Bailey’s Mix of Language

Well folks, I’m pleased to tell you that the whole bar mitzvah thing is officially over – Bailey has sent out his very last thank you note.  What I found fascinating, was that when appropriate, my American son wrote his thank you notes at least partially in Japanese.  This particular one here is special because it is to his private Japanese sensei with whom he has been working for four years.  Sensei bought Bailey the most appropriate and wonderful gift for his bar mitzvah: a Hanko.  A Hanko is a Japanese signature stamp.  It can be registered with the ward office when Bailey is fifteen, and he will be able to sign legal documents with it.  Marc and I have never bothered to get one; foreigners don’t have to, but Bailey has been given one.  Sensei also designed a kanji for him, and assigned it meaning as only she could, using the characters for Bay-Re and Rice, symbolic of an American, but talking about how the combination of the letters connotes ideas like bright and clever, which are very much in line with Bailey’s personality, according to her.  Our sensei is a very special person in our lives and this was an exciting coming-of-age gift for him.  It was no wonder that he wanted to write to her in a combination of the languages that they share.

Post Trick or Treat – or “Now What?” with Teens

My son, Bailey, is a young teen, having just turned 13 and in the 8th grade.  He and his friends, however, never ones to miss an opportunity to get free candy, put on costumes and hit the street,  just as they had for years on October 31st.  This time, though, they didn’t have parents or any other supervisors with them.  As I have mentioned before, Tokyo is a relatively safe place.  The biggest danger on Halloween here is getting hit by a car due to the swarms of kids on the streets and the refusal of the police to block off said streets to accommodate said kids.

Since we don’t have daylight savings here in Japan (another topic – don’t get me started) it gets dark by 5 already.  By 5:30 the boys were ready to meet up.  One of Bailey’s friends met him here at the house, and a few more would meet up with them at a nearby spot.  I had attempted to get food into the kids before heading out the door, but the excitement was too high – no one wanted to eat before candy-fest 2012.

I told Bailey that he should be home between 6:45 and 7pm at the latest.  An hour and a half of procuring candy should be enough, I felt.  The phone rang at 6:40 and my heart leaped into my throat.  Of course it was Bailey calling, but not for the reason I expected.  I had a whole speech ready about how he should come home and not be out later and he needed to get some decent food in him…blah, blah blah.

“Mom,” my son said, “We’re done and near the house.  Is it okay if the guys just come over to hang out for a while before they go home?”

This was my mother-dream come true.  Some people might not want a group of smelly, gangly boys in their house, but I can’t think of anything better.  To me, if the boys are in my house where I can see and hear them, then they are automatically not on the street and not getting into trouble.

“Sure,” I said. “I have lots of frozen pizza.  I’ll start heating it up now.”

There was a heartfelt “thanks, Mom” from my son before he severed the connection.

The boys came in, sat in the living room sorting candy, and then occupied the dining room to eat, once I had everything ready.  I put the food on the table and promptly removed myself.  I took a seat by my husband in the living room, and we had our backs to the boys, though with the open layout of the house, they could see us.  The kids ignored us, as we hoped they would, and kept talking.

They had some really funny conversations about girls, some pretty serious ones about soccer and then some talk of school.  When they finished eating, my son directed everyone to bring their plates and cups to the kitchen sink before they all repaired to the computer area to watch some funny videos.  My husband and I snuck back into the kitchen to eat our own dinner.  We were quiet as we listened to the videos the boys watched and then couldn’t help laughing at their hysterical laughter.

The boys were all out of the house before 8:15pm, having only been there about 90 minutes.  They all thanked me politely as they left.

Bailey shut the door on his friends, turned to me and said, “thanks, Mom.  That was great.”

“Bailey,” I told him, “you bring your friends here any time you want.  We’ll always have pizza in the freezer.”

My son is still just a young teen and has a lot of growing up and experimenting to do yet, but I feel that if we can start out this way, with him feeling comfortable bringing his friends around all the time, then we are headed in the right direction.  A lot of pizza and a little luck will hopefully get us through the teen years.

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.

The Bar Mitzvah Boy – On “A Hopeful Sign”

Photo by Fotik, all rights reserved.

This week I want to share with you my latest post on the e-zine “A Hopeful Sign.”  If you don’t know it, the site is truly beautiful, with posts from across the globe written by an interesting and dedicated group of people who think positively.  I have been writing for them and receiving their posts daily for about 18 months now, and every day I am awed by the incredible photography, hopeful messages, and fascinating ideas the writers share.

This piece is about Bailey’s bar mitzvah, and the way it connected us all to the past while allowing us to glimpse the future.  I look forward to hearing your comments.

