Food For Thought


‘I ain’t half the man I used to be. There’s a heavy shadow hanging over me.” (Yesterday)

Dear Friends,

It was payday two days ago, or as I proclaimed to all and sundry, “the second happiest day of my life.”  I wished everyone a “Happy Payday” all day, as if it were some public holiday. I had felt the days leading up to payday were grim, since I had my eyes on quite a few things that my wallet couldn’t support. However, I did treat myself to Skittles, that are now being sold at American Pharmacy in Marunouchi, and rationed them out like there was a candy war. Rationing is certainly not my thing, since the bag lasted only a few hours.

The chill of autumn’s circling the city, carrying the message that summer’s over, and the decorated streets of Ginza and brisk nights of winter are on the way. It’s clear and lush in its gorgeousness outside, so I decided to get on my beloved bicycle and ride through the streets of Ningyocho, around Suitengu, and up to Nihonbashi. As it’s a Sunday, there’s no one around, the streets are devoid of life; a cyclist’s dream. I wind up in a park where multi-colored water jets are surging green, blue and pink streams. Aquatic rainbows dance in fountain’s lights.

A homeless man is rifling through a garbage can for food. His search seems futile, as he has already looked through two garbage cans with no success. Maybe, I’ve been blind or oblivious, but I’ve never seen a homeless person looking through the garbage in this park before. As a matter of fact, in this neighborhood, the homeless are rare, and they are usually sleeping on the side of the bridge, at the park in Kyobashi, or on the benches near the Sumida River. The homeless I’ve encountered never beg, but carry their belongings on their back from place to place or wheel their shopping carts that overflow with huge plastic bags filled with plastic bottles. They’re easy to ignore, because either they’ve learned to make themselves “invisible” or I’ve learned to overlook things that make me uncomfortable. This man sifting through the garbage about six feet away, I can’t, and choose not to, ignore. As a matter of fact, I choose not to forget him or this night (hence this note).

On payday, one of my co-workers told me that he was down to his last $2. I nodded sympathetically, because I had been there before. Thankfully, times haven’t been rough lately, but there were days that were just so “broke.” My co-worker knew what it was like to be hungry (as many of us have at one time or other), but the difference was that not only could he see salvation coming in the upcoming payday, but he could have, if need be, asked any of us for a few dollars to tide him over. Most of us know that when we’re on our last dime, food, more than anything else, is the saving grace. I wish I had some money in my pocket to buy the homeless man something to eat. Would he wait, while I run to the ATM, and then the convenience store across the street? How do I convey the sentiment? At this moment, there’s nothing in the world this man wants more than two slices of bread or money to buy some food, and I have neither right now.

It’s easy to turn away, isn’t it? Yet, when hunger’s ripped you in half; turned you inside out and left you wasted, and desiring sleep to escape the pangs; when you’ve counted coins in your palm and tried to figure out the cheapest way to get full; when everywhere you look, you see others eating, drinking, and oblivious to a harsher reality, then you know you must face the issue at hand. That man’s hunger we share, or could because we’ve all been ravenous.

What to do? Take the weight of the world on our shoulders and burden ourselves, yet remain inactive? Impossible.

Feel hunger, consciously not eat for a day, in order to feel compassion? Possible.

Feed one hungry person who can’t afford to feed themselves once a week? Possible.

Fill someone’s stomach, or attempt to fill a small bit, before indulging in another mindless treat? Possible.

Feel for someone else, instead of looking away? Possible.

Dear friends, as you know, I’m leaving in five weeks; heading to a place where they’ll feed me three square meals a day, and supply me with unlimited tea. There are no snacks offered, and I actually thought of sneaking in my own, but now I won’t. I’ll be grateful for what’s given, and remind myself, that many others are suffering.

Much love,


p.s New and old readers of these letters, thanks so much for reading. It’s such a pleasure to see your names pop up one by one in my inbox. I’m grateful that you take the time.

