On my way home from work yesterday, I stopped in the park to draw a tree. It was a cool early Spring afternoon, the sun was just beginning to slip behind the mountains, and I had my sketchpad in my bag. I had been cooped up inside the office for 8.5 hours and I needed to do something unrelated to preparing for the new school year and fretting about the pandemic. I even took my headphones out of my ears to be exactly there on the hillside, though Caribou’s newest album was a perfect soundtrack for the moment. And I began to draw.
Like most things that matter deeply to me, I am self-conscious about drawing in front of others, which disrupts the flow and results in wonky looking images. The tree you see above is not exactly wonky but it is what happens when you start mapping out a giant tree and begin to get absorbed in the act when someone interrupts you to see what you are drawing. This happens a lot in Japan because people are naturally
nosy curious about what others are up to, especially me. I am not sure why but I think it is because I am cursed with whatever is the opposite of resting bitch face. Something about me makes people, dogs, cats, babies feel very at ease in approaching me. I don’t usually mind but it means that my public drawing time is always going to be interrupted.
Anyway, so about five minutes into my drawing time, an elderly guy in his seventies/eighties/nineties (it is really hard to judge people’s age in Japan) lumbers up the hillside and plops down beside me. We don’t say much, just a nod of recognition. He looks at the tree and my sketchpad and then back at the tree again. I attempt to continue drawing though nothing really comes of it. Then he says, you know, there are some cherry trees over there, very pretty trees. Much better for drawing. And I say, ah, yes, I know, but I like this tree. The shape and lines are interesting. He nods and gives me a gentle pat on the shoulder then wishes me luck as he pushes his leathery hands against the grass to stand and continue meandering through the park.
As he went, he began coughing. I listened to him cough, not violently just rhythmically, walking along, hands in his pocket, mask on his face.
This is our new reality. Everything seems normal, the sun still shines, the flowers still bloom, and so we believe it is the same as it was a month ago, when an old man’s cough was something lingering from a late winter cold, not a highly contagious virus that could infect you and everyone you know.
We are still, obviously, not on lock-down here in Japan. I really, really wish Abe would go ahead and declare a state of emergency because we common folk cannot be trusted. We still eat out at restaurants and pack in like sardines on the trains and sit in small, confined spaces for meetings. Our lives are designed to be interactive, socially intimate. Sending every household a pack of 2 masks is not going to stop us from trying to be as normal as we can. We will wear your masks in the restaurants, on the trains, at meetings. We will still be spreading the virus, of course, just with government-issued masks strapped to our faces.
I don’t want to be suspicious of every cough but considering how often people are washing their hands now and wearing masks, it is hard to know what else could overcome our enhanced healthiness defenses. People in my office have begun coughing though most people will sneak off to do so: no one wants to be the one spreading this thing, which makes me wonder if shame is fanning the flames of our recent outbreaks. People might avoid being tested to avoid being called out as one of the infected, especially since the government and media like to broadcast the infected’s details, if not name then at least age, gender, and location. I noticed that the ones cited today opted out of having that information published, invoking their right to privacy. The shame is already in place for illnesses as it is thought that if you get sick, it is your fault. Every year in my school, my coworkers always refer to the student who was responsible for introducing the flu to their classmates, as if it was intentional. Of course, this virus is not the flu and in general, shaming people when they get sick is never good bedside manner. And in this case, extremely harmful. But whatever, I am sure the government has considered this, with their panels of accountants.
On a somewhat unrelated note, I have decided to continue working on the quarantine story that I briefly put aside as it felt too real. Ultimately, I realized, it is a story about how people persevere despite being forsaken by their government. Still too real but it wants to be completed and above all, I must listen to my stories. Besides, maybe I can find some hope in fiction as reality is completely barren.
Last year, I stopped to admire a cherry tree standing in the front yard of an older house in my neighborhood. As I did so, the owner walked up to the front gate, arms laden with grocery bags. He, like most of my neighbors, was over the age of seventy, and it was obvious the effort of carrying the bags was a great one. He put the bags on the ground and stood beside me, both of us there looked up at the great cloud of pink blossoms. Then he said, the older I get, the more beautiful they become. And then he picked up his bags and went inside and I went on my way.
This year, the cherry tree has already begun to bloom but now the house is vacant. This year, the blossoms are more lovely than ever.
We are all forced to face our frailty these days, come to terms with our mortality. Not all of us are doing this with grace but I hope this serves as a moment to reevaluate what we prioritize. For me, so many of the things I fretted about in the past have evaporated. All that matters is taking care of the kids, being kind and supportive to whomever I can, and my own work, whether that be drawing or learning kanji or writing a book. And staying healthy so I can do all of that. Everything else is superfluous.
I continue to be annoyed/frustrated/irritated/exasperated by the lackadaisical response to coronavirus here. The government and society at large has decided that the best approach is just to test and treat the sick, this way we can avoid overwhelming the hospitals. This is banking on the idea that most people who get it will be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and thus are not in harm’s way. It is a scary gamble because it means they are letting the virus circulate and just treating the unlucky. And since we don’t have a vaccine or medicine or even a full understanding of the virus, like how with some people it seems to flare up again, well, I really, really don’t like the odds.
So I will make banana bread for the freezer and buy everything in bulk and fill the house with plants. I will sew a hundred masks for the community center and carry some with me so whenever someone compliments mine (which happens a lot since it is not conventional white), I can give them one. I will do what I can to protect me and mine and hope that you are doing the same wherever you may be. I am wishing the whole species health, love, and humor in these coming months. Humans are amazing creatures. We are here to do amazing things. This is just an opportunity to prove ourselves.
I used to like passing by the baseball players on my way to the grocery store. Unlike American youth sport teams, Japanese teams never seem to have an off-season, meaning they practice all year round. The exception was at the beginning of this month, when the schools closed unexpectedly and all events and gatherings were curtailed. I was saddened to see the empty field, saddened by the thought of the players’ disappointment, their captivity. And yet, as disheartening as that was, it was nothing compared to how crestfallen I felt today, seeing them back at play.
At first, I was feeling confident in the government’s handling of the virus, smug even. The numbers in America were skyrocketing while ours slowly plodded along, at the pace of twenty additional cases a day. The schools were closed abruptly, yes, and it was a hassle for anyone involved, especially someone who has four school-aged kids, two of whom were graduating/preparing to enter new schools, AND teaches at an elementary school. Everything was shut down, the stores all had shortened hours and all the while the rest of the world was swept away in a horrible torrent of illness. It seemed that we were the exception, an oasis of normalcy and common sense. Of course, we super neat-freaks, overly concerned with hygiene and opposed to physical interaction while being specimens of near-perfect health and fitness, were going to escape the same fate as the rest of the world.
And yet still the numbers continued to rise, slowly, yes, but steadily and all over the country. Then the school closings were lifted. Spring break began and everyone came out in droves, happy to be able to move freely around again, and just in time for the cherry blossoms, how lucky.
It was heating up and the masks we had been wearing for weeks were shed. Yes, the rest of the world was in trouble but here the movies and malls resumed normal operating hours, here we could sit under the cherry trees and heave heavy sighs of relief, without our cumbersome masks.
Then the Olympics were postponed. While we had done all we could do to keep it afloat, the rest of the world seemed determined to spread the virus as much as possible. What could we do about those overly affectionate foreigners, kissing and hugging and shaking hands, all around the world? Did the rest of the world not know about the art of hand-washing? The numbers here were still climbing but not as high as the rest of the world, especially if we subtracted that nuisance anchored in Yokohama, the Diamond Princess cruise ship. But regardless, everyone started bailing on us and so we had to put off our party for another year, which pretty much sucked because we had spent all of our extra cash on cardboard beds. In retrospect, maybe we should have just used that money to actually help rebuild the Tohoku region or maybe repair all those communities damaged in the crazy typhoons that slammed into the country, one after another, last year. But you know, shoganai.
The numbers continued to rise, some days by more than forty. Most of them were travel-related. A few of them suggested community spread but those numbers were so low that it was less of a trend and more of an aberration. Clusters formed in Osaka, in Hyogo, in Nagoya. Small clusters but a bit alarming to the rest of the country. Something to keep an eye on, we told ourselves. Though of course, what can you expect from places like Osaka, Hyogo, Nagoya?
