This morning I woke up to a lovely email from my dear friend Nigel which closed with the words, “Do you know what you were doing this day, last year? Yes, it was the start of our Kyushu trip!”
This morning I woke up to a lovely email from my dear friend Nigel which closed with the words, “Do you know what you were doing this day, last year? Yes, it was the start of our Kyushu trip!”
As we travel on, we are constantly destroying and rebuilding ourselves and who we are.- Paulo Coellho
1) Yesterday evening, my friend H and I went to Bar Luna on Main Street for an evening of play readings by Australian playwrights. Four plays were read, but the one that really stood out to me was about two expat men living in France who are having a conversation about their lives as strangers in a foreign land. In their conversation, the younger of the two laments about how much he misses home, and the elder replies that though he will adjust, he will forever be a “permanent stranger.” The older man points out that the green of the leaves in France are not the same shade of green as the leaves back home; the shadows the sun creates are different; everything is different, because the men, themselves, are different in this new land.
The conversation about “home”, (in a play in which I can’t remember the name), struck a chord. Immediately, I thought about life in Japan, and how despite having lived there for almost three years, it hasn’t felt like home. I think I could live there for thirty more years, and it would be a place that I appreciated for many reasons, but it wouldn’t be my mine. As a permanent stranger in Japan, the questions would continue to be: When did you come to Japan? Why did you choose Japan? Do you like Japan? What do you think of Japan? And, to all those questions, I would have no clear-cut answers. So, the question of home hovers in the air. On a previous blog, three years ago, I wrote that home was Jamaica; but, that reality has changed.
2) In Ubud, incense smokes all day. The smoke never clears, but drifts and spices the air. Nature abounds and flourishes; one never looks up without seeing a tree, flowers, birds, mosquitos, swaying branches. Occasionally Balinese men have pointed out that my skin is brown like theirs; they have told me that they like my face and my “strong” hair. They speak to me like a family member. Thus, sinking into Ubud is like sinking into a cushioned couch after a grueling day at work; but here, as in Japan, I’m a stranger. Even if I learned Balinese and Bahasa, wore a flower behind my ear, filed my canine teeth down to the perfect smile, and bought a beautiful sarong and wore it to ceremony days at the temple, I would still be a stranger, just a more acclimated one.
Though I say this now, I know “home” isn’t about nationality or ethnicity, but where one feels loved, safe, and comfortable. Home is the place where the cloak of Otherness must naturally be discarded. The place where not only the heart is, but where one is. And, I question is home even a place?
3) K, the man who took care of my visa extension, told me the other day that he thinks yoga is bs. He doesn’t understand why people go to a class to do things that we all do naturally (and for free)–i.e, breathing, moving, etc., and though I disagree with his overall assessment of the practice, I do agree with his final conclusion that, “Heaven is here.” His words perfectly align with Alan Watts’s that “we already have what we want.” Imagine–we already have what we want. If heaven is here, and I have what I want, it’s true that within each of us rests (or burns) love, peace, happiness, harmony– every message on the stones presented to me daily at the studio. Having what we already want within us also means that we’re not only atoms of one whole, but also the whole– this idea has been the hardest thing to understand and accept.
4) When you’re ready to wake up, you’re going to wake up. And, if you’re not ready, you’re going to stay pretending that you’re just a poor little me.”. – Alan Watts
Bali’s midday sun is relentless. Often I stop into cafes to shelter myself from the rays, and likewise I escape unpleasant thoughts by seeking refuge in the most shaded areas of my mind. A guy recently told me that I need to be more honest with myself, and “do the work.” He’s right. The work: to accept. The work: to be vulnerable. The work: to release. The work: to not say everything is “okay,” or “fine,” when feelings are otherwise. It’s great to feel wonderful, but it’s also fine to say, “I’m not okay.” The work: to trust others. The work: to know I am the world, and not of it. The work: to stop looking for home, and realize I am home. Like a baby chick, it’s time to chip away from the old shell, and stand awake, without expectations, gleaming and ready for what lies ahead. There are 108 prayer beads on my chain, and with each bead, with each chant, home becomes closer.
