Saturday, December 28, 2013


For those of you who have asked to read "Kurisumasu," my short essay selected for WHQR's Holiday Shorts Contest, here it is.  Enjoy.  Rachel Lewis Hilburn's reading of my story on the air with Alan snickering, leaning his head on my shoulder and my parents laughing in the same row of seats (along with several good friends in attendance) was the highlight of my Christmas.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!

When our favorite babysitter, Nakamura san, slid open the door that led from the garden to the living room, she did not notice our Christmas tree placed in the spot where she usually stepped up into the house. Nakamura san walked right in to it as she removed her shoes to come inside, knocking it over with a big crash. My brother David and I heard the sound and came running down the stairs into the living room. When we saw the catastrophe of the turned over tree, the glass ornaments shattered across our floor, we let out blood curdling screams of horror.

“Nakamurasan!” we shouted. “Nani o shitan da?!”  (“What have you done?!”)

She hurriedly stood the tree back up, and tried to put things back together as well as she could. Several ornaments, however, had been crushed into hundreds of pieces of shining glitter and there was no way they could be repaired. No way at all. 

In our home in Mitaka, Japan, a Christmas tree was a big splurge, purchased from a florist near the train station. Cut and shipped from the West Coast of the U.S. in early September, by the time it reached Tokyo it was dry and brittle, barely green. It wasn’t even that big – maybe five feet tall at best.  But we thought it was exquisite.

Since we were the only gaijin (foreigners) in our part of the city, the florist probably ordered it just for us, hoping we’d show up to buy.  There may have been a few others in Mitaka who bought a Christmas tree, but I know for a fact that we were the only family in our neighborhood with one. Dad lugged it home two miles balanced on his shoulder since he couldn’t get on the bus with it, and no taxi driver in his right mind would pick up a gaijin hauling a tree.

The trimming did not take long. During our first couple of years in Japan, we didn’t even have lights on the tree.  Later, we did have one string of lights with multi-colored bulbs the size of a lemon. David and I stood back, wringing our hands in excitement as we watched Mom and Dad attach the lights.  They started at the bottom circling around the tree, handing the string off to each other like a dance as they worked their way up, ending with the one white bulb at the top for the star. It was a special moment when Dad squeaked the last bulb through the hole in the middle of the glittery cardboard star. We craned our necks up to see that shining star far out of our reach.

Mom ceremoniously plugged the lights in, and we all, almost by instinct, backed up slowly across the tatami floor in our sock feet, squinting our eyes so the lights spread out into tiny little beams, blending the colors of the rainbow that filled the room.

Then we moved on to ornaments. We had one set each of large and small glass balls which were stored in a box with round cut out circle slots to keep them from banging into each other and breaking. David and I hung the less fragile pine cones Mom had spray painted gold and tied with red cord ribbon.

One year, for some extra drama, Mom and Dad decided to provide an old-fashioned Christmas tree experience. They clipped a dozen tin candle holders mailed to us from America to the very outsides of the tree so flames wouldn’t be under another branch. Dad then filled two metal buckets to the rim with water and placed them by the tree. The small fire extinguisher from the kitchen was retrieved and Dad held it in one hand as Mom lit the candles one by one. We sang Silent Night in the dark, standing around our beautiful tree as the little flames flickered in our kindling house made of paper, straw and wood. I could almost hear Mom and Dad sigh with relief when all twelve candles were blown out, thankful that not only had we not burned down our own house, we had not burned down the entire neighborhood of match stick houses built so close together you could practically touch the neighbor’s house out the window.

As part of our missionary duties, we hosted children’s Christmas parties which included a compulsory activity when my friends were paraded to the nativity scene to learn the Christmas story.   Our creche was displayed on the kazaridana, a decorative piece of furniture for artwork. A small wooden shoji screen with translucent white paper sat behind it, adding a Japanese touch to the manger scene, bringing the characters from the Bible to life with us in Japan.

A few minutes before my friends arrived for the party each year, I summoned up my sweetest voice and courage and asked,
“Mama, at the party, umm,“ I hesitated, knowing the answer before I even asked,
“Do we have to do the part where we tell the Christmas story?”
The answer was always,
“Yes, we do.” No further explanation, no reprimanding, but this was non-negotiable.

