Cancer – A Few Silver Linings

CMy husband Marc has taken the kids back to Tokyo to re-start their “real” lives.  Bailey is a freshman at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) and my daughter, Sydney, started middle school, grade six, at Nishimachi International School (NIS).  Both kids have been at their respective schools for a while and I couldn’t bear to take them out of their comfort zones, though I’d much rather have them here with me. (Look for a forthcoming post on the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I’m just not ready to write it yet.) They are for sure in the exact right places for them.

Though this whole cancer thing sucks, I have found a few silver linings to it, and I’m pleased to say that Marc has also found a few here and there. Case in point: the other day he said to me, “Sydney is really fun in the grocery store.”

This is something I knew already.  Sydney is very good at spotting items on the list.  She likes menu planning and then buying the planned ingredients.  She likes finding a new item to try and even feeling produce to check for ripeness.  She’s a good little shopper.  In addition, when we’re in Japan, she likes reading signs, figuring out what things are, and calculating weights and costs in grams and yen.  Her Japanese reading and speaking skills are coming along nicely and the grocery store is good practice.

Marc is also an excellent Japanese reader and speaker, so in addition to all of the fun things about Sydney in the store, he was able to show her certain Kanji symbols and discuss the language issues via food, Sydney’s favorite subject, which made everything more interesting for both of them.  Marc has always enjoyed the kids musical and sporting events, and he and Bailey can discuss fantasy football and other sporting events and issues ad nauseum. However, it has been harder to find things he has is common with our girly-girl and so the grocery experience was great in more ways than one. Marc has been a great dad from day one with our kids, but he has never been the primary caretaker of them; that has been my job, except for a few weekends or a week here or there when I’ve been away.  Now he has stepped up to do it in a big way while I stay in the U.S. for treatment – and is doing a great job of it so far.

So here’s the benefit: some serious dad and kid bonding. If I wasn’t sick, Marc would never have discovered Sydney’s talents in the grocery store. That very same day, the two of them went out to the ever-popular and crowded Azabu Juban festival near our house and had a blast together.  If I was there, I would have gone, and though I really miss being there, I am delighted that my daughter and her dad had the opportunity to experience it together differently from how it would have been if I was there.

We have such great friends in Tokyo that I know Marc is going to have a lot of help with the kids – homework, caretaking, meals, etc – in the next four months while I’m in the U.S. But I also know that he will do a great job with everything himself and he and the kids will forge a new, strong connection that they might otherwise not have done.  For that I am not sorry – it’s a little perk in a hailstorm of sorts. So in the end we will all emerge from the experience hopefully healthy, and in some ways be even better and stronger for it.

How I Found The Spirit of “DanShaRi” – My New, Favorite Japanese Word

dansharipicMy acupuncturist worked her magic on me but kept muttering over and over about how tense I was compared to my session just two weeks prior.  Finally, after the session I told her that we were about to move to a new apartment in Tokyo, and it was just plain stressful.  Adding to the stress was the fact that this would be our first move without babies.  When we moved into our house six years ago, we had small kids – ages 5 and 8.  We had an entire room in the house stuffed with their toys and books.  Being a writer and writing teacher myself, I get very attached to books.  In addition, my mother, a career kindergarten teacher, calls herself Grandma Book, and when she closed her classroom in the U.S. and moved south, she sent five packing cartons full of children’s books.

But fast forward six years with kids ages 11 and 14, and most of the books and toys had to go.  I spent a lot of time on the floor one weekend in early May just going through a lot of books and remembering them.  Crying. Feeling. Mourning a little, even. Some special books, the ones my kids really remembered and loved, they wanted to save and keep on their shelves, and I certainly allowed that.  In the end we had at least ten trash bags of toys to give away and five suitcases full of books to donate.  In my heart, I knew that other kids would be able to love the books and toys as much as my babies and I had loved them, but letting go of them was tough.