Then we started to notice that the numbers were picking up. And the criticisms about how the government was conducting the tests started to make more sense than the government’s explanations. Like how waiting until someone basically has pneumonia and knows someone who had the virus is the only way to get tested. Meaning that people who had actual symptoms but did not fit the criteria were sent home to rest but not included in the official tally since they did not qualify for testing based on the government’s protocol. So that means there are lots of people in the community who have had the virus but continued their normal routine since they were not tested and therefore could not take off from work. And since the virus rears its ugly symptoms only after two weeks…
Today, Tokyo was advised to remain home, please, though talk of a lock-down was unnecessary since it would never happen, for it would be too damaging to the Economy. And since the person who is in charge of coronavirus measures is the economic policy minister, the Economy is obviously what should be considered first and foremost. Oh, as a side note, the Diamond Princess left Yokohama yesterday, cleared of quarantine. And after a little bit of time in a dry dock, it will be sailing around Japan again at the end of April, just in time for Golden Week.
This afternoon, the breaking news is that there are over 60 new cases of the virus in Tokyo. But that is Tokyo, after all. You know the type of people who live there…
I am surprised at myself for falling into the lull of daily comfort that allowed me to trust the government to respond to this “national crisis” with the citizens in mind. Remember, this is the same government that never admitted there was a nuclear meltdown. (On another side note, TEPCO, the company responsible for the meltdown, announced this week that it would be slowly releasing the contaminated water back into the sea and air for the next 30 years.) I suppose compared to the Trump administration, I felt in somewhat safe hands.
We all want to be normal, to do our regular routines, no matter how tedious they can be. So I get the crowded parks and malls, I get the desire to go to your kid’s baseball game or meet up with friends for dinner. I just wish that people here could get the severity of the situation. The fact that many more of us than we realize are harboring the virus, sharing the virus. That it does not work like other viruses, that it is not the flu. That the recovered can be reinfected, or maybe not recovered at all. That the heat does not seem to discourage it for it is spreading in the southern hemisphere as well, meaning our hopes for a slow down in the summer are shattered.
Do you know what it feels like to not be able to breathe? I do because I almost died from pneumonia 8 years ago. You never fully recover from it. Your lungs will forever be scarred. It is scary shit.
Do you know what it feels like to have an asthmatic child during a respiratory disease pandemic? It is scary shit.
Lock it down, Japan. America went from 100 to 100,000 in a month.
Lock it down.
We can postpone the Olympics, we can save the hanami parties for next year. But only if we don’t postpone our action right now. Stay home and stay safe. Take this seriously.
Lock it down.
Yesterday, I forgot my phone on the charger when I left the house early to take S to his high school orientation. This meant no obsessively checking the news, no updates about infected people, nothing. It meant I went to his school, turned in a stack of papers (that he filled out, mind you, because I guess he is actually growing up?! Craziness.), bought his gym shoes and all of his textbooks for the year, all in quiet, peace. Yes, somewhere over the horizon was a growing threat, yes, being aware of the threat is how to avoid it, but it was really nice just to talk to S about his school and his plans for his future. And yes, he is worried. Besides for the virus, there is climate change to contend with and the virus has revealed America at its worst to him so he is now, like me, thinking it is no longer an option.
I had to go into the office for two hours and I spent that time away from the computer and helped with the labeling of reading books instead. Then afterward, I met J for coffee, we bought stuff for dinner, I let the kids watch Doraemon on the television (which requires that I hook my phone up via html) while we got dinner ready. Then I went for the first run I have in a while, came back and ate my own dinner complete with olives and mozzarella, took a bath and read some short stories. And the bath was so hot that when I got out, I fell asleep within five minutes. And dreamed so many dreams, vivid, wild dreams.
And then I woke with messages of concern from loved ones. Which is crazy considering that those loved ones live in a place that capped 80K yesterday. Yes, Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures are requesting that people stay indoors this weekend which is difficult right now because of the cherry blossoms. Spring without hanami? Insanity. Though I remember a spring nine years ago when people were too concerned about the invisible threat of radiation spreading from a certain melted-down nuclear plant to sit outside under pink clouds of blossoms. What is true insanity is that 51K people showed up for a torch event last week, despite the face that we have a small but rapid increase daily. What is true insanity is that the national government closed the schools and everyone was taking this seriously and then when the end of the closures came, we all assumed the problem was over and went back to life as normal. The shopping malls have been packed, the alcohol pumps at the entrances of every store have begun disappearing. More people on the trams and trains, more people not wearing masks, more people eating at restaurants. Looking at any other country is not a fair assessment for Japan because Japan is not like any other country. We have better hygiene habits than most, yes, but we also love our traditions, like going to school in April and sitting out under the cherry blossoms in large groups, drinking beer and laughing. This is a culture based around social interaction on every level, more akin to a place like Italy or France than South Korea. And so when you hear people in those places warning others not to be complacent and you live in a country that is increasingly so, well, it makes a gal worry.
There is also the fact that we have not closed the borders. Until recently, we had a voluntary quarantine going on. And we called for our citizens to return to the safety of their homeland, not expecting Japanese people to be the ones bringing in the virus, I suspect.
I suppose I should just admit that I did not think my eldest was going to get into high school. Or at least a sizable portion did not believe it would happen, mainly because he is such a poor test taker and has gone years without actually studying or doing homework. And the fact that it is a new level for us and all these other parents have been planning forever for their kids to get in, sending them to juku for hours upon hours every week from the age of ten. And yet, he got in.
Which means that most likely the other kids will also be able to get in.
There is no reason anymore to consider returning to the States.
This means I have to recalibrate my perception of the future as now I see that we will most likely never leave here.
I will probably retire in Japan and die here. This is something I have never considered before.
There are so many elements I must shift in response to this realization.
And yes, part of this clarity is a result of how America is reacting to the pandemic. Because if I get to pick teams, I will go with Team Japan, the one where public health is a priority, where it is possible to contain the virus because people are more likely to go to the hospital since they have health care, where things like washing hands and not touching everything and everyone is already standard. As of right now, America has over 23,000 confirmed cases and yet less people than ever believe that this is a big deal. To which I say, good luck with that.
I will be restructuring this space within the next few weeks to reflect my renewed commitment to staying and living in Japan. I plan to put these sort of free-writing posts under the heading of blog instead of being here on the main page. I like keeping a chronicle of my thoughts but I need to refocus on making this land my permanent home.
And on that thought, it’s now time to hit my kanji workbooks.
This morning, the mountains were covered in snow.
Yesterday, an enormous rainbow stretched across the entire range.
Today, I am at work again but I submitted another request to work at home so hopefully I can get the next three days off without taking official leave. It is better for the kids if I am there with them. The difference between an engaged parent and a distracted one, basically. If I get approval for that time off, it will roll into an almost three-day weekend, interrupted to come up here for a half day on Saturday (which is a bit silly but honestly, can I complain if it ends up that I only had to desk warm for 12 hours total instead of 44?).
Maybe I will make donuts tonight with the kids.
I wrote down the expenses for the boys’ school stuff last night and realized how extremely careful we will have to tread with our finances this next month. Had the coronavirus not decided to colonize the human race, then it would have been fine but as it is, we lost a paycheck due to lost work so now, well, we just have to see how tight we can pull our belts. I know that we are luckier than most but all the same, such bad timing. We will manage, we always do, usually by the skin of our teeth, but everything always works out in the end. I just was hoping that we could be a little less stressed about it this time. I suppose everyone was hoping for that.
There is a saying in Japanese: shoganai. It cannot be helped. It first came to my attention post-Fukushima and it infuriated me because it was applied to the nuclear meltdown, something that 100% could have been helped. This time around though, I find myself saying it over and over. My sister, a schoolteacher who had been about to take her class on a big field trip before everything was shuttered, did not appreciate it, “how very zen of you,” she snarked, but regardless, it is true. You cannot fix every problem (and should refrain from complaining about them as much as possible) but you can deal with them head-on. It is a concept born from a country that has had more problems than most, for much longer than most.
I do miss regular routines. Everyone is up in arms because our schedules are interrupted, our lives thrown into chaos. Of course, the truth is that normalcy is an empty construct and any regularity is a delusion based on that construct. It is actually somewhat reassuring that we are so fragile, that the system is not permanent. If it can be corrupted, then it can be changed.
Yes, donuts sound good.