I was never led to the butsudan (a Buddhist display shelf) in my friends’ homes and instructed about what the different elements meant, although I was always curious.  I kept my distance from that lacquered black stand with photos, incense, flowers, food and shiny objects, not wanting to offend or do something I shouldn’t.   I wanted to get up close to touch and breathe its perfume.

Everyone who entered our house during the Christmas season was drawn to our Christmas tree like a magnet through sight, smell, and the pure novelty of it all. Our guests crept up to the tree as if it might break, closely admiring the glass balls, gently tapping them with their fingernails to hear the clink and make them sway back and forth as they looked at their own distorted reflection in them. Children from the neighborhood came to the house to see the tree on December afternoons. Church members of all ages came to admire the tree on Sundays after church. Mom’s English students and neighborhood women ogled the tree when she invited them for Christmas cookies and tea, and even my mother’s Jewish friend asked to come see the tree with her three children for a taste of the American holiday season she missed.

So it was that when Nakamura san knocked over the tree and broke our irreplaceable glass ornaments, we felt our Christmas was ruined, and we told her so. We cried. She cried. As much as we loved Nakamura san, we could not believe she had done this to us. We feared this tradition that connected us to our family in America could not be completed in its entirety without every last piece of ritual in place.

Not knowing what else to do, I slipped on my shoes and tearfully ran out the front door to the church bell tower down the street. 

There I knelt down upon the painful gravel, folding my hands together into the traditional prayer shape like the paintings I had seen of Jesus praying.  I went for every bit of extra effort and drama, pancaking my hands flat together and placing my elbows on the cement base of the tower.  The church bells didn’t ring from the brown metal tower that afternoon, but I got a good look up inside as I knelt on the ground asking for God to please, oh please help fix this impossible situation, and let me know it was going to be okay.  

After a few moments of the most desperate prayer a ten year old girl could utter, I felt something warm nuzzle up against my leg.  Our dog, Tutsi, had found me.  He sat still right next to me, wagging his tail as if to reassure me that all was not lost.   I don’t know how Tutsi knew he needed to find me and rescue me in that moment, but it was what I needed to stand up and go home again, into the house where Nakamura san was finishing vacuuming up the flinders of what remained of the glass ornaments.

That miserable evening, Nakamura san fed us dinner and put us to bed, and fearfully awaited my parents’ return. Dad got home first, and was greeted by Nakamura san’s red swollen eyes.  After listening to her tearful explanation of the calamity, he reassured her that all was fine. The next day, with both Mom and Dad’s promise that Christmas was not ruined and ornaments could be replaced next year, David and I walked together to Nakamura san’s house with a plate of Mom’s Christmas cookies and apologized to her. She remained our very favorite babysitter, who loved us despite our terrible treatment of her resulting from what could only have been an accident.  

Just as Mom and Dad promised, Christmas did come to Mitaka that year.  Dad read us The Night Before Christmas, sitting on the floor between David’s futon and mine.  After he kissed us and tiptoed down the stairs, I strained my ears, listening for reindeer bells as they flew above Tokyo, picking out our home from among the millions of Japanese houses. I thought I heard their soft hoofs land gently on our flat metal roof, making a special delivery to two American children who wouldn’t be forgotten by Santa on the far side of the world.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas Rainbow

78 degrees on December 21st, my husband, daughter and I decided to go to the beach for a stroll.  What else do you do when God gives you this on the winter solstice?  Sunny, squinty bright, everyone smiling, thankful for this gift of unexpected warmth.  As we crested the wooden ramp that took us over the dunes to the beach, a white mist rose from the sea at the same time it reached down in pockets from the sky.  It was as if the sea also was celebrating a reprieve from winter.  A low cloud enveloped us, wrapping us up like a Christmas present.  The mist moved in and out, opening up for warm sunshine and then closing up around us - back and forth, back and forth.

We walked North, telling stories and catching up, half-heartedly searching the sand for shark teeth.  A half mile later I turned around to notice my daughter's best high school friend, also home for the holidays, walking with her mother a few steps behind.  
     "Look," I said.  "You're not going to believe who's behind us."  The two girls, young women now, grins spreading across their cheeks, ran to each other, embracing upon impact.  

