Saturday, January 4, 2014


It's been almost a year since I posted anything to this blog.

So I'm trying something new. Please refer to the following site if you wish to trudge along with me on the writer's path:

As I am very technically challenged--the new site is a work-in-progress. Please bear with me until I figure out what a widget is.

Thank you so much for reading these past few years.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

At Sea

What day is it? St. Kitts. Tomorrow? Dominica. Here the days of the week are named for ports of call or sometimes for the state of arriving there. Sometimes it's simply At Sea. I like when it's At Sea. There's nothing to do but ride the elevators from deck to deck and wait for hunger to strike.  One can spend endless hours staring into the wake or trying to see the outlines of tropical islands in the distance.

I'd always thought of cruise ships as polluting menaces and destroyers of remote habitats. People who went on cruises, I believed, were those with few other options (or desires) for adventure. I'd been surprised when my husband decided to work on one as a musician. I tried to avoid the topic with some of my more environmentally-militant friends. I knew what they were thinking; I was thinking the same thing. Until my husband offered me a free cruise.

It's amazing how the idea of getting something for free can transform things. As does the idea of leaving the minus twenty temperatures and up-to-the-armpits snow of Hokkaido for the Caribbean Sea. In Japan, going on a cruise isn't something to be ashamed of--everyone I spoke to dreamed of cruising--it was the embodiment of a romantic and luxurious west. It was the Titanic before it sank and famous movie stars wearing silk scarves and striped jerseys. My neighbour gave me a black cocktail dress embellished with sequins and a matching beaded handbag. "You're going to need these," she explained.

And she was right. I need them on "formal night" when women get out their diamonds and men their bow ties. They dance to Big Band in the Grand Foyer and sip champagne while the sun sets in impossibly beautiful colours. I feel conflicted between my beliefs that all this is wrong and the desire to sit in the hot tub and gaze up at the stars.

The conflict doesn't last for long. The Caribbean sun, the aquamarine waters, the whole world bursting with colour--there's nothing to do but count my lucky stars. The cruise ship becomes a gentle kind of place where an elderly couple invites me for cocktails on their balcony while we sail away from Cartagena, where Monty from New York City drinks a dry martini while we listen to live jazz. It's a place of fluffy white Egyptian towels and chocolate dacquoise.

It's a place where being At Sea means drifting towards the unknown on a deck chair with a copy of Vogue. It's a place I could get used to--surrounded by an endless blue above and below--for once not caring if we ever arrive.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Origami Cranes

The leaves are changing. Today I venture out of the Ohtaki International Guest House to buy veggies from Hashimoto-san. As usual, he wants to give me things. First, it's a bag of carrots. Then, a melon. Yellow or red? he asks. I point to the smallest one but of course he chooses the largest.  I know such melons go for at least ten bucks a piece, so I try to buy more veggies even though I don't need them. Two kilos of eggplants. A gigantic hakusai cabbage. But every time I spend more money, he adds another gift. It's time to leave.

I drive to Seicomart. It's here you can buy anything from pizza-flavoured breadsticks to apricot sake. There's always a trucker or two perusing the porn mags (located beside the whisky and laundry detergent).  Now I have my very own Seicomart card and can rack up points. I've already won a white café au lait mug. Of course, I can't understand the rules for the point system or the gifts I'm eligible to win. I rely on the kindness of an elderly cashier to pass me mysterious slips of paper and gesture to tuck them away in my wallet. She's the same cashier who gave me a calendar last year. She's the same cashier I'm embarrassed around every time I buy a mini-bottle of red wine (which seems to be often these days).

I've always thought it takes a minimum of six months to feel at home anywhere, but that was before Japan. It's clear I'm a guest here—just as the sign above my front door proclaims. The Ohtaki International Guest House has become my refuge. It's here I can put on a pair of sweatpants and do what us foreigners like to do—be free.

If I've learned anything during this past year, it's that we in the west enjoy a freedom difficult to define.  Sure, there are rules to follow but they're pretty simple once you've learned them. Most can be mastered by Grade One. The rules here seem to become more and more complex as one enters different phases of life, or even just the different rooms of a house. The rules are as ancient and multi-faceted as an origami crane. It's the perfect place for those who thrive on tradition and routine and knowing what to expect.

