My daughter, with a hand in each of my hands, walks the tightrope in our backyard. Beneath her, twelve inches of nothing and then hard earth. I am certain I can catch her if she stumbles. I am certain. We have maybe twenty minutes before the rain comes. I know because her hair, like mine, has already begun to curl. “We should go in soon,” I say. Fearless, she laughs and falls back into my arms. Into air thick as water. It is her fourth birthday. The day she was born, I lay on an operating table in Japan when the doctor caught her—cut her from me, really—and passed her to a nurse, who briefly held that pink and bloodied flesh so that I could recognize the momentousness of what had been done. And then she was taken away, and there was only the look in the doctor’s eyes—that sudden focus of walking a tightrope—and the thing he barked about cancelling all his appointments. I could see my body cut open in the reflection of the lights. Organs like wet stones. A glistening and foreign terrain. I could see the clock on the wall. It was not supposed to take this long. My new daughter crying for the first time and my husband holding my hand, holding me with his eyes. It was not supposed to take this long. The doctor’s name—Kawakami, the Chinese characters for “river” and “up.” It was not supposed to take this long. How we are just a sum of parts and yet not. How, in the slow orbit of a second hand, we exist and cease to exist. How all we leave behind is our mark on others. How we love and cannot keep what we love.
One of my childhood homes, the Motherlode Lodge, burned down a few days ago. It was an old landmark in Alaska. Many, no doubt, have fond memories of visiting the building on the way to ski or hike or pick blueberries in the mountains of Hatcher Pass.
For me, the destruction carries a certain complicated weight. I was there only a year or so before my family went bankrupt and left, but I remember some of that time vividly—partially because I have a habit of collecting devastating memories, but also, Hatcher Pass was just so compelling to me. After all, we’d moved from Nome, near the Arctic Circle, a desolate place devoid of trees or mountains. This new landscape was lush, foreign, and filled with the promise of new beginnings. And maybe all of us were dazzled by the sight of “fool’s gold”—bright mica—that was so abundant in the icy, clear waters of the Little Susitna, the river that tumbled from the mountains down into the valley below.
My mother and my then-new stepfather, a handsome second-generation Irishman from New Jersey, bought the lodge in order to fulfill his dream of running “a real Irish pub.” It was purchased with the entirety of my mother’s retirement savings as well as a hefty chunk of borrowed money.
In the fall, I started Ms. Cavender’s fourth-grade class at Sherrod Elementary in Palmer, down in the Mat-Su Valley. My classmates included Penny (who had a penchant for drawing horses), Robbie (who carried a football-themed lunchbox), Tessa (who always smiled and was, notably, shorter than I), Crystal (who was gorgeous and knew it), and Becky (who was shy and kind and also my closest thing to a best friend). I had a little bit of a crush on Robbie, who probably had a little bit of a crush on Crystal.
My mother taught fifth grade in the same school—many of her students are among Alaska’s movers and shakers now. I remember that was the year J.J., also in my mother’s class, crashed his three-wheeler and tore up his beautiful face. He shattered his arm and, because of the way it was cast (out and up), my mother constantly called on him in class. I remember him well because he often stayed after to make up work missed from all those surgeries; he was the one sweet thread of tentative friendship between that time and some years later, after I moved to Wasilla and then back again to Palmer for high school.
As a girl who’d already gone through two fathers previously, I wanted more than anything to be a part of a “normal” family, what I imagined everyone else had. I unconsciously believed it fell to me to make the relationship with my new stepfather work, and so I became obsessed with Irishness, which was encouraged in various ways. It was a real shame, for my stepfather, that I was a girl—and probably not even of Irish descent at that—but he offered that I could at least better the situation by legally changing my name to Patty. I seriously considered this. He also insisted that I become a proper Catholic, so I spent a lot of time dutifully memorizing “Hail Mary” for my eventual baptism at St. Michael’s in Palmer. Many days, I carefully studied the map of Ireland tacked up in the pub while turning that one Gaelic word he taught me over and over in my mouth like an incantation: “fray-dee” for “potato.”