We continued our walk, the two girls off to the side, heads together, really talking about what they want to talk about, the two mothers talking mother talk, and my poor husband now out of the loop, along for the ride.  

Another half mile later, it started sprinkling.  I felt it first on the back of my neck.  What had been a glittering white mist behind us had turned in to gray clouds.  The rain fell, heavy and warm, big drops of bath water pouring down on us.  As we began to run, heading back South to through the rain to the car, an uncontrollable laugh erupted from my mouth.  Joy.  

Only moments later, the rain stopped, the downpour over, and we turned back around to look to see where the rain had gone.  A bright double rainbow stretched across the beach, low and wide, filling the entire horizon.  A Christmas rainbow I will long remember.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Is Not For Shopping

Tomorrow I will buy a turkey breast to cook for Thanksgiving.  It's my turn to cook.  I won't buy a whole turkey, because there will only be five people around our Thanksgiving table, and we certainly don't want to be eating leftovers into mid-December.

This is not an advertisement for Harris Teeter, my grocery store "home," but that's probably where I will go to purchase my turkey breast.  I usually know where to find things, even though it is my husband who does the grocery shopping 99% of the time.  Five minutes from my house by car, I will drive there, plunk the turkey breast in my shopping cart, roll my cart to the check out counter where they will scan it and put it back in the cart for me to push out to my car.  When I get home, I'll carry it to my refrigerator where I'll place it until it's time to cook it the next day.  It will take a half hour at the most to get my turkey.

It was different for my mother when I was growing up.  She used to journey to downtown Tokyo on two separate trains to purchase our turkey.  It took her well over an hour just to get to Kinokuniya, the import store where American food like peanut butter, popcorn, corn flakes, or a turkey could be purchased. Once she selected our turkey, she placed it in the large, sturdy bag she took with her to the store, packing it carefully among a few choice other items she felt she could manage to carry home along with the turkey.  She then began her trip back to our house in Mitaka, first hauling the twelve pound bird to the train station.  She placed it on the seat next to her (if there was room) on the train, and then an hour later put it into the wicker basket on the front of her bicycle to peddle it home.  It took practically the entire day to buy the turkey.

I am thankful for my mother who went to extra efforts to make sure that we celebrated Thanksgiving and got to know this holiday.  We celebrated it, even though nobody else in our neighborhood did.  She showed me the importance of this most precious of holidays where we stop, come together, and give thanks.  It is my favorite holiday.  I enjoy its slow pace, the purposeful time in which we are together just for the sake of being together, and count all the ways in which we are blessed.

So when our commercial world marches on to take away even this, this one single day when we pause to give thanks, I will not participate.    I will never, ever, shop on Thanksgiving Day.  I will remember those stores who opened on this holiday.  For the rest of the holiday shopping season, I choose not shop there.   It's that important to me.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Popcorn for Dinner

It wasn't often that Mom was away at dinner time, but when she was, she usually prepared something that Dad could heat up and serve up on the table for dinner.  Our family rarely ate out at restaurants.  It was a really special occasion when we did, and it certainly was not something we did for convenience in those days.  We went to restaurants as a family for celebration, so we did not go to a restaurant without Mom. That just wouldn't be fair.

On those rare evenings when Dad was left to his own devices to prepare dinner for us, we had popcorn.

Dad loved having popcorn for dinner, and we were part of his ritual of preparation from beginning to end. He told us all about how often he had this special dinner of popcorn when he was growing up.  Our kernels came from Kinokuniya, the imported food store in downtown Tokyo, or was shipped to us in care packages from America.  Not to be overly dramatic about this, but having popcorn was one of the ways we were reminded that we were American.

First, Dad coated the bottom of the stainless steel pan with some vegetable oil.  Then, we watched as he cut open the bright colorful American plastic bag of corn kernels, and poured them in to the metal pan, making a loud noise.

Then, Dad placed the pan on the stove, and we gathered in close to listen for the first pop.  I always wished I could see the popping and not just hear it, but of course, that was impossible with the metal pans.   We silently waited, still as we could be, so as not to make any unexpected noises that would take away from the excitement of hearing that first kernel hit the lid of the pan.  When we heard it, that first lone popper, we looked at each other's faces to be re-assured, that yes, that was a pop.

