On Slowing Down

Yesterday, I fell. It was a rather spectacular, a**-over-teakettle style fall onto small-stone concrete that managed to scrape the skin off the heels of my hands, one elbow and one foot; leave both knees dripping blood; and leave me with one splinted leg, from ankle to thigh.

20180917_181944 2.jpgYup. 

Apparently it is time for me to slow down.

The thing is, I have never fallen like this before. Having had this experience, I am actually amazed at all the mountain hiking, rock scrabbling, temple summiting, and subway station stair climbing I’ve managed to get away with in my lifetime. Not to mention years on the dance floor and in gymnastics training (as a tween).

And it was an embarrassing fall: broad daylight, busy street, the promenade along a packed beach full of joyous families. And there go I, trying my damnedest to be nonchalant about the fact that I am clearly doing an unintentional cartwheel, bleeding, and my knee feels like it is no longer part of my leg.

So today they mercifully gave me the day off work to visit the hospital. And after my grim (but not nearly as grim as it could have been) diagnosis, I found my sweetheart and I, for the first time, walking through our newfound neighborhood.

Slooooowwwwllllyyyy.

And what did we find? First off, a shrine to my most favorite of all Japanese goddesses (and I say this with nothing but respect for her sisters and aunties in the varied pantheons that make up the cosmovision of this part of the world): Benzaiten. Benzaiten’s shrines can always be found at a natural water source, as she represents all that flows: language, abundance, love. We walked the grounds, prayed at the spring and shrine, lingered, quietly moved on.

20180917_142420.jpgOne of apparently three shrines to Benzaiten in our ward (borough): this is the first we have discovered. The rice-sheath rope is designed to look like the water snake that is one of the Goddess of All That Flow’s familiars.

20180917_141812.jpgA natural water source can always be found on the grounds of Benzaiten’s shrines.

A block later, we found a sweet café that offered just what the doctor ordered (the perfect antidote to a morning spent at the hospital):

20180917_145926.jpgIt’s funny…at home, I’m not much of a pancake eater. But here, I constantly crave them. Comfort food? Oh, and Tomo would like it on record that the coffee was “magnificent.”

20180917_145952.jpgAnd here’s a second shot, just for good measure. Because seriously: a three-berry pancake waffle with banana whipped cream?? Even though we shared it, we both felt like we’d had a full meal.

Sitting at our streetside table, watching the world go by, I realized how often, of late, I have been forgetting to just breathe. And be.

And from there I am sorry to say that I stopped taking pictures altogether, entirely forgetting my duties of faithfully recording for posterity: this was one part because I was learning to navigate the busy sidewalks of Tokyo with the help of my new crutch, and the other (larger) part because we were having too much fun…

  • smelling the rosemary in small, open nurseries with expertly arranged flowers and fragrant plants,
  • marveling at the neighborhood pastime of dressing up and walking your fanciest (or funkiest) furry, four-legged friends,
  • taking in the sight of entire families enjoying National Elder Day, from newborns to elders-in-wheelchairs (who looked back at me, the hobbling young gaijin, with barely-concealed curiosity),
  • delighting in the discovery of an open-air pedestrian mall along the canal that leads, eventually to our apartment (which I can only dream of riding my bike down one day…soon, hopefully, when I can bend my knee again).

That’s all for now. I am thankful for the opportunity to be reminded of how agile I am used to being, to gain some insight into those who struggle with mobility, and to see the world at a slower pace. ❤ to you all.

 

Visitations (On Calling In the Ancestors)

These past few days, there has been a chill in the air: a hint of my first Fall in Japan. At the same time that I am thrilled to finally experience the famed foliage, and relieved that the 80+-degrees-with-90+-percent-humidity-24-hours-a-day weather seems to have come to a close, I did not foresee the melancholy that would come with this turn of the Wheel. I find myself weepy unexpectedly; missing my grandparents that have been gone for over 5 and 10 years now, as well as other loved ones that have crossed over.

Obon* came and went, and yet the festivals linger. (Delayed due to typhoons, I’ve heard.) And so the streets sporadically fill with vociferous celebration; men, women, and children bearing lanterns and noisemakers, calling in rhythm, beckoning the spirits into our midst.

And like the festivals, my dreams also tarry. The ones that feel less like dreams, and more like visitations. The ones that remain absolutely vivid, for years afterward. From which I awaken sobbing, grief-stricken — feeling the loss of the loved one afresh — and yet somehow soothed. The dreams that take place in houses where I have never been, yet so wholly represent the person (dearly departed) inside them that later I have only to recall those dwellings to feel utterly at peace.

Over the past four summers, I have had these dreams each Obon season, and this one is no exception. Always the loved one, always their joy, always the houses.

