Offerings

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  • A book of Japanese folk tales, open to the scene of Momotaro’s birth
  • 2 acorns, 1 without a cap
  • Countless brittle brown leaves that shatter at the touch, or breath
  • An oni mask
  • A bruised pomegranate
  • Several pieces of green Alaskan sea glass—jagged bits of beer bottles made smooth by friction and time
  • A fistfull of driveway gravel
  • A small white feather extracted from a borrowed winter comforter
  • 4 pieces of origami sushi, slightly crushed
  • 1 plastic tiger
  • 1 plastic elephant
  • A brand-new pair of ladybug underpants
  • A Hello Kitty bandage, bloodied
  • Boy’s blue ink footprint centered on a square of newspaper
  • The single-pointed concentration of Girl as she slices toy wooden vegetables with a toy wooden knife again and again
  • Me in this moment, with all my past and present karma, watching over her

Razing Tokyo

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My son, standing before me dressed as Tokyo’s epic monster, refuses to speak his first language, Japanese. Koun and I try to engage him again and again, but he balks: “This is Canada. In Canada we speak English or French.” Boy likes rules. Some rules. I want to point out the irony to him—his costume selection, his random-but-unshakable embracing of black-and-white edicts. But I know he’ll just tell me how it is again. Canada. English and French.

This attitude of his puzzles me. He can spend an entire day changing costumes—Godzilla to Batman to tiger to Spider-man to fairy princess to Mr. Fixit to witch (and back again). This is a kid who gets—really gets—the concept of multiple selves. And perhaps that is part of the difficulty. He knows that “self” is all about context.

For a couple of months now, Koun and I have been struggling with this conundrum of how to keep up our kids’ Japanese—especially in the case of Boy, who is so far along linguistically. We’ve tried various ways to keep the language in our lives, but when Boy reacts angrily or even violently, followed inevitably by Girl’s mimicked reflex, it’s hard not to feel that maintaining bilingualism is a punishment, maybe for all of us.

When we first arrived here in Canada, we eagerly planned to join a local Japanese expat group. Our aim was to maintain some connection to the language and culture for our bilingual children, especially—as well as some tangential connection for us. At the first gathering, though, it was obvious that we were gaijin (“outsiders”) there, as we were in Japan, and I got to thinking a lot about how the part of my son that is culturally Japanese recognizes that “different” is not really a desirable status. There he was, fresh off the plane from Kumamoto, yet he spoke not one word of nihongo in a roomful of nihonjin. Something in him must have known. “This is Canada. In Canada we speak English…or French.” Maybe he was just aiming to fit in; maybe he was being Japanese.

I don’t want my son to forget his first language. I love that rich and fascinating part of him that is Japanese, and I believe that having two very, very different linguistic perspectives has the potential to add valuable dimension to his life. I so want that for him. To me, this was the gift we gave our children by living abroad for so many years. It was what I most wanted them to keep. But maybe this is just me, my own ego, my own hopes and dreams. I don’t know.

I will say that I’m not quite yet ready to give up. There are little things, linguistic echoes reminding me that Boy’s Japanese self is still there, beneath the surface. A few days ago, sporting a red cape and well-worn Superman shirt, Boy paused dramatically at the open door of our home and shouted in pitch-perfect katakana English: “Burasutofu!” (“Blast off!”) And away he flew to vanquish, to redeem.

Sleep Is a River

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Kawa. The kanji for “river” is a simple, elegant ideograph comprised of three downward strokes that suggest the flow of water wending its way over a bed of earth and stone. This character is also the configuration of many a sleeping arrangement throughout households in Japan: the father, the mother, and the child nestled between.

We have always slept within arm’s length of our children. But before applauding (or crying foul on) our parenting philosophy, know this: for families with children in Japan, “co-sleep” is more commonly referred to as “sleep.” There are perhaps some subtle cultural reasons for this, but our nightly accommodations have not been so much choice (the American way, the Japanese way) as common sense. While living in Kumamoto without the benefit of central heating or insulated housing, sharing space at night became obvious.

That said, we were initially eager to establish our kids in their bedrooms here in Canada, in our new home. It seemed like good timing. And save for the occasional upset, Boy is now content enough with this different way. Girl, however, appears in our room nightly. We frequently wake to her small form gently snoring between our bodies, and the two of us realize later that we hold no memory of her heroic climb and the conquering of the bed (all of the bed) between us.

As Girl has made a palpable linguistic shift from dominant Japanese to dominant English in the two months since changing countries, so has her sleeping character. Lately, it’s more “H” than “kawa.” Our occasional nightmares of falling may become reality without the grounded security of traditional floor sleeping. Often her heels or head or elbows or knees dig into my body (and dreams). I always sport at least one invisible bruise against the ribs. Needless to say, I am not an overly well-rested Mama.

Still, there is this: At daybreak this morning, I awoke briefly to witness Koun slumbering soundly after a fitful night of Girl. She slept with her nose inches from his, her breath blowing sweetly into his breath, her tiny hands loosely clutching his face.

Girl will learn to sleep through the night in her own room. It will happen; I have no doubt. But it turns out I’m not as eager as I first thought. After all, time is a river, too.

Instructions for Autumn Kinhin

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  1. Never mind the rain.
  1. Never mind the rain.
  1. Open the door and begin with the breath: one slow inhalation of clarifying cool, one slow exhalation of inhabited warmth.
  1. Maintain a natural rhythm of respiration through the scent that catches you with the violence of storm, the sweet rot of foliage taking you to a long-forgotten Alaskan autumn. Girl tugging at your sleeve will bring you back and back and back. The strike of a bell or a baby’s bite at the breast.
  1. As you move away from home, take care in each stride—one foot balances and roots the body to mud and stone, the other defies gravity, propels into possibility.
  1. Do not separate your steady motion from Girl’s unsure gait. Practice together as mother and child, as you’ve done before—Girl rocking in the sea of your womb, and your form seeking a new posture to hold two beings as one.
  1. Stop often to contemplate the potential of puddle and acorn, of the death of leaves. When you do not understand, Girl will guide you.
  1. Hear the infinite shhhhhhh from the singular droplet. Hear the singular droplet out of the infinite shhhhhhh.
  1. Hear Girl ask, “Ame?” for the hundredth of a thousand times. Answer, “Yes—it’s raining.” Speak with sincerity every time.
  1. Notice briefly the tributaries slipping along the topography of your face and also the salt-saturated droplets that pause at the lip and dissolve into absence. Wipe the water from your eyes with the back of your hand, as needed.
  1. Soften your gaze and let it turn to yellow birch and red maple, to damp earth, to the stone glistening in Girl’s open palm.
  1. Allow your chilled hands to rest naturally at your sides, or in your wet pebble-filled pockets. One finger may sometimes be held in Girl’s butterfly grasp.
  1. Remember always to stay with your body, with the breath. Stay also with Girl. There is no deadline or destination.
  1. When necessary, bring your attention to passing cars and large, unleashed dogs.
  1. Abandon persistent thought and narrative. A moment years ago that broke you—let it go. The four or five important things you need to do before bed tonight. Let them go, too.
  1. Notice your compassion for Girl in this moment. Embody it.

