Me, and the Quilt

It’s mostly been the shame that I couldn’t keep up with the nearly daily posting about my time in Japan that’s kept me from updating about more present happenings. I’ll be sure to finish that project as best I can with the notes I made (years ago now, jeeze), but that can’t be what stops me now, not because things are so important; things are as common as ever, unfortunately. So in the end I have no excuse to write.

That’s not true. I’m making a quilt.

First, the basics, because I’m a sucker for chronology. I’m back from Japan, as of July 2015, arrived on a Sunday, and started work on a Monday. It sucked. But with very little support or guidance, I became an excellent ESL teacher. I enjoy teaching, and creating and improving curriculum for classes, and dislike nearly every other aspect of it. My annual contract was not renewed last summer for just five weeks, a decision my boss (who is capable and intelligent) had nothing to do with somehow. There are men I work with, colleagues, who are blatantly disrespectful in nearly every counter, and it’s a wonder human resources hasn’t burned the place to the ground by now. Otherwise it’s grand.

Nicholas and I are together, and not disastrously apart, as I believe I predicted last, years ago, before I left town. We spoke nearly every day while I was abroad. My breakup with my ex happened months before I came home, and upon my return, I discovered that nothing was as I had left it: friends had lost touch, my partner of 7 years was erased from my life completely, I had no home, and a job I felt (and was made to feel) totally unqualified for. I was in mourning, depressed, anchor-less and overworked. I stayed with my parents. By the fifth day, my jetlag had finally completely worn off. By the tenth day, my mother began asking me “how the apartment hunt was going.” It was not an easy transition.

I live now in the same place I discovered on damn craigslist within two weeks of my return to my hometown: an early 20th century studio with recessed lighting, fake but convincing wood floors, and a new, modern refrigerator that’s much too large for this building’s era. I’ve done that thing I do in every apartment: I see points I could improve easily (curtains rather than blinds, shaving the edges of cabinet doors so they shut properly, refinishing the table I got from Nicole), but then I think, “I never stay more than a year, so what’s the point? I’d just have to undo it all anyway. And where would I store the blinds?” So. My quality of life stagnates in little ways, and those little indignities wear me down when I look too closely. At the end of the day, it’s in a shit neighborhood with loud neighbors, a very active fire station two doors down and an equally active police station a block away. They have a helipad.

So I’m making a quilt.

Nicholas was thrilled to have me back in the US, but I struggled to share his joy fully. I loved him so much, but I was crushed by the loss of what had been my best friend and partner of several years, in addition to all the other stresses of moving back to a city where I’d done a thorough job of tearing up my roots. “Does your breakup still bother you?” I asked him one night as we sat in my little car as we always did. “Are you in pain?”

“No,” he said. After two years together, they’d broken up a few months before. “We’d already been drifting apart.” He was quiet until he looked my way. “Are you?” Of course I nodded and burst into tears. He was very patient, but I could tell it bothered him. “If you need time,” he told me, but how could I push him away? What else did I have? I’d finally gotten my hands on him, he was finally mine, and I’d be damned (exhausted, depressed, disappointed in my pay, yes, but also goddamned) if I was going to let him get away that easily.

Then he moved away. He was accepted to every single law school he applied to with only one exception. When he heard from #26, he was on the verge of accepting their offer. It seemed like a good idea, it was a great school, and it was local. Then #8 came calling, number eight in the whole damn country. It could not be further away without crossing a border or an ocean. The first year was horrible, there was nothing to be done about it. I gave him all the support I could: calls, texts, letters, care packages. At the end of the first year, he told me he was considering extending his time there by a year or more to include a master’s degree. I said, “I can’t believe you’re considering not doing it.” It made all the sense in the world, but it was Spring then, and it snows in Virginia in the winter.

So I’m making a quilt. It sounds simple enough: cut colorful cloth into pieces, put the pieces of cloth together, the end. And yet it’s much more complex, and I’m struck by its similarities to life in general, and I cannot believe how many different ways there are to fuck this up. I’ve already had to undo all the work I’d done (I didn’t dog-ear the strips: shocking, I know). The first fuck-up is the best one though, because it wasn’t my fault: it was Nicholas’.

Summer was ending when I got it in my head to make this quilt to keep him warm in the winter. I’d sewn a few skirts by that time, how hard could a quilt be? I looked online and was immediately overwhelmed until I found what I wanted on the cover of a magazine: a red and white blanket that oozed warmth just by looking at it. I bought the magazine, and the cloth, cut it without the proper tools, and brought a good pile of it to Virginia work on while he was in class until we moved him into his new apartment. We were taking a stroll one evening after dinner down a small main street on the other side of the train tracks. The evening was balmy, and the breeze was no help. We passed a shop with soft pillows placed in the window just so in a very cozy fashion (not at all in keeping with the weather), one of which was the same colors of the quilt I’d just started. I asked Nicholas, “What do you think of that?”

