On a return trip to Japan after three months away, an expanse between present and former selves opens up, bringing with it a chance for reflection and a sense of rootedness in the present.

How do you make yourself present? You go back.

Go back to things you’ve made before, long ago. Go back to places once visited, almost forgotten. Confront them—the things, the places. Look them in the eyes and ask them for their secrets.

Really—go, do that. They’ll tell you crazy stories.

I was almost thirty when I left Tokyo to work in California. It was my first real break from Japan in nearly a decade. Three months after leaving, I went for a visit. When I arrived, the ghosts of a past life hit me like a brick of nostalgia. There were the alcohol-soaked memories: the tomfoolery in front of Takadanobaba Station as a nineteen-year-old student, the long whisky conversations at Shinjuku jazz bars, sake beneath cherry blossoms in a packed Shinjuku Gyoen and Yoyogi Park.

There were the bike ride memories: dawdling mid-summer riverside rides down Arakawa or Tamagawa, circuitous backstreet explorations past the working women of Kabukicho, the dusty bookshops about Jimbocho, the noodle shops of Nogata.

The mundane architecture memories: midnight walks through city-center enclaves packed with cramped apartments and four-room houses, the warm kick in the belly you get from hearing stray TVs and late-night dinner conversations drifting amidst the otherwise total silence.

There were all of those memories and more. But now, they were vibrating against a different set of eyes. I stood outside Takadanobaba Station and saw a past self. I sat in the jazz bars and drank the same whisky and saw a past self there, too. Selves. In the corner. Them. Drinking with me. And I asked them to tell me what they remembered.

With Bill Evans playing in the background, the room full of tobacco smoke, hovering over round, lacquered mahogany tables, they told me of their worries. For them, the now. For me, the then. They told me their fears, and I listened and nodded and sipped my drink. As they told me more, I could once again see through their eyes.

Perhaps you were on the other side of the bar. If you were watching from afar, you saw a man flickering between two sides of the same table. Like a TV signal caught between channels. A static-filled jumping, sometimes snapping together into perfect clarity.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I sensed an expanse. Some distance traveled. Age, I suppose. Having aged. Having moved. Forward, one hopes. One always hopes.

I walked those same quiet back streets past those same cramped apartments. I heard the wafting of TVs past and TVs present. Voices from families old speaking to families new. Some houses had fallen apart, others were gone, others were just as they were. The same ladder in the same place. An ageless white cat. That apple tree. The very same dirty towel on the very same hook. Impossible. Like stepping through a slightly inaccurate time machine. I and the selves of the thens walked in silence. We walked and remembered collectively. Some things change, others don’t.

I rode down the bike paths of the rivers and asked my selves what their plans were. As we peddled in the chilly January sunlight, I listened patiently to their stories. Their goals to work on books. Their progress on web projects. I jumped between bikes, between eyes. The further we got down the path the bigger the jumps. Until the goals were so small, so distant, all I could do was smile.

I smiled riding down that river bank. Bundled up against the crisp air. I smiled and let the distance wash over me and fill me with an awareness of the now. I had gone back—to places, moments, feelings—and for the very first time, saw where I was in the present.

Craig mod

Craig Mod is an independent writer and designer, splitting his time between New York and Tokyo. He is the co-founder of Hi, a real-time storytelling project, and writes regularly on the future of books, digital reading, publishing, and storytelling. He is a MacDowell Writing Fellow and a 2011 TechFellow.

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