The sunlight is pink now. It’s 5:23pm and as the sun sets on the brick building across the street, the world glows petal-pink through the still, sheer white curtains. No wind stirs, but the temperature has dropped many degrees since last week and it’s cool inside. Tokyo’s perfect today, even in the swirl of the realization that perfection’s a myth.
It’s been exactly two years since I moved to Tokyo, and one year since I moved into my apartment in Kabutocho. Each day I like and dislike Tokyo more and more. An uneasy ambivalence, as an ambivalence must be. The city has gotten under my skin, like an unshakeable influenza.
1) In the early morning, when the sun creeps over the river, or in the evening, when the streets are quiet, I ride, for hours, all over town: Monzen Nakacho, Ryogoku, Akihabara, Ueno, Asakusa, Ojima, Toyocho, Toyoso, Odaiba, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend or two, and the thought comes, “It’s so safe here; so calm, so convenient, so very easy, how could I live elsewhere? Where will I go?” The river’s on the left and “the wind’s beside me,” and as hours turn into more hours, I feel this is “home.”
2) Tokyo isn’t “home” and can never be. (Feelings skim surfaces, and are fleeting.) After two years, I can navigate the city, the back streets of East Tokyo; I know how to get to Kiba in ten minutes from Nihonbashi, but I know next to nothing about Japanese people and little about Japanese ways. What I hear from my students about “Japanese life,” and often what I see, I wish and choose not to believe, because it’s disheartening. (Disheartening because I’d subscribed to an image and the reality is far different. The fact is, it’s just like anywhere else, in some ways better, and in others, worse.) It seems something’s lacking. Perhaps, because I don’t speak the language, I’m missing the profundity that is Japan.
At the moment, I see gloss, drinking to excess, working to excess, consumerism, conformity, hear and see stories of abuse, and I wonder if this is all there is. There are rules everywhere– many culturally and self-imposed, and a seeming, mild depression among most people in daily living, despite all the conveniences. However, I’m not Japanese and can’t expect it to be all things– or anything– to me. When my complaints ring louder than praises, it’ll be time to move on; yet, the question remains, “To where?”
3) MD said Tokyo’s “too comfortable.” According to him, a life without discomfort and “disruptions” isn’t worth living. He puts himself in the way of danger, as often as he can, all the while spouting his discomfort theory, which I’d contradicted; but, now I understand what he means. This life, here, is a cocoon. A comfortable “Otherness.” Imagine you live in a country where you don’t speak the language, can’t understand most of the signs, and people behave in a way completely unlike what you’re used to. It’s surprisingly liberating and freeing, because you don’t have to care, don’t have to listen, don’t have to try to understand. You can shake your head and say, “I don’t speak Japanese,” even when at times, you understand. It’s too comfortable, and living in a bubble isn’t living.
Students always ask, “Why’d you come to Japan?” There’s no good answer, should I direct them to the very short decision-making process conducted on this blog? They want a good answer, a well thought out answer, along the lines of, “I love Japanese culture,” or “I’ve always been fascinated with Japan and wanted to learn Japanese;” but, I can’t tell them those things, because it isn’t true. I’d no clue about Japan, never really thought of living here ever before and have had great difficulty in trying to motivate myself to learn Japanese. What brought me here except chance, a wish to be somewhere new, and a desire for change? So, I say, “I love Japanese food.” Is that enough of a reason to pick up and move to another country?
I didn’t come here for any special reason, but I love many aspects of it and have stayed longer than intended. When it’s time to leave the pink light behind, the clean streets of Nihonbashi, the smiling service people, the swelling, then sleeping river, the in-season treats, and the countless other things that make Tokyo special, what will I say? I don’t question what I’ll feel, because I know my feelings, like tides, will come and go.
Living in a foreign country can enable one, if they’re not careful, to become very solitary. It’s easy to withdraw into oneself when the primary language spoken is not one’s own, is incomprehensible, and sounds like nothing more than Charlie Brown’s teacher– “Wah wah wah wah wah.”
Dear Friend and Friend and Friend and…,
Living in a foreign country has been wonderful, but there are times, when silence can overwhelm. I no longer have you within reach, even by telephone; you, who I could rely on at any time. Truthfully, needs are ever-evolving, and what I needed then, I don’t now; however, a true friend fills a space that one’s not aware is empty until there are hollow reverberations. When stitches start to unravel, a shirt can still be saved. Yet, it’s not the same.