Slowly, gradually, more and more kernels popped, and in no time there were so many kernels popping in rapid succession that we couldn't tell them apart.  That was the best part.  It was out of control!! As the popping died down, Dad shook the pan over the stove to make sure that as many kernels as possible would pop, and slowly, slowly, the energy and sounds from the pan died down.  Sometimes Dad included enough in the pan that the white jewels began to lift the lid off of the pan.  I secretly wished for it to overflow and cover the top of the stove.

When the popping was finished, Dad salted it and tossed it in a mixing bowl.  Then, the three of us sat at the card table in the kitchen rather than the dining room table where we usually ate dinner.  Dad scooped the popcorn out of the pan with the bowls he would set in front of us for dinner.  Finally, just before we said the blessing, he retrieved the cold glass bottle of milk from the refrigerator, and poured it over our hot popcorn. We ate it with a spoon, just like Dad did when he was a little boy.

My family does not eat popcorn for dinner.  We don't pour milk on our popcorn, either.  Our popcorn is popped in a microwave in a paper bag that expands and we throw away in the trash.  My family won't be carrying on that tradition, much to my Dad's dismay, but I will always have great memories of pop corn for dinner at the little square card table in the kitchen in Mitaka.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Turning on the Heat

We turned the heat on at our house this morning.  Alan got up out of bed in the middle of the night and went to the hall thermostat to push the "up" button several times to kick it into heat mode.  Thank goodness, because the extra blanket I had put on the bed was not quite doing the job.  For one thing, it was doing nothing to warm my face; my nose was ice cold.

I've become somewhat of a "wimp" when it comes to coping with cold weather.  We live in Wilmington, NC, after all, where it almost never snows, and people still use air conditioning well into late October.  But when the temperature dips below 40 degrees for the first time each year, you would think I lived way inside the arctic circle for all of my complaining.

I used to be a lot tougher about coping with cold temperatures when we lived in Japan, where most of our house wasn't even heated.  Only the downstairs was heated by a singular stove that heated up with a clicking sound.  When the temperature of the stove finally hit a point high enough, a fan turned on and blew glorious hot air into the living room.

Getting us out of bed on the coldest winter mornings was a challenge for my mother.  She timed waking us up to the stove's fan's cycle.  As it began to heat up, she came upstairs to one by one remove our blankets and quilts piled on top of us as we slept on our futon.

"Rise and shine!," she'd say, as she came upstairs to our room to put away our bedding into the closet for the day.  After begging for a few more minutes under the electric blanket and thick Japanese quilt on top (also called a futon,) our retort was always,
"Is the heater on?"
We knew our window of opportunity to dress in warmth was limited.  If the fan was blowing hot air, we grabbed our clothes including long underwear, and ran down the stairs to dress in front of the heater as it blew out its warmth, and got dressed as quick as we could before the fan went off.  Dressed in our wool sweaters, we headed off to Japanese school where the rooms were heated with black iron pot-bellied coal stoves - but that's a story for another day.

I will do my best to remember how fortunate I am to live in a house that has heat, and all we have to do is to push a plastic white button a couple of times to heat up the entire house.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Planting Seeds

I planted two flats of multi-colored pansies in the front yard today.  That was a success, but the extra lettuce seeds from my planting yesterday that I forgot to bring in overnight were eaten by some wild animal. Probably a raccoon.  He (or she) tore into the little white seed envelope and ate them up, making a big mess of torn paper next to the clay pots.  I forget that there are wild animals that roam my yard at night.

The first time I remember planting a seed, I was in the first grade.  I planted a black and white striped sunflower seed along with the other 39 children in my class.  We put them in a little paper cup with rich dirt, pushing the seed down deep into the soil as far as our little fingers could push.  We then lined the cups up by the window where they would receive lots of sunlight.  We planted them the same day, using the same batch of seeds and same bucket of shared soil to pretty much the same depth, and watered them just the way Kikuchi Sensei told us to.  Then we waited.