I am not sure what to make of the dreams: before I had ever had one, I heard others tell these types of stories, and I never really grasped what they were saying. As a dreamer, I thought I did. “Oh, I know what you mean! My dream life is very realistic, too,” I would say well-meaningfully. “It wasn’t just a regular dream,” they would insist, “It was different.”

Yes, different.

I don’t pretend to know what happens after that event that we call death. Growing up, I was absolutely clear that we reincarnated (in my understanding at the time, as a human being). Heaven didn’t make much sense to me, and Hell certainly didn’t. Rather, I believed that there were certain souls that stayed close to us, life after life. The person who is my mother in this life may have been my sister (or brother) in another, my lover in the next. Likewise, a teacher now may be a best friend or a beloved older sister later. And so on.

Perhaps because of this unshakeable faith in reincarnation — can I properly call it faith, when it belonged to no particular belief system? — I didn’t believe much in ghosts, or any other kind of spirit visitation. How could someone visit you, I reasoned, when they were already onto the next life?

These dreams call into question everything I thought I understood about death. And now, standing in the space between summer and fall — those liminal places where around the world spirits are known to appear — I miss my dead more keenly, as I feel them beside me, just beyond my reach. At times, I even find myself talking to them, as I walk down the street alone. “Look at how they do demolition here, Robert, isn’t that amazing?” I might ask, or, “Grandma, isn’t this flowering tree beautiful? I wonder what it is.” Sometimes I ask them advice, or lay down my burdens to them. I have no idea if they can hear me. I know I may just be playing a game with myself, giving myself solace in my solitude.

And so they walk beside me, quietly, into Fall.

20170814_191146.jpgLanterns to light the ancestors’ way home                                                                                  (Made by elementary school children in Kiho-cho, Wakayama, Japan)

*Obon: the time when Japanese people invite the ancestors into the community and their homes. (Think Día de los Muertos, except in the sweltering heat, with Taiko drums, intricate communal dances, and no face paint. Oh, and the only tacos are takoyaki — balls of octopus, breaded and grilled.)

 

Last weekend’s (delayed) Obon lantern festival in our neighborhood

Colleagues (On collaboration and community in the international teaching scene)

Before I arrived to Japan, one of my biggest worries was that I would have a hard time finding friends. In fact, the exact opposite is true: I find myself struggling at times to keep up with the ever-growing network of high-octane extroverts with whom I suddenly find myself surrounded.

Previous to our arrival, we had been told that we would be met at the airport by school personnel, who would shuttle us to our hotel. Upon touchdown in Tokyo, a bit blurry-eyed after 15+ hours of airport and flight time, we walked to the gate to discover our school Head*, accompanied by two smiling staff members, waving cheerily at us, “Halloo!!”; only to learn that several more colleagues would be arriving within the hour. And so it began — our first few hours here (dressed, I might add, in my favorite panda t-shirt and yoga pants, with my hair uncombed and no makeup on) were spent in the company of our brand-new colleagues, freshly arrived from Ireland, Hong Kong, and Tanzania. Over the next two weeks, we learned that dozens of new teachers were housed at our hotel, from our school and our the all-boys school that was our counterpart. Pretty much immediately, we found ourselves fielding more invitations to furniture-buying missions, meals, city explorations, and house parties than we knew what to do with.

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Right around the corner of that welcome sign is the school Head and colleagues we are about to meet…I fear this picture does not adequately depict how unkempt and stinky we were.

My day-to-day life at school is the most collaborative teaching experience I’ve ever had. At some point last spring, I was told that all classes at our school were team-taught. When I asked what that meant, they explained that there were several sections of every class, with different teachers teaching different sections — but working together on curriculum, assessments, etc. They also told me that they deliberately paired new teachers with veteran teachers, so that they would be fully supported.

I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous about this arrangement; in my 15 years of university teaching, I have mostly determined what goes on in my classroom, even in cases where curriculum was provided, and assessments were the same across sections (like, for example, happened in the 1st and 2nd-year language classes I taught). This was going to be my first year teaching high school, other than the dreamy year I spent student teaching with one of my dearest and most-admired friends — shout-out to the Marvelous Ms. Leah Dunbar — back home. (Who I learned through experience has a magical ability to bring out the best in each and every person who steps foot in her classroom, myself most definitely included.) I was nervous about contact with parents, about “curriculum oversight” (vs. the academic freedom staunchly safeguarded at our U), and most of all, about the frustrations that can come out of collaborating with teammates with whom one doesn’t see eye-to-eye philosophically or pedagogically.

