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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

Reverse Culture Shock. . . with Kids


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

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

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

New Snow


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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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



  • 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


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


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


  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.

Nothing Withheld


Between Kumamoto and Halifax, we found ourselves in Hawaii, a place that, as unreal as it feels to me, is a world entirely without category for our kids. It’s a magical station between realities where everyone speaks English, but you’re almost as likely to hear Japanese — a world where our kids, for the first time, had no secret language.

But the encounter we’ll remember from those two days is not one that could be measured in words. Already, after a month of settling into our new lives, I’d be hard pressed to offer much detail about that time in Honolulu. But I will not forget when Boy met the ocean.

Neither, I’d like to think, will the ocean.

Boy stood on the beach, eyes wide, frozen like an animal discovered. There was a pause. Then he charged. He ran to the water as a wave came in and slapped him in the face, knocking him down. I ran after him, arriving in time to see him stand up, sputtering, arms extended in front of him, and shout, “Come on waves! I WILL FIGHT YOU!” And then, for good measure, “And I will WIN!”

We stood there in the surf, Boy challenging the water and getting knocked down by it, and me just trying to keep him alive. We did this for hours, until it was dark and we looked out across the horizon and saw that on all of Waikiki Beach, we were the only ones still there. Boy did not get tired. He did not give up. He was, without any doubt, the most intensely happy he has ever been. In the end, I had to pick him up and carry him back to the hotel, him sobbing at being torn away from this beloved adversary.

As much as a four-year-old can, I think that Boy, in those hours in the ocean, knew who he was. And who he was was someone who can stand before the full force and scale of the Pacific Ocean and not be humbled. He saw a worthy adversary. A fair fight.

It’s not that he didn’t know it was dangerous. He did, and for the most part, I didn’t need to tell him not to go in too deep. And he knew the ocean was beating him up; he knew it would continue. But in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, when faced with the immensity of the ocean, he chose to insist that he could match it. He was defiant.

This is the mind of vow. In all its glory and impotence and absurdity, this is what vowing looks like.

In the Zen world, we have four basic vows:

Beings are countless; I vow to free them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
Reality is boundless; I vow to perceive it.
The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

Many of us say these every day, but what do we mean when we do? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people—beginners and teachers alike—point out that well, yes, we do take on these vows, and yes, that’s very meaningful, but of course we understand that it’s impossible to fulfill them. We know we can’t free all beings. We’re not stupid.

But that’s a mistake. That kind of vow is not a vow—it’s a performance. It’s a lie. For it to be a vow, we have to promise with our whole body and mind to see it through. That’s all. Don’t tack on, “…though I know I really can’t.” And don’t do philosophical acrobatics to redefine “free” and “embody” and “inexhaustible” so that they are now achievable, measurable. We can waste our lives in that way, telling ourselves a story about what we’re doing instead of doing it.

We vow, when our children are born, to protect them from harm. And we fail. We fail so, so many times that we can feel crushed by our incompetence. But those failures are a separate conversation from vow, because in this moment, our children still need protecting. They need that vow. And they need it again in this moment, and in this one. We don’t have the luxury of stopping to evaluate whether it’s really possible or not, because we don’t have the luxury of deciding it can’t be done. There is no compromise to be made. There is no way out of this promise.

I have misunderstood this point many times. I have gotten stuck in my story of how I have failed to be the husband I want to be, the friend I want to be, the priest I want to be. I have searched around for excuses, wallowed in the complexity of it all, stepped away from vow and into despondency over my own apparent inability to meet my own ideals. But being a husband doesn’t pause for me to think about it. Neither does being a friend, or a priest, or a son, or a father. I can only dive in. That’s the best I can do.

All of this is what washes over me as I stand battered by waves, laughing and staring at this little boy with his wild eyes and round belly and Finding Nemo swimsuit, so alive, shouting in the dark for the full force of the natural world to bring it on. I watch him get knocked down over and over again—he’s knocked down every time. He can’t win. Anyone can see that. But he also can’t lose. He shouts without looking at me, “I’m winning Papa!” And I want to grab him and look in his eyes and say, Keep that. If you keep nothing else, keep that.

