An Accidental Gardener


Last summer, we bought a house that had been the longtime home of a lover of gardens, a woman who came to Nova Scotia from another country in her youth and then, alongside her husband, raised three children here. We—me, Koun, our two children (all from another country as well)—did not meet her, but she left behind a legacy of plant life that we are coming to know.

It is our first spring in this house. We have witnessed a late summer, a fall, a winter—but not a spring. It seems each morning I awaken to a new shoot pushing up through the earth, or a leaf or a flower bursting from a tender green bud. Such a decadent and carefully choreographed display—like fireworks in slow, slow motion.

Having never been a gardener, and also having grown up so far from here, I can’t name many of the cultivated plants surrounding our property. Some of them I only know in Japanese—fuji, mokuren. Or I know them because they also exist in the wilds of my first home, Alaska: iris, rose, strawberry, daisy, some variety of lily, forget-me-nots. The last I can’t help but call wasurenagusa—the “grass of not forgetting” (maybe because it moved me when I learned, and immediately understood, this word so long ago in Japan).

Our new house is old, built in the early 1950s, and the woman who lived here for much of her life was much older. She passed away in the fall, in the year before our family moved in. Our neighbors tell us stories of witness. She was kind, and she was also not kind. Lately, we are becoming the sort of people who uproot and trim and shape. I hope we are kind. But maybe we are not the best judges of our own characters. I am rarely certain what is weed and what is precious. From the perspective of a dandelion, I am ruthless, cruel. Maybe those brilliant yellow beauties deserve better.

When I was younger, a lost traveler in my 20s, and living in Japan, I was taught the term hanakotoba—the “language of flowers.” Each flower holds a meaning and intention—a character or some quality—as it is passed from one person to another. I found that it is the very old who carry this knowledge. And I learned of it such a long time ago. Perhaps, so many years later, it is mostly forgotten, so that certain beauty exists now without a context.

I wonder if the woman who lived in our house, at some moment in mid-life as I am now, was ever compelled to bend down to examine a small blue flower, if somehow she could hear a whispered word through that trajectory of time—that suggestion of a history, or of a future: “wasurenagusa, wasurenagusa, wasurenagusa. . .” Her children loud and laughing, tumbling amongst the greenery around her. A cloudless blue sky above.

Maybe we are all just accidental gardeners. We look after what we are given, or what we create. We tend it well or we do not. In this way, a garden moves through the seasons and never forgets. The dirt beneath our fingernails, sticky sap against our wrists.

Past Lives


Her fingers—small, delicate digits—weave a complicated pattern in the air as she tells the day’s secrets to an audience of dolls. My daughter, in a world of her own. I can’t translate her movements, all her emphatic whisperings. What I would give to understand, to see as she sees.

I step away from her doorway, away from the doting mother’s pause, and enter into some bubble of memory as I gather and straighten, fold and tuck. In a previous life, for much of my youth, and then for a brief time at university, I was a flautist. I had felt that it was my one connection to the divine. And that, in itself, strangely was eventually painful enough to make me quit forever—I did not feel worthy, felt broken by my bad choices. A beautiful thing, a carefully polished silver, sinking slowly into shit.

And so I walked away. But for years and years after, my fingers still moved through a favorite riff while standing in line at the grocery store or at the post office, while perusing poetry in a used bookshop, as I stood in a doorway and watched my first husband getting into a car with a woman he had been seeing. “Sakura.” I must have learned it in junior high, held it like a talisman against my constant misery. This was before I knew anything of Japan, or of the brief lives of its most sacred blossoms.

Certain memory, they say—are now saying—is written in the DNA, is passed down to our offspring through chemical markers. The smell of a certain flower, for instance, at the moment of the mother’s injury, in her youth—some trauma to the body or the heart—will then trigger a reaction in the future daughter upon encountering the same flower. In this way we are echoed constantly into the future, as if the color of our eyes, the texture of our hair, the shape and length of our limbs were not enough.

I don’t know if this is a tragic or merely poignant scientific revelation. There must be layers of complexity that we can and cannot see. There are the variables. Unable to grasp it all, we follow the distilled and careful line of scientific method, follow that singular thread of truth in and out of an eternal weave.

And what of the ethics of it all? Should we now aim to have children before an accumulation of hurt? Or later, when we have both an abundance of loss—but also a better understanding of it? Which is the better legacy? What will and will not translate across time and DNA?

Now my daughter stands watching me with curious eyes from my own bedroom doorway, as my fingers move through air. “Sakura”—yes—still there in the body-memory of sinew, muscle, bone. She laughs and enters the room to makes a game of it, lifts her hands to play along with me.

Our duet, our genetic symphony.