That’s when the acupuncturist, listening to my tale of woe, taught me a new Japanese word.  “Dan-sha-ri” she told me.  “That’s what you’re doing: Dan-Sha-Ri”.

She wrote out the Kanji for me, and it’s really three Kanji put together to make up the very connotative word.

Dan the first Kanji, means to refuse.  People are supposed to refuse to collect more THINGS in their life, or refuse to block the flow of their lives with stuff.  Sha means to throw away things – get rid of unnecessary items in the home.  And Ri means to separate – separate what’s actually valuable from your possessions – your stuff is not your life; you and your memories and the people you love are your life.

When put together, the word DanShaRi means to let go of possessions, but also to free yourself from them; to poetically purge what’s cluttering your life and let go of it gracefully.  The result is intended to be a lighter and free-er person.

Yes, I spent some serious time on the floor stressing and crying over my children’s bygone childhood, but I admit now, three weeks later, that I do feel lighter for the exercise of it.  My children are growing into such fine young adults, that I find I don’t need their baby stuff anymore.  I can carry the memory of their babyhood in my head and in a few photo albums without having to carry the actual, physical trappings of that babyhood – which also means that I can fully enjoy the present.

I am grateful to my acupuncturist at Theracua for treating the whole person a few weeks ago, and not just my joints and muscles.  She made the process of DanShaRi in my life a whole lot less stressful and more of a thankful experience.

Sometimes the connotative, on-the-fly nature of Japanese has just the right word for the situation.

blog matsuri pic

Oven Mania in a New Apartment

oven originalIf you are reading this post in the U.S., go look at your oven.  I bet it’s about 60cm (24 inches, approximately) wide.  My oven in our very Western house was about that size up until last week, too.  However, last week, we moved house (into a more Japanese apartment) and our oven experience has been the most interesting part.

We’ve known for a while that due to circumstances beyond our control, we would have to move before mid-June, but it took us a while to find the perfect place.  In fact, when we first saw the place that we eventually took, I rejected it out of hand on the basis of the oven.  The oven when we looked at the apartment, a mere ten minute walk from our old house, was only 20cm wide.  Think about it.  That is just under 8 inches.  There’s no way I was going to cook in an oven that’s only 8 inches wide.  I’m an American, for heaven’s sake – there are lots of ooey gooey birthday cakes to be made, and roasts to be cooked and veggies to be roasted.  I cook a lot!

That being said, the oven was state-of-the art Japanese.  It had a control panel

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

that came out at you when you touched the door of the oven.  It had every button possible (not that I could read them all, but still.)  It just wasn’t good for the type of cooking that I want to do.  Japanese people generally don’t bake, and they don’t roast.  Most Japanese cooking is done on the stove top – or in a rice-cooker.

My husband Marc, however, is  a pretty smart guy.  He knew that the apartment would be perfect for us, but also that it had been empty for a while, and he told our leasing agent that we would be willing to move in very quickly if they changed the oven to something a bit more reasonable.  At first they thought we needed a Western oven and they wanted to charge us a few thousand dollars to cut the cabinet to fit it.  But we didn’t need a full-on European or American model – we needed better than was currently there.  Marc measured my largest few roasting pans and found that they were mostly just under 40 cm wide.  The good ones any way.  Then he went to the Internet and found a Japanese model oven that was around 40cm wide (almost 16 inches) and emailed our agent, who in turn, emailed the apartment owner.

My new oven!

My new oven!

Within a week the owner of the apartment had agreed to change out the oven and put in the one Marc recommended if we would move in prior to May 18th.  I’m not sure why that day was so urgent to him, but it doesn’t matter.  We now have a wonderful gas  oven that is 40cm wide.

The whole piece – oven, stove-top, fish grill – is state-of-the-art.  It has a sensor for pots so the gas can’t be left on too long, or cuts off in an earthquake.  It has true control of fire – and get this – battery backup in case of loss of power.

The battery backup!

The battery backup!