Here’s the link to the site: http://ahopefulsign.com/making_a_difference/the-bar-mitzvah-boy

Please click the link, but if you would really prefer, the text is here:

I didn’t know that poised, confident young man who stood before the congregation leading the service.  He bore a strong resemblance to my 13-year-old son, but surely my child wasn’t as talented and engaging as this boy – or was he?

Strangely enough it was indeed my child up there.  Bailey, age thirteen, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah.  Literally translated, it means “son of the commandments” and it’s the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony that recognizes a boy’s entrance into adulthood in the eyes of world Jewry.  It generally involves leading a service and reading from the Torah, all in Hebrew.  So this is something for which Bailey had been studying for months.

The unusual part of Bailey’s bar mitzvah, however, is that he is doing it twice.  The first one was in August in the U.S. with our entire family, and the second one is in October with our Tokyo community.  It was important to Bailey to have this celebration with his extended family, all of whom are in the U.S., but also with his own friends, at his own synagogue, with the rabbi who had been teaching him for the past three years, even though that place was halfway across the globe. So while I kept on him to study, he was largely self-motivated, wanting to please his grandparents in the U.S. and his beloved rabbi in Tokyo, even if that meant learning two different services.

One of the beauties of Judaism is that the readings from the Torah are cyclical and proscribed.  I feel very comfortable knowing that every Jew around the world is reading the same section of the Torah on any given Saturday.  But given that parameter, it meant that Bailey would have to learn a different portion for the October bar mitzvah than the August one.  And still, he never batted an eyelash.

On this special day, Bailey carried with him, on his person, proof of his heritage.  He was wearing my grandfather’s mezuzah, a casing containing a special prayer, around his neck; he wore my other grandfather’s watch.  He wore my husband’s grandfather’s tie-tack, and as the icing on the cake, he wore his grandfather’s tallis, or prayer shawl, which his grandfather’s grandfather had worn to his bar mitzvah.  Bailey had a piece of ceremonial regalia from his great-great-grandfather.

Only moments before starting the service, Bailey had dragged me away from the gathering crowd to a private room where no one could see us.  “I can’t do it,” he said, and started to cry.  My first reaction, which thankfully I didn’t show, was panic.  Luckily rationality took over and I just held him and let him cry for a moment.  Any mother would tell you that sometimes all a kid needs is a good hug, not words or even treats.  Just a hug.  “It’s a lot of pressure,” I told him, hoping to validate his feelings.  “Do you want to do a quick run-through right this second?”

Bailey nodded and dried his eyes while I snuck out and retrieved his study materials.  We had a quick, ten-minute, last-second rehearsal right there.  When he was through, he stood up and looked straight at me.  He looked so dapper, that boy of mine.  He wore his first full-on suit, a blue striped shirt and a snazzy tie.  The shoes, straight from Nordstrom’s, tied the whole outfit together.

I searched his eyes as he looked at me. “You’re okay,” I said to him and he nodded.  I repeated it.  “You are okay.”

This boy, this baby of my heart, as I used to call him when he was little, stood up in front of 120 of our closest friends and family members and performed like a champ. No one would know that he had had a little meltdown only moments prior.  He sang with a rich, strong tone and spoke clearly without a waver to his voice.  He delivered his d’var Torah, a word of Torah that explained what he read and his interpretations of it, without missing a beat. He bantered lightly with the rabbi, and hugged his grandparents when they went up to share the sweet moment with him.

At times like these, it’s hard to recognize the sometimes-surly child who makes an appearance at the breakfast table each morning, or the scatterbrained kid who can never find all of the elements of a homework assignment at one time.  But it is moments like these that give us hope.  It is moments like these that connect us to the past, yet I could see a glimpse of the man my son has the potential to become.  In an increasingly cynical world where religion sometimes takes a backseat to other, more modern activities, watching a child take his place next to his ancestors as a young man proud of his heritage and ready to take on all of the rights and responsibilities thereof, is like receiving a gift of a vision of the future.

After the service, there was dinner and dancing, and Bailey danced like a brick wall had been lifted from his shoulders, as well he should have.  Joy, hope and pride all mixed together to form a twinkle in his eye and he whirled and played.  I have a feeling that I will recognize that twinkle many times in the years to come.  I cannot wait to watch.

On Being Done

Tuesday was my last day as a teacher at the International Secondary School.  Last week my son finished grade 7 and my daughter finished grade 4.  My writer’s brain searches for meaning in everything, so I can’t help but wonder what it all means – starting, finishing, seasons, changes – all of it.  But now, after two days of processing,   I don’t think it means all that much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are still milestones to mark, boxes to tick off, and occasions to note and celebrate, but maybe certain things do not have to be dwelled upon ad nauseum.  There are millions of books, articles, blog posts and poems written about startings and endings, and everything in between, but maybe it’s okay to just acknowledge the change and simply move on.