Are We There Yet?

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After my husband goes off to work each morning, I spend a good part of the day helping Boy and Girl configure and re-configure empty packing boxes. Sometimes we form shinkansen. Or airplanes. Or taxis. Or boats afloat in sunshine on a sea of grass. But always, the arrangements are variations on a theme: vehicles in motion.

As we’ve just traversed half the globe in our recent move from Japan to Atlantic Canada, it’s really no wonder that our kids are now obsessed with transportation.

I, meanwhile, am also obsessed — not so much with transportation as with this pervasive feeling of being in limbo. Between countries. Of not having yet fully arrived.

There are many tangible signs of this unsettled existence: piles of clothing that smell of an old Japanese house — musty and organic, as if they’ve never known dry air. Stacks of books and documents, in varying states of disorder, take up the corners of rooms; my disassembled bicycle waits in a box behind our only chair. And somewhere between here and the west coast, a room-sized container filled with forgotten items from our previous-previous lives in Alaska — in days or in weeks, it will land on our front lawn, burying us in yet another life lived far away.

We’re trapped in this metaphor. Currently, I am without singular purpose or trajectory, save for a gnawing urgency to take action. To put our house — but, especially, our lives — in order. I need a job. The children need decent daycare. I need to exercise. I need to write. Above all, I must accomplish. Something. Now.

My reaction to all of this has been to multitask. To be here and not here. I shop used furniture on the iPad while stirring soup and telling Girl to be careful on the stairs. I brainstorm career strategies and nod at intervals as Boy tells me all about his favorite real and imagined superheroes. In stolen moments between surfing job postings and fielding e-mail from daycare providers, I check in on Facebook (my daily aizuchi) and am reminded again and again that everyone else has it all together. And when we build those cardboard vehicles, I am far away, preoccupied with my own distant destination.

None of this alleviates my anxiety. It adds to it. If I’m honest with myself — really, really honest — I have to admit that nothing about this feeling is new. It is all too familiar.

Sometimes multitasking is necessary. Maybe. But instinct tells me there is a better way. Today, I pay attention as I build another vehicle to somewhere. Girl sets the first box in motion. Boy calls out the stops. We are always traveling. In each moment, we arrive.

Impermanence

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Moving day. In the last hour before our family embarks on the first leg of our journey halfway across the world, I walk from room to room in our little Japanese house, photographing emptiness.

The bulk of our belongings have been shipped or sold or donated or thrown away, save for one pile of airline-allowable luggage stacked high, a lonely mountain accentuating the absence of (typical) clutter. Boy and Girl dart in and out of spaces made new, laughing and screaming (mostly screaming). Every photo I take is blurry.

The house is clean — as clean as an old Japanese house can be, that is. But as I enter the final room of this one last tour, I sigh. I still can’t quite get over the damaged shoji. Admittedly, I’ve been avoiding the ruined rice paper that, until today, has remained neatly hidden behind innocuous taupe drapes — installed to provide insulation against the extremes of Kyushu’s mushiatsui summers and chilly winters (cue Junichiro Tanizaki’s slow posthumous roll).

I’d meant, for months, to mend this hidden eyesore. I strategized about sandpaper, glue, the properly angled pull of parchment against wood frame. Later, Koun and I started discussing repair shops we’d noticed on the way home from work. But time got ahead of us, as it so often does, and no such heroic efforts were made. The destruction remains.

“Kids — what can you do?” This had been our landlady’s response to our bowed heads and apologies.

She was right, of course. Shoji is no match for temper tantrums, overzealous miniature vehicle play, a newfound love of somersaults. Nor is it a match for Papa, tumbling into it by accident during impromptu sumo battles with Girl. Nor an exhausted and weeping Mama leaning against it at 3 a.m., Boy asleep at her feet, night terrors momentarily vanquished.

As I stand here with my camera in this beautiful and imperfect house, I don’t know what I’m trying to capture, really, and maybe that’s just it: there is no fermata that will hold us, no image that will anchor us to this place and time. The taxi will come. We will get it in. We will leave. Maybe someday, I’ll learn how to let go.

Kneeling in a corner of tatami, I frame the light coming through shredded shoji as Boy wanders in and spots sky behind naked glass. “Hey, Mama,” he says, “look!”

“Don’t move,” I say. “Stay just as you are.”

Leaving Japan

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In a few days, we are leaving Japan. Forever. Again.

I have moved to Japan from the U.S. three times — in 1999, then in 2002, then again in 2010. Rounding up, I will have made my home here for nearly a decade. This surprises me every time I do the math.

It is certainly inconvenient to move back and forth from one’s home country to a foreign land. But I am grateful for the discoveries made in the juxtaposition of two vastly different cultures, discoveries that were afforded me by this pattern of working, living, and being deeply in two places: one culturally comfortable and one not in the least.

Each tour came with its own theme, and each theme has colored my life, and my perceptions, to the core: The first was all about (painfully, joyfully) discovering who I am — and finding that many of my beliefs, behaviors, and desires are a direct result of my own cultural conditioning. The second was dedicated to practice, as well as to cultivating an appreciation for a uniquely Japanese aesthetic, specifically in terms of Koun’s monastic life and my delving into an apprenticeship in pottery.

I have a lot to say about those first two evolutionary experiences (in fact, I wrote a book about the second). But it is the third multilayered theme that has been the most profound: my children, parenting, and what this all means in terms of place.

For me, a sense of belonging completely, of being rooted, to a place has always been somewhat tenuous. I was born in Texas, where most of my family continues to reside, but moved to Alaska when I was nearly 5 years old. Later, I attended universities in Oregon and Washington. When I met Koun, Montana was added to the repertoire of places I knew well and liked. And then came Japan.

Now, when I try to locate “home” in my mind, I can’t quite name it, but I do have a strong visceral pull to towering mountains, to cold, to vast expanses of icy water, to wildness. Perhaps, in my bones, I know that I am of Alaska.

Thus, when it comes to my bilingual/bicultural children, these are my burning questions: What place will they have a longing for? What place will they call home?

Boy is 4-going-on-5 — the same age at which I left Texas, a place I feel almost no real connection to now. I wonder if my son’s experience will mirror mine, if he will let go of Japan entirely and embrace the new as his own. And Girl, now 2, was born here. Will she remember her birthplace at all? Will my children forget entirely a language and a culture that is so much an integral part of who they are now?

Add to the mix that we are moving to the east coast of Canada. For all of us, it is a new country and a new ocean. I know that it is not Japan, but it is also not the U.S. I cannot presume that it is exactly like any place that I know well. (I will say, though, that Nova Scotia, a province I have only visited through photographs, looks an awful lot like home to me. There’s a rightness in how sea meets rock, in the snowscapes of winter, in that verdant summer terrain.)

I can’t know what will happen, but here’s what I do know: At present, my children are Japanese. And they are American. It is — and will continue to be — hard for others to comprehend this. (Sometimes, it is hard for me to comprehend it, as is the fact that Koun and I are no longer “simply American,” either.) All of us will be shaped by where we move next. Some things will fall away, and some things will remain. We’ll make a home out of what remains.