(Incidentally, some years later in high school, Robbie would ask me, “Hey, aren’t you Irish?” I was mortified that he remembered. By that time, I had a different stepfather and a whole new set of pathologies.)
I couldn’t have friends out to the lodge—not that I had many anyway. My stepfather was an alcoholic, after all. And he ran a bar—a constant, free-for-all party. It was, as my mother once said, “no place for a child.”
So I learned to embrace my exploration in solitude. At that time there was a stand of willow trees on the hill next to the main building—it was leveled in later years to make way for a new addition. This little forest in miniature was a haven, my place to escape from the downward spiral that was our intertwined lives. In summer, I gathered old boards and put together a small shelter and imagined it to be my cabin. In winter, I tracked vole and rabbit prints in the snow. In every season, I’d lie on my back in snow or moss or brush and do what I called “the big-small”—I’d feel myself expanding to the size of the universe, and then I’d shrink back down to a grain of sand. In this way, I think I discovered some sense of spirituality in Hatcher Pass; my way of seeing was my one true magic power.
As for the lodge, I explored that, too. But unlike the natural world around us (rife, no doubt, with dangerous wildlife), there was something about that old, cloying interior and all of its shadows that frightened me. Maybe it mimicked too closely my constant and vivid architectural dreams—the long hallways lined with doors, the unlit crawlspace closets, an eerily large and metallic kitchen, a bar engulfed in smoke and disembodied laughter. And then there was the new addition—not the one that would someday erase my trees—but another to the right of the main structure. It was still under construction when we moved in, and it remained in unfinished limbo for the duration of our time there. That wing had a skin, but inside it was all darkness and bare bones.
My first bedroom in the Motherlode was a closet of a space in the top left of the main structure, at the end of a hall of lodgers’ rooms, most of which remained unrented. It had one window looking out from the side of the building, over the trees and down into the valley below. The window was important to me because in Nome, windows had been a rare luxury. There, I’d had nothing more than a porthole in my bedroom—an eight-by-eight-inch cut-out up high on the wall that could be opened in the summer months to let in fresh air. The new room, in contrast, held a view of vast possibility.
One of my stepfather’s drinking buddies took a liking to that view as well, though, and I was relocated to another room and then another. The latter was adjacent to the new addition. It had a large window, but it looked only inside, into that great, unfinished carcass. I felt that I was always on the edge of being consumed. It terrified me.
Shortly before my move to this last new room, my stepfather invited his sister and her family to come live with us, to help out with the management of a failing enterprise. Her eldest son quickly took up the habit of hunting me with an air rifle in my magical forest, and also picking the lock on the bathroom door while I showered. Whatever safety I felt in my world was crushed. They left a few months after their arrival. And some time after that, so did we. We did not move on to better circumstances. We simply moved on.
Many years after I left Alaska, it was my mother who sent me the newspaper clipping describing how J.J. pulled over his truck one day and took his life on the side of the road. He had been a social worker at the time—a caretaker of the lost. I couldn’t believe that someone with that kind of spirit could be broken. He left behind a wife and three kids. I recognized the name of his wife. We’d all gone to high school together.
I sense there are unseen generations who come of age in Alaska, kids scarred by place and circumstance. We all do our best, like good Alaskans, to “show no weakness.” But sometimes we fail. Even the sturdiest of structures can burn to the ground. And though I want to say that I am one of the resilient ones, the truth is that I’m not. I just got through it, whatever “it” was, and now I’m here.
I had hoped that I’d return someday to the Motherlode Lodge with my son and daughter. I’d say, “I used to live here. This place is part of me.” They’d see that big old building surrounded by spectacular landscape, and they’d think I was lucky. I’d be reminded that, in a way, they come from that place, too, and that every bit of my complicated history led me to where I am now. I’d walk with them through a stand of unlikely trees. We’d lie down together on green moss next to a cold, clear river glinting in sunlight. I’d teach them to be so small they almost vanish, so vast that nothing can contain them.
Today I am washing dishes as Nova Scotia fog drifts behind the glass of the window above the sink. My five-year-old son, with trembling lip and downcast eyes, tells me that he’s the one—not Girl—who put pennies into the computer. “I wanted to tell you the truth, Mama.”
