Emails look so innocent. You open them without a thought. Then your life changes in that instant. This one was so cheery; no one would have known watching me read it, that it caused gut wrenching panic.
It was my own fault. At the company picnic, a nice lady had asked if I was interested in joining the International Wives’ Club. That sounded fancy and wonderful. I can’t have too many friends. If I had only thought it through more carefully……
“Our meeting is at the Tully’s across from Andersen on the third floor. Just get a beverage and come on up.” The date is Monday, October 6th. As I reread it, another wave of emotions toss my guts like the Tilt-A-World at the fair. I have worked very hard at projecting competency. But this gig will force my hand.
What I have been hiding is that I really don’t know where I am. After living here almost five weeks, I only recognize a few places or landmarks. Most of the time I have no idea where I am going. Everything moves too fast. My brain needs more time to grab on to what it needs to make sense of my surroundings. I have been so thankful for gravity. If my feet weren’t stuck to the ground I would think I was upside down. It is a horrible feeling. It doesn’t help that I unknowingly married Mr. Navigator extraordinaire. The more competent he got, the more I hid my confusion. Who wants to be the slow learner?
The city of Hiroshima has seven rivers running through it. This makes it difficult to navigate. Add the fact that few roads are named. There are train tracks, tram tracks and an Astram (it’s a kind of like an above ground subway train). So not only are you going over bridges because of the rivers, but also you go over or under tracks.
Then there is the sheer density of buildings. No space. The city feels like a maze. I grew up on a farm seven miles from a town of 1200 people. My house and barns were yards from each other. I could see Big Butte on the horizon. I could see for miles. I don’t know if this has anything to do with my disequilibrium. I do know I have always had trouble with my sense of direction. Back on the farm, I also found ways to conceal my lack of knowing. In college I got a job looking for grasshopper infestations on the government land that bordered the farmland. This meant days of driving alone on vast desert. To ensure I was on the right road, I would put the map on my dashboard and move the map as I drove. In educationalese, that’s called compensation.
I have coped with this intense directional confusion before. We lived in Clifton Park, NY for a while. The first time I drive to the grocery store ended up a terrifying experience. As I turned onto the main road I realized, I had no idea where I was going. With the heavy traffic I followed the car in front of me. I ended up at a Target. It is a miracle that I found my way back home. I had the same sensation of feeling almost upside down. At least there they drive on the right side of the road and the signs are in English. Then, like now, I hid from Rich my intense struggle to find my way around.
The sensation is always the same. Everything seems blurry. There is a ringing in my ears, it’s my racing heart. I scan frantically, desperate for anything familiar. Trees, sky, clouds, a river, a bird…… Meanwhile, Rich will point out a building or a bridge, things he is finding familiar. Apprehension starts to seep in, as I think “have we been here before?” With the realization that I have, panic pounds in my ears. My brain is not absorbing its environment; it’s trying to calm the blood crashing through my veins.
Just as I was getting a feel for my surroundings at the hotel, we move to our apartment. I was outwardly happy to go. But inside I was sick. Back to square one. I was back to making sure my feet were on the ground. The second day in our apartment we picked up new bikes and rode them downtown to central park for a company picnic [where I would be invited to the meeting]. We ride on the sidewalk I had now walked several times. Quickly though, we are in unfamiliar territory. I follow the leader. He rides joyously. Standing on his pedals, swirling around, zipping past walkers, strollers and other bikers. We end up following a river. A river. I see waves, trees, sky, cranes, a boat, a path…….
I knew walking that path would save me. So before Rich went to work on Monday, I made sure I knew when I got on our street I turned the direction to get to the path. So as Rich drove to work on the left side of the road, I walked our river path. The first day all I saw was the river, the birds, the boats, the sky. But the next day I was calm enough to see the apartments. Slowly I began to “see” the bridge, the park Emi-san took me to lunch, and the Astram tracks that takes us downtown, that the water was moving toward the ocean. I even realized that the cluttered house is the fisherman’s house. Every day I walk the river. I will reverse my route so that I get a different view of my neighborhood. It is surprising how this changes how I feel , what I see. Weather and time of day also change how my walk feels. A bright sunny day feels safe and visible. A cloudy one feels ominous and cautious. Early in the morning I feel in the way of everyone going to work. During the day I feel camaraderie with the elderly and moms pushing strollers.
I reopen the invitation. I hadn’t noticed there was an attachment; a photo of the Tully’s where the meeting is going to be. I recognize that corner. I know where that is! My heart beats calmly. That weekend we go downtown. This time I am the leader. I take us on the Astram, watch for the names of the stops, and decide when to get on and off. My brain is different. Instead of a blur of colors, lights and illegible print, I see the kimono shop, the donut shop, the McDonald’s, (has that been there the whole time?!). I find my meeting spot. Stomach calm, breathing deeply, brain absorbing.
Since then, things have gotten much better. I easily walk to the grocery store, post office or church without panic. The other day at the train station I saw an aerial photo of our part of the city. I found my river, path, our apartment building and the track that takes the Astram downtown. The neurons were firing on all ends. I could feel the bits of information gelling together with my memories and steps along the river. My internal compass righted. I now have an internal picture of my surroundings. As I walk back to the apartment, my brain searches for signs to read. It no longer has to tell my feet where to go.