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.

 

 

 

Hot Hiroshima

 

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It is early morning, August 15. Rich is at work. The boys are taken care of back in Idaho. I am back in aparto (apartment) 401. I am not out on the balcony. It is too bloody hot. Yes, I think in a mixture of my mother tongue English, Japanese and British. That’s what happens when you watch a lot of BBC programing. Why am I watching so much television? Because it is so bloody hot outside.

The eerie thing is, there are no people on the streets. At all. No obachans to ojichans(grandmas and grandpas) walking their inu (dogs) in the early morning. No salary men and women hustling to work, no students zipping to school during the morning rush. I don’t even see housewives (Japan’s word) pulling their carts to the grocery store later in the day. What adds to the emptiness is the lack of melody. No birds chirping or bugs creaking. Only the cicadas’ buzz fills the air. Even the crows and ravens are too hot to caw. They perch with their magnificent beaks panting. The sky too is void of any gentleness. No puffy, soft, clouds. A haze of humidity sits on the horizon. Above it, the sky is a harsh electric blue. There is no breeze. Nothing moves. It’s so hot I can’t seem to get enough oxygen when I inhale. There is nothing inviting me outside.

Inside is a little better. It’s cooler because we have air conditioning.   The curtains block the heat and my view. I keep the lights off. Intellectually I know they are not adding to the heat but I still can’t turn them on. The aparto is dark and small. My own body seems to radiate an intolerable amount of heat. While washing the dishes I feel perspiration soak into my shirt. Drips slide down my legs. In the toughest boot camp, Chuck could not get me to sweat like this. Sitting and watching TV is the only thing that doesn’t generate a trickle.

This weather punctuates a painful reality. Most of my friends are not here. And if they are they are busy. Due to the weather, most non-Japanese I know go home. Go somewhere cooler. It is Obon; the Japanese two weeklong holiday where families return to their main families to honor their dead. That is why the streets are bare. Everyone is somewhere else.

Holes. I have holes. Holes created by people. My two neighbors, Amy and Magali, will not be returning for they have moved. I still miss Etsuko my neighbor. Even though she has been gone a year, there is space. Funny how even small contact, occasional hellos and a weekly walk around the river created space that has not filled up. My friend Dawn and I started texting “good morning” along with a sticker. She has also returned to Idaho. My phone is quiet. Dark. Well, at least it isn’t generating heat.

We need money so I put on as light and breathable clothing as acceptable and head to the 7-11, our local bank. Due to thrombosis I must wear compression panty hose. Like the crows, I am mouth breathing trying to get cool. Heat is radiating off the structures and the road. The few women on the streets look very different from me. They have every inch of their body covered. Usually in black. Many wear this long black visor that keeps the sun off their entire front. Long black gloves cover their entire arm. They carry a parasol and wear straw hats. We look at each other with skepticism; but not for long because we need to get out of this sun.

 

 

Entering the 7-11, not only am I greeted with a hearty “Irrashyaimase!” but also a blast of cold air. I stand, blocking the entrance, soothed by the gust. The people behind me just go around. I come to my senses and head to the ATM. I’m so sweaty I can’t get my card out of my wallet. Every inch of me is clammy. Humans aren’t the only ones impacted. The humidity has made even the stiffest material limp. My debit card seems to have fused within my wallet. I practically destroy both trying to pull it out. This is why the Japanese wear a thin towel around their neck, to wipe the sweat away. I have never experienced anything like this before.

Now to the popsicles! Japan has the best kobini (convenience) stores. In them are the best selection of snacks in the world. Everything under the sun is made into a treat. Sweet, savory, fishy, nutty, chocalaty, chippy, cookyie, gummy, chewy, minty, jellyie, seaweedie, you name it they have it in snack form. Just google “kit kats in Japan” and you will see what I mean. But I am at the open frozen case. I hover over it like the famous photo of Marilyn Monroe over the grate. Eyes closed, skin cooling, I listen to the Japanese tunes and conversation around me.