This Old House


“It’s got good bones.” That’s what the inspector said when we visited the house we had decided we wanted to buy. I liked that phrase, liked the idea. The house as body. As a being. Maybe it was this metaphor that sold me on the place. Despite the inevitable decay of flesh, there remains the permanence of bone.

For a house, I am told, good bones are essential for an easy rebirth. Remove a wall, change out the windows, update light fixtures, switch out a pink toilet or sink, strip the ancient wallpaper, add a few coats of paint, and—voilà!—the dead can live again. It’s a humbling process, something worthy of reverence.

Opa—my grandfather on my mother’s side—had been a contractor. I wonder what he would have thought of our new place. The house he shared with my Oma in Thomaston, Texas, sprawled like a body at rest along the banks of the Guadalupe River.

Really, theirs was not so much one house as a series of interconnecting homes that lived and breathed as one. It had started as nothing more than a modest single-wide—two tiny bedrooms (one on each end), a kitchen/dining area, a bathroom. From that center, it grew to extend out into a palatial sitting room overlooking the river. Each summer, when my mother and I visited from Alaska, it seemed a new limb had grown: a wing or walkway or deck or room or carport. From my Opa’s wise and weathered hands, the house was constantly being reborn. Even now, I can’t begin to recall how many forms it inhabited over the years.

When my mother and I returned home to Alaska at the end of each summer, it stayed with me, that house. It lived on in my dreams as a living entity, so that I spent my days exploring the expansive reality of the north and my nights within my Opa’s southern subconscious. In this way I often lived between two worlds—a habit or predisposition for contextual schism that followed me into adult life.

When I was in high school, it became necessary for my grandparents to move to a small suburban home in Kerrville. I remember sipping sugar-sweet iced tea and watching my Opa—a builder of worlds—trying to repair an old, broken telephone. He sat at the kitchen table for an hour, plugging the phone into itself over and over, listening expectantly into the receiver after each try. His hands worn, but no longer wise.

“Strokes take things away,” explained my mother, later. My Opa, by then, was having several episodes a month, maybe more. I imagined his Guadalupe River house, his architectural masterpiece, but in the reverse—a room or a corridor collapsing again and again into absence, into nothing.

When Opa died and then Oma a few weeks later, I was in my mid-twenties and at the center of my own terrible collapse. A world falling in on itself. When I finally woke up, I lived in a new country, in a new context entirely. I felt that all my original houses were erased forever. It was then that I first began to feel free.

And that’s okay, I think. It’s okay to let go. To burn it all down and rebuild from the ground up. But lately, in this new old house, I am beginning to see my Opa in every square angle, in every raw beam. “Good bones,” they say. From loss, within impermanence—the persistence of memory.

Mother’s Day Flowers



It is May 8, 2010*, the day before Mother’s Day, and I am in Takamori, Japan, with my one-year-old son’s hand in mine, carefully ascending the stone steps to the gate of my husband’s teacher’s temple.

We are here to celebrate Hanamatsuri, or the “Festival of Flowers”—otherwise known as the Buddha’s Birthday.

As we enter the garden, I see that the sliding doors encircling the main building are open to fresh countryside air. A number of families have already settled on their cushions around a statue of the baby Buddha standing beneath a flower-covered canopy.

Soon, the children will be invited to pour sweet tea brewed from the leaves of hydrangea over the likeness, bathing it as tenderly as a real newborn. In this way, the boys and girls are encouraged—briefly—to step into the parental role, an exercise in compassion and generosity.

Today, as I reflect on the first year of caring for my own child, I can’t help but recall the fantastical story of the Buddha’s birth, and of his mother:

At the foot of the Himalayas, the honorable King Suddhodana ruled over the Sakyas warrior tribe. On the night of a full moon, Suddhodana’s wife, the virtuous Queen Maya dreamt of a white elephant clutching a lotus flower in its trunk. Her dream was later interpreted and it was foretold that she would give birth to a son who would come to be great in one of two ways: if he remained in the castle with his family, he would be a conqueror of nations. If he left, he would become wise beyond all measure.

Some months later, the queen was riding in a palanquin to her parents’ home, where she intended to give birth, when she ordered her procession to stop and rest in a beautiful garden. As she entered the grove of flowering trees, she reached up to touch a delicate blossom. At that moment, she gave birth. Afterward, the sky opened over mother and child, and both were bathed in flowers and clear water. Her son then stood, took seven steps, and announced his coming into being. Seven days later, Queen Maya passed out of this life.

