Assess, Evaluate, and Prioritize

No, this is not a New Year’s Resolutions post. Well, not a typical one anyway.

I receive a postcard from a friend living in Japan once each month. She was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan longer than she lived in the US before going there. She lives and works in the northern part of Japan, and is just one of the most amazing women I know.

Her name is Mary (her last name is not important for the purposes of this post).

I first met Mary in 1994. I was working for the NGO that funds her work in Japan, and she was considered by some in the organization as “challenging.” I was on the communication team for the organization (actually, I was the main writer and photographer for this organization), so I was given the task of interviewing Mary when she was back stateside, as well as shooting a new photo of her for fund raising stuff.

And let me say, I was prepared for a difficult, demanding individual … who never showed up.

Never Believe the Hype

I knew from reading her bio that Mary had trained as a mathematician prior to taking up her work for the NGO. I was aware that she had devoted herself to the intensive study of the Japanese Tea Ceremony for many of the years she’d lived in Japan, and considered it to be part of her personal spiritual discipline. I figured out quickly that she is very much the introvert, in a role (when stateside) that requires a tremendous put on act as an extrovert for a long stretch of time.

In other words, Mary has a keen analytical mind that is orderly, disciplined, and gets tired of too much external stimulation.

So I approachedĀ  her with that in mind. In so doing, I discovered someone with an incredible passion for her work. Someone who works harder than most of us do, for less pay, and for far less appreciation. Someone I almost instantly admired.

Thankfully, Mary liked me too. She even paid me the kindness of saying that, in her long history with the organization, I was the only one ever to quote her accurately. I wanted to tell her story. I wanted supporters of the NGO to understand – really, deeply understand the work she was doing.

She also liked the photograph I made of her. She’s one of those people (not unlike me) who is a challenge to shoot. This has nothing to do with one’s attractiveness; it’s about something much deeper. Some people are just so conscious of everything about themselves that they can’t settle themselves for the fraction of a second required to expose the film to the light bouncing off them.

Aside: Yes, I used the word “film”. It is an antiquated substance used to capture the image revealed when light bounces off an object (or person) at certain frequencies. Try wikipedia. I’m sure they have an entry on it somewhere.

Anyway …

Even after I’d moved on from the NGO, Mary stayed in touch. There were occasional emails, actual snail mail letters, and the like going both directions across the Pacific. I walked with Mary through her encounter with ovarian cancer (a cancer that the Japanese are doing really well with … and are far ahead of the West in treating … so much so that Mary is now a 10-year survivor. Yes, I said TEN YEARS).

Eventually, Mary shifted to writing me a postcard at the beginning of each month. The postcards are sometimes series of cats. Sometimes they’re from museums. Sometimes they come from her occasional pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji. Often, they involve monkeys, because I was (according to the 12-year animal calendar) born in the year of the monkey. At the start of each New Year, Mary sends me one of the special Japanese New Year postcards, on which the incoming animal for that year is celebrated by the other animals of the calendar.

This postcard I just received from Mary celebrates the incoming of Tiger’s year … Mary’s year. She was born in the year of the Tiger, but even more importantly, she is reaching her 5th cycle in this round of it being her year. This is a big deal in Japan.

On the card she wrote:

Author Ayako Sono got rid of photos and tens of thousands of pages of manuscripts when she turned 60 (5 full cycles, so a special age in the cultures that do the 12-animal cycles), and I have decided to do the same . . . It’s actually quite satisfying to lighten my footprint on earth.

The Point

Part of the point is that I wanted to tell you about my friend Mary … someone about whom no one will ever make a movie, or (unless I do it) write a book. And yet she is one of those remarkable individuals who has changed the lives of many people, simply by following her heart and doing work she feels called to do. I am not nearly so brave as she is. Would that I were.

The other part of the point is that we’re in a world based upon continual accumulation. There’s never enough. And that’s true even if you’re trying to help those who are genuinely suffering. Mary’s postcard got me to thinking about what I can do to “lighten my footprint on earth.” I’m still thinking, and it’s a worthy endeavor.

How about you?

One Response to Assess, Evaluate, and Prioritize
  1. Caroline
    January 18, 2010 | 04:55

    Wonderfully perceptive and generous post – thank you.
    When you posed the question about ‘lightening my footprint on earth” I found that I was reflecting on the hold stuff has on one/me. Whenever I shed stuff I feel freer. Which suggests that stuff is obligation – the obligation to pay attention to, and manage and occupy oneself with… So yes, we lighten our footprint by accumulating less stuff. We also free our mind and time of the perpetual looking for, classifying, dusting (!), putting away, sorting through etc. Less stuff allows for more focus.

    Jen from Inspired Home Office ( wrote a lovely post that touched on this – in which she talked about how our mind is made up to notice edges. More stuff equals more edges equals more distraction. So even creating one pile can be far more restful than scattered papers. Getting rid of the pile altogether is better yet.

    Finally, the Japanes often keep almost everything out of the way. You bring out the futon when it’s time to sleep. Or the table when you want to work. Or… and the rest of the time, the room is essentially bare. It’s a lovely precept: keep everything clear, and when you bring out a vase, or some papers, or… notice and be mindful and then put away again. It’s the best relationship you can have to stuff.

    Thanks for letting me think of this!

    .-= Caroline´s last blog ..We’ve Moved to =-.

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