“I don’t like it,” he deadpanned. My heart dropped. “Oh?” I asked casually. “Why not?”

“Red is so… aggressive,” he mumbled unhelpfully. No amount of coaxing could get him to say more. We went back to the hotel, where I showed him a Pinterest board of saved images of quilts under the premise of our future home’s decoration. He’d never used Pinterest before, so he didn’t know what I meant by “my board,” and flatly (occasionally brutally) shot down every single quilt I’d so carefully selected without realizing I’d selected them. Imagine this: your loved one’s head resting on your shoulder as you listen to him destroy the gift you’d been planning for weeks, the pieces of which rested at that very moment in a bag at the foot of the bed, which you’d bought, cut, and carried across the country to work on while he was in class. Feel, now, how your eyebrows jump higher and higher with every unabashed rejection: “No. No. Ugh, no. This one has ninja stars. Why are they all so sharp? No way. No,” and so on until all motivation to continue this project has left your body, like a ghost that whispers, “Nevermore” as it flips you off and turns the corner out the door.

Eventually he realized why I was showing him these pictures. “Baby, did you buy me a red quilt?!” No, I said, and brought out the pieces I’d brought: red, all. He thumbed through them with more tact but equal disapproval. The next day we took another look at Pinterest, at his insistence, and he found one he liked. That was August. It has been three months since then, which is apparently how long it takes me to mend from an emotional blow like that.

So I’m making a fucking quilt.

He knows better by now than to tell me he doesn’t like it when he finally sees it. I hope he likes it anyway.



Pebbled paths, a drizzled expedition, and being alone

When I found my apartment on Google Maps, I noticed that I’m not far from a wooded area, and made up my mind to go check it out on a day off. Today I rode out to find it, and eventually did. I got side-tracked by a brilliant roof (a tiny local shrine, it turns out), and after riding up a couple steep hills, and walking my bike the rest of the way in a sudden drizzle, I found the foot of two paths leading into a forest. I took the narrow, rougher path, and thought myself something of an adventurer. It was pebbled at first, but luckily became overgrown quickly by the forest.

The trees were tall and regular, as though they were planted by humans, growing close together and blocking out the glowing sun that took turns hiding behind the clouds and staring at me. They didn’t seem more than 30 or 40 years old (but seriously, wtf do I know about the age of a tree just by looking?), and one had fallen over across the path, pushing a few other trees away and showing the ground to the sky, creating a natural spotlight that I thought would be neat to walk through until I got rained all over as I stepped over the fallen trunk and into the soft, clean light where plants grew verdant and lush, soaking in the only sun in sight.

chestnut-20115-400x250Open chestnut pods were strewn about, emptied by local animals whose paws are small and tough enough to get past their prickly exterior. I attempted to pick one up and was skewered several times at once.

Finally, I happened upon a large community garden with a gravel path down the middle and a view of the city, and felt thankful for the uphill push that brought me up the hill. One part was fenced off with a quaint wooden fence decorated with birdhouses, surrounding a 4’x10′ area with a little gravel path going in a right-angled U shape, with plants on either side, the tiniest personal garden designed to be walked through and enjoyed I’d ever seen. I attempted to call Nicholas, Jon and my dad, but the rain was coming down hard, and I lost the signal when I stepped into the treeline. I ate chestnuts and wandered back through the dark forest, stepped over the fallen tree, under the blink of sky that stared boldly at the opportunistic foliage, and waited out the rain under a tree. In my orange shirt and teal sneakers, I took a bite of the yellow apple I brought. As I surveyed the little path leading back to my bicycle through rain-flecked glasses, my solitude was finally a gift.


My chronological crutch

A lot has happened since I stopped updating this blog. I’ve landed a job teaching ESL at a university, basically a dream job. I’ve traveled for another project I’m shocked and thrilled to be a part of. I’ve fallen out and back in love. I’ve torn up roots and put new ones down. What’s known and comfortable has come rushing back in a storm of whirring airplane engines and apartment searches, quiet nights spent alone in my first roommate-less place in LA, the dripping Spring Tides of loss upon entering a familiar space. The things that were here before are still here, and a part of me that was in constant motion has finally come to something resembling a state of rest. It gives a false new sense of confidence with which I find myself more and more at ease.