Luckily my friend has written an article about it so I know just what I want. {ice cream} Pinkish pulp chunks of frozen grapefruit in bar form hits the spot in this heat. If there is sugar, it is only a little. It is delightful. But as I walk back home, it is melting really fast and I gobble it up so it doesn’t fall off the stick. Hmmm. That’s annoying. I have eaten many popsicles in my day and it has never been like that.  [Later when buying an ice cream in Innoshima, the shop keeper will tell me to take extra napkins because it will melt very fast in this humidity.]

 

The next morning I am dressed and ready to walk the river when Rich leaves. Its eighty-five degrees but my phone says “feels like 98”.   Walking next to the river feels cooling. I am struck by how different it is. Its 6:30 and there are few walkers. There are no birds chirping. No herons flying around. Even the kites seem to have found somewhere else to be. The vegetation is tall, overgrowth crowding the path. The river is low. A small stream cuts through the mud. Tracks show that it’s a busy place at night. Flights of dragonflies hover the tall grass. I wonder why.

Splash. The sound attracts my attention. A silver shiny fish jumps. Then another one, then another, like skipping stones. Joy ripples through my body and comes out a chuckle. Could it be I saw three fish jump in a row? I look around to see if anyone heard me talk out loud. Nope. There is no one on the track. As I continue my route, up and over the water gate, I scan the river. My breath and pace quicken with anticipation. Splash! A ring of water directs my sight. Suddenly a fish hurls its body upward and forward out of the spot. Its shiny silver body flashing, and lands with a splash. And yes, another one comes out (or is it the same one?) upward and forward, landing with a splash, on its side and yes the third one (or time) out of the landing spot. The sound of the side of the fish impacting the water is as delightful as the sight of it. In that moment of watching the fish jumping out of the water all my crankiness dissolves.

 

How wonderful! How wonderful to live in this river, to jump like that, to be shiny silver. How wonderful to witness it; to experience the sight and sound of jumping fish. I am still hot. But I am no longer cranky.

Two Year Anniversary

“Please hold back your hair ma’am.” The female customs agent does not smile. Pause. My foggy brain struggles comprehending the request. I must not look like my passport picture anymore. Stone faced, she stares at me.   I shift baggage. With a free hand grab my hair. I make a feeble attempt at humor. “Hmmm.” She looks at me, then the passport, then at me again. It feels like minutes but I am sure it was only seconds. “Why are you residing in Japan?” she asks in a very serious manner. “My husband’s job.” “Thank you.” Sternly the passport is thrust back to me. I continue on my journey Idaho bound. Taken aback but my attention quickly focuses on the tasks at hand.

Today when I opened these faces looked back at me:

Your Memories on Facebook

Angela, we care about you and the memories you share here. We thought you’d like to look back on this post from 2 years ago.

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Looking at these faces fresh off the plane fills me with emotion that spill out with a sob. All the unexpressed feelings of wonder, excitement, tension, joy, gratitude and love of the last two years bursting to the surface.

 

No wonder she had me pull my hair back.

 

Last night Rich took me to a beautiful, traditional Japanese eatery on the adult side of downtown. No English was spoken or available. No western influence of any kind. And that was just fine because we are right where we want to be.

What a Difference a Day Makes

I am standing at the crosswalk to the Peace Park cussing myself. The HIWC’s cooking class is at the Hiroshima International House, which is not here. It is down by Hiroshima Station. Not the Peace Park. That building is also called the International House. I knew that, but my feet have brought me here.

Once the self-chastising ceases, I come back to the present. The A Bomb dome reflects the morning sun, tourists mix with the locals on the street and the river quietly continues to the Seto sea. The familiar sound of metal wheels meeting track inspire me. The streetcar station Genbaku Dome mae (mae means in front of) awaits its tram. I know that this line heads to Hiroshima Station. The cooking class is close to one of the last stops before this main station. I quickly text Yoko san to let her know I will be late. It is 9:50.

