This morning was the first day of bone-chilling Nova Scotia cold, and I walked through darkness to the bus stop on my way to teach an English class. I was remembering—maybe because of the way the wind gusted and shook the leaves in the trees—a phone call some years ago, in spring, about the death of a friend.
And then across the street, I saw the source of the sound that got me thinking—a stand of birch lit by a streetlamp—and suddenly it became twelve months ago, and I was moving through afternoon light in the opposite direction, toward home, with my two-year-old daughter at my side. “Carry me, Mama,” she said, and I obliged, even though she’d grown heavy and tall—no longer my baby. She whispered, “Mama, those trees are making me cold.”
“Sweetie,” I said, “that’s not possible.”
Leaning back, she pointed emphatically to white birch. “Those trees are making me cold.”
“We’ll be home soon,” I said as I put her down. But something about her strange child’s logic made the trees into a thing I carried and could not put down, the idea that something experienced in one sense could be the catalyst for another sensation entirely.
This morning, when I looked up at those trees one last time before turning the final bend to the bus stop, I noticed a rhythmic creak that became the sound of crickets in the house of my Japanese teacher twelve years ago in Yamanashi. The insects called out again and again as we conjugated verbs and drank from sweating cups of iced buckwheat tea. When I commented on it—that pleasant trilling, like a little reed flute—my teacher led me to a wooden cage beneath the stairs where the crickets were kept.
“The sound gives us a cool feeling in the hot summer months. It takes us to another season.”
“Synesthesia,” I remember saying. “It almost seems like that.”
She nodded. “A good word. Wasurenai—I will not forget.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamt of impossible houses—simple, stark exteriors that belie the infinite labyrinthine structures contained within. A closet that is really a chambered corridor spiraling ever inward, nautilus-like, before expanding out into a bedchamber the size of a cathedral. An endless hallway of identical doors leading to identical dens, save for slight variations in the arrangement of furniture. A swimming pool wending its way through the dark stacks of a subterranean library.
Often, there are landmarks of recognition—a character, a dwelling, a room, an object from my past. Sometimes it is entirely unexplored territory. Either way, I spend my nights mapping an interior landscape that reveals and reveals and reveals.
I don’t know why I have these dreams. But I do know that they mess with my equilibrium well after I awaken, that altered perspective staying with me for hours—or days—after.
Some months ago, the four of us made our way around the grounds of an old Nova Scotia farm and a familiar feeling came over me, a kind of recognition. It was, I realized, the first time I had felt truly compelled by the architecture of this new country, and so I started taking pictures: hand-hewn crossbeams, the sturdy hinges of a barn door, stairs disappearing into shadow. It seemed there was a revelation in every angle.
As we moved into and out of buildings, my daughter repeatedly patted my hip, a touchstone of sorts, before running a few paces forward and then back again. Koun and Boy walked far ahead on some other mission.
“Mama, where’s the piggy?” The pigs, we’d been told, were to be found in a hay-filled corner of the barn before us.
As we entered into darkness, Girl took my hand and then leapt up into my arms when we found what we’d been searching for—a great sow at rest, a row of content piglets suckling alongside her.
A woman—probably there with her grandchild—stepped back and offered her spot at the railing.
“Do you want to get closer?” Girl clutched my arms tightly but nodded.
The woman next to us smiled as she turned to leave. “What a sweetheart. You’re lucky, you know. Girls are so much easier than boys.”
Girl and I and the pigs rested for a moment in the shadows.
“The piggies want to go outside.”
Stepping back out into sunlight, Girl squirmed free of my arms, and I took one last photo: the skeletal ribs of a hay wagon and the spare houses beyond it—that had been my aim. But the sun’s glare refracted against the screen in such a way that I framed the subject blindly. And so when I reviewed the image later, I saw that I had missed my mark but caught what I could not then see: my daughter, just on the verge of stepping out of the photograph, exuding a carefree simplicity as she strutted along her path.
I thought, a girl is a house
A couple weeks ago, as I was putting him to bed, I told Boy for the first time about my travel plans this weekend to Los Angeles. Boy has never been to L.A. He drinks this in and says, “Papa? I have a secret.” What, I ask, leaning in. “Los Angeles—” Yes? “—is inside my brain.” He taps his head with his finger to make the point. I try to clarify: Wait a minute. So when I go to L.A., I’m actually going inside your brain? He nods seriously. “Yes.”
How will I get there? He pulls back his blanket and points to his big toe in the dark. “You’ll start here, in your airplane.” He slowly traces the path I’ll take: up his leg, jumping from his hip to his hand, then up his arm, across his neck, and over his face to the top of his head. That’s far. “That’s the farthest place you can go.” Is that the farthest place in the world? “Japan is farther. But it’s too far. It’s outside my brain.”
I tell him that my brother will be meeting me there. So will Uncle B. be in your brain too? He looks at me like I’m stupid. “YES. He’ll be in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is inside my brain.” Again, the tap, so I get it.
Last night, after a couple chapters of Charlotte’s Web, we found our way back to this—the location of L.A., my route. He sits up and says, “Papa? I’m going to try to visit you.” In Los Angeles? Inside your brain? You can do that? How? He looks down at his covers for a long time. “I don’t know. I can’t do it yet.” He nods as if to assure himself. “But I’m going to figure it out.”