Being Practice

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Sai-sho-wa-gu, jan-ken-pon.” Girl repeats the words to “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in perfect rhythmic Japanese as she busies about our kitchen, transferring magnetic alphabet letters from bowl to fridge and back again. She drops a letter, which skitters beneath my feet, and I pick it up and pass it to her. “A-ga-to,” she says, dropping the “ri” in her emphatic toddlerese, and bows deeply as she receives the letter with two hands.

Her birthday was just a couple weeks ago, and I can’t believe my youngest child is already 2. Or that, in this single moment, she reveals layer upon layer of deep Japanese cultural training: the ubiquitous game of chance used to decide everything from schoolyard to corporate dealings, the ever-important verbal offering of gratitude, the two hands of focused attention, and of course the respectful bow closing an exchange. Only her blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair suggest non-Japanese origins.

For me, the viewer, the outsider, I tend to see her actions through an ethnographer’s lens, as so much of what she does is not grounded in my own cultural experience. Maybe, even, I notice more because her actions are often — though not always — foreign. But then again, I am also simply a parent, and perhaps mothers and fathers can’t help but to be fascinated by their own children. And also: maybe a parent is an ethnographer of sorts — one that has let go of the Prime Directive for the sake of a different set of ethics.

Either way — parent or ethnographer — here’s what I’ve noticed lately: through constant practice, Girl is learning how to be.

Monsoon Weekend

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It’s the rainy season in Japan. Sometimes you see the storm coming, sometimes you don’t. But you know you’re bound to get soaked at some point. That goes for tantrums, too.

This past Sunday afternoon was one of those real doozies. It was raining hard, and all 4 of us were headed home in the car when Boy announced his need to go to the potty. “We’re almost there — just hold it 5 more minutes.” A low whine ensued, which we took to mean “possible emergency,” so Koun pulled into the nearest convenience store parking lot. Boy and I jumped out and ran through the deluge for the door, rendering us wet to the skin. After he did his business, Boy wanted to hang out and play with the buttons on the high-tech Japanese toilet. I didn’t let him. He knows he’s not allowed to do this. (The last time the kids played with the buttons, Koun got sprayed in the face by a bidet. We have rules for a reason.)

Boy then flipped out. Completely.

What happened? And how many times have I asked myself this over the course of my 4 years as Somebody’s Mama?

Girl, 2, generally produces the textbook variety freak-out. It goes like this: Mama or Papa firmly says “No” in response to a request (for the supersharp paring knife that Papa is using to slice daikon and carrots, for instance) or to an action (like climbing, ninja-style, up the bookcases). Girl then shrieks like a banshee, falls to her knees and pounds forehead and fists into tatami, her face turning a perfect tomato red. If she’s really going for it, this progresses: she then rolls onto her back, and proceeds to lift legs and arms, simultaneously dropping all limbs with a thunderous thump, thump, thump. It is crazyloud and, oddly, adorable. In 5 or 10 minutes, the storm passes and out comes the sunshine.

Boy, in contrast, has exhibited a more complicated and varied tantrum style — and they do not last a mere 5 minutes. Until just before he turned 2, it all seemed to be pretty typical, but even then, there were hints of what was to come. First of all, something in the quality of Boy’s voice or posture in the morning always let us know right off that it was going to be one of those days. There would be no getting out of it.

Shortly after turning 2, his tantrums became a whole-body endeavor — hurling himself at walls, objects, people, all with zero concern for his own person. The delicate paper shoji in his room bear the mark of this time, as does my (graying) hair.

And then, not long after that, the night terrors began — Boy waking at 2 or 3 a.m. and screaming and flailing and speaking eerily to no one in particular. Though technically not a tantrum, the behavior was virtually the same. We had a hard time telling the difference, in fact, until we realized that Boy dreams in his first language, Japanese — thus nightly utterances point to whether or not he is awake. Either way, the most effective response seemed to be the same: we sat with him (but refrained from touching him), until it passed and he slumped back into sleep.

At 4, things are considerably better with Boy. But when they are not, it can be particularly hard to bear. We’ve come so far, and yet too many days end with Koun and I sitting together in the evening, re-hashing where things went awry, establishing what we should try the next time it all goes pear-shaped, and, ultimately, puzzling over our inadequacies as parents.

One thing we know for sure: Boy can smell stress or a mood on me or Koun — maybe even before we can. It’s uncanny. And he’s tuned in to slights that we can’t always grasp. He’s that barking dog before an earthquake. He’s that little yellow canary in the cave. He’s me as a sensitive young child, without a doubt, and yet I still don’t get it right.

(Not that he’s just soaking it all up, either. Boy makes his own weather all the time. And it can turn in an instant — for the worse, or for the better.)

So where did we go wrong this past weekend? In my view, those two days were all about positive family togetherness. Saturday, Boy and Girl seemed to do well enough with “sharing play” at home — toy trains, painting, and MamaPapa sumo. And Sunday, we all hung out at an indoor playground with friends. We kept it active, varied, populated, fun. What more can you want on a monsoon weekend?

To be fair, there was another layer to our weekend: ruthless clutter-reduction and cleaning. We’re leaving Japan at the start of August — moving to Nova Scotia, a world away. I’m grateful for new opportunities, and heartbroken to be leaving. It’s a complicated mix of emotions. Tossing out old, worn items feels too much like tossing out memories (it’s not, but it feels like it). When I got to his room, Boy wouldn’t let me throw away even one broken toy. So we put it all back, to be attended to when the kids are at daycare.

Sunday, after that incident at the convenience store, I made a favorite snack to lighten the mood. Girl spooned happily into her mango smoothie. Boy, meanwhile, drank the whole thing in one gulp and proceeded to pout angrily into his cup, his face darkening. Again. “I want MORE!”

“Sweetheart — ” I felt myself bracing. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to feel angry or resentful — I know, as Someone’s Mama, I’m not supposed to feel that way — but I do sometimes, and I always simultaneously feel like a horrible, horrible person.

I thought, What more can I give you, child? What will make you happy? Don’t you know that your happiness is all I want in the Whole Wide World? Then I swallowed it all, my thoughts and my anger and the last of my mango, and sat down next to Boy. “How about a walk? Should we have Mama-and-Boy time — just you and me?” Suddenly, the darkness vanished from his face. “Yes!”

It was drizzling a little as we stepped outside, but Boy didn’t want his rubber boots and raincoat. So I skipped mine, too. We bought a bottle of green tea from a vending machine to share, and hiked the nature trail next to our house as the rain soaked us for the second time that day. We stomped in a lot of puddles. We listened to water trickling through leaves beneath a canopy of bamboo. We collected stones and pieces of rotting wood. We got crazy muddy.

I don’t know if this was the best way to stop the storm. Honestly, I think it’s dumb luck, because it won’t be the right answer the next time around. It’s never that simple. But I do know Boy had a good day, in the end. And so did I.

Eat, Pee, Sleep

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It’s Saturday morning, breakfast. Boy announces that he wants water, not milk, with his natto-and-eggs scramble. A minute ago — before Papa had poured the milk into one of Boy’s beloved train-themed cups — he made the exact opposite request. It’s the fifth water-milk reversal in succession, and frankly, it’s starting to grate.