I’m saying this because we, as a society, have become fixated on these ideas.  Our kindergarteners graduate, our fifth graders graduate and our eighth graders graduate.  There is pomp and presents at every turn.  Maybe sometimes we have to just relax and move through things quietly.  Maybe sometimes we can stop and reflect quietly without a ticker-tape parade.

In Tokyo the expat community is contracting severely.  Banks are moving operations to other countries, as are various large firms, so many foreigners are moving not home, but to another place in order to keep their jobs.  So this year, not only is the year ending for the international schools, but with so many people moving, things will look very different when school re-opens in the fall.  Those of us staying are mourning the loss of their friends to whom we have been close and secretly wondering if they know something we don’t know.  But I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.  I want to let it all slide by me.  There’s nothing I can do about it, so I am avoiding the bigger parties and concentrating on spending one-on-one time with my friends who are leaving.  Normally I feel pretty excited at this time of year as I ready myself and the kids to take our long summer holiday in the U.S. But this year, I just want to quietly mark and pass the time.  I want to wish my friends well in their new lives, and prepare to move forward with my own.

There is something to be said for simple, quiet reflection.  Celebration and the special marking of the passage of time are all good in their place, but this year, I’m all about it the quiet reflection.

A Baby No Longer

This is a photo of the Baby of my Heart, as I have always called Bailey, at age one, nearly twelve years ago.  He loved boxes and would squeal with delight if he saw the UPS guy in our driveway.  It never mattered what the boxes contained; the boxes were the fun part.  As you can see, most often Bailey himself ended up in the box.

He has always been a talker, this boy of mine.  He talks through his feelings and ideas, and can give you the play-by-play of every baseball, basketball or soccer game in which he has ever played and scored.  This past week when he was away with a grade-seven trip to Izu, south of Tokyo, the house was wildly quiet.  He has also always been an independent and curious person, eager to explore the world and what it has to offer.  He never went through an attachment phase and he has never minded leaving my side to go to school, to a sleepover, or even sleep-away camp.  He is always happy to come home and holds on tight when he’s here, but leaving is not an issue.

So last night, after the three days away with very little sleeping, he went to bed early.  By 2:30am he was in my room, waking me up.  “I feel funny, Mom,” he said.  Well, it’s really to be expected, I explained.  Just as his body is changing through puberty, so is his brain.  Part of the issue was that when they were away near the beach, they were required to shake out their shoes lest there be a caterpillar in them – the biting type of bugs, and he was concerned that one might have gotten into his stuff that he brought home.  His bag, when he brought it into the house and opened it, exploded in a mass of wet and stink! I assured him that we had already thrown his entire bag into the laundry and there was not a bug in sight.  But then he went into the particulars of the social nuances of the week he had spent.  There was one kid on the trip who was a bully and no one liked him any better on the trip than they did at school.  There was one boy on the trip who is “different” – on the autism spectrum – and Bailey tried his best to include him with varying degrees of success.  He talked to and played card games with girls for the first time.  He was concerned that some of the teasing that occurred on the trip would be carried over back into school.  He feels glad that he has a lot of friends spread out over various social “groups” at school, but gets frustrated that the groups, which he is experiencing for the first time, exist at all.  He keeps asking why everyone can’t just sit together – why does he have to choose which group to sit with at lunch every day?

All of those questions and that information came out in the hour between 2:30 and 3:30am last night.  I didn’t say much – just listened and gave a few minor suggestions. Finally, as his talking slowed, I told him to just go to sleep.  Just stay there and go to sleep.  As he fell asleep and I stroked his hair, I assured him that he was normal. I told him I appreciated that he wanted to talk to me and that I would never say no to a conversation.  If he wanted me in the middle of the night, he should always come to get me – or his dad.  I did assure him that we are good for talking in the middle of the day, also, and at other times when we’re normally supposed to be awake.

The baby in the box is definitively out of the box and out in the real world these days.  In just three months he will be a teenager and I feel like we’re just at the start of the all the changes that are on the horizon.  It is going to be a wild ride, I am certain.  But I do realize that if I can get Bailey to keep talking to me, then we’re most likely going to get through it just fine.  I admire the young man he is becoming as much as I adored that little boy in the box.   Here  we go.

Growing Together – A Hopeful Sign

The following is a post that first appeared on the e-zine, A Hopeful Sign, for which I write monthly.  The site itself inspires me every day with its messages of positive living and the beauty of life.  Please look at it if you get a moment.

For me, the ability to process my life through language is one of my biggest gifts.  I write because it helps me make sense of the world around me.  Please enjoy this attempt to learn and grow as my children learn and grow.