There are variations on this story, and all are just as over-the-top. What really grabs me, though, is that instant when Queen Maya both reaches for the blossom and gives birth. This moment is profound because her perspective is suddenly altered in two ways: literally (looking upward) and figuratively (seeing all things through the eyes of a mother). Her new view remains expansive, mind-blowing—the sky opening, a newborn walking and speaking.

As a new mother, I see the truth of my own altered perspective in how I now look on this temple garden, a place I have visited countless times in years past. My re-calibrated gaze hovers just above the knee, and I am constantly aware of the potential reach and speed of a curious toddler in motion.

I see the possibility of danger (ancient stone stairs, dubious bright red berries) and destruction (carefully cultivated moss, paper lanterns arranged just so). I see opportunities for learning and practice and play (a pale moth fluttering from leaf to leaf, a handful of pebbles, a twig pulled across dirt). I see a haven for rest or distraction when the festival activities overwhelm or bore.

But the most powerful and immediate aspect of this new perspective—the view that came to me at that moment of my son’s birth—is a kind of deepened and pervasive empathy for, and understanding of, the universal human experience, that season-like cycle of impermanence turning in all our gardens.

And so, as my son and I enter the temple and look on the faces of the people there, I cannot help but see the child-self in each adult; I see the man- and woman-becoming in each child. Perhaps because to experience the miracle of new life is to also truly comprehend the inevitability of death, I see the arc of lives. And yes, the enormousness of it is absolutely mind-blowing. It is stranger, in fact, than the Buddha’s magical origin story. It is pure reality.

After my son and I partake in the day’s festivities, we return to the garden and my husband joins us in his long, black robes. As he produces the car keys from his sleeve, one of the women calls after us, urging us to wait. She disappears briefly into the temple, and then reappears, striding along the path with a massive bouquet of fragrant white lilies in her arms. “For you, for Mother’s Day,” she says as she offers this gift to me.

My son bursts into giggles when he looks up and sees what I am now holding, as if he’s had some sudden and hilarious insight, and I laugh because he is laughing. At the sight of my child straining to reach the blossoms in my hands, I am experiencing that first moment of motherhood all over again.

***Most people in Japan consider the Buddha’s Birthday to be April 8, but some celebrate on May 8.

(A version of this post originally appeared in Mothering in the Middle.)

Oranges for the Buddha


While living in our little semi-urban house here in Kumamoto, Japan, we are often visited by one of the neighbor ladies bearing gifts of whatever is in season in her well-tended garden. In spring, there are strawberries. In summer, eggplants and tomatoes. In fall, persimmons and squash. In winter, oranges. These fruits and vegetables then sit before the Buddha on our altar as an offering—for a short while, anyway—before winding up in our kitchen to be duly prepared and then consumed by the family.

I’ve always been struck by this neat little cycle of generosity: neighbors sharing their bounty; our family engaging in ritual at the altar; my husband and I preparing meals in the kitchen; and the four of us then eating in proxy for the Buddha, just as it’s done in many households and monasteries throughout Japan. It’s idyllic. Almost. It’s that last part where my genuine feeling of generosity too often breaks down and becomes complicated. The fact is, mealtimes with young children can be very, very challenging.

Lately, with our children at ages 2 and 4, there have been variations on this experience. It’s Saturday or maybe Sunday. It’s been a work-intensive week or two and I think, Gosh, we’ve been having a lot of hasty meals lately. Nutritious enough, but not much pizazz. I want to give my family something special today, something that requires a little extra effort. And so I manage to gather the ingredients at trendy and expensive foreign-food shops—let’s say for a labor-intensive vegetarian lasagna that the whole family has expressed delight over in the past.

I wash, slice, saute, boil, and season to perfection. I add to this a salad—various greens, crumbled goat cheese, pecan slivers, sliced and pitted red grapes, a homemade herbed dressing. I toast thick slices of bread (that I have baked myself!) smothered with butter and crushed garlic. A bowl of oranges from the altar rounds out the visual appeal of the meal.

I dish up the food, place the plates on the table, and stand back to take in the full effect. It is beautiful. It smells wonderful. The portions are age-appropriate, pleasingly colorful, and arranged just so. I know it will be delicious. Yes, this is the meal that will make my family happy. Generous, I think. I’m feeling so generous today. A very good Mama.

My beautiful and perfect family then tumbles into the dining room and. . . my dream ends. Boy thought we were having pizza (“But you said it was a ‘special’ dinner!”), and he sits in his chair and begins to whimper at an increasingly higher pitch. Girl suddenly launches into a screaming tirade because her (carefully cooled) food appears to be steaming. Just a little.

Boy then breaks into a full-blown crying jag. And. . . both children refuse to eat. My husband and I shout across the kitchen to each other in order to be heard, trying not to let yet another ear-splitting meal get to us. “I SAID, ‘DO YOU WANT FRESHLY GROUND PEPPER ON YOUR SALAD OR NOT?!!’”

