Rediscovering Narnia

Can I tell you a secret?

Late last year, I tried very hard to get into the JET Program. It’s a government-sponsored program to recruit English speakers to teach in Japan’s public schools. The program is prestigious, at the top of the list for many foreigners who want to emigrate.

I’m smitten with Japan. I had wanted to visit for years, and in 2013 I had saved enough to go. I spent two weeks there, touring sites near Kyoto and Tokyo. My primary interest going in was cultural — Studio Ghibli, Akihabara, other otaku meccas — but visiting museums and historical sites radically changed my relationship with that country. Seeing it beyond just a stereotype or a cartoon, my affinity for it deepened.

So I applied to JET, thinking it could be a way to stay for the long-term. I filled out the paperwork (all of it in triplicate!), wrote essays, gathered transcripts, and requested recommendation letters. I told few people what I was doing.

I didn’t make it to an interview. It could have been my otaku trappings coming through in my essay, or a lack of teaching experience (I’m a volunteer RE teacher at my UU church), or just that I was in my thirties. Nonetheless, I decided to apply to INTERAC, which is everyone’s second choice for English-teaching programs in the country. I started the application process before I realized what I had been doing:

Trying to recapture lightning in a bottle.

We all have a Narnia. It could be one place, or several, or just a fleeting feeling you have every decade or so.

I didn’t care much for the C. S. Lewis series The Chronicles of Narnia when I first read it. He was intent on making a fantasy version of Christian mythology, which doesn’t leave much room for experimentation or surprise. Reading His Dark Materials put further distance between me and the Narnia series.

However, what resonated was how you never stay in Narnia forever (except in the last book!) and you never got in the same way twice. You could live an entire lifetime in Narnia, like the Pevensies, becoming monarchs, waging war, shaping lands. Then, you walk back through the wardrobe by accident, and you’re a child again. No one would know what happened other than those who went with you. Tell someone? Would they believe that a magical lion died and rose again so that Narnia could be free? Why bother?

But you might be lucky enough to find someone who’s been there before, albeit a different time and place. They’d have just an inkling (see what I did there?) of what you had experienced, with the world-weary knowledge that it can’t ever happen again — not exactly the way it did before, at least.

Mono no aware. Transience. Nothing ever happens exactly the same way twice.

I’ve been to Narnia three times.

The first time was in western North Carolina, when I attended Warren Wilson College from 2004-2006. The Blue Ridge Mountains undulate over the country, capped with crisp spruce trees. My alma mater sits in a protected forest, surrounded by a working farm that feeds a few hundred students. Although I had gone to other schools before then, it was my college. I made friends, fell in love, fell out of love, and discovered so much of what makes up my cultural background. Without it there’d be no Dune, no His Dark Materials, no Battlestar Galactica, no Evangelion, no eco-feminism.

And no sense of truly deep loss.

The second time was at Viable Paradise, and it feels even more fleeting than my time in college. That lasted only a week.

The third time was Japan.

What ultimately stopped me from applying to INTERAC, after the rejection from JET, was that I was chasing an experience. If I went back across the pond, I wouldn’t be reliving my time in 2013. It would be entirely new, working instead of touring, and I would be there much longer than last time. It would mean that the best use of my time was teaching English. Alas, while I enjoy teaching kids at church, I know I have better skills than that, such as writing and programming.

You can’t get back to Narnia the same way twice.

I might try to go back Japan, maybe for longer than my first trip. But I probably won’t be teaching English. In the meantime, I have other plans. I’m going to graduate school in the fall (assuming I don’t go broke before then, but that’s another story), learning some new programming techniques, and trying to get this ambitious short story written that’s tickling my neurons.

For now, if I get the urge, there’s always Begin Japanology.

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