What does a full day look like, and what of a full life?
Hello subscribers to Roden, this very newsletter, started in 2011 by me, Craig Mod, sent erratically for years, and now sent monthly.
The Singular Life
I’m scrambling to inhale a number of books before year’s end.
One of them is Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, and it’s one of those books that you hear about for ages, assume it was cast of an era-specific voodoo (1970s), and therefore probably won’t hold up to a contemporary reading. But then you crack it open and — boom — you’re handily smacked in the face with the idiot stick, for being such an idiot and not reading it earlier.
It’s good. No, it’s great, of a genuinely brilliant, self-aware tone, and deftly mixes the kind of nature writing that alone would be exhausting (every bush, bird, natural formation named), with historical digressions and the tension of a high-stakes remote hike. The result is a fascinating travel diary of a curious and rigorous mind. The book is made further delightful by Matthiessen’s lyricism, clear delight in language, and his skill at allowing a page to “breathe.” Just as soon as you’ve had enough fauna (please, no more fauna!), he slips in the history of Yeti (OK, I’ll take that fauna), or a brief dip into Buddhism’s march across Asia, or recounting his fleeting satori as he realizes his wife is dying of cancer. It’s all masterfully done.
The setting is simple: Matthiessen and his buddy and coterie of porters are walking northern Nepal for months. At one point Matthiessen, alone, begins to cry watching the sunrise, only to justify the tears with a self-conscious swiftness:
This is not mere soft-mindedness, nor am I all that silly with the altitude. My head has cleared in these weeks free of intrusions — mail, telephones, people and their needs — and I respond to things spontaneously, without defensive or self-conscious screens.
Reading “screen” is doubly delightful today — he obviously didn’t mean physical screens, but it’s even more apt for us now. The screen as somatic and mental barrier, as mode of regression, facing inward (in a noisy way, into an interior chamber of distraction), escaping what’s around us. The terror of simply standing in line at a supermarket, the horror of possibly making eye-contact with someone else, of having “downtime” or, god forbid, “boredom.”
Matthiessen’s long walk is far longer and more intense than anything I’ve done. But it reminded me of my birthday at Annapurna Basecamp for obvious reasons. My recent month of walking the Tōkaidō in November brought with it that sense of clarity he speaks of, achieved through cutting off my own access to media, social or otherwise.
But, like, what’s the point, man, of trying to bewitch this mode of “clarity” from the otherwise endless din of the day-to-day? For me, it connects with — and bear with me, this can come off fatuous, as far too self-important — living “fully,” and lord forbid, “maximizing” your potential.
I feel gross even writing that, but it’s true. In the face of atheism, without the promise of some elevated all-seeing third party watching over you, keeping score, the bulk of the onus to motivate to live fully (that is, with an ethical and curious rigor), to use the savage, cruel, beautiful gifts of life and consciousness, falls squarely on your adult-ass shoulders, and yours alone.
In the Japanese countryside there is a sign I’ve seen many times. It says something to the effect of, “The security camera in your heart is always watching.” I laugh every time. I love this sign. The security camera in your heart! Don’t be a dingdong — take ownership over your day-to-day. Strive for clarity.
The New Yorker recently published, “What If You Could Do It All Over.” It’s great. Joshua Rothman threads something heavy with the joys of literary history and the lightness of fate upon his own story. The whole thing feels especially poignant this year as we all share the global COVID shimmy of destiny:
Historic events generate unlived lives. Years from now, we may wonder where we would be if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t shifted us onto new courses. Sometimes we can see another life opening out to one side, like a freeway exit.
What I’ve found — in my many walks and attempts to clarify the inner voice, to put myself in a place where I auto-cry when presented with a beautiful sunrise — is that the clearer the mind, the stiller and less distracted, the more control one has over attention, the better the sense of fullness in the life being lived. Corollary to that: The more strongly-willed and clear the presently lived life, the less worry about woulda coulda shoulda lives later.
When I look back at my twenties I can (of course!!) see the lives I screwed up (so many!!), potential futures I destroyed (ugh!) usually with the help of alcohol. I recently spent some time really thinking back on — sitting with for hours — some of those lives. Weirdly — to me — I didn’t feel any impulse to mourn what could have been, the pity, instead, was channeled entirely on the lack of clarity in that version of myself. In a freeing way, futures are a dime a dozen, but clarity — and with it fullness, texture, richness — can be fleeting and, in so many lives, never found.
