Getting home from the last station

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The wind swept out the flooded floor of the sky, drenching the world below. I watched the night through the windows as the train hurried through the falling water. When we pulled into Hamadayama Station, I felt relief and dismay. In ten minutes, I could be home. But I had to walk through the rain to get there.

 

Ten minutes in that insistent rain felt like a lifetime. The cold didn’t think much of my jacket, and my umbrella was built for a kinder world. I carried the taut cloth over my head to hide myself from the sky, believing I could. Then I started walking.

 

My feet drowned first and my pants clung to me like a shroud. The wind resented the umbrella, which kept my head dry as long as it could. Finally, it threw its hands up in despair and surrendered.

 

I yielded to the baptism of rain until I managed to half open the broken umbrella. I belonged to the rain now. On the dark streets, I saw a few others, struggling forward. We didn’t speak. Lost in our private thoughts, we were willing ourselves to a place of belonging. All I could think of was home, where I would be safe, where I would be warm.

 

Those last few steps were the hardest. They always are.

 

You cannot imagine my delight, grasping that cold doorknob, knowing the door would open into a world of warmth and light, with all of my loved ones waiting for me.

 

It rained with fury that cold November night in Tokyo.

 


The old woman in the mirror

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Before the cherry blossoms fall.

 

Sometimes I talk to the old woman in the mirror. She tells me her stories and asks me questions. I know each tale she tells, but I listen anyway.

 

So, she says, did I tell you about the time I almost belonged? We lived in a house; it’s where the children did much of their growing up. Friends lived nearby, and I had a job teaching. I liked the house because it was small and easy to clean. When friends came, it grew big with laughter. Nearby was my park. In the early mornings I followed the river, looking for the egrets. In spring the cherry trees drew near to the river, bending down to admire their blossoms in the water. Back then I believed I would die from beauty.

 

From a place I almost belonged.

Yes, I answer, I remember you told me that.

 

Oh, she says, in the park was an old man I called Good Morning Grandpa. In Japanese, he was Ohayo Ojiisan, which is the very same thing. I looked forward to seeing him on my walks, though I never told anyone. Every morning he rode his bike to the park, picked up trash left by careless walkers, and then sat down to smoke a cigarette and greet the people who passed by. He said “Good morning” to me both coming and going. I regret never sitting down and talking to him.

 

I watch as she talks, watch her smile fade and the tears well up.

 

I think I told you this, she says, but that day we left on our trip, we had only planned to be gone a few weeks. How could I have known it would be the last time I would live in that house? That I would never see Good Morning Grandpa again?

 

I nod, watching as she wipes her tears.

 

Zempukuji River

She shakes her head and says, how was I to know the world would tilt and I would slide off? I had only four days to return and gather a few things for that first winter. Hardly time to say goodbye.

 

I know, I say, I remember that first winter and how cold the world felt.

 

I use to cry for her, almost every day, that old woman in the mirror. But after four winters, I’ve grown stronger. I still mind the cold but at night when I close my eyes, I dream that her tears are cherry blossoms falling one by one into Zempukuji River.

 

I am not Tippi Hedren

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No, I don't want to carry on. I said I wanted carrion.

 

 

I want to tell a story about my father, but the crows won’t let me. I have to talk about them first.

 

When we lived in Tokyo, we shared the neighborhood with crows. Early risers, they would sit on wires, rooftops, or fences, watching us sideways in that way that birds do, the entire eye black, with no white part to indicate if their gaze had shifted and they had stopped watching you. Alerted by internal calendars and clocks telling them which days the wet garbage would appear, they chatted and argued until we brought out the vinyl bags stuffed with rotten food and placed them on the curb.

 

As soon as the morning offerings were laid out and we humans went back to making our breakfasts and scolding our children, who were sure to be late to school unless they woke up right now, the crows hopped down to the street or sat atop a bag and began ripping it open.  After pulling out as much garbage as possible and strewing it across the street like an open buffet, they began sampling. Occasionally a housewife would fly out of the house in her flip-flops to shoo them away, sweep up the mess, and re-bag it. More than one crow must have wondered why we put the food out in the first place if we didn’t want them to have it.

 

In some neighborhoods people nailed blue netting to a wall or telephone post and then placed the garbage bags underneath. Undaunted, the crows would poke around or through the netting and manage to pull part of a bag out from under the blue ban.  One of our neighbors hung an effigy of a crow near the collection area for a while because crows have a natural abhorrence of going near one of their dead.  The neighbor took it down after a short time. I think it may have been more unsettling to the humans than the crows.

 

In the summer, gangs of crows would meet around sunrise. Since there is no daylight savings time in Japan, that meant as early as 4:00 in the morning. Summers are hot and humid and few people have air conditioning in their bedrooms. Many sleep with very little clothing on (this is all hearsay), no covers or top sheets, and with just a fan blowing warm air across their damp bodies. Windows gape open, anxious to solicit  the slightest breeze.  Even from a distance the crows are loud, but when they are nearby, you cannot sleep through the noise.

 

I was, and still am, halfway afraid of the crows. In the park where I walked, they often lined the railing near the river and wouldn’t fly away even though they were within arm’s reach.  Now and then, one of them would set off a chorus of caws, not unlike the harsh laughter you may have heard in junior high school. The ones on the ground would hop a few paces, cock their heads, and stare. I never stared back. I know better: I’ve seen Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.”  The movie did not cause my fear as much as uncrack it. Locking eyes with birds in black trench coats, who are the size of a small dog but have sharp beaks and talons unnerved me. I felt incapable of deciphering what they were thinking, and yet believed that they could easily read my thoughts. The thoughts that said, “I am not Tippi Hedren. Do I look like a movie star? No, right? Please don’t stab me or scratch me. Oh, look. Over there! Garbage and vermin!”