The end result of all of this, of course, is that not only do I not feel particularly generous during these moments, I also feel kind of pissed. I think, Hey, I worked REALLY hard for you all today—and this is what I get?

Whenever I arrive at this point, this feeling of injustice, I bring myself back to that Zen ritual of generosity: three oranges from a neighbor’s garden placed on an altar, hands held together in gassho, a single bow, that simple sense of “I offer this.” And that is all. There is no expectation in this practice. How can there be?

Obviously, the Buddha statue is not going to become animate, leap up, peel an orange, and tear into a juicy wedge (though, boy, that would be something!). Nor is the statue going to reject it. You know that it’s just ritual, and it’s easy to be generous and have no expectation within those boundaries—that’s why it’s such a wonderful starting point. The challenge, then, is in sincerely bringing this view of “no expectation” to our dinner table, glass-shattering screams and all.

That is not to say, of course, that I do not want my children to be aware of the effects of their behavior. I do want them to be thoughtful and polite, to practice gratitude for the generosity of others. But in order to convey this instruction to them skillfully as a parent, I need to let go of my expectations. I know I can’t be as skillful from a place of anger and resentment.

By the end of the meal this time, the children have at least said their thank-yous and tasted the food.Tomorrow—who knows? They will probably request and then eat the leftovers. . . and be truly, truly upset when I explain that I cannot offer thirds because Mama and Papa ate that for their lunch already. Because it’s just like that sometimes.

After dinner, my children rush off and away to play, somehow happy again. I see that Girl has marked her orange slices by inserting each into her mouth—the withered edges and teeny-tiny teeth prints give away her act of blessing.

And so I eat the mutilated oranges as I wash dishes, feeling grateful for that fleeting sweetness. It turns out that I am today’s proxy for the Buddha. The cycle of generosity is complete.

(A version of this post originally appeared in Mothering in the Middle.)

Now Is Your One Last Chance



The phrase ichi-go ichi-e—literally, “one time, one meeting”—is often described by Japanese and Westerners alike as carpe diem, “seize the day.” Or, if you prefer the pop-culture version, “YOLO.”

I would argue, however, that though both the Western and Eastern phrases offer up a certain immediacy, they engage very different worldviews.

Like carpe diem, ichi-go ichi-e does point directly to the present experience. But it does so in a way that also includes another oft-mistranslated Japanese word, natsukashii. This adjective is said to mean “nostalgic” or “good old” in English, but that does not quite capture its true value in Japan, a country that embraces mastery and emulation as its highest aesthetic.

So ichi-go ichi-e is not simply “pay attention to now.” It is “pay attention to now and rest in the awareness of all that has come before, all of the causes and conditions that now culminate and come together in this present moment; notice that this moment, too, will pass.”

“Seize the day,” as it is often intended in American culture, is a call to action in the present only (with some attention to the fact that tomorrow may or may not be). “Make the best use of this day! Take the opportunity! Do what you will because life is short! Partake! Enjoy!”

Ichi-go ichi-e, in contrast, centers on the understanding that this moment absolutely will not continue or be repeated. It is lost forever to the truth of time.

In the martial arts (a context in which the phrase is used often), ichi-go ichi-e may seem particularly relevant in that “what came before” is past effort. All of that work culminates in each moment, every time a new effort is made. Thus, there is no “this is just practice.” This is your singular chance to get it right. There is no future chance. There is only now, resting on all that came before. Whether or not the present effort actually produces perfection is irrelevant. All is on the realization of the actor: “This is my one last chance.” Every time.

Tea ceremony, where the Japanese phrase originated, is pregnant with constant and unmistakable reminders of impermanence—seasonal artwork, wabi-sabi utensils, and other invitations to reflect on transience—so that the participants fully realize the theme of past-present in one meeting, one moment. That theme resonates in encounter.

Ichi-go ichi-e, then, is a call not to action but to perception. And within this, there is the potential for an ethical sensibility: the reality of impermanence, coupled with the influences of the past, can beget a deep sense of connection to all. It presents a basis of compassion for all beings.

We see how past action and inaction create this present moment. And yes, we also grasp the future implications of this karma—the whole of the next moment will rest on the foundation of this present moment, and on all that came before. We witness and wonder about this in the faces of our children. We know it in ourselves.

As parents, as partners, as friends, as citizens of the world, we feel the weight and the possibility of it—for the whole of our brief lives, now and now and now and now.

