Monday, December 9, 2019


Each week I watch a 30-minute episode of a series titled Document 72 Hours on NHK World.  In each episode, a film crew records the human activity in a particular place in Japan over a 72-hour period. The locations have been various and interesting:  a post office, a restaurant, a bargain shoe store, a wig shop, a Shinto shrine, a butcher shop, a traveling library truck, et cetera.  The emphasis is on the people in these places:  the crew politely draws them out, and they tell their stories.  The episodes are always moving.

In this week's episode, the crew followed home care nurses on their visits to patients in Higashikurume, a suburb in western Tokyo.  In one segment, a nurse visited a boy with cerebral palsy.  It was his sixth birthday.  She sang him a song, and gave him and his mother a birthday card she had made for him.  She then bathed him (an event he always looks forward to, according to his mother).

After the visit, while driving her car to the home of her next patient, she said this (as translated into English subtitles):  "Since starting this job, I've often thought about the true meaning of happiness. Everybody is completely different.  Nurses try to help each patient find small moments of joy.  I always try to ask myself what would make my patients happy.  I hope to continue helping them that way."

Ah, these human stories.  These glimmers all around us.

Earlier in the week, I had read this poem:

                              Sitting Up at Night

Spinners' lights from house to house brighten the deep night;
here and there new fields have been plowed after rain.
Always I feel ashamed to be so old and idle.
Sitting close by the stove, I hear the sound of the wind.

Lu Yu (1125-1210) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu (Columbia University Press 1973), page 67.  Lu Yu wrote the poem at the age of 83.

[For anyone who may be interested, the episode of Document 72 Hours mentioned above is available until December 17 in the On Demand section of the NHK World website.  The title of the episode is:  "Nurse Visits: Home Is Where the Heart Is."]

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935)
"Winter Night in the Mountains" (1914)

Lights that "brighten the deep night."  Please bear with me, dear readers, as I return to lines that have appeared here on several occasions in the past:  "we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."  (Philip Larkin, "The Mower.")  It really is as simple as that.

There is a great deal to complain of in our age, isn't there?  Yet, each successive "modern" age seems clamorous, base, and hollow to a large number of its inhabitants.  For instance, the politicized world that surrounds us is paltry and mean.  How could it be otherwise?  It has always been thus, and it will always be thus.  It is one manifestation of human nature, and it will never change.

But none of this is cause for despair.  And so, as I return to Philip Larkin, I must also return to John Keats:  we are in "the vale of Soul-making."  Which leads to this:  "There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry."  (W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen.")


Last thing at night
he steps outside to breathe
the smell of winter.

The stars, so shy in summer,
glare down
from a huge emptiness.

In a huge silence he listens
for small sounds.  His eyes
are filled with friendliness.

What's history to him?
He's an emblem of it
in its pure state.

And proves it.  He goes inside.
The door closes and the light
dies in the window.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

"Crofter" is paired in my mind with this:

             The Shepherd's Hut

Now when I could not find the road
Unless beside it also flowed
This cobbled beck that through the night,
Breaking on stones, makes its own light,

Where blackness in the starlit sky
Is all I know a mountain by,
A shepherd little thinks how far
His lamp is shining like a star.

Andrew Young, Speak to the Earth (Jonathan Cape 1939).

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1901)

This afternoon, while out on my walk, a thought occurred to me: "The greyest of grey days."  As I walked on, similar thoughts arose.  "A day of a thousand greys."  "The greyest day imaginable."  Such was my mood.

I continued to walk.  Lifting my eyes, I noticed a thin strip of pale yellow light far off, just above the northwestern horizon, below the unbroken ceiling of grey, darkening cloud.  Somewhere out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near the border of Canada, the World was aglow.

I was walking in that direction.  Moments later, a few of the robins who stay here for the winter began to chatter from within a grove of pine trees.  A dove flew across the path in front of me, and disappeared into the dim woods.  (I wonder: was it the same dove I saw a few weeks ago, and mentioned in my previous post?)

Yes, a grey day, but . . .

     The long night;
A light passes along
     Outside the shōji.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 356.

Shiki wrote several haiku that feature solitary gleams of light. Another:

     Farther and farther away it goes, --
The lantern:
     The voice of the hototogisu.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 168.  The hototogisu is the Japanese cuckoo.

The lantern vanishes.  The call of the cuckoo arrives.  As I have noted here before, the World tends to provide us with compensations, doesn't it?