“That’s bananas,” sighs Papa, and he tells Boy to drink what’s in front of him. A slow, steady, high-pitched whine ensues, getting louder by the second.

Meanwhile, Girl just heard her favorite food mentioned by name. And she wants some. Right now. She bounces on her bottom in the highchair — the thump, thump, thump punctuating each angry syllable: “Na-na! Na-na! Na-na!”

An all-purpose parental “no” — delivered textbook calmly-but-firmly to both Boy and Girl — results in an apocalyptic explosion that can surely be heard throughout our normally serene neighborhood, which is mostly populated by elderly Japanese. I imagine a collective setting-down of rice bowls and tea cups, heads swiveling toward the verbal violence emanating from our thin-walled house. Eyebrows raise ever so slightly, as cell phones are fished out of purses and jinbei pockets. Just in case.

I know what the neighbors are thinking. “What is wrong with those crazy Americans?” They must be thinking this. After all, no other children in the whole wide world behave as ours do. We are the worst parents ever.

Wait. Did I mention that we’ve all been up since 5-something a.m. because both Boy and Girl spontaneously awoke at the first light of dawn? And refused to fall back into blissful slumber? Did I really forget to mention that? Consider this fact mentioned.

And while we’re talking sleep, I should also say that very little of this was had for any of us last night. Why? Because Boy’s pillow was “too hot.” Yes, that’s right. I guess that’s a thing now with the 4-and-under set. Hot pillows. Somebody really should do something about that.

One more thing: Our 2-year-old girl managed to urinate her full body weight while she was sleeping. Her diaper was somehow dry. But the futon will never be the same. It’s a wonder that she doesn’t look like a little shriveled-up pink balloon.

Forget Eat, Pray, Love — I want Eat, Pee, Sleep. Not for us, because I’m tired of judgy parenting guides: “Do this — it works! Really! If it doesn’t, try harder — because YOU ARE CLEARLY DOING SOMETHING WRONG.” Screw that. I want something for my kids to download, Matrix-style, into their sweet little brains. They will step away from the training, do a cool move with their chopsticks, and proclaim, “Now I can eat without getting sticky rice in my hair.” Or, “I will not turn around to ask you a question while I’m peeing.” Or, “Gosh, I could really go for a nap.”

That’s available, right? Surely there’s an app for that.

Blue Ink, Ice

As a teenager in Alaska, I wrote out my misery on winter ice with a teacher’s blue overhead pen. Come spring, the words melted and fed birch, moss, new ferns, raspberry brambles. In other seasons, I relied on pen and paper to exorcise my demons, burying those telling scraps in earth or garbage or flame. I needed the ritual. It purified me.

In my early 20s, I was accepted to an MFA creative writing program and discovered the concept of audience. This was heady stuff. But still, at that time and for many years after, I honored the instinct to write mostly because it was the solitude at the center of storm. And though I eventually overcame the trauma of child-becoming-adult, I have never ceased to find profound pleasure in the hard work of putting down words.

When I was 34, I was offered my first book deal. This, from what I came to know in my MFA program, was arriving. With published book in hand, my degree would be legitimized. I imagined myself embracing the writing life fully — taking long walks in lush greenery, and returning home to pen abundant, saleable ideas. Or accepting a tenured creative writing position at some small, but prestigious university, where I would let my hair grow very, very long (streaked with gray, as I aged, of course), wear bright flowing clothing and, perhaps, add a tasteful piercing to my face. Or lunching with my favorite author, Michael Ondaatje, and knowing the perfect writerly thing to say (Sir, as for the knife and carrots, you and I both know it’s really about the music).

A short while later, I became pregnant with our first child, and this added to my joy — I thought of my book and the child blooming within as two great “firsts” of my creative life success story: authentic author, nurturing mother.

A professor in the MFA program generously offered to review the terms of the book deal. He found them agreeable.  As I had not yet signed an official contract, I wondered if I should pursue a bigger publishing house. I thought about the things I would like to buy for my child. I thought more about my career.

As weeks and months passed, I revised chapters and sent them on to the publisher, and was rewarded with eloquent praise, if not a finalized contract. A famous author in the same genre deemed my writing worthy, and I bought a good number of his books, wondering what it was, exactly, that he saw in my work. I was not used to all of the attention.

And then, early in my second trimester, I nearly miscarried. There was an emergency surgery, and I was assigned total bed rest at the hospital for the duration of my pregnancy. Because I was not allowed to lift any part of my body that would put pressure on the abdomen, the mechanics of typing or even writing by hand were awkward, and painful. Well-meaning friends told me of brilliant authors who had composed award-winning novels in conditions similar to my own. I felt that I had failed both my unborn child and my art.

In December, on the day of Buddha’s enlightenment, I turned 35.  Soon after, the publisher sent an apologetic letter — there had been the September stock market crash, after all. I cried while Koun held my hand. Well that’s that, I thought, and I gave up writing to become a mother.

When my son was born in February, healthy and full-term, I was grateful for all that I was able to keep.

I now have two children. Boy, 4, and Girl, nearly 2. Like most parents of young children, Koun and I lead hectic lives between work and home. Both are rewarding. But we have little support here in Japan, and sometimes, we struggle. We rarely find time to focus on ourselves, or on each other. It is not an unusual story.

In the past year or so, though, I’ve come to see that I need to be a writer again — to find that quiet, pleasurable, challenging, invigorating space — for myself, but also because it is good parenting practice. I want my children to encounter their creative mama every day, and that is something that I must work to cultivate. I want to become my best self, and I know that, for instance, when I am writing consistently, my focus expands, my humor improves, I feel softer and more open to whatever comes. My writer’s eyes, in a way that is different from my ordinary eyes, find beauty and poignancy in unexpected places — in the well-tended Jizō along my bike route to work each morning, in my son’s new-found love of superhero poses, in changing my daughter’s diaper at 3 a.m.

I want, in some small way, for this blog to be an offering — to myself, to my children, to all beings. I may never become an author of note. I may never publish anything ever again. But now I get it. That’s not the point. It never was. Blue ink, ice — just this.

Potty Zen

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Bring it.

Now that my second child, Girl, is nearing two years of age, this is exactly what I’m thinking in terms of potty training. Just. Effing. Bring. It. I have seen it all; I am prepared for anything.

With Boy, Koun and I thought he should be ready for this particular milestone pretty early on. The conversation went a lot like this:

“So, when do we potty train?”

“I don’t know — around six months?”

“Gosh, that seems like a long time to wait. Surely it’s sooner than that?”

(OK, bear in mind, neither of us had had, well, any prior experience with babies. We also hadn’t slept in three weeks.)

Then we discovered a vast body of parenting literature that advocated for everything from “right away” (really?!) to “whenever the child expresses readiness — at least by around five years of age.” FIVE YEARS OF AGE? I will be practically old by then, I thought. (Sigh, that was over four years ago.)

So we (sort of) split the difference and began our potty-training efforts just after Boy’s first birthday — if “started” is the right word. We ordered Elmo’s Potty Time from the States and proceeded to watch it on and off with Boy, ignoring the AAP declaration that screens be banned “for all children under two.” (Yes, I was riddled with guilt — the experts nowadays seem to advocate a constant state of this. Just have a look at some popular child-rearing books, or pay attention to the various pediatric organizations. Rest assured, parents, you’re basically doing everything wrong. More on that later. . .)