A version of this post originally appeared in Mothering in the Middle (

The River


My daughter, with a hand in each of my hands, walks the tightrope in our backyard. Beneath her, twelve inches of nothing and then hard earth. I am certain I can catch her if she stumbles. I am certain. We have maybe twenty minutes before the rain comes. I know because her hair, like mine, has already begun to curl. “We should go in soon,” I say. Fearless, she laughs and falls back into my arms. Into air thick as water. It is her fourth birthday. The day she was born, I lay on an operating table in Japan when the doctor caught her—cut her from me, really—and passed her to a nurse, who briefly held that pink and bloodied flesh so that I could recognize the momentousness of what had been done. And then she was taken away, and there was only the look in the doctor’s eyes—that sudden focus of walking a tightrope—and the thing he barked about cancelling all his appointments. I could see my body cut open in the reflection of the lights. Organs like wet stones. A glistening and foreign terrain. I could see the clock on the wall. It was not supposed to take this long. My new daughter crying for the first time and my husband holding my hand, holding me with his eyes. It was not supposed to take this long. The doctor’s name—Kawakami, the Chinese characters for “river” and “up.” It was not supposed to take this long. How we are just a sum of parts and yet not. How, in the slow orbit of a second hand, we exist and cease to exist. How all we leave behind is our mark on others. How we love and cannot keep what we love.

Motherlode Burning


One of my childhood homes, the Motherlode Lodge, burned down a few days ago. It was an old landmark in Alaska. Many, no doubt, have fond memories of visiting the building on the way to ski or hike or pick blueberries in the mountains of Hatcher Pass.

For me, the destruction carries a certain complicated weight. I was there only a year or so before my family went bankrupt and left, but I remember some of that time vividly—partially because I have a habit of collecting devastating memories, but also, Hatcher Pass was just so compelling to me. After all, we’d moved from Nome, near the Arctic Circle, a desolate place devoid of trees or mountains. This new landscape was lush, foreign, and filled with the promise of new beginnings. And maybe all of us were dazzled by the sight of “fool’s gold”—bright mica—that was so abundant in the icy, clear waters of the Little Susitna, the river that tumbled from the mountains down into the valley below.

My mother and my then-new stepfather, a handsome second-generation Irishman from New Jersey, bought the lodge in order to fulfill his dream of running “a real Irish pub.” It was purchased with the entirety of my mother’s retirement savings as well as a hefty chunk of borrowed money.

In the fall, I started Ms. Cavender’s fourth-grade class at Sherrod Elementary in Palmer, down in the Mat-Su Valley. My classmates included Penny (who had a penchant for drawing horses), Robbie (who carried a football-themed lunchbox), Tessa (who always smiled and was, notably, shorter than I), Crystal (who was gorgeous and knew it), and Becky (who was shy and kind and also my closest thing to a best friend). I had a little bit of a crush on Robbie, who probably had a little bit of a crush on Crystal.

My mother taught fifth grade in the same school—many of her students are among Alaska’s movers and shakers now. I remember that was the year J.J., also in my mother’s class, crashed his three-wheeler and tore up his beautiful face. He shattered his arm and, because of the way it was cast (out and up), my mother constantly called on him in class. I remember him well because he often stayed after to make up work missed from all those surgeries; he was the one sweet thread of tentative friendship between that time and some years later, after I moved to Wasilla and then back again to Palmer for high school.

As a girl who’d already gone through two fathers previously, I wanted more than anything to be a part of a “normal” family, what I imagined everyone else had. I unconsciously believed it fell to me to make the relationship with my new stepfather work, and so I became obsessed with Irishness, which was encouraged in various ways. It was a real shame, for my stepfather, that I was a girl—and probably not even of Irish descent at that—but he offered that I could at least better the situation by legally changing my name to Patty. I seriously considered this. He also insisted that I become a proper Catholic, so I spent a lot of time dutifully memorizing “Hail Mary” for my eventual baptism at St. Michael’s in Palmer. Many days, I carefully studied the map of Ireland tacked up in the pub while turning that one Gaelic word he taught me over and over in my mouth like an incantation: “fray-dee” for “potato.”

(Incidentally, some years later in high school, Robbie would ask me, “Hey, aren’t you Irish?” I was mortified that he remembered. By that time, I had a different stepfather and a whole new set of pathologies.)

I couldn’t have friends out to the lodge—not that I had many anyway. My stepfather was an alcoholic, after all. And he ran a bar—a constant, free-for-all party. It was, as my mother once said, “no place for a child.”