I can’t use my very largest roasting pan, and I can’t make a huge Thanksgiving turkey in this oven.  But beyond that, I can do everything I want to, and so far, it is pretty darn great.  I think we’re going to have a wonderful new life here – and now we’re really cooking!!

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

clock2Writing has been part of my life since I could first use a pencil and left scraps of paper all over my grandmother’s house – my “notes” – when I visited.  She said that from the time I was about six years old, cleaning up after I had spent time with her was entertaining. She never wondered what was on my mind – I wrote everything down. I planned on being a writer all the way through college and graduate school when I realized that I needed a day job to pay the bills.  I resisted teaching for a long while because it was sort of my “family business” – Mom still teaches elementary school (finishing her 46th classroom!), my father was on the board of education for years, my uncle teaches law, another uncle was the vice-chancellor of a big university, and even my grandmother was assistant superintendent of schools in a system in Connecticut when I was little.  I didn’t want any part of it.  I tried advertising, public relations and even a computer firm until I finally caved in and got a doctorate in English education and started teaching writing on the college level.

As any woman knows, balancing the demands and rewards of work and family is no easy feat.  When our family moved to Japan, I was lucky enough to find part time work at Temple University where I could teach two courses a semester and still have plenty of time to not only be a participatory mother, but even volunteer in the kids’ schools and never miss an event.  Adjunct teaching isn’t for everyone, but I was lucky enough to have a husband with a steady job so my career didn’t have to be primary and I could focus on the kids.

Babies tend to do this funny thing: they grow.  A lot.  Quickly.  Though it seems like only seconds ago I walked down a street holding the hands of a toddler and a kindergartener, my current reality has one child graduating from middle school and the other graduating from elementary school.  Yep, in a few short months I will be the parent of a high schooler and middle schooler.

More often than not, the kids are busy after school these days and not home until close to dinner time.  I don’t always have to go with them to these activities because many of them are associated with the school and they have busing.  So that leads me to the question of what I’m going to do next.  It’s an interesting question for any woman at any time, but in Japan, where I’m a trailing spouse, sometimes the issues seem insurmountable.  I don’t speak or read the language, and most Japanese companies don’t want a foreigner working for them anyway.  In addition, with my children’s school schedules, I want to be able to take them to the US for a long summer holiday so they can reconnect with our extended family and American roots.  I can’t take just any full time job, so the Temple University position, for just two semesters a year, is ideal.

Luckily, as a writer I have a lot of other options too.  There are blog posts to read and write, contests to enter, and even English-language magazines for which to write.  I’ll do another posting on writing vs. editing and the challenges therein, but this leads me to another point – focus.  I can’t do everything.  I have to pick what it is that’s important to me and focus on those things, otherwise I’ll do many things and none of them very well or successfully.

So now it’s time to raise the bar and figure out what it is that will claim my focus going forward.  Teaching will hopefully be part of the equation, but what I choose to write and how I choose to organize my time in the next few months remains to be seen.

One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that what I want to be when I grow up is not a static thing.  The idea of it can grow and change as I grow and change – emotionally, physically and even situationally.  That same grandmother who found my scraps of paper when I was little used to tell me, “when I stop learning, that’s how you’ll know I’m dead.” I subscribe to that theory. I’m not sure what exactly I want to be when I grow up, but figuring it out is a great journey

How Do You Want To Be When You’re Old?

My grandmother, Shirley Bernstein, bottom right, and the "girls" - her table-mates.

My grandmother, Shirley Bernstein, bottom right, and the “girls” – her table-mates.

Old, I have discovered lately, is a state of mind.  Look at these ladies here.  The one on the far right next to the empty chair is my grandmother.  She’s ninety and these are her buddies – her table-mates at the independent living establishment where they reside.  A few weeks ago I had the privilege of dining with them, and what an experience it was!  All of them are over eighty and living on their own in an apartment in the building.  They have dinner together in the building’s dining room nightly.  But it’s not just a cafeteria; this is a place where you’re required to dress for dinner.  No schlumpy jeans and t-shirt for this dining room.  Every night they dine on soup, salad, entree and desert.  And the apartments are regular apartments that anyone might live in.  My grandmother’s is a one-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom unit on the third floor.  It’s lovely and perfect for her.  She has someone in to clean, but she does most of her own laundry and gets herself meals other than dinner.  The dining room is open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch, so sometimes she lunches there, but mostly it’s just dinner.