Regardless, I’ve neglected to document these things for several reasons: I got lazy, I got busy, I got both (living in Japan was all the excuse I needed). Once I came back, the guilt of leaving early with so little notice repelled me from that little notebook that held my Honshu life with such quaint efficiency, and I just couldn’t bring myself to recount it with detail. But I owe it to myself. My time there was nearly always beautiful, and beauty of that magnitude and consistency is worth my while.

Putting everything down in the order in which it happened seemed very important to me, and this time-sense has also contributed to holding me back from documenting my life in real time. I’ve been obsessed with chronology, everything in the right order, or else who knows what? Something awful, definitely. But there’s something to be said for time and its effortless gait, over which I pretend to have any grasp by putting things in the right order, or else, as I’ve said, who knows what would happen? Something awful, probably.

I’ll start again, now. Sorry, past self. I know you did your best. I’ll stop talking shit about you now. Probably.


Spawning salmon, a recipe for rice, and hot crazy types


I found a second hand store near Sakanacho Hotline today. The stuff in these shops is much higher quality, and far more fashionable than in American second hand shops. Maybe I need to spend more time in second hand shops in the US.

On the recommendation of some of my Wednesday coffee house students, I went one bridge further south than I usually do to observe the salmon spawning on my way to work. Several other people of all ages stopped to look, too. One man didn’t notice he had dropped his cane as he took a photo with his phone. I picked it up for him, and he chatted a bit about the fish, but I didn’t understand a word. Afterward, I took the river route to work for the first time. It’s faster and beautiful.

Yuko and Chiyako gave me a recipe for kurigohan (mixed rice):
-3 cups rice (standard amount of water, to 3)
-1.5 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled (“Kiotsukete!” [be careful!])
-a little salt

Chiyako is apparently a huge Korean movie fan, and has been to Korea ten times in four years. She even goes to Korea just to enjoy a special winter dish. We discuss the word ‘fanatic,’ the kanji for which literally reads: heat, crazy, type.

In a private lesson, the topic of ‘warrior poet’ comes up, and I mention Nicholas. My student says, “You, too.”


Mascots, athletic Japanese, and evolution denial


When you arrive in Morioka, the first of many mascots you’ll encounter is Sobachi, the black-and-red-bowl-headed… thing that is just super jazzed you’re finally here. Sometimes his head has wanko soba noodles inside, sometimes tofu, sometimes rice, the list goes on. He is the multi-talented, highly edible mascot of Morioka City.

Kumamon is more recognizable; he’s the black bear mascot of Kumamoto prefecture. He’s on everything from purses to tshirts to these little pieces of paper you can stick to the top of your cup to keep your tea warm. I’ve even seen him in Los Angeles. Sobachi could learn a thing or two from Kumamon.

Today, my students and I were discussing markets in the area, and one of them mentioned D & Delica, a somewhat expensive grocery store (“I like the cheap stuff,” one student specified). Another student chimed in: “I like donkey!” Everyone nodded. I was lost. Apparently this is short for Don Quixote, a “discount grocery store,” whatever that is.

Within a month or so of my arrival in Japan, my coworkers, a few students and I were sitting in the upstairs lobby area enjoying tea and cake together to celebrate something. Everyone was chatting and being friendly. One of the students was asking me questions, to which I was replying “Hai.” I looked to my right, and saw my coworker Hiroko shaking with silent laughter, her eyes squeezed shut with the effort of containing herself. “Hiroko-san,” I said. “Daijobu desu ka?” (are you ok?), to which she burst out laughing in earnest, and in between gasping breaths, managed to say, “You sound like an athlete!” Of course, I learned to say yes in Japanese from my father, but have used it far more at the Shinkendo dojo, where we are taught to say it sharply and clearly, a habit that Hiroko-san finds endlessly amusing.

I mentioned this incident to my students today to illustrate how Japanese can sound sharp of soft depending on the speaker. We practiced my “female Japanese,” which was more entertaining than instructive for all involved.

6pm Dr. Sasaki
I’ve picked up some valuable skills during my short time here so far, one of which is training my eyes to see something new without reacting immediately. This gives me time to observe others to gauge their reaction. I learned this skill from Dr. Sasaki, who has taken to bringing something interesting, strange, or disgusting with him for every class. Today, I enter the room wearing a practiced, neutral expression to find skis and poles leaning into a corner of the room. They’re for “mountain skiing,” which means they’re used for going uphill, which sounds absurd.

Dr. Sasaki has made a couple dozen gouges on the bottom side of the ski to prevent backsliding, and help the seal skin grip the ski. That’s right: there’s a strip of seal skin strapped to the bottom of each ski (which also helps prevent backsliding). “This is my invention,” he preens. He mentions “ant traps” on the mountain in Hachimantai, a surprisingly perilous feature if Dr. Sasaki’s description holds any truth: “If I fall in it, is very dangerous. I must climb out, or I must die.” The lesson takes a distinctly more medical tone from there.

