“Oh ya? Come at me! See what happens!” I screeched at the top of my lungs. Hot anger pulsed like a Bollywood drum through my veins churning adrenaline into outright rage and hatred. If she dared to step any closer, I would charge at her; an angry bull aimed to kill.
There’s an unwritten rule in India when crossing the road: step into traffic, avoid eye contact, and hope for the best. After 3 years, I’d become skilled at avoiding chickens, cows, steaming piles of feces (animal and human), ox carts brimming with colorful fruits, rickety bicycles balancing eggs, auto rickshaws, motorbikes, racing street children, and the occasional automobile; usually air conditioned, closed to the outside world, always driven by an upper class Mumbaikar.
“Wait for me!” I hollered at my friend as I squeezed my way across the busy road. One foot into the lane and I was immediately pinned between an ancient, yellow rickshaw and a shiny, black Audi with tinted windows; the kind that is air-conditioned and closed off to the world.
“What the hell?” I’m walking here!” I shouted over the din at the tinted window. Sweat dripping from my brow as I pleaded to be let free gesturing toward the tinted window, hands outstretched. I even threw in an authentic Indian head-bobble, you know, to show cultural empathy.
A middle-aged woman, whose husband obviously made a healthy income, probably illegally, peeked her head out the window. She was dressed in a lime-green sari, sapphire crystals dripping from her earlobes. If she weren’t scowling and waving her fists, she may have been beautiful. As it was, the dusty orange glow of sunset cast her in the light of Shiva rising from the depths of hell.
“Why are you crossing da road here, it is waaaay too busy. You are too stupid to see that. Mother-chode, idiot Americans tink you own da world ha! Stupid!”
This is unusual. I thought. I;’ve only been addressed this way when I won’t give the street kids money. How am I going to play this? She’s clearly upset, and I made her feel that way. On the other hand, she called me an idiot and I can’t just stand here and let that happen. I have to stand up for myself. What’s the worst that could happen?
“Look lady, I’m not trying to ruin your day here, I am just trying to cross the road. I would really appreciate it if you’d unpin me.”
Hooooooonnnnnnnkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk! She blared her horn, maintaining her icy gaze.
“Seriously? You’ve already busted my kneecaps, you want to bust my ear drums too? What the hell?”
“You idiot fucking American, coming to Mumbai to find yourself? How do you find yourself now bitch?”
“Wow. Ok. This is clearly not your day. I can assure you that I am not a mother-chode American intent on ruining your life, but if you do not unpin me I will damage your car.” I balled my fists into bullets aimed and poised. “Your choice.“
The Audi inched closer, crippling my stance. WHAM! I launched my fist onto the hood of the car, making a sizable dent.
“Hit me again! I dare you!” I spit at her barely hearing the advice of my friend imploring me to calm down, catch my breath and disengage. I fired another fist into the Audi’s hood.
“You bitch!” She hollered, “You’ve dented my car! Wait until I get out of this car and show you what dented knees look like!”
“Oh ya? Come at me! See what happens!”
She opened her door to step out, but stopped. We stared at each other, hotly, seething in hatred, fear, anger, and racism. Eventually she turned, flipped the bird, called me a mother-chode idiot American, got back into her car and released me.
I fell into the arms of my friend and wept. I cried out all the anger and hatred, all the filth of India, the sickness, the noise, the dust, the smells, the poverty, the racism, all of it. I cried out everything I didn’t have the strength to face. I had become an angry human, unbalanced, and judgmental. I knew it was time to change. Shiva, the destroyer is a highly regarded God to Hindus. They believe the only way to rebuild is to first destroy. Shiva destroyed me that day, and I am forever grateful to her.
It’s Major League Baseball playoff season in the United States. This means my dad is anchored to his red leather lounge chair; computer in one hand, television remote in the other. Donned from head to toe in orange and black (go O’s) he anxiously awaits the first pitch. Sinking deeper into the supple leather that cradles his despair as he watches his beloved team lose to the Yankees. Again.