And then we bought an overpriced Anpanman potty from our local Toys R Us. We let Boy pick it out — naturally he gravitated to Japan’s cutest toddler-sized superhero. The potty was AWESOME, a convertible number that could be used on the big toilet, or as a stand-alone. There was a bright pee-colored cloth seat cover — perfect for the cold winter months. And three buttons on the jolly bean-filled-breadbun-inspired face played the cartoon theme song and adorable catch phrases — great for entertaining the child while he waited for that “gotta-go” feeling to overtake him.

Once we got it home, Boy did not like the potty — at least not for using it as it was intended. He LOVED playing with the thing, though, dragging it around the tatami and pushing at those buttons over and over. (That is probably the single loudest toilet I’ll ever encounter — though, this is Japan. The birthplace of the Toto Otohime, or “Sound Princess.” So, you never know.)

Sometime after that, for a brief period, bathing with our son in our Japanese-style shower/bath became an adventure in defecation — not, Will he or won’t he?  But, How big? And, Where? We swore off family onsen for the time being. It was not long after that when we all contracted norovirus, the intestinal bane of cruiseships. We found ourselves —  Koun and me — hooked up to IVs for a couple of days, and then Boy for a full week. (I will not write the full description of how we wound up in this predicament. But know that it was ugly. So very ugly.)

As he moved toward the ripe old age of two, Boy still hadn’t gotten the hang of it, and we wondered if potty training —  much like language learning —  has an optimal window, and we’d missed it. Completely. Our child would never be fluent, and we’d be out millions in diapers.

We started blaming the potty. So we bought another one. And then another one. We had a real collection going there for a while: A putty-colored stand-alone with handlebars, just like the potties used at our kids’ daycare. A convertible ladder-type dealio in primary colors. A plush Lilo & Stitch toilet topper for itty-bitty bums. Boy rejected all of them, in the end deciding that he preferred sitting on the “big people’s potty,” just like Mama and Papa.

We began talking about all things toilet with Boy, mostly as a way to get him excited about using the potty. And for the first time in my near-decade of living in Japan, I began to appreciate the weirdly adorable poop cartoons in public toilets politely requesting patrons to keep things neat and tidy. (Unko-san goods, in case you were wondering, are also widely available for purchase here in Japan — the perfect gift for all ages!)

When Boy was about three, we introduced the “Potty Present Box.” Perhaps the name explains it all — make a deposit in the toilet, get a present from the box. It seemed like a good idea. We had some success, but then we started getting re-gifted for our own good works.

Lately, Boy has it all under control, but his humor has turned to the profane: unchi and oshikko (“poop” and “pee”) punctuate many (most) of his sentences. It comes up a lot at the dinner table. We have only ourselves to blame.

Meanwhile, Girl has become fascinated with the potty — ONLY the big one, of course. She has taken to announcing her desire to “pee-pee,” stripping completely naked, asking pointedly for company, then sitting cheerily on the toilet for a very, very, very (very) long time. She does not urinate into the bowl. But I think she’s getting the alphabet song down pat.

I used to have a shy bladder. I’ll admit it. I didn’t especially enjoy using the potty in the company of others—and I certainly never did so in front of others, as a kind of display. Now, each W.C. visit is social, and a teaching moment. How many times in the past couple years have I sat on a toilet with a child sitting on my knees, or holding my hands while singing the full Totoro soundtrack, or sliding the lock open while I clutch to no avail at both child and door? Too. Many. Times.

Sometimes, this communal business really does go too far. To illustrate: While visiting California’s illustrious Stanford University this past summer, Boy and I felt the call and we quickly located a public bathroom. I have no doubt that my son’s loud assertion deeply traumatized those in the neighboring stalls: “Mama, you pee out of your butt!” Thanks, Boy. You keep me humble.

I have to say that, overall, I’ve learned a lot from this particular journey with my kids. For instance, I learned that it’s possible to pee on one’s own face — in fact, it’s a likelihood for boys. It’s also possible to fall into a (poo-filled) toilet, even if one appears too big physically for this to happen.

My biggest take-away, though, is that there is very little that Koun and I can control in this process. We can’t force it; we just need to create opportunities for practice and be prepared (with wet wipes) for anything to come.

So go ahead, Girl, show me what you’ve got.

Karma 2.0: An Open Letter to Facebook

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Dear Facebook,

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to understand you. Desperately. You have become my burning question — as a teacher, as a mother, as a human ever entwined in the vast web of technology.

When I first joined your user ranks in 2009, I quickly denounced you as “shallow,” as the traumatic pregnancy and then joyful birth of my first child garnered many (many, many) fewer “likes” than, say, the reported online gaming scores of my various FB friends.

Later, you broke my heart again and again by offering two “suggested friends” — one an acquaintance and one a dear friend of many years — who both died too young and suddenly, tragically.

I began to think a lot about branding and marketing — how, in simpler times, we were not required to consider ourselves to be commodities. Now, we protect the brand and build recognition. And this instinct, protection, is probably the right one when so much is at stake — careers, relationships, futures.

FB, who am I to you? Your algorithms may point to a handful of my hopes and dreams, my base human desires. But do you really know my mind? The quality of my character?

How have you distilled my real, complex human life into posts and a “timeline”? We are so easily tricked by advertising — compelling stories, essentially. Yours is an advertising campaign of the ego, purporting to tell the full story of our lives. But often (not always) the heartbreak and struggles are missing. We’re really just supposed to keep it happy, aren’t we?

We use you to craft our personalities and in doing so, you use us. We know this. But we are natural voyeurs, and egoists. We keep showing; we do not look away.

I know that you will evolve, sooner rather than later, and that we will evolve, too — our local and global cultures, our habits, our patterns of thought. Yes, even our bodies will bear the mark of your influence.

What does this mean for the future? For our children? Even now, my toddler presses her thumb against images in her picture books, screaming with rage when they do not react to her touch. (How did she learn this? What happened? One seemingly innocuous app transformed my child into a mini-cyborg, flicking through photos as if my iPhone were simply an extension of her body.) And worse: I see this and think, Should I post a picture of her cute distress?

What unforeseen challenges will you gift Boy and Girl in 10 years, or 15, when unbridled social drama and new sexuality will rule their hearts? (True, you’ll have a different name by then, and a different form. This does not comfort me in the least.) This is at the heart of my burning question — how do I parent through the inconceivable?

I am discovering you in every post — your vast potential for confession, creation, forgiveness, obsession, activism, journalism, collection, distraction (a lot of distraction). We consume and are consumed by your randomness.

At best, you allow us to easily connect with people across great distance — real or perceived — even though their political or religious affiliations, their socioeconomic classes, their ideologies may vastly differ from our own.

At worst, you polarize and isolate further by encouraging a “with-us-or-against-us” mindset. After all, we like being on teams. Black and white is easy; gray takes something grittier, more tangible.

Frankly, I see no great depth of dialogue here. And yet, I stay.

