Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Childhood Amnesia

The esteemed Dr. Freud did research into why we cannot remember much from our first few years. It turns out, according to the experts, that in children the hippocampus (yep you've got a hippo in your head), the part of the brain that records and stores memories is not fully developed, so events end up being stored randomly instead of in neat little folders on the hard drive. The big cheeses who figured this out called it childhood amnesia. (Or so I have read.)

Maybe it is a good thing that kids can't remember stuff so well. I am not a parent, but I have had my share of them and I know that a lot (including me) would fail the paper test if there were one--not to mention the practical part. But that is not what I want to get at in this post. When I first heard about childhood amnesia it made perfect sense and I began to think back on the pictures that flash in my head from time to time of my earliest days on this earth. I have a very early memory (I was about three) of watching ants in our backyard and "Raindrops keep falling on my head" was playing on someone's radio. I have a memory of petting our big striped tomcat, and another of being held in my Dad's arms and looking in a mirror after getting 8 or 10 stitches after falling backward off a chair onto a cat food can. I was wearing a dramatic white bandage with netting over it and Dad was trying to get me to laugh. I don't remember the pain, but I remember seeing our reflections in the mirror.

A lot of my earliest memories are of bathrooms. That may sound like the stuff of trauma, but it's not. They are actually nice memories--slow life memories of spending time sitting on the floor or the lid of the throne and talking to an aunt or my grandmother or mother while they bathed. When we were all together there were sometimes five women getting ready for church on a Sunday morning and that made the bathroom the best place to be for gossip, talk and education about make-up or other girlie things.

Even today, I like to watch Shuji when he shaves. Lathery foam, hot water, the foggy mirror and the even strokes of his razor take me back to when I was three or four and watching my Dad perform that same ritual in front of a different mirror. It is comforting.

So, childhood amnesia--yep. I've got it, but those ghostly memories remain and hover around the edges of my mind. I wrote this little tribute below long, long ago and it appeared in one of my earliest and most useless blog posts. Long, long ago, Dad used to play the guitar. I still know some of the songs he sang for me.

For Dad: Night Music for Small Ears and Feet

Warm summer evenings
were cooled by canyon breezes.

you sang to me.

On steel strings, calloused fingers found folk songs,
Dylan tunes and lullabies.

Now I know what you played.

Then it was all just music to me,

You smiled when I danced around your chair

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What we do

My husband and I are very much creatures of habit. 95% of our evenings are spent at home, we cook dinner together, watch the news and are pretty much done with the dishes by the time 7:00 rolls around. On the weekends we sometimes go out for lunch and occasionally dinner. Part of that is to save money and watch what we put into our bodies but mostly it is just that we really like to cook and eat at home. This has been going on in essentially the same way for the past eighteen years.

Another thing we do is get outdoors on the weekend. On the rare day that I am too tired (or if it is really pissing down rain) we will stay in and watch DVDs, or go to the cinema to see something interesting but most Saturdays and/or Sundays we find ourselves outside. I need the air and the exercise to keep my sanity. No amount of room running or spinning like a hamster on the stationary bicycle can do what three or four hours of forest air can do for my brain. In all the years I have spent with my husband we have spent a lot of time together outside. Over long weekends and holidays we learned to whitewater kayak, did some pretty hardcore mountain biking and some serious hiking. We used to go camping at least once a month-although less in winter (I do SO hate the cold) and during all that to keep fit (and sane and have time to talk) we went for walks.

There was a great place in the mountains near his family home where we used to walk. It wasn't especially amazing in terms of scenery; it was just an old, narrow, unevenly paved road that eventually turned into a dirt track. But it was close and when we walked we walked through the seasons: froggy voices and cherry blossoms in spring, newly planted rice, blue skies and fireflies in summer and fiery orange leaves in the fall. Even winter it was walkable since it didn't snow and home (and a hot bath) were waiting nearby.

When we first got here in Miyazaki we were out of sorts. It took us a while to find places that met our standards for "proper" outdoors. We had been very, very lucky to have been able to spend so much time is such amazingly beautiful places back in Wakayama--so the bar for "nature" was pretty high. We persisted, and have found some good spots (although sadly, the rivers down here suck for kayaking) and almost just as importantly, we found a place to walk. It is not anything to blog about really--just a road that winds into the mountains. Still, it is what we want to feed our habit. It lets us walk for hours side by side and talk away our week and our worries. If we're lucky there will be monkeys or a wild boar to surprise us. Most of the time we have to be satisfied with the fish that swim in the clear stream that runs beside our route or with the little orange crabs that raise their claws in defiance at our trespassing feet.

This is what we do. We are creatures of habit. This is what we do. I love that we are predictable and I hope that it is our good fortune to stay that way for years to come.