My dad knew, long ago, why he woke up in the morning. Baseball. Specifically, American League baseball. More specifically, the Baltimore Orioles. To him, freedom is beating the Yankees, but it’s also walking barefoot in the garden picking flowers for my mom. To him, freedom is retirement from a long and fruitful teaching career. That’s why he gets up every day: to enjoy the life he’s built.
So why do I get up every morning? What motivates me to open the comforting chrysalis of my bed and stretch my wings? It’s hard to pinpoint. Some days, it’s the anticipation of a new adventure: new people, new places, new experiences. Other days, it’s knowing that I don’t have to leave the house: yoga, tv, coffee on the big, red, comfy couch. Simply being home is freedom to me. Whether home is baseball or flowers. Yoga mat or airplane seat. Sliding into home means that I am free to be my authentic self. And it feels pretty great to leave Who, What, and I Don’t Know in the dust.
This weekend I was lucky enough to participate in a three-day intensive improv workshop with the insurmountably talented Rob Adler. As part of the exercise, he asked us to encapsulate our experience into words. “Reflect on the experience, ” he said. “Hold onto it by sharing it.” As much as I want to bask in the glow of the work we did as an ensemble and keep the work to myself, Rob is right. I have to open the box and let it out, it is the only way to hold onto it.
Seek the Encounter
What is the where?
the soft give of the laminate floor closing the space between our feet and it
squeaks of barefoot toes softly padding toward old friends
sense the space around us, dense, pliable, malleable
porous streams of people weaving themselves into my space
A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform a piece of writing in front of people. It was scary and exciting. I expected a few people, maybe 10, in a coffee shop who may or may not be interested in hearing my story. Instead, there were 150 people crammed into a small bar in mid-town Tokyo listening intently as I shared my writing.
I was slotted the second to last spot on a Sunday night and as the night wore on I worried more and more that the people in the audience would grow tired and leave. Actually, I secretly hoped they would. They stayed. When it was my turn, I pretended to be confident and took the stage, sounds of Alice in Chains’ epic ballad “Don`t Follow” pounding in my head. Breathed in. Breathed out. And shared my story:
Home, A story in 3 Acts
Act 1: The Fuckin’ Yankees
Slam! The screen door shuttered on it’s hinges. Causing the whole house to shake. Shocked by the tremor, my attention swiftly shifted from the Charles in Charge reruns I was watching to
to the screen door.
“The fuckin’ Yankees won again!” Dad announced. He’d just been outside, cleansing his chi. His doctor told him that he needed to walk barefoot in the garden to reduce his hypertension. He does this. Every summer evening. He carries with him, his one companion: A rusty old transistor radio. The one his father gave him after the war. Sounds of crackly a.m. radio baseball sneak out of Dad’s pocket as he enters the kitchen.
“I swear on my father’s grave, the Orioles’ ONE goal in life is to lose to the fuckin’ Yankees!”
“Hmmm” says my mother, calmly snapping peas at the kitchen sink. 40 years of marriage has taught her to react subtly when he is being irrational. Especially when it’s about sports. Especially, especially when those sports are the Baltimore Orioles.
“What happened this time?” She asked
“Derek Jeter, That`s what happened. They can’t seem to stop Derek “f-in” Jeter. ”
“Well, Maybe They will stop `em tomorrow.” I offered, one eye still on Charles.
Next to me my younger brother, Kevin, was too busy playing with his new guitar to care about the scuffle in the kitchen.
“One can dream,” Mom said turning her attention back to the peas.
This was our routine, my parents me. Dad would complain loudly about New York sporting teams and mom would hum show tunes to drown out the din. Kevin played guitar while I contemplated the latest episode of Growing Pains. That kitchen, with its mustard yellow walls and cherrywood cabinets is where we became a home and where I learned what it meant to be home. It is where I learned to love, negotiate, laugh, cry, and listen.
I grew up in sunny Colorado, riding bikes, climbing trees, building snowmen with my little brother, sprinting up mountains as fast as my legs could carry me. Its where I kissed the neighbor boy for the very first time and fell in love on my front lawn.
