Category Archives: gratitude

Fairy Dust

I think one of the reasons that I never got very tall, aside from genetics, since my father is 1/16th hobbit, is that somewhere deep inside me there is a small child who refuses to grow up. Perhaps a tiny fleck of Tinkerbell’s fairy dust danced its way into the biological stew when I came into existence. Whatever the reason, my abiding love of dolls and fairy tales also wraps its loving arms around Merry-go-rounds.

Me Merry-go-round

We used to go to a lot of country fairs and carnivals when I was a kid and there was always a Merry-go-round. I was born a horse fanatic, so even fake horses turn me on, but sometime when I was still pretty small, my dad pointed out the intricate hand carving and painting as well as the real glass eyes on the magnificent steeds gracing an antique Merry-go-round we happened upon. I  became addicted on the spot.

vintage merry go round

When I’m astride a Merry-go-round horse and the mechanical band strikes up its off-key tune and the horse finally starts moving, up and down, slowly at first then a little faster, I can close my eyes and just for a moment imagine that I’m on a real horse, riding through a meadow, feeling his powerful haunches pushing me forward into the future as the wind gently blows my hair into the past. There’s something beyond fantasy and fairy tales in the elegance of a horse’s slim but powerful legs. A shod hoof even lazily aimed can crush vulnerable human bone while at the same time, the horse’s muzzle is softer than a satin pillow stuffed with the finest eider down. Contradiction, thy name is equus.

The big difference is that real horses move forward and backward and side to side while Merry-go-round horses just go up and down, round and round. As Joni Mitchell sang so beautifully, “the seasons go round and round and the painted ponies go up and down.” So here I am sitting in my little Japanese house, not a horse or Merry-go-round in sight, and yet I feel like I’m on some sort of perpetual carousel ride. Four entire seasons I’ve felt the painted pony go up and down and yet it doesn’t go anywhere at all except around and around. The six months of chemo hell are finally done; the horse goes up. Dr. Gloom-and-Doom says I will continue to feel awful for at least three, maybe six months; the horse goes down. He says my tumor markers continue to fall; the horse goes up. He says I have a very rare type of cancer; horsey goes down. But the likely outcome is the same as for more common cancers and my hormone status is good; horsey opens a bottle of wine. But my staging is advanced; horsey sprains an ankle. But my 10 year survival rate is around 80%; horsey opens a rare bottle of cognac. But, and here’s the kicker, my particular type of cancer doesn’t form tumors. It spreads much like fairy dust and is nearly impossible to detect, so there is a slim chance I will be on and off chemo for the rest of my life; horsey has an aneurysm and someone fetches the shotgun.

I don’t know why this happened to me. Cancer is not some sort of divine retribution for some hideous thing I may have done in this or another lifetime. I am not being punished, and therefore I have never asked, “Why me?” Cancer has no intention, no goal, no target, no soul. It just is. In the end, I may be paying for that fairy dust that went into making me what I am and I am still grateful for that. The challenge now, though, is to figure out how to get up every day and wonder, not the starry-eyed wonder of a child looking at the painted ponies, but the perplexed wonder of trying to read something in a language you don’t understand. You can stare at it all day and it will never make any sense. I am hoping that, in time, I will be able to shrug my shoulders and walk away.

sparkler

 

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Yak!

I’m a member of a women’s group that is so Top Secret that I can’t tell you the name. Go ahead, torture me. Tickle me until I pee. Force me to eat eggplant and beets. Lock me in a closet with an insurance salesman. I won’t tell and you can’t make me. So there.

Even before I got sick, the group was a source of support and inspiration and has been a major part of the solid steel structure that has kept me from sliding over the edge for a long time. We come from different backgrounds and live in all sorts of circumstances. But even though they are so many thousands of miles away, I always know they are there and they genuinely care.

I post to the group pretty often, keeping everyone updated on my doings and in return have received more love than I ever expected was possible. Plus we have this whole unicorn thing going; I don’t remember how it got started but I love it. This morning, a small package arrived from one of those women. Inside was this little fellow. According to the label, he was made with love by women in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyesan

 

And now I want to tell a little story.