A reminder

Last Thursday night (on a weeknight!) I went out for dinner and drinks with a friend from work and her friend who had come over for a visit from India. We went to a great little "izakaya" in the city called Yuzuan. They have THE Most Incredible chicken wings on the planet. Aside from the great food we spent three hours just talking and hanging out. It was my friend's girlfriend's first time in Japan and that of course leads to a lot of conversation about first impressions and all, but the nicest thing was getting to talk with someone who is smart and doing really interesting work (she is an artist who works with film as a medium) and most important of all has absolutely NOTHING to do with my work or my school other than her connection with my lovely colleague. It was so fabulous to get to talk about her history, life and plans. It is a real perk in Japan to get to work with people from all sorts of backgrounds. The college where I work at has teachers from over ten different countries but usually we end up "talking shop". I had forgotten how wonderful it is to talk about the world with someone else who has had a fair share of experience in it. Anyway, this is not a very exciting post, but I wanted to write down and hopefully remember that there is more to life than working, teaching, planning lessons and correcting essays. There is a big, big world out there and while I get a glimpse of it through the blogs I follow and read, it is wonderful to get to converse with it face to face over nice drinks and yummy things to eat.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What I have (and what I do not)

I wanted to write this on Friday, but I was too tired and my brain was not willing to do anything but sit around and watch bad, but amusing Japanese dramas with Shuji.

I had planned to write a "Friday I'm in Love" kind of post even though I would be copy-catting little sis, but feel justified about copying because I like looking at the things that she is "in love" with and by the time this Friday had rolled around I was incapable of original thought.

It didn't happen, so this post is going to be a skewed version of a Friday I'm in love...

OK-- the title says What I have (and what I do not) I feel like I shouldn't start with the "what I do not" have part because it will either make me sound like a whiner even though it will allow me to kvetch a bit. So I will start with a kind of "count your blessings" prologue to the Veruca Salt part.

Before I go further I feel compelled to say--once again, (I know it is getting repetitive but...) I am so very, very grateful for having a flush toilet. 15 years of pit john really did scar me. Or maybe I am not scarred, maybe I am lucky because I will never, ever take that blue water going round and round the porcelain god (yep it IS a god!!) for granted. Forgive me for the broken record bits. Blame it on age or post-pit-traumatic disorder. Regardless of its origins, I AM grateful for my beautiful white throne.

So, what other "things" do I feel particularly happy about owning? Well, for one my slow cooker--this is a complete steal from little sis, but she is so right about how nice it is to smell it cooking all day and oooooh the joy of coming home from work or a from a long, long hike and having a whole meal ready. Another thing that I am happy about is our bath. It is not as gorgeous as this one but it is very big and Japanese and nice for soaking sore muscles. Once you have had a bath in Japan--providing that you are a "bath person", not a "shower person"--kind of like whether you are a cat or a dog person. If you are, you know it. Anyway, once you have gone the Japanese way, there is no going back. We have a continuous gas water heater, so we never, ever run out of hot water. Sweet.

There are more things in our house that bring a smile to my face, like my bread machine (boy does the general consumer here LOVE white bread...heavy sigh) and finally having an oven that will cook 24 cookies all at once! But if I go on and on about the joy my appliances bring, it will get boring and I will not feel the relief that a good whinge brings.

So let's get to the woe is me "What I Do Not Have" part:
--I do not have a dishwasher. They didn't used to even exist in Japan and now they (especially the built in ones) are bragging/show offy items for people with NEW homes or "mansions" and built in "system" kitchens. I don't have a new home, a system kitchen or a mansion, and I don't want a massive box-like appliance to take up my already limited counter space. I feel lucky that I even have a counter. Besides, even if I had the space, every time I wanted to use it I would have to connect it to the kitchen taps. I wouldn't be able to cook anything else or even pour a glass of water if I were using the dishwasher so no-no, I do not have one of those. (This may sound like sour grapes, but I really don't want to pay 500 to 1,000 dollars worth of yen for a machine that will only wash 3 plates, a couple of bowls and a glass or two at the same time.) So, I guess, what I really want is something that I will probably never get in Japan.

The other thing that I would like is an "American sized" washer dryer set. I have been hanging out my laundry for 22 years and counting. On the one hand, I feel superior to those who are wasting the earth's precious resources every time they fling in a sheet of bounce, blithely push the "permanent press" button and carelessly twist the timer. But in the winter, when my hands are turning red from the cold or when my Levis have been hanging out for three days and are beginning to go moldy because the humidity and rain will not let up, then I feel sorry for myself. And it is true that sometimes when it is too wet or when I have decided to wash EVERYTHING in the house at once, (it is pretty amazing how much my little 4.5 kilo limit washer can spit out in a morning) we throw all the large items into trash bags and drag them down to the landromat. The coin laundries are amazing here. They are made for the housewife--clean with big picture windows and good lighting, huge folding tables, carts for dumping your dried items in that you can wheel up to a table and just dig in--fold and fold to your heart's content. And the washers and driers are bigger than some people's apartments. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but they can handle a queen size comforter. Still, I would like a huge washer/dryer like all of my perfectly middle class relatives back in the States have.