Days later, one by one, the seeds began to sprout, poking little green ropes up out of the soil in an arc.  A month later, by mid-July when it was time for summer vacation, we each had a seedling to take home and take care of.  Some children's seedlings were a dark, healthy green, already outgrowing the paper cup, making them topple over.  Other seedlings were scrawny yellow plants - they either got too much water or not enough, too much sun or not enough, and were not healthy specimens.

I took mine home where it was quickly forgotten after a week or two and it shriveled up.  I cared more about that little seedling when it was a competition.  Once it was just mine, where nobody was measuring their success based on mine, I gave it very little attention. I'd like to think I care more about my seedlings now, but my careless handling of lettuce seeds yesterday afternoon might prove otherwise.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

An Extraordinary Fall Day - and a Pumpkin

I spent the morning walking with a good friend, talking about our lives and our "grown" children (just about the same thing) and solving some of the world's major problems.  In between all of this important conversation and therapy we provided to each other, we exclaimed with genuine awe at least a dozen times over the course of a couple hours and four and a half miles,

"It's such a beautiful day!"

It has been, indeed, a beautiful day.  The sky was Carolina blue, a few white clouds dotted the sky, a light breeze blew off the ocean, and the sun warmed our skin like a hug as we walked in our t-shirts and shorts. We ended our walk with a visit to the Trolley Stop for a hot dog and a Diet Pepsi.  I think heaven must be something like this.

In the afternoon, I planted some tender lettuce seedlings in my raised bed garden and watered them, naively believing that I'll enjoy fresh lettuce all winter long from this brief one hour of gardening.

It has truly been a beautiful day and I am thankful...for friendship, for honesty, for autumn, for cool breezes, for fresh dirt under my fingernails.  I'm thankful for my friend's love of decorating for the fall season and my being okay with myself for not enjoying or being skilled at that, and the fact that my house pretty much looks the same year-round. I will go to her house one of these days soon and enjoy her fine touches, the variety of pumpkins, squash and gourds that she has carefully selected and arranged, and I will wish I had the same eye for decorating that she does.  I will walk through her front door and it will smell like pumpkin or apple or falling leaves or ginger, and I will be transported by her thoughtful decor to a calm, comforting happy place where I will dwell for an hour or two and it will be marvelous.

Then I'll head home, stopping on my way at the grocery store to pick up an ordinary round orange pumpkin on sale to place on our front stoop.  And I will call it good.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


From the feel of things, I'm thinking it's probably time to put away my summer clothes and get the winter ones out of the attic.  But I'm not going to get to it today.  It's a chore I don't enjoy very much anyway, probably because it reminds me of my excesses.  I have a nice sized closet...It should be big enough to hold all my clothes for two seasons.

When I was growing up, I had just one week's worth of clothes.  I had one nice outfit, something I wore to church and to other dressier occasions like a piano recital which were few and far between.  I also had a couple pair of pants and a couple of shirts and a sweater or two.  That was it.  It was enough.  That's what everyone else had, and I never, ever, for one moment considered that I didn't have enough.  It's because I did have enough.

If I could find the energy today, I would go up into the attic and awkwardly maneuver the big plastic box with the lid that snaps shut that contains my sweaters, and I would lug it down the stairs.  I would pay the price for having too much.  But I'm not going to get to it today.  I am numb.

Yesterday afternoon, in the middle of my peaceful Saturday afternoon, as I sat on my screened porch reading one of many books I own, after a satisfying lunch and as smells of our taco dinner were just beginning to fill the house, I heard up close seven gun shots, one which took the life of an 18 year-old boy.

There wasn't enough of something, and it wasn't fall clothes.  The shooter and the victim, caught up in their world of gangs and drugs, were missing something.  What did they not have enough of?  Was it a loving home to grow up in?  Was it a safe neighborhood to live in where they could walk out their door and not be accosted by gang members?  Were they missing a quality education?  Was it a lack of parents and community members who believed in them and their potential?  Was it access to counselors who could help them process their anger at the unfair world?  Were they missing the flicker of hope in the possibility of a different life, one that included a job to support themselves? What did they not have enough of?

I don't know the answer to those questions.  But I do know one thing for certain.  There were enough guns. There was definitely enough of that.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Camping in Tokyo

I feel sorry for kids who are not playing outside today.  I sit on our back porch getting the best of both worlds - writing and being outside all at the same time.  It is so beautiful.