The streetcars have a relationship with the stoplights. When you get off, you have to follow the pedestrian crossing light. This can either save you time by allowing you to get on or on your way. Or you can’t walk and miss your tram because you can’t use the crosswalk. The tram and I arrive at the light the same time. I hold my breath hoping it will wait until the light lets me reach it. It does.

 

Without any trepidation I scurry across. Entering through the correct door in the middle of the tram, I scan my card and look for a place to stand. And a map. The car is not very crowded. The map I find has roman lettering but is so small I can barely read it. It’s confusing, using businesses instead of stations for stops. Casually looking around I spy a map at the back of the tram. This new tram’s ride is smooth, I think, making my way easily. As I look at the map, I take note that my ears are not ringing, my heart isn’t pounding. Instead I’m automatically deciphering where I am and where I am headed. Dinah Washington croons in my head “What a difference a day makes!” Today I am finding my way, following the map, reading the platform signs, and recognizing landmarks. I can feel I am going the right direction.

It seems like yesterday, that I made the same mistake going to the wrong International House. But on that day I went home, eyes full of tears, cheeks hot, and temper raging. It was the fall of 2014. On that day, Amy had tried to tell me how to find the real location, but I couldn’t listen. I just got on my bike and rode home in humiliation.

 

What a difference almost two years makes!

 

It is ten o’clock in the morning and still downtown Hiroshima is closed except for the convenient stores. So different from Idaho. I am unsure of the exact stop I want to take, but they are so close together there is no worry. I get off at the Matoba-cho station. I wait for the crosswalk this time. As I head west down the street, my gut lurches. It doesn’t feel right. “Get out your phone, dummy.” I think. I do, but all the streets are in Japanese and I don’t see the building I am looking for. So I type in Hiroshima International House. Where does it take me? Back to the Peace Park! I scoff. These people need to be more creative with their building names. This is wrong so I shut the phone off and put it back in my purse.

I stand, breathe and look around. I ride my bike through here once a month to get my haircut. My brain calmly takes in all the details. My heart pumps normally, no pounding in my ears. I think, “we drive by this place every weekend on our way to Costco. It’s just past the station but before the stadium”. I know I am headed the wrong way, so turn around and go back to the corner. The crossing light turns green. I cross the big street and head over the Kojinbashi Bridge.   This river looks very different than mine in Ushitahonmachi. It is lined with huge buildings and big roads with tram rails in the middle. The sidewalk is old and narrow. I dodge the parasol carrying pedestrians.

As I come to the corner on the other side, I recognize the bend in the road. I can see Hiroshima station on my left, then I look right. I see a familiar sight but it still feels strange. It is the intersection where the end of a four-lane highway meets the city streets. It crosses a river so it isn’t flat. The sight of cars driving on the left side of the road still feels funny. But in an instant I know where I am. My destination is at the end of the street. I look at my watch-10:05. I am not that late!

What a difference almost two years makes.

Only this morning I had set out so easily. No fuss no muss. No discussions with Rich about how to get here or ruminating over which route would be the easiest. No angst at all. I joined the many people walking with a purpose- salary men as they are called here (evidence by their black suit, brief case), parents with children in tow, exercisers marching along, dogs walking their owners.

As I cross my bridge- Kohei Bashi. Its history is inescapable. The historic marker never lets me forget the part it played on August 6, 1945. This bridge is one of two that survived the blast. It was a passage to safety, away from fire. The river is high this morning. It makes a joyful sound passing underneath as I cross.

Hiroshima is a city of rivers. I am heading south and wanting to follow the river that flows past the Peace Park. Walking to Hakushima astram station allows me to skip the crossing lights. The astram starts underground in the center of downtown but it moves above the city as it heads north. I like the view here above. It gives me a good lay of the land, especially now that all the vegetation is filled out. So as I walk my normal route I realize that if I walk along the street, instead of to the river, I will save time and distance and get to the river path a more efficient way.

