“My cheese stick is missing! My mom always packs one. What’s wrong with her?” muffles 13-year-old Kade, sulking in the back corner of the spacious creative arts room. Surrounded by vibrant colors and abstract shapes of adolescent attempts at pottery, Kade is sulking. His shape and color take on somber notes of muted grays, hunched shoulders, and a bleak outlook on the next 20 minutes of his life. “How can I write under these conditions?”
Kade is a newly 13-year-old at the American School in Japan, a private American school in Tokyo. He is small for 13; bones like a fragile bird and a disposition to match. He is often fidgety and walks with his small shoulders hunched into a frame for his ever-present frown. Kade’s delicate neck is constantly cloaked in a understated scarf, wrapped carefully to protect his vulnerability. The scarf is a stark contrast to the evergreen tracksuit he wears most days. A white stripe stretches from shoulder to ankle. He takes on his Hemingway-like demander, as he sits in the corner, staring at a blank page, ruminating on the latest chapter of his memoir. The steaming cup of tea at his side provides little comfort without its’ cheese stick companion. It’s little miseries like this one that fuel Kade’s pursuit to write, “The best pre-teen memoir ever written.”
Kade finds it difficult to connect with his peers and prefers the company of adults. “The kids are ok I guess. I don’t really pay attention to them but sometimes I use them as characters in my stories.” A keen observer of the world around him, Kade finds misery in even the smallest moments. He comes from a broken home, so it’s easy to see why he’s got such a gloomy temperament. Despite that, he manages to mold his daily tragedies into seed ideas that grow into evergreen trees. His writing is timeless and poignant.
I glanced up at my teacher, holding the small object in my hands. I felt along its edges, and smiled, “Thank you so much, I won’t ever forget about you.” The words felt dry as the world turned blurry. I blinked away the tears and walked out the door knowing I’d never see her again. I rolled the ceramic thing in my hands, rubbing along its cold, hard feathers. As we passed the baseball field, I held the bird up to the light and grinned. My expression of joy disappeared as quickly as it came. The precious bird slipped out of my hands and onto the ground. With a great shattering noise, I could feel my heart break in two.
For Kade, the world is a place that offers boundless disappointments; parents, teachers, and friends haven’t been all that stable for Kade over the years. “The only thing that’s never left me is my ideas. Those are endless.” He is a champion of the written word and carves each one with the careful craftsmanship of a master carpenter. His poems, memoirs, and personal essays shed light into his dark world:.
Sobbing, I held up the two pieces.
“I’m sure we could just super-glue the pieces back together,” My mom said, reaching over into the cabinet. I didn’t believe her, but she proceeded to pull out a tube of superglue. She applied it gently onto the head and neck. Pressing the pieces together, I held the chicken in my hands, examining the damage I had done. A thin crack along the neck, and many bits of chipped glazing. It was changed. Altered at my hand. My mother’s “surgery” would have to do. It would do. It had to.
While Kade’s writing is rarely upbeat, it is often tender. He leaves his reader with a sense that everything really will be ok. Through his writing we get to see the real Kade; the slumped shoulders, downturned mouth, pre-teen, and a boy on the cusp of manhood. He seeks answers to life’s great questions through his close companionship with the pen. Kade masterfully connects to the world around him in ways beyond his thirteen years. I shook my head. The chicken’s brown, clay interior stared back at me, seeming to taunt me, silently chastising me for doing such a thing. I wiped my cheeks, hastily putting the pieces into my bag, before sprinting down the hill, toward home. Broken like the chicken.
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.
“I love you,” he said as he took my face into his hands and kissed me. He looked at me in the way that transforms the rational world into one of fantasy. I was loved, cherished, wanted, and needed.
Abandomnent comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes. My abandonment came in the form of a gorgeous 32 year old man with chocolate brown eyes, a strong jaw line, and eyelashes for days. He had broad shoulders, the kind that make you feel small and safe, and a full head of black hair. Abandonment was beautiful and strong, and he was mine. We fell deeply in love. Crashing into it, letting the euphoria wash over us.
“What’s holding you back from finding love again?” My friends and family ask. “What’s blurrimg your focus?”
I no longer feel the sting of abandonment as immediately as I did the day he didn’t come back, but he’s still here. Lurking in the deep caverns of my heart, waiting. Buzzing in and out of my awareness, ready to swarm at anyone who dare disturb the fragile balance of the hive.
