Obon in Ontario

Facebook has this handy little way of reminding you of things you thought you would want to do. So as the World Cup semi-final game is finishing, my phone reminds me that in Ontario, Oregon at the Four Corners Heritage Museum an Obon festival is being held today. Doors open at 5 pm. I find the website. In Japan Obon is a holiday in August in which the whole country shuts down for a week. It is the reason we had to be in a hotel for twenty days when we first arrived. How ironic that it is today, in Idaho, that I learn the meaning of Obon.

This traditional religious holiday and folk festival combines Buddhist beliefs and                    Japanese culture in a memorial celebration. It is a time when everyone is happy                     and  dancing with joy showing their appreciation for all the good things in life we                   have as a result of the loved ones who have passed away. Obon is a “FESTIVAL OF                JOY”.

Now I really want to go. After some consternation we leave our hapi coat and yukata at home. Best see what the crowd is wearing for next year. We both are looking forward to being in Japanese culture. Hiroshima has been in the news a lot lately. There have been torrential rains and flooding. This will be a good place to be with our angst.

An hour drive west takes us through farmland. Irrigation systems, dairies, and harvest machinery remind me of my childhood summers on the farm. Signs lead us easily to the cultural center. When we turn the corner, a huge red tori gate welcomes us. IMG_3102

Then we see the line.  A queue snakes out the door. We follow the crowd and take our place. Yep, this feels like a Japanese festival. The hall is wonderfully noisy. Red and pink lanterns, carp windsocks, and hanging lights decorate the hall. The sight of Japanese American faces fills space in my heart. It isn’t the first time that I wish my outside reflected the inside. I am home but no one can tell.

The program announces this is 72nd Japan Nite Obon festival.

The tables are already full of bento eaters. I notice many smiling, elderly Japanese Americans are leaving with to-go boxes. There are a few people, mostly children wear the colorful, comfortable, summer yukata or hapi coats. The taiko drummers gently ask their pardon as they set up. This huge line makes me worry they will run out of food. We pass by a window and on the other side the yakitori grills are shutting down. Sweaty cooks with messy aprons eat their meaty reward right off the stick.

The efficiency and orderliness is not surprising but comforting. We pick one of everything and are directed to the beer lobby. It is not a time to be shy, with so many people the only choice is to share tables. We sit down next to a handsomely dressed elderly couple. The gentleman has the tale tell signs of a farmer. A face weathered by the elements, bent, calloused hands, and a plaid shirt. I see the cowboy hat on his knee.

We make small talk. We tell them about living in Hiroshima. Their names are George and Doris. He is a farmer. Rich tells him I also grew up on a farm. When I tell him in Aberdeen, he says quietly, “I know Aberdeen. Do you know the Leisys?”

Aberdeen is a very small farming community on the edge of the desert so it isn’t surprising that I recognize this family.

“Well I worked on their farm harvesting potatoes. I was 14. I was in an internment camp.”

He’s looking me straight in the eyes. I look back. It’s the least I can do. I resist saying anything. What I have to say is to alleviate my feelings of discomfort. I swallow them instead.

“Were you treated well?” I ask.

“Yes, in Aberdeen we were. We also worked in Burley. It was bad there, we couldn’t walk through town.” He says matter of fact. I want to look away but again he is looking me square in the eyes. I cannot tell what he is thinking or feeling.

My stomach sickens as I recall that just last month my son witnessed a Japanese American being harassed by an old white woman in a truck stop in Burley.

Finally, I say, “I wish I could say things are better now, but unfortunately, I can’t.”

We continue to look each other in the eye.

Gratefully, Rich starts asking George about his farm. They raise onions, sugar beets and barley. We find out that his son is running it now. George gets to “get in the way” he says chuckling. His wife quietly eats this entire time. Once in a while catching my eye and smiles.

We finish our bento and wish each other a good day. On the way home we figure George is 88 years old. The rest of the evening George fills my thoughts.

