Humanity at the Laundromat

As I return to the Laundry Depot, my stomach clenches. Standing in the entry way are two young people with all the signs of homelessness. They are dressed for the cold. Hoodies peek out of heavy jackets. They also are wearing scarves, mittens and stocking hats. Two black garbage bags accompany overstuffed backpacks. I can feel their eyes on me as I approach the establishment. As our eyes meet, I see frizzy blonde hair and a toothy smile.


“Wow! What a colorful headband. I like your headband!” The young woman says. The voice is high and sweet. Innocently so, my teacher brain recognizes this.


“Good morning, thank you so much.” I stammer and head in to check my laundry.


I am instantly re-calibrated. For eight weeks my life has been chaos. Self-inflicted. We still live out of the suitcases we packed on July 19th in Hiroshima. To stay out of the way of painters, electricians, carpet layers, and the contractor, we move our things from room to room. Currently my kitchen is in the bathroom.


This morning as I lugged my laundry to the car, through the garage, because we have no front door, I fume. I berate myself for not being more assertive in this remodeling project. Second guessing every decision made since July 28th sends me down the rabbit hole. The beauty of the autumn morning goes unnoticed. The school zone I creep through only adds to my foul mood. It reminds me of the career I loved and don’t have.


Re-calibrated. The seventeen minutes on the washer gives me time to take deep breaths. I watch the couple on the street. The big front windows give space for context and detail. The young woman is looking at the day breaking. The foothills are magnificently golden. The gentleman with her is fumbling with a rope, the bulging garbage bag and his pack.


I am not alone in the Laundromat. A man my age is moving his things from the washer to the dryer. He then walks out to a big fancy car, gets something out of the back. My stomach tightens as he approaches the couple. Its then I see an outreached hand with some cash. I wish I could hear what they are saying. He points north and shakes their hands. As he returns to his dryer, I say, “That was very nice.”


“I’ve been there, you know. It’s hard. It’s really hard.” And he turns back to his dryer.


No. I don’t know. I have always had a safety net.


As the laundry swirls so do my guts. What should I do? Can do? Will do?

I look out at the frosty foothills. My car is packed. It is stuffed with good will donations, valuables and returnables. The roll of quarters (minus three dollars and seventy-five cents) heavily hangs in the corner of my pocket. In Japan my wallet would be full of cash. Here in America the folds are empty.


BIZZZZZT. My clothes are clean. I drag them from the washer to my basket. The paint is still on my jeans, but they are clean. I wish the man a good day and thank him for making my day brighter.


With the over full basket of wet clothes, I leave.   Heart pounding (why is it pounding?) I walk over to the smiling, parka clad young woman. Her pack is almost as big as she is.


“I am sorry this is all I have.” I say.


Immediate fear overshadows her face. “I am not begging! I didn’t ask for money!” she says, voice trembling.


I soften my voice to reassure. “I know. I want you to have it. Sorry it’s not more.”


Scurrying to my car, I almost spill my laundry. I throw the basket in the back. The last thing I see as I drive away is the young woman standing there watching me.




What I Will Miss


Remember when radios were the main source of entertainment. They had the two knobs, one big, one little, that you twist. As you turn, a red needle moves across a number line. As it moves you hear white noise, but then something happens and you hear a recognizable sound.   Fingers twist, the ear strains, and the brain hones in for more information.

When I first came to Japan, everything was white noise. The script of their language along with the sounds were indecipherable. White noise. Ears straining, brain honing for any information that would elucidate the situation. No wonder I would walk the river twice a day. One interaction with the public was the limit.

My cooking class would begin with a thirty-minute book study. As they read and discussed, I would listen. After a while my intellectual brain would give up, actually, quite quickly. I was left observing the sounds, the sights, the emotions of the speaker. And then that would stop. The chatter in my head. I would just listen without comprehending. Being out and about alone, this situation happened all the time, on the train, in the store, when my Japanese friends would gather. And like catching the hint of a new station, I started hearing my heart.

Around this time articles about being a good listener came to my attention. I had always prided myself on this quality. But as I read, and more crossed my path, I had to admit I wasn’t. Humbling. Listening became an intentional act.