So, that is my list (and I *do* love a list) of happy to have and wish I had things.
So that is the end of today's post and I am heading off to soak in my wonderful bath and then count sheep (if not blessings) under my clean comforter and sheets on my Simmon's mattress. Ah joy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I am not brave

...I am a cautious person--contrary to what some might see me as.

I am not afraid of snakes or spiders or other creepy crawlies, but I don't think that makes me brave. I think that is just practical, at least it was when we were living in my husband's ancient family home.

I am not brave, I am cautious. Let me prove it.

Not bravery one: When I bought my first car (a little red Honda Civic that I *really* wanted) I chose a stick rather than an automatic. I actually couldn't drive a stick and so I had my trusty boyfriend who could drive anything w/two or four wheels, drive it home so I could practice on my cul-de-sac street and in my driveway. I had a plan (ask boyfriend--who would never have said no to driving a new car & practice under controlled conditions. I knew that most people who strive to learn to operate a stick shift are successful, so I had empirical evidence on my side--not brave, practical, cautious. See.)

Not bravery two: coming to Japan. Yeah, sure it is a foreign country, but I knew it was "safe". That there was a low crime rate, that the people were not at war with anybody and I knew that I had a job waiting for me on this end that would pay me more than I would have started out with in UT, so for me, going to Japan was not an act of bravery, it was a calculation. The only real risk involved it turned out was flying on Korean Airlines the year that the Olympics were held in Seoul. We ran out of paper cups and toilet paper before the plane landed--seriously a scary memory. When I found out about my first job in Japan and decided to go for it, I never thought of going abroad as an act of bravery. It was a given. That is what is great about being young. You just *do* things without thinking too much about them. It is not really bravery, it is more like stupidity with a sort of back up plan.

Not bravery three: marrying a man from another country/culture. We had been together for about 8 years when I asked him to marry me. We had been living together in his family house (with his mother, as tradition requires--and OK the living with the MIL is kind of brave, but more like being brave at the doctor when you have to get a flu shot or stitches--you just have to bite your lip (and your tongue) and deal with it eh?) for a good part of that and I wanted to make an honest man out of him. I knew we were compatible, could communicate despite differences in language, and traditions. Any marriage is a leap of faith and I strongly believe that a huge mistake that many people make is assuming that their partner is the same as they are simply because they speak the same mother tongue and were raised in the same country. We all were raised in different households with different religions and family traditions.

So, I don't think I am brave. I am proud of myself sometimes for being able to *do* things that I know my female relatives or friends couldn't do. I like the fact that I can work and live and enjoy a life in another country. I can read a non-English map, drive, use an ATM (I had to show my husband how to do it because he had always just used the tellers--score!), get on a plane, fly to Tokyo or Osaka and navigate the subway systems. I can do all that, not because I am brave, but because I have learned how.

Sometimes people who I went to school with long, long ago comment (usually on my facebook page) saying that I seem so brave.

I am not.

Yeah, sure I can catch a frog or a lizard or chase a giant spider out of the house with a broom, but I definitely would not say that is brave. There are far braver people in the world--so it seems to me that anyone who looks at me and my life and uses that particular adjective, would be better off using it on someone who really is. (Like a firefighter or a nurse or a junior high school teacher--now *those* people ARE brave).

--this post was inspired by a Mama Kat prompt which went slightly awry.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

too dark and too tired to write

It has been a busy couple of weeks. (And *I* am not even moving house!) I have had to write too many other things for work and could not squeeze another drop out of my exhausted brain or fingers. I should recover soon. I will breathe in and out and read some soothing things and then I will be fit to contribute to the blogging world.

for now I will leave you with two quotes borrowed from Fiona at Planting words:

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
~ Charles A. Beard

In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
~ Theodore Roethke

Saturday, October 2, 2010

oh Autumn

Six reasons why i am glad it is Fall--4 reasons why I'm not

Writing Prompt From Mama Kat
--OK the prompt was for 10 reasons why you are glad, but I got kind of bored halfway through.

1. Because it is now cool enough not to need the air conditioner--but with my windows open I can hear my 70 something neighbor vacuuming her floors *every* morning at about 6:30. It is a good alarm clock when I want to work out, but when I want to sleep in...

2. The cicadas have shut up. I miss them a little. Still it is good to know that we could go into the park and not have to worry about permanently damaging our hearing.

3. We can walk on the beach again. Summer beach is great. We have had good times with the SUP and got to see really cool fishies while snorkeling. Yesterday was our first walk and we picked up some very cool looking shells. I am glad it is now cool enough to go down to the shore fully clothed.

4. Nabe (hot pot) time! If you have never had it go take a look. It comes with kimchee or without. Lots of veggies. Does not require a recipe. Very yum.

5. Kin moku sen--my favorite smell in the fall.

6. Ishi yaki imo (roasted sweet potatoes) in the fall the guy with the truck will come around in our neighborhood--kind of like the ice cream man. They are hot and fat and smokey. Another yum.