Instead of smoking in the rain last night, I stayed up past my bedtime and watched The Awakening Of The Ants. I subscribed to Mubi a long time ago with the idea that I would watch a new movie every Sunday evening. I am failing this mission but will try again next week since this week proved to me what a good idea it actually was. The Awakening Of The Ants was a cinematic dream. The story is slow and subtle but it flows effortlessly.
Next week, maybe I will try this one…
I have been listening to a few podcast episodes about Hilma af Klint this morning and the thing that strikes me is how everyone views the mystery of her work as being her decision not to let people see her work until two decades postmortem. They grudgingly accept that she believed that she was a conduit for the spiritual realm but only because they are so giddy that the true founder of modern art was a woman. Everyone expresses dismay that she listened to her idol Rudolf Steiner when he told her to wait 50 years because the world was just not ready. She could have been famous! She could have changed the art world! They are incredulous that she would turn away from those material possibilities in order to fulfill a promise to spirits from another realm. That she really painted those painting for a new world, for the future. It wasn’t just a gimmick and that is what stuns people, in this era of self-promotion: it was not about the fame or changing the art world nor was it about money. It was not even that she was connected to these other beings who were directing her work. It was that she was trying to look at the entire universe at once, that she wanted to see our existence as it was, not how we perceive it to be. That is why she did the seances and hooked up with a spirit guide. Because she had questions and was willing to do whatever it took to get the answers.
I know that feeling.
Today I was feeling that shitty heaviness that weighs me down as the moon wanes. It is a bit like having a hangover, and often have regrets over some of the things that I said or obsessed about during my full moon peak. There are so many aspects of my life that need attention right now and all I want to do is read more Lucia Berlin and go to bed early and sleep until sunrise (I always wake up at 3:30 am so for me, sunrise is sleeping in). I go through this every month so I know that if I just muscle through, I will be back to my manic creative heights in a few weeks.
Today I took the kids to the nearby mountain park. It is a very tiny mountain in the middle of a suburban neighborhood and it is absolutely haunted. The kids are always a little crankier than usual, more prone to fighting, but I like it there because it is the nearest place for us to be surrounded by trees and to have space, wonderful, wide space. Life in a tiny apartment has always been a bit awkward but this month is pushing us all over the edge. So ghosts or not, I think I will take my charges up there again and again until we are free to be normal again. It is Sunday and I am sad not to be getting their Monday sets ready for school tomorrow. I should be busy with room shoes and gym clothes but instead I am making spaghetti and filling the bathtub. Outside it is cold and rainy and there is no way I will go running in this nonsense. A cigarette by the river and a quick stop by the pharmacy for bath salts and beer, I think. I mean, if I am going to be low, might as well do it right. For as I know, another round of energy and ideas is already crowning, even if I cannot feel it right now.
“Life is a farce if one does not serve the truth.”
“You have mystery service ahead and will soon enough realize what is expected of you.”
Last night, I dreamt of my house in the woods again. Of the chickens in the yard littered with quartz, the tangle of purple tomatoes next to the forest of giant blooming okra, each blossom sheltering a hummingbird. I dreamt of white dogs chasing each other over the roof, of a translucent pear tree full of shimmering crows. rainbow fish in a swimming hole surrounded by a wall of blackberry vines. And of the house itself, a wooden cabin, pulsing, alive, warm and soft to the touch.
I love this dream because it is where I am free to do as I please. I do not know where it is or how to acquire it but eventually I will be there.
And who is there with me? Sometimes one of my children, sometimes all of them, sometimes it is crowded with neighbors, strangers. Sometimes he is there but usually it is just me and the sunlight through the trees.
I think that this accumulated consciousness that I know as myself contains a pretty high concentration of Hilma af Klint.
“If I could make the world as pure and strange as I see, I’d put you in the mirror, I put in front of me….” (from Pale Blue Eyes by The Velvet Underground)
That is all I am trying to do.
“The ‘closed temporal lines’, where the future returns to the past, are the ones that frighten those who imagine that a son could go on to kill his mother before his own birth. But there is no logical contradiction entailed by the existence of closed temporal lines or journeys to the past; we are the ones who complicate things with our confused fantasies about the supposed freedom of the future.” (The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli, pg. 48). (This is my bath time reading. The next chapter starts with “It only takes a few micrograms of LSD to expand our experience of time on to an epic and magical scale. “How long is forever?”, ask Alice. “Sometimes, just one second,” replies the White Rabbit.” Yeah.)
*The quotes above are by Hilma af Klint. Images courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Last week, my giant guinea pig rode the train far, far away to take the public high school entrance exams. As the firstborn, he is the one I have experimented all my random notions on, most notably raising the kids overseas and just tossing them into the public school system as non-Japanese speaking Americans. It was a sink or swim idea, for sure, and concocted by a much younger and more naive mother than I am today. And there have been so many points along the way where he was sinking fast to the bottom and I wanted to dive in and rescue him. But then this happened today:
He got in! Such a relief, though part of me knew he would. All the same, whew, you know. I mean, entrance exams in Japan are utter hell. If he hadn’t been admitted, we would have had to pay for him to go to private school, which he was already accepted to and to which we already gave a hefty non-refundable deposit. There are still uniforms and supplies and such to consider but that comes later. First, we are having some lemon cheesecake tarts that taste like sunny heaven and then the mighty new high schooler is going out to celebrate with his class at a yakiniku restaurant.
My hair-brained idea worked.
Now to to crank out some more crackpot schemes…
Yesterday, on the 9th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, I finally finished my rough draft about people living in quarantine after a human-made disaster. It is a story inspired by those people who were forced to live in evacuation housing long after the tsunami and subsequent meltdown of the nuclear plant in Fukushima. A story written knowing that thousands of evacuees remain without a sense of home while also being discriminated against for their exposure to the very radiation that made them homeless. I started writing it a long time ago, made it through one rough draft, gave up on it, then returned to it as I have with quite a few of my short stories recently. It seems only fitting that I should work on this story while we are under a quarantine, albeit it one prompted by a pandemic.
So I finished working on it and I did it in first person, knowing that I would switch to third during the rewrites. I am excited about the rewrites because now that the clumsy draft exists, I know what I am working with. The first draft is like being lost in the wilderness at night and writing the map as you go, with a nub of chalk. The second draft is using that map to go back through but this time you have a red pen and a flashlight along with the knowledge that you will make it through alive.
It helps that I wrote 12,000 words and the place I am submitting this story to has a limit of 5,000. That means I can be ruthless, brutal even.
At the same time, I have to start working on the half shape-shifting child story if I want to meet my quota by the end of April (and it is mid-March already, how did that happen?). You see, though I know now that time is a delusion, that the blur of entropy tricks us into thinking that it progresses in an orderly fashion, I still want to make use of my allotted time. So writing from now until May. Then I study Japanese intensively for two months straight for the proficiency exam in July. Then I go to Florida and come back and go in for my interview to get my teacher’s certificate which will boost my pay grade and help me worry less about things that don’t matter and give me the space to focus on what does. Like if time-symmetry implies retrocausality or if telepathy is as easy as Michio Kaku suggests.
But now, folks, another day of desk-warming has come to an end and I must take my red pen home with me, getting a bit of sunshine in before our best star rolls behind the mountains.
I made a reservation yesterday, in the midst of my addled brain desk-warming. I was working on dystopian Tokyo but it was grueling work as my brain had gone numb from sitting still for too long. There is a text I wrote to my co-parent: Hey, what is that place where you put shit in Zelda? (I am writing about a video game in my story and, for those of you who do not know this, I do not play video games. Or, according to my kids, cannot play video games. Just not in my skill set.) He replied: His pocket? though the answer, folks, is inventory. I remembered it as I peddled home. Inventory.
Anyway, what I did remember mid-afternoon, two hours before I was released back into the wild, was that I am going to Florida at the end of July. I had really forgotten about that, what with the whole quarantine thing. I suppose I should say hopefully I am going to Florida at the end of July. Either way, I made a reservation to set up my tent for one night at the state park in my hometown, on the beach side so I can watch the sunrise over the Atlantic at least once during my time there. Yes, I realize this means I am completely mad as I just signed up to camp, in the woods, in Florida, on a summer night. But if worse comes to worse, I will just go out to the beach for the night where the mosquitoes and coyotes and ticks and snakes and alligators can’t get me. Sure, the rapists will find me easy pickings but hey, it’s Florida. Pick your poison, right?
