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.