What I Will Miss

Bowing

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.

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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.

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Candy Canes

November 9 left me stunned.

“Excuse me. May I ask where you are from?”

We know what is going to happen next. It started happening a year ago and where ever we went. The first time it happened we were caught off guard. It came from Italians vacationing in the Maldives, then retired cyclists on the Kiwi Line of New Zealand, and Chinese New Year revelers at the TGI Fridays in Tai Chung, Taiwan. At that time the next question was “What can America be thinking?!”.

This time it is a well-dressed gentleman in the courtyard of Nagoya Castle. With distressed eyes and shaky voice, he tells us in broken English that he is a history teacher at a local high school. He then proceeds to voice his concern over our newly elected president. It’s the first time for my son, Jack, to experience this situation. I recognize the rush to comfort, the apologizing, the loss for words. The gentleman continues to talk until a young man dressed in period costume interrupts him to get us out of the way of their show. He is so embarrassed by this situation that he turns the other way and we go ours.

“Too bad you don’t have your candy canes Mom.”

Back in December as I planned how to spread some Christmas cheer, I realized, to my horror, that I did not have the regular sized traditional peppermint candy canes to hand out to my neighbors. Luckily during our weekly shopping at Costco, I found a bucket of 270 small individually wrapped candy canes. On one hand they were better suited for the Japanese, they are small and individually wrapped. On the other hand they didn’t make a very good tree ornament. Consequently I paper clipped them to the big purple ribbon on the tree. On December 6th, St Nicholas day, neighbors and their children again ventured to my door for a peppermint treat. It was Halloween all over again. Last year they just picked one off the tree. This year they ran my doorbell.

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So heading out to my cooking class the following Thursday, I threw the rest of my candy canes (200 plus) into my bag. It’s a big class this year and if I give everyone enough for their families that will leave a big dent. My presence in the class is a burden. I cannot read the directions or understand at the level you need to for a cooking class. I realize I take up an inordinate amount of attention. These candies are a small token of appreciation.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the response to these small candies. This self-reserved group of women erupts into shrieks and giggles. I learn a new word “ureshii” which they say as they pat their heart. It means, “I am so happy”. None of them have every seen or eaten one before.

Remembering this response, I start leaving the house with a baggie full of candy canes in my purse. The locals at the gas station, Masae-san the wine tasting lady at Costco, the people at the post office, the taxi driver, the cashier all get a candy cane.. So if a package is delivered, I give a candy cane. The newspaper lady collecting the fee gets a candy cane. Their response is almost exactly like my cooking friends .Heading to get my haircut, I stash a few in my pocket. When I hand it to Shumpei-san, he gets the biggest smile, and says, “I love these, they are so cute!”

In Japan the service is amazing. Clerks scuttle to get you exactly what you want in a timely fashion. With a watchful eye they anticipate your needs. Their professional demeanor makes shopping enjoyable. Tipping is not customary in Japan. December, like America, is a frenzy of activity, preparation and shopping because of Oshogatus (Japanese New Year). The department stores have ample help for the crowds, but just like in cooking class, I require much more energy than the usual customer. These little confectioneries are the perfect way to show my gratitude for their care.

Not only did the Japanese of my daily life get a candy cane, but anyone Fate allowed the opportunity for me to hand them one. Unknowingly the current of joy passing through the receiver to the giver made it become my peace offering, my sign of peace, my sign of unity, my sign of hope.

Meanwhile my sons arrive for Christmas. Before long, they are whispering in my ear, “give them a candy cane”. We bought one of the last boxes at Costco and gave out another 270 before January 3rd when they returned to Idaho.

It’s a weird place to be. To be the person that is looked to for reassurance to what is happening in the United States. I learned at the knee of my parents that democracy requires study and participation. Newspapers, academic magazines and the nightly news were staples for nighttime conversation. Whatever was happening in the country-whether to adopt the metric system, the ERA amendment, Watergate, every presidential election, and our local politics was discussed at the supper table. But this current situation has me at a loss. So much so that every time I started to write this story I would think it sounded silly. Ridiculous. Fatuous.

And then yesterday my Facebook page said, “You have memories from 1 year ago”.

Gandalf the Grey stares back at me:

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I             have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay…small acts of kindness and love.—Gandalf in The Hobbit

Yes, Jack, I do need more candy canes.

 

Advent in Japan

The four weeks before Christmas are called Advent in the liturgical year.

For many reasons, I have been struggling to get into the holiday mood. Returning to Hiroshima with balmy weather, trees still in fall bloom didn’t help.