I am going back to my hometown to look through the archives and interview some people regarding the history of witches, voodoo, hoodoo, spiritualists, the occult, what have you, in the area. Of course, there won’t be enough time this trip for everything but I know this book will take me a while. There is just so much there, so many layers. This morning I came across the name Felipa the Witch in a list of Spanish land grants which is how, after a few twists and turns, I found myself listening to Gullah Geechee singers and reading this very long and cringe-inducing treatise by Zephaniah Kingsley.
It will be strange visiting my hometown, that is a given. I have lived most of my life away from that place and my parents don’t even live there anymore. And yet it will always be my hometown, the place I am from. It is such a strange, awkward place and I am equally strange and awkward when I am there. But the beach is beautiful. White sugar sands, broken shells crunching under bare feet, low, gentle waves lapping up against the shore. And I will sleep near the jetty, my favorite part of the island, where the river gives way to the ocean. My friend told me to go to Cumberland instead, to avoid the mess that is Fernandina and yet I am not into avoiding things. Not anymore. Besides, it is just one night. If I do it right, I will go there, rent a bike, set up my tent, peddle around town, sleep in the woods, wake up for the sunrise, swim a bit, then go to the archives so I can look at things that are not digitized yet. In and out with no social interactions, no reunions; I will be nothing but a stranger passing through with too many strange questions.
I am staring down the barrel of eight solid hours of desk-warming. I am here, just barely on time. I have on no makeup and am 100% wearing sweatpants and sneakers (I have on a striped top to distract from this truth). There are no students until April. My grades are done and besides for some light reflections and preparation for the next school year, I have very little to do. So I am here to write, essentially. Write and research.
Research is by far the easier side of the whole writing scheme. Research is where I get enthusiastic. Writing is where I get sleepy, mainly due to bearing the weight of my anxieties regarding capital w Writing. The whole point of having a day job is so that I can write without worrying about Writing. And yet, and yet, like so many before me, and so many after me, the day job gets all the energy and the writing subsists on the dregs, frail, exhausted dregs. This means when I do actually put words to paper, they feel more precious. Which is a bad thing as words are not a limited commodity.
Right now, I am researching for a novel that will be my second novel. Well, technically my third. A long, long time ago, when I was pregnant with my fourth kid, in desperation, I wrote a novel called The Timeless. I was trying to write a cheap book for Amazon and it was a cheap book for Amazon. It was about a group of ageless people, immortals, living in this mortal world. They were endowed with gene-repairing elements in their bodies. They were not superheros, not Highlanders, not anything, just one-offs of the human species. I had listened to an interview about gene-repair and the possibility that soon we would get to a point where we could become immortal and the idea came from there. It was a small thread of an idea and my writing was small as a result. Nothing was fleshed out. It was timid and terrible. It was a classic first novel. (To be fair to my desperate writer self, I did write it before a lot of other books by the same name and concept were written. I was actually told to pull it due to copyright infringement, despite the fact that I believe I was ripped off and just hadn’t thought well enough of the idea to copyright it first. )
With my second novel, I am writing about a family here in Japan. It involves Japanese mythology as well as bi-cultural family dynamics and the role of the media in shaping our perspective. It is about belief, it is about shapeshifters, it is about courageous children. I am almost finished researching it but it is going to be huge when I am finished, epic even. I have learned a lot with this one despite the fact that my enthusiasm has waned a million times. I have come to accept that enthusiasm is a frivolous, albeit fun, feeling. It is like having a crush on someone. A light fizziness that makes you feel full even if it is empty.
To continue with this metaphor for a moment, writing a novel, on the other hand, is a marriage. A lot of hard work, all uphill; you are lonely and doubtful and prone to throwing things across the room. You might not finish it and even when you do, you will always have regrets.
(And then there is writing, both lower and upper case. Writing is like being in love. You are compelled, the longing is unshakable and never far from your mind. You would sacrifice everything for it, if need be, devote yourself completely to it. )
Right now I am married to my second novel and flirting with my third. I was going to get a divorce but I think there is something left in the marriage, something worth the fight. The third novel brings me back to Florida but also gives me the opportunity to research the occult and quantum physics. And in the meantime, I am writing two short stories, one about a dystopian Tokyo and the other about a teenager raising a half-shapeshifting baby. Both of which I hope to finish during this long stretch of desk-warming.
And now, of course, I should be working on those stories that I am so smitten with but I am here, with you. Procrastinating. As usual.
Jya, one more cup of coffee and I am good to start. And look at that, two hours gone already. With only six more to go after that. (As well as the next three weeks.) Okay, okay, I am going. Dystopian Tokyo wasn’t built in a day, you know. (Well, actually it became a dystopia in a matter of minutes but the aftermath takes time.)
There have only been six hours in this new month so far and I have been awake for half of them. I was sleeping between the youngest two and having these incredibly vivid dreams that I believe were a mixture of my own dreams and those of my children. I kept stepping on things that looked solid and were not, like the sidewalk that flew up at me and I had to jump to the side avoid being hit by a plank of concrete. There was also a part where I was planting a wall of daffodils that I planned to weave together to form the exterior wall of my tiny restaurant that only had one table.
Today I am cleaning the house in preparation for our month of quarantined life. I will go to the big box store where I am a card carrying member and buy large quantities of non-perishable goods, in case we all get stuck at home soon. I will take the kids on a bike ride first, after our pancake breakfast. There will be no destination because they are not supposed to go into crowded places. They have one more day of school and then they are to remain home for the next few weeks. No parks, no arcades, no shopping malls, no trips. Home. Inside the house. This is the reality we have crafted for ourselves. Where our children spend summers indoors because of killer heat waves and now wile away an extended spring break completely inside to avoid a viral pandemic.
Last night, I went to the mall for supplies. Me and all the other worried parents. Not medical supplies but craft supplies. Study books. Jigsaw puzzles. Decks of playing cards. Because though most likely all the parents I saw there also have video games at home, no kid wants to spend an entire month on a screen. My kids are already going stir crazy because they usually spend their free time playing at the nearby parks with their friends. This month is going to push everyone’s patience to the limit but we have to respect the motivation behind this sudden quarantine. Especially in a town like Hiroshima where we have many tourists from near and far.
The graduation ceremonies for my oldest two will go ahead but it will be just the graduates and their parents. My eldest will get to take his entrance exam as planned but with added precautions. I will get to work at home for part of the week but this is an exception, not a rule. The rest of the week I will deskwarm at the office. My coworker is hoping to get out of the country before his home country bans people coming from Japan. His mother is doing worse and he wants to be there but it looks unlikely.
The only good side of this is that I am getting plenty of first hand experience with quarantines so that my story about a quarantined community that I started writing seven years ago is finally picking up speed. I am hoping to finish about three stories before May as that is when I switch back to my Japanese studies. Two months of cramming before the exam.
The smaller dreamers are awake now and demanding peanut butter to go with their pancakes so I must go out into the cold because really, considering what they have to endure in this next month, peanut butter is the least I can provide.
You would think everyone would be excited. Like, wahoo, no more school. But we are not. This is the end of the school year. Lots of things happen at the end of the school year. Finals, for example, that my daughter has been studying hard for or, say, graduation ceremonies. Neither one of my sons will have graduation ceremonies now. And what about the general, run-of-the-mill things, like getting a chance to say good-bye to teachers in a system where every new school year brings essentially a transfer lottery and teachers get sent off to far reaches of the prefecture, never to be seen again? And if they can’t go to school, does this mean no parks either, no sports center? They will be stuck inside our tiny apartment for a month?
As a teacher, I am so sad for everyone. For all the hard work put into a school year just to be abruptly ended. Just yesterday afternoon, we had a staff meeting about how to curtail contact between students. The graduation ceremony had been stripped down from its grandeur to a mere walk across the stage, with everyone in masks, of course. The farewell party that the other classes had been practicing so hard for, preparing entertaining skits and singing the same thank you songs over and over, that was going to be recorded and televised within the school. Today. The same at my kids’ school. But now? Most likely, it is the last day of school. Just like that.
