The Weight of Earth and Water


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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

A storm is coming. You are the storm.


“Help us! Help us! A storm is coming! A storm is coming!”

Boy is wearing a magician’s cape his grandma made. On his head, an adult-sized pair of white, fuzzy earmuffs. He’s shouting to no one in particular, as if to warn the village.

I know what’s next. He turns to me and whispers: You be the storm, OK?

With that, he stretches the earmuffs across his little round belly so that there are two white balls on each side of his torso. This is his “magic belt.” He touches each ball and shakes like a rocket about to take off, then makes a SSSSHOOOOOOO sound and runs to the far corner of the room, preparing for battle.

We didn’t teach him any of this.

I do a pretty decent storm. I spin and wave my arms around and blow and look menacing. I’m not sure where else to go with it.

Boy’s eyes flicker with the light of justice — or is it vengeance? — and there’s the flurry of his cape, and with a shout of “PUUUUNCH!!”  I, the storm, am dealt one decisive blow. It’s over.

I read somewhere that the unconscious purpose behind fathers wrestling and roughhousing with little boys is not to teach boys to fight, but to teach them how to stop. I think about that every day.

When I was a little boy, my dad got two pairs of boxing gloves — a big brown pair for him and a little red pair for me. He would walk on his knees in the living room and do that delicate dance: one part trying to get me to really hit him, one part trying to teach me control. I loved this, but it was hard. If I got bopped on the nose, or if I just got frustrated, it flipped a switch, and suddenly I was pummeling my dad, trying to go for his face. Sometimes he could calm me down; sometimes we just had to stop for a while. And one day I was just too big for it, and my dad hung up the gloves for good.

This is not just a problem for 4-year-olds. In college and for years after, my life revolved around karate, and it was the same thing. In that atmosphere of hitting and getting hit, many men reveal (or discover) their tipping points — some lose control gradually, in a frustrated escalation you can measure, but most lose it in an instant. You learn to recognize that little flicker in your sparring partner’s eyes, the one that says this just got personal, and when you see it, you stop everything. You have to.

I remember once, before Boy turned two and was still not perfectly sure on his feet, he suddenly got angry — I don’t remember why — and charged me from across the room, roaring, hands scraping the ground, like a gorilla. He moved like a blur. I had never seen anything like that in a human being, something so primal. Even now, when he’s sad, or disappointed, or surprised, it’s punctuated by a little punch or a kick — if not at me, then at the refrigerator, or the floor, or the world. In the best-case scenario, he’ll spend the next 20 years trying to reconcile that part of him, the part that feels aggression as one face of desire, that experiences no intense emotion without an accompanying low hum of violence, that knows that his body has its own will, its own way of expressing itself — an expression that is hard, not soft. That’s if things go well; if they don’t, he’ll wrestle with this his whole life.

Great effort, great discipline, great concentration, great action — I feel, for myself, that they can come from the same place as that aggression, that they can vibrate with that same low hum. They can be the cultivated version of that thing inside that’s always one ember away from exploding.

Usually, our little superhero is convinced that just one punch will fell the storm, and usually he’s right. But if it doesn’t — if the storm is busy talking on the phone, for example, or hanging up laundry — then the punches can come rapid-fire, in a barrage, and the storm needs to say something, or shout something, or hug the superhero tight through 18 different emotions until all is calm again.

Sometimes the storm gets punched in the groin. Hard. And as the storm buckles to the ground, our superhero stands hurt and confused by his own uncontrolled power, unsure what to do next. Maybe he sees, in that moment, how Papa is suddenly struggling to not be a storm, how much effort goes into just dissipating clouds. Maybe it’s too much to take in; maybe he doesn’t know what it means.

But I know the forecast.

Suit up, I want to tell him. You are the storm.

Hell Realms

(With apologies to Bernie Glassman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Have Always Known You

jizo and boy

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Eggs and Ham, and Karma

Last year, for his birthday, we got Boy a balance bike. It’s probably the best thing we’ve ever gotten him; for pure cost-to-satisfaction ratio, it might be the best thing anyone’s ever gotten for anyone. He loves it. He pretends he’s  a mailman, or a pizza man, or a “natto man,” or our friend Richard, who rides a yellow motorcycle. But he’s 4, so “I want to ride my bike” translates to “I want you to drop whatever you’re doing and stand outside and watch me ride my bike for a long time. I plan to risk my life a few times. And I will never, never agree to come inside again.” So I have some complicated feelings about that bike.