Well, you may roll your eyes and ask, how the hell do you ratchet up this clarity, this daily fullness?
And I’d say, reductively, it all hinges on something as goofy sounding as the cultivation of good habits.
Habits All the Way Down
I’ve been lucky enough to stumble onto some good habits on my own — often with the inadvertent help of key archetypes throughout my life. Folks I’ve bumped into at the right time, who saw enough potential in my bullshit to think I was worth spending time with, who provided an unintentional catechism through example. But, boy oh boy, could I have used Atomic Habits about twenty years ago.
The book has sold roughly a billion copies in its two years for good reason — it’s an easy read, and promises to transform your life! Who wouldn’t want that book? BUT! Beyond that shared sleazy veneer of every other self-help book, Atomic Habits is actually wise. It offers a fairly unassailable and lucid path to slowly building up good habits. The author, James Clear, is sharp and jargon free. Here’s how the book influenced me:
Two years ago, right now, I was trying to figure out what to do next. Was in a pretty bad place, honestly, and didn’t really understand (lacked clarity around, you could say) the resources I had cultivated or built up over the years (a subset of this audience, for example). Through a combination of many zoom calls with smart friends, and reading Atomic Habits, I decided to:
I had no idea where any of this would lead, but what I knew is that I wanted my “identity” to be aligned with the actions of someone who publishes regularly, who writes about walking (in Japan or otherwise), has a personal photographic tone, and, ideally, produces unique, beautiful books.
Here we are, two years later. I’ve published over 100 issues of Ridgeline (126,000 words), two dozen more Rodens, produced one book privately for myself (the SMS book), produced an online book (Ise-ji), and launched, by far, the most successful book of my career earlier this year — Kissa by Kissa (covered recently in the Chicago Review of Books). I’ve gone on two mega-walks (30+ days) and a bunch of minor walks (7+ days). The membership program has activated an entire constellation of ancillary work (livestreams, guest lectures, et cetera) and a community of kind, compassionate, brilliant, striving, full-life-living folks.
And I would have been able to do none — none! — of this without a cogent framework for small, incremental forward movement. I live and die on schedules and deadlines, and Atomic Habits helped me understand why that is.
The book isn’t a magic pill, but it offers the most coherent explanation and dissection I’ve seen for how success, failure, and habit are intertwined. I reread it last year, and am rereading it again, right now — going over past notes — as a way of further clarifying the fullness to be had in a new year.
The New York Times published this wonderful interactive art explainer back in August. It deconstructs one of Hokusai’s “Views of Mt. Fuji” woodblock prints by literally zooming in to look closely at what it’s doing, and then zooming out to consider the broader frame of how his work influenced artists around the world.
It’s this close peeking at details that, to me, is everything. Hokusai did it to produce the above print. It’s what Matthiessen is doing, notebook in hand, in his epic cataloging of a life. It’s what I am doing all day, every day on a long walk, camera in hand, camera as tool, as excuse to look closely. Picking up details, thinking about the lives being lived — about how much regret or happiness lives inside the owner of a rag on a fence or a rusted old Honda Cub. About who owns that cat sunning itself in the middle of the road, the cat itself, the road. And about who I am as I pass the cat and who I’ll be remembering it months and years from now. All without judgment, simply observing, wondering, noticing, jostling for a peek inside the clockworks of the world passing by.
The goal being to do this with every-increasing empathy — both looking out towards the world and inwards at my own body and mind and steps in that moment. Another step, another step. This is how you walk from Kamakura to Kyoto, a million little steps, bobbing consciousness, brushing against the plangent vibes of a thousand lives being lived, some tragic, some lambent, some simple, and maybe even a few sizzling with the quiet clarity of attention and rigor.
Big thank you to everyone who joined SPECIAL PROJECTS this year — lots of fun planned for 2021 — and extra thanks to everyone who bought and spread the word about Kissa by Kissa!
Here’s to an ever-clearer 2021, one where we’re responding spontaneously, defenses down, watching the freeway exists of other lives peel off with a knowing calm, and remembering that joy is still to be had — goofy memories to be made! — even when the golden pavilion is sheathed in tarps, and all you have is a kitschy billboard.