Amazing Grace

Karen and Ra
That’s Karen raising her magnificent voice toward the sky. Ra is standing at the back.

When I walked into the theater last night, Karen and Ra were in the hallway outside the dressing rooms. Karen plays Miss Watson and has all the heart and soul you might expect in someone from Northern Ireland. Ra is the gentle giant who plays Jim the escaped slave.

When I walked into the theater last night, Karen and Ra were in the hallway outside the dressing rooms. They were singing Amazing Grace, a song I have always loved. Karen has the kind of voice that reaches inside you and turns you inside out and Ra’s is deep and warm and flows like the Mississippi River. Everything shy inside me turned to quivery jello. My first impulse was to smile and walk away, leaving them in peace.

When I walked into the theater last night, Karen and Ra, both of whom I liked instantly when I met then, were in the hallway outside the dressing rooms singing Amazing Grace. I joined in and sang it with them.

The jello melted.

Twain quote

There’s one more performance tonight and two tomorrow. Last chance!

Costumers Don’t Eat Gummy Bears

I sat in the auditorium for the final dress rehearsal of Tokyo International Players’ Big River. I was looking for costume problems, but instead of problems, I saw this.

blue dress

The dress, apron and cap, all made by me, were worn by a woman with one of the finest voices I’ve ever heard, the kind that enters your ears and then kisses your soul. And she is just one note in the score of talented people who orchestrate the life of this play.

When the rehearsal ended, I returned to the dungeon below the stage where we elves work our magic. Kazuko, Jeanette and I were consulting when a woman entered, bearing the largest bag of gummy bears I’d ever seen. She offered them to us but I smiled and said, “No, thank you. I don’t much care for gummy bears.” My colleagues nodded in solemn agreement. The woman narrowed her eyes and said, “You’re all costumers, aren’t you? Everyone else said yes.” We three exchanged glances that felt like a secret handshake.

I’m not sure what that says about costumers, but it reminds me that those of us below the stage are very much a part of the magic that happens on it. I am honored to be involved in this production.

Big River runs through Sunday evening. Definitely worth a look-see.

Sewing D’Lite

Through a series of coinkidinks and a quirk or two in the space-time continuum, I found myself volunteering to help out with costumes  for the Tokyo International Players’ upcoming production of Big River, a musical adaptation of the Huck Finn story set in 1840.

I felt pretty confident; I’d done costumes all through high school and college, even had a couple of professional gigs, so I dove right in, thinking it’s just like falling off a bicycle. You never forget, right?

First thing was to procure a sewing machine. I’d been wanting one anyway so went online and found what I thought would be good enough, the Janome Sew D’Lite for about $60.

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It is very important to remember that you get what you pay for. I sewed a couple of seams on a curtain for practice and the stupid thing jammed. And then jammed again. And again. In time, I found myself buried up to my neck in bits of thread as I tried to convince the D’Lite that it could, in fact, sew. When smoke started coming out of my ears, I put it back in its box and took it to the neighborhood Janome store where then nice lady took it apart and poked around inside, then put it back together, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with this machine except that it’s a pile of crap.”

Huh?

She pointed over her shoulder to where my Sew D’Lite’s twin brother was sitting. Next to him was a similar machine with a Hello Kitty design on it. The nice lady shrugged and said that it was a mass market model, not designed to sew through anything more challenging than a Kleenex. If I was intending to make costumes, she said, I’d need a professional quality machine. And then she recommended a $600 model.

Uh…let me think about it…not.

Instead I went back online and found a Singer for about $150. My mom had a Singer zigzag machine she won in a lottery and used to teach me. Among my childhood gender-appropriate toys was a Singer that only had one stitch, but it could sew through railroad ties. I’m not normally brand-loyal, but I have good Singer memories.

Ain’t she a beauty?

IMG_0927The next day, I met with the costumer who handed me a pile of cut fabric and a pattern…

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…for a prairie dress and apron.

When I got home, I laid the stuff out and had a brief but very convincing panic attack. “There was a time when I knew how to do this, but it’s been more than 30 years since I’ve even tried! Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. I don’t even know where to begin! I’m going to let everyone down and look like a total douche canoe. What was I thinking?”

But then I studied the pattern and saw words I hadn’t used in so many years: bodice, yoke, interfacing, raw edges, seam allowance, gather, pin, baste, stitch. A wave of memories rushed over me, memories of my mother passing on the wisdom her mother had passed to her.* My fingers began to remember how to manipulate fabric. I rediscovered the coordination among eyes and hands and foot that allowed the machine to run smoothly.

And then my senses came alive, hearing the contented hum of the sewing machine motor, smelling the warmth of freshly ironed fabric, feeling the brief but exquisite pain of a finger jabbed with a pin. The only thing that had changed from those happy childhood sensations was the need for magnifying glasses to thread the needle.