 

Savoring the freedom that knowledge and experience has given me, I take this risk because I know where I am and how to get unlost.   So I head south walking under the astram track. Although I usually walk on the other side of this eight-lane road, I feel relaxed and calm. This is my neighborhood. I notice lots of adults with young backpack laden preschoolers. My brain automatically reads a sign in katakana. Funny what it can do when it’s not whirling. Although things aren’t familiar, there is no panic. The path along the river is on the other side of these buildings. My gut knows there are many entrances to my intended route.

The sound of laughing preschoolers in bright sun hats keeps me on this path. Usually I have the bird’s eye view of this institution, but today I stop and watch the goings on from the ground.   Leaving early has given me the luxury of time. Time to follow my nose. But there is no place to stand that doesn’t hinder the morning drop off so I hurry down the street. One after another, I pass huge apartment complexes. Usually I see their rooftops from my balcony. These sights all fit together in my inner compass. I keep walking hoping to see a path to the river.

Anxiety is sprouting. Just before it blooms I recognize the supports for the railroad track. Relief bubbles up and out because this is a path to an entrance I have always been curious about. People continue to hurry by me. Housewife bikes with babes in front and back baskets cruise by. Briefcases swinging, men in black hustle past and cart pulling grandmas amble towards the grocery stores. This path along the river is even busier than the sidewalk. Bikes whiz by. The benches are full of elderly people chatting, animals waiting. The river is busy with boats and workmen fussing with the train supports. It’s all home to me.

Home. Its not one place anymore. I think about what is happening back in Idaho. These are challenging days for my teacher friends at Washington Elementary and elsewhere. My sons are back from college and settling into their summer routines. They text and skype me more these days. Thoughts of my garden, my friends, my past students fill my heart. I think about all the goodbyes said in the past and the future and the weight grows.

I come to another historical marker. Usually we are on our bikes zooming by, but time allows me to stop. Luckily there is English. This was the spot of a local hospital. The marker describes that it was here so the ill could get comfort from the cherry tree lined river view. As with all historical markers here photos provide after shots. With the hospital flattened, surviving citizens had scavenged tin for shelter to make a triage spot. Today a shrine comforts the dead and gives the living a place to pray. A gorgeous orange colored cat watches between the flower pots. I see a bench and sit down. With one big breath all that weight comes spilling out.

 

I love how the Japanese create this sense of privacy in public. A person can have a good cry and not worry that anyone will acknowledge it. Dignity in tact, I put myself back together and head toward the Peace Park. My watch tells me its time to get going. Passing the same elderly walkers I had passed earlier, I make it to the final leg of my journey (I think!). As I walk through the bike gate that caused such embarrassment, I bow respectfully.

What a difference two years makes!

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The Beginning of the End

 

The rain has begun. I don’t mean the little spring showers of Idaho. I mean the rains of Japan’s rainy season. At times it is like God is dumping a bucket, other times He’s turned on a sprinkler. I recently learned the Scott’s say “its pishing rain” which also describes accurately a type of rain I will experience today. At the end of such a day, everything is soggy, even the concrete. Escaping the sogginess of my apartment I sit on my balcony, people watching.   Students ride by, heavy book bags glistening. Some skillfully hold an umbrella AND their phones. Usually you hear chatting or sometimes even singing, not today. Heads down, their backs arched against the elements peddling as fast as they can, homeward. (Actually they are probably headed to cram school. Sigh.) The boys are sleek, one with the bike. The girls all wear pleated skirts so their driving is erratic because on top of everything else, they have to contend with a billowing skirt. Homemakers scurry by hunching to make sure everything is under their umbrella. Produce sticks out of their canvas bags and I long to be at their table.

I soak up the details of my surroundings. The cherry trees across the way are green, their pink blossoms a memory. I have recently discovered that the fragrant trees with the clustering white flowers are the Black Locust. Its blooms have also disintegrated. There is every hue of green lining the river. Voluptuous spiraea fill the space between these buxom beings. Blue brown river water rushes by headed to the bay. The grey herons’ flying the opposite direction are easily seen, white feathers aglow against the stormy sky. They hurry to their roosts high in the grove of trees in the fork of the river up stream.

