Of Trees and Memory


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


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

an idea

a doorway

a mystery

a universe


Ichi-go ichi-e


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.


A Small Matter of Consequence


He looks so familiar, I think—a man in his 30s, probably an immigrant from China, angry and talking to himself as he strides down the sidewalk toward me, and away from the scene of another man, also in his 30s but with a dirty-blond beard, driving a bright yellow snowplow violently against a massive mountain of snow. (I say “China” because, after ten years in Japan, I’ve developed an ear for Asian languages. I say “violently” because the driver is jerking the machine powerfully back and forth to clear the evidence of two days worth of Nova Scotia storm.)

When the driver sees me, a white woman, 40, in a fashionable coat, walking toward him with a young boy in tow, he immediately stops and backs his vehicle out of our path. I am grateful for the chance to pass because we are late collecting my daughter from the daycare down the street. Then I see the bus stop and also the bus pulling away from it, and I understand that the courtesy offered to us was most likely given by a man who, a few minutes earlier, had denied it to someone else.

With my son’s hand in mine, I stop and turn to see, in the distance, the man who looks so much like a neighbor and old friend in Japan, his name on the tip of my tongue—still walking stiffly, angrily toward the next accessible bus stop down the road. The other man, the plow driver, now again assaulting snow, continues to clear a path and build a barrier simultaneously. Boy says (has been saying over and over again the whole while), “Mama, Mama! Look—that snowplow is so big and strong!”

I think, I’m late, I’ll say something when we come back this way. Just something so that he will know that I know. The words will come to me as I walk. But then I don’t think of it again (we went home a different way, after all) until much later, when I am tucking Boy into bed, asking about the quality of his day and thinking back on mine, wondering how I could have forgotten that terrible detail, that small errand of conscience.

As I am about to leave his room, Boy asks, “In spring, when the snow is all gone, can I ride my bike?” And this reminds me of a moment in Kumamoto—standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, when a man hit me from behind with his bicycle, the force knocking me into oncoming traffic and him yelling, “Bakana gaijin!” Then the woman with long black hair leaping after me and screaming, “Abunai! Abunai!” She pulled me back, that reflex of human kindness, to the safety of the sidewalk as the man continued to call me names, but (notably) angled away from us, down a different path, shamed by the woman’s pure action.

But—that moment next to the bus stop—how could I have known for sure, for certain? And am I a better or worse mother for not having said or done anything?

Is writing this, now, enough?

And what of the boy who was standing next to me in the snow, awed by the raw power of the machine—and, by extension, the man inside it? “Mama, Mama—look! It’s so strong!” My son. What kind of man will he become?

Comfort Food


When I told a friend, a fellow American, that our family was moving to Canada from Japan, she exclaimed immediately, “Oh—they have a kind of cookie there that I like very much!” This amused me, and then I thought later that this is also how I most often recall places I have been but do not know well. In England, a savory pastry that you can eat with your hands as you walk through the park, trailing crumbs for gray pigeons. In France, pungent red wine (legally!) sipped from a glass in a restaurant when I was barely 12 years old. In Mexico, cheese curds—soft and fresh and salty. In Thailand, a coconut curry.

For Boy and Girl, for the distant place they have been but do not know well, it has always been “in America, big pizza.” (In fact, this became a saying for us about all things large, as in “as big as an American pizza.”) And so later, when Koun and I explained that it was not America but Canada that we were moving “home” to, for some reason our kids began to talk about Canada as the place with the pizza. In this way, our kids created context for a change that was probably otherwise unimaginable—a certain comfort taken in the recollection of a massive circle of dough and tomato sauce and cheese consumed in San Francisco some months earlier.

It must be this connection (food, memory) that causes, for many expats, that pervasive discomfort, that longing for the food of the well-known place. For years and years in Japan, it was my mother’s rhubarb pie that I craved most of all—red stalks from an Alaskan garden in late summer, ample sugar to temper the tartness, the buttery pastry shell holding it together. When I finally came to think of Japanese food as the familiar, I still craved the pie that, when eaten on trips Stateside, always prompted me to say the thing that I first thought an error in translation in Japan: “It’s sweet, BUT good.” I could not stand more than a few bites. My palate had changed, become accented, but my longing had not.

Since moving to Nova Scotia six months ago, I can find nothing in our new home that tastes quite like what I really, really want to eat. Obviously, part of this is that the local cuisine is different, as are the typical grocery store offerings; there is also the overarching fact that I am no longer drawn to those original comfort foods, the muted flavors of the large, carb-centered meals of North America. But there is something else there, too, that I can’t quite put my finger on—a flawed memory drawn from a flawed flavor. And so, every meal is tinged with a kind of dissatisfaction: good, yes, but not quite what I had in mind. I often felt this in Japan, too. It’s my personal, ongoing samsara, perhaps an obvious consequence of always being out of context.

Meanwhile, Boy and Girl—both of whom know the food of Japan to be “normal”—seem to be reasonably satisfied with their somewhat revised diet (perhaps especially the “Canadian pizza”). Sometimes I think, because of their youth, they are simply cultural chameleons, taking on the flavor of whatever place they inhabit, and so my simple theories of food and memory probably do not apply, or do not apply in the same way. Who can say for sure?