For most of my many years in Japan, I’ve been freelance, doing a variety of jobs that sometimes surprises even me. (Write a letter to the Dalai Lama? Sure! Why not? The princess of Thailand? Hand me the pen!) I am staff re-writer for NHK International, a non-profit affiliate of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. It has various departments that do things like produce foreign language versions of original NHK programs, sell NHK footage for overseas productions, and use public funding from organizations such as the Japan Foundation and JICA to provide NHK programs and equipment to broadcasters in developing countries. People from that section, The Travelers, go all over Asia, Africa, Central Europe and South America having meetings and helping with the complicated paperwork involved in those projects. What it means for me is writing a lot of letters to broadcasters and ambassadors and government folks asking for their assistance. I don’t get to go anywhere.

In these days of internet and email, I’m outsourced now, only going to the office when there’s a special project, but for a long time, I had my own desk and one of the fellows in The Travelers’ section sat across from me. Arrayed across the top of his desk was a tidy row of folders marked Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and my favorite, Kyrgyzstan. I guess living in Japan wasn’t exotic enough for me, because when I wasn’t busy, I would stare at those folders and they would conjure up delightful images of wrinkly women dressed in colorful traditional costumes, eating yogurt and yak butter and living to be a thousand years old. I saw them hopping on ponies and scrambling around on mountain scree, or seated at hand looms meticulously weaving beautiful fabrics with intricate patterns.

I believe this is what they call empathy. I doubt I would like yak butter and I don’t want to live to be a thousand, but I love taking a moment to imagine how my life might have been so very different. Most of the time, despite a piqued curiosity, I feel a wave of gratitude as powerful as a tsunami wash over me.

I have never been to Kyrgyzstan and will most likely never go. I will most likely never meet most of the woman in my Top Secret group, but although we are all so very much alone, we are all together. So perhaps I will hop on my little pink unicorn and go see what’s up in Kyrgyzstan, have a nice cuppa yak butter tea, stare at a clear, blue sky and see all the infinity that has already been and is yet to come, wrap my arms around what’s left of this beautiful earth and be at peace.

Life is good.

elephant scarf

Pinwheel

sunrise

The pure, white light of the Tokyo summer sun is an evil spawned in Hell. She somehow cooks both down from above and up from below, creating a population of rotisserie people dripping their way along the concrete highways and byways of the city. She could suck the smile off Mickey Mouse’s face, and he’s the happiest mouse in the world. Even with a sun hat and parasol, she still wiggles her inquisitive fingers under my arms, between my toes, down the back of my sweaty shirt.

I could leave the house if I wanted to, but chemo magnifies the effects of the heat by about 1000% and the pain of trying to breathe the miasma is too much. And so I choose to stay home, but after just a few days, I’m starting to have weirdly Baby Jane feelings. It’s like there’s an invisible barrier in the front door, a Star Trek style force field that’s keeping me at bay. But this is a prison of my own choosing. I can leave if I want to. And nobody will serve me dead parakeet for dinner.

The days are long and hot, so I try to find ways to brighten them. For one, I have these fancy tea balls that blossom in the pot, the kind of thing that you save for when the imperial couple comes to visit. But I’ve asked them at least a dozen times and they always find a way to weasel out of it.

See? Here they are. “No, no. A thousand times no. Now stop asking!”

emperor waving

I can take a hint. I decided to go ahead and drink the fancy tea myself.

fancy flower tea

It tastes…slightly musty. I think. I can’t really trust my senses. Chemo does that, too.

I decided to look for beauty elsewhere.

One of the worst side effects of chemo is a terrible sensitivity to sound. I had bought a glass wind chime thinking the gentle tinkling would soothe, but it was instead a relentless clattering annoyance so I took it down. And then one of the cats smashed it. Good riddance.

Instead, there’s this, a freebie made by a local carpenter. They were handing them out at a neighborhood festival recently.

beer can wind chime

This was once a lowly beer can, but it was transformed to raise the simple pinwheel into an art form. (WordPress wants me to pay to include video so I’ll put that on Facebook.) It hangs from a branch in the peach tree outside the kitchen window, whispering sweet messages as it spins in the breeze, my own version of a prayer wheel. “Focus on your gains, not your losses.” “See the beauty in the everyday.” “Have the ice cream if you want it. You deserve it.” “You couldn’t handle yoga today. That’s OK. Tomorrow is another day.” “Don’t strangle the cats.”