Also for his birthday last year, Boy received a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. By my math, with about 400 days having passed between then and now, and three stories a night, I’ve read that book one million times. Here’s how we start every night:

Me: OK, Green Eggs and Ham it is.
Boy: Papa? Ham is meat.
Me: Yup.
Boy: Meat is yucky.
Me: Yeah, I don’t want to eat meat. Especially green meat.
Boy: Yeah, I don’t want to eat meat either. Papa?
Me: Yes?
Boy: People are meat.
Me: Can we read this thing?
Boy: Yup.

And we start. Boy thinks it’s hilarious when the guy who keeps saying no (Is he Mr. Knox? This drives us crazy) comes around at the end and decides he likes green eggs and ham. I don’t know why. But I, recognizing a teachable moment, always seize the opportunity to point out that the every-single-thing-on-the-plate-that-wasn’t-bread that we had for dinner that evening might have been really delicious if only he’d tried it. It might have turned out to be his favorite food. “Hummus,” I tell him, “might be your green eggs and ham.”

“But ham is meat.”

I also spin a pretty good story about what foods will and will not turn him into a superhero. Foods that give you powers are “genki foods.” Broccoli is a genki food — if you eat enough, you’ll get bigger when you sleep, and then you’ll be super, SUPER strong. There are lots of variations on this, but at its core, the narrative is pretty consistent: the thing that you think you will dislike may actually be something that you love; more than that, it will be the very thing that empowers you. It can sound a little silly, probably, when we’re telling him about the superhuman feats he’d be capable of if he would just eat some beans. He’s probably on to us by now — he certainly doesn’t find us very persuasive.

But the thing is, it’s all true. And I know this for two reasons. The first is that I married someone who patiently encouraged me from the start to try new things. Fifteen years into this relationship, I think all my favorite foods are things I learned about from Tracy. I wasn’t raised to be adventurous about food, or even to think about it much. I didn’t know that people ate broccoli without butter, or that an avocado could be a food all by itself. If someone had tricked me into eating an avocado straight when I was a kid, it would have blown my mind. Ginger? That’s a food. I just had no idea. So I can use these kinds of stories as part of my argument with Boy. And he likes that — he likes the idea that Papa was once a boy too.

The second reason I know I’m not lying, though, would be too difficult to explain. That balance bike — that’s my green eggs and ham. I fight it. My body slumps a little when he says he wants to ride it; I look around the room for some sort of assist. If I give in, it’s always with a sigh, and before we even get outside, I’m telling him how he’d better come inside nicely when it’s time. I just get tired at the thought of it, and I probably show him that in a hundred little ways, even though I don’t mean to.

And for what? Why? Do I want to stay inside so that I can mull around and obsessively check email for no reason? Would I really rather watch Sesame Street than be outdoors with my son? Do the dishes need to be washed this second? This is how karma works — we fall into a rut, and even when there’s no reason at all not to change our pattern, even when that pattern is harmful, we just stay there.

What I can’t explain to Boy is this: “The thing you think you won’t like is good for you, and the reason I know is that sometimes I think I’m not going to like playing with you. But I love playing with you. It’s my favorite thing.” When I let go and just embrace it — when I make a tunnel with my legs and Boy rides through it, when he delivers a strawberry-and-potato pizza and insists on paying me, when he risks his life riding down that hill with his legs stretched out to the sides just so that he can say ‘boing!’ when he gets to the bottom — these, I love. And just like broccoli, the whole thing makes me stronger. I spend so much energy resisting this kind of play, when actually playing costs me nothing.

In Green Eggs and Ham, the guy has a kind of awakening. He actually says, “I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE!” He’s so sure of this; I’m sure he really means it.