I will miss these things:

7. being able to go barefoot--in the house at the beach

8. never feeling cold--never needing a cardigan or sweatshirt--Japan is not the high desert and the misery is that the temperature does not fluctuate much from day to night. the upside is that I never feel cold

9. body boarding and playing around on the SUP

10. the feeling that I am on vacation--summer and vacation go hand-in-hand and the feeling that accompanies summer vacation is programmed into my brain from childhood. Summer was the best time of my life when I was a kid. Even if we are not doing anything special, like this year with our "staycation" I still feel like we could do something because it is summer and it is vacation. I still hold that fluttery happy emotion somewhere in my heart even as an adult and I look forward to the excitement next year.

Lots of things to like about fall. It makes me feel sad though. I know that the leaves will turn and fall and then I will be stuck with skeleton-like branches and not enough green for several months. We will go out and hike in the nearby mountains and it will be good because the heat and the bugs will be gone, but I love spring and summer and VERY much look forward to them coming for a visit again next year.

woohoo i'm famous

One of my favorite blogs for photography/reflective thoughts asked me to write a bit about "where i live". That is a perk about living abroad--people think it is exotic and want to know more. It was not easy to write because I have been here so long that so many things have become "normal" to me and I take them for granted. I tried to give a bit of insight into the Japan that I live in and if you want to take a look it is here: at mortal muses --who totally rock!!

I was humbled by what the other "guest muses" wrote about their hometowns and surroundings. They made them real and personal and I could really see, feel (and almost taste those cheese fries!) parts of their lives. I really struggled when I was writing because I couldn't decide if I should write about or *my* life in Japan or what. I ended up writing a bit of both and I am grateful for the kind and positive comments that I received. Justine said "...your journal is so interesting". She has come by here and indeed this is a journal rather than a "proper" blog that shows off an amazing life or specific ability. There are so many, many talented women working on the many projects at mortal muses. I am awed, daunted and inspired by their work. I am glad they are there. It is a bit lonely in Japan sometimes and it is easy anywhere to get stuck in the rut of the day to day slog and to forget the beauty that surrounds us. So thank you, creative women for your inspiration and your dedication to being more creative even when you are busy. Please keep up the good work.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dirty little secret

I have a confession to make...

I love to read. Doesn't really sound like a dirty secret but sometimes I feel like it is. And I am writing this to explain why.

The other day I went to a meeting and before things got started for real, people were talking. They were talking about a room at our school that is full of items that people have abandoned upon leaving Japan. It is full of junk and odds and ends--the detritus from moving--you can guess what it looks like. But it is also full of cast off books. Before Amazon, before the beneficent god of KINDLE with its wireless blessings, English books were like gold bars here. They are also heavy and expensive to ship, so although books are like friends and we hate to leave them when we move, sometimes there is no choice. So, there is a room in my building that looks a bit like a used book store without the nerdy-looking shop assistant and it is full of books. They are paperbacks and hardbacks and range from science fiction, to Tolstoy to self-help. That is what my esteemed colleagues were talking about. Someone had recently been down in the cast-off room and had seen that a whole set of Star Trek titles had been added to the collection. They were making a guess as to who had read them all and in a way--mocking the idea that someone had actually read all of them. Someone even said "I never read fiction."

I felt all sorts of emotions after hearing that. I felt angry, I felt incredulous and I felt guilty. I felt shamed because I LOVE fiction. And I felt conflicted because this was not the first time I have felt like I am doing something wrong by reading the things I love instead of focusing all my time reading about my profession.

I know I need to maintain a balance. I know I need to read "academic" works so I can publish and help my career "move forward" and so I can continue to grow as a teacher. I know that. And I admit to not being as rigorous a reader in that department as I should be. But I hate feeling guilty about reading for pleasure. I also would offer a counter argument that some people whom I know firsthand could use do do a LOT more reading of fiction to hone their humanity, relationship and emotional IQs. Fiction allows us a peek into the human condition. It is not quantitative--but rather qualitative and can give us insight into others' lives even if those people are not real. A good book can offer comfort, and help us to realize another perspective. It can broaden our point of view. This is just as important as polishing the "job" side of our lives--perhaps even more valuable because the people we work with are flesh and blood with problems, stresses and baggage of their own. The data shown in a graph is not going to help me comfort a student when she has had a fight with her boyfriend or when a co-worker is struggling with a messy divorce.

So the next time someone disses fiction. I may have to come out of the closet and give them a piece of my mind.

Monday, September 13, 2010

just lie down

"Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down."

- Natalie Goldberg

I found this on Fiona Robyn's page and had to borrow it.

I know why I like to go barefoot. I know why our walks in
the nearby woods make me feel like my fur is going the right direction.
God if I could only remember this--to remember to plant my toes and breathe
more often.

Monday, September 6, 2010

what do you hear in these sounds?

