How Did Cinderella Get Into Her Stepmother’s House in the First Place?

princess bookHow did Cinderella get into her stepmother’s house in the first place? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, then this book is for you. The Witch and the Baby Princess by David Rich is a fun, action packed explanation of Cinderella’s background along with the events that led up to the whole stepmother scenario.

More than just a prequel, however, this book is meant as a story for kids and parents to share. The author, an avid reader, active storyteller and involved father, didn’t want to just hand his daughters a book – he wanted to create something he could share with them and that they could read together, which is exactly what he has done.

This book does not have a big, glossy cover or thousands of pictures with a few words on each page. This is a full-on, meaty story. Oh, it has a bunch of really adorable illustrations, but that’s not the focus here. The focus is the story itself. It is meant for a parent and a child to sit down and read together. There are words in it that a child under twelve is not going to understand. There are concepts such as the shades of grey between good and evil, which parents should be excited to discuss with their children. The book is rife with big, tough topics such as friendship, love, beauty, goodness, envy, and expectations that are designed to spark good talks between children and the adults who love them.

What Rich has done is created a springboard for parents so that topics that can be hard to broach for adults and harder for kids to understand, become gentle and accessible for both parties.

The story itself is quaint, sweet, and lovingly told. In a land far away, a baby is born to a great witch, but the queen of the fairies does not want the baby to be evil and instills in the young girl a conscience and a particle of free will. What the child grows up to do and become, and how she uses her gifts in the context of her parents’ expectations of her becoming an evil witch, is the crux of the story. It’s easy to see how the idea of parental expectation is juxtaposed against the personality of the child – good lessons for parents and children alike. The characters are drawn with great care and attention to detail. At any moment I could “see” each person and the location as well due to the strong and exhaustive descriptions that only add, not detract, from the plot itself. Emotion is tended to with care and the plot moves along with a mix of action and feelings.

In a world where the bonds between children and their parents have become increasingly fractured, kudos to David Rich for creating a lovely story, as well as something to serve as a binder of families.

Hearts in February

hearts1Inspired by my friend Cathy Michaud, I am putting a heart on each of my kids’ doors for every day in February.  On the hearts I write something I love about them. 

As you probably know, I was away from the kids for more than six months due to my successful battle with lymphoma, so I wanted to do something special, something meaningful for them to remind them that I’m here, I’m here to stay and I lohearts2ve them.  Beyond that, though, being away has given me a little distance on the kids and I feel like I’m looking at them with fresh eyes.  These kids are not perfect, not even close!  But for an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, they’re pretty great people with a myriad of talents, ideas, and activities.  These hearts also serve to remind me of the things that make them special – to me and to others with whom they interact.  And it shows them specifically that they are valued by their dad and me. I continue to be grateful.

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

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.

Is There Such A Thing as Too Much Technology?

tin cans

My son’s computer is driving me crazy.  I know; it’s a machine and doesn’t have actual powers, but in this case, it really is making me nuts.

Bailey’s school, The American School in Japan (ASIJ) required him to have a brand new MacBook this fall.  We bought the top of the line machine, fully loaded, the best available.  He has to bring it to school every day and they use it in class for taking notes and for writing blog posts.  At home he uses it for research and homework purposes.

Bailey is taking Algebra, and about twice a month he has a “problem of the week” (POW) due.  However, it’s not just a math problem.  The way the teacher has structured it, Bailey has to do the math, then create a video of himself doing the math – or practicum – or whatever it is – and then has to prepare an audio as a voice-over to narrate the film, before uploading it all to his teacher.  I am fully in favor of technology in the classroom, and he has definitely learned a lot by doing this.  I’m just on the fence as to whether or not the math class is the right one in which to put the skills into practice.  This is something I’ve written about in the past.

But back to the actual computer.  This week, as he did his POW, he was chatting online with friends.  He watched sports videos between takes of his own videos.  Sometimes he even checked Facebook. There are so many distractions available!  On Monday night when he was working on a social studies project I moved my computer next to his so I could see precisely what he was doing any given second.