Are We There Yet?


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.



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


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


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


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.

Being Superman, Being Jor-El

full Superman

As a kid, I never really got into comic books. We just didn’t have them around. But now, as an adult, I have an unabashed enthusiasm for superheroes and superhero movies. As silly and over-the-top as they can be, they speak to me on a deep aspirational level. I feel as inspired at the thought of those stories as I do by the stories themselves. They’re like my emotional kryptonite.

I am moved by the tough, selfless, against-all-odds determination of Batman, and touched by the youthful courage of Spiderman, but I have a special weakness for Superman. I always have. It’s not about all the things he can do — it’s how perfectly he embodies his function.

I know that some people didn’t like 2006’s Superman Returns, but there is a moment there that defines the character in a way nothing else can. Superman flies up into the atmosphere and stops at that line between blue sky and dark space, and closes his eyes. And he just listens. In that moment, he is Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion (whose name in Japanese, Kannon or 観音, literally means “witnessing sound”). Avalokiteshvara hears all the cries of the world and responds with 1000 outstretched, skillful hands. Superman makes this choice to find this vantage point, hovering between the world he protects and the perfect, unrestrained freedom of space, and he listens, and then, in a flash, he turns and speeds toward the earth, toward one of the millions of cries he just heard, to respond. We cheer for him, and we know as we watch that this is not his first time to come to this place or to listen in this way. This is what he does. It’s all he does.

The beauty of superhero stories, for me, is that they invite us to identify with the superhero, to imagine ourselves with those burdens, but also with those capabilities. When I watch Superman, I allow myself to be Superman; when I watch Batman, I let myself become him. When the stories take us to their inevitable and unchanging conclusion — that “with great power comes great responsibility” — I hear that as a message to myself, as a reminder, even a scolding. We underestimate what we can do. We make excuses. I do. I know I do. But for two hours in a theater, I know how it feels not to. I try on the weight of that responsibility. I sense that awesome power.

So naturally, I’ve been excited about the upcoming Superman movie, Man of Steel (and frustrated, too — it won’t come out in Japan until after we’ve left here, by which time it will probably have left theaters everywhere else!). I watch new trailers online when they appear. And in some ways, I get that same feeling I’ve gotten my whole life, that same resonance. But this time, there’s something new in the mix, something almost unbearably powerful and sad. Most of the trailers for Man of Steel strongly emphasize the relationship between Superman and his fathers: Jor-El on Krypton, and Jonathan Kent on Earth. In a few cases, the ads are even set to the fathers’ voices. What I find — and what today, seeing the trailer below, left me a little shaken — is that as I watch, I am also identifying, for the first time, with the fathers. For 60 seconds, I am watching Superman as my own son. I am sending him into that fight, into that danger, hoping he is ready, wanting to say or do exactly what he needs, to offer the words that spur him to embrace who he most needs to be, who the world needs him to be. Instead of flying into the fight myself, I’m watching my son as he disappears into battle.

It’s wrenching.

It can’t help, of course, that Boy has taken to dressing as Superman. He has a Superman t-shirt and Superman underpants (the combination is “full Superman”). When he wears them, he feels a little stronger, a little more grown up. I love this, and I take every opportunity to remind him that Superman’s job is not fighting bad guys: it’s protecting everyone else.  “Protect” is a word we use a lot here. He likes to protect his little sister. He likes to protect his friends. Being Superman, he gets to play that it’s his job. And then, if he’s tired of it, he can take it all off and just be a crazy boy.

Girl doesn’t want to be a superhero. But she is at a magical age — she is starting to gain autonomy in the world. She can do new things every day, all by herself. She makes mistakes, and she gets frustrated, but more often than not, she completely overestimates herself. She thinks she can do anything. It looks as if she’s testing limits, but really, she’s bumping into them. Until she does, she has no idea that they’re there.