I am beginning, slowly, to see you as a vehicle for aizuchi — a sound or set comment in Japanese that means, simply, “I heard you — I’m listening.” Perhaps this is shallow. But I also see it as deeply humanizing and good-hearted. This, for me, may be the saving grace of you.

As I scroll through your collage of word and image — photos of puppies, babies, puppies and babies; laments about the weather and work; Japanese karaoke ads; political cartoons; fake Buddha quotations; movie character memes; pictures of new homes and fabulous vacations — I think,

Friends, I hear you — I’m listening.

Yours for now,

Tracy

P.S. I thought you might like this photo of a big banana.

The Weight of Earth and Water

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Rikuzentakata. My dream is always the same: A stoic three-story Japanese government building, an expanse of windows reflecting sunlight, clouds, a single seabird tracing across the sky. And then the perspective shifts — I am inside looking out into that blindingly bright afternoon. There is the familiar smell of stale cigarette smoke and paper. I sense others around me, leaning as one into the light coming in from the windows. Breath held in collective pause, no one speaks as sirens wail. I lift my hand, press it against cold glass. A sound — complete and eternal, all swallowed together into one singular moment.

*   *   *

We were driving home to Kumamoto from Nagasaki when the massive earthquake brought the tsunami and the devastating nuclear disaster to Tohoku on March 11, 2011. It was naptime, and Boy slept deeply in his seat as Koun steered our little car past quiet coastal towns, scorched rice fields, country temples, vast urban landscapes, hills and valleys of vegetation on the verge of eruption. My mother was with us — her first trip to Japan — and I was four months pregnant with Girl. At 2:46 p.m. the earth broke beneath the Pacific Ocean, moving the island of Honshu 8 feet east and shifting our planet’s axis 10 inches. We felt nothing.

That evening, we started noticing the messages on e-mail and Facebook — inquiries about our safety, requests for information on the whereabouts of friends traveling in or living in Japan. One thread — about Monty Dickson — caught me. Monty had been Koun’s student at the University of Alaska, and I had met him once or twice on campus. I remembered him well because his head was shaved, like a monk, and his Japanese was impossibly good. A teacher in the JET program, he had last spoken to his fiancée by phone as he was being evacuated to City Hall from the school where he worked. “He’s very welcome to contact us,” I wrote to someone, and gave our telephone number. I could only imagine him to be safe.

It was a day or two before we really began to comprehend the Internet reports of the triple disaster. We read that in Honshu, the U.S. Embassy was chartering flights for Americans to leave the country. We began to wonder if we should leave, too.

I went to work to plan my classes for the upcoming school year, but instead sat for hours watching the foreign news in the university student lounge. The images were devastating— a great tide of water lifting bodies, cars, fishing boats, roofs of houses; and the battered reactors of Fukushima venting clouds of poison into the air. Officials bowed and apologized. I sat in the lounge on a hard chair, rubbing my belly, my back aching, thinking of Boy, and of our unborn child.

In the weeks following the disasters, bottled water and batteries disappeared from store shelves, as these and other resources were shipped north. We were warned of rolling blackouts to maintain the power grid. Monks did takuhatsu along the shopping arcade in Kumamoto, their begging bowls in hand as they chanted. Koun did takuhatsu, too, pulling on long white shin and arm coverings and hiking up his black robes to his knees. A series of lectures he’d been scheduled to give at the monastery in Nagasaki was turned into an event for raising relief funds. Everywhere, signs with Ganbare Nippon! (“You can do it, Japan!”) competed with the usual advertising clamor. Hanami parties were cancelled across Japan – for the first time, I imagine, no families picnicked beneath the ubiquitous cherry blossoms that bloomed and fell away with rain. My bad dreams began and did not go away.

We live on Kyushu Island – same Japan, but a world away from the nuclear disaster that occurred in northern Honshu. Still, Koun and I started thinking a lot about movement: the flow of ground water, ocean currents, weather patterns, the distribution of fresh and processed food throughout Japan. I told him not to drink the water when he traveled to Tokyo, and we selected only local, fresh foods for our meals.

Late in June, I gave birth to Girl. Healthy and perfect, but born into a world with a future we couldn’t yet know, Girl made me grateful. From her arrival until late September, we were bound together, mother and newborn. I slept with my arms curled around her delicate body at night, smelling that sweet, dewy scent. During the days, I put her to breast while sitting on our low couch with my feet propped up on a zafu, this small Zen sacrilege.

When I returned to teaching in late September, a friend at work told me her story of volunteering in Tohoku, how the local survivors put on a festival in Rikuzentakata out of nothing, forming floats from bamboo and found paper. “They were criticized for this, but they said they needed to celebrate something.”

Early in December, radioactive cesium was found in Meiji baby formula. A rush on formula from foreign distributors ensued, and we put in an order to be shipped from overseas just in case. Every three hours at work, I frantically expressed my milk with a machine, always worried that it would not be enough to maintain my supply.

A year ago or more, the Japanese government began pressuring prefectures to accept rubble from the devastated area. “We all must share this terrible burden,” they said, and still say. The radioactive garbage is shipped off to every corner of Japan and awaits burning in piles covered with blue tarps, the smoke from the fires mingling with air. The contaminated ash is buried in the earth. The damaged nuclear reactors of Fukushima continue to poison earth, sea, and sky.

Last October, Koun visited the local monastery to interpret lectures on suicide, the disasters, and zazen for some foreign monks. An organic tea farmer in Kikuchi told the little-known story of an exodus of cultural creatives from Tohoku moving to Kyushu, refugees who hold transient farmers’ markets to sustain themselves in their new lives, far from their devastated homes. “This will change Japan forever — the culture, everything.”

In April 2011, a month after the disasters, Monty’s body was found more than a kilometer from the Rikuzentakata City Hall. I read about him in the local news, and then in the Alaska press. I don’t know why, but I read his story again and again. We knew, and know, so many of the same people, and even today, a photograph of his bicycle — his Facebook profile — appears on the network, recommending him as a “friend.”

Now, as debris from the disaster arrives on the shores of the U.S., poignant photos circulate — in Oregon, the arch from a red Shinto torii stretched out in the sand; in Alaska, a soccer ball; in Hawaii, a fishing skiff; in Washington, a dock. I fear that people view these photos only as curiosities or as elegy, tributes to the fallen. And they are both of these things, yes — a testament to the flow of water across great distance, a cross by the side of the road. But the repercussions from this disaster have yet to be measured. This narrative will expand deep into the future, far beyond our possible imaginings. We all carry the weight of it.

As for Monty, I can’t stop thinking about him, or my dream of his passing. Sometimes, I come across a new detail about that day, and this feels important, as if it will help me to understand the incomprehensible. Last week, I learned that at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, it was snowing in Rikuzentakata.

*   *   *

If you are interested in reading more about Japan’s triple disaster, I recommend Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami.

Hell Realms

(With apologies to Bernie Glassman)

Before I was old enough to remember, I was given a hand-made marionette — a clown — that my mother displayed on the wall of my bedroom. I do not know who gave it to me. But I do know that adults viewed it as a thing of quality and, if not great beauty, at least great craftsmanship.