Observing Advent seemed the perfect antidote. I had bought my four candles while home for Thanksgiving. Groggy with jet lag, I enter our guest bedroom. My wreath is a four-inch slice of a log with four holes for candles. In my mind’s eye, I can see gentle Rosie Skoro at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church explaining the tradition. The purple and one pink candle already lit. A memory of putting it together on the balcony engulfs me. With joyful anticipation I set out.

The room is full of stuffed stuff; evidence of Japanese daily life. The folded futon takes up at least half of the floor, our desk the other half. Bags of stuff fill the underneath of the desk and the top of the futon. Bags of reciprocity gifts wait at the ready. Properly disposing of refuse makes bags of paper and plastic bags essential. My fuchsia birthday beach bag holds all my handbags. My hot pink polka dot Japanese ‘going to market’ wheeled cart rests on top of our suitcases. Every cubic inch of space in the closet is also inhabited.img_3050

With confidence I find the box of Christmas decorations. The new candles await their home. Dramatically, the lid slips off the tightly packed bottom. Its not immediately visible, so I nonchalantly pull out some boxed ornaments. Arimasen. It isn’t here. Hmmmm. I can barely move around the room. The haphazardly opened box hasn’t helped. I go to the closet and start bringing down all the containers. They are bags of course, full of souvenirs and gifts. I see a Christmas card box. So I look in there. Nope. Nada. Zenzen. No wreath.

I spend the rest of the day tearing up the apartment looking for the wreath. At one point it is clear that I must clean up my destruction. In the end I have a sparkling apartment but no wreath. My brain fingers its memory. Doubt creeps in like fog until I am totally muddled. With great relief my attention is diverted by my friend, Jackie dropping by. I should be worried about my banshee woman appearance but am too befuddled.

The search is suspended for a few days. Our final visit to the Children’s Home requires my attention. In cleaning out her own storage, my mom has knitted twenty-five pair of slippers for the workers. I come from a long line of knitters. Advent was always marked with knitting along with baking. Mom loves babies and toddlers and wanted to do something for the dedicated people that care for them.img_3591

I look for a Christmas card to enclose with the slippers. In the box of cards I realize these cards are very religious in nature and don’t feel appropriate. Last year my friend, Lisa Kelly, had sent ornaments, gift bags, and these cards. I put this box in a pile of other Christmasy stuff.

The visit to the Children’s Home is magical. Tomoko has bought a Santa suit from a hundred yen shop. We have cookies to hand out. It is a bright blue day. To our surprise we learn that the home is under renovation and the babes have been moved to a portable on the soccer field. Charo has not only brought the music but has thought this through. She has Tim wait with the cookies. The rest of us find the new spot and join the children. As usual there are a few who run up to us, but most huddle with the adults they know. It is balmy weather so the kids just have sweatshirts on. Charo puts on Christmas music. What occurs to me is that these little ones who have been alive for less than 1,000 days probably have no clue what Christmas is. When I hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” I look up from the sticks I am being shown. Here comes Tim slowly walking across the dirt field. He has a big grin on his face. He is all in red. The adults start clapping and pointing. Like electric current, joy zips through all conductors. I have four toddlers, each holding a finger. They look at me with wide eyes. I crouch down for reassurance.

“Merrryyyy Chhhrrristmmaaassss! Ho! Ho! Ho!” Tim says as he walks through the yard, handing a little package of cookies to each child. They don’t move. They look to their adult for confirmation. No one moves. Music is blaring, Tomoko is singing, Eiko is dancing. One brave preschooler follows Tim and is now on his lap and Tim is opening the cookies. Following Santa’s lead, I open a package. For a two year old holding a bag of cookies in one hand and eating with the other is complicated. I fold up the cellophane package and put it in the little pocket of his sweat pants. Immediately another toddler comes up wanting help. Wanting the package in their pocket. Sunshine, blue sky, Christmas music, balloons, bubbles, cookies, and Santa provided a lovely day of Advent.

Back home to the dilemma of the missing wreath. In the process I have found many forgotten items and am feeling more organized. On the 21st there will be three more adults and three more suitcases here, so I need to create more space. Hanging decorations feels useful and empties a box. Now I can’t find the candles I bought in Boise. Rich helps me put my tree by our front door along with the rug and a magnetic Counting the Days. On St. Nicholas day there will be candy canes on the tree for the residents of the building. I improvise and use my electric candles as an Advent wreath.

 

Heading to church on Sunday, on a whim, I throw all the religious Christmas cards in a Starbuck’s bag. Maybe someone could use them. Charo told us the first Advent we were here that Filipinos celebrate Christmas in all the months that end in birth, September, October, November, and December. I wish you could hear her laugh. At the end of Mass she has me stand and explain. I tell them that my friend has sent Christmas cards if they would like one. Then Charo has me stand at the back of the church. She orders me to give one per person.

