Legacies

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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

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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

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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.

Offerings

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

Razing Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep Is a River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructions for Autumn Kinhin

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

Nothing Withheld

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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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impermanence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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