In the daylight, I could see its merits — it had a certain charm, and I thought that, when I grew more skilled with my own limbs, I might like to know how to make that wooden body (with real silk polka-dot jumpsuit and matching hat!) move with the precision of a live person.

But at night, the little clown haunted me. It radiated a kind of psychic ill-will that could not be fended off with any of the usual talismans: a selection of stuffed animals tucked under the covers and against my body just so.

Sometimes, the hall light illuminated my room enough so that I could make out a shadowy figure against the monochrome wall. Staying awake as long as I could, I watched intently for movement that never came. This anticipation was pure terror. Other times, it was too dark to see anything at all. This was considerably worse.

I never told my mother how I felt about the marionette. I never once said, “Hey, this thing scares the &$#@ out of me” or “I do not like this horrible toy — please take it away.” It never even occurred to me that I could have any power over my nighttime circumstances. It was just my lot in life to be a child with a possibly (absolutely) evil clown doll hanging on the wall.

And so, the blind spot was both mine and my mother’s — she did not notice; I did not point out. I was held fast in nightly torment.

Like many children, my nighttime fears blossomed into full, complex worlds that did not dissipate for years to come. Perhaps unlike other children, my fears had a carefully hand-painted face and teeny-tiny red pompoms for buttons.

Eventually, we moved out of that house and somehow the marionette became lost. I remember there was speculation that one or two of the packing boxes had mysteriously disappeared. I was grateful for this. Still, my fear of the dark remained for years, and I have never enjoyed the company of clowns.

Sometimes I wonder what nightmare realms my children will encounter. Some I can guess, perhaps. Closets. Strange shadows. Darkness. And the space under the bed (if we ever own beds — we sleep on the floor now, Japanese style). I’m okay with what I can anticipate, the obvious things, those lesser hells I’ve known and escaped.

Other things, though. . . those are the things I’m really afraid of. The things my children won’t — or can’t — tell me.

I Have Always Known You

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I remember the moment when the thread between me and Boy first broke.

My belly was large and round with my second pregnancy, and I was sitting in seiza like a monk in our Japanese-style bathing area. Boy sat with his back to my belly, the top of my thighs forming a chair for his tiny body. My left hand pressed his chest, holding him firmly to me while I rinsed the soap from his pale skin with the showerhead.

Suddenly, he slipped forward off my legs and onto the floor mat. This had never happened before.

“Mama! Your ponpon!” he screamed. Ponpon is belly, and it was too big now. He cried inconsolably while I lifted him, rinsed away the remaining soap, turned off the water, wrapped him up snug in a towel, and passed him to his father’s open arms.

It seemed he did not come back to me until after Girl’s first birthday.

* * *

In the beginning, my first pregnancy had been fun, a curiosity: I’d call Koun — we were living in Alaska then — and tell him how I’d cried at a car commercial. I marveled at my appetites, my sudden, almost violent tiredness. I vowed to be a “fit mama” — keeping up a routine of (gentle) yoga and five-mile-a-day hikes along the Coastal Trail. I soon bought a wardrobe of cute pregnancy clothes, stuffing a rolled-up sweater into the space where my belly would inevitably fill out. We even bought a cheap maternity microphone set “for baby’s first sounds!”

Early in my second trimester — it was mid-October and I was barely showing yet — I started bleeding in the middle of the night. Profusely. Still, I did not believe anything was really wrong.

We drove dutifully to the hospital, and the doctor explained that I had two choices: Go into surgery immediately and then live out the remainder of my pregnancy flat on my back in a hospital bed, or go home and wait to miscarry. Either way, we were likely to lose him. The room spun. I vomited onto the floor, and then signed the necessary paperwork.

There was no real pain at first after I awoke from the surgery, my cervix stitched and tied fast. There was just a dull, deep ache. Later, there was more pain, and it was real. I was not allowed to lift my head, or any part of my body that would result in pressure at the core. A baby monitor was strapped to my belly, and a nurse monitored it every 30 minutes, waking me at intervals throughout the night.

I came to hate that monitor, and the constant drama that came with it. It seemed that every nurse wanted to show great care, and so they declared my child’s heartbeats as either “too fast” or “too slow.” “Roll over to wake him,” they would say or, “Something’s not right—he’s much too active.” In the first few days I appreciated this diligence, this concern, but later I did not.

Eating, drinking, eliminating — these brought both pain and frustration, as each action had to be accomplished while lying on my back.

By the third week I had oozing bedsores along my backbone and thighs, a reaction to the strong detergents used to wash the sheets. I developed gestational diabetes from lack of movement, my blood sugar skyrocketing with rice, bread, fruit. When I was finally allowed to angle up the head of my bed for a few minutes each day at mealtimes, each bite of food had become a source of renewed guilt and fear —  Was I eating too much or not enough? Would my numbers be too high? What would this do to the baby?

Nearly every day was the same: meals, blood tests, heartbeat assessments, a daily greeting from the on-duty doctor. A nurse came to change the bedding in the morning, slowly rolling me from one side to the next to peel away the old and re-fit the new. In the evening, one nurse came to wipe down my body. She did this methodically, fast. I marveled at how quickly I stopped caring about my dignity.

My belly grew and time expanded outward, infinitely. I was always afraid.

During the days, my mother came and brushed my long, matted hair. Friends brought books, Zen teachings on audio, a knitting project, sudoku. And most evenings after work, Koun sat with me. He brought DVDs, some small comforts that I requested. He graded papers while we watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica. Many nights, he slept curled up on the floor, only a thin futon from the Korean goods shop downtown between him and that cold laminate.

Days and weeks passed. There were milestones. In November, President Obama was elected into office (the nurses were not happy — it was Alaska, after all). Thanksgiving came and went, and then my birthday (officially making me the “advanced maternal age” of 35), and then Christmas. A book contract was dropped — my first, my only — thanks to the collapse of the stock market, which I could not understand. The new year came and went.

Late into my hospital stay, the doctor removed my catheter and signed a release for once-a-week bathing privileges. Four nurses came to lift me onto a gurney coated in towels, and I was taken to what the women called “the car wash.” One of the nurses had been a hairdresser, and she washed my knotted hair with skilled hands. Another woman shaved my legs—a small luxury.

After two and a half months, my doctor signed a release allowing me to go home to continue my bedrest. My muscles had grown soft by then. I was dizzy when I sat up. And I could not stand.

Returning home was returning to our rooms adjacent to the Anchorage Zen Community’s zendo. Each morning, I lay in the bedroom, listening to the bells and chants that signaled the start and end of zazen, the morning ceremonies, and then the shuffle of winter coats and boots afterward as people filed out into darkness and cold. I smelled the incense coming in under the door, and I thought about how we — my son and I — were locked together in a state of constant practice, of constant zazen, often painful for both body and mind.

I came to know things about my child that I perhaps wouldn’t have if I’d been in motion throughout my pregnancy. Stillness forced me to listen. He woke me early in the morning—a kind of fluttering in my belly. In the afternoons, he was playful, a fist or toe sliding visibly across a taut drum, responding to the press of a hand against flesh. After meals, there was often a real workout going on in there — kicking and twisting and bouncing. I always knew when he was sleeping, too, my body silent as the ocean floor.