Living in a foreign country allows one time to think undisturbed. Time to process and understand, out of necessity, oneself. Time to think questions like, “What is home? Where is home?” (Question two can’t be answered without an answer for question one.) Living in silence forces one’s spirit to grow.
Living in a foreign country proves to me that as much as there is, there is so much more, and in this life it’s impossible to touch it all. The universe can’t be grasped, only reveled in. There are more bottomless seas, more blue mountains than we knew, more loving words, more waves slowly coming in, more sunrises, more moons, more orchids and roses and hibiscuses, more stars crumbling, more of us turning to dust, more boat rides, more starts, and full stops.
Dear Friend and Friend and Friend….,
Our wells never run dry; there’s more ink, more tears, more fountains of hope. When we see each other again, will it be with the memory of who we were? Will we see each other as the girls we were or the teens we were or the young women we were or who we are now?
Every year, there are more people who join this voyage, but none have had more of an impact on my soul than you and you and you.
In this place, boys are waiting, girls are waiting, birds are waiting. It’s coming, and we’re all waiting. Some of us not too patiently, but I’ve been patient. The unraveling of these years, the tapestry of life, has taught me not to fight what cannot be controlled. I’m smiling, while waiting, because it’s almost here.
In this place, a very old couple sit down at the counter. The old man is more able than his wife, and he waits as she struggles to sit. The seats are low. He says nothing, but offers her a hand– patience. I think about this guy I met at a party a few weeks ago; he’s nice, but young and timid. I remember when I was young, when I was timid, but I’m neither now, and can’t pretend to be. I asked a friend, “How do I feign shyness?” He laughed, and rightly responded, “You can’t.” (You’d think by now, I’d fully know myself, but of course, I don’t.) My friend said, “This isn’t the place for you.”
In this place, babies are soothed, as are we who have lived more years, by the soft voice of the female crooner on the speakers overhead. It would be great to know who’s singing, but of course, I can’t ask anyone around me. The singer’s voice, the accompanying strings, and the steady silence of us here, makes me want to cry. The good cry.
In this place, there’s one small window, and outside the window, there’s an emerald shrub. An old man has been sitting beside the window since I came in. He has been smoking the same cigarette for what seems to be a very long time. I don’t smoke, but he looks so pensive and absorbed, it makes me want to inhale some of the truth the cigarette seems to hold.
What is he thinking as he gazes out? Is he thinking, “That’s just a patch of green, but beyond that shrub lies fields?” Is he thinking, “I’ve lived eighty years and I’ve reaped fields and tumultuous seas, but there’s so much more to see?” Is he thinking, “I’m looking out of a pane of glass, but I’m just glass myself, a surface that even I have barely scratched?” Is he thinking, “I’m breakable and have been in pain, but there’re few more resilient than me?” Is he thinking, “Afternoons are made for dreaming, lazing in coffee shops, watching smoke exhaled from nostrils, sipping black coffee, reflecting on chances held and chances lost?”
A middle-aged couple want to remember this place, and I do too. They’re capturing the sea, he with a long lens camera, and me with a pen. He’s moved the camera from the waves to her face. She’s posing; her hair’s flying, but her face is serene. He starts running; she races behind with glee. This is what is called youthful exuberance. They play hide and seek behind a rock. They stop and survey the ocean. I pause to survey them and recognize that we’re in the same place, a part of the same thing– what is this joy?
When I leave Tokyo, barring any unforeseen circumstances, it will be spring. The streets will be lined, as they are today, with cherry blossoms. Trees blooming and blowing pink and white. It will be the frailty of the buds floating, then crushed on concrete, and the balmy air mixed with smoke that will encapsulate all that Tokyo means to me. I have no plans to leave Japan anytime soon, but there’s always a leaving, some day, some place, and my time will come. The thought of departure presses on my mind today, because yet another friend is leaving Japan. We rode to Yurakucho to eat lunch at an underground Italian restaurant that serves a fantastic uni pasta, and she remarked while we were riding, “This isn’t a day to go.”