So imagine my surprise when, from Day One, I was met with nothing but complete generosity, respect, and support from my teaching teams, in all three of the divisions in which I teach (more on that later — yes, it is as overwhelming as it sounds). These teachers are consummate professionals: they take pedagogy very seriously; are from and have taught all over the world (off the top of my head, I can think of colleagues that I work with daily who come from Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, India, Ireland, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Serbia, Tanzania, Tasmania, Uganda, the U.K., the U.S…and that is just off the top of my head); and are absolutely dedicated to the girls and young women that we teach. Beyond that, though, they are kind and caring. Not a day goes by that several people don’t check in with me to see how I am faring. Every day, I find myself swapping ideas and stories with teachers from all different disciplines: the middle and high school teachers all share a “teacher work room” that amounts to a beehive of desks separated by a partial wall, which mainly serves to hang calendars and memos (privacy is not actually a thing); and like the eponymous hive, it buzzes with activity morning to night, Monday through Friday.

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The teacher work room, before the school year began (veteran staff had not yet arrived; as of now, all desks are occupied). Note that there are two additional rows along far wall.

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My desk in the teacher workroom (note helmet for earthquakes).

I don’t want to paint an overly romantic picture. Of course there are interpersonal dynamics, gossip, and hierarchies, like there are in any other school (or indeed any other place where more than 3 human beings gather). I am sure that there are feuds and resentments about which I am still blissfully unaware. Sometimes, too, I have to retreat to a quiet place in the school (a hidden corner of the library, an unused classroom, and outdoor bench), open my book, and read — allowing my tender introvert’s sensibilities some recuperation time. The truth is, though, teachers across the board have talked about how much they love and appreciate their colleagues at our school. And I can see why.

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Teach hard, play hard:

with a few of my beloved colleagues at the beach last weekend.

Photo credit: Tomohiko Tsurumi (aka my partner-in-dream-fulfillment)

 

 

*I may need to dedicate an entire post to our Fearless Leader, the Head of our entire K-12 institution. How does she manage to be so down-to-earth, giving, and accessible while being so poised and professional, all at once? My conversations with her over the course of the first months of my job search led to my never seriously considering any other offer that came my way.

 

Tremors (A meditation on earthquake preparedness)

Dedicated to the Courage and Togetherness of Hokkaido

So, last week there was an earthquake in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Thanks to their world-class seismic architecture and venerated organizational abilities, there were far fewer casualties than there would have been in any other corner of the world, however…

Earthquakes are a fact of life here, and I’m not going to lie: I’m terrified of them. I try not to give into my fear, though (the Fukushima earthquake/tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown was a major factor in my decision not to come teach here, back in 2011); instead, I am learning what I can about how to stay safe and what to do in case of disaster, while soothing myself with the knowledge that there are temples built thousands of years ago here that are *still* standing — thanks to the Japanese people’s long-held knowledge of how to survive life in a burning Ring of Fire.

When searching for an apartment, one of the first questions a real estate agent asks you is, “In what age building would you like to live?” I had heard that Japanese folks prefer newer dwellings, which I at first thought was similar to people in the U.S. who would take a shiny new pre-fab over a classic craftsman…come to find out, it has to do with seismic codes. Our rental agent explained that there have been two major waves of codes: those of 1981 (a result of the devastating 1978 quake in Miyagi), and those of 2000 (the culmination of years of work following Kobe’s 1995 disaster), with many between and subsequently. Most people seek housing built after 2000 (or even later), and places built pre-1981 are doomed to going unrented unless they are put through and pass seismic inspection/updates. Even then, most renters will reject them out-of-hand.

We ended up renting a place built between the two dates, with the (possibly totally flawed — if so, please don’t burst my bubble, the lease is already signed) logic that the building has survived all of the tremors and quakes since it was built, is lovingly cared for by the chief monk of the temple next door (aka our landlord), has passed decades of seismic inspections…and it was far and away the nicest place we could find within our budget in our over-priced, highly sought-after neighborhood.

When registering our residence with the city hall — a requirement for all people who live in Japan, should they wish to open a bank account, cell phone contract, utilities, or any other number of necessities to moving into a place — we were handed the bright yellow Disaster Preparedness Handbook, which I keep on my bedside table, and plan to memorize cover-to-cover. We have begun assembling our Emergency Backpack here at home, and all of our classrooms at school already come equipped. The other night, when a “guerrilla storm” hit town and our building was evacuated (more on that in another post), I was able to witness first-hand people’s organization and preparedness in times of crisis. (And bonus: I have never been more motivated to learn Japanese than I am after that night.) We have regular earthquake drills at school, of varying severity. Tremors regularly occur here, and from our bed in our sixth-floor apartment, they are particularly noticeable.