“That is very, very bad for the computer,” I say. “But thank you for telling me. Thank you for being so brave.” He shakes and sobs as I hug him. “Breathe,” I tell him. “Just breathe.” His chest rises and falls, rises and falls, and then it seems a terrible weight unmoors from him. Seconds later, he is zooming around the house with his sister.
“We are dragons!” he shouts. “We fly and shoot fire!”
* * *
I am 14 or 15, lying in tall grass next to a boy who is both my friend and also the son of my stepfather’s friend. The son of a Presbyterian minister. It is summer in Alaska, in the months before he will move away. I am certain that we will always know each other.
Lying on our backs in the grass in this way, we are invisible to all but the clouds that move across the sky above us. “I used to do this when I was a little kid,” he says. “I’d try to find the shape of animals in the clouds. A tiger, an elephant, a winged beast.”
I know he wants to kiss me but he is too kind to take what has not been given. So we hold hands and watch the sky. I tell him, “I wish I were a cloud. I wish I were free.”
Years later, I will write him a letter and tell him a secret and he will not believe me. And then for some time after, he will write to me again and again but I will never never never reply. I should not have told; he should have believed. I still don’t know which is true. I still don’t know.
* * *
Twenty-four years old and in my first few months of a new life in Japan, I have been sitting for three hours with a stone in my hand at the edge of Lake Ezu in Kumamoto. I am working out metaphors, a single unmoving cloud overhead. I think,
regret is a stone
in the hand
a stone is a story
in the mind
a story is a stone
in the heart
When at last I throw my burden into water, the cloud shatters and then reforms. As I walk home afterward, it occurs to me that it is not people who haunt us—only moments of encounter.
* * *
I am 30 and walking a one-lane road between rice paddies nearing harvest, when the breeze shifts tall grass and I know that I am not alone. The grass shifts again and I see them full-on—a half-dozen women’s heads lashed to poles. The farmers—I understand this a few seconds later—have fashioned scarecrows from scraps of cloth and mannequins, probably throwaways from a nearby salon. Stylish black hair flutters in the breeze. For a long time I cannot move. None of us blink.
When I get home, I find that my husband, in his fourth month of cloister at a monastery in the mountains, has written me a letter. He is a new monk, or unsui—clouds and water. He writes, I must be supple enough to flow and form and reform and disappear. He tells me the story of koi who don’t know they are wise and powerful dragons.
I want to kiss him. I am lonely. I wonder if we will ever be brave enough to have children. I wonder if I would be a bad mother.
* * *
It is a year ago, not long after moving to this new country, and I am driving my son home from school when he shouts, “Look, Mama! Dragons!”
“The clouds are shaped like dragons and the dragons are eating the clouds!”
“Just a minute, Sweetie,” I tell him. “There’s a lot of traffic. I need to pay attention right now. I need to pick up your sister.”
“Now the dragons are eating the dragons! Mama, look! Look! WHY DON’T YOU LOOK?”
Because I want to get it right and know that I can’t, I tell him, “Sweetie, calm down. Listen, I’ll stop. Right here. I’ll park the car and you can show me.”
“But hurry, Mama! Look!”
I slow down, pull over, shut off the engine. Cars zoom past us one after another. Above everything, clouds move across blue sky. “Okay. Where are they? Show me.”
“I can’t—they’re gone now. They’re all gone. THEY ARE ALL GONE!”
I look at my son’s tear-streaked face in the rear-view mirror. I look at the dashboard clock and then the slowing line of cars filling up the road next to us, hemming us in. I look back up at the sky. I think, What do I do now? What do I do? What do I do?
My son sniffs, takes in a breath. “Let’s just breathe, Mama. Let’s just breathe.”
Ever since moving to Nova Scotia from Japan, I have noticed in myself a habit of seeing the features of Alaska, the place where I grew up. So there is the pervasive rock and water of this new place, but there is also a stretch of imagined snow-tipped mountains tracing along an expanse of blue sky.