In my mind, these cards are hand me downs. Cast offs. But the parishioners are acting like I am handing out hundred dollar bills. They surround me, hand out stretched; that same electric current of joy passing through our bodies. Heads bow deeply, mouths smiling widely, eyes thanking me. Two African nuns ask if they could have a few more. ”You bet!. Every man, woman, and child got at least one Christmas card. Walking up the stairs, we have Mass in the crypt, I am hugged by many.

Stunned. One word can’t express how I feel. Humbled, joyful, loved, useful, whole.

ang in the middle. This continually rings true. It is a messy place to be. The middle. I find myself connecting two parts that are looking for each other. Like the opposite ends of a magnet unused yarn finds warm feet, Christmas cards find senders, friends find ritual. Maybe that is why I have always shied away from the labels of leader , president (HIWC) or even teacher. Traditionally these roles are in front. My best is in the middle.

 

Note: I found my wreath.  I woke up Monday morning remembering. I used a round loaf of bread last year. Bethlehem means House of Bread so it is a great symbolic use for the base of an Advent wreath.

A November Day

How wonderful is sunshine in November. Its warmth can soften any harsh reality. Open windows of the orphanage let in the golden heat and fresh air. In the background hums a vacuum over tatami. Taking advantage of all the children outside, a woman is cleaning with urgency. Tatami rooms are open spaces, void of furniture. This room is half tatami, half wood floor. A crib is in the corner, big enough to hold more than one baby.

The play yard seems overly full with children today. There are more new faces, or have they just grown. I really can’t be sure. Immediately two toddler boys run up and grab me by the finger. They lead me to the other side of the yard telling me something in Japanese. I pass the adults, bowing a greeting. One lady has two babies on her lap and one on each arm as they practice standing. There are squeals of delight, evidence that the bubbles and balloons are being unpacked. My escorts quickly let go and join the mini mob.

One little girl proudly shows me her plate full of pine cones. I use to make mud pies as a child. The people in my group have all found their niche and go about doing what they do here. Mine is low tech and low volume. I provide comfort, whether that be to wipe noses or provide a lap to snuggle. In being still, being quiet, I am able to really see.

The woman in the clean sunny room is now laying out toddler size futons. Japanese Futon These have also been out in the sun and aired out. Now she is placing them around the room. I watch her as she thoughtfully wraps the blanket around each futon, like wrapping a present, like a prayer. The care feels me with gratitude.

Out comes a worker with a tray. The Japanese give their children tea from a very early age. Batting away my judgment, I watch. She walks to groups of toddlers. Some eagerly reach for a cup; others are too enthralled with the visitors. Again I recognize the care being given. This is not only about thirst; this is about culture. These workers are tying the children to their history, their community through tea.

The story in my head is changing. The story is no longer “these poor abandon children”. That is one story. But now I see another story. These children are safe. They are cared for and cared about. Only because I sit quietly, observing, keeping judgment at bay, that I know this story. Before I realize, the toddler in my lap is asleep. I guess I make a good futon.

It is time to wash feet and head inside. The process begins. I pick up toys while the workers gather the children. I have found this is a better use of my time and theirs. The crying begins. But I know that a lovely lunch and a nap on a fresh futon await them and that is all I need to know.

 

 

The Meat Grinder

Once a month I willingly put my heart through the meat grinder. That is what happens when you live in a foreign country. You get yourself into situations you wouldn’t knowingly choose.

It was in December of 2014. The HIWC was going to bring some Christmas cheer to small children. I got all dressed up in my red sweater and fancy fun bracelet. I don’t remember how I got there. But I do remember standing in the parking lot realizing something was terribly wrong. The usually impeccably dressed Japanese were dressed as if to do fall gardening. Very casual. And the building didn’t look like a hospital. It looked more like a school.

As we are lead through a maze of buildings the lady next to me clears up my confusion. We are at an orphanage. Sweet, chirpy voices feel the air. Through a locked gate we enter a small playground. Wide-eyed stares welcome us. Not only from the children but the workers. At the time I remember it feeling so stark. So cold. So harsh. The lump in my throat is so big it holds back tears as well as speech.

The Japanese HIWC members get busy. One lady starts handing out bubbles. Japanese bubbles work totally different than in the US. Here bubbles are stored in a small neon pink tube like container. The neon green blowing apparatus is like a tiny horn. Another lady begins blowing up balloons with a small pump. Chaos immediately breaks out. Like fish at a feeding pond, the biggest of the children surround them, arms outstretch, pleading. There is not enough for everyone. To my surprise there is no crying; but there is pushing and grabbing. As a mother and a teacher I am not surprised. The workers hang back. They don’t interact with the children or us. They mingle around.

