Clouds in the Shape of Dragons

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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
turning slowly
in the hand

a stone is a story
turning slowly
in the mind

a story is a stone
turning slowly
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!”

“What?”

“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.”

The Persistence of Landscape

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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.

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Notes from a Year Ago, After Putting Boy to Bed

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Who’s up tonight?
“Um, Wolverine. From the beginning, OK, Papa?”
OK. Wolverine was born a long, long time ago. He’s older than Grandpa’s grandpa.
“Where’s Grandpa’s grandpa now?”
He died.
“Why?”
Because everyone dies.
“I don’t want to die! …Will you die?”
Yes, eventually.
“Why?”
It’s natural. But it’s OK. We enjoy people while they’re alive.
“But why do people die?”
I don’t know.
“How do people die?”
In lots of ways. Sometimes just old age, but sometimes a disease, or an accident. Lots of ways.
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“Papa?”
Yes?
“I’m scared of monsters.”
You don’t need to be. There are no monsters, not in the whole wide world. They’re just a story.
“But where the Powerpuff Girls live, there’s monsters.”
Powerpuff Girls are just a story too.
“I’m scared of the Hulk, though.”
The Hulk is just a story.
“But he comes to Canada, right?”
That’s also just a story. A story I made up for you.
“Are we just a story?”
I don’t think so. But we tell lots of stories.
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“Papa?”
Yes?
“We’re both the same superhero.”
Really?
“Yeah, we both have many arms—soft arms to help people, and hard arms to fight bad guys. Listen!”
…What?
“Someone’s crying.”
Where?
“Somewhere. Stretch your soft arms like this, really wide.”
Like this?
“Now it’s OK.”
Will the person crying feel the soft arms?
“No. It just feels like a blanket.”

Of Trees and Memory

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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.”

An Architecture of Empathy

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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.

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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.

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“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.

“Mama?”

“Yes?”

“The piggies want to go outside.”

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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

an idea

a doorway

a mystery

a universe

              unfolding.

Inside Boy’s Mind

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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.

 

Ichi-go ichi-e

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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.