I like Dar Williams. No surprise there eh?
One of her songs goes like this:

And I wake up and I ask myself what state I'm in
And I say well I'm lucky, cause I am like East Berlin
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they'd know that I was scared
They'd would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me...and...

It gives me comfort. "With their stumbling and their mumbling and their calling out just like me..."

She caught it just right. I often feel like I am the only one who doesn't have it right. It being life--how to live. There is this voice in my head and an imp on my back that whispers in my ear and tells me that I haven't made it yet.

I have a "different" life. I have made "different" choices that are at a glance off the mainstream path. What may look like confidence and courage is just me walking my way along the tracks that I have laid down. So, the words of this song give me comfort. I think because good old Dar wrote this that maybe I am not the only one who tries to put up a good front, but inside is worried that everyone will "know that I was guessing." But maybe they already know... Maybe the wall never really comes down.

oh it is an endless circle.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Channeling--who would you?

a term used in reference to the claimed process of receiving messages or inspiration from invisible beings or spirits.--from Wikipedia, the *only* place to go to get info these days (or so my students think).

I like the idea of channeling--or at least its modern version which is more like a cool way to say "she is my role model." Channeling sounds so much more sophisticated and grown-up.

Looking through other people's blogs of late I have seen the word "channeling" used fairly often. It made me think a bit about who I would "channel" as I saw the choices of others: Lucille Ball, Mrs. Cleaver, Sara Jessica Parker--or at least Carrie Bradshaw.

So, who would I channel? (ah--the chance for another list!)

My paternal grandmother--I channel her tolerance and love for her family and acceptance of the many changes life springs on us. In her ninety-some years she saw her own mother pass, her kids grow up, marry, divorce, fight, come out, struggle with financial problems and addiction. Every day, she inspires me to not take sides or hold grudges and to try to gracefully roll with the punches as they come.

My maternal grandmother--I channel her for her power and her fashion sense. She is still on the earth (bless her in her nineties) but I can still channel her and do every time I face a difficult decision by asking myself "What would Ina do?" Of course I have to take care channeling such a strong personality with whom I share my genes. Tough can be hard on the loved ones who surround us, so I try to balance the inspiration I derive between both of my grandmothers.

My cousin (actually my father's cousin--but whatever) M. I have only met her a handful of times. She was one of my "role-models" when I was in college and had--although she may not know it--a huge impact on my decision to come to Japan. Early in her marriage she lived in Malaysia with her husband. I heard vague stories about adventures she had including fighting off snakes in the house gardens and climbing mountains. I remember thinking "If she can do it--this cousin of my father--then *I* can too." And I did. She too has had an interesting and varied experience in this life--adopting two girls from Hong Kong, divorce, a non-self-serving career, embracing her sexuality after 50. And this most recent transformation into an almost ascetic life speaks to me of the potential for women to continue to discover their inner layers until our last breath on this earth.

My last "channel" is also a living person and not a woman. A man I used to work with offers great loads of inspiration in the way he deals with people and the trials that have been thrown at his family. My friend T. is a good, kind, considerate person and a great Dad. Last year his little boy was diagnosed with leukemia and in spite of months spent sleeping at the hospital and having to work two jobs to support his family, T. managed to remain upbeat and in communication with his far-flung family and friends. He helped his beautiful, young boy to beat this terrifying illness and did it in a country that is far from home. I admire his flexibility, solidness and steadiness. When I think I am too tired to email, or phone, I think of him and am ashamed.

So, that is my short list of who I would channel. There are countless other people whom I admire and want to be like. Who would you channel and why? Worth a thought eh?

Monday, August 23, 2010

August--festivals and ghosts

I have always loved summer. It evokes good memories of spending time with two sets of grandparents. In Utah I was with far-extended and many-generational family for picnics, dinners and drives in the high desert. In California I also had exotic and interesting relatives and an energetic Grandmother who offered visits to places kids like (LaBrea tar pits, the beach, a fabulous toy store and endless hours with us at the neighbors pool.) I remember swimming until it hurt to take a deep breath (Pasadena '70s smog) and running with my dime out the door at the sound of the ice cream truck. I have a summer birthday, so there was always the promise of cake and presents and a backyard party with lots of aunts and uncles. So, summer to me has always been magical--a time when one got a chance to be a child and run free.

Japan's summers are definitely not disappointing.
The end of July and August is summer in Japan. In the areas I have lived, it pretty much punctuates the end of the rainy season, and lasts till school starts up again in September. It is humid and the roar of the cicadas can drive you deaf or crazy or both. Sensible people would abandon cities like Parisians do and head for cooler, more civilized venues. But people here, sensible or not, don't have that kind of vacation time, nor do they really believe that the heat is something that they should try to escape from. There is a streak of stoicism in Japan that runs very, very deep and it is not just among the middle-aged or elderly. The heat of summer is something to be borne. The bearing will be made easier through props and ritual. I like the idea of props and ritual--like the beach mats and sun tea that was part of my childhood. I don't really mind the heat, (I just use the air conditioner, take showers and drink a lot of iced tea.) but I really wish people would admit that Japan has a sub-tropical climate and build houses with better insulation and/or central air. Nevertheless, I really love the props and ritual. I fell in love with them the summer I arrived and have not changed my mind about them since.

