Saturday, March 26, 2011

Writing on the Muse Stream

Believing in impossible things may seem undoable, but actually it's all a matter of letting your imagination run free. For example, this morning long before breakfast while I, the Queen of Hearts, lay in bed pretending to be asleep while hoping that the King would roll his plump self out of bed and start the tea kettle, I quite easily believed that I was young and beautiful and would remain so for eternity.

That belief quite naturally led to the next. I believed I saw a giant golden spider weaving a gossamer web to catch my dreams. It took no effort at all to reach up, pluck the web, and watch shining notes of music, quite like a harp, dance across the dust motes toward my ears. When a few notes went astray I caught them on my tongue. Ah, sweeter than any honey made from even the rarest of orchids. I plucked the web again, just to see if what happened would be the same again.

Of course it wasn't the same at all. Without opening my eyes I could see the bright shards of mirror sparkles that shot in every direction, showering me with the fragrance of crushed citrus leaves and pewter cup rims.

It made no sense to lift my lids when I could so completely see and understand the beauty of the universe and the wonder of a life lived from birth onward to the point of finishing whatever destiny was pre-ordained.

The golden spider wove on and in and out until the dream web surrounded me and held me rocking in the rhythm of the tides. This way and that way, back and forth, as gentle as the moon going through phases from new to full.
(My thanks to Mark David Gerson and his book The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, inspiring writers to write on the Muse stream.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Japan has been on my mind. Besides donating money to relief efforts, is there anything I can do? I can tell you a brief anecdote about my experience in Japan that connects me with the nation and the people forever.


Loneliness. I didn’t know what loneliness felt like until 1968. Until then, family, friends, and familiar culture surrounded me at home, at school, at work. Everything changed in 1968 when I married Fred and flew to Japan to be an Army wife. Many thousands of miles separated me from all things familiar. My new home had sliding paper doors, straw mat floors, no curtains, no hot water, and, worst of all, no phone. I missed my family and my friends. I couldn’t work to pass the time; no Army wives could be employed unless they had teaching credentials. I had always worked – part-time jobs in high school and college, full-time as a social caseworker ever since. I missed work. I even missed my mother, and we had never gotten along very well. Real loneliness.

Fred worked days at Kuma Station and he took the car. We lived off-post and we had no American neighbors. I knew about ten words of Japanese. I bought a basket and walked to the local market every day like the Japanese wives. We nodded and bowed and smiled at each other.

Small Japanese children followed me on my outings. "Baby? Baby?" they asked.

I understood they wanted to play with my baby. But I didn’t have a baby. I should have had a baby; I was twenty-seven years old. Japanese women and American women were alike in that respect; the ticking of biological clocks started earlier in 1968.

"No baby," I replied, holding out empty hands and shrugging my shoulders. No, I’m alone. Day after day for ten hours a day, I’m alone.

Day to day loneliness hurt enough; I did not look forward to holidays when I missed family and friends even more. Fred shared my feelings of isolation -- the thought of staying home by ourselves depressed both of us. We decided we had to go somewhere and do something different. We asked our Japanese teacher for suggestions and he helped us make reservations at a small ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in the hot springs resort area of Lake Akan, a day’s drive from our home in Chitose on the northern island of Hokkaido.

The change of scene lifted our spirits. Lake Akan, a crater lake, is known for its rare ball-shaped algae species, the marimo. Left undisturbed, marimo can grow to the size of soccer balls. Bright emerald green, they glow like giant magical emeralds in the crystal waters. We rushed from attraction to attraction, giddy foreign tourists outsnapping the Japanese photographers.

Lake Akan nestles at the center of Ainu country. The Ainu culture dates back to the 13th Century. They are Japan’s indigenous people. We visited an Ainu village and bought several beautiful woodcarvings from their handicraft shops.

Late in the afternoon we checked into our ryokan. The hotel staff pantomimed the need to exchange our shoes for zori, thong sandals made of straw. In our room we found yukata (robes) laid out on the futon (bedding) and tea and sweets on the table. After enjoying a private onsen (hot spring bath) and a delicious meal served in our room in at least fourteen small covered dishes, we settled down on our private patio to enjoy the fresh breeze from the lake.

Darkness wrapped around us and we embraced, kissed, and whispered promises to have a baby. We gazed at the stars and out across the water. Against the skyline I thought I imagined the outline of a boat.

At that moment Fred whispered, "There’s a boat. And there’s another behind it. And another and another, can you see them?"

A parade of boats glided silently along the shoals, emerging from the shadows directly in front of our patio. All at once, fireworks burst from every boat. Skyrockets, chrysanthemums of light, exploded in poppety-pop-pop brilliance for a serendipitous exclamation point to the beginning of a new family and the end of my loneliness.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Are You Happy with Your Daycare?

I think it was her eyes that put me at ease. Big, round, and guileless, they reminded me of my daughter's best friend in third grade.

Before she tipped the dental chair back and lowered it to her working level, I caught a glimpse of a Christmas family photo on the desk: my dental hygienist, her husband, their preschool-age daughter, and their infant son. With the hope of having something to listen to besides the scrape of dental scaler against tooth enamel, I asked her if she was happy with her daycare.

Her body straightened as if spring-loaded, and she looked at me with surprising intensity.

"Yes," she said. "But I had doubts recently – which I will tell you about – but first I want to say that I'm very satisfied with my daycare."

I squiggled my head into the wedge of the headrest, folded my hands on my stomach, opened my mouth, and stared up at the bright glass lamp with its foil-wrapped handle.

"The same woman has taken care of my daughter all of her life – she's 2 ½ now – and I planned to continue with her after my son was born in August. It was the perfect situation – she had a daughter the same age as mine, and she was pregnant at the same time – gave birth in July. Then in October, just as I was getting ready to go back to work, the woman's mother called. At first I couldn't believe it. She called to tell me that my babysitter's husband had committed suicide."

The hygienist pulled mirror and scaler from my mouth. I looked into her round eyes, now luminous with sadness. "Oh no…." I said before the instruments returned to their work.

"Yes. Shocking. He was twenty-nine years old." She paused her scraping to reflect on the memory. "I didn't know what to think. I didn't know what to do." Her tools went back into my mouth. "I delayed going back to work – happy to – and I took care of her kids a few times so she could go to the social security office and that kind of thing."

The hygienist sat back again, too deep in thought to continue scouring my teeth. I didn't interrupt. When she returned to the present moment, she dug in with new enthusiasm.

"I don't know how she did it, but she held herself together. She had her kids to think of. I wondered how she would manage – would she lose her home – would she have to find a job? She didn't have any education beyond high school – what would she do?"

"Ung Ung," I said, blinking a message to express my empathy.

"Well, she decided to keep on providing daycare. At first I was a little worried, but she's been fine and it's been good for all of us to have continuity. My kids are the only ones she takes care of and I like that."

As she reached for a different tool, I had a chance to comment. "Did you find out why the husband killed himself?"

"No not really, but the woman's social worker suggested that it might have been postpartum depression."

I raised my eyebrows.

"I know – I had no idea postpartum depression could affect fathers. Of course right away I started to worry about my husband. He's fine, just fine, no problems."

The hygienist wiped my lips with a moist gauze pad and raised the chair to exit height. She put her hand on my shoulder with a gentle squeeze as if to thank me for listening. "All done here. Everything looks good. We'll keep watching that problem area on the upper right. See you in six months."