The neighbors rented some sort of blow up jumpy castle contraption for what I guess was a birthday party yesterday afternoon.  Though I can't see it, I can hear it. Children have been screaming three backyards over for over 26 hours with only a short break to go inside for the sleeping part of the sleep-over.  I think it must have been a 48 hour rental, because although sounds have died down a bit, there are certain indications that children are still jumping.

Our yard in Tokyo would never have accommodated the kind of jumping toy our neighbors have rented.  I do remember sleep-over camping in our small yard in Tokyo, though.  We had more yard than many of our friends, even though our tent took up half the grassy space.  In fact, most of my friends had no yard at all. Dad helped set up the tent in the afternoon, and one or two friends and I climbed in through the zippered entrance at dusk with flashlights to ward off the monsters until morning.  I was never really afraid of the Japanese monsters.  They never looked real to me, with their two little horns sticking out of the top of their heads and blue and red skin like someone had colored them with a crayon.

Before we got in the tent, our friends marveled at the weenie roast and precious marshmallows Mom had to go all the way to downtown Tokyo's Kinokuniya to purchase and carry home on the train.  Behind our cinder block wall in Mitaka, Tokyo, in our tiny little yard, we spent an exciting night with nature, even though the only wildlife we encountered up close were mosquitoes and the screaming sounds of cicadas.

 Coleman Tents Camping Gear

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bunny Apples

I just visited the Raleigh Farmer's Market.   It's the perfect time of year to do that because you can still see all the colorful summer produce, and the fall produce is starting to come in, too.  The rainbow palette of eggplant to peaches to tomatos were showcased right next to the multiple varieties of apples, corn and yellow pumpkins.   It's still too early for the orange Halloween kind of pumpkins but not too early for the creamy yellow squash pumpkins.

I bought a peck of Honey Crisp Apples.  A peck.  What a neat word that you get to almost spit out of your mouth like a watermelon seed.  Peck.  It kinda makes me want to live on a farm.  Kinda.

So, I've brought my PECK of apples back to the hotel, and I'll eat one as I watch cable TV that we don't have at home.  I usually eat an apple by biting in to it whole, letting the juice drip down my chin as I bite deeper into the fruit, making my whole face sticky.  The best way to eat an apple, though, is when someone you love cores it and cuts it up into thin slices and puts them onto a pretty little serving dish for you.  They are crisper, sweeter, and more flavorful that way.  And, if someone REALLY loves you, they will cut the apples up in to little bunny shapes.

My Mom used to do this for me.  She learned from other Japanese mothers who packed their children's lunches how to make a lunch with tender care and attention.  She didn't ever cut slices of carrots to look like sakura blossoms, but she did make bunny apples for me.  They looked like this.

When I opened my obento box up by lifting the metal lid and saw bunny apples, I knew my Mommy loved me.  And they're not even in the shape of a heart.

Monday, September 9, 2013

2020 in Tokyo!

The 2020 Olympics will be in Tokyo!  I watched the announcement on television this weekend, smiling as Japanese officials celebrated, literally sobbing with joy.  I like the colorful wreath logo made from the sakura (cherry) blossoms on their poster.

When I was in elementary school, I swam in the swimming pool built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.  The pool building was an enormous modern building unlike any structure I had ever seen, with a roof that swooped down and rose up again in the arc of a ramen noodle bowl.   The two Olympic buildings built side by side in the Olympic Park stood out from among the other Japanese buildings that were made from the straightest of lines, squares and rectangles.

In 1967, the arena still had the Olympics sparkle in it, the roar of the crowds faintly echoing from the walls. At six years old, I didn't even know what the Olympics were, but I still could feel a power and energy surround me by just being in the building. The pool was like the ocean - enormous.  I don't think at that time I was even able to swim from one side of it to the other, (even the short one) but my friends and I knew we were having a special day as we hung off the side of the pool and chatted.  After we swam, we had an ice cream cone before we rode the train home together.

I think I will start saving now to go.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Donguri - Why Acorns Make Me Happy

When I went for a walk this week, I noticed that a couple of acorns had fallen onto the sidewalk.  I picked one up and ran my forefinger and thumb along its little round shell, amazed that nature can create something so fabulous. There were just a couple of acorns this week, but this is only the beginning.  Before long, acorns will rain down onto our sidewalks from the majestic oaks that shade them, and in some places they will literally cover the cement walk like a blanket.