What do I do with all that I know? What do I do with what I have been told? Is my enigmatic mood the result of these stories rolling around in my head?




I can hear her clear strong voice all through the store. My mom and I have popped into my neighborhood grocery store for a few things for dinner. Grocery stores have always produced a trickle of anxiety. Out of the corner of my eye I can see a large person in an overloaded electric wheel chair next to the voice. They are so far away they are more like shadows than concrete beings. Mom is searching for the perfect banana and so my attention is diverted. After picking up the ten items I needed we head to self-checkout.

As I start to scan my first item, here comes the voice. It is encased in the body of about a 5-year-old girl. She has long blonde hair and it sways as she moves. Along with her is a skinny man in a dirty white tank top about 5’5” and a very obese woman driving the wheel chair. I try to focus on my items but this clear voice is now talking to the cashier at the service desk. The tone is so strong and happy. Her questions and statements are concise. They bounce off the walls and check stands. The cashier is now helping her parents. The child turns to me,

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Buying my groceries.” Is it me or is my voice now Mrs. Housley’s? I don’t look up but continue to scan.

“What is that?” I look over, her eyes sparkling, a finger poking a bulging produce bag.

“Apples” I respond.

“Oh, I love apples. Mom can we have some apples? I just love apples!” she asks clapping her hands together, feet jigging. I listen to her ask again, ask where they are, laying out the reasons to buy apples.  The vice in my gut tightens because I don’t want to witness any harshness towards this wonderful little girl.

Done checking out, I now have the opportunity to really look at this family. They are filthy. The mom has deep, red scratches at weird angles on her chest. She is not wearing a bra under her dirty white tank top. Her hair is matted. They are all wearing slippers.

“No,” the woman says with a soft voice, “we don’t have any more money.”

The cashier is still helping the dad with something.

I dig out three apples, kneel down so we are eye to eye and hand them to her.

“Here you go.  One for each of you.”

Looking straight back she says matter of factly, “My mom doesn’t have any teeth.” The happy strong voice bouncing off me now.

“I’m sure your dad can cut it up for her.” I say.

“I just love apples. I had apples in kindergarten.” her body quivering as she explains.

“Quit bothering the lady”  pleads a tired voice with anxious eyes . Before I look up, I breathe out all my assumptions, contempt, my disdain, and my horror. Compassion is all I have left when our eyes meet. She attempts to smile. I can feel the enormous energy it is taking to be a part of this exchange.

“She isn’t bothering me at all. I am an unemployed schoolteacher. I miss talking to smart happy kids like her.” I look right into this young woman’s eyes. How I wish I knew what to do for this family.

Mom and I scurry to the car in silence. What is there to say? Memories of the Hiroshima orphanage pop to the surface of my mind. It’s a place where parents leave their children if they can’t take care of them for any reason. These children are sleeping in clean beds, eating nutritious food, and live in safety. But they are not with their parents. I truly don’t know which is best.

Corpus Christi House

“Is there anything else you want the readers of this survey to know?”

“It’s hard. It’s really, really hard.”

“There’s not enough affordable housing.”

“Sanctuary is full and I can’t sleep on the floor.”

“I can’t be there by myself because my brain doesn’t work and I want my husband with me.”

Voices crack, eyes fill with tears, postures collapse.

Today people living on the Boise streets answer personal survey questions from a total stranger, me.  They not only tell me their age, gender and ethnicity, but also where they slept last night-the street, a vehicle, the local shelter or motel.   They answer questions whether they have alcohol/drug abuse, mental, physical or chronic illness, or experience domestic violence.

With dignity.

Every single one of them.

They are polite. Authentic. Humble.

The final question catches them off guard.  Someone wants to know what I think? You are going to write down my words?  The highlighted box awaits for their thoughts on homelessness. Some say a few words, others divulge their story, and the rest suspiciously say “no thanks”.

Tonight sitting on my couch, I wonder.

Where are they tonight?

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.