I want these things for them. And when they’re older and their temperaments no longer tend toward play-acting, I want for them to find, somehow, how not to let go of this, how to keep this sense — not only of responsibility and purpose, but of the power to make it all real. Whether they ever frame it in Buddhist language or not, I don’t care. If they feel it deeply enough, perhaps all that talk will just be extra. But it’s my language, and so I think in those terms — I think in phrases like “all beings.” So I want them to feel that call, that pull to offer themselves to all beings, everywhere.

At the end of the trailer below, Jor-El says to his son, “You can save them. You can save all of them.” And he means it. And his son knows, in that moment, that it’s true.

This is what I most want to tell my kids. This is what I want to tell everyone.

It’s what I want them to believe.

Eat, Pee, Sleep


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.

Whole Body

Jumping Boy

We’re driving home from an onsen, a benefit of living in a land filled with natural hot springs. Boy and Girl are in the back seat.

“Hey, Papa?” It’s Boy, and all conversations start with “Hey.” And given that only two people on earth speak English to him, there’s a disturbing chance that, unknown to me, my conversations also start with “Hey.” (I’m also to blame, it would seem, for “awesome.”)

“Yeah?” It’s raining hard outside. It’s the season. So we half-shout a lot when we drive.

“When you make a bath, you have to check if the water is too hot or too cold.”

“Mmm, I guess that’s right.” Boy always thinks the water is too hot. He thinks everything is too hot. I spend half of every meal time blowing his food to room temperature. I ask, “So how do you check the water? Do you check with your hand or with your foot?”



“You have to do it with your whole body.”

At this, my ears perk up. This sounds like something I might say. It also sounds a little crazy.

“Your whole body? Do you just jump in?”

“Yep. You just jump in! And Papa?”


“When you run, you have to run with your whole body, too.”

I’m smiling. I like this. I get this. I’ve given talks about this, about the physicality of Zen practice, about never holding back, about committing completely to each action.

He keeps going: “When you do yoga, you have to do it with your whole body. When you fight, you have to fight with your whole body. When you play, you have to play with your whole body.”

This is dead on. But I’m starting to wonder where he’ll take it. After all, these are already whole-body activities.

Then he makes the turn: “When you hold hands, you have to hold hands with your whole body. And when you say ‘thank you,’ you have to say it with your whole body.”

There it is. My 4-year-old son has just come close, in his little way, to summing up my total understanding of spiritual practice. And why should I be surprised? If I imagine myself trying to lift a car off of a baby, I know I still wouldn’t use as much of myself as he does just when he cries. Everything he does is total. Even sleep, for him, is an unrestrained act of plunging into something. It’s a complete investment of himself.

He will lose this understanding. He’s losing it moment by moment. It’s not something he’s arrived at, or something he can see from the outside. It’s just that right now, at a moment in his life when his body does not yet feel in any way separate from his own sense of self, he cannot imagine it any other way. He’ll lose that sense of singularity, and along the way, he’ll discover the dangerous idea of conserving energy. He’ll come to appreciate efficiency. He’ll see his body as a tool, something to use or not at his discretion.

And then, if he’s lucky, he’ll cross over. He’ll find, on one hand, that “his” body isn’t really his, and on the other, that it is inseparable from who he is. And he’ll realize, probably the hard way, that negotiating with himself about what to give and what to keep is what makes him tired in the first place, that a total commitment to this action and this life is what makes that commitment possible. Giving feeds giving. Saying “thank you” with the whole body is exactly what you’ve been saving up for.

Boy’s been quiet for a while, and I’ve been lost in my own musings about this unformed wisdom of his, hypnotized by the windshield wipers.

He pipes up again. “But Papa?”


“When you look at a picture, you don’t look with your whole body.”

“What? Why not? How do you look at a picture?”

He sighs, another mannerism that comes from me. “With your eyes. If you use your whole body, that would be weird.”

And we’re home.

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.

Hold Without Breaking


Boy holds out his hand to show me a snail. He’s kind of grunting and squeezing it, and I tell him to stop — there might be a snail inside there. He looks me in the eyes. He heard me. And then there’s a cracking sound, and he opens his hands again to show me a broken shell, and inside, a crushed snail. Boy just looks confused. I tell him maybe the snail can still find a new home and be OK, and he finds a good place for the snail in the dirt. Then we agree that next time we find a snail, we should treat him like a friend and just let him go about his business.