Listening is easy here in Hiroshima. To be with English speakers is a listening smorgasbord. The delicious sound of English spoken through a Scottish, French, Peruvian, Filipino or Australian brain feeds the soul. Not only the accents, the dialects nourish as well. How people from the UK, New Zealand, Colombian, Singapore, or Japan express themselves in English is not standard.

So I listen. To my surprise, in becoming a better listener to others, I have become a better listener to my Self.


What I will miss

Throngs of People

The train pulls up. My stomach clinches when I see how full it is. Students dressed in linen uniform, the Carp faithful, and brief case carrying salary men all crammed together. I have no choice but to join the flow. We boarders stand to the right and left of the door, knowing our turn will come.

On the train I am acutely aware of the space I take up. We stand as close as possible without touching. That is very close. I feel heat. Hear breath. See pores. Big clear drops of sweat drip of off shiny black coarse hair follicles. Droopy lids accommodate dead tired eyes. A shift of weight from the left to right foot causes disturbance or turbulence.

The train is silent. There is no acknowledgement of discomfort. There is no agitation, exasperation or impatience. It is calm. This not only happens on the train. It happens as 50, 000 excited fans enter and exit the Carp game. Or celebrate Toukosan. Or visit temples during the New Year celebrations of Oshougatsu.

Being in this calm throng of humanity awes me. It stirs deep inside something that never is stirred in Idaho where there is plenty of elbowroom. A thin invisible string of connectedness vibrates in this throng. It’s humble hum moving through me. I am a part of it. I am calm. I am safe.

I will miss the throngs of people.


The Rain


Clouds roll in innocuously. Their white fluffiness slowly evolves into a foreboding gray and then indigo.


And then it comes. Down in sheets. There is no singing in this rain. The impact of an infinite number of water molecules slamming against the world deafens and blinds it. And binds it. Everything and everyone caught in it is soaked. To the bone.


This powerful force scrubs away the grime of life. It’s the least it can do.


What I Will Miss


I sit on my balcony enjoying the fresh morning air and a cup of coffee. The tide is moving in and the river filling up. I watch people head to school and work. Scratch, scratch, scratch. The sound of Japanese brooms sweeping the sidewalk. The taxi company’s employees do this every weekday around seven. One of my neighbors, in an expensive business suit, scurries across our busy road and hops onto the sidewalk right in the middle of the sweepers. As they make eye contact they give a nod of the head. A bow.

The gesture of bowing has many forms. I recognize that my understanding is superficial at best. I just know how it feels to give one and to receive one. As a foreigner bumbling around this elegant culture it is comforting to have a gesture that smooths the ripples I cause. Or communicates the gratitude I feel for their hospitality. Since I don’t have the words to express the myriad of feelings, the bow does the trick in every situation.


I attended the 60th Anniversary of the Teshikaga Rotary. As you can see, we are bowing and shaking hands. I am showing him a photo of us taken thirty five years ago.

Three O’clock in the Morning

Another light is on across the way. I suspect a new baby is involved. It is 3 am. Wind rattling plastic is my culprit. There is something going on in the garage of the apartment across the way. There are bright lights on there too. Jack hammering has been the background noise for last few days. It is loud in my apartment so I can’t imagine what it must sound like in theirs.

Across the river the festival lights are dimmed. Half of the red and white canvas has already been taken down. Ohanami matsuri, cherry blossom festival, is officially over. The trees are a fresh green after shedding their pink. Blossoms litter the ground, giving us that love them so, one last experience. The carnival people will take a week to break down the stalls and roll up the lights. I am thankful for this. I need the time. I need the time to say goodbye.

Without any fanfare, counting has changed. Its no longer about the first time we did this or how long we have been here. Now it’s the last time, and days before we leave Japan. The background of our timeline is about to change, again. This has put my senses on high alert. Savoring every encounter, squirreling it away for winter when I will need it.

The day before we had torrential rains. It scrubbed everything clean. It finally washed away my dishcloth off the neighbor’s roof. You see when I first got here, laundry was one of the more awkward things to do. It was too hot to use the dryer. They hang their clothes on hangers and hang that on big poles. A rectangle shaped frame with attached clothes pins are used for small things. At the time I thought I could just hang my few things over the pole skipping the tedious clothes pinning. To my horror, they all ended up on the floor. Except for one piece had landing on my neighbors tile roof. It was then I realize there is always a breeze this high up.