It was the perfect spring day; the streets, devoid of cars, a steady, warm breeze whipping around us, and flowers being stripped from branches– the loving caress of the wind. In succession, friends are leaving for Europe or other countries in Asia, while I burrow more into Tokyo life. I’ve been setting myself more firmly in place, more like a potted plant than a tree; I’ve bought and acquired furniture, decorated my studio, accepted additional repsonsibility at work, and even, finally, started learning Japanese. My resistance to learning Japanese, a language only useful here, no longer serves me, since I plan to live here for at least another eighteen months.
These last two months have been activity-filled; there’ve been dinners, lunch meet-ups, drinks, my first house party, and of course lesson after lesson. In this fashion, my friends and I have raced into a new season. I often comment that it seems time rushes past us like an excited child, faster and more frenzied than it should, but that’s how it is. Truthfully, it scares me when I look up and see that another month has fled as quickly as a snap of two fingers. (Yes, that’s how it is.) Moderation and balance are important, so I’ve tried to spend as much time in silence and meditation as with friends socializing.
This evening, I left Tokyo on the 6:26 bullet train to Atami, with a transfer at Ito, and another to Izukyu-Shimoda. Shirahama Beach is my final destination. Just last week, I’d taken the bullet train with a friend to Niigata and tried snowboarding for the first time. The water’s much too cold to go swimming, but the intention of the trip is that of reinvigoration, relaxation, and restoration.
(8:15pm) I’m on the third and penultimate leg of the journey, and the sky is emptying itself; huge rain drops pound our compartment, and it’s wonderful to be inside a heated space, looking at glistening platforms, and streaming night. The stay in Shimoda will be short, only two days, but I’ve left my phone, therefore internet, behind, and thus anticipate inner calm. No Facebook updates, no browsing the ‘net mindlessly, no distractions, no texts. What I have brought on this trip is one change of clothes, toiletries, Junot Diaz’s novel “This Is How You Lose Her,” my journal, and an umbrella.
Today, I was: an idea, an idea realized, a bound thing that skirted the wind, a live thing in a warm place cocooned and surrounded by water, an idea giving place to more ideas, a thing ready for anything. Now, it’s lovely to know that I’m ready for all good things.
A few days ago, there were prolonged tremors. Usually, the tremors last a few seconds or at most a minute, but the other morning, they seemed to go on and on. The shaking didn’t faze me at all, and in my half-sleep I thought, “Wow, I’m used to earthquakes now.”
It’s amazing the things we get used to.
I moved to Tokyo several months after the March 11 quake in Tohoku that rocked all of Japan. After experiencing my first tremors, I wondered why I’d moved to a land that constantly moves. It’s quite a disconcerting feeling, and I often said, then, that if I’d been here when that disaster struck, like so many foreigners at the time, I would have fled. I used to say that, but now I feel all the good outweighs any bad that the earth may bring.
Scientists predict an earthquake of equal or greater magnitude in Japan in the next five years (seventy percent chance), and how that’ll affect us all is anybody’s guess, but I have no desire to leave, before I’m ready. It’s astonishing how everyday we live our lives knowing that, at any moment, all could break, crack or crumble around us, and while there is awareness, we live without fear.
Don’t we all live like that– knowing that it’s all so precarious, and we’re so fragile, and therefore recognizing the importance of living as fully as possible; appreciating each new day; loving as much as we can; being so thankful to be here now; learning the lessons we’re learning now? Let me change the question– shouldn’t we all live like that?
Play-fighting with a friend, I cut my pinkie finger deeply. A long slash down the middle. It has taken almost three weeks for the cut to heal, because it was deep and I never put ointment or a band-aid on it. I figured it needed to breathe and heal on its own, and eventually my body would heal itself, as it always does. Along the way of the healing process, my finger started to symbolize “life.” This given thing, taken for granted, beautiful and unappreciated, until one day there’s a wound. And, waiting and waiting for it to recover, and it does. (Hopefully, there’ll be a scar to keep the memory there.)
Take full advantage of your day, ’cause and wait for it, the sentiment of my favorite cliche’s coming, though I strongly believe that life is continuous, and the end’s a beginning, these moments are short (and should be savored).