This morning, all the principals and vice principals across the country will be meeting to decide how to respond to the prime minister’s request. My school is a private school but most likely they will go along with it. I have so many questions right now. Like, for starters, who is going to look after my kids for a month and make sure they do not kill each other inside of our tiny apartment? And what about the entrance exams for high school? Do they go ahead as planned? What happens if the outbreak does not dissipate as hoped?
This whole thing is making me appreciate how lucky we are to have our humdrum, annual predictability. March graduations, April entrance ceremonies. Cherry blossom viewing. Picnics in the grass.
Just a few days ago, I was putting the final touches on a design for my first Print Gocco postcard. It is a bunch of cherry blossoms with the Issa haiku above it: In this life, we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers. I was making it in remembrance of the tsunami of 2011, in honor of all the bullshit we humans have been forced to quickly navigate recently. And now the poem seems more relevant than ever. All these lives disturbed, here and all around the world, because someone in a far off land wanted something they should not have ever had, resulting in a virus that is spreading rapidly due to globalization and helped, most likely, by a warm winter created by climate change. Unchecked greed on all sides. Our downfall every time.
I stayed up until 1 am sewing masks for my kids and myself since the stores are completely out of them. Last night, we were going to buy some gloves but those are the next hot ticket item so we were out of luck. Toilet paper and tissues were thin on the shelves. We picked up some bleach and paper towels, just because they were almost out of them. Panic shopping. The last time we engaged in this was before a big typhoon was scheduled to hit the island. And the time before that was after an earthquake hit Nagoya. I laughed in the store last night, remembering the half-lit mall, the grocery store with aisle after aisle of vacant shelves. I laughed because it is just so ridiculous, that we ever feel safe here, that we ever think this life is humdrum and predictable. I laughed because that is the only thing to do when you remember that you are living on the roof of hell.
The hamster was out again this morning, a tiny white streak in the darkness. She escapes out of the cavity left from when we removed the broken running ball. Over the cavity is a book and an upside down plastic food container and a big, flat piece of granite. All night long, she pushes against the barricade until she is successful and slides out of the crevice she has nudged open. Then she drops down from the high shelf she lives on, the hamster equivalent of jumping off the Empire State Building, and runs frantically around the apartment. And while I admire her determination and desire for freedom, I also don’t want to step on her so I scoop her up and toss her back into her tiny prison.
Then I let the rabbit out to run around while I make coffee. The rabbit is black with a white front leg and a white nose. I am also concerned about stepping on her but she likes darting in a circle in the living room, between the sofa and dining table, and away from my feet in the kitchen, whereas the hamster is seemingly attracted to my feet. Then I cut some apple or carrot and toss it into her bowl, making sure to also pack her hay box full. Since she is mainly a stomach with ears, the sound of something going into her bowl is enough to lure her back into her cage. She hardly even looks at me as I lock the cage shut.
I do feel bad about keeping caged creatures and yet between us and the pet store, these particular creatures got a good deal. I know by purchasing them, we perpetuate the problem, and yet not having a pet is not an option in my mind. I did look into adopting pets but since we are permanently temporary, the adoption services would not consider us. So like with most things in this life, if I could not do the ideal, I did what I could.
I am not really fond of the hamster. There were three of them, sisters, but the sweet, easy-to-handle ones died, buried out under the great spruce trees that face our apartment building. The surviving sister is a bit mean and very vigorous. We were actually waiting for her to die before getting the rabbit but she was too healthy for our patience. And while I do not like her very much, I do admire her, for her healthiness, her determination to live and to live freely. Sometimes, perhaps, it is necessary to be mean and a bit crazy to get what you want in this life.
Yesterday, we rode out to the neighboring town to check out the trail conditions of what used to be an old mountain trading road. It took a while to get to the actual trail head, which is problematic when dragging my kids out into the woods. But then we found it (as you see above) and decided to save that particular trail for another day. It is not child friendly. But how I longed to go just a bit further, to be surrounded by trees and away from everyone else for just a moment longer. My partner promised our return, equipped with gear and good boots, but I know that trails like that, rugged, narrow, remote, are not his cup of tea. He and my second son are indoor people, preferring to spend their weekends playing video games and making weird shit. For me, if the conditions are nice, I have to go outside and drag my kids along. It is compulsory, like the hamster’s daily quest. For years, the best we could manage were parks because, you know, small children. But now that my youngest is almost eight, we can take advantage of this mountainous country. We can go hiking, like actual hiking. As a Floridian who used to spend every summer in the mountains as a child, this feels like pure luck. I bought a regional trail book a few weeks ago and there are trails everywhere around us. Some take a bit of navigating to get to but the fact that yesterday, I rode my bike for fifteen minutes and ended up in the forest makes me almost giddy with joy.
Today is going to be sunny with a high of 15 degrees Celsius. In February. This means that come summer, there will be no hiking. Instead, there will be dangerous heat waves and typhoons. There will be landslides and rampant mosquito populations. There will be more snakes and boars out in the woods, roaming during daylight hours in search of water and relief from the heat. We humans will stay indoors, venturing out only to go to the neighborhood pool and back again to the comforts of our air-conditioned abode. I insist on taking my kids out now because I believe in order for there to be any hope for this planet, people need to have a connection to the natural environment. And while my kids have grown up intertwined with nature, the suburban life we are living now does not foster that connection well. The danger of suburbia is becoming so insulated that you are numb. I want to protect my children from that fate. So I will drag them up rocky paths, past boar tracks, beyond the sound of highways and human chatter, to stand on the summit together so they can feel the truth: we are small and insignificant. Growing up surrounded by human endeavor means that we have a pompous perspective of our place in the ecosystem. Realizing that we are small and insignificant is powerful; it enables us to not take ourselves so seriously but to take the little bit of time we have within a larger context more seriously. And I could tell this to my kids, sure, but it is better for them to see it with their own eyes, to feel it in their own hearts and bones.
So on this unseasonably lovely winter day, we will ride the ferry over to the island we see from our windows everyday and climb to its highest point. The island is shaped like a reclining Buddha and the peak is his nose. So we will picnic on Buddha’s nose and for a few precious moments, we will be off our screens, not bickering, and surrounded by trees and sky, looking down across the inland sea, feeling small and insignificant.
My coworker’s mother is in the process of losing her mind. His mother has dementia and while they knew it was coming, this sudden dip into the land of complete memory loss and paranoid hallucinations is a huge shock. Every day, he checks in with his father and returns to his desk with a new story, knowing how much pleasure I get from the details. That sounds wrong, I am sure, but it simply means that he knows me well enough to know that I collect details, without malice or, hopefully, judgment. I am a storyteller and what is a story without the details? Especially when it involves his mom waking up and making her sheets into ropes because she thinks the bed is a raft adrift in the sea.
I told him he needs to go back while she is still here. She won’t die for some time, he said, the doctors have assured us that she is physically fine. Maybe, I replied, but all the same, she won’t be your mother for much longer. Go to her before you lose her for good.
And so he booked his ticket and will go back in two weeks for a bit. It means I will work harder but I am used to the long hours at this point. My coworker is a good guy, a bit too practical for his own good perhaps, but overall, I am lucky to have him sitting across from me. And he loves his mom, in a simple, good guy way with lots of affection and only an ounce of concerned criticism.
Actually, I am always lucky with coworkers. Unlucky in love, lucky in coworkers. Is that a thing? With me it seems to be. When you consider how much of your life you spend working, it’s not a bad deal, actually.
Today I booked a ticket of my own. It will give me eight days to visit people, reconnect and reassess. I will do some research while I am there too, that is part of it. But mainly I am going to be with my people, while they still are my people. And swim, of course. Every single fucking day. In the springs, in the salt water. In the chlorinated pool. I will eat roadside peaches and let the juices drip down my chin and stain my shirt. I will pick a gallon of blueberries and eat them for dinner. And I will save my sleep for the plane ride home.
I listened to this podcast the other day about, and I know this hokey but whatever, twin flames. And she said that after, and I swear I am blushing as I write this, she broke up with her, ahem, demon lover, that instead of changing her life, she changed within her life.
Which. Is. Exactly. What. I. Did.
If your life is aces, then good on ya, but my life is not. I am glad I did change within my life but now that I have, I find that my life does not fit at all, even when I suck in my gut and wiggle my hips. I used to accept the awkwardness but it is impossible now. So yeah, I bought a fucking plane ticket so I can fly back home and try on a different life for a bit, just to see how it fits. Because you know, darling, it doesn’t matter how many times you cycle through the infinite realities within this multiverse if you treat the puny one you have in your hands with disregard.