I purposefully walk on acorns to feel them under my feet and to hear them crunch.  If I land on them just right with the middle part of my heel, even if I'm wearing my cushioned walking shoes, they make a very satisfying popping sound.  This type of walking makes my gait very irregular.  My walking buddies look at me like I'm out of my mind as I take small steps and then large ones, all measured to gain the most volume from stepping on and popping as many of them as I can.  It leaves a bit of a mess behind, I must admit, but it is a simple pleasure I allow myself to indulge in.

Acorns make me happy.  When I was five or six years old, I used to carry one of Mom's large kitchen bowls into the woods to collect them.  I picked them out from under the leaves where they were hiding and gathered the beautiful smooth brown nuggets by the hundreds.  The first ones plinked into my bowl, and as I found more and more, they made less sound as they were added to the collection.  When a gratifying number had been amassed, I squatted in the woods along the path where I had collected them, and ran my hand through the acorns to feel their smooth hulls.  I scooped them up in my hands from the bowl by the dozens, letting them fall between my fingers back in to the bowl, clanging against the side.  I pretended to cook with them, measuring, stirring, rolling them between my hands.   They were magnificent.  Often, I lugged my collection of nuts home where they lost some of their magic when I had to relinquish the bowl which allowed them to make such beautiful music.

We sang about acorns (donguri) in preschool.  Doguri Koro Koro is a song about an acorn who falls out of a tree and ends up in a puddle. He (it is a little boy acorn wearing a hat) is all alone there in the puddle and troubled, until a little guppy comes along and plays with him.

Donguri koro koro Donguri ko
Oike ni tamatte, saa, taihen!
Dojoo ga dete kite, "Konnichiwa,"
Botchan issho ni asobimashoo!

In a way, I still play with acorns on my walks, and I think they have little friendly personalities.  I seek them out and a smile crosses my lips when I encounter them. I just don't bring them home anymore.

Artwork by Rob Kimmel Design

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Birthdays Lost and Found

Yesterday was my birthday.  I had not one, but two cakes:  a beautifully decorated chocolate cake I shared with some amazing women friends at lunchtime, and one almond cake with caramel icing drizzled on it that I enjoyed after dinner with my parents and husband.  It was like I had two birthdays.

Long ago, in 1969 and in 1972, I wasn't so lucky.  
In those years, our family was given something called a "furlough," a summer off from our assignment as a missionary family in Japan. Every three to five years, the Board of Missions paid for us to return to America to reconnect with our family and with the churches who supported.  In actuality, we were given a full one year furlough, but we only took three months of it.  I was a student at Takayama Shoogakkoo, a public school in Mitaka, Japan.  Missing an entire year of Japanese school would have placed me forever behind my classmates and made it impossible to continue.  Keeping up with all the characters I had to learn week to week was hard enough when I had perfect attendance.  Trying to catch up on dozens of them at the same we learned more would have required a Herculean effort I could not have mustered.

Furloughs were happy times for our family when my brother and I got good glimpses at what life in America was like.  We loved the attention we received as family members doted on us, and we experienced what was, essentially, a three month vacation.  

When it was time for these furloughs to end, we began our long journey West that took us to the Far East.
It just so happened that our return at the end of the two summer furloughs coincided both times with my birthday.  The plane departed from the West Coast on the morning of August 30th, my birthday.  Of course, I reveled in this fact from the moment my eyes opened that this was my special day.  As the airplane took off heading away from the sun and America as fast as it could go, roaring its engines, my birthday ticked away. What seemed like several short hours into the flight, the pilot came across the intercom to announce that we had crossed the International Date Line, and that now it was August 31st.  I had my birthday morning, but not the afternoon.  I had lost my birthday.

I made up for those lost birthday afternoons by the joy of reuniting with my Japanese friends again upon our arrival, and through birthdays like the one I had yesterday.  Two cakes.  Two birthdays.  I am so blessed.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Aka Tombo

I think fall is coming.  Today, there is the first hint that summer is giving up; she is getting tired of working so hard to make us sweat.  Our porch door has been open to the outside all day, and I beg for more fall to come inside my house.   I can't get enough.  A fan sits next to the door, blowing in the outside air because now it is tolerable and it feels good on my skin.