I think it is the similarities that trick my brain into seeing what is not there. Sprawling forests of birch and pine, seagulls circling above dark and turbulent seas—how can this not be Alaska? So many elements are the same.
In Japan, I never saw the geography of my homeland, but I sometimes thought I understood when I did not. Or I understood in a way that was different from how others understood. Perhaps this was the cultural equivalent of my imaginary mountains. All that I had known before was the backdrop or overlay to my perception of everything that came after.
So, yes, I suspect those mountains point to something subtle that I cannot yet grasp. This is the obvious explanation of my current visual fallacy: a kind of culture shock. But it is also a reminder that both perception and time are slippery; all is in flux.
For instance, if I follow the arrow of time backwards, to the origin of the remembered mountains, I see that my memories now include some sense of my husband, of my children—and also of our arrival to this new country. My understanding of the past is set against all that came after. So those memories are altered but they feel no less true than when I experienced them in real time, or when I remembered them at different times in the years that followed.
In this way I am an embodiment of context—time and space and encounter—an entire landscape held in one small human form. Everything—even memory—is altered by memory. This paradox is truth. But it is not the only truth.
Because sometimes I look into vast blue sky and that is all I see.
This morning was the first day of bone-chilling Nova Scotia cold, and I walked through darkness to the bus stop on my way to teach an English class. I was remembering—maybe because of the way the wind gusted and shook the leaves in the trees—a phone call some years ago, in spring, about the death of a friend.
And then across the street, I saw the source of the sound that got me thinking—a stand of birch lit by a streetlamp—and suddenly it became twelve months ago, and I was moving through afternoon light in the opposite direction, toward home, with my two-year-old daughter at my side. “Carry me, Mama,” she said, and I obliged, even though she’d grown heavy and tall—no longer my baby. She whispered, “Mama, those trees are making me cold.”
“Sweetie,” I said, “that’s not possible.”
Leaning back, she pointed emphatically to white birch. “Those trees are making me cold.”
“We’ll be home soon,” I said as I put her down. But something about her strange child’s logic made the trees into a thing I carried and could not put down, the idea that something experienced in one sense could be the catalyst for another sensation entirely.
This morning, when I looked up at those trees one last time before turning the final bend to the bus stop, I noticed a rhythmic creak that became the sound of crickets in the house of my Japanese teacher twelve years ago in Yamanashi. The insects called out again and again as we conjugated verbs and drank from sweating cups of iced buckwheat tea. When I commented on it—that pleasant trilling, like a little reed flute—my teacher led me to a wooden cage beneath the stairs where the crickets were kept.
“The sound gives us a cool feeling in the hot summer months. It takes us to another season.”
“Synesthesia,” I remember saying. “It almost seems like that.”
She nodded. “A good word. Wasurenai—I will not forget.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamt of impossible houses—simple, stark exteriors that belie the infinite labyrinthine structures contained within. A closet that is really a chambered corridor spiraling ever inward, nautilus-like, before expanding out into a bedchamber the size of a cathedral. An endless hallway of identical doors leading to identical dens, save for slight variations in the arrangement of furniture. A swimming pool wending its way through the dark stacks of a subterranean library.
Often, there are landmarks of recognition—a character, a dwelling, a room, an object from my past. Sometimes it is entirely unexplored territory. Either way, I spend my nights mapping an interior landscape that reveals and reveals and reveals.
I don’t know why I have these dreams. But I do know that they mess with my equilibrium well after I awaken, that altered perspective staying with me for hours—or days—after.
Some months ago, the four of us made our way around the grounds of an old Nova Scotia farm and a familiar feeling came over me, a kind of recognition. It was, I realized, the first time I had felt truly compelled by the architecture of this new country, and so I started taking pictures: hand-hewn crossbeams, the sturdy hinges of a barn door, stairs disappearing into shadow. It seemed there was a revelation in every angle.
As we moved into and out of buildings, my daughter repeatedly patted my hip, a touchstone of sorts, before running a few paces forward and then back again. Koun and Boy walked far ahead on some other mission.
