The Things We Carried: An Ode to Commuter Passes and the Little Details of Life

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My commuter pass expired today. It’s one of those small details of daily life whose absence, and the reminder of whose absence, carries such gravity these days. I was out running errands and shopping for groceries when I passed the train station near my house. I remembered that my commuter pass was about to expire, and that I should renew it. For a brief second or so my mind whisked me away to another time and place, an alternate reality it seems. But my brain recouped quickly and reminded me quite harshly that no, I didn’t need to buy a commuter pass. I don’t need to travel to work. I don’t even need to take a train at all anymore–for work, for play, for socializing, for a quick stroll in a distant part of the city. I am here. I sniffled into my surgical face mask and carried on.

Last week, in my post that collected my colleagues’ reflections about the coronavirus situation, Dennis wrote about trains. I didn’t really think anything of it at the time, other than that I too missed riding the train anytime I wanted, but now his passage really resonates with me in a different way. Like Dennis I also love the Tokyo train system and would have a hard time adjusting to most other cities in the world because of it. He’s right too, that trains are the lifeblood of this city. So much is ordered around the rhythms of the trains and that they, in many ways, define our social lives. But I took it for granted most of the time. And honestly I didn’t miss it as much at first. Not having to rush to commute in the morning, or get jostled and elbowed after a long day at work, was a bit of a blessing. But then my commuter pass expired.

I wasn’t planning on writing about commuter passes and trains today, honestly. But I find it better these days to try to go with the flow as much as possible, especially where emotions are concerned. Better to ride it out and explore it than suppress and try to control it. Parting with my expired commuter pass made me think about other things, little things, that I had taken for granted or even resented, the routine details that mark our lives to some extent: watching people on the train, eating lunch in the staffroom, or smelling the onions and spices from the Indian restaurant on the way to work. I used to hate the gaggles of teenagers and drunk salarymen who crowded down my neighborhood on weekends. Now I find myself missing them a little. All of these things were not my favorite aspects of life here, nor the most important things by far, but together they were the patterns that formed the backdrop, and in some cases they added texture or touches of color that made life more vibrant.

Of course there are lots of bigger things that I miss. Being able to go out, to travel and spend time in restaurants, movie theaters, shopping malls. Basically being around people is something that I miss very much right now, and no amount of online communication is ever going to replace it. But the sense of losing the small things hits me hard too. Our old lives were so many things, and so much more intricate and complicated than we gave them credit for, even when we thought they were boring.

Spending so much time at home and just in my little neck of the woods, I have created new routines, and absorbed new details into my daily life. I have my grocery shopping and my daily walks, and I like to go to the little park by my house to catch some sun. It’s strange to talk about new routines, but we do adjust and normalize. We are capable of adapting to very tough situations. Part of that might have to do with replacing details in our lives. Once we see the same thing over and over again, we get used to it.

I know I discussed details before, in relation to gratitude and love. This is a different aspect of paying attention to details, not so much for gratitude, but for inner power–I think being aware of details is quite powerful. In yoga they teach you to focus on your breath–maybe one of the most routine bodily functions–to pay attention to it and use it to give you energy. Observing details gives you creative/artistic power in painting, writing, filmmaking, photography, etc. Puzzles and escape rooms are all about paying attention to details and using them to solve riddles and challenges (details are equally important in creating escape games too). 

Awareness of details gives us memory too. So much of what I remember is actually just little details when I think about it. Someone’s smile, a place’s smell, the colors of a sunset, the feel of the breeze. Even for big life events I think there is a tendency to focus on small details, or at least one specific scene that we can grab onto and hold. And in this crisis, when we are all grieving our old lives and routines, giving respect and weight to those details that we miss is important.

So the little things give us life and being aware of them can give us power, memory. Could they allow us to imagine new futures? Eventually we will go back into the world. Whatever world that ends up being is still a little bit up in the air. It’s clear that there is no going back to the way things were completely (and maybe we don’t really want to in some cases). If noticing details gives us power, then our this awareness might help pull us through this crisis–by paying attention to ourselves, to our emotions, to who is suffering and who isn’t, to the state of world and how individuals are reacting and managing, to how governments are responding. Perhaps we can carry this newfound sense of awareness with us, into whatever future we are headed towards.  

Stay safe, stay home, stay strong, and stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the staff at Nazobako/Invite Japan

An empty Sensoji in Asakusa, by colleague Kazunori

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