Summer days spent skipping stones into glassy mountain streams and evenings in dusty old theaters learning everything from Shakespeare to Rogers and Hammerstein.
Its where I learned how NOT to be a successful college student, and how to lie to my parents about being kicked out. Colorado is where I learned the word integrity the hard way, and that failures are stepping stones to success and not life ruining events. It’s where I learned that home is where they have to take you in no matter what. Because like The Rocky mountains, silent and majestic, home is a place for new beginnings and fresh starts.
Act 2: What`s that smell?
“Woah. What the hell is that?” I asked as I stepped off the plane into the dense heat soaked Bombay summer.
“Nothing mad`am. Burning trash only.” he said with a dismissive wiggle of his head.
“Oh.” I replied. But I wasn’t convinced. I’d never smelled anything like it before. It smelled like steamy old rotten bananas mixed with the sour blood of a freshly slaughtered goat.
India is like that; It’s an assault to the senses. We made our way through the busy airport and after only 2.5 hours of waiting for luggage we were finally set free into the steaming buzzing streets of Mumbai.
He turned, looked at me, and with arms wide open he breathed, “Welcome home mad`am.”
“Thank you, Suraj.” I canted.
It hit me then.
This is home?Where the pollution-soaked-sun casts long shadows of overstuffed rickshaws busily buzzing people and sugarcane and cows?
Where Ravens the size of small children incessantly chatter and debate about who gets the last morsel of decapitated rat?
And where limbless people writhe and spill onto dirty dusty roads fighting street dogs for discarded bits of chicken biryani?
“This can’t be home.” I thought. “I won`t survive here.”
And I almost didn`t.
One year and three months into India, I was diagnosed with Typhoid fever. Like American Civil War typhoid Mary contamination thousands of people typhoid fever. I’d managed to contract the disease even though I’d had the vaccination. My doctor, Dr. Ajit Sadi, “it’s like this Andrea. A vaccine is like a small umbrella in monsoon. You’ll still be getting wet, but you won’t get as wet.”
The hospital became my home that week. The nurses my sisters, the doctors my parents. It wasn’t so bad. There were catered meals and wifi. But I was glad when it was time to unhook the iv be discharged back my real life into my real home. Unfortunately, three weeks later, I stumbled into the hospital again. This time it was encephalitis. The scary kind. The kind that kills people.
“Welcome home, Andrea! We cannot keep you away!”
I would’ve smiled, but it hurt to move.
“Come. We’ve two new nurses just learning how to insert IV’s. They are very excited to meet you.”
“Perfect! You know how much I enjoy needles. This should be fun.” I said, mustering as much sarcasm as I could through the encephalitic fog.
“What a good attitude you’ve got Andrea. India has kept well,”
And he was right. Despite two deadly illnesses and countless rounds of antibiotics India was keeping me well, because it’s there that Ilearned how to build a home. How to create my own family. I molded important relationships with the shoe guy and the ice guy and the knife walla, the coconut lady, and the fruit guy, and the little kid who sold gum and old Bollywood playing cards. I grew attached the giant fruit bat family that lived in a tree by my window and the fleet of stray dogs who stood guard every night.
India is where I learned to embrace heat, and noise, and how to celebrate multiple deities, seemingly every weekend singning, “Om Gan Gana pata ye Namo Namah…shri sidd tviyak namo namaha ashta vinaiyak namo nahama ganpatti bapa morya…” It is where I learned to steer myself around noisy firecrackers, and goats, cows, dogs, burning piles of garbage, people, people, shit,more people, chickens, crows, more shit, bats, palm trees, discarded bits of goat, elaborate wedding processions, and even the occasional elephant.
The heart pounding deafening drum beats that echo down the dusty cobblestone lanes became my pulse. India was my heart. It’s where I learned how to really, truly, love being surrounded by the best of humanity.
And worst of humanity.
Because India, that is where I learned the truth about corruption. And blatant bigotry. And racism. And rage.
So much rage.