Props: Natural and otherwise:

fireflies and yukata (summer kimono), mosquito coils, shave ice (definitely not your average snow cone) cicadas (love 'em/hate 'em), traditional festival of the dead dancing, hand-held fans--the kind that fold with the lovely pictures on them and the kind that look like a big, flat lollipop, fireworks (yeah, I'm repeating myself, but it is better than the fourth of July here, 'cause there are always multiple opportunities for watching fireworks), watermelon, the sound of traditional wooden sandals and the sound of the de rigueur wind chimes that are supposed to help one "feel cool". Lastly, Japanese summer would not be complete without ghost stories and a good haunted house to visit with your girlfriend--the chill you get from being scared is supposed to cool you down.

Ritual 1: Festivals

I love a festival. Across the country they are all pretty similar--there are rows of food stalls selling grilled corn on the cob, cotton candy and shaved ice. There is beer and fried chicken. It is like a fair without the animals or the pie-eating contests, but there are some "only in Japan" kinds of attractions, like the beetles for sale and grilled squid on a stick.

For a fireworks festival, early in the evening policemen start directing traffic and soon people begin moving down to the river banks--families walking with little children in tow, old women pushing bicycles, young girls in bright yukata (summer kimono), groups of boys with their sleeves rolled to look cool and tough. They all meet up with friends, and wander among the vendor stalls eating and drinking and catching the local gossip. Everyone is waiting for darkness to fall so fireworks can begin. They start with a boom and flash, all around there are oohs and aahs, clapping and noise that says "wow". Then the finale comes flash after flash and with the smoke still lingering in the sky it is all over for another year. The mom's and dad's leave with the dead-weight of exhausted kids slung over their shoulders, girls turn back for one last glimpse of a cute, local boy and the old ladies are already talking about where they will set out their blue plastic tarps next year. That is a summer fireworks festival. : )

Ritual 2: Obon

There is one final thing that I like about summer here. It is Obon--the "festival of the dead". I guess this is "ritual 2" but it really is a ritual and not just a way for people to forget the heat. In August, the dead come back. When I first heard about Obon, I admit that I thought it was pretty scary. I mean, I thought "ghosts?" right? But it is not really like that. It is a connection with family who have passed. On the first day of Obon, you welcome them back. Vegetables, fruit and food dishes are set out as offerings and the idea is to embrace the spirits of your ancestors. (In rural areas the vegetables will usually be "sent down the river" and not eaten as they were intended as offerings and are kind of taboo. It was always creepy to be kayaking and see eggplants, cucumbers and green peppers floating by, knowing that they had been snacks for the dead.)

On the last day of Obon, there are rites to send these visitors back to the spirit world. The rituals vary from place to place, but two of my favorites involve fire or water. The "dai mon ji yaki" fire on the mountain is in Kyoto and it is really impressive. People write the death name of a relative on a long, flat piece of wood. The wood is gathered together on the side of one of the mountains (visible from downtown Kyoto) to make a massive bonfire that is in the shape of a chinese character "dai" (大) meaning "big". On the last night of Obon, the piles of names are lit and the spirits are given an impressive send off back to heaven. It may not be very ecologically sound, but it is very cool to see.

The other sending off ritual that left a huge impression on me is the candle-lit black paper lanterns floating down a river in the evening. I remember very clearly the first time I saw them. We had just kayaked a river in a very rural area, had gotten out of our boats and were taking a break before heading to the car. It was early twilight and suddenly I could see lights floating on the water. The only sound around us was the water. There was no one around, just the lanterns carrying the souls of those who had passed from this village. It wasn't creepy--there was this sense of reverence, like at church. It gives me chills just remembering. (people used to let the lanterns float "to the sea", but now to keep the rivers clean, someone waits downstream and picks them up.)

anyway, that is a long post, but I love summer and I wanted to write down what it was/is like. Traditions in Japan are fading as rural areas lose their populations and as young people embrace McDonalds, cell phones and more modern lives. I want to remember.

Friday, August 20, 2010

If you give a mouse a cookie--or if you give a weasel your bag of snickers bars...