Nothing is Permanent

“There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.  After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 

Dear Friends,

I’m at a crossroads. Every three years or so I get a feeling where I know I can’t stay where I am anymore, but I’m not exactly certain where I should be. I’m not sure why the itch comes without fail, but it comes and rapidly spreads until I can’t think of anything but leaving. If my life were a parable, it would be time to return to home, rediscover or discover my roots, be surrounded by family and those who’ve known and loved me, and quell this insurgence in me. However, it’s not time yet to go home, wash the travel off myself, and be surrounded by the familiar. I wonder though how much of anything will be familiar after all this distance, prolonged time and separation. How long was the prodigal son gone? Maybe, it took him more time to squander his wealth than me?

Oh, I’ve been prodigal. Do you remember the excitement I hardly contained when  moving to Tokyo? I imagined working hard, and saving a sizable amount of money. From watching an episode of House Hunters International, I was under the impression that I could teach in Tokyo and save enough money to invest in something; buy something of value; start to build a life for myself somewhere else. The couple on House Hunters International worked in Tokyo for a few years and managed to save enough money to buy a bright, spacious house in Central America. Three years later, I’m here with not much saved, and still the need to go.

As I sit here, I think of how much I’ve depended on my family. If there’s a problem, I usually think I need to solve it myself, which, in hindsight, has led to pain that could’ve been released, lessened, or avoided.  If the problem is financial, I look first at myself, then to my mother, then brother, then father in turn– even at this age, but who else would I turn to? JP Morgan Chase? If the problem is emotional, again, I look to myself first. It has been difficult to turn to friends for advice, input in my life processes, and even sometimes as an ear or shoulder to lean on. However, I’ve found with time that what I perceived as weakness would’ve been strength. Holding my thoughts  to my chest and hiding my feelings has done more harm than good. In Ubud, I felt down on one particular day, so I put on my pink floral dress, did my makeup and twisted my hair nicely, because I remembered hearing and internalizing that the worse you feel, the better you should look. “The world doesn’t have to know that you’re having a bad day.” (You know what, it’s okay if the world knows you’re having a bad day, because pretending everything’s great’s not going to help anyone, least of all you.)

So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.  He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!”

When I was 24, on a trip to Jamaica, I visited my uncle and his wife on a Sunday morning for brunch. His wife was worried about the way my life was shaping up, and expressed that, to which he replied, “It doesn’t matter. You can do anything you want, and if you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else. Nothing is permanent.” His words have stayed with me ever since, and I don’t know if they’ve been a blessing or a curse, because those words underlie the feeling of non-urgency behind most of my decisions. Contrarily, his brother, my father’s words usually contained the phrase, “Valerie, get your act together.” They’re both right.

And, here I am “starving to death” for an answer of what to do and where to go and who to meet and why I am?

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

There’s something that I’m looking for; I went to the yoga mat, and I came to the computer. I went inside and practiced silence, and now I’ve come here talking to you.  If this life were a parable, after this long journey, I would put my bag down at the door…no, I’d put my bag down in the driveway. The day would be hot, but there would be a slight breeze; my eyes would be closed, but my arms would be open. I would hug, be hugged, and there would be tears of joy. But, this life isn’t a parable, and I’m still in a foreign land trying to figure out what to do.

Take care,


Making Moves

Freedom is mine and I know how I feel.— Nina Simone (Feeling Good)

Dear Friends,

The guys across the street, in front of the Bisma Mini-Market,  play chess from afternoon to late evening. Everyday I walk by, and there are four men around the table, two of them in deep concentration. They sometimes pause a moment to say hello, then they continue playing. For the past two days, I’ve had breakfast and lunch at Kopi Bisma, which is directly across from them, so I have been watching their deliberate moves and steady hands for two days.