County Judge Stewart went over to Chester Wednesday to view the body of Samuel Mattox, colored, who was found dead in his boat in Bells river Tuesday afternoon. About 5 o’clock Saturday afternoon he left in his row boat for Chester, where he lived, and was seen from Center street wharf making little progress against the heavy wind and tide. When found, there was only one oar in the boat, and it is believed that the loss of the oar left him to the mercy of the wind and tide. [Source: Nassau County Leader (Fernandina, FL) February 6, 1920, sub. by MKK]
FERNANDINA’S MOST DEPLORABLE TRAGEDY
Little Christina Kelly Killed By Accidental Discharge of Gun.
Death Caused Universal Sadness and Bereavement Throughout Length and Breadth of City.
One of the most deplorable tragedies that ever occurred in Fernandina was that of the accidental killing on Saturday afternoon about 3 o’clock of Little Christina Kelly, the eight-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John J. Kelly, by Bernard Cone, the fourteen-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. John Cone.
The accident occurred at the home of the Cone boy where he had just returned from hunting a short time before and was preparing to go out again in company with Bertman Murphy, a companion of about the same age. About this time, however, little Christina, in company with her cousin, Helen Kelly, called at the Cone residence to see the other children of the family and were standing in the door and hall way when the boys came around the house, Bernard having the gun under his arm. Just as they were opposite the door the gun was discharged, the entire load striking Christina just back of the ear and passing entirely through her head, killed her instantly. Soon the whole neighborhood was horror-stricken at the news of the accident and excited people flocked to the scene to render assistance in whatever manner possible. But the scene was made the more horrible when it was found that the little life had passed away almost simultaneously with the report of the gun. As the little child who was shot fell, Mrs. Cone, who was near by, caught her and laid her on the porch, not knowing that she was so seriously hurt and thinking that the fresh air would help revive her, but the mother of the boy discovered that the child was dead before assistance reached her. In the mean time little Bernard jumped on a bicycle and rode as hard as he could to the office of Dr. Fred Waas and reported the accident. Dr. Waas rushed at once to the scene, but the child had been dead several minutes when he arrived.
The gun which the child was shot was a double-barrel shot gun and the boy had no idea it was loaded, and did not see the children when it was accidently discharged. The death as it occurred was the saddest ever known here, and caused general grief throughout the city. The killing was entirely the result of an accident and Mr. and Mrs. Kelly have sent messages to the mother of the boy holding him guiltless for the accident. The following report of the funeral which was held Monday is taken from the Fernandina correspondence to the Times-Union of that date:
The remains were solemnly laid to rest this morning in a flower canopied grave, and borne hither by the entire school of her heart-broken classmates. The services took place from the Catholic church (St. Michaels) and were conducted by its priest, the Rev. Father J. O’Brien. Never in the history of this community has there been a situation the intensity of whose tragic grief bordered on this occasion. The church was filled with sincere mourners from all churches, classes and conditions. The family are eminent and highly regarded in the city, Mr. Kelly being one of its most prosperous merchants, and his little daughter was the favored companion of all the young scholars of St. Joseph’s academy, of which she was enrolled as a member.
At 9 o’clock this morning the scholars gathered at the convent, and marched in couples to the home of their dead classmate, attended by several sisters of St. Joseph’s.
The funeral services were at 10 o’clock. When the grief-stricken procession reached the church, the hearse and carriages led by the children, and later began its entry in the doorway, preceded down the aisle by the priest and his acolytes, the scene beggars description for tragic interest, and the personal grief manifested by every soul within the sacred edifice. There was not one eye from which tears did not flow. There were six honorary pallbearers among the little girls of about little Christina’s age, and these were as follows: Theo Davis and Dorothy Hernandez; Lucy Murphy and Lucile Davis, Mary Malarkey and Clementina Hernandez. The regular pallbearers were as follows: Messrs. Hamilton Horsey, Harry Waas, Ralph Hoyt, Willie Seibert, Leo Clanucy and Walter Courter.
The little girls bore garlands of flowers, and these were placed all along the altar railing. The small white coffin was covered with flowers, and the entire chancel and altar were one magnificent bank of choice floral offerings and handsome set pieces, the remembrances of friends and sincere sympathizers. Over these shone the candles, with their brilliant background. The six candles between which was placed the coffin, were garlanded up their heavy candlesticks with beautifully arranged flowers.
The hymns sung were “One Sweetly Solemn Thought,” “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “Jesus Lover of My Soul.” After the solemn ritual of the Catholic burial services and a few well-chosen expressive words from Father O’Brien, the procession again formed and marched out of the church, the children again leading the way. Many carriages were filled going to the cemetery, and there the last rites were performed, the sweet little body lowered to its resting place in a fragrant bed, and the final placing of the immense collection of floral offerings on the grave concluded the ceremony. [Source: The Fernandina Record (Fernandina, FL) October 23, 1908, sub. by MKK]
On Florida: “a land of swamps, of quagmires, of frogs and alligators… No one would want to immigrate there, even from Hell.”
Well, it has happened. The unavoidable. I have begun writing a novel about my home. It started out as a simple multiverse story involving astral traveling and now I am researching the tribal ceremonies of Timucuan Indians in the 1600s. It’s okay, I mean, it is better to accept my fate than fight it anymore. And, kids, history is fun. For instance, David Yulee’s paternal grandmother was a British woman captured by pirates and bought by a eunuch working for the Emperor of Morocco. She was then owned by the Grand Vizier, a Sephardic Jew who discovered a plot crafted by the prince to overthrow the emperor and subsequently tossed the prince into prison. When the emperor died, he sent his slave wife off to Gibraltar with their kids and he fled to Egypt, where he died. One of the kids on Gibraltar decided to go to St. Thomas where he became a business man/mercantile tradesman/timber plantation owner (read: slave owner/trader). That kid was Moses Elias Levy Youle, known mostly as M.E. Levy. He had four kids and the youngest was David, Florida’s first senator, hero of the Florida railroad, and advocate of slavery and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. He was also a Freemason (though my Freemason friend tells me this point is irrelevant). Anyway, back to his dad, M.E. Levy. That guy bought up most of NE Florida supposedly to create a Jewish colony, a natural desire, I suppose since his people were forced to flee Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition.
None of this will directly make it into the book, most likely. But I need it in my mind as I write, just like a painter needs the floor beneath his feet.
On Friday, I took off an hour from work and rode my bike furiously up to my kids’ elementary school so I could watch my youngest in his end-of-the-school-year class performance. He had practiced really hard for this event and even asked if he could wear a suit (?!) that morning, so he could be proper. What he did not take into account was how many parents were going to crowd into the classroom, cameras rolling. He became paralyzed with stage fright. Standing there, tears glistening in his large brown eyes, his friends whispered their encouragement and then his teacher, sitting at the piano, said softly, “Ne, Haru, take your time.” He looked up at her, swallowed, and after a bit more hesitation, he began. At the end, as the parents and children were bottlenecking out of the small room, I apologized to his teacher and she just laughed, explaining that not only could he do his part well, he had volunteered for the extra speaking parts. Then I thanked her for her patience and she said, “Ah, with Haru I have learned that he will do a wonderful job as long as it is on his own schedule.”
This is something that he has inherited from me, I am afraid. I am glad he was lucky enough to have a teacher right off the bat who understands this inability to respect the clock. There are few in this world who understand people like us and fewer who appreciate this defect/quality. As a writer, as an artist, I just cannot abide by the same time restraints as easily as everyone else. It takes so much energy to be punctual, to turn in papers on time, to write people back when they want a reply. I manage to pass as a conventional time-respecting adult but only because my kids need me to, either to stamp permission forms or to be at work on time. It is a strain but I do it for them.
I have been accused by others as being an inconsiderate procrastinator, willfully wasting others’ time. As a child, I was scolded for walking too slow, for dawdling, for forgetting when pick-up times were. And yet my father also forgot time, staying late at work when he was involved in a project, neglecting to eat breakfast because he was too busy in his studio (an oil painter definitely has a different sense of time), forgetting to pick me up over and over again from ballet or school or my part-time job at the library. It is hereditary, obviously, and all of my children are the heirs.