So I learned to embrace my exploration in solitude. At that time there was a stand of willow trees on the hill next to the main building—it was leveled in later years to make way for a new addition. This little forest in miniature was a haven, my place to escape from the downward spiral that was our intertwined lives. In summer, I gathered old boards and put together a small shelter and imagined it to be my cabin. In winter, I tracked vole and rabbit prints in the snow. In every season, I’d lie on my back in snow or moss or brush and do what I called “the big-small”—I’d feel myself expanding to the size of the universe, and then I’d shrink back down to a grain of sand. In this way, I think I discovered some sense of spirituality in Hatcher Pass; my way of seeing was my one true magic power.

As for the lodge, I explored that, too. But unlike the natural world around us (rife, no doubt, with dangerous wildlife), there was something about that old, cloying interior and all of its shadows that frightened me. Maybe it mimicked too closely my constant and vivid architectural dreams—the long hallways lined with doors, the unlit crawlspace closets, an eerily large and metallic kitchen, a bar engulfed in smoke and disembodied laughter. And then there was the new addition—not the one that would someday erase my trees—but another to the right of the main structure. It was still under construction when we moved in, and it remained in unfinished limbo for the duration of our time there. That wing had a skin, but inside it was all darkness and bare bones.

My first bedroom in the Motherlode was a closet of a space in the top left of the main structure, at the end of a hall of lodgers’ rooms, most of which remained unrented. It had one window looking out from the side of the building, over the trees and down into the valley below. The window was important to me because in Nome, windows had been a rare luxury. There, I’d had nothing more than a porthole in my bedroom—an eight-by-eight-inch cut-out up high on the wall that could be opened in the summer months to let in fresh air. The new room, in contrast, held a view of vast possibility.

One of my stepfather’s drinking buddies took a liking to that view as well, though, and I was relocated to another room and then another. The latter was adjacent to the new addition. It had a large window, but it looked only inside, into that great, unfinished carcass. I felt that I was always on the edge of being consumed. It terrified me.

Shortly before my move to this last new room, my stepfather invited his sister and her family to come live with us, to help out with the management of a failing enterprise. Her eldest son quickly took up the habit of hunting me with an air rifle in my magical forest, and also picking the lock on the bathroom door while I showered. Whatever safety I felt in my world was crushed. They left a few months after their arrival. And some time after that, so did we. We did not move on to better circumstances. We simply moved on.

Many years after I left Alaska, it was my mother who sent me the newspaper clipping describing how J.J. pulled over his truck one day and took his life on the side of the road. He had been a social worker at the time—a caretaker of the lost. I couldn’t believe that someone with that kind of spirit could be broken. He left behind a wife and three kids. I recognized the name of his wife. We’d all gone to high school together.

I sense there are unseen generations who come of age in Alaska, kids scarred by place and circumstance. We all do our best, like good Alaskans, to “show no weakness.” But sometimes we fail. Even the sturdiest of structures can burn to the ground. And though I want to say that I am one of the resilient ones, the truth is that I’m not. I just got through it, whatever “it” was, and now I’m here.

I had hoped that I’d return someday to the Motherlode Lodge with my son and daughter. I’d say, “I used to live here. This place is part of me.” They’d see that big old building surrounded by spectacular landscape, and they’d think I was lucky. I’d be reminded that, in a way, they come from that place, too, and that every bit of my complicated history led me to where I am now. I’d walk with them through a stand of unlikely trees. We’d lie down together on green moss next to a cold, clear river glinting in sunlight. I’d teach them to be so small they almost vanish, so vast that nothing can contain them.

Clouds in the Shape of Dragons


Today I am washing dishes as Nova Scotia fog drifts behind the glass of the window above the sink. My five-year-old son, with trembling lip and downcast eyes, tells me that he’s the one—not Girl—who put pennies into the computer. “I wanted to tell you the truth, Mama.”

“That is very, very bad for the computer,” I say. “But thank you for telling me. Thank you for being so brave.” He shakes and sobs as I hug him. “Breathe,” I tell him. “Just breathe.” His chest rises and falls, rises and falls, and then it seems a terrible weight unmoors from him. Seconds later, he is zooming around the house with his sister.

“We are dragons!” he shouts. “We fly and shoot fire!”

*   *   *

I am 14 or 15, lying in tall grass next to a boy who is both my friend and also the son of my stepfather’s friend. The son of a Presbyterian minister. It is summer in Alaska, in the months before he will move away. I am certain that we will always know each other.

Lying on our backs in the grass in this way, we are invisible to all but the clouds that move across the sky above us. “I used to do this when I was a little kid,” he says. “I’d try to find the shape of animals in the clouds. A tiger, an elephant, a winged beast.”

I know he wants to kiss me but he is too kind to take what has not been given. So we hold hands and watch the sky. I tell him, “I wish I were a cloud. I wish I were free.”