 

Crow terror reached its peak in the spring. During nesting time, crows brood. In both senses of that word. They want to be left alone, and you are bothering them with your walking about like you own the neighborhood. Why are you walking about when you could be at home making garbage? So sometimes they fly straight at you, flapping their enormous wings, or jabbing at you with their hard, pointy mouths.

 

Most people don’t enjoy this kind of thing, and develop rational fears of crows. I know some of them.

 

One of my Japanese friends told me how a crow harassed her husband as he walked down a city street in Tokyo. In the crow’s opinion, the man had no business being there and should have known better, so it repeatedly flew over his head and pecked at him. I thought it might be because he looked like he was already henpecked, but she thought it had something to do with the bald spot on his head. In her theory, the crow looked down, saw the shock of hair surrounding that shiny circle on his scalp and mistakenly thought her husband was trying to carry an egg away.

 

That’s why I had to write about crows today. My father had a bald spot just like that on the back of his head. And one of these days, I’m going to tell you a story about that.

 

(Photo on loan from: http://www.pakshimitra.org/maharashtra-birds.html)

One chance, one opportunity

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Yesterday I drank a cup of green tea while I did my Japanese calligraphy. The smell of green tea calms me so that I can focus on the ink, the brush, and the strokes. I enjoy it hot or cold, and loved drinking matcha-flavored soy milk or matcha frappacinos when I lived in Japan. Matcha is a kind of powdered green tea that is used in the tea ceremony.

I experienced the tea ceremony only twice. It is a highly ritualized event that gives meaning to the mundane. What could be more prosaic than making and drinking a cup of tea? Yet, in the tea ceremony each and every act is filled with meaning and purpose. The simplest act of stirring the tea, pulling the sleeve of the kimono away, or turning the teacup is noticed and appreciated. For a brief period of time, all that exists is this exquisite act of making and drinking tea.

When else do we make time to marvel at the ability of the body to kneel or enjoy the incredible ability of the wrist to rotate so delicately? During the tea ceremony, this moment, this bending, this pouring, this stirring becomes the sole focus of life. No thought is given to what happened before or what will happen next. What matters is what is happening now.

And it is a communal moment – the shared cup of tea, bitter but lovingly and tenderly made and offered, along with a small sweet. So like life itself. During the ceremony, time is tamed. Tea brings the participants together, and in that moment they belong to the tea and to one another.

Children understand these things so much better than adults. They love rituals. They do something over and over without tiring. The way the page is turned, the voice is modulated, the neck is kissed,  the pillow fluffed, and the last goodnight said – all to be done without variance. And loved for that very reason. The child leads the parent into the ritual – to share the moment, to be together in time, or better, outside of time as the parent usually experiences it. The parent may try to cheat, but the child will rarely allow it, or if the child does, it will be reluctantly and out of obedience or resignation. The moment will be lost.

Although I need time to look both backward and forward to understand this path I am on, I don’t want to miss this moment. There is still much I want to see, do, read, and experience, but the tea yesterday reminded me that I also need time to enter the familiar dance of ritual that brings me into the moment and gives meaning to the mundane. One of the phrases associated with the tea ceremony is “ichi go ichi e” ( 一期一会 ), which means one chance, one opportunity. That’s all we get. Now is our only chance to live, to see, to love, and to share. Let’s not lose the opportunity.

There’s mistakes everywhere (Hint: There’s one here)

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If you caught the mistake up there in the title of the post, all I can say is, “Look at you all smart and grammarous!”

No doubt you’ve seen or heard this kind of error before. And you’re probably thinking that it is the contraction “there’s” that throws people off. No one would say, “There is mistakes,” right? Maybe, but I suspect there’s more to it than that.

What is missing in the title? It’s the word “are.” In its place is an apostrophe and the letter “s.” You’ve probably noticed a lot of “are’s” are missing lately. More and more people on TV, in the classroom, and on the internet are using a plural noun with “there’s.” Why?

Where are all those “are’s” we used to have?

Oddly, or suspiciously, or perhaps nefariously, the Japanese also use the word “are” when they write in Roman characters (romaji). It  means “that over there.” I don’t have any hard proof yet, but my best sources have led me to believe that not only are Americans smuggling our “are’s” into Japan but the Japanese mafia (yakuza) has bots combing the internet to capture “are’s” that are the replaced with that increasingly familiar apostrophe followed by the lonely  “s.” These captive words are taken to underground factories where Japanese engineers genetically alter the letters, cruelly bending them into shapes that looks like this: あれ. Using an electrical current, they modify the pronunciation until the only sound the word can make is ah-reh. These former verbs are sold on the black market for mere pennies (or mere yen) to be used as demonstratives! You heard me right. That powerful friend of pronouns, that magician of linking, that word that keeps people dancing right now, that verb is now at the beck and call of every pointing finger of every tour guide on every bus in Japan!

I know this is the kind of shocking exposé you’d expect from The New York Times, not a family friendly blog like this. But I felt that someone needed to bring it to the world’s attention.

What can you do? Write your U.S. representative or contact the nearest Japanese Embassy. Let them know we won’t stand for that. Remember, our are’s are ours.

Was this once an American verb? Sadly, we'll never know. It only speaks Japanese now.