“Mama, where’s the piggy?” The pigs, we’d been told, were to be found in a hay-filled corner of the barn before us.
As we entered into darkness, Girl took my hand and then leapt up into my arms when we found what we’d been searching for—a great sow at rest, a row of content piglets suckling alongside her.
A woman—probably there with her grandchild—stepped back and offered her spot at the railing.
“Do you want to get closer?” Girl clutched my arms tightly but nodded.
The woman next to us smiled as she turned to leave. “What a sweetheart. You’re lucky, you know. Girls are so much easier than boys.”
Girl and I and the pigs rested for a moment in the shadows.
“The piggies want to go outside.”
Stepping back out into sunlight, Girl squirmed free of my arms, and I took one last photo: the skeletal ribs of a hay wagon and the spare houses beyond it—that had been my aim. But the sun’s glare refracted against the screen in such a way that I framed the subject blindly. And so when I reviewed the image later, I saw that I had missed my mark but caught what I could not then see: my daughter, just on the verge of stepping out of the photograph, exuding a carefree simplicity as she strutted along her path.
I thought, a girl is a house
A couple weeks ago, as I was putting him to bed, I told Boy for the first time about my travel plans this weekend to Los Angeles. Boy has never been to L.A. He drinks this in and says, “Papa? I have a secret.” What, I ask, leaning in. “Los Angeles—” Yes? “—is inside my brain.” He taps his head with his finger to make the point. I try to clarify: Wait a minute. So when I go to L.A., I’m actually going inside your brain? He nods seriously. “Yes.”
How will I get there? He pulls back his blanket and points to his big toe in the dark. “You’ll start here, in your airplane.” He slowly traces the path I’ll take: up his leg, jumping from his hip to his hand, then up his arm, across his neck, and over his face to the top of his head. That’s far. “That’s the farthest place you can go.” Is that the farthest place in the world? “Japan is farther. But it’s too far. It’s outside my brain.”
I tell him that my brother will be meeting me there. So will Uncle B. be in your brain too? He looks at me like I’m stupid. “YES. He’ll be in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is inside my brain.” Again, the tap, so I get it.
Last night, after a couple chapters of Charlotte’s Web, we found our way back to this—the location of L.A., my route. He sits up and says, “Papa? I’m going to try to visit you.” In Los Angeles? Inside your brain? You can do that? How? He looks down at his covers for a long time. “I don’t know. I can’t do it yet.” He nods as if to assure himself. “But I’m going to figure it out.”
This morning I’m in Toronto, already waiting for my next flight. This airport is exactly like all airports; on any other day, I could imagine that I’m anywhere on earth. But today there is another layer, the pleasure of imagining that these hallways and overpriced restaurants might be the microscopic contours of the inside of my son’s foot. The scale changes, amplifies. I smile at the idea that inside my small boy there might be a place this spacious and quiet, that there might be so many people with different faces and stories. I like that he might be trying to find a way inside himself, that inside his mind is where we meet.
If I were to look up and see Boy here in this departure lounge sitting between the two Chinese girls across from me, I’d smile and give him a thumbs up. You did it! We’d get a snack. He’d play on the moving walkways; I’d tell him halfheartedly to stop.
We’d watch the planes take off and land against the wide blue sky, and I’d lean over and tell him, You’re so big. You’re bigger even than all of this.
Lately, a mere two months away from the one-year anniversary of our arrival to Nova Scotia from Japan, I’ve found myself lifted and carried by a flood of memory. Maybe it’s the change in season (new life’s surge) or reverse culture shock (I’m due) or my undeniably middle-aged status (40!) or my sporadic engagement with social media (an endless yet ephemeral reunion of souls). But again and again, I’ve been feeling that pang of emotion that accompanies vivid remembrance of those who have passed into and out of my life.
How do we reconcile ourselves to the loss of those we have loved? The changed. The hardened. The dead. Those separated from us by time and distance and circumstance—or by our own flawed choices and habits. How do we find peace when this is our terrible and unrelenting reality?