On all things creative though, applying those time restraints just makes me feel bound and fitful. If there is a deadline, I become like my slightly sobbing son standing in the middle of the stage, paralyzed. I grow disinterested in everything and walk through my days exhausted. It is only when I hear the words, take your time, that I know the person asking something of me actually understands me, values me as I am.
I got a message last month from a gallery owner wishing to see my portfolio. I told him that I did not have one ready. That’s okay, he said, take your time. Just send it when you are ready.
Last year, an independent film director had me make a dress for her out of an old kimono. She wrote me recently to order another. Just take your time, she said, I trust you.
A friend needed edits for his new website. Another friend needed an essay translated. When I asked both about their deadlines, they each replied, don’t worry about deadlines. Take your time.
They are asking me to take my time, not theirs, not someone else’s. My time which does not flow at the same pace and rhythm as most. Or rather what I think is the case is that I have an inability to conform to the collective agreement on how we perceive time. Perhaps it has something to do with my dedication to honesty. Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that watches make my hand hurt and only last a few days because either they will break or I will unconsciously remove them and subsequently lose them. I am telling you, my relationship with time is complicated.
I wonder now if my determination from a young age to be a writer and artist was based less on a desire to share my worldview and more on the need to be left on my own time, to burn my calendars and toss the clocks out the window. I think the two go hand in hand, actually. Creative energy overpowers the tick tock of seconds. It rushes and pauses to catch its breath before taking off again, moving in patterns too erratic to be measured.
And yet, here I am, at this very moment, noticing the numbers at the bottom of the screen and realizing that I must sign off and prepare for the work day ahead (on a Sunday of all days- open house day), full of preordained schedules and completely absent of that sweet phrase, take your time.
On Tuesday, a national holiday, I took the youngest two for a short hike halfway up a mountain behind a shopping complex. I had been hoping to make it more than halfway but we got to a point where Luca, who is seven, realized that each bend in the trail only led to more trail and so he stopped and declared that we had “hiked enough for the day”. I conceded mainly because we were ill-prepared, having failed to find a convenience store between the station and trail head. We also did not have a first aid kit or hiking poles, which would have been useful on the steep and rocky trail. The fact that we had found the trail head at all was based purely on luck as the book of regional hiking trails was rather vague on where it was and all the signs had become tattered or disappeared all together. I was just happy to get the kids beyond the reach of pavement and commerce for a bit.
In the neighborhood surrounding the trail head, there were many cemeteries, as pictured above. I am fond of cemeteries and the way they are nestled into neighborhoods, making death a more common reality than the fenced off green gardens of graves in America allow. When I lived on the island in the middle of the East China Sea, I used to do most of my writing in cemeteries since there were so few places to sit in the rural splendor of the place. I always felt comforted by the reminder of mortality, the clutter of stone cubes and locked cabinets of ashes a tribute to our strange predicament: needing to take life seriously but not too seriously.
In the evening, after I put my young hikers to bed, I went out for a walk under the full moon. It was almost too extravagant to look at directly so I sat by the river and watched it wavering on the surface, keeping company with the reflection of traffic signals and tail lights. And that is when the story began flooding into my head, unabated. A story of parallel dimensions, of astral projection, of witchcraft and humanity, of destruction and hope. A story unlike any I have attempted but a story so full and demanding that I have set aside everything else, recognizing that this is what I am supposed to be working on now. I cannot type fast enough to pull what is running through my mind out onto the page and there is just so much of it, so many details and plot twists, that I do not have the time to dedicate to it as it so demands. All I can do is try and wrangle it when I can and know that whatever I manage to capture is only a fragment of what is to come. I have been waiting so long for this story and all I hope is that as the moon wanes, the story will continue to flow as steady as it does now, coursing like rapids through my mind.
I am reading Richard Powers’ The Overstory. It is one of those books I initially resisted because of all the accolades it has garnered but now that I am halfway through I can attest that they are well-deserved. It is a book about trees and the humans who exist beneath the trees. It is a book about life and death and all the nagging details that fall in between. It is a necessary book, one we should all be reading as we walk into the shadowlands, uncertain as to the fate of our species and the environment that supports us.
I was raised by trees. A lonely child in the woods, often neglected, a late-in-life child born into a family already raised. When I was a child, we were surrounded by oaks with a thick undergrowth of impenetrable palmettos. I lived at the edge of the woods, playing on the boundary of human residence and wilderness. The woods housed threatening creatures, or rather creatures that could do harm when threatened. I respected their space and never suffered from anything more than a mosquito bite and the occasional tick. The trees were my family, my guardians. The wind, water, and dirt were my teachers. It is no real surprise then that I ended up living in a country where trees are worshiped, where the natural elements are known to house spirits. (This is not to say that all trees are worshiped, that all elements are respected but I do think that having an animistic-based believe system will give the Japanese environment an advantage once the humans come to their collective senses. I did not come to Japan because of their animism but it definitely has helped me to feel more at home here.)
Once upon a time, I was a teenage-activist, full of righteous indignation over the plight of our planet. In high school, I felt powerful but when I left my small town for university, those powers faded, diluted by an indifferent population. My ideals unraveled and I fell headlong into anxiety and depression. In the midst of that period, I began working at a homeless shelter. I was working the front counter one night and reading a book about all the species that were vanishing under our watch and feeling rather hopeless. One of the clients came into the lobby to get some water and have a chat before bedtime. He asked me about what I was reading and I handed over the book for him to examine. He flipped through slowly, appreciating the photographs of the Amazon and Arctic Circle. Then he said, I would like to give a shit about these things, child, really I would. But I’ve got other things on my mind these days.
And that was really it, how I stopped focusing on the destruction that humans are wrecking and began to study the human condition. For how are humans just barely surviving supposed to give a shit about deforestation and habitat loss, about overfishing and the rising sea levels? Then you have the suburbanites, living in the comforting cocoon of materialistic acquisition, too detached from the elements to be concerned about anything other than furthering the acquisition of materials. And above them, the job-creators, the material manufacturers, whose ambitions distort their realities, making them feel as powerful as gods and therefore immune to the limits of their physical environment.
Thus I realized that it is too problematic to be solved with just recycling programs and bike lanes (two of the ideas that I helped to implement in my hometown). Within humanity exists the solution but humanity is complicated. It is easy to be overwhelmed when you study it, easy to forget where you are and what you are doing because while you are trying to examine the species you are also busy being a member of it. And so I am grateful to Richard Powers for writing a book that has served as a trail marker, helping me to orientate myself as a writer and artist, showing me that I am on the right path even if I can’t see what lies beyond the bend.
On Saturday, we went out to the lovely Mitaki Temple, a complex built into the mountainside. We have been in Hiroshima for 2.5 years now but rarely visit attractions, mainly because we are just too busy trying to get through each week with our heads above water. When we do feel like getting out of the house, we usually head to Miyajima, because it is just eight stops away on the street car. In fact, the weekend before last, we headed to Miyajima. I took a lot of pictures, we all ate deep-fried momiji manju and the kids fought about the purchase of tiny outfits for their tiny bears at the Rilakkuma cafe.
Friday was payday though and I decided we needed to spread our wings a bit. Mitaki Temple is not actually that far from our neighborhood but it did involve three different trains to get there so it felt really far away. And somewhere along the way, my daughter decided that she did not like any of us and she definitely was not keen on the uphill walking we were doing to go to a, quote, dumb temple, unquote. It is hard to know what triggers her foul moods but when they come, we all know to stay clear. Her little brother suffers the most from them because he is usually exempt but if he comes too close, he too will be lashed with her sharp tongue, which startles him into tears. She’s brutal and knows all of our soft spots, aiming at them with a precision that would impress a sniper. The usual trigger for this is hunger but on Saturday, she was well-fed and carried a bag stocked with snacks, as I wish to avoid any of their sour tempers when we travel. All throughout the beautiful serene grounds, she complained about being there, every single step was agony for her, apparently. Jason and I decided to ignore her negativity and enjoy the place, which only angered her more as we went further up into the complex. It was only when we were finished and leaving that the storm began to dissipate. And it was only the next day when I learned of why she was so upset during our microadventure: she was afraid of inoshishi, wild boar. There were posters at the foot of the hill warning of boar and she was not reassured by my declaration that they are nocturnal. She definitely was not reassured by the evidence of their nightly tilling along the edges of the path. She did not mention her fear, of course, so all we knew was that she was sullen and bitter about something and it was best to stay the course and hope her mood improved with time.