I can’t claim to have done a world class job, but I got it done and the world is now richer by one prairie dress and one apron. And through the process of creation, I realized that I spend too much of my life looking for what’s in it for me. It felt really good to do it for the sake of doing it, and in the end I got the satisfaction of seeing through a seemingly hopeless task and fulfilling a promise. I also got to explore a part of me that I’d nearly forgotten.

One more thing: I discovered something my mother didn’t teach me. A stuffed monkey makes a very good pin cushion indeed.

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*During the great depression, my grandmother worked as a seamstress at a department store in Chicago. As more and more people in her department got laid off, she learned how to do their jobs so she could keep hers, and in due time, she taught my mother what she knew: lost arts.

 

Two Years, Baby

It was exactly two years ago today that the last wisp of smoke sailed past my lips and snaked its poisonous path down my throat and into my undeserving lungs. Two years since I finally admitted what a dope I was being. Two years since I found the wisdom to forgive myself and start to move on.

The path to recovery has been long and difficult. Maybe the hardest part, but also the most fulfilling, was discovering that I wasn’t giving anything up. Instead I was finally earning my freedom, taking control of my life, finding strength I wasn’t sure I had.

Now the Nicodemon only rarely appears. When he does I quickly toss a muddy boot at his evil head. I can get through my work without getting twitchy. I wash my hair less often. Food is starting to taste better. I walk past designated smoking areas and see lost souls hunched over filthy ashtrays and almost feel sorry for them.

At long last, I am no longer a smoker who isn’t smoking. I am a non-smoker. I am free.

lady tree

Stasis

On the plus side, the sun is shining and  the sakura is popping.

On the minus side, I’m stuck in a third basement studio all day.

On the plus side, this morning’s yoga was particularly pleasant, accompanied as it was by two fuzz  monkeys rasseling in the corner, and neither of them peed in the bed today.

On the minus side, my knees hurt and my claustrophobia won’t let me ride in the coffin-sized elevator so walking down the stairs to the studio was hard.

On the plus side, I’m getting paid to sit on this comfortable couch and share these thoughts with you.

Also on the plus side, I discovered this morning that they’re finally changing the name of my bus stop. I doubt you can begin to grasp how humiliating it is to get off at Nichidaiseibutsushigenkagakubumae. As of April 1, it will be simply Nichidaimae.

For some reason, this makes me very happy.

Nichidai

I assume this is not an April Fool’s joke. I sincerely doubt the bus people have that  much of a sense of humor. Bus stop naming is serious business, after all.

So all in all, the plus side wins. Yay!

Monkey Boy

 

I went to the zoo the other day. There I saw some playful, chattering lemurs. Suddenly I understood where Monkey Boy’s stolen tail and squeaky voice had come from and why it felt so natural to call him Monkey Boy. Unless something more sinister was afoot, his mother had been doing some ethically questionable monkeying around (ahem) with the gene pool. Mystery solved. Sigh of relief…maybe.

And then yesterday morning, purely by coincidence, I finished both Adriene’s 30 Day Yoga Camp and a Headspace 10 day guided meditation on Change.

Things are changing, in some good ways and some bad. Change is rarely easy. It’s unfamiliar, scary, invasive, sometimes violent but it’s also the thing that keeps the heart pumping and the synapses snapping. And like warm cake fresh from the oven, daily yoga makes everything better. Overall, there is stasis. The good is counterbalanced by the bad and vice versa. I keep making efforts to tip the scales toward the former. So to that end, here are some positive thoughts:

The sun is shining
the sakura is about to blossom
and the oatmeal isn’t lumpy.

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Cheesy Pencil

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The Setagaya Art Museum is doing a special exhibition called Pleasure in the History of Fashion. It features a bunch of historical prints of Western fashions from the 16th to 20th centuries. The prints are complimented by actual clothes, mostly dresses, from the Kobe Fashion Museum Collection.

I didn’t care much about the prints, but loved looking at the dresses. I know a fair amount about the history of women’s fashion; I studied it in college and have always found it fascinating. There was a time when I could look at a dress and tell you when it was made to within a decade.

There were no barriers or glass partitions or any other sort of security that I could see. The clothes were so close one could lean forward and touch them, or at least get a really close-up view. There were silk and satin, velvet and taffeta, brocade and lace. I saw panniers and hoop skirts and corsets and bustles, tassels and bows and embroidery and ruffles. There was a woolen one piece bathing costume from the 1920’s. A Marie Antoinette-type get-up featured a three foot high white wig festooned with pearls and silk flowers and feathers and ribbons. The woman who wore it must have had to squat to get through doorways.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing was the (replica) robes Napoleon and Josephine wore for their coronation. They were blood red silk satin and silk velvet trimmed with gold thread, ermine, silver and zircon. Quite stunning, so I asked if I could take a picture.