A few weeks ago, the four of us happened into a Korean-Japanese restaurant for lunch—mostly out of desperation. We were out running errands, the pita place was closed, and the kids were starting to give off that low whine that means, “Feed us. . . or else.” Inside the restaurant, the offerings were few and overpriced, but we ordered multiple plates of makizushi and watched as our children ate their weight in nori and delicately vinegared rice wrapped around slivers of local yams and cucumber. We’d forgotten how good Boy had gotten with chopsticks, how much he and Girl liked green tea. When it became obvious that we would run out of food, Koun and I stopped eating and transferred our remaining rolls to the kids’ plates. We must have been mistaken, after all, about their chameleon palates. Clearly Japanese food was what they had been craving.

Near the end of the meal, the waitress brought us a complimentary dish to try—julienned carrots and potatoes lightly fried in sesame oil. “It’s from my country, Korea. My mother used to make it for me when I was a child,” she explained. And I immediately replied, “Oh yes, we’ve been there—I love bibimbap!” Boy and Girl, each reaching for another morsel, continued to chew happily, completely comfortable in this meal, in this restaurant surrounded by Korean families who, I can only imagine, were missing a certain flavor and memory, the taste of a distant home. I was still hungry, but watching my children eat in this way, with such pleasure—this was the most satisfied I have felt in a long, long time.

A Story About Language


Boy, who is mere days away from his fifth birthday, begins to throw a tantrum in the library—something to do with both wanting and not wanting to watch a puppet show. The tantrum is really a gale-force storm that takes him over, and I drop to my knees in the center of the room and clutch his whole body tightly, so that neither of us will be injured. Nearly five years old. I thought we were beyond this, I think, and then, “akachangaeri,” the Japanese word for returning to the baby state, the state of innocence. All around us, there are books filled with words that convey stories, and the people walking by interpret (in different ways) this image: a mother clutching a screaming boy so completely that they are a live knot of shuddering, violent emotion.

An hour later, at home, my son discovers a new love of writing, and I am floored for the second time this day. “Teach me words, Mama.” And so we make a game of it, him tracing (with his left hand) the characters I stipple into his sketchpad: b-o-o-k, d-r-a-g-o-n, a-p-p-l-e, b-i-r-t-h-d-a-y. I choose randomly, with no curriculum in mind. If I had been Japanese, if I had been writing in nihongo, I probably would have written verbs.

Then before bed, Boy asks, “What is your job, Mama?” And I explain (again) that it’s something to do with language, but that mostly others teach me. “ABCs, Mama?” And when I nod, he tells me that he has decided to become an artist when he grows up. “I will draw a picture of our family, and I will give it to you because I love you.” I am grateful for this because of the rawness I still feel from that moment in the library—I have been going over and over it all day.

For some reason that night, for the fifth or sixth night in a row, I dream about moving in a classroom between students (mothers and fathers from an inconceivable country), about trying again and again to convince them that the red apple in my hand is represented by the sketch of an apple on the handouts on their desks, and also by the letters on the blackboard that I am asking them to write: a-p-p-l-e. In this way, we struggle with signifier and signified, the idea that an image or some letters could point to a myriad of concepts. Red skin and spongy white flesh and sweetness and juice against the tongue can also be original sin, a single fruit bringing both knowledge and a loss of innocence simultaneously. A d-r-a-g-o-n can be a hoarder of gold or a winged embodiment of realization.

And the promise of a boy’s drawing of his family is really a story that can be read in many different ways.

Bedtime Koans


Nearly every night after a book and then a chat about the day past or the dreams to come, I turn off the light and Boy offers questions that feel like koans—they are that difficult. “Why do people have bones?” or “What is the world?” or “Where do robots come from?”

Tonight it is “How do birds stand in trees?” and I find myself wanting to answer right away, because we really do need to get to the end of the conversation and also because I am the parent and therefore should know certain things. So I say, “Birds stand in trees using their legs and sharp claws, which hold fast to branches or to the deep ridges in bark.”

“No,” replies Boy, “How do birds stand in trees?”

It’s clear that I’ll be here a while longer, because I’ve got it wrong somehow (I always get it wrong somehow)—I’ve misunderstood an essential meaning or finer point of emphasis. Or, possibly, Boy isn’t quite asking what he thinks he’s asking. “Well. . .” I say, slowly turning it over in my mind, what I think he’s really getting at. “They can’t always fly. Even birds must rest sometimes.”

This answer gives Boy pause, and then there is a long, frustrated breath. “No, Mama. How do birds stand in trees?” I realize that he’s using my own over-enunciated patient voice with me, the one I’ve cultivated to get through the more challenging moments with my children.

This time, I aim for a Zen answer because what have I got to lose? I say, “A tree bows before the wind.”

“No, Mama.” Boy’s voice is quieter now, less pointed. “How do birds stand in trees?”

I hold his little hand as his eyes flutter open and shut. “I don’t know, sweetie—let me think about it.”

Boy doesn’t answer, so I sit with him a few minutes longer in the darkness of his room before moving into the blinding light of mine.