Chess is a complicated game that I haven’t learned to play yet. I say yet, because I’d like to learn to sit for hours at a time and control a kingdom. Watching those men has peaked my interest in the game, so I wikipedia’d the rules of the game and read this: Chess strategy is concerned with evaluation of chess positions and with setting up goals and long-term plans for the future play. It’s often said that the game of  chess is like life, and the voice in my head has signaled that it’s time to consider future plays and make some moves. It’s clear that what must happen will happen, and it’s best to accept what unfolds; however, I know that I must be an active participant in this game of life, set intentions, and place myself in the right situations to realize my goals.

I will never reach my goal by staying in the same place all the time. I can speak to my soul only when the two of us are off exploring deserts or cities or mountains or roads. – Paulo Coelho

Thus, the time draws nearer and nearer to leave Ubud, a most paradisiacal place. Yes, it’s heaven: overhead fans whir all day; girls have flowers dangling in their hair, secured by long, black strands; many smile their greetings; men wear their flowers tucked behind their ears; shoes are optional; the sunshine and rain play constant games with each other; yoga mats, like prayer mats, connect us to the universal energy source; receptive eyes see nature in bloom and in flight; the ground vibrates with life, and the air smells like jasmine. Perhaps, it’s heaven, because we all behave heavenly here. Yet, it’s soon time to go.

Perhaps, Ubud is to be a personal refuge, not the place to live for a lengthy period, at this time in my life. In regards to Tokyo, though it’s comfortable, safe, convenient, and a million other adjectives,  it’s time to move on from there as well. In September, it will have been three years in Japan, and though we’ve served each other well, it no longer holds the same charm.  Three days ago, I woke up at 4 am thinking, “What next?” A voice in my head answered that question, and told me that I’m free, that anything and anywhere is next. There’s nothing more exciting than realizing that I’m not only the hand, but the chess piece ready to be placed somewhere new. Early in the morning, in the dark, cool room, the lyrics of my sixth-grade graduation song floated to the forefront of my mind, “It is better to light just one little candle than to stumble in the dark.”

Here comes the flame: my days are going to change again soon, and it will be time to learn a new language (spoken and unspoken), meet new people, see new sights, settle into a new way of life, sit by new rivers. It will all be new, and simultaneously very familiar and right, because I chose it. (Things don’t happen to us, we create them if we’re acting consciously.)

Here and now, lushness surrounds me. Who was it that built this village in the middle of a riotous garden? The trees, animals and flowers grow around us, and our souls grow to meet them. We live in the garden; we spread our arms to the sun; we are rooted in peace. Life’s a chess game, and the freedom to choose how and when to play surely feels good.

See you soon,


p.s This is exactly how I feel:

Tokyo: It’s Pink Now.

tokyo, etc 028

Dear Friends,

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.

Take care,


A Lifetime of Used Tos


It’s an early summer morning in Tokyo. I have been sitting beside the Sumida River for some time; it’s the only place to escape the heat. At 10am, it’s already 85 degrees. There’s a small breeze here, and I’m trying to compose my thoughts, while the life around me interferes.

A large green bug lands on me. It freaked me out me a bit at first, but on its second landing, I’ve reconciled that we’re friends. Small, purple petals float and drift slowly to the ground. I’m sitting under a flowering tree of green and purple. What kind of tree this is, I don’t know. It doesn’t amaze me how little I know; at least now, it doesn’t embarrass me to say the words, “I don’t know.” Gone is the blustering pretense and embarrassment of past years.

The wind has died. Just, still, crushing heat now. Already, the petals on the ground are darkening. A purple hibiscus shrub blooms in profusion on my left. It makes me think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the book my mother sent me in the mail. The novel is a haunting, gripping, heartbreaking work of art. I can’t wait to start her other novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, this week.

On Tuesdays, my first class begins at 7:30am in Ojima. It’s a twenty-minute bike ride from where I live– over the bridge, past stone statues, small shops, and past the park. When I arrive at the company, there’s always a student waiting for me  with a smile. This morning, I taught “used to, and “”would,” or rather, I summoned my students memories by introducing new words to talk about the past. Here are some of their recollections:

When I was seven, I used to visit my grandfather’s farm. He would cut big watermelons with a sickle and we would eat fresh watermelon all day.