For twelve years, my life has revolved around kids and kid activities. Even though I have usually worked at least part time, my first priority has always been the munchkins.  I’ve been involved with their schools, done charity work with them, had dinner with them almost every night (except book club nights – those are sacred) and fretted over every whim and trifle that has come into their lives.  However, about two weeks ago, I had a glimpse into my future – my kid-free future.

That week my daughter’s school had a few days off for a mid-winter holiday, or as it’s commonly called, a ski break.  I couldn’t get the days off from teaching, so I sent her with a good family friend on a community ski trip.  My son was headed to the Valentine’s Day dance on Friday night.  On Thursday, we got word that since the flu was so rampant in his school, they were cancelling the dance – too many pre-teens in close proximity to each other.  Of course my son was upset, but only for a minute.  He and his friend cooked up the idea of a double date to the movies.  We had discussed it a few days earlier and agreed that if the dance went well with the girl he was taking, that perhaps in a few weeks, he could ask her to the movies in a sort of group date.  After speaking with a few of the other mothers, we had all agreed that the plan was fine.  Well, the dance was not happening and I couldn’t think of a good reason why the group “date” thing would be okay in a few weeks, but not right that minute.  It was one of those parenting moments when it took all of my self-control not to shout, “I’m not ready!”

My husband has spent the balance of this winter working at a client site away from home, so he wasn’t in town at the time.  It was left to me to handle this date thing.  I got home from work at 5pm, and Bailey had to leave for the movies at about 5:30.  He had had a snack and planned to eat something at the theater.  He had some money in his pocket and was prepared to spend it on his own movie ticket as well as the girl’s.

A second or two after I got into the house, Bailey said, “Mom, Star Trek is on.  Can we sit on the couch for a few minutes to watch?”

Certainly I wasn’t going to refuse.  He actually sat right next to me on the couch, his legs touching mine.  Bailey is a snuggly kind of kid (don’t tell him I told you) and he leaned right up against me slouching a little so his head was on my shoulder.  I didn’t dare move a muscle; I just squeezed his leg a little.  I sat there with my son staring at the meaningless flickering images before me, going through all the moments in the past that led us here, to this day, to this moment.  The baby of my heart, as I had called him all his life, was becoming the young man I knew he could be, and he still stopped for a moment to put his head on his mother’s shoulder.

After about fifteen minutes, he jumped up suddenly, proclaiming that he really had to go if he wanted to be there on time.

I jumped into action with him, making sure he had his phone and his wallet in his pocket, and reminding him to come right home after the movie. Tokyo is an amazing city.  Without a moment’s hesitation I could let my twelve-year-old son head out to the movies on his own and wait for him to come back without worrying about his safety.  He promised, kissed me, and threw a vague “love you” over his shoulder in my general direction before zipping off down the street.

And I went back inside the house from my perch on the front stoop.  I shut the door.  I stood there staring at it for a second, and then, without warning, I sat down hard on the floor and burst into tears.

My husband was away on business, my daughter was up skiing, and my son had gone out on a movie date.  It was Friday night and I was home alone with nothing to do.

That’s what I mean about seeing into my future: the kids were busy and I would have to think up something to do all on my own.  There was no one to whom I was responsible for the next three plus hours and my time was my own to fill however I liked.

At first the idea of that much time alone felt scary.  I missed my babies. I missed the running after them, the picking up after them, and even, in a weak moment, bathing them.  I couldn’t help but think of the past few years of nightly homework patrol and activity shuffle.  All of that was eventually going to come to an end and for the first time I could picture that alternate reality.  Those two amazing kids would probably become amazing adults with whom I’d hopefully have a great relationship, but at some point, they would be on their own and I would have a different life.

It took me a few minutes to pick myself up off the floor.  It was cold down there, though, and the kitchen would be warmer.  Then I realized that I could eat the leftovers from the night before all by myself.  In fact, I could make popcorn and eat the whole bag.  Perhaps I could even put on a chick flick and stretch out on the long sofa that I was all mine for a few hours.  Wait a minute!  This wasn’t going to be all bad after all!  A long time ago, a friend once told me that the purpose of an education is so that you’re never bored.  I am almost never bored and I wouldn’t be bored or feel sorry for myself this night either.

When Bailey came home around 9:30, he found me watching the end of an episode of a crime show that I like.  I am always glad to see him, but not often that glad.  It had been a great time by myself, but I was ready to hear about how he didn’t eat much because his arm was occupied around the girl and how he had walked her home (she lives hear our house) first and that he couldn’t wait to do it again soon.  I heard that it was fun with the other friends and that he enjoyed the movie.

Foolishly I had thought that parenting only involved watching the children grow and change on a daily basis.  Before that night, I never thought about the changes in me in response to the growth of the children. But as with every move we’ve made or new job I’ve taken, I will now be aware of the need to be flexible and at times, maybe even reinvent myself.  It’s all part of the journey that my son – and daughter – and I are taking together.