Hemostatic forceps are used on veins or arteries to stop bleeding temporarily.
Motor nerves are under our control. Sensible nerves feel hot, cold, itch, etc. Autonomous nerves control blood vessel dilation, sweat, digestion, etc.
We review the post-stomach digestive tract: ascending, transverse, descending, s-shape bowel, straight bowel, rectum, anus.

Dr. Sasaki sits and asks me if I believe in god. I say no. This is not an unusual answer in Japan. He asks if I believe in evolution. I say there is a lot of evidence for it, so yes. He says there is no evolution because different species cannot inter-breed, therefore this is god’s will. I point out the production of a mule from a horse and a donkey. Yes, he says, but mules cannot procreate, therefore this is god’s will. We have not found the missing link, therefore evolution is untrue. I reply that god cannot be seen, therefore it doesn’t exist either. He thinks for a second, then smiles and says, “Let’s talk about this again next time.” End of discussion.


Butterflies, and English: The silent language


I’m told I should visit Nanshyousou, an old wooden house with a beautiful garden. It’s a historic landmark in Morioka. I’ll have to go.

Private lessons with a high school girl who doesn’t talk much tend to be very slow and quiet, but that’s the same issue most Japanese students have: they don’t want to volunteer information, even if they know it’s right, because they don’t want to stand out. It makes the teachers’ jobs very difficult, which is probably why they rely so comfortably on reading and writing. But languages are alive; no modern language exists solely on paper, so I try to get my students to talk as much as possible, sometimes using something comfortable like a written prompt. Today, I provided a worksheet with sentences she had to complete.
I’m afraid of… “butterfly.”
“Really?!” I ask her to clarify. Turns out it’s moths.
On weekends, I like to… “watch TV.”
“What do you watch?”
“…and drama.”
I’m good at… “soccer and table tennis.”


Bribes, German, parental figures, and inter-cultural lunch


While discussing politics in my reading class, my students brought up the topic of bribes, how they are a problem with politicians all over the world, and Japan is no exception.  In fact, the history of bribery is in part preserved in its name: sodenoshita, literally “under the sleeve,” hearkening back to the days when people would slip money into the large kimono sleeves of the influential in exchange for favor.  Today a more modern term is used: wairo, which means bribe.

One of my students told us about when she visited a friend of hers in America whose child was in the process of being potty trained.  She randomly asked, “Pee, and what’s the second one… excrement?”  “Ah,” I said sagely, “Poo.”  Another student chimed in: “Yoo-reen.  Urine is pee.”  Another chirps, as though reading from a dictionary, “Stool, excrement, feces.”  I change the subject.

The woman mentions that English goes up and down, while Japanese is “flat.”  I say that Italian has even more musicality.  One of the men says German is also flat. The other man starts spouting German phrases: “Das ist. Ich bin,” and then, “Heil Hitler!” several times with his arm thrown out in a Nazi salute, chuckling softly to himself while I attempt to give examples of how German can sound harsh or gentle depending on how it’s spoken.

In the evening, I teach a private lesson with a high school girl named Mayu. We chat freely; her parents just want her to talk with and hear a native English speaker, and she enjoys chatting about random topics, so there is no preparation necessary.  Today she told me about her family.
“My mother is so scary!”
“Really?  Why?”
“Mmm… She is 46.”
“Yes… 46. So…” She thinks for a moment, then types something into the translation app on her phone. She holds it up for me to see: menopause. I laugh loudly. She calmly concludes, “Maybe that’s why always angry.”
“Does your father get mad about your grades?”
“No, he is very smart. He got good grades. He things we are…” She consults her phone again, and comes back with: idiot.

There’s a medical student in my advanced Monday evening class who asks excellent questions about the finer points of English, and who, if he had more exposure or lived in an English speaking country, would be capable of communicating at close to a native English speaking level. Having said all that, his grasp of American cuisine is shockingly stunted, which I learned when I explained what PBJ was.  I said, “It’s a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly.”
“So, it’s one sandwich… with both?”
“Yes, jelly goes on one piece of bread. Peanut butter goes on the other piece of bread. Then you put them together.”
“The peanut butter and… jelly are… in the same space?”
“Yes, they touch.” He is visibly disgusted.
Since he comes straight from the medical school to join our class, he typically spends time in hospitals with patients, or, like today, observing routine (aka. bloody and graphic) surgeries, presumably without making any of the faces he made during this discussion about a lunchtime staple I’ve literally eaten thousands of. Here’s hoping his amusing frankness and total lack of a poker face doesn’t leak into his bedside manner