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.

 

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.

To All the Real Mothers Out There

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Both of my children are adopted.  Our first-born is now our second child, and our second child is the first-born. It’s okay if you need to re-read the last sentence. When you give birth to children, this kind of thing is impossible; the rules are fixed. With adoption, there are no formulas. Birth order in an adopted family is based on when the child is birthed into your family.

Let me explain. Our youngest was adopted first. The second day after the birth, my husband and I went to the hospital to get our first-born child. The birth mother chose us to be the adoptive parents after viewing a group of portfolios she was given by the adoption agency.  I suppose, for precision’s sake, we could call her the birth-to-the-second-day-mother, which would make me the third-day-on-mother, but I ‘ll talk more about names in a moment.

When we arrived at the obstetrics ward, we met not only the birth mother but her mother and grandmother as well. No one could speak. Our nervous smiles held back the wild joy we felt; their smiles held back a fierce pain. When that young woman placed her baby in my arms, the pronouns all changed, and every one of us began to cry. We stood in a circle, each struck dumb in different ways. Only the social worker could speak, so she offered a prayer.

Normally, even in adoptive families, people do not  upset the chronological birth order, but we did. The first child was three when we adopted the second who was five. Some things are more important than birth order, like love.

We were living in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, when we found out about our second child.  We had to travel  the full length of Japan to an orphanage in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture. We never met the birth mother.

From the beginning, both children knew that they were adopted. We were careful to use the proper terms and explain that they had a birth mother and a birth father, but now we were their mommy and daddy, and we loved them very much.

What are we three mothers involved in these children’s lives to call ourselves? Birth mother fits the other two women, but then what am I, the “after birth mother” (too messy), or the “life mother” (more appropriate for a goddess), or simply “mother” (what I generally use.)

The word that has been raising its hand and waving it wildly in order to get our attention is  that four-letter word, “real,” as in, “Will the real mother, please stand up.”  If by this term we mean the woman who carried the child and gave birth, no small gift, then I am not the real mother. Each of us can have only one of those. The two women who gave life to my children are real mothers who physically sheltered and nurtured them nine months, and then willingly went through the pain of childbirth knowing they would release these beautiful babies to strangers. They were, and are, much more than mere incubators of my joy. Only those who are real can pay such a price.  I love and appreciate these mothers though one I have never met one and the other only once for a few minutes.

It is difficult for our language to accommodate the idea that children can have two real mothers. In the plainest use of  language, it is contradictory. Two parallel lines can never intersect, something we’ve known since Euclid. In an Euclidean grammar, the lines are clearly drawn: there can be only one real mother, and the other must be the birth mother or the adoptive mother, depending on who claims the title of “real.”

There is a geometry besides Euclid’s, however, where these parallel lines do not exist. In elliptical geometry, all lines on a sphere eventually meet. I choose to use a grammar based on that, so I can say without hesitation that there can be two real mothers–the one who gave birth and the one who adopted.

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“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled.

(from The Velveteen Rabbit)