When I was in junior high school, I used to be a delivery newspaper boy. I would wake up by 4am everyday and deliver 100 papers. I would buy comics with the little money I got. I didn’t work at that job for more than six months.

When I was 21, I rode my bicycle from Saitama to Karuizawa. It took six hours. I was so tired, I only took long baths and slept when I got there.

A mother and her son just sat next to me on the bench. He is about two years old, maybe a few months less. His mother is feeding him some bread and jam. He eats without making any sound, then gets up and walks to the rail by the river. He points at something in the water and his mother walks over to look. He starts running and laughing, as children are inclined to do. Will he remember this day or just have a fuzzy feeling of contentment that lingers in his mind whenever he’s near a river?

Maybe, one day in his English class, many years down the line, he’ll say:

 When I was a boy, my mother would take me to the river. She would wear a straw hat to shield herself from the sun, and when I would look up at her shaded face, I’d think she was beautiful. She used to make sandwiches, and bring cookies and cold apple juice for us to enjoy. As you know, Tokyo summers can be very hot, but I used to run after pigeons until I was flushed. It was at that time, my mother would chase me, swoop me up and walk for a bit. I used to be tired, and in her arms, I would start to drift off, feeling happy and safe.

Maybe, he’ll say that.

The Wind’s Beside Me


Riding a bicycle on long stretches of open road could possibly be the most exhilarating feeling there is. It feels like waking up to your favorite song; it feels like drinking a cappuccino with an extra shot shot of espresso; it feels like the second time you kiss someone you really like; the time you know exactly how to tilt your head and how far you should go.

Riding a bicycle on an open road is freeing, energizing, and invigorating. Sometimes, there’s traffic, detours or obstructions in the road, but they’re just that, temporary setbacks. Riding a bicycle in the city can be filled with peril and takes courage. A student recently told me that she’s never ridden a bike and isn’t interested in learning, because it’s dangerous. This is what I said to her:

1) Can you let fear inhibit you from an experience that will surely be a memorable one?

2) Do you know the joy of coasting; of a breeze around you; of a warm kiss of air on your lips; of the wind beside you? (You should know that it feels like god.)

3) Do you realize that everything we do in life has an element of danger? Of course, some greater than others, but you leave your house everyday without knowing what will happen. Don’t let imagined things and possible threats make you a coward. Go fast, and if you fall, feel the hurt for a moment, then get back on your bike. There are times when you won’t need to move at all, just sit back and let the bicycle take you.

My friends, you know I didn’t say all those things to her; my student could barely speak English.  When she told me that she’d never ridden a bicycle, my response was, “You absolutely should. It’s fantastic!”

I think you already know, or should know if you don’t, that as much as I adore riding my bicycle, this note to you isn’t about cycling at all.



The Glad List- #4

Hi All,

Tonight, LD and I went to Daikanyama and Roppongi to “find life.” The night was going swimmingly well; first we went to Kin Folk in Daikanyama, then Agave Cigar and Tequila Bar in Roppongi, where three guys sat beside us, and I was chatting with the winning S, a Japanese guy with perfect English (lived in the Arizona for four years).

Sadly, or as fate would have it, turns out, S and the other guys, work at the same office as LD‘s ex; they got on the subject of lost love and killed the mood. Woe is me. The three guys went on to another bar, and invited us, but LD was in no mood to go. We wound up at Alfie for one super over-priced drink. the caught the last train. ($17 for a gin and tonic. Yikes.)

1) Today, I’m glad that I have a friend like LD, who’ll be my wingman. Strike up a convo with the guys at the next table, find out all the pertinent info, and really try to make it happen for me. We swore, on the next outing, we’ll get it right.

another time
another time not tonight

Ciao, :)

p.s this was written on the Hibiya line on the way home. To reiterate, Tokyo’s awesome.