“No!”

OK. But I wanted to remember the details so I pulled out my trusty notepad and pen. The woman swooped forward thrusting a cheesy plastic pencil at me, the kind you use to write down your scores at miniature golf.

“Pencil only! No pen!”

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I can’t imagine why I wasn’t allowed to use my pen. Perhaps they thought I would go berserk and doodle a mustache on poor Josephine. At any rate, this is Japan and there are rules and sometimes it’s best to just shrug it off and use the cheesy pencil. I may even make that a mantra. Whenever I get frustrated I will take a deep breath and use the cheesy pencil.

The iPhone Revolution

The little mechanical monster has been in my life for exactly one day longer than the little fuzzy monster. Both have had profound effects.

Once he finally stopped peeing in the bed, Monkey Boy began to curl himself around my heart and now has a pretty firm grip. The phone has proven to be both a bane and a boon, but more boon than bane. Case in point: lunch today at Royal Host.

RH

Problem:
Four tables of young women with small children all competing to see who could scream the loudest. The only single adult was the man at the next table who couldn’t stop blowing his nose.

Solution:
iPhone, earphones, and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter”. LOUD. Foul mood to fair in under 30 seconds.

Conclusion:
The phone exists to serve me. I am the Goddess.

Five Years Later

Earthquake tree

The afternoon of March 11, 2011 was pleasant enough. The weather was mild and I had spent some time at the gym. I was on my bicycle pedaling home when the world started to shake. It didn’t stop for a really long time, off and on for days and days that melted into weeks and months of aftershocks. (Details from my perspective are available on my earthquake blog or in magazine form at Shaken Up in Tokyo.) While all of that was quite frightening here in Tokyo, it was nothing compared to the unspeakable devastation caused not by the earthquake but by the following tsunami that hit the Tohoku region up north. Five years later, thousands are still living in temporary housing and only a tiny dent has been made in reconstruction.

In April of 2015, I was with a group of people a few days after the massive quake in Nepal. Some of them were bitching about how the Nepalese government hadn’t prepared enough for the crisis. I said softly, “You can’t prepare for a major earthquake.” One of them turned to me, smirking, and said, “Yes, you can.”

I turned away, stunned, feeling like I’d been kicked in the gut. I wanted to say, “Japan has some of the planet’s most sophisticated earthquake prediction technology. The greatest experts in the field have concluded definitively that it is just not possible to predict a quake. Mother Nature will not be pinned down that way. Since it is not possible to know where or when a quake may strike, or how big it will be or whether or not it will cause a tsunami, it is not possible to prepare for a major quake.”

Instead, my generous side told me he probably wasn’t really aware of what had happened here and couldn’t know what I and so many others had lived through. I do admit, though, that at the same time, my less generous side wanted to gently remove the frosted cocktail from his hand and pour it over his smug face.

What I learned from this experience:

1) Whenever possible, be kind. I know it’s not always possible; I’m no Dalai Lama. But you can’t know what kind of pain the person standing in front of you is carrying with them and you should never assume they aren’t. Dead baby jokes are funny until you tell one to someone who’s lost a child.

2) When you don’t know what you’re talking about, shut the fuck up.

Penguins and Prairie Dogs

The journey from home to the studio is just over 16km, which doesn’t sound like much, but if you think about the number of streets and buildings and vehicles and bikes and dogs and feet the trains pass under in that distance, the numbers get overwhelming pretty quickly. Add to that the trains were running late so the platform was human gridlock. She  had to wait for two trains to pass before she could even descend the staircase.

Space is plentiful in a sardine can compared to the crush of humanity inside the cars. The man crammed against her chest has beads of sweat on his upper lip. Someone smelled of mothballs, another of garlic, but worst of all is the tobacco stench, which curls its hateful fingers into her nostrils no matter which direction she turns her head.

The train lurches and rattles. The bodies getting on and getting off press against each other, each determined to reach its destination, oblivious to the others. The pain begins in her feet and slowly travels to her knees, intensifying as the journey lengthens. Tears threaten.

And then, at long last, train arrives at the station and she makes her way to the street. She passes through an elegant bamboo gate…

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…into a wonderland where she is greeted by sophisticated penguins…

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…and prairie dogs rise out of the pavement to greet the warmth of the sun.

prairie dog

She indulges herself in a celebration of this magical world, then takes a deep breath and turns her footsteps toward the studio, the work, the people, drawing strength from the electric fibers in the threads that bind the universe.

Sometimes a moment of recharge is all it takes.

 

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