Travelers and expats know this struggle all too well. The gain and loss of human connection is a huge part of the territory. We are always saying goodbye forever. Always. “One time, one meeting,” that old Japanese tea ceremony adage, is keenly felt—constant, and constantly jarring. Of course, it is this very experience that contributes to a unique and broadened view—one much more difficult to achieve when safe in the comforts of origin and home.
Having children forces this perspective too—perhaps at a greater rate and depth. I hadn’t known that. As parents, we cannot help but grasp the raw reality of a human life, its brief and transient nature. Frankly, I think it is much easier to overlook the arc of our own lives than to ignore that of those who are under our continual watch and care. With our children, we bear witness: each day we meet a new version of our child; each day we say goodbye to the child who was. It is both joyful and wrenching, this microcosm of human experience. And, yes—it can seem overwhelming at times, but it has been one of my greatest teachers.
There is no “peace” when it comes to abiding the impermanence of our bonds with others. Not in that blissful, light, happy sense of the word anyway. There is just acceptance of what is and what will never be again. We are grateful for what we have (this moment); we mourn what we have lost (all those moments that came before). There is no neat separation between the positive and negative. Because this is truth. Complex—and blindingly simple.
On those days that I feel the loss most deeply—as a traveler or as a mother or as a human of 40 years—my reconciliation is in practice, in simply being present at the center of a vast river of encounter, this deluge of memory.
All I have known and loved: in every moment I meet your past, present, and future selves—the many versions of you. I hold you in my mind in a wordless embrace; there is nothing to say. My heart is breaking. I am grateful. I am.
You never forget the first time that someone just throws up all over you. Until a few years ago, I would have taken this statement as true. Not universal, of course; I know that some people experienced college, for example, in messy and hard-to-piece-together ways. Still, the gag reflex is a powerful way of marking time.
I know it was Boy, but I no longer know when. A few nights when he was 1 year old all run together for me—we would wake to a horrible sound from his room, something far beyond coughing, and find him sitting up in his crib in the dark, just vomiting all over himself, eyes asking us, What is going on? One of us would scoop him up, trying to calm him down and get him out of his pajamas, and the other would start the hurried and mechanical process of searching for towels, changing sheets, just trying to put things in order. On a good night it happened only once. On a rough one, it might go until morning. He made his way down the list of stomach bugs as if it was a matter of pride.
In each case, a doctor the next day was able to cheerfully point to a chart and show us that this was just another completely routine event in the life of a small person. But no matter how many times a 1-year-old throws up, it still doesn’t make any sense to him. His little body is suddenly and violently completely outside of his control. He’s being turned inside out, probably following minutes or hours of nausea and having no way of communicating it to the only people who might be able to help. Even for me, as an adult, there is no worse feeling. It’s debilitating—it reduces us to the most powerless versions of ourselves.
Boy is 5 now and this nighttime scene is a thing of the distant past; Girl never had these problems, even when she was sick. They’ve both passed that age of being constantly ill, and if they do feel sick, they understand what’s happening and can go hover over the open toilet like the rest of us do. It’s a strange ritual to see played out by someone not even three feet tall. I’m happy for them, and for us, when I see them do it. It’s so clean.
All of this is a long way of pointing to the memory of those sick nights, of the moment just after we’d find him retching in his crib. In every telling, I probably hesitate—there’s always that pause—as my eyes adjust to the dark and take in what is happening, verifying that it’s already too late to make any of it OK. I reach down into the crib to my tiny, vomit-covered boy who is trying to cry but can’t because his body is too busy doing something else, and he reaches back up to me, and I hold him close in the dark as he just barfs all over me, over and over, limp and convulsing and confused. Intimacy is such a beautiful word, and I use it often when I speak of beautiful Buddhist teachings, but the image in my head is of this encounter, of my hand against his heaving back and the hot, slow avalanche running down and into my shirt, the trust and the fear in his little grabbing hands. And later, after he falls back asleep in new pajamas and new sheets, me standing outside the house at 3am with a hose in one hand to wash everything off, waving with the other hand to make the motion-sensitive light stay on long enough to get the job done.
Strangely awake in the jarring, rare clarity of knowing there is really nothing more to be done than this.