Yosa Buson, "New Year's Day"

When I first wrote on this poem, I thought it expressed how the newness of Spring, the promise of renewal, was nothing but a murky, wintery swamp...

Yosa Buson, "New Year's Day"

I stumbled upon this picturesque little poem and wondered about New Year's Day, 2022. Three months have passed since then. Did I change? Reader, it will not surprise you to know I couldn't remember my resolutions. When I looked back at what I wrote late December and early January, I was surprised. Panic and guilt harbor in nearly every word, though I can't recall feeling a trace of those emotions.

So I'm looking at the scene Buson sets—"New Year's Day / and on the day after, / fog from place to place in Kyoto"—and reflecting on that fog. Fog which blocks vision, which makes every place the same. Fog in my life, in my mind:

"New Year's Day"
Yosa Buson (trans. Yuki Sawa and Edith Shiffet)

New Year's Day
and on the day after,
fog from place to place in Kyoto.

When I first wrote on this poem, I thought it expressed how the newness of Spring, the promise of renewal, was nothing but a murky, wintery swamp:

New Year’s Day and on the day after — yup, nothing’s changed. Spring should blossom; green should crack through the frost; sunlight should sparkle on the water. Nope, all we’ve got is fog from place to place in Kyoto. In 18th century Japan, everyone walks everywhere. I imagine cold, humid, damp fog, a perpetually gray city. Nothing has changed, everything looks the same. Going from place to place feels futile.

I like this paragraph I wrote five years ago. It details what should be happening. There should be flowers, greenery, and sunlight, not "fog." "Everyone walks everywhere" is a bit of an overstatement, but it conveys the sameness to which so many can relate: "Cold, humid, damp fog, a perpetually gray city."

But now I believe the problem is more complicated than simple pessisism about New Year's. I can't remember my resolutions, and I almost forgot the spirit in which I made them. "Fog from place to place" describes a specific happening. I'm blind to the future and to the past. The present feels unworkable. This isn't just an event; this happens because of the nature of expectation. Those resolutions I made? I wanted them to change my life. Because of this, I knew but ignored that I was in the midst of chaos, that panic and guilt drove me.

The expectations, in other words, were a reaction. The resolutions almost doomed to fail.

So how do we progress? I feel like in a bundle of things there's bound to be something you can work with. But whatever it is that's usable is not a revelation. It might be a degree or two removed from an actual insight. It might only be doing good because it isn't explicitly harmful. That very famous Ocean Vuong quote about his sexuality is one of the few bits of wisdom this age actually has, and it applies here:

Being queer saved my life. Often we see queerness as deprivation. But when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes; it made me curious; it made me ask, "Is this enough for me?"

Vuong's description of making it anywhere in life, I believe, dispells "fog." The problem is wanting an obvious sign that things are going to be better. You need an "alternative innovation" most of the time to be who you truly are. I think we sort of learn this when we realize we can't win all the spelling bees or soccer games in school. We learn not to tie our identity to winning everything. But we don't really learn that nearly everything we desire really has to be addressed on a deeper level.

"Alternative routes" are needed, too. This I'm learning as an academic. Some of those I'm competing with for jobs have been publishing and networking since their sophomore year of undergraduate studies. All credit to them, but I couldn't properly tie my shoelaces until I was 30. What I offer—real talk about the value of books, art, and school, as well as scholarship that addresses how we ask questions—is itself an "alternative" and I need to recognize and embrace that.

Our resolution is ultimately tied up with the question "Is this enough for me?" That, I think, is the beginning and end of the fog Buson describes. It began as a stray desire for something different, and it ends with a clarity completely different from cliche. Nothing about this is easy. Not only do you have to know your desires, but you have to commit to them. It's a process, and it can't help but feel murky even when things are going well, even when one is improving oneself.