Years later, I will write him a letter and tell him a secret and he will not believe me. And then for some time after, he will write to me again and again but I will never never never reply. I should not have told; he should have believed. I still don’t know which is true. I still don’t know.

*   *   *

Twenty-four years old and in my first few months of a new life in Japan, I have been sitting for three hours with a stone in my hand at the edge of Lake Ezu in Kumamoto. I am working out metaphors, a single unmoving cloud overhead. I think,

regret is a stone
turning slowly
in the hand

a stone is a story
turning slowly
in the mind

a story is a stone
turning slowly
in the heart

When at last I throw my burden into water, the cloud shatters and then reforms. As I walk home afterward, it occurs to me that it is not people who haunt us—only moments of encounter.

*   *   *

I am 30 and walking a one-lane road between rice paddies nearing harvest, when the breeze shifts tall grass and I know that I am not alone. The grass shifts again and I see them full-on—a half-dozen women’s heads lashed to poles. The farmers—I understand this a few seconds later—have fashioned scarecrows from scraps of cloth and mannequins, probably throwaways from a nearby salon. Stylish black hair flutters in the breeze. For a long time I cannot move. None of us blink.

When I get home, I find that my husband, in his fourth month of cloister at a monastery in the mountains, has written me a letter. He is a new monk, or unsui—clouds and water. He writes, I must be supple enough to flow and form and reform and disappear. He tells me the story of koi who don’t know they are wise and powerful dragons.

I want to kiss him. I am lonely. I wonder if we will ever be brave enough to have children. I wonder if I would be a bad mother.

*   *   *

It is a year ago, not long after moving to this new country, and I am driving my son home from school when he shouts, “Look, Mama! Dragons!”


“The clouds are shaped like dragons and the dragons are eating the clouds!”

“Just a minute, Sweetie,” I tell him. “There’s a lot of traffic. I need to pay attention right now. I need to pick up your sister.”

“Now the dragons are eating the dragons! Mama, look! Look! WHY DON’T YOU LOOK?”

Because I want to get it right and know that I can’t, I tell him, “Sweetie, calm down. Listen, I’ll stop. Right here. I’ll park the car and you can show me.”

“But hurry, Mama! Look!”

I slow down, pull over, shut off the engine. Cars zoom past us one after another. Above everything, clouds move across blue sky. “Okay. Where are they? Show me.”

“I can’t—they’re gone now. They’re all gone. THEY ARE ALL GONE!”

I look at my son’s tear-streaked face in the rear-view mirror. I look at the dashboard clock and then the slowing line of cars filling up the road next to us, hemming us in. I look back up at the sky. I think, What do I do now? What do I do? What do I do?

My son sniffs, takes in a breath. “Let’s just breathe, Mama. Let’s just breathe.”

The Persistence of Landscape


Ever since moving to Nova Scotia from Japan, I have noticed in myself a habit of seeing the features of Alaska, the place where I grew up. So there is the pervasive rock and water of this new place, but there is also a stretch of imagined snow-tipped mountains tracing along an expanse of blue sky.

I think it is the similarities that trick my brain into seeing what is not there. Sprawling forests of birch and pine, seagulls circling above dark and turbulent seas—how can this not be Alaska? So many elements are the same.

In Japan, I never saw the geography of my homeland, but I sometimes thought I understood when I did not. Or I understood in a way that was different from how others understood. Perhaps this was the cultural equivalent of my imaginary mountains. All that I had known before was the backdrop or overlay to my perception of everything that came after.

So, yes, I suspect those mountains point to something subtle that I cannot yet grasp. This is the obvious explanation of my current visual fallacy: a kind of culture shock. But it is also a reminder that both perception and time are slippery; all is in flux.

For instance, if I follow the arrow of time backwards, to the origin of the remembered mountains, I see that my memories now include some sense of my husband, of my children—and also of our arrival to this new country. My understanding of the past is set against all that came after. So those memories are altered but they feel no less true than when I experienced them in real time, or when I remembered them at different times in the years that followed.

In this way I am an embodiment of context—time and space and encounter—an entire landscape held in one small human form. Everything—even memory—is altered by memory. This paradox is truth. But it is not the only truth.

Because sometimes I look into vast blue sky and that is all I see.


Notes from a Year Ago, After Putting Boy to Bed

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

Of Trees and Memory


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


Inside Boy’s Mind


A couple weeks ago, as I was putting him to bed, I told Boy for the first time about my travel plans this weekend to Los Angeles. Boy has never been to L.A. He drinks this in and says, “Papa? I have a secret.” What, I ask, leaning in. “Los Angeles—” Yes? “—is inside my brain.” He taps his head with his finger to make the point. I try to clarify: Wait a minute. So when I go to L.A., I’m actually going inside your brain? He nods seriously. “Yes.”