I am so overwhelmed by it all that I just stand there. I notice one Japanese member has found the Kleenexes and has started wiping noses. They all have runny noses. Following her cue, I fill my pockets with tissues and head across the yard. I know how to wipe runny noses. In fact I long to do it. Due to the level of humidity, chapped skin is a common malady in the winter months. The children stare at me, but they allow me to clean their faces. The mother bear inside me has broken free. Softly I say the only Japanese I can muster, “ohiyo gozaimasu, hajimemashite” “ good morning, nice to meet you”. When I come to a bench I sit down. As a kindergarten teacher I am very comfortable in furniture too small. To my surprise a one year old boy comes over and lays his head on my leg. I rub his back, he moves around so he is between my legs. Gently I lift him up and put him on my lap. And we sit.

And that was my first experience at the Shudoin, which means children’s home. It is an orphanage. Tucked up into the hills of Hiroshima city, ironically under a big safety net of a golf driving range. I am shaky on the details but basically this is where children from ages 0-18 are brought when their parents no longer can or want to take care of them. For example, if a parent has been struck with a serious illness, and there is no extended family to help, they can drop their children off here until they get better. It is also a place to leave your child when you can’t manage anymore. Due to language and culture that is about all I know.

At first I was horrified and heart broken. Inside my brain, the teacher and mother parts of my self noisily condemning and fussing about. I am highly empathetic. I avoid reading or watching anything cruel. So that part of my self was also murmuring. Blinding me. As I calm down, my vision clears. Each time I come back I see more.

The yard that the children play in is on the edge of a hill. They can look straight down about fifty feet or out across the entire city. Weather moving in, birds flying, the city below is the backdrop to their playground. It provides a bird’s eye view of the world.

The yard itself is simple. There are five trees. One is a huge evergreen, a couple are their beloved Japanese cherry and an acorn. There is a little grass growing around the trees but the majority is the light brown granular dirt of Japan. Worn sand toys, water bottles and metal bento boxes litter the ground. So when we bring balloons and bubbles it is a BIG DEAL! But you know what else is a big deal? The nuts and leaves that are dropped, the roly poly bugs, and the sticks and stones they find. The teachers help them make little receptacles by cutting off the top of cartons, stringing ribbon for handles. With great pride and joy the brave ones will show me the dirt or bug or leaf in their holder. Rarely do we exchange words. They are unnecessary.

As an American, I forget how different I look to the Japanese. Adults are polite. They look without looking. An eighteen month old is different. Contently this babe sitting on my lap will turn and begin surveying my face. I watch big, dark, shiny eyes inspect features unfamiliar. I have learned that my nose is tall. (Once my parents and I were stopped by a very elderly woman who commented on our tall noses and big ears.) My round eyes are green with a fleck of orange. My skin is peach and splotchy. My hair is brown and wavy. Unabashedly, the eyes look and look. I also dress differently. When Japanese women are outside they cover themselves up entirely-long sleeves, up to the chin jackets, hats, and sometimes even masks. I wear none of this. So they rub my arms, fingering the imperfections like studying a map. Occasionally looking up, checking my face for disapproval. In time, I put their cold feet in my hands, counting their toes in Japanese, slapping them together like I did my own babes. I massage these chubby, sun tanned appendages while cooing in their ear. They put their hand on my hand giggling at the difference. Big, little, old, young, pink, brown, clean, dirty, the contrast obvious and funny.

We are there for their playtime before lunch. So slowly, an hour after we arrive, the teachers start taking the children back into the building. They are smart and start with youngest, the easiest. There is a big, metal, dishpan at the door. The feet and hands are washed and then the babe is handed to someone inside. Initially no one notices. But as the group inside grows, so does the howls. Some toddlers are easily distracted, but others are not. They can still see us outside. So some stand at the sliding glass doors looking out. Hands and noses pressed to the glass, tears streaming, voices howling. One time, a little boy escaped and came running back out. I held my breath waiting for him to be spanked. To my relief, the teacher just kept talking to him quietly while she rewashed his feet.

The older children are more difficult. They are called by name. Some come obediently others run. All are handled with care and understanding. As their group diminishes and ours stays the same, the ratio becomes better and better for the children left. But this also exacerbates the departure. Many times we have had to peel children off of us. The meat grinder.

Wiping away tears, breathing deeply, we quietly walk back to our cars. On the way we stop by a washing station. In Japanese fashion, we hold the hose for each other, as we rinse off the evidence of the day. It is not by accident that this is done in a prayer like motion. God bless these little people and those who care for them. See you next month.