I can hear two men talking. It’s so different than how women talk. The tone, the rhythm, the cadence is low and strong. I think its coming from the garage. Maybe workmen are getting ready for the day. This window has brought the world to me. When I first got here I would hear children in the afternoon. I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from. The view was so foreign and strange I perceived nothing. Slowly I came to see the community from my window.

Another light is on across the way. I am sure it is a mom getting breakfast and bentos started. I wonder if she is making tea or coffee. Toast or miso soup. The talking has stopped and a man is now pushing his bicycle up the steep ramp out of the apartment. It is actually a road. I know this because once a van got stuck turning into it. I was just leaving my apartment and had just crossed the road. A sickening sound, that only metal against metal can make. Instantly traffic is backed up. No one seems interested but me. Like I child, I stood there and watched the gruesome extraction of a shiny vehicle from railing.

The moon has moved into my line of sight. Innocuous clouds reflect its beautiful light. I can’t help but think of my friend, Robin. She taught me to notice the moon. We became Facebook friends after I moved over here. After her many posts of moons, I started adding my own. IWe were in Germany visiting my son, Greg. We were walking home and the moon was so beautiful. Looking up, here was one dot connecting us all together. The thought tethered me. No matter where I was, together we see the moon. Robin taught me to look up, feel connected. She is no longer viewing the moon from down here, but I feel her every time I pause and look at the moon.

In a few short months, I will reenter American culture. Physic tells me that with every action there will be a reaction. Like a spacecraft reentering the earth’s atmosphere, I will have to make space for myself. I have seen enough space movies to know what that entails. There is burn off, breaking away, and landing.

The other day I had a weird sensation. We were coming home from a visit to Singapore. As we walked through Japanese customs, there was this overt “oh shit, this is a foreign country” reaction in my body. It caught me off guard. I consider Japan my home. Or should I say did. Is my body acknowledging a reality before my mind does?

The black of night is turning to the blue of day. Nice and slow. The streetlights aren’t so bright. I can now hear the train. Another apartment light is on. The men are talking again. A taxi driver stops and drops off a man, who is now walking down the ramp. Is this the walk of shame my sons joke about? In a few minutes I will be turning on the lights. We are definitely having coffee.

Chaos at Costco

I am waiting at the front of the Hiroshima Costco. Although it’s sunny, it’s bone cold. Commotion on the escalator causes me to look up to hear my name. “Anjera!, Anjera!”  Chikako is beaming because the words are coming from her three year old son, Hiroyuki. We hug. It’s taken over two years for this to become our natural greeting. Tomoko rushes up, pushing her one-year-old daughter Haruko in a stroller. “Gomen! Gomen!” Tomoko has three children, six and under, so she is always a tad late. In my mind I call them my young mom friends. Looking at them it fits. They are both dressed fabulously. Chikako, now 8 months pregnant with her second child, is wearing Go Go boots with sparkly tights, a fuzzy knit dress and a hip fur coat. Tomoko’s bright red coat reflects her spunky personality and her desire for a little sophistication. Their clothes distract the eye from their tired faces. Both of these women haven’t had good nights sleep for over a year. They are on call to their families 24/7.


When we first met, Chikako was expecting Hiroyuki and Tomoko only had two children. Every week they would pick me up and take me somewhere, followed by going to a Japanese restaurant. We spent way more time in silence than conversation. Then the babies came, and it was easier to meet at my apartment. They had never eaten Mexican food, so I would make nachos or burritos or taco soup. I would hold their babies while they ate in relative peace. We named ourselves The Eating and Speaking English club.

Neither of them have a Costco membership, and the babes are now todds (toddlers), so our new fun outing is Costco. While they meander through the aisles, I play with the kids. The girls loose all track of time. They love looking at the products from other countries. Meanwhile the children’s inner sand clocks slowly run out of sand. Haruko wiggles out of her stroller. She has just learned to walk so the wide aisles, lined with brightly colored items, are a new playground. Hiroyuki is content because he is busy eating the food samples. The tiny spoon and cup are perfect for him.