I want to be free of this fear; the startling notion that if I get too close, I’ll be left behind. Forgotten. Tossed aside for something better. It’s this fear, above all others, that creates obstacles in my life and prevents me from opening up and leading the life I’m meant to lead.
The Portuguise have a word for this sensation, Saudade. It means”an intimate feeling and mood caused by the longing for something absent that is being missed.” [The Dictionary from the Royal Galician Academy] I find myself fading into routine and feeling saudade for the life I want to live.
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.
A big part of my job is to inspire young minds to think and innovate and write and create. It’s great. I love that part of my job. The other, bigger part of my job is the part where I have to set all my agendas aside and just listen. One of those times was today:
“It’s cold today,” she said.
“It is. Really cold.” I muttered, peering over my computer screen at her round, worried face. “You ok?”
“No. Yes. Kind of I guess. I don’t know. No.” she replied.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, although I already knew. She’d been asked out by the most popular boy in the 7th grade and some of the other girls were jealous and dealing with their envy in ways only 13 year old girls can.
“So, you know that like Sam asked me out and like we did. I mean, people my age don’t go on dates right? So it wasn’t a date, it was just going to McDonald’s and whatever, but Jenny was there too and like she always talks because she’s like that and it was weird and I didn’t talk much to Sam because Jenny was dominating the conversation and she’s like my best friend and so it’s ok I guess. Or not. I don’t know.”
“Ok. So, you are upset that Jenny hi-jacked the conversation?”
“No! I mean, maybe a little, but that’s not what’s wrong.”
“Ok.” I gently replied. “What’s really wrong?”
“So, like, we all went out and then a few days later I learned that Heather asked Julie and Sam to dinner and they all went and I wasn’t invited and like Heather and Julie were whispering about it the next day in writing class and I didn’t know why they had invited Sam out to dinner. I mean I know that Heather and Sam are like good friends, so I don’t think they did it to hurt my feelings, but I kind of think that Heather likes Sam and so, ya.”
“Ok. So you are upset that Heather and Julie asked Sam to dinner after he had gone on a date with you. Is that right?”
“So, are you upset with Sam, or with Heather and Julie? Or both?”
“I guess Heather and Julie, but I don’t know why. I mean I shouldn’t be bothered that they asked Sam to dinner, they are friends. But it does bother me and hurts my feelings. Why do I care? Why did they do that? Why does this hurt my feelings? Should I worry?”
She looked at me with green eyes as big as saucers, and even though I am not a mother, I felt like one at that moment. All I wanted to do was sweep her into a hug and shelter her from the mean girls. But I didn’t. She didn’t need protection, she needed tools. Tools on how to manage hurt and betrayal and love and friends because she will be combating those demons her whole life. She needed to know that it’s ok to feel hurt and confused because being thirteen is all about being hurt and confused. She needed to know that she was feeling these things because her finely tuned emotional intuition was identifying something fishy. And when they identify something fishy it usually means something isn’t right.
“Well, that depends on what you want to worry about. Think about how you want to spend your energy. Do you want to devote energy to your relationship with Sam or spend time figuring out the motivations of jealous friends?”
“Obviously I want a good relationship with Sam. But I want the other girls to like me too. I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s tricky. Wanting people to like you is something everyone wants, but there comes a point at which you have to choose. Whose approval do you seek most and is that person worthy of your time and energy?”
She gazed at me again. This time her big eyes were full of determination.
“Sam. He’s worth it.”
“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind then.”
“Ya. For now.”
She paused before leaving the room, “Ms. Johnston?”
“Do you think my story of 13 will be as interesting as yours was?” she asked, with the honesty that only comes with youth.
“Honey,” I smiled, “your story of 13 is unfolding in the most astounding of ways. It will be, without a doubt, one of the most interesting stories of your life.”
“Ya, I guess. Thanks Ms. Johnston.”
After she left, I couldn’t help but think of my own story of 13. The twists, the turns, the awkward touches and glances. The weird teeth and hair. That annoying numbing feeling that comes with the ever shifting rift between wanting to stay little and wanting to be grown up. When I think about it, about my story of 13, I can’t help but be thankful for all the teachers who helped me through my awkwardness. Without them, I would not be the teacher I am today.
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.