And, finally, there is this:

     The light in the next room also
Goes out;
     The night is chill.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 328.

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1924)


Spottydog said...

Thank you for the joy your writing always brings me.

Stephen Pentz said...

Spottydog: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you for your kind words, and for visiting again.

hart said...

Beautiful words and images, thanks

Stephen Pentz said...

hart: Thank you very much. It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for stopping by. Happy holidays!

Maggie Emm said...

I just love the paintings of Harald Sohlberg - and now enhanced by your writing! I hope your Christmas is merry and bright, and the new year brings you all good things.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Yes, Sohlberg is a wonderful painter, isn't he? Several of his paintings have appeared here over the years, as you may recall. I never tire of his work: beautiful and evocative.

Thank you very much for your kind words. Merry Christmas to you as well, and best wishes for the New Year.

John Ashton said...


It was a delight to read your post. Poems by two of my favourite poets, Norman MacCaig and Andrew Young, and paintings by Harald Sohlberg. An exhibition of whose painting I was fortunate enough to see at the Dulwich Picture Gallery earlier this year. His paintings were wonderful, it was a great privilege to see them.

The past few days have been raw, damp and grey, and yet there are always small gifts that brighten what can at first seem rather a desolate day.
I visited my allotment yesterday morning to put seeds out for the birds. Crows, who seem to have grown used to me putting out seeds, were perched on the sheds and greenhouses, seemingly waiting for my arrival.

For such large birds they are quite wary, though I’ve been feeding them for many winter’s now. Those who do land keep their distance until they are comfortable with me being far enough away for them to begin to feed. They always feed in pairs, one eating while the other keeps a watchful eye and then they change places. When they have had their fill and leave, a robin or two will come down to eat, sometimes blue tits too. Such moments are a brightness on a dark winter’s day.

May I take this opportunity Stephen, to wish you a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Tim Guirl said...

Mr. Pentz,

Coincidentally, I was thinking about the lines from Philip Larkin's poem on the same day that you included them in your blog post. Kindness binds us together as human beings, don't you think? And, too, the kindness of others can surprise us by the unexpected joy it brings.

Thank you for your gift of this blog throughout 2019. May you and your readers enjoy a happy holiday season.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts. It's good to hear from you.

I was aware of the Sohlberg exhibition, and you were indeed fortunate to see it. I presume his paintings seldom journey out of Norway, so you had a rare opportunity. I envy you! I have long admired his paintings, and several of them have appeared here over the years. MacCaig and Young are mainstays for me as well, and I have been enjoying MacCaig's work for the past few weeks.

Thank you for the late autumn report on your allotment, and particularly for your description of the crows. They are interesting, and clever, creatures, aren't they? I nearly always come across them on my daily walks, and their behavior always intrigues me.

Thank you very much for the holiday wishes. Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year to you and your loved ones. As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: That's a nice coincidence. I return to those lines often. Your thoughts on the role of kindness in our lives are lovely. As one ages, these basic human truths become clearer, and other things drop away. Or so one hopes. Not that it isn't a constant struggle to live up to them (speaking for myself).

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I greatly appreciate your long-time presence here.

I wish you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season as well.

James said...

Well now I have the NHK app on my phone... the piece with the home care nurses... I cried. And then I watched another 72 hours about a convenience store... Bento Tales I think. One man came there with his wife who had passed on some two years ago... but in the seat next to him was her picture... wrapped in a cardigan... the night was cold!

Japan seems to be filled with such enormous goodwill it cant be measured... and then I watched yet another show...the Bossa Nova and Lisa Ono...

U know eternity is always intruding... it cant help it. First Known... when Lost... we cant help but often miss these intrusions.. but they are still there aren't they... as u remind us...

Stephen Pentz said...

James: Thank you very much for those thoughts.

My reaction to the Document 72 Hours episode about the home care nurses was the same as yours. Yes, the man in the "Bento Tales from a Northern Fishing Town" episode with the photo portrait of his wife wrapped in a cardigan was wonderful, wasn't he? As I said in my post, I find each episode touching. Have a look at the "Hometown Stories" series as well, if you haven't already done so: it is also invariably moving.

Having lived in Japan, I agree with you about the goodwill one finds there. But, like all places, it has its ups and downs. And I like to think that the sort of goodwill and humanity one comes across in Document 72 Hours is present all around us, wherever we are. (Speaking of goodwill, it is certainly present in the latest episode, which I watched today: a blood donation bus traveling around Hokkaido.)

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.