It’s so easy to put more significance on the negative than the positive, to let the pains outweigh the joys. But I’m starting to believe this is a choice we make. We are programmed to believe that we need the bigger house, the faster car, the slimmer waist, the designer shoes/bag/watch/nose hair trimmer/whatever. But that is in essence letting someone else make our decisions for us, refusing to take responsibility for our own choices, and never, ever being satisfied with what we have.

So here’s the positive. My house is big enough and I like it. I don’t have or want a car; I don’t want a stranger’s name printed on my stuff. The ice cream was delicious. I did yoga after all and it was heavenly. The cats behave like cats; I expect no more or less from them.

For the most part, my body is still functioning properly.

I’m still alive.

That’s a lot. And that’s enough.

A Whammy of a Vagary

Many times over the past months, as I’ve been poked and prodded and obviously in pain, I’ve been asked, “Gaman dekimasuka? (Can you stand it?)” The word gaman could roughly be translated as ‘endure’, but it’s more than that. I think ‘suck it up’ is closer.

I’ve heard stories of things happening in the States that would not, could not, ever happen here.

Me bandana

Case 1: Standing in the supermarket checkout line, the man behind you notices your bandana and starts to chatter. “Oh, do you have cancer? Are you doing chemo? My wife went through that last year. What kind of cancer do you have? Hers was ovarian. We were back and forth to the doctor’s office so many times natter, natter, natter, blabitty blah blah…”

OH, SHUT UP, YOU MORON!

Nora and Haruki

Case 2: My friend Nora and family, Japanese husband and two kids, are visiting her hometown of Seattle. She is standing in line at a Starbucks, holding her daughter’s hand. Her baby boy is strapped to her chest. It is the late 1990’s. Adopting Chinese babies is all the rage within the yuppie community, which thrives in Seattle. Nosy Stranger leans forward and says, “What a cute baby! Did you adopt him from China?” Nora smiles and responds, “What, this little tyke? Heck no. I picked him up at Walmart. It’s so much easier than going through an agency. Imagine all the paperwork you can avoid! And everything’s made in China anyway. Just cut out the middleman. I’m thinking of returning him, though. He’s cute and all, but he makes an awful lot of noise and he smells funny. Good thing he’s still under warranty, right?” Nosy Stranger makes carp face, opening and closing her mouth as she tries to respond.

OK, my bad. Nora didn’t say any of that. It was her making carp face. How do you respond to something like that? “This is my own…I mean, he isn’t adopt…”

OH, SHUT UP, YOU MORON!

But as I said, these things would not, could not, happen here. As part of the gaman culture, Japanese people are brilliant at not noticing things they are not supposed to notice. To Westerners, this often makes them seem like hollow, insensitive robots. In fact, they hate high prices and traffic and screaming babies and their bosses and their neighbors just as much as anyone else, but they suck it up for the sake of harmony. This is neither a weakness nor a nobility. It is just how it works. And because of it, personal interactions with strangers are rare.

As a foreigner, I am used to sticking out, being stared at, the unwilling focus of silent attention. I was a little worried about going out in public, being the bald lady in the bandana. But people have done a phenomenal job of ignoring me. A couple of times, women have looked directly into my eyes and smiled a sincere warmth and encouragement that needed no explanation. The other day, the pharmacist complimented my scarf and earrings combination, ever so quietly, as she handed me my pills. But that’s been the extent of anyone acknowledging my condition. I am grateful for that.

A healthy dose of gratitude makes the vagaries of life so much easier to swallow, and cancer is a whammy of a vagary.

Rescue

My friend Randy hopped on his bicycle the other day to go do some shopping. He hadn’t gone far when he heard a “Meow!” and a splash. Looking toward some abandoned boats tied up at a dock, he saw a tiny kitten swimming toward shore. The kitten noticed Randy and swam toward where he was standing, which was at the top of a stone sea wall. When the kitten reached the wall, it started climbing up the barnacles growing there, but the barnacles only went up about two feet and when the kitten reached their end, he fell back into the water. But he was a persistent little tyke. He climbed the barnacles again and when he reached their end, he clung to them with both paws and his teeth.

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At last I understand the expression “tooth and nail”.

