Secret Gardens

I read this piece by Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker today about cell-phone novels, a phenomenon in Japan called keitai shosetsu. These are the cheap, lurid paperback novels of our day. Their authors compose the novels on cell-phones and share them under pseudonyms. They don’t wish to be known. It’s another insight into the amazingly obsessive-creative Japanese culture.


Goodyear’s article has a wonderful quote from Jakucho Setouchi, an elderly woman who is a Buddhist monk and a novelist come to judge a competition. She says:

I’m eighty-six years old now and I don’t usually get surprised by things and I don’t get so excited, right? But how do you stay excited by life? Keep secrets.

I sometimes feel that we live in an age that doesn’t keep secrets. People say everything that’s on their mind as it comes to them. They blog, chat and twitter. They speak in public on cell phones as though all conversations, and the relationships behind them, are the subject of public interest. It’s as though a culture tuned to TV imagines the camera is always on them, and it’s a matter of how much gets recorded.

The Japanese seem to know how to nurture and value a private life. Public life is well-ordered because there’s a lot that’s private behind it. All cannot be revealed; it takes time and we must be deliberate about what we say. We are lucky to have our own private world, and live in our imagination, and see how it finds the means of expression over time.

Keeping a garden is like having one’s own secret world to care for and explore. A garden is a proxy for this private world. It’s both ordinary and extraordinary. As the gardener, I get to develop it and discover its delights and mysteries, which are mine as well to keep. It’s full of little surprises that one finds repeatedly, day to day, and which allows one, as Setouchi says, to stay excited by life.


The photos are from a family trip to Japan in 2005.