The school, however, has tied my hands.  I can’t take away the computer as a punishment if he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing.  It’s his learning tool and he needs it at school.  So if he wastes time being distracted, I have very little recourse besides simple nagging.  I would like to make it so he has to just sit and work, not have the distractions available, but I can’t do it.  I am having trouble teaching him about staying focused.

I am by no means a Luddite; I believe in using technology to the fullest.  But there has to be limits somewhere, and perhaps 8th grade is too young to expect kids to be in charge of themselves fully.  Focus, time-management, and study skills are things that do not come naturally; they need to be taught, and sometimes the computer is an impediment to that.

Please, if you have a different opinion, or a suggestion here, let me know.  I’m having trouble reconciling myself to my son’s dependence on technology and the issues implied therein.  Feel free to let me know what you think.

A Friday Special: Friends, Family and the Mikveh (A Hopeful Sign)

One of my favorite outlets for which to write is A Hopeful Sign.  All of the stories on it are full of interesting ideas and thoughts, all carrying the same thread of positivity.  In an increasingly negative world, its message is not just a breath of fresh air, but a full-on oxygen tank for navigating today’s confusing maze of a universe.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to be present at my friends’ daughters’ conversion at the Jewish Community of Japan.  My take on it from the AHS site is HERE.

I would prefer you click on the link above to see the proper site, but here’s the text of the piece anyway.  Enjoy

 

Running late, I hurried into the synagogue.  The rabbi met me downstairs and started explaining the whole process as we walked toward the mikveh. We had a conversion to complete.

A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath and it has a number of uses.  Women might immerse themselves in the mikveh monthly to purify themselves.  Some men and women use it for purification before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  In Orthodox communities, some people will go to the mikveh every week before the Sabbath.  Like most things in Judaism, there are very specific rules about the construction of the actual bath, including that a certain percentage of the water must be sourced from a flowing, natural base, such as rain water or a river.  The most common use, especially here in Tokyo, is for purposes of conversion.

Judaism is a matrilineal religion – if your mother is a Jew, then you’re a Jew.  When a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the children have to be converted.  In some communities, and in the Reform and Reconstructionist sects of Judaism in general, only one parent has to be Jewish in order for a child to be Jewish and have a bar mitzvah but problems can arise later if a child who has not been officially converted wants to either move to Israel or marry a very religious person.  So by “dipping” a kid in the mikveh, parents who intend to raise their kids as Jews are covering all bases with very little downside.

Some people might argue that a mikveh “dip” should happen before the child has awareness – around age one or two.  But there is another school of thought that says a child should be aware of what’s happening and have a little bit of say in the matter, so it should happen around age ten or eleven. There are definite pros and cons for both sides here, but in this particular case, the parents had waited.

We first met the K family in 2007 when we moved back to Tokyo after just two years in Washington DC.  Our kids went to school together at the lovely Montessori school nearby; both of their daughters are a year younger than my children.  In this case, the father is Jewish and the mother is not, but both parents are committed to raising their children as Jews.  I admire my darling friend G, the mom, for this; whereas it’s easy for me to do things like clean for Passover, or make certain ritual foods, for her it’s harder because she didn’t grow up with it.  To an outsider like me, it looks like she throws herself into it wholeheartedly, committed to her family as a unit, making it stronger in their united worship.

Our friendship, while often taking place in the synagogue or around Jewish holidays, expanded far beyond those events.  The adults would go out for dinner; the kids would have play-dates and sleepovers.  The dad is forever in my husband’s heart because he eats the same type of matzo ball as my husband does, which I make under protest every year just for the two of them.  After the earthquake, the older daughter ran a bike drive to collect bicycles for those in northern Japan who lost them in the quake.  I interviewed her for an article.  The younger daughter once came up to me, threw her arms around me and said, “YOU are my trusted adult.”  Clearly a lesson on safety had just happened at school, but regardless, I was honored to have that place in her life.  Our lives have been intertwined for the past five years.

And indeed it was the older daughter who presented the idea of the mikveh to her parents.  Just months away from her own bat mitzvah, she wanted to complete this ritual, and her sister wanted to join her.  My husband and I offered to help and be witnesses.  I was designated to be in the mikveh itself with the girls since I’m female and my husband would sign the certificate as a witness, based on my testimony.