Randy called his wife, saying “Come quick and bring a rope!” But lovely Junko is a rather level-headed lady who quickly decided to borrow a net from a neighbor instead. And Randy used it to fish the little man out of the water.

boy in a net

Randy and Junko already have three rescue cats as well as a couple of strays that occasionally wander into their garden looking for treats. So they put this on Facebook.

be my mommy

We debated for a while. I thought the two-people-two-cats rule still applied but Rochi wanted him. In time he admitted he wanted the kitten for me. The thing is that neither Twitchy nor Monkey Boy particularly like me. They don’t not like me, they just don’t care about me much. I can pick them up for brief cuddles and Monkey likes to wrestle, but neither one will sit on my lap. I chose Twitchy from among hundreds of cats at the shelter, but she didn’t choose me. You can’t choose your cats any more than you can choose your parents. The funny thing is that I wasn’t all that unhappy about this situation. Losing Plato five years ago was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to survive. He was my little boy. In a way, I was grateful that Twitchy and Monkey Boy are just cats, more interested in each other than in me.

Then it hit me that little man is a genuine rescue cat. We call Twitchy a rescue cat because a volunteer group found her living alone in an abandoned house inside the no-go area in Fukushima, but she didn’t see herself as being rescued. For the longest time she looked at us as if to say, “What do you want from me? Why am I here? I was doing just fine on my own drinking dirty rain water and eating worms and frogs and baby birds.” Eventually, she came to see the virtues of a full food bowl that didn’t involve gills or feathers. She never even tries to escape anymore; instead she watches the world go about its business from the safe vantage of a window sill.

So we call Twitchy a rescue cat, but in a way she isn’t. Little man is, a genuine full-blooded rescue cat who wanted to be rescued. We’ve only had him for a day but he’s already one of the sweetest little fuzz muffins I’ve ever met. I’m having to type at an awkward angle because he doesn’t want to be more than six inches away from me. Maybe having a scrape with death gave him an appreciation of life. At any rate, he looks at me with love and gratitude and it’s been a long time since anyone looked at me like that, in that pure, clean way that only an animal can. I feel the love starting to flow and I weep with gratitude. Perhaps he will rescue me back.

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Yoga Cat

Passing the Time Popcorn Style

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I had to go renew my driver’s license yesterday. This takes place in a dreary Quonset hut tucked behind the local police station. You pay your money, take your eye test, have a photo taken and then sit through a lecture and video. I was sitting there waiting for the lecture to start when a man came into the room. “Sterner-san, I turned on the English sub-titles so you should sit up front where you can see them.”

(Grrr. I can see them from here; I just passed my eye test, you know. And you could have called less attention to me by dumping a bucket of confetti over my head.)

But I’m a good little citizen, so I gathered my stuff and moved forward. Then the lecture began with, “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen and thank you for waiting. I put in the English video because we have a foreigner here today, but don’t worry. The words are the same as the Japanese narration, so just ignore them.”

(OK, make that two buckets of confetti with a rousing backup chorus of off-key kazoos. The kind part of me figured the man had one of the most mind-numbingly boring jobs in the universe and had to get his kicks somewhere. The not-so-kind part of me wanted to do unspeakable things to his danglers.)

Then he started to drone along about traffic statistics and such. The rest of the captive audience pretended to listen. I folded my hands in my lap, closed my eyes and visualized him as a popcorn machine happily pinging away in the lobby of an old fashioned movie house. The people’s voices coming from beyond the partition were other patrons waiting for the movie to start, but when it did we were all disappointed. It provided vital information like that we must always wear seat belts and drive slowly around children, especially when it’s raining, and mustn’t forget to stop at stop signs.

OK, I’ll try to remember all that.

There was one cool part, though, a demonstration of what happens when a car slams into a wall. At 50kph, the front end of the car crumples and the crash dummies inside it get whiplash. At 130kph, the front end crumples, the car raises its rear into the air and the whole vehicle does an elegant back flip, landing on its roof. There was no word on the fate of the crash dummies, but I fear the worst.

So, I now have a shiny new driver’s license which I will probably never use. I know that I should never drive the car I don’t own into a wall at 130kph. I will ALWAYS make sure my crash dummies wear their seat belts.

I was also reminded that a solid dose of boredom helps me appreciate the sunnier aspects of my life, of which there are many, and I continue to be grateful for that.