But I suspect he also forgets. Maybe it’s because I’ve read the book so many times, but I see it on a loop, with Sam endlessly having to push and push and guide the guy back to what, in some part of his brain, he already knows: that he loves this.

Boy, by the way, actually loves hummus. Sometimes he just doesn’t remember.

Me too.

Authentic Self


Over the summer holiday, my son became bilingual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Conversation with My Husband, 15 Years Ago


“Close your eyes.”


“Just—close your eyes.”


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

“No, there’s nothing.”


“Wait—yes. I can see it.”

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

“Okay, I can see all of it now.”

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

“Yes—yes, I see it.”

“Good. Describe the vessel and its contents.”

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

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

Two-hands Mama

two hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

I’ve been reading Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s new book, Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices (great book), and early on, he says this:

The aim of far too many teachings these days is to make people “feel good,” and even some Buddhist masters are beginning to sound like New Age apostles. Their talks are entirely devoted to validating the manifestation of ego and endorsing the “rightness” of our feelings, neither of which have anything to do with the teachings we find in the pith instructions. So, if you are only concerned about feeling good, you are far better off having a full body massage or listening to some uplifting or life-affirming music than receiving dharma teachings, which were definitely not designed to cheer you up. On the contrary, the dharma was devised specifically to expose your feelings and make you feel awful.

Just replace “dharma” and “teachings” with “having kids.” I think this quotation is right on — spiritual practice, if it’s worth anything, shakes up your world. It can feel really bad sometimes. I don’t know if that definition always works both ways, but it does often. Experiences that challenge us, that break us down, that make us question everything: these are the real thing.

I’m pretty sure that nothing has revealed more about me, or the stories I tell myself about who I am, than having kids.  I thought I moved in the world with some degree of equanimity. Wrong. I thought I was a patient person. Not so true. If you’d asked me a couple years ago when I had last raised my voice at someone in anger and frustration, I would have said that I had no idea. Years, maybe. But if you ask me now, I remember. I’m still wearing the same shirt.

A central theme in Zen literature (and by extension, Zen practice) is “don’t know.” It’s a good thing, this not knowing. When you know exactly where you’re going, you don’t look at the road. Arrival is automatic, unaware. But when you’re lost — and you know it — you look at the world with open eyes. Nothing is obvious. Nothing is easy. From a Zen perspective, that feeling of being lost is a kind of honesty. It’s an honest response to the complexities of our lives. It forces us to really see, and to make decisions based not on some philosophy or policy, but on where we actually are.

But it’s not something we embrace. I have never known more about raising kids than I did four years ago, the day before our son was born. I’d read all the articles, combed through the books, thought through my own vision of what a good parent is. I’d seen the parents around me failing, and made lots of mental notes about how I would never, never sink so low. I was an expert. And I have never known less about parenting than I did the first time I held that little boy and he looked up at me. It was that dull moment of clarity that, if it were a movie, would be signaled by the camera zooming in on my face, eerie music rising. I had no idea what I was doing.

Four years and a little girl later, I still feel lost in that deep, endless way. I have never before been so receptive to other people’s ideas. When our boy started having full-on tantrums, I was willing to listen to even the craziest “solution.” I was, and am, out of my depth. I’m the younger brother; Tracy grew up as an only child. We came to this with no experience, not even much babysitting in junior high. Tracy and I are always mapping out little strategies, coming up with new policies, encouraging each other to stand firm on this, or to relax about that. But when I’m stuck in traffic, and the little guy has just undone his seat belt and is screaming in the back seat with an intensity that I know, for good or bad, I will never feel about anything, ever, for the rest of my life, the best plans and intentions just seem comical, and I’m left to my own devices, and my devices, it turns out, are not so handy in that particular situation.

So now I’m  40, and I have less confidence now than at any time I can remember. But I’m grateful for that. What Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse says about Dharma is true, but the whole point is that it’s worth it. I sometimes long to be more sure in the world, but I see that my sureness has always been, at least in some important ways, unearned. I’m a beginner, I see that now. And I laugh when I hear childless friends toss around their big ideas about how to properly raise children. What’s more ridiculous than being sure you know exactly how to do something you’ve never done? But that was me. To varying degrees, I think that’s everybody.