My daughter has been ill—feverish, delirious—for two days and this is what I intended to write about here this morning: the tiny girl burning up in my arms while I stroke her hair and tell her, It’s okay. That knot of worry in my gut and also the terrible knowledge that this is the easy hurt, the kind I can soothe, if not fix, with my presence.

But then in the late afternoon of the second day of sickness, a snowstorm blasts Eastern Canada and I learn that the man who, for much of my childhood, served as proxy father—a stepfather—died some months before, in spring. A man I have not spoken to in 16 years.

I think I probably have something to say about this passing, so while my daughter dreams her feverish dreams against me, I try to write it down, the thing that will explain how I feel. Or how I do not ever want my own children to feel. But instead there is just a mess of poisonous narrative that I do not wish to relive. Not on this day, anyway.

And then I realize that the story of my daughter’s suffering in this moment, and my holding her, is not separate from the story of my stepfather and me—the story of karma, because some karma you make and some you are given.

I know that I, too, will fail my children. I fail every day in little ways that I can’t begin to comprehend. All I can do, all anyone can do, is to aim to impart a legacy that empowers, that does not devastate. Or that does not devastate too much.

As a storm rages outside, lives fall into and out of existence. My daughter’s small body stirs and burns with fever in my arms and I tell her,

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

Reverse Culture Shock. . . with Kids


For long-term travelers, the restless truth-seekers, home is the touchstone, the well-worn rock that reminds us from where we came, and in what ways we have changed. But home, with all it contains, changes too; nothing stays the same. For those who are left behind there is that slower, more rooted development—river water reshaping a landscape. This subtlety is especially difficult for the traveler to grasp, because the sense of self has been remade so violently—primarily by staying constantly in the new and present experience—and this is set against the crystallized memory of the past. We can imagine no change as profound as our own metamorphosis. There is this initial illusion of the hero’s return, that familiar narrative, and then a loss of equilibrium when it becomes clear that there is no real touchstone by which to measure the self. There is only flawed memory. And so, for a while, even travelers at home are still traveling because they remain out of context. This is my best understanding of reverse culture shock.

As for the children of travelers, they exist outside of known narrative, within the schism that is the parents’ disequilibrium. As an American parent of young non-Japanese children raised in Japan and now living in Atlantic Canada, I keep trying to apply contexts I know and understand well: a childhood in Alaska, an adult becoming in Japan. But I have no precise experience by which to measure the experience of my children. In Japan, they were “other”—and this was the natural state; in Canada, they easily blend—and this is the new, foreign state. Every day, they are remade: a dam burst, a slow erosion. I feel that I am bearing witness to a process that is just outside my grasp. It is familiar, then it is not; familiar again, then again not. My view is through a camera lens that can’t quite focus.

In writing this I can see that there is another layer here that is really at the heart of it all: the reverse culture shock of simply being a parent. Having children is an almost-but-not-quite return to home, the time and place of our own childhood. That is the touchstone, that flawed memory of our personal narrative, a hero becoming. When the touchstone fails, children remake us violently, completely; because of them, we are often in the unique and present experience—a foreign country embodied in one new human life. Thus we parents are all travelers. Truth finds us wherever we are.

New Snow


1978. Nome, Alaska. A creased photograph of me at age five bundled in a parka with a fur-rimmed hood, snowpants, boots, mittens.  I am perched like a dark bird on a fault of aquamarine ice that juts, dagger-like, from a vast and blinding whiteness, laughing in awe because all around is the violence of the Bering Sea held fast in time—a clenched fist pulled above and behind the shoulder. It is my first winter in Alaska, the idiom of the south still thick on my tongue: ya’ll, UMbrella, YOUston. My mother, outside the photo, holds the camera. My father, in Texas, begins to build a new life.

*   *   *

2010. Anchorage, Alaska. My son, barely a year old, sleeps in a taxi on the way to the airport in the center of night as snow falls. The driver, a cousin (always a cousin) of one of my students at the university, speaks cheerfully in a broken tongue about his mother’s cooking, the flame in his belly for hours after each meal. He says, It is good here. I am grateful. But I miss Peru. The light from the streetlamps refracts against frozen air—a procession of ghosts guiding us to a foreign land.

*   *   *

2012. Takamori, Aso, Japan. My husband offers incense to the Buddha somewhere in the shadows of Ganzōji, the smell and also the sound of sutras drifting to a step where I crouch with my camera. Snow dusts the jagged edges of Nekodake and my children look up into sky, circling and stumbling before ancient stone boddhisattvas and well-tended trees, catching snowflakes that melt at the touch. Soon, the ume will bloom like fire, surrounding the temple. Within a year, we will take a taxi and then a shinkansen and then an airplane to North America.

*   *   *

2013. Nova Scotia, Canada. My four-year-old son pulls my two-year-old daughter on a bright red sled against the first snow of the year as my husband and I follow the imprint of runner and boot. This will be our children’s first real memory of snow that, for a while, settles and stays. Boy pauses on the edge of an idea, shouts: Let’s make yukidaruma! The four of us gather snow, begin to build a new life together.