My home was becoming hostile and turning me into a person I didn’t recognize. One who became irrationally upset with tiny-insignificant things. So irrational that when doors were slammed, they rattled the whole house. I knew that as much as I loved India, and as much as I wanted our relationship to work, we weren`t healthy together. So with a heavy heart I broke up with home sought younger, fresher pastures.
Act 3: Silent Sardines
“Do you hear that?” he whispered
“What? I don’t hear anything,” she replied.
“That. There. Listen.” He said, tilting his head toward a distant sound.
They let the silence sit between them for a while before she reached over to him.
“I miss India.” she said.
“I know you do. But this is home now. You’ll get used to it.”
“When you wake up.”
“When you wake up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean, when you wake up from dream you are in, you will get used to Tokyo. You will adjust to the silence. You will learn to embrace the cold compartmentalized disinterested public and you will see that it is respect for your space and not you being snubbed.
You will learn to love clean air, blue skies and pouty pink blossoms in spring. You will learn to love balls of rice and seaweed and riding your bike on vacant streets in below freezing weather. The rocking hum of tightly packed tin trains carting silent sardines downstream will start to feel safe. Like a communal hug. Silent swarms of silverly salary men and new moms with tiny button babies that rock and sway in the ebb and flow of the foot traffic, will carry you with them if you let them.
Home calls to you when you hear the train conductor whisper, “Kichijoji, Kichijoji desu.” When you wake up and realize that you made this move on purpose. That just because you shifted locations doesn’t mean you shifted homes. Open your eyes and look around and you will find that home has been here all along. It’s in the song of the mountains and the laughter of school children being called inside with the sweet tune of home. It’s the trees you climb in Nogawa park and the Indian wool blanket you wrap up in at night. It’s in the 4:30 am sun rise and the dense heat of Tokyo Augusts. Home is the crack of the baseball bat when the pitcher for the Swallows gives up another base hit. It’s what you carried here from Colorado, and India.
Home is what you bring with you, and home is what you learn.
So wake up!
Stop fighting, and see it.
It’s waiting for you.
And those tremors you feel, those are probably just the fucking yankees.”
I finished reading. Swallowed back tears. Bolted from the stage directly to the bar where a cold gin and tonic was waiting for me. I didn’t hear the applause or see the partial standing ovation. People had to tell me about that later. I am glad I did it. Felt good to share a part of me with strangers, to get good feedback. The writing isn’t as polished as I want it to be, but I guess that is the nature of writing. It is cyclical. I will come back around to this piece, and when I do, I will find home waiting for me.
I love everything about baseball: The silent anticipation before each pitch. The smell of peanut shells being crushed under beer soaked hiking sandals. The crack of the bat as the pinch hitter poles a long one into deep left. Take Me Out To the Ballgame being softly chanted during the 7th inning stretch as young and old enjoy watching bloopers on the jumbo screen. The taste of a juicy hot-dog with just the right mix of green relish, spicy mustard, and sweet ketchup. The roar of the crowd at the double play in the top of the 8th to clinch a close win. Baseball players filling out their uniforms as only a baseball player can… I love it all.
Never one to claim to know “everything about baseball,” but someone who grew up with a super fan father, I felt confident in my abilities to follow the Japanese version of America’s Favorite Pastime. And I was right. Kind of.
The game of Japanese baseball is identical to it’s American parent, but the fan experience is something different entirely. There are cute baseball players of course, but there also cute cheerleaders (yes, cheerleaders). And cute cartoon bird mascots. Tiny, cute little mini-umbrellas opened only when a run is scored. Cute babies wrapped in cute hats shaped like cute baseballs and cute birds and cute cats and cute fish. Cute little tiny baseball bats that you bang together when something exciting happens on the field. Cute bento-boxes full of cute sushi rolls. Cute chairs not suitable for my cute American sized backside. It’s a lot of cute.
But it isn’t the cute that sets this experience apart. It’s the symphonious chanting: “Every time try! Every time try!” The pep-band playing peppy jingles that everyone knows by heart. Stands of people singing in unison celebrating base-hits, caught fly balls, stolen bases, base runs, line-drives. You name it, they celebrate it. I’ve never been to the championship football game between two big 10 colleges, but I can’t image anything being more raucous than this. It’s intoxicating.
