, who brought her three worn pocket diaries containing the only extant record of the 512 children’s poems she had written in her blink of a lifetime, most never published.
Misuzu Kaneko, January 1930
Her poems have something of Whitman in their empathetic reverence for the splendor of the earth and its creatures, something of Blake in their precision of insight into the nature of things, and something of Plath in both the largehearted appetite for loving the world and the poet’s heartbreaking death. Her short life is a rare reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist, and that the barely bearable emotional porousness with which some people are endowed is the common root of both their sorrowful sensitivity and their uncommon capacity for compassion.
Yazaki set about enchanting the popular imagination with the grounding and elevating power of the lost poems he had found. Over the years that followed, as he published these forgotten treasures, Kaneko was resurrected as Japan’s foremost poet for young readers. Children in public schools could recite her verses by heart. Her gentle face adorns a national postage stamp. When a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, television companies stopped commercials and instead played her poem “Are You an Echo?” as a public service announcement that adrenalized nearly one million volunteers to flock to the site of the disaster.
ARE YOU AN ECHO?
If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”
If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”
If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
And then, after a while,
I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”
Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.
But despite her immense popularity in Japan, the English-speaking world has been deprived of Kaneko’s poetry for nearly a century — until now, thanks to Seattle’s independent Chin Music Press: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (public library) introduces young readers to the life and work of this extraordinary woman, whose writing continues to salve generations by wrapping the delicate consciousness of words around what so many unconsciously feel but cannot articulate.
A labor of love by David Jacobson, who first fell in love with Kaneko’s poetry in its original Japanese, this unusual bilingual book translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi tells the story of the poet’s life alongside some of her most beloved poems, illustrated in tender watercolor by Japanese artist Toshikado Hajiri.
Kaneko was born at the dawn of the twentieth century in a small fishing village. Her mother, who became a single parent after the girl’s father died when she was three, ran a bookstore and felt strongly about reading and education. Unlike most Japanese girls in that era, whose formal education ended after sixth grade, Misuzu remained in school until the age of seventeen. A precocious child, she read voraciously about faraway lands and was animated by a sympathetic curiosity about the natural world. Like Oliver Sacks, who would lie in the garden and wonder what it’s like to be a rose, young Misuzu would puzzle over what it’s like to be snow and how orphaned whale calves grieve their parents after a whale hunt.
Snow on top
must feel chilly,
the cold moonlight piercing it.
Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.
Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.
In her early twenties, Kaneko began writing short poems for children based on vivid memories from her own childhood. She submitted some of them to five magazines that held regular competitions for young writers. To her amazement, four of the five accepted her poems and printed them in the same month of 1923. Soon, her poems began appearing in magazines all over the country. Barely in her twenties, she became a literary celebrity.
In a sensitive insight, Jacobson considers how Kaneko must have felt as she released her art into the world, and finds an analogy in one of her own poems:
FLOWER SHOP MAN
The flower shop man
went to town to sell flowers
and sold them all.
Poor lonely flower shop man.
The flowers he cared for are all gone.
The flower shop man
is now alone in his hut
as the sun goes down.
The flower shop man
dreams of happiness
for the flowers he sold.
But while the public shone its adoring attention on Kaneko, darkness was brewing in her private life. The man she had married — a clerk in her family bookstore — turned out to be a terrible, unfaithful husband. As Jacobson tactfully puts it, she “contracted a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” To compound the physical agony, he forced her to stop writing.
The little girl they had together was the light of Kaneko’s life, but when she finally decided to rise from the pit of unhappiness by leaving her husband, she collided with further heartbreak: Japanese law automatically granted the father indisputable custody and Kaneko’s husband didn’t hesitate to use it — he declared that he was to take their daughter away. Bedeviled by debilitating bodily pain and anguished by the loss of her daughter, Kaneko sank into further despair.
One evening, after bathing her daughter and sharing with her their favorite desert — sakuramochi, a pink ball of sweet sticky-rice wrapped in a salty cherry tree leaf — Kaneko went into her study, wrote a letter to her husband asking that he let her mother raiser the girl, and took her own life a month before her twenty-seventh birthday.
STARS AND DANDELIONS
Deep in the blue sky,
like pebbles at the bottom of the sea,
lie the stars unseen in daylight
until night comes.
You can’t see them, but they are there.
Unseen things are still there.
The withered, seedless da
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