How will I get there? He pulls back his blanket and points to his big toe in the dark. “You’ll start here, in your airplane.” He slowly traces the path I’ll take: up his leg, jumping from his hip to his hand, then up his arm, across his neck, and over his face to the top of his head. That’s far. “That’s the farthest place you can go.” Is that the farthest place in the world? “Japan is farther. But it’s too far. It’s outside my brain.”

I tell him that my brother will be meeting me there. So will Uncle B. be in your brain too? He looks at me like I’m stupid. “YES. He’ll be in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is inside my brain.” Again, the tap, so I get it.

Last night, after a couple chapters of Charlotte’s Web, we found our way back to this—the location of L.A., my route. He sits up and says, “Papa? I’m going to try to visit you.” In Los Angeles? Inside your brain? You can do that? How? He looks down at his covers for a long time. “I don’t know. I can’t do it yet.” He nods as if to assure himself. “But I’m going to figure it out.”

This morning I’m in Toronto, already waiting for my next flight. This airport is exactly like all airports; on any other day, I could imagine that I’m anywhere on earth. But today there is another layer, the pleasure of imagining that these hallways and overpriced restaurants might be the microscopic contours of the inside of my son’s foot. The scale changes, amplifies. I smile at the idea that inside my small boy there might be a place this spacious and quiet, that there might be so many people with different faces and stories. I like that he might be trying to find a way inside himself, that inside his mind is where we meet.

If I were to look up and see Boy here in this departure lounge sitting between the two Chinese girls across from me, I’d smile and give him a thumbs up. You did it! We’d get a snack. He’d play on the moving walkways; I’d tell him halfheartedly to stop.

We’d watch the planes take off and land against the wide blue sky, and I’d lean over and tell him, You’re so big. You’re bigger even than all of this.


Ichi-go ichi-e


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.


Night Sickness

boy hospital

The week of norovirus, when we all took turns being hooked up to IVs.

You never forget the first time that someone just throws up all over you. Until a few years ago, I would have taken this statement as true. Not universal, of course; I know that some people experienced college, for example, in messy and hard-to-piece-together ways. Still, the gag reflex is a powerful way of marking time.

I know it was Boy, but I no longer know when. A few nights when he was 1 year old all run together for me—we would wake to a horrible sound from his room, something far beyond coughing, and find him sitting up in his crib in the dark, just vomiting all over himself, eyes asking us, What is going on? One of us would scoop him up, trying to calm him down and get him out of his pajamas, and the other would start the hurried and mechanical process of searching for towels, changing sheets, just trying to put things in order. On a good night it happened only once. On a rough one, it might go until morning. He made his way down the list of stomach bugs as if it was a matter of pride.

In each case, a doctor the next day was able to cheerfully point to a chart and show us that this was just another completely routine event in the life of a small person. But no matter how many times a 1-year-old throws up, it still doesn’t make any sense to him. His little body is suddenly and violently completely outside of his control. He’s being turned inside out, probably following minutes or hours of nausea and having no way of communicating it to the only people who might be able to help. Even for me, as an adult, there is no worse feeling. It’s debilitating—it reduces us to the most powerless versions of ourselves.

Boy is 5 now and this nighttime scene is a thing of the distant past; Girl never had these problems, even when she was sick. They’ve both passed that age of being constantly ill, and if they do feel sick, they understand what’s happening and can go hover over the open toilet like the rest of us do. It’s a strange ritual to see played out by someone not even three feet tall. I’m happy for them, and for us, when I see them do it. It’s so clean.

All of this is a long way of pointing to the memory of those sick nights, of the moment just after we’d find him retching in his crib. In every telling, I probably hesitate—there’s always that pause—as my eyes adjust to the dark and take in what is happening, verifying that it’s already too late to make any of it OK. I reach down into the crib to my tiny, vomit-covered boy who is trying to cry but can’t because his body is too busy doing something else, and he reaches back up to me, and I hold him close in the dark as he just barfs all over me, over and over, limp and convulsing and confused. Intimacy is such a beautiful word, and I use it often when I speak of beautiful Buddhist teachings, but the image in my head is of this encounter, of my hand against his heaving back and the hot, slow avalanche running down and into my shirt, the trust and the fear in his little grabbing hands. And later, after he falls back asleep in new pajamas and new sheets, me standing outside the house at 3am with a hose in one hand to wash everything off, waving with the other hand to make the motion-sensitive light stay on long enough to get the job done.

Strangely awake in the jarring, rare clarity of knowing there is really nothing more to be done than this.


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.