And yet…I do not fear being killed, assaulted, or stolen from at school, home, or in the street. Every day, I witness millions of people peaceably co-existing. I am living in a place where children can — and do — walk alone to school, ride public transportation on their own, run or ride bikes freely solo or in pairs and packs. As a woman, I can walk home late at night in the largest city in the world without the slightest fear that I will be approached or attacked. As a visible foreigner who has heard three-year-olds that speak the local language better than I do, I am met with kindness and helpfulness 99% of the time that I am out and about on my own. I have more than once seen strangers frantically going from person to person in search of the owner when they found a lost wallet on a bus or train. The police here carry a gun so small, so well-secured (a diminutive five-shooter, in which the first chamber is a blank, squirreled away inside a full-coverage holster), that it is more likely you will be killed by a lightning strike in Japan than by a gun; much less murdered by a law enforcement officer. (Last year’s national toll: 2 deaths-by-gun, 7 by lightning strike. None of these included police involvement.)

In other words, as my mother-in-law put it a few years ago when I was bemoaning the political state of my country to her, “You have guns; we have earthquakes.”

For now, I know which one I prefer.

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Me at my very first earthquake drill — when the alarms went off, I was in the teacher workroom.

27 Years B.T. (Before Tokyo): The Dream

I first came to Japan when I was 15. As a small-town girl whose wanderlust was already well-developed — my family’s recently-discovered Roma heritage came as a surprise to exactly no one who knows us — when I was offered the chance to travel to my hometown’s Sister City as a semi-independent ambassador of our small but beloved burg, I did not think twice. “Yes, please!” I cried, showing the first excitement my mother had seen towards any idea she had had in years.*

Before I knew it, I was landing in Tokyo, having memorized precisely seven expressions in Japanese (“Please,” “Thank you,” “My name is,” “I am 15 years old,” “Where is the bathroom,” “Excuse me,” and “I’m sorry”), and having little to no preconceived notions of Japan at all. (Remember, this was pre-internet, and my counterculture parents could only be convinced to let the Evil Television enter our house once every four years, for the Olympics.) My sole impression of the country was in the kindness, curiosity, and laughter I had experienced with the Sister City delegations, small-town teens and local farmers come to learn organic farming techniques in our fertile agricultural valley, whose arrival I eagerly awaited twice a year.

During my six weeks in Japan — 40 days full of so many unforgettable moments that it occupies, in my heart and memory, a space disproportionate to its brevity — I:

  • attended a Japanese public high school;
  • taught English to businessmen;
  • lived with three loving, patient and generous host families;
  • spoke before civil organizations, gatherings of local and regional governmental officials, and school assemblies;
  • drunkenly wandered the streets of Tokyo, singing, with a pack of wild teens;
  • visited farms, temples, onsen, and the homes of countless welcoming new friends;
  • laughed until tears were rolling down my cheeks ‘most every day;
  • experienced the frustration of being a stranger in a strange land (where I was an object of constant curiosity, consistent compassion, and occasional irritation); and
  •  generally had the time of my life.

…But that is a story for another time.

That trip transformed my life in ways I am still discovering; most importantly for this post, though, is this… When I left, I did not say goodbye. To anyone. Instead, I said, “See you next year!” to everyone with whom I parted ways, believing, in my heart of hearts, that I would return the following year to study abroad, and go on to teach in Japan, once I graduated from college.

I did not come back until 25 years later.

This is the story of that journey. A seed planted, a promise made, a dream nurtured: finally come to fruition.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

*Over two decades later, I would learn that my mother had approached the coordinator of our Sister City program — with whom she sang in a choir dedicated to international peace and justice, who she knew would be returning to Tokyo for a time to care for his aging parents — and asked if he would be willing to take me with him on his next trip to Japan. Together they plotted to avert the path that she saw me headed down, as a precocious young woman with too little to satisfy her curiosity. If my mom could come up with the money for a plane ticket, the program would host me, as an (unofficial) ambassador. As in many cases in my life, I can only say: Thanks, mom. ❤

 

 

 

 

The Adventure Begins (The Tokyo Chronicles, Part 1)

Well, we’ve been here for a month, and I am *finally* able to sit down and write an entry to my long-planned blog. Now that I have fulfilled my over-25-years-in-the-making dream of moving to and teaching in Japan (pinch me, I still can’t believe this is real), it is time for phase two: my long-held promise to myself that I will WRITE once I get here. With that purpose in mind, I am moving away from social-network writing, and moving towards this platform. My initial purpose is to keep a record of this adventure as it unfolds. If any of my loved ones read it, well…bonus. (Who am I kidding? Of course I would love it if you would!)

Feel free to follow, comment, question, commiserate, celebrate. Let the adventure commence!20180804_224302 (1)

Pictured: Me about to start my dream job. Ah, look at that innocent, carefree face. 🙂 Photo cred – My incredibly patient compañero.