I was visiting to give a speech that night about my experiences as an expat in Tokyo.  The place has a great auditorium and I was able to connect my laptop to the projector and give a Powerpoint presentation like at any other lecture hall I’ve attended.  The lecture was at 8pm, after dinner, and I didn’t know really what to expect, but there was a pretty good turnout – 40 or 50 people there.  But really, I learned more from these six women before the speech that evening than I could ever have presented to them.

Over dinner, these women acted just like me and my thirty and forty-something girlfriends.  They complained about men, they discussed fashion and shopping, and there were two condom jokes told, making us all roar in laughter.  I must admit that heads at other tables turned toward us to wonder why we were laughing so much and so hard!

This is just how I want to be when I get to be ninety, I decided.  All of them play either mah jong or bridge weekly.  They are active in local women’s organizations, and some of them, including my grandmother, volunteer in a local elementary school.  They care about their hair and makeup and clothing like anyone else.  They demand to be taken seriously, as well they should.  Each one of them is a formidable force in her own right with a good brain and thoughtful ideas.  So some of them, also including my grandmother, use a walker to keep them steady or take a catnap in the afternoon to refresh them.  They are all making the most of the opportunities afforded them at this time in their lives.  Of course it’s different and life is different for them now than it was twenty years ago, but truly, which one of us is the same as she was twenty years ago?

My grandmother, as I’ve mentioned before, has been my best friend for all of my forty-something years, and there are very few days that I don’t speak to her on the phone even though we live thousands and thousands of miles apart.  Somehow we both make the effort to keep our bond close and I don’t take it for granted. I know how lucky I am to have her in my life.  She’s the person who taught me to always strive to be my best self and for that, I am grateful.

I plan to be happy and forward-thinking well into my nineties, or as long as my health will allow me.  These ladies know the meaning of a life well-lived, and they continue living it with great gusto.  They’re my heroes and I love them all.

Multicultural Parties for Kids

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Right after the war, in 1945, a Jewish man named Ernie Solomon started an orphanage in Japan.  He had escaped Eastern Europe and came through Japan, living most of the rest of his life in Tokyo.  He saw a need for care for children who had lost their parents during the war, and he made it happen.  He and his family have supported the Wakabaryo orphanage ever since its inception.  A man with strong Jewish roots, Ernie always arranged for the Jewish Community of Japan to have a joint holiday party with the orphans and the children of the JCJ.  Ernie passed away two years ago, but the tradition continues.  This year, I had the opportunity to go to the orphanage with my children and it was a joyous holiday experience for everyone.

Everyone at Wakabaryo was truly excited to see the group of five adults (including the rabbi) and the ten kids who arrived around 6pm.  Like everywhere traditionally Japanese, we were instructed to first remove our shoes then go upstairs to the party room.  In the room stood about 30 young people and ten or so staff waiting to welcome us.  The tables were laden with cakes and other sweets and not one of the children, from the youngest (age 1 or so) to the teenagers touched any of it.  There were a few speeches welcoming us, and then a rousing rendition of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer in Japanese.  They asked each of our kids to introduce themselves, which they did in proper Japanese.  But for four of the Jewish kids, ours were not Japanese speakers, but they all take Japanese lessons, so they were able to tell everyone their names and ages in Japanese.  Then we got to eat the sweets.  Our kids really tried hard to interact with the Japanese kids.  Once again, I learned the lesson that silliness among children has no language barriers.