I’ve never had more fun not watching a baseball game in my entire life. I have no idea what the final score was, but I know the home-team lost by a significant margin. And it wasn’t because I glanced at the score-board, it was because all the cacophonous joy that was being had, was had by the opposing team’s fans.
Do you remember those bracelets? You know the ones, WWJD? They were popular about 10 years ago, when the Jesus wave was reaching the dry shores of Greeley, Colorado. I mocked them then, thinking they were nothing more than a marketing scheme to get a young-fresh crowd of people into the pews. And they probably were. But the message they were meant to be spreading wasn’t too bad. And it finally reached me today.
Now don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not pondering what Jesus would do if his grandmother was dying because he likely would react the same way I am. No, what I mean is when I reflect on my short life and all that I’ve learned, I marvel at how much someone my grandmother’s age must know. In her lifetime, the United States of America lived through the Great Depression, helped win a world-war, put a man on the moon, produced one of the largest grossing electronic companies in the world, and elected a black president when only four years before her birth did women win the right to vote. It’s remarkable really, what can be measured in a lifetime.
My uncle alerted the family today that my grandmother, Virginia V. Johnston, isn’t doing so well. He is unsure of what the future holds for her and how much time she is choosing to stay on this Earth. So after my initial shock and a good cry, I focused my energy today on What Would Virginia Do?
When I rode past the chrysanthemum bush being carefully tended by its gardener this morning, I wondered WWVD? Would she wave hello? Stop and have a chat? Invite the gardner into her home for a spot of tea? Yes.
When I walked into my first period class with no motivation to interact with students due to some bad news I got earlier would she wallow and pout? No. Virginia would put on a smile, wrap them in a hug, and tell each and every one how special they are to her.
When I rode past the adorable school children huddled together bustling home from school would she snap a photo, or smile and say good afternoon? Yes.
I miss my grandmother. Every day. I miss the smell of her skin, and the softness of her touch. I miss how she opened her arms to every child she met as though it were her own. I miss how she stood up for herself when my grandfather was being unreasonable. I miss making strawberry jam on steamy North Carolina nights. I miss playing games in the living room by the fireplace that never hosted a fire. I miss the leather chair, still warm from her lap, that I curled up on as bed time approached. I miss the stories she would tell me about my dad as a little kid and the tiny treasures hidden around her house.
I miss her and I love her and I want to crawl into a hole and not come out for a long time. But that’s not what she would do. She would live. She would take a walk in the beautiful autumn weather. Or make some tea and read a book. She would go to her garden and tend to plants, or listen to the birds, or sing a song, or maybe all three of those things.
So that’s what I am going to do. Wipe the tears. Have a glass of beer, then tend to my garden with the care and love my grandmother would give her hydrangeas. I’ll listen to the crickets play their evening symphony and remember fondly the North Carolina nights I spent chasing fireflies with her. I’ll wave hello to the children passing by and give thanks to God for all he’s given me, because that’s What Virginia Would Do.
Love life. Be always grateful. Don’t waste time dwelling on things you cannot change. And live. That’s What Virginia Would Do.
There, beyond the Eucalyptus branch, sifting through the mist his figure sharpened as he approached.
Noticing nothing. Sharpening still.
His gait was, somehow labored as though the passing years had worn him away. Slightly limping from the uneven weight of the burden’s he’s born. And gently bent from the wind of a hundred secrets.
Promises kept. Promises broken.
Ancient hands curled carefully around each other. Slowly twisting all the memories lost into one song. One story. One moment. One reality that somehow slipped through his fingers until all that was left was… nothing. Nothing more than sweet smells of the past winding their scents into this place.
Whispers of who he was and who he is.
A ghost, thick with life and stories and children and lovers and hatred and betrayal and loyalty.
A hero, maybe? One who’s legacy is far from known. Forgotten even, once upon another time.
So, where I stand is where he was.
There, beyond the Eucalyptus branch, sifting through the mist, his figure softens as he fades.