But there is something sad about letting summer go.  I say that as if I have a choice about when a season comes or goes.  Perhaps it is because there is a youthful state of mind that accompanies the summer season that I conjure up in late May and start to let go about this time each year.  It is as if fall is walking up my brick walk, getting ready to knock on my door to tell me,

"It's time."

It is time to let summer go - walking bare-footed in the yard and feeling the wet grass come up between my toes, lying in the hammock on the porch, and riding my boogie board as if I were twelve years old.  Tourists look at me, the gray-haired woman who knows how to catch the waves, plucking them out of the horizon, cruising along the crest and into the curve of the wave, but not so far that it eats her alive.  I ride all the way into shore right up to their ankles as the they look down at me holding their children's hands to keep them from going too far in the water.  I try not to meet their eyes as I get up and bound into the water to get some more.  I don't play like that the rest of the year. So as much as I enjoy the first round of cool weather, it comes with a sense of melancholy.   Summer vacations end.  Seasons end.  Another year - gone.

I will sing a song today about the Aka Tombo, the Red Dragonfly, so special in Japan it has its own song. Its tail was so red it glowed against the green mountainsides of Nojiri where we spent our summer vacations when I was a child.  One of my favorite songs, Aka Tombo, is a song of nostalgia, a longing for the way things were - the way I look back both on the summer that is going, and will be gone very soon, and memories of much more distant pasts that disappeared decades ago.

Yuuyake koyake no aka tombo
oware te mita no wa itsu no hi ka?

Red dragonfly of the sunset,
When did I last see it, as I was carried along on a back?

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Artwork from

Summer reminds me of kingyo - goldfish.   In two colors - red orange like the brightest sunset or black as coal, the fish  have big round ball eyes protruding from their heads so far that you almost think the balls are going to fall off and roll around the bottom of the fish bowl.  The tails twice the size of the body are so fluid and translucent, they flow with the water like the thinnest kelp, becoming one with the water's current.

There used to be a little vendor at the omatsuri (festival) in the summer time who made money running a game where customers tried to catch a kingyo.  For 100 yen I purchased a little wand with tissue paper in the middle to try to catch one (or more) to take home.  The wand was to be used to scoop as many fish as you could into a smaller bowl before the tissue paper dissolved into the water.  The metal pool filled with cool water and hundreds of little fish that swam over each other enticed me to fork over several hundred yen in one evening, much more than it would possibly cost to actually just go to the pet store and purchase a little fish.

I hungered to feel the weight of fish on my fragile wand, but all I got after running my wand under the water chasing a fish was more water and a gaping hole.  I never caught one, in all the years I tried.  Plenty of children and grown-ups were adept at flipping the fish, though, one after another, into their individual bowls for keeps before their wand dissolved. The vendor then poured their fish and a little extra water into a clear plastic bag that they carried gently with them for the rest of the evening before they took them home to a fish bowl.

Perhaps it is because I never caught one that kingyo have an even more special place in my summer heart.   They had that much more meaning because they were unattainable, making them even more magnificent for me than they were for the children who carried the cool bag home, studying them as they held it up to their face.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Jan Ken Po

When I was a little girl growing up in Japan, many, many decisions were made by Jan Ken Po, known as "Rock, Paper, Scissors" in America.  Nobody in my Japanese yochien (preschool/kindergarten) or gakkoo (school) needed instructions on how to play the game.  I have no memory of learning how to play it, or ever teaching anyone in Japan, even a little little one, how to play it.  The knowledge of how to jan ken po was in our water, in our air, in our DNA.

To pick teams, to decide who got the last osenbei (cracker,) to decide who would be "it" when we played Kick The Can, we always started with jan ken po; You never knew who would win, or what would happen.

I am calling my blog  "Jan Ken Po Stories," because I am not sure yet what I'm going to be posting.  I do know I will want to tell some stories about growing up in Japan, but I will also want to talk about what is happening to me today, here in North Carolina.  You never know what's going to happen.  Aren't we lucky that we don't?!
Artwork By John Marshall