I woke up this morning and these were the things that I *did not* find in my house:

a frog--or frogs (either in the bathtub when I went to take a shower, or in the hallway on the way to the kitchen)

a snake--not often, but occasionally found near the door to the laundry room

giant spiders--which *often* frequented our bedroom. The rule was that if the spider remained near the ceiling then it could stay, if it began walking on the floor then there would be consequences; the broom would come out and the spider would be remanded to the out of doors. As a child, I used to be horribly afraid of spiders, but their everyday presence in our ancient house and my husband's general tolerance of them gave me a change of heart. (The only time that his tolerance was tried was when a giant huntsman hid her egg sack behind our television. When we woke up one morning the babies were hatching and spread a dark, moving stain of tiny bodies--their eight little legs barely visible to the naked eye--up the wall toward the window where they left us for the wider world.)

bats--they usually did not come in and even if they did by morning all that would remain would be the tell-tale signs that they had been there: bat poop (guano? probably that would call for a colony of bats and not one or two, so I vote for "poop") and the left-over bits of their dinner (inedible insect parts)

geckos--I actually miss the outline of their small toes backlit on the shower door.

crabs--surely nothing like Christmas island, but during really heavy rainy seasons, they would sometimes appear in the hallway between our bedroom and the kitchen (the same place as the frogs)

CENTIPEDES--which are evil incarnate and deserve their own separate discussion later.

and finally the thing that was *definitely not* in our house when I woke up this morning was:

a weasel--

For about a month a weasel took up residence under my pantry. I didn't know right away, but then things began to go missing. First it was a bag of rolls, then it was a bag of cookies the last straw really was a whole bag of mini-snickers bars that I really wanted for myself. Someone/something had chewed through the bag, eaten most of the contents and bitten through all of the wrappers. There were crumbs and chocolate stains... I began to suspect a furry thief. Sometimes my mother-in-law would leave the side door open too long and neighborhood strays--usually cats (but they typically don't go for chocolate) would take advantage. Then one day, much to my astonishment, a slightly pointed head, followed by a beautiful coppery body popped (yes--pop goes the weasel--he he. Had to put that in here somewhere) out of the space under my pantry.
To make a long story short, it took us several weeks to figure out how it had gotten in the house. We finally found that it was coming in via a loose board under the eaves. We secured the entryway, trapped the little weasel with a net and released it on the other side of the stream in front of our house. But it had the last laugh--it gassed us--kind of like a skunk spray but slightly less lethal. I had no idea they could do that. ewwww!

when I woke up this morning and there was nothing crawling, creeping or flying in the house--and especially no furry form emerging from under the pantry, things were less exciting, but I was not really disappointed.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A good day--August 12th

Today was full of bonuses.
We went to the beach. The lady that owns the car park we always use gave us watermelon--cold and sweet and we used the hose in her garden to wash the juice off our arms.
We ate leftovers (Okinawan goya chanpuru), cleaned up and drove up to Camellia Park to see the shooting stars.
Time for bed. Good night August 12th 2010.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

creepy crawly love

Shuji was looking out the window at the downpour of rain we had the other day. I was finishing up the dishes and suddenly he tells me to grab the camera--"Quick! There is something out on the porch." (That was a little scary, but I figured it couldn't be too dangerous since we were hurrying out to see it--not running from it or calling the police/animal control or something.)

This is what he spotted and I snapped pictures of:
It is a cicada trying to dry its wings after having just crawled out of the ground and emerging from its non-winged state. Its body is still translucent. I had never seen one that was still clinging to its former skin.
You may be grossed out--but I thought it was very cool.

I know the photos are not great, but that is not the point.

The point is that Shuji doesn't really like insects. He is not fascinated by them in the way I am because he has seen these since he was a kid and has a very "been there, done that" blase attitude toward the creepy crawlies of Japan. He does however know that I find them very intriguing and love to take their photos. I was touched that he would come running to tell me and because I know that he did it to make me happy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Motivation = Miss Marina Star

I want to thank my little sister for inspiration and motivation. I love her blog. It makes me smile and laugh and gives me a small window into the day to day of her life and family who are so far away.

I may not write well, it may not be interesting, but it may help (to borrow a phrase) "keep the cobwebs at bay" and to at least show a bit of what goes on in my days and my head.

Thank you Miss Marina and your gorgeous tribe xxxxoooo

what do you hear in these sounds

I like Dar Williams. One of her songs goes like this:

And I wake up and I ask myself what state I'm in
And I say well I'm lucky, cause I am like East Berlin
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they'd know that I was scared
They'd would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me...and...

It gives me comfort. "With their stumbling and their mumbling and their calling out just like me..."

She caught it just right. I often feel like I am the only one who doesn't have it right. It being life--how to live. There is this voice in my head and an imp on my back that whispers in my ear and tells me that I haven't made it yet.

I have a "different" life. I have made "different" choices that are at a glance off the mainstream path. What may look like confidence and courage is just me walking my way along the tracks that I have laid down. So, the words of this song give me comfort. I think because good old Dar wrote this that maybe I am not the only one who tries to put up a good front, but inside is worried that everyone will "know that I was guessing." But maybe they already know... Maybe the wall never really comes down.

oh it is an endless circle.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Not Quite Dead Yet

"Spiritually dead"

That is what someone once said about me. This observation was passed on by a friend who did not agree and who was willing to tell me what this other "someone" thought of me.