That was last week. A couple days ago, it almost happened all over again, except that this time, I was able to talk him down from it. Barely.

I’m not going to write about how we should be kind to all creatures, though I think we should, and I hope I can guide our kids toward that same conclusion. The snail has me thinking of something else.

The night that he smashed the snail, Boy played the scene out over and over in our living room. He shuffled around under a blanket and told me in a high voice, “Papa, I’m a snail.” I asked him if he was OK. He said yes. I asked him what I should do. He said, “Don’t squish me.” Then I asked him if he’d found a new shell, and he said that he had. He said, “Now I’m fine.” I know he wanted it to be so.

I grew up in Montana. When I was in 4th or 5th grade, my grandfather introduced me to gopher hunting. He’d drive with me in the mountains to a big clearing where, if you watched for a even just a moment, you’d see little gopher heads popping in and out of sight. We would sit next to the road, or in the back of his truck, with a .22 rifle, and just kill them. As many as we could, as quickly as we could. It was target practice. And I was a really good shot.

I did this off and on for two or three summers. How many gophers did I kill? And why? I look back at how cute they were, and in that memory, I know that I thought so even then. When I killed one and another seemingly ran to its friend’s aid, I felt that was really sweet. Gophers are neat, I’d think. Then I’d shoot the friend.

In fifth grade, I shot a rabbit in the stomach with my last bullet. It was very alive, screaming, flipping around, and the only thing I could think to do was to go and stomp on it until it was dead. That moment gave me nightmares. After that, I didn’t want to shoot for target practice anymore. A year later, I shot my first and last deer — a doe, right through the heart. But a heart shot doesn’t kill right away, so I had time to cross the field, to make eye contact before shooting her again in the neck. I don’t think I’ve shot a gun since, except maybe at a tin can. And I don’t want to.

What if that rabbit had died right away? What if the deer had? Would I have just kept shooting things until suffering had sufficiently revealed itself to me? Or was I just at an age where I was seeing my actions differently? I don’t know.

What was fun about it?

When I read the news and learn that someone just shot some kids at their school, or held a human being prisoner, or set off a bomb, I think to myself, “How could they do such a thing?” In the follow-up, we hear this kind of question a lot. And maybe it’s OK, in that moment of shock, to allow ourselves that little bit of psychic distance. But the fact is, we know the answer. We don’t know why — we can never really know why. But we can know how. We can know the mechanism of dissociation that allows us to love the life all around us and, at the same time, to hold it clumsily. To treat it as something separate from ourselves. Something already dead.

We watch it in our children. And if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves.

My son loves the creatures of the world. This morning, he waxed poetic all the way to daycare about all the flowers and how he wants to make it rain so they can grow. Yesterday, for the first time, we watched him play with a dog, and it was a vision of pure love (on both sides).  But he doesn’t know what death is. He can’t imagine someone else’s pain. Not yet. We have to remind him not to hit his sister. And we can’t save the snails, not all of them.

I want to cultivate the gentle impulses my boy feels all the time. But not just that: I want to help him to learn how to understand that other part of himself, to face his own capacity to act upon others. We tell children, “You can do anything,” but we mean it in a very limited way. You can be a doctor, or You can be an artist. But the truth of it is so much more than that. You are capable of anything. The deepest act of generosity — you can surpass it. The lowest act of depravity — you’re capable of that, too.

How to learn to own it all, to integrate and understand this fragile, combustible mix?  How do we best help those for whom that gap has become too much to bear, those who have broken? I don’t know. But I’m sure it doesn’t come from “How can someone do such a thing?” That’s a question we ask for ourselves, to feel separate and safe. If we want to be of service, we need to start with “Where in myself am I capable of the same?” My experience, as painful as it can sometimes be, is that if we’re honest, we can always find that place. Always.

We are snails. And we are a little boy holding a snail in our hands. This moment decides it.

Potty Zen

Anpanman toilet seat

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


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,


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