This morning I’m in Toronto, already waiting for my next flight. This airport is exactly like all airports; on any other day, I could imagine that I’m anywhere on earth. But today there is another layer, the pleasure of imagining that these hallways and overpriced restaurants might be the microscopic contours of the inside of my son’s foot. The scale changes, amplifies. I smile at the idea that inside my small boy there might be a place this spacious and quiet, that there might be so many people with different faces and stories. I like that he might be trying to find a way inside himself, that inside his mind is where we meet.
If I were to look up and see Boy here in this departure lounge sitting between the two Chinese girls across from me, I’d smile and give him a thumbs up. You did it! We’d get a snack. He’d play on the moving walkways; I’d tell him halfheartedly to stop.
We’d watch the planes take off and land against the wide blue sky, and I’d lean over and tell him, You’re so big. You’re bigger even than all of this.
Lately, a mere two months away from the one-year anniversary of our arrival to Nova Scotia from Japan, I’ve found myself lifted and carried by a flood of memory. Maybe it’s the change in season (new life’s surge) or reverse culture shock (I’m due) or my undeniably middle-aged status (40!) or my sporadic engagement with social media (an endless yet ephemeral reunion of souls). But again and again, I’ve been feeling that pang of emotion that accompanies vivid remembrance of those who have passed into and out of my life.
How do we reconcile ourselves to the loss of those we have loved? The changed. The hardened. The dead. Those separated from us by time and distance and circumstance—or by our own flawed choices and habits. How do we find peace when this is our terrible and unrelenting reality?
Travelers and expats know this struggle all too well. The gain and loss of human connection is a huge part of the territory. We are always saying goodbye forever. Always. “One time, one meeting,” that old Japanese tea ceremony adage, is keenly felt—constant, and constantly jarring. Of course, it is this very experience that contributes to a unique and broadened view—one much more difficult to achieve when safe in the comforts of origin and home.
Having children forces this perspective too—perhaps at a greater rate and depth. I hadn’t known that. As parents, we cannot help but grasp the raw reality of a human life, its brief and transient nature. Frankly, I think it is much easier to overlook the arc of our own lives than to ignore that of those who are under our continual watch and care. With our children, we bear witness: each day we meet a new version of our child; each day we say goodbye to the child who was. It is both joyful and wrenching, this microcosm of human experience. And, yes—it can seem overwhelming at times, but it has been one of my greatest teachers.
There is no “peace” when it comes to abiding the impermanence of our bonds with others. Not in that blissful, light, happy sense of the word anyway. There is just acceptance of what is and what will never be again. We are grateful for what we have (this moment); we mourn what we have lost (all those moments that came before). There is no neat separation between the positive and negative. Because this is truth. Complex—and blindingly simple.
On those days that I feel the loss most deeply—as a traveler or as a mother or as a human of 40 years—my reconciliation is in practice, in simply being present at the center of a vast river of encounter, this deluge of memory.
All I have known and loved: in every moment I meet your past, present, and future selves—the many versions of you. I hold you in my mind in a wordless embrace; there is nothing to say. My heart is breaking. I am grateful. I am.
You never forget the first time that someone just throws up all over you. Until a few years ago, I would have taken this statement as true. Not universal, of course; I know that some people experienced college, for example, in messy and hard-to-piece-together ways. Still, the gag reflex is a powerful way of marking time.
I know it was Boy, but I no longer know when. A few nights when he was 1 year old all run together for me—we would wake to a horrible sound from his room, something far beyond coughing, and find him sitting up in his crib in the dark, just vomiting all over himself, eyes asking us, What is going on? One of us would scoop him up, trying to calm him down and get him out of his pajamas, and the other would start the hurried and mechanical process of searching for towels, changing sheets, just trying to put things in order. On a good night it happened only once. On a rough one, it might go until morning. He made his way down the list of stomach bugs as if it was a matter of pride.
In each case, a doctor the next day was able to cheerfully point to a chart and show us that this was just another completely routine event in the life of a small person. But no matter how many times a 1-year-old throws up, it still doesn’t make any sense to him. His little body is suddenly and violently completely outside of his control. He’s being turned inside out, probably following minutes or hours of nausea and having no way of communicating it to the only people who might be able to help. Even for me, as an adult, there is no worse feeling. It’s debilitating—it reduces us to the most powerless versions of ourselves.
Boy is 5 now and this nighttime scene is a thing of the distant past; Girl never had these problems, even when she was sick. They’ve both passed that age of being constantly ill, and if they do feel sick, they understand what’s happening and can go hover over the open toilet like the rest of us do. It’s a strange ritual to see played out by someone not even three feet tall. I’m happy for them, and for us, when I see them do it. It’s so clean.
All of this is a long way of pointing to the memory of those sick nights, of the moment just after we’d find him retching in his crib. In every telling, I probably hesitate—there’s always that pause—as my eyes adjust to the dark and take in what is happening, verifying that it’s already too late to make any of it OK. I reach down into the crib to my tiny, vomit-covered boy who is trying to cry but can’t because his body is too busy doing something else, and he reaches back up to me, and I hold him close in the dark as he just barfs all over me, over and over, limp and convulsing and confused. Intimacy is such a beautiful word, and I use it often when I speak of beautiful Buddhist teachings, but the image in my head is of this encounter, of my hand against his heaving back and the hot, slow avalanche running down and into my shirt, the trust and the fear in his little grabbing hands. And later, after he falls back asleep in new pajamas and new sheets, me standing outside the house at 3am with a hose in one hand to wash everything off, waving with the other hand to make the motion-sensitive light stay on long enough to get the job done.
Strangely awake in the jarring, rare clarity of knowing there is really nothing more to be done than this.
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?
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.
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.
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.