At the time, I simply thought of Mark Twain's "rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated." Nevertheless, that nasty little seed has stayed planted in my mind. Even now, more than ten years since the pronouncement of my death, there is still a voice that sometimes asks: "How on earth could someone think that *I* am spiritually dead?" "I'm not, right?" " I do *lots* of spiritual things!"

In truth though, I am grateful that someone questioned my spirituality. It has made me try not to take that side of life for granted. I do, of course. Work, life, responsibilities press too closely and clamor for daily attention. In our "past" life it was actually easier to attend to the needs of my soul. We hiked or biked most weekends if it wasn't pouring down rain. And we camped a lot. Maybe a lot of people wouldn't see the relationship between "the needs of my soul" and hiking or camping. I probably would not have realized it either if I had not had this time without as much outdoor activity.
And there might not have been a connection if we had not been living where we were. The north part of Wakayama is a really boring place. It's a backward, conservative, rural suburb of Osaka and its only charm is the proximity to good shopping/food and the *south* part of Wakayama. The southern part of Wakayama was my church for nearly 15 years.

In the beginning of my conversion, Shuji and I were lucky to be able to "rent" (we paid by painting and weeding) a small dilapidated house (complete w/bats who didn't usually show up while we were there, but sometimes did) next to a fabulous kayaking river. The village was nestled in between Nara and Mie prefectures, but basically in the middle of nowhere. It took four hours to get there and we drove there every Friday night or Saturday morning for four years (during peak kayaking months between May 1st and October 1st.) The drive was tiring, but the great water and the time we could spend together (away from his mother) was wonderful incentive. --But back to the church part.

This southern part of Wakayama is like another planet. Its mountains are unbelievably steep, majestic and mysterious at the same time and because of their inaccessibility they are very primitive.

We began to hike and bike in addition to our kayaking and discovered places where nobody went--except sometimes other die hard hikers or people making a pilgrimage on an ancient trail. The pilgrimage part got me thinking. Southern Wakayama is considered to be holy. It is criss-crossed with routes and paths that date back 600 to 1,000 years. ---The great-great-greats of the people in the village where we kayaked supplied Edo (Tokyo) with logs for lumber starting about 600 years ago and continued to do so until after WWII.

Picture this: Hiking on the ridge of a mountain, all you can see 360 degrees is a sea of other mountains and the early evening mist is beginning to creep up the sides. A surprised wild boar crashes down a ravine, you hear the mating call of a deer and then silence. There is no one around for miles and miles, but you see the foundation of an old "chaya" tea house that hundreds of years ago, served as a kind of B & B/diner for people traveling from shrine to shrine along this "road". And you could find shards of blue and white cups or rice bowls if you looked for them--artifacts from those who were searching for peace and holiness a long, long time before I ever did.

Anyway, before this runs on any longer--the places we visited and often returned to again and again are some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, soul-stilling areas that I have ever encountered. No pew, no bench, no sacrament could stir my heart and at the same time fill me with such a sense of peace. The depth of the green, the smell of the wet forest floor, the lushness of the moss and the rush of the streams will always be church for me.

So, am I "spiritually dead"?

Don't think so. Right now a bit dormant. I so miss our pilgrimages now that we are living so far from them. But we will find new places for calm and for peace, places where mother nature or the universe can fill our souls.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

post wii insomnia/the shrine owl

I rarely have trouble sleeping. Japan wears me out and my days are filled with classes and correcting and the endless tasks of work and home. But this week is finals week and I have lots on my mind and Shuji and I had a good Wii session too late in the evening tonight, so...

this city sleeps
I do not
the shrine owl calls
offering strange, small comfort
welcome company in the heavy summer darkness

Off to bed. I can feel my pillow calling.

Where the shrine owl hangs out (twilight photo)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

4:30 a.m.

light pitter-patter of grey dawn rain
brief calm before the storm of heat, the
raucous cicada calls and office mayhem

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Some Sun between the Raindrops

We are in the midst of "the plum rains"--a lovely, and misguiding translation of the bucket that have been coming down. Don't get me wrong. I like a bit of rain. It keeps things green and I know we need to get our water from somewhere, but 600 cm in three days...(that's like 7 inches) enough already I said. And my little prayer was answered because today we got some sun. The laundry will dry and our tatami mats will not mold over. Yea!

The forecast for this weekend is rain on Saturday and (probably) sun on Sunday. I really want to get outside. With any luck we will be able to stretch our legs. Maybe we will go for a walk in Kaeda Gorge--a pretty little area in the nearby mountains. Or if the weather is *really* nice, maybe we will try going further afield. There is supposed to be a very nice walking trail about and hour and a half drive away. (That may sound like a hefty way to go just to walk, but there is always history to be run into on our walks and that makes the drive worth it. More on that later.)

Blue hydrangeas are one of the small perks of "the plum rains".

Gotta close. Lunch break is over. Work calls.
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