When my son was born by cesarean nearly two weeks past his due date, I couldn’t believe that he — we — had survived.

From the moment I first saw him and ever since, Boy has had a manner about him that brings out a feeling of recognition in me. I want to say that he is an old soul. I felt this when I first met Koun, too — just this pure quality of I know you.

With my second child, my daughter, it has been different. She is a bright, new soul. Her nature is less storm, more sunshine. When she was born, we were completely bound to each other, but not by life-and-death drama, just life. Meanwhile, since that moment in the bath, Boy clung to his father, rejecting my attempts to reconnect. I tried not to take it personally.

More recently, though, Girl (now nearly two) has gravitated to her Papa — he is her favorite in times of distress — and that thread has appeared again between me and Boy. I don’t know, maybe it was there all along. Sometimes at night, when I tuck him into bed, he whispers, “I love you, Mama. You are be-YOO-ti-ful.”

Authentic Self

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Over the summer holiday, my son became bilingual.

That’s probably not technically correct, but that’s my experience of what happened: We flew to the U.S. in August—our first family trip home in three years—and then, after about a week and a half, Boy started speaking English. Fluently.

Anyone observing our son in his current Japanese context would assume him to be a native speaker of English. Old women passing us on the streets in our neighborhood frequently gasp at his Day-Glow pale skin, his somber cuteness. Some lean in close, pat his head, and try out a few phrases, thinking perhaps this will put him at ease: Hello? Name? How old?

These words are gifts. I know the women are trying to be generous—they are being generous—but it is always exactly the wrong thing to say. He clutches at my legs, refuses to speak, his gaze falling to his shoes.

Often, he doesn’t know what is being said or asked of him. After all, Mama and Papa’s English doesn’t sound like that. “He speaks Japanese,” I explain again and again. “He goes to daycare here.” The conversation is always a lost cause from that point on, though. Those kindly old women must think it’s very sweet that I think my boy speaks Japanese.

If pressed, my husband and I would say our son’s first word was “moon”—he screamed “mooooooo!!!” every time that glowing orb appeared in the pages of a picture book, or in the night sky outside his window. But he was saying a lot before that—a garbled mess of nonsense baby talk, or “babbling,” according to the experts.

One day, our friend Naomi visited us, and we realized that she understood him. Koun is a translator and an interpreter—and I know enough Japanese to get by in my day-to-day life in Kumamoto—but only Naomi could hear through the mush-mouthed sound that was his first attempt at language: aru (it exists), and nai (it doesn’t exist), the two most essential verbs in the Japanese language.

After that, we started really hearing him, too. There was cho-cho (butterfly), itai (It hurts!), koko (here), iya da (No/I don’t like it!), densha (train), and wanwan (doggie). And then for a time it was mostly just densha, screamed with gusto, over and over, at every possible opportunity, even just at the thought of one.

I know that children’s language skills pick up dramatically in the second year of life. It’s a developmental fact. But I will always wonder when, exactly, this transition from not-having to having began for my son. We don’t know, because we couldn’t hear him.

After we returned from our holiday to the U.S., Boy had become, for me, an entirely new person. I knew him—deeply knew him—as a person who spoke primarily Japanese, save for a few English words thrown in here and there to fill in missing concepts. And now I know him as an English speaker almost exclusively—so much so that I often forget that Japanese self of his. I forget that it is there, always, that it is a real and true part of him.

And so, I am sometimes shocked into recognition by little things—how he becomes Japanese the moment we enter the gates of his daycare center, how he brags to the pizza delivery man about his own superfast motorbike, how he happily chats away to the lady up the street who brings us vegetables from her garden.

Inside the boundaries of our home, I often don’t see my Japanese boy. But sometimes he comes out in a word, a phrase, a mannerism. Occasionally, he turns entirely into his other self. The other day, my husband asked Boy how to say something in Japanese—I don’t remember the word now—but it was a trigger. He was Japanese until bedtime, and the next day, he awoke in English.

What is my son’s authentic self? I think this is what a person might ask if they’d never spent time immersed in another language or culture. It must be hard to believe that a person can truly be more than one person—and not have some kind of mental disorder. I think in the West, especially, we want to say a person is like this, or a person is like that. But that can’t tell the whole story, it just can’t.

I have come to understand, sometimes grudgingly, that we are many people, depending on our contexts, on our relationships. I know, for example, that there is a kind of core nature to myself—a set of ethics and patterns that I tend to work from—but who I am at home is probably not exactly who I am at work; who I am talking to my husband is not who I am writing this. And that doesn’t make the concept of me any less authentic in any of those instances. They are all me. And that goes for my kids too.

Now, our daughter is edging toward two, toward that magical linguistic window. We’re not certain this time either, but we think her first word was nai—“It doesn’t exist.”


A version of this post appears in Lotus Petals in the Snow: Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women, published by Sumeru Press, 2016.

 

A Conversation with My Husband, 15 Years Ago

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“Close your eyes.”

“What?”

“Just—close your eyes.”

“Okay.”

“Now, imagine walking down a path in the woods. Can you see it?”

“No, there’s nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Wait—yes. I can see it.”

“Okay. Notice the details of the path, what it looks like, and also everything around you.”

“Okay, I can see all of it now.”

“Good. Now, you come upon some kind of vessel, a container—it’s there on the path. Can you see it?”

“Yes—yes, I see it.”

“Good. Describe the vessel and its contents.”

“A rough earthenware bowl. Dark brown, mottled—imperfect. It fits comfortably in the palms of my hands, the weight of a stone. Inside, there’s cold, clear water and. . . nothing else.”

“All right, that is your ideal understanding of love.”

Two-hands Mama

two hands

Boy screams “Two hands, Mama!” whenever I’m driving and both of my hands are not firmly fixed on the steering wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock.

The first time this happened was about a year ago. Boy had just turned three, Girl was not yet one. I remember it was raining, really raining—one of those precursor deluges of Japan’s fifth (secret) season. I was moving through that thick mental fog of too many nights doing the semi-sleep shuffle: Baby coughs and shudders—touch baby, baby is okay; baby cries—change diaper, cuddle; baby cries—offer breast; baby whines—cuddle; baby wakes at 4:20 a.m—get up, begin day.

With one arm braced against the passenger headrest, I reversed slowly out of our driveway into a vast empty parkinglot. Cherry blossom petals stuck fast in the back wiper, carving out a lazy rhythm: thwonk. . . thwonk. . . thwonk. . . thwonk . . . We were not in danger.

“Two hands, Mama!” screamed Boy again. I put my foot on the brake and shifted my gaze to my son. In the past few months, he’d lost some of the baby fat in his face. He had cheekbones now, a few freckles along his nose, a delicate pointed chin. He looks just like a little boy. Like a real little person.

“Two hands, Mama.” He said it quietly this time.

“Sweetie, I can’t always use two hands when I’m driving. Sometimes it’s better to use one.”

“But that’s the rule, Mama. That’s the rule.”

He was right, of course. That is the rule in tea ceremony, in Zen ritual, and in my son’s daycare. Two hands to lift the bowl. Two hands to set it down.

Every day, I am trying to become a Two-hands Mama.