All That We See or Seem

When Bashō, following Zen, implies again and again that life is a dream, something in me rebels. His entire practice was to capture concrete, sensory details of the physical world, so “dreamlike” seems like a contradiction. Yet even his final hokku, dictated as he was dying, and partial because his assistant did not hear the opening phrase, leaves him dreaming for eternity:



continuing to roam about

my dreaming mind

(tr Ueda)


My Western mind strains for what life as dream means in the scientific and perceptual terms I prefer. Transient, yes. Fragile, and prone to interruption. Difficult to perceive, because it is complex beyond our sensory organs’ ability to perceive, and because we carry so many psychological filters, and because everything is always changing. In quantum terms, the energy that becomes matter could be said to be like a gauze veil that manifests in all things. As Bashō says:


You are the butterfly

and I the dreaming heart

of Chuang-tzu

(tr Aitken)


Then there is the problem of strangeness, most acute in travel: Standing alone on a dirt road in North Dakota, the dark and subzero cold, a clutch of tipis in the snow, time coming undone. Sea turtles lying at water’s edge, on their backs, flippers pierced and tied, weeping in the sun. A long night in rural Guatemala, my partner ill, voices chanting over a cheap loudspeaker. In these moments lie a loneliness in perception that Bashō was writing about.

Even more rarely, synchronicities mock belief in a rational, waking life. A minor example: The night before I left the Midwest for the Bashō trail, my niece told us about her neighbor planting banana palms in his yard, which does not happen much here, let along get discussed; “Bashō” means “banana tree.” What are the odds?, we say. If I believe in an empirical reality, what are these moments when the personal seems to infect the objective?

Frenchy and I were military divers together, so as the trip to Japan neared its end, he wanted to see the Ama divers work in Ise Bay, as they have for thousands of years. I wanted to see the Jingū shrine at Ise, which Bashō visited. It was strange that when we started there from Hiroshima we knew nothing of the typhoon looming over central Honshu. It was strange we had to stop in Osaka, where we never intended to go, and found ourselves in Grand Front Osaka, a dream of a mall called “Japan’s biggest domestic shopping town.” Strange that we came to be standing, on maybe the 10th floor, in front of a store that had something to do with our mutual lives.

What caught our attention was lettering on the window that said, US Navy SEALs / Frogman. The store was not for military surplus; it was like a Gap, or something more expensive. In the window display were t-shirts with SEAL team logos and slogans, man bags, open-toed shoes, and odd little hats.

Inside, mannequins wore quasi-military shirts, in white and selected colors, with nametapes that said, US NAVY SEALS over one pocket, and FROGMEN over the other, and patches for US Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek. Racks held dozens of SEAL-branded Hawaiian shirts, and others that said USAF Pararescue—that others may live—PJs—Avirex Mfg. Avirex was the clothing company that had ripped off the designs. Against a wall were jackets embroidered with the United States Special Operations Command logo.

“Those guys [SEALs and other US operators] would have a shit hemorrhage if they saw all this,” Frenchy said.

A handsome kid wearing a t-shirt that said, US Navy Frogmen Underwater Mission Avirex Divers, came up to ask if we needed help finding anything. He had a good haircut with highlights, a complicated gold earring, and a tattoo behind his right ear that said, fuck-up, in English.

Frenchy asked him how the store came to be. There was apparently a language barrier to his answer, so we chatted about other things. Frenchy picked up a shirt that equated divers and pirates, and had a tag phrase about getting booty.

The young man said softly, “I have always wanted to ask: What is this booty?” Frenchy told him one meaning, and I told him another, and he laughed and turned red.

Then we saw the mannequin torso, a straw gardening hat on its neck stump, wearing a t-shirt that read, Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center, Panama City Florida. That was where we trained—it was our Hogwarts. The shirt listed the correct names of different kinds of divers who trained there—U.S. Navy Deep Sea Divers, Diving Medical Officers, Marine Corps Combatant Divers, EOD, Air Force Pararescue, Combat Controllers, Coast Guard Divers, etc. It also listed U.S. Army Engineer Divers, which is what Frenchy and I were. It had the NDSTC Mark V hardhat, tridents, and seahorses, and a U.S. flag sewn to the left sleeve. On the breast it said, Avirex Divers Right Diver, Right Time, Right Place. The t-shirt cost 11,000 Yen, about 110 dollars.

Frenchy told the young man he used to teach at that school, and the guy laughed in delight, innocently, at the coincidence.

I am trying to explain the strangeness and impossibility of all this but am failing. There were fewer than 100 Army divers when I was in, and no one ever gets the names and logos right on these things, and what clothing store in an upscale mall would dedicate its entire line to a small subset of a foreign military’s forces? Yet we were there, on the opposite side of the world from our homes, decades after the diving life that was itself both physical and dreamlike, and saw it, like some cosmic reminder of mystery.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.