This is my reality: the juggling of psyches, most of them too heavy for me to keep in the air. I try all the same, of course, because that is what I do. Regardless though, I think I will visit Mitaki again, just maybe next time I will go on my own, with only my own unpredictable mood to grapple with.
Saturday morning and I am awake at my usual time to work on a new short story and perhaps get a little bit of studying in before everyone wakes up.
My enthusiasm for returning to the States to visit this summer has begun to wane. The friend I wanted to visit now seems less available than she was before and while other people seem excited by the prospect of spending some time together, I am wondering if it is best to put it off for another year, especially as the Olympics are affecting airfares.
The idea of going back to my home state served to define my current situation better. As much as it would be interesting to visit people and go swimming everywhere possible, I honestly would prefer to be here. We were planning to go camping on the Seto Islands before my plan to go back arose and if I have to chose between spending 2 days with my friend (at the expense of 2 24-hour flights) and a week exploring the islands of the inland sea with my kids, well, the choice seems obvious.
There is the other thing, the fact that the proficiency exam is in July and December, and that the teacher’s certification interview is in August. It is already the end of January and I promised myself to focus on these matters this year so I could get it over with and make life more stable for my family. With America juxtaposed against my current situation, I came to value what I am trying to do here. The idea of traveling back to the States was infectious though. And yet, 2 days is not worth undermining my goals. Another time, perhaps.
I started work on a new short story this past week. And as I was doing so, I realized that I wanted to create a collection stories with interconnecting characters and yet entirely different tones and narratives. Something about this loosened me up, enabling me to be less timid with the writing of the story, less concerned about every sentence. That is why I enjoy working on my novel, because there is a flow that short story writing does not usually have for me, where every word counts.
It is my first two-day weekend in a long time. I hardly know what to do with myself, except of course get some more coffee and crack open my kanji workbook. Today is going to be another mild day, the high of 14 degrees C, so maybe it will be a good day to take the kids on a short hike. Something to take our minds off of school and work and entrance exams and the impeachment and global warming and racial injustice and airfares and all the thought patterns that consume our weekday minds.
Sitting on the steps that lead down to the sea, I watch the sea slaters scurry into rocky crevices each time the waves rise a few centimeters. When the danger is over, they return to the flat steps and approach my feet which I promptly stomp to make them disappear again. I smoke a rare cigarette and look at the constellations that stretch in all directions over me; I do not know the names and do not care to for it is better to leave some things unnamed, unknown.
I sit and smoke and wonder how I would react if at that very moment a sea monster slimed its way out of the water in my direction. Most likely I would just sit there, waiting for it to do as it liked. Unless it was an obvious threat, like if had a face that was nothing but a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, gnashing in my direction. I would probably have enough sense to scram if that was the case.
Last night in the grocery store there was a Western dude I had never seen before. He was pale with reddish blond hair pulled into a frizzy ponytail and for some reason, I wondered if he was this guy I used to know, despite the fact that they looked nothing alike and my friend was definitely on the other side of the planet. And yet, I wandered the aisles slowly, worried that it was him, that I had failed to recognize him in his evolved state, the state of being slightly shorter and much heavier and balder than when I had seen him last. And with brown eyes instead of blue. I thought how terrible he would feel walking into this suburban Japanese supermarket and not being recognized for who he was. So I decided to go closer, not to confirm that it was not him but to give him a chance to see me, just in case it was him. When he passed by and failed to acknowledge me, I felt relieved. It was just a stranger after all.
All my imaginary friends are circus folk. One walks on his hands the whole time. The other is a giant, like an actual one. I go up to his knee. He is the most understanding of all of my imaginary friends but it is hard sometimes because it gives me a crink in my neck, looking up at him as he talks. When I was younger my imaginary friends were based on people I knew but that proved disappointing because they were rarely as interesting in real life as they were in my head. This was not their fault but all the same, I had to forcibly replace them with a new crowd, who just happen to staff the freak show at a very impressive traveling circus. The only person I don’t get along with is the snake-charmer but that is simply because I do not trust snakes and so therefore I cannot trust the human whom snakes trust.
I know I shouldn’t smoke but I am doing it to quit a bad habit. It satisfies the urge, touches on the deep-seated longing from which the habit was born.
It is not healthy but it is healthier.
It’s six thirty in the morning and I am sitting in the warmth of my neighborhood convenience store, a glowing box in the inky darkness of the lingering night. Once the sun comes up I am taking my second son to the seaside because he wants to do a trash pick-up. Right now, though, everyone is still asleep and since I forgot to buy coffee yesterday, here I am.
It is pretty definite at this point that I am traveling home over the summer to go swimming and engage in general mucking about with my dear friend. I have lined up a few couches already, one with one of my exes which just shows you how nonsensical it is to bear a grudge. You meet the people you need to know in this life and while things might not always be a perfect fit, everyone evolves so it is probable you will fit together at several points along your shared timeline, and unexpectedly so. Not to be overly cheesy but here in my forties I am very aware of the ship in relationship, in terms of being in a vessel fit for a long voyage.
I have not always been able to take the broader view of things. Until recently my scope was narrow, my focus limited. I used prescribed categories, transmitted and received mindlessly via society. Two things really disrupted my conventional thinking: living in Japan for a long time and being frustrated in love.
In America, and perhaps Western society at large, we sow expectations and harvest resentments. We believe we are entitled to decent treatment, that when people mistreat us that we must be indignant and self-righteous. This does nothing to factor in how multifaceted each individual is, how we are all just tumbling along trying to deal with the problems before us while simultaneously processing past traumas. In Japan, there is more focus on self-reliance, self-responsibility, self-sacrifice for the greater good of society. This means conformity and suppression, yes, but it also means that people don’t usually cling to the notion of what is deserved. When I was in the first stage of my divorce, well-meaning friends kept telling me that I deserved better. That I deserved to be loved and valued and respected. To say that you don’t deserve anything is perceived to be a declaration of humbleness or low self-esteem. And yet living in Japan, I no longer feel that I deserve anything. I work for things now, towards things. If I achieve any success from my efforts will not be because I deserved it but because I worked hard. I am not entitled to success or love or safety. Those things are the result of endeavor rather than being one’s due.
The man I fell in love with is much wiser than I am but he also has the advantage of being biologically older. I didn’t think at this stage in life that would make a difference but it does. I am now the age he was when I fell in love with him. I see now how wild and ridiculous I must have seemed then, how demanding. No wonder we reached a breaking point. When he did finally come around again, as a friend, he told me that I should stop having expectations of him. At the time, I hated him for saying that but because he said it and because I dissect everything anyone says to me, I have come to value his words.
I, like many people, thought having expectations was a natural way of navigating the world. Yet all it does is limits our experience. We use our pre-existing knowledge to define how life should be and everything that fails to fit within that definition is wrong. Eliminating expectations keeps you open, free to experience the world as it is, not as our feeble minds determine it should be. It is like drawing an apple from what you think an apple looks like instead of actually looking at an apple. You end up with a caricature of an apple instead of a portrait.
And so I became more aware of my expectations but still things were sour for me. And that is because the other side of expectation is resentment. Both must be eliminated. I was addicted to my resentments though so it took me a long time to relinquish them. All the injuries, the slights, the neglect: I feasted on them. But then, sometime last year, they became less satisfying. They used to fill me up but dropping my expectations meant my resentments had become brittle, hollow. Yes, people mistreated me, yes, people are inconsiderate and selfish but the truth is, that has little to do with me. The very concept of selfishness means that it has nothing to do with others so we shouldn’t take it so personally.
Now I strive just do the work I am here to do, to be kind, to look at the world as closely as I can, to try and understand this strange existence through my art. I am free to do this now because I am no longer burdened by indignation and righteousness. I am stronger now, less likely to be injured by others’ misdeeds because I no longer see them as attacks. It is a good place to be, for a writer, an artist, a mortal being.
The sun is now rising and the mountains are glowing pink. Outside the window, a woman smokes and glances my way. I offer a slight smile and nod and she does the same. Another day awaits the both of us and while our paths diverge from here, we have just now acknowledged that we each exist together, even if just for a moment.