But for those of a more spontaneous nature, repression sets in.  Repression makes you want to do crazy things. It makes you want to serve guacamole in the miso soup bowls. It makes you want to throw the toilet slippers in the garbage. It makes you want to ride your bike to work during a typhoon—heedless of your hair-do and freshly-pressed blouse. It makes you realize you didn't even know you were free once. 

Repression makes my neck tense. It makes me bow and shuffle. It makes me apologize before I even begin to speak. It makes me want to jump in a cold Canadian lake and float on my back all day looking up at the sky.

It's an interesting state of being. And it's also a choice. For I am still free, technically. There's nothing stopping me from booking the flight that's on sale right now from Tokyo to Bangkok.  Except for a fridge full of veggies and a melon. Every time I open the door, the kindness of Ohtaki stares back.
Surely they are trying to teach me something here. I am free to go, or I am free to find out what that may be.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dial 119

Some countries become characters in their own right. Before I left for India, a fellow waiter said: "Tell Mother India I say hello." I'd smiled politely, surprised this man in black so adept with a corkscrew was really a New Ager in disguise. But after a few months on the subcontinent, India became she. She became Mother. She enchanted and repelled, sheltered and shunned. She taught me what I didn't know I'd needed to learn. "Say hello to Mother India," I hear myself say to a friend en route to Delhi.

And now, there's Japan. Its status as a character in the saga of my life grows stronger every day. "Oh, Japan," a fellow English teacher sighs when she reads a billboard emblazoned with Japanglish: "Great looks. And brian, too." When I first arrived I'd found these errors humourous, even charming. That was during the honeymoon phase when Japan was as fresh and bright as the rising sun.

But now I sigh, too. I don't know why multi-billion yen companies can't afford a dictionary. I don't know why it's okay to clip fingernails at your desk but it's impolite to sneeze. Why the air conditioning is turned off to conserve energy but toilet seat warmers are set at full blast. Dial 119 instead of 911. Stop signs shaped like yield signs. A bed is a bed-o. A coat a coat-o. A cream puff is a choux crème but not pronounced the French way. "Shoe cream," my Japanese friend forces me to say. Black at weddings. Black at funerals. Black except when it's not black.

Oh, Japan—sometimes I just don't get you. And I suppose you don't get me. I sit like the cross-legged males rather than kneel. I forget to put on the toilet slippers. I can't pick up silken tofu with chopsticks. I walk while sucking candies. I put my hands in my pockets. I like butter. I like sitting in the sun. I tell stories of streets filled with cherry blossoms that no one celebrates with sake. Blossoms falling on parked cars and cyclists. I tell stories of waitressing and tree-planting and exploring the world. "You've been a waitress?" you ask.

Some days I just want to hate you. It would be easier if you weren't so darn nice. You come to my door with bouquets of lilies. Roses. Daffodils. You bake bread. You pick fresh asparagus. You stop me on a hiking trail and offer me onigiri. You give me a dozen pumpkins. You give me your mother's kimono. Your silver Tiffany heart. You call out to me—again and again—so full of heart-felt cheer: "Konnichiwa!" And I call back—sing the only four syllables I can pronounce with ease. And we smile then, in that place beyond geography and culture where another country becomes nothing more than someone you're supposed to meet.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Dragon

New Year's Day. Japan. 3:30 pm. Last night the temple bells rang 108 times to rid everyone of their 108 worldly sins. And now it's the Year of the Dragon. Friends send messages filled with inspirational quotes. The news reminds the Japanese of the plight of the tsunami survivors and warns the elderly of the hazards of mochi eating.

And here in Ohtaki-ku, the temperature lowers just enough to cause the snow to slide from the roof in dozens of mini-avalanches. I jump at each rumble then watch as it hits the already high drifts. Snow falling from roof. Obscuring the view of the volcano.

Maybe it's just snow. Or maybe it's 2011. It buries the ornamental cypress bushes, the clothesline pole, the tree trunks. I watch it pile higher and higher. The move from the cabin in the woods. The cat asleep in the sun. The wine drunk. The drive across three time zones. The books read. The canoe paddled. The forty presents opened. The corn husked. The flight to the other side of the world. The hike to the caldera. It all falls without ceremony in chunks of snow and ice.