We return to Idaho on September 3, 2017. Three years and a day from the day we left. Leaving this home is incommensurate to leaving my Idaho home. My numbered days focus me. The days leading up to our departure were a blur. I was numb. Now is the opposite. I am soaking in everything I can. And just as I nested right before each of my babies came, I am doing the opposite. I am clearing away.

A strange thing is happening as I read the life-changing magic of tidying up by Marie Kondo, I am shedding obligations and relationships that don’t click. As a person who takes people and responsibilities seriously, this is not easy. For example, in January when I looked at my schedule I realized a conflict. There was not enough Thursday to travel, attend cooking class, ikebana class, and teach two classes of conversational English. I asked around to see if any native speakers wanted to pick up my classes. Nothing. So like a tiny piece of sand in my sneaker, I carried this worry to Idaho and back. And while I showed my friend around this beautiful city, it gnawed at me.

And then it grew into a stone. My worry fed it until its weight became unbearable. The first morning of Golden Week, I lay in bed listening to my soundly sleeping husband. We had changed plans at the last minute. With this weight I knew I could not face the crowded, expectation loaded, Iwakuni Antique Fair. Although I have waited all year for this treasure hunting, I knew I could not do it. I could carry this stone in the wide-open fields of tulips in Sera. Even breathing in my bed, it grew heavier. Until I realized I was barely breathing. And so I did. I took deep breaths. I could feel my lungs struggle for space. With each struggling breath my heart wrestled the stone of my mind. Was I, solely, responsible for finding a teacher? And then the stone slipped off my back. Just. Like. That. I was not solely responsible.

We head north to an area in the prefecture that hosts fields of flowers and orchards. The sun is shiny and the sky big and blue. Rich immediately pulls out his camera and gets busy. To my surprise, he really gets into photographing the tulips. Or more accurately capturing people in the tulips. We take our time and soak in the day.

Then off we go downtown. It is time to switch the all weather tires for regular tires. This will be our third time and how much we have learned is apparent to everyone including ourselves. Rich doesn’t even use the navi to find the tire center from entering the city in a different way. To cap the day we head to our favorite watering hole Bistro 45. The first year here we visited it every weekend. Our lives are full now and have not been for a while.

We walk through the Peace Park. It is getting ready for the flower festival. All seems familiar. This is our home. We don’t look at a map or use the translator. We stop to watch the workman construct the band shell, each sounding out the katakana characters. We notice there are lots of foreigners walking around. It’s funny that we think of them as foreign.

These were taken the last night of the festival a few days later.

Our old friend Arita is not cooking, but Hosokawa san is. There is new wait staff. They don’t know us, another tale-tell sign that we have not been around. We order what we always do-chicken skewers with wasabi. We people watch and reminisce. Our most precious memory is the first time we brought our sons here Christmas 2014. We were so happy to see them and they were so excited to be in Japan. As we chat, a young woman across the bar keeps catching my eye. She is Caucasian and talking with a Japanese man. There is this weird thing that happens here in Japan. Lots of foreigners will not acknowledge your presence. They won’t smile or make eye contact. But this woman did. Not only did she smile back, but before we know it she is walking over to us.

“Hi, I’m Jade, are you American?” she says in a lovely Australian accent. “I just had to come over and introduce myself.”

I am so surprised. I am used to friendly Japanese strangers, but not friendly foreigners from the West. We easily swap stories of how and why we are here. Rich asks her what she does. “I teach conversational English at the university.”

My mouth drops. “Get Out!” I shout. (I had had a couple of glasses of sparkling wine.) She looks at me with her big eyes through these crazy thick, dark rimmed glasses.

“Would you be interested in two conversational English classes that have to be taught on a Thursday?” I ask, holding my breath.

“Sure” she says enthusiastically, “Thursdays are my only day off!”

“Whether you believe in God or not, you are an answer to a prayer!” I whisper, wanting to hug her. “Can I buy you a drink?!”

There is magic in tidying up. You just can’t do it alone.

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