After eating, we cleared the tables and moved them out of the room so everyone could sit down and play the dreidel game.  It was 2012-12-06 07.09.10great fun to teach these kids about the game and its meaning – all in Japanese.  There were shrieks of laughter and even some boo-ing as the kids enjoyed the game together. Mr. Solomon’s widow gave each child a small gift and the children presented our JCJ kids with a small gift as well.  After a group picture, it was time for us to leave.

Those Japanese youngsters were so appreciative that they formed a line down the stairs and out the door to see us off properly.  There were shouts of “sayonara!” and even “see you!” from a few of the kids.  It was hard to leave.

The experience awed my own children.  It inspired feelings of gratitude and appreciation for all of their many gifts, including the large family that loves them so well.  But it also reminded them, as it did for me, that children are children, and games and celebrations transcend language and culture.  Add in holidays and special sweets, and there’s a recipe for instant friendship.  I hope this is the first of many visits.

Thanksgiving At My Home Away From Home

To an expat, the idea of “home” is very confusing.  It could be where you live currently, where you’re from, or even the last place you lived before moving to where you are now.  It just depends on the connections you’ve made or the roots you’ve set down. However, on a day like Thanksgiving, home is tied up in the memories of complex feelings and ideas as well as place.

For Americans, Thanksgiving is the truest of cultural holidays and memories are tied up in all sorts of ways.  For some people it’s their grandmother’s kitchen or the groaning table laden with food.  For others its the insistence about watching a football game that a favorite Uncle had after dinner.  Most people have some sort of memories about food, though – it’s a really common thread.  Whether it’s Mom’s turkey or the pecan vs. pumpkin pie debate, food plays a huge role in the event.

Yesterday I was over at White Smoke, which is a Texas barbeque place right in my Tokyo neighborhood. (As an aside, the food there is unbelievable – they smoke all of their meats with a Texas dry rub and the flavors are unreal.  My son, who is off from school, and I went for lunch.)  I got to chatting with the owner and he was telling me that they will have two seatings for Thanksgiving people with upwards of eighty people expected in the restaurant.  In a place where restaurants come and go with nerve-wracking frequency, I was glad to hear they were doing so well!  But I had to laugh when he told me proudly that he was making the “corn bread dressing” he had grown up with.  First off all, I’m from New England.  We call it stuffing, not dressing.  And corn-bread? Ew!  I like plain bread stuffing swimming in onions.  In fact, my sister-in-law taught me to make it with sauteed sausage in it.  Corn bread is fine to eat as its own side dish, but as  a base for stuffing?  Not for me, thanks.  But that’s his memory – his childhood Thanksgiving food memory is tied up in cornbread dressing, so of course that’s he is going to make it as an adult.

My childhood memories involve the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  My mom had it on ALL day in the kitchen as we ate breakfast and as she cooked the meal.  My aunt and uncle and cousins would arrive before noon because they would get a jump on traffic from New York to Connecticut by leaving at the crack of dawn and having breakfast on the road. Every now and then we’d pause in our bustling around to say, “Look! There’s Underdog” (always my favorite balloon) or “Wow, listen to that awesome marching band.”

Having made a number of meals this autumn for the Jewish holidays and having thrown two bar mitzvahs in the past three months, I have abdicated my hosting responsibilities.  We are going over to the Tokyo American Club with our friends.  These are not just any friends, I must note, though.  These are the friends with whom we have a standing Sunday night dinner date. These are the friends who I would call in any emergency.  These are the friends where the parents are close and the kids are all equally as close.  And most importantly, these are the friends for whom I am grateful daily for their place in our lives.  They are as close as we’re going to get to having family in a foreign country.

So while I am missing the Macy’s parade this morning, and I sent flowers to my dearest Auntie, who has my grandmother at her house, and I have already spoken with my mother and father, I am having my own Thanksgiving in Japan, halfway around the world from where I grew up.  I am thankful for the ability to create Thanksgiving memories for my children, and I am doubly thankful for the memories of my own holidays of my childhood.  I’m going to make it a great day.