And today on this first day of The Dragon, I prefer to let it all roar without me. I stay inside. I press the red button of the oil heater and brew a pot of tea. Tomorrow I will shovel it all away. Or try to. The last walk to White Creek. The first time my niece drove a car. The baby girl asleep on the porch swing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

It's All Japanese

The plane landed quite some time ago but I've simply been too busy to write. I've been busy learning how to drive in the opposite lane and read Japanese road signs. I've been trying to remember to flick on the indicators rather than the windshield wipers. I've been trying to remember that a flick up is left and a flick down is right. You can imagine a busy intersection in Date (pronounced Daté) City when it appears I'm simultaneously confused about the weather and what direction to go. But lately I'm confused the majority of the time. The expression "It's all Japanese to me" has never been so true.

Last week, I unwittingly invited a class of seventeen 8 year-olds and their teacher to Thanksgiving dinner. Luckily, one of the parents knew about us westerners. She called to confirm. Although I was busy hiking up a volcano at the time, she knew enough to cancel the event on my behalf. It's people like her that keep me from offending everyone. People that have managed to learn a new alphabet and writing system and speak our gibberish. They translate this new world for me. They tell me to take my shoes off at every entranceway (public buildings included) and put on a pair of communal slippers. They tell me not to poke my food with chopsticks. They tell me which foods contain squid mouth or chicken rump.

Luckily, my official position here is to teach English. People are very forgiving of the fact that after nearly two months I still can't count to five. They are entertained by my attempts to speak a language consisting of thousands of characters and a "complex system of honorifics."

I'm already so overwhelmed I'm considering remaining in the English bubble of my mind. I realize I've only travelled to countries that share my alphabet. In such places, my eye is lured to road signs, billboards and all other manner of written matter. I don't have a choice; my mind thinks letters are its friends. It wants to figure out what they have to say and be around them all the time. It's always been that way. You know the type--the child who reads the cereal box, the adult with a magazine rack by the toilet.

But, strangely, it's refreshing not to be distracted by words. The world has become mysterious again. I navigate the streets and aisles like a child. I hold up packages at A-COOP grocery store marvelling at texture, colour, scent. Sometimes, my adult English-conversation students catch me in such an act of unbridled curiousity. "I was going to say hello," they say, "but you looked very busy."

I am very busy. I'm busy getting to know a country from the letter up. I had thought Japan would be just like any other place I'd read and conquered. But how happy I am it isn't.

Maybe someday I'll discover what the large wooden sign I pass nearly every day is trying to say to me. It points to a dirt road that crosses a river and heads towards a volcano. I fantasize it's a sacred temple but maybe it's the local dump. My newfound innocence (or ignorance?) surely won't last (or will it?). But for now I wish to thank all those responsible for creating a writing system containing an estimated 50,000 characters. It's all Japanese and it's alright.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Return to Nomadism

What to keep and what to leave behind? Once again, the same objects make the cut: a chef's knife, camping gear, porcelain tea cups. And more. Too much more. For the past twenty years, my parents' house has become the repository of my lives lived. As I undergo the three Rs of this nomadic existence--reorganizing, reevaluating, reducing--I discover a woven bracelet from an orphaned child in Guatemala, a golden locket from my deceased grandmother. Nostalgia prevents me from becoming too ruthless. I had hoped to fit everything into my antique steamer trunk but now I realize my storage dreams were too practical.

The latest set of possessions has driven with me across British Columbia, Alberta, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and a large swath of Ontario. They have left their six-month repose in Lake Cowichan to await sentence in my parents' back shed. Some of them will travel with me on AC 0001 later this month bound for Hokkaido, Japan. Again--what to keep and what to leave behind?

You'd think someone who has moved twenty times in as many years would find this process simple. It isn't. Nothing makes sense anymore when you're dealing with so many years of memories spanning the globe and the heart. A picnic basket from Port Clements. An English mixing bowl. A pile of letters from Sébastien. Everything pleads its case. I can see why some people never move. It would be easier to buy stackable storage units and never look inside.

But inside I look, and there it is. The Garfield book, the drawing from my niece, the first poem I ever wrote. A photo of me when I was seven. Had my skin really been so flawless?

The return to nomadism has its price. I must accept that I am that girl of seven, sixteen, twenty-five--that girl who is now a forty-year old woman still storing stuff at her parents' house. She has travelled all over the world, she has experienced great love and great sorrow. Every object tells its tale and she listens. But then she must move on.