Oh, and a little popcorn goes a long way.

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The Bucket List

Spending an evening tending a bar has always been on my bucket list. Tending the bar with a goth masochist in the lobby of a theater in Tokyo during a production of The Rocky Horror Show on Halloween was not on my bucket list. It was not on the list because things like that just don’t happen…until they do.

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I had been to the movie at least a dozen times back in high school and could toss a slice of toast with the best of them, so when I got an email asking if I might be interested in volunteering for Front of House for the production, I jumped at it. If I agreed to do at least two, I could watch the show for free. Sounded like a good deal to me. I had never really done much volunteer work and I liked the idea of being at least marginally associated with the production.

So I did opening night where they had me handing out programs and generally making myself useful. And I got to see the show, which was at least twice as much fun as I had thought it would be. I mean, I hadn’t done the Time Warp in over thirty years, but it’s just like falling off a bicycle.

Although throwing things is an integral part of the experience, I didn’t. This is Tokyo, after all. Audience members were only allowed to toss the items in the goody bags available for purchase at the bar. They included confetti (instead of rice) for the wedding scene, a sheet of newspaper to keep off the rain, two playing cards, a rubber glove and a (Styrofoam) hot dog. At times I’m an old fashioned purist; if it wasn’t a real hot dog, it didn’t count. Shouting obscenities at the appropriate moments was enough.

I did both shows on Halloween, wearing a minimalist costume of tiny witch’s hat and chin wart. For the matinee, I took tickets and reminded people to turn off their cell phones. I guess I did a good job because I got promoted to the bar for the evening performance, which being on a Saturday night AND Halloween, was pretty crazy. And a lot of fun. Theater-goers tend to be very thirsty.

There was a director’s talk after the matinee and there I learned just how special the experience was. It is very difficult to get a license to produce the show; only the director’s persistent whining made it possible (his words, not mine!) And the cast, all talented actors and singers who were willing to don corsets and fishnet tights and march around in front of a bunch of strangers…well, all I can say is yet again I was blessed with a one-of-a-kind opportunity. They are the salt in my food, the wind in my willows, the breath in my lungs.

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The Long and Whining Road

As nice is it is to be back home, it was very hard to leave paradise. I will have a lot more to say about that. I need some time to come up with better words than “beautiful”, “exotic” and “delicious”.

Here are a couple of teasers:

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View from the restaurant terrace at Sideman, Bali

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAFor now, I’ll start with the journey home, which began with a night flight from Denpasar to Seoul.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThree cheers for Korean Airlines. The nice check-in man at Denpasar airport put a special red SHORT CONNECTION label on my suitcase because I only had 45 minutes between flights at Seoul. I wasn’t particularly worried about it but I was seated at the very back of the peanut gallery and one of the lovely cabin attendants was worried. Twenty minutes before we landed, she moved me to first class, my very first time to sit there. I didn’t get any special service, but I did get to play with the buttons on the seat AND use the exit for fancy folks.

The cabin attendant was also worried about my suitcase and told me to enquire at the boarding gate, which I did, but the guy rather facetiously said I’d have to enquire at Narita, which in the end proved unnecessary. My Residence Card and I sailed past the hundreds of Korean tourists waiting in the FOREIGN PASSPORTS line and my red-tagged suitcase was already dancing around the carousel when I got to baggage claim. I zipped through customs where the staff are always delighted with foreigners who can speak Japanese, and hopped on the Narita Express which whisked me homeward, past the familiar rice paddies and tiled roofs and winding narrow roads, so much like Indonesia and yet so very different.

Much as I love to travel and see new places and try new things, it’s a pleasure to be back where I know how things work. I know where and how to buy a sandwich and a train ticket and can do those things without drama or fanfare. I always forget, when I haven’t traveled for a while, just how difficult such things can be*, and while it is a pleasure to cope with them to whatever degree of success, it is also a pleasure when they are easy.

*Most of our meals were group affairs, but one evening we were on our own and eight of us ventured out to find a restaurant. People were tired and kvetchy and couldn’t agree on where to go. I don’t have much patience with that sort of thing so went to the supermarket, where I wandered around for half an hour and ended up with a bag of potato chips and a bottle of Bintang beer. I recommend the latter; the former are better avoided. We live and learn.