So on that day, with their mom beside them and me kneeling next to the bath, first one daughter, then the other performed the ancient ritual of purity.  The girls had to come to the mikveh the same as the day they were born, so they could not wear jewelry or nail polish or any other adornment.  One at a time, they dunked completely under the water, every hair on their head, I said the blessing over them thanking God for the ritual, and they dunked two more times.  I signaled to the rabbi and witnesses that it was done, and the girls dressed.

After the papers were signed, all of us together went upstairs to the sanctuary and we opened the ark so the girls could go before the Torah for blessings.  The rabbi covered each girl’s head with his hands and murmured the traditional prayers.  He wished them both a life of Torah and good deeds and to grow in strength with the Jewish people.  The girls’ faces shone as they looked up at the rabbi who had been their teacher and their friend, and their parents who loved them.  The reverence was tangible in the air as the tears flowed freely down my face and my husband took my hand.

These girls and their parents, as I watched, embraced something that I take for granted.  They were able to reaffirm their commitment to Judaism and its faith and practice.  I was born a Jew, as was my husband, but they, as a family, were making this choice.  Likely, since they had already been living a Jewish life, their everyday existence would not be changed.  But that day was not one I will forget, nor will the K family.

Because we’re Jews and food is what we do, a celebratory dinner followed with the kids thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and the adults having so much fun that we nearly lost track of time.  The experiences we have shared as friends, as fellow expats in the Tokyo community, and as Jews will extend and expand over space and time.  There are some experiences and some people who stay with you in your heart forever regardless of geography.  Much love and thanks to the K family for sharing this experience, and your lives, with us.  We love you.

On Parents, Not Parenting

My parents left last night after a ten-day visit.  I was sorry to see them go, but the feelings were much more complex than just missing them.  There was a bit of relief to get my house back; a little sadness for my kids missing their grandparents; and a lot of deep nostalgia for my childhood, even though the visit was nothing like the way I grew up.

Like almost all adult parent-child relationships, mine is fraught with not just emotion, but emotional memory.  I have forty years of remembering my father’s quirky and wonderful habit of wearing cowboy boots with a suit.  When I see those boots, I am reminded of being a child and  young teen and pulling them off of him at the end of his long work-day.  Simply watching him don his shoes and take them off in my wholly Japanese genkan for ten days flooded the emotional memory part of my brain with the smell of rich leather. My mother is the most organized and put together woman on the planet.  She makes me, the consummate planner, feel like a slacker.  So instead of being grateful that she was showered and ready for the day (leaving the shower free for others to use) at 7:30am, at least two hours before we planned to leave, I got annoyed and felt like she was taunting me for being late or lazy,  neither of which is remotely true, nor was she taunting.  But, as a child, I was late and lazy until her lessons started sinking in post-college, so it’s old, outdated emotional memory that her early-ness triggered in me which made me automatically annoyed before I could think to be grateful.  Once I thought it through, of course I was pleased that she had been so prompt and thoughtful, but it took me a moment to remember that I’m no longer seventeen and entitled to that trigger.

Humans learn and grow every day and I’m pleased to report that my parents visit was a great one, full of new sights and adventures, as well as regular family time.  They got to attend the Tokyo Bar Mitzvah of their grandson, and meet all of my friends and the boy’s.  What my husband, the kids and I were able to show them in a concrete way, is that we have a warm and loving community in Tokyo.  While they are sad that their kids live so far away, I think they were gratified to know that we have such a rich, full life here.

What I see happening with my parents as they get older and so do I, is that our neural pathways continue to expand and we continue to learn about each other, with each other.  No one is perfect.  We all slip into old, unwanted and discarded patterns far too easily.  But we continue to make the effort to be together, enjoy each others company and plan future visits.  Emotional memory only extends so far; the future needs its own time to unfold.  Nurturing relationships requires work – all relationships require care and feeding – the good ones, anyway.  It’s worth the work.

My house is very quiet today as I’m in recovery mode and trying to get my proverbial house in order.  Without the quiet times we cannot fully appreciate the noisy times, however, so I am glad for the chance to move forward with my own to-do lists, writing and other tasks that did not get completed in the past week or so since they arrived.  We will see my parents again in December and I’m already looking forward to it.