After paying we head to the food court. Although the kids are squirmy, their moms are transfixed by the menu. Too many choices. Pizza or hot dog? I solve the problem by buying a hot dog for them to share so they can have both. They pull out bento boxes filled with cooked yams and daikon, rice, fish for their children to eat. Initially it looks like it will be ok, but then mayhem ensues. The kids want up or down, they want their moms’ food, all the while the girls are eating as fast as they can. Then Tomoko looks at her watch and says “I gotta go! (In Japanese)” And we hurriedly collect the kids and rush to the cars. It’s a sight. Three women struggling through the parking garage with the cart and stroller full of stuff, kids crying, Tomoko is carrying Haruko like a sack of potatoes, ignoring traffic, and obstacles. I help load Tomoko’s van, Haruko is really crying now as her mom straps her in the car seat, and then the best part happens. Tomoko grabs me in a bear hug. “Thank you! thank you! thank you!” I hand her the ice cream sundae she bought through the window and she tears out of the parking space and down the ramp. I then help Chikako into her car. She looks exhausted. Managing life with a ripe pregnant belly takes a lot of energy. I remember those days.

Meanwhile a new crop of Micron expats has arrived. Texting, emailing and organizing fill my days. What was once a heart pounding, anxiety driven day on a bicycle, is now tour guiding with ease. “Here is the post office, here is a good rice ball shop, here is the second hand store, and here is the best out door eating”. Humbly sharing the gems of my daily life- Ikebana (flower arranging) in English, the Hiroshima International Women’s club, Get Hiroshima magazine- fills me with gratification.

There is nothing worse than dropping a stitch when you are knitting. It leaves a vulnerable hole in your slipper. I didn’t want to drop one of the new arrivals. I realized I was repeating information but not keeping track of who I had told what. There is a group of us returning to Idaho in the summer. We have all learned different things (good doctors, how to ride the bus, import stores) because of our unique experiences.

So here we sit, all the Micron spouses in one room.   The ones returning home soon, the ones who just arrived, and the ones in the middle, time in Hiroshima wise. Almost immediately the conversation is about sorting the garbage. Meanwhile, I am helping Katie get Line (a free instant messaging application that all the Japanese use) on her phone. The best function about this app is that to add a friend you shake your phones next to each other and it automatically adds. User-error proof. When I look up, the sight fills me with delight. People are talking to each other, face to face. It’s no longer a meeting, but a gathering. Faces are soft, caring, listening.

At the time, I didn’t think much about it. But my son, Jack, sent me a story about the recent discovery and role of menopause in orca whales .   It now occurs to me. I am the menopausal orca. Swimming around supporting all whom I encounter. My pod includes young Japanese mothers, new expats and even strangers. Last night, right before our train stopped at our neighborhood station, a twenty something tourist stepped on. How did I know? She had a huge backpack on her back and a small one on her front. She had two long braids. Hmmmm, I wondered if she was headed to the hostel in my neighborhood. I glanced over but she didn’t make eye contact. Sure enough she got off at our stop. I glanced at her again. No response. As we walk down the stairs I fuss at myself. Mind your own business. She will figure it out. She could be offended.

“Rich, what do you think I should do?” Before the final word leaves my tongue, I turn around and walk toward her. She is looking at her phone. “Hello, are you headed to the hostel?” I ask.

“Yes I am!” she says with a surprised look.

“Would you like help getting there?” trying hard not to assert pressure.

Her face softens immediately. “Oh yes that would be a great!”

And so on this beautiful moon lit night, we walk through the neighborhood. Rich is asking questions and giving suggestions almost simultaneously. The vision of a bouncy puppy comes to mind when I listen to him. I can feel her relief as she sees the Roku hostel sign.

Returning to our aparto, swimming in the moonlight, I am so comfortable in my own skin I take notice. Usually a little voice fusses. Tonight there is only the sound of the night breeze. I breathe. Joyful, humble, gratitude fills me.   Struggle, worry, fear blow out. Tomorrow another day of being begins.