Thursday, July 14, 2011

Turning Time into moments instead of moments into Time

It’s a funny thing about time.
Time slows down in waiting rooms and train stations.

On hot summer days, time drips like molasses.

So it goes when we’re uncomfortable, when we want something to be over, or when we focus on what we lack.

One motion becomes one hundred movements.
The second-hand on the clock moves in lead-heavy strokes.
There’s a visible pause between the back and the forth of a fan.

Remember that these are the little moments.
Let them drip-tick-tock.
Let them let you breathe and appreciate.

When we want something deeply, time lengthens so we have an opportunity to reach for it.

*            *            *

When I think of time, I think of the seasons.

The seasons are so integral to Japanese culture. With this connection comes a perpetual celebration of change, an awareness of the temporary, and a respect for the old. Every season has its special fruits, meals, activities, clothing, and festivals. It’s been like this for centuries.

I notice the passage of time more in Japan.

Perhaps because it’s all so continuously new…
Perhaps because I’m getting older…

*            *            *

Now it’s summer again in Kanazawa, nearly one year after my arrival.

I constantly feel time. Slowing down. Speeding up.
I thought winter would never end, but now the cold summer noodles I used to eat are back in the grocery stores.
Walking home from school at night, I am once again enveloped by the swell of cricket songs and the hot, humid air.
I remember how that air hugged me when I arrived last summer.

I see the change in my students.
Yuka can now count to 20.
Ayu is wearing makeup.
Hiroyuki speaks fluidly about his dreams for the future.

I see the change in me.
I am more patient.
I am more open-minded.
I have let go.
I have discovered that, like time, life unfolds however one chooses to perceive it.

There is no lack in my life.
There is no waiting for something to be over or for something else to begin.
I inhale all experiences—feel them pulse through my body.
Receive them with gratitude.
Appreciate them.
Share them.

The concept of time…a year, two years, ten years, fast, slow…fluctuates with thought. But every moment is always a perfect moment.

* * * the beginning * * *

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Three Stories from Sendai

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

—Mohandas Gandhi

Her house will be demolished, yet we are shoveling out the mud.
She is tossing what look like important, official documents, yet keeping little key-chains and bookmarks. I just spent hours pulling paper off of dead trees while she pulled weeds from a desolate landscape.
We’re sweeping the dirt from the sidewalks.
We’re cleaning the rubble.
What’s the use?
Her house is going to be demolished.
Nothing really makes sense.

Her house is going to be demolished because a tsunami stimulated by a massive earthquake destroyed it.
Nothing really makes sense.
She squints under her hat. The sun is bright and intense. A dark, cloudy sky would be better suited to this scene. Debris scattered everywhere. Her old neighborhood is an apocalyptic wasteland.

We are helping her pick up the pieces and hold on to a few memories from the past.

*            *            *

No one is there, only rubble. The laundry rack is still hanging in the window, the clothes dried with mud. Trees, furniture, dead fish, old food, mud and dirt jammed into the apartment building. Junk.

But as we pick away at the layers of this waste, we begin to see the scattered remnants of people's lives.

A phone off the hook.
Kids’ backpacks still stuffed with notebooks and pencil cases.
Wedding certificates.
Old pictures of little boys eating noodles at the table we just chucked onto the garbage pile.

“They’re still alive. Everyone from this apartment building escaped. They’re all living in evacuation centers. I’m sure this family wants their memorabilia back.”
We put those irreplaceable items in a separate pile.
I slide my goggles off my eyes, onto my head and scan the scene with unobstructed vision. I keep doing this every hour. I can’t grasp the reality of it.

Closets full of closet things.
Flip-flops in the bathroom.
Torn teddybears.
A DS Nintendo player.
A busted bag of rice.
Cabinets with dishes.
Baskets with toys.
A full refrigerator.

Life frozen in an instant of terror.

A teapot precariously propped on the stove. I empty its liquid contents from the spout and turn my head away as the overpowering scent of old water and dead fish contaminates the air.
“There’s that tsunami smell,” he laughs. He’s been doing this for a month.
I only came yesterday. 
It’s hard to smile. 
I’m in shock.

As the weekend unfolds and we go from house to house shoveling mud, scraping oil, picking up the pieces, the same smell haunts us. It lingers on our clothes. I can even still smell it in my hair after showering in the evenings.

*            *            *

We walk the path to a doorway, stepping on shells and bones from the bottom of the ocean that now lay caked into the yard.
Oil marks deface the outside of their relatively undamaged home. In our old clothes, rubber boots, gloves, and goggles, we set to work scrubbing, wiping away traces of the tsunami.
The job is mostly a cosmetic one, but it would have been difficult for this elderly couple to do alone.
Her eyes are soft and smiling. She works diligently beside us, bending as low as her frail body will allow.
He continually circles the perimeter of the house, refilling our buckets and replacing our sponges.
She brings us tea and coffee and fruits as we work.
He helps us take down the screens and lengthen the rope of the hose.

They only returned home from the evacuation center yesterday. She explains her situation in Japanese. I can’t understand all the words she uses to tell her story, but I imagine it’s a frightful one. 
I can see that the house next door is unsalvageable.
They were lucky.
She pauses abruptly, perhaps to recount a painful memory.
I don’t understand her words, but the only story written on her face is one of perseverance, kindness, and appreciation.

*            *            *

This blog is dedicated to all of the earthquake and tsunami victims as well as to the incredible supporters and volunteers who are continuously offering their help to Japan. Thank you!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

—Margaret Mead

*     *     *

Photographs taken by Audrey Boivin

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Walk on The Other Side of the River

“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much importance to the things around you because your survival depends on them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you only see the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive.”

—from Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage

How can I be a traveler in my own town?
How can I see the freshness of every day?
How can I reroute myself from old habits?

Seasonal changes are built-in mirrors.
When spring brings warm weather, and I can’t remember where I stashed my sandals or how it feels to let the wind touch my skin, I become aware of my winter routine.

*            *            *

“Oh yeah, it’s just Kanazawa Castle, and this is just Kenroku-en Garden, and that’s just Oyama shrine.”
They stop and stare in awe.
I catch myself getting impatient. I’m madly crossing the sights off our list. We’ve got so much ground to cover in so little time.
“What’s that?” She points excitedly away from where I’m leading her.
 “Look at that garden! Look at that bridge!”
I shrug.
I turn my head nonchalantly.
“Oh yeah, that’s just…just…um…that’s…um…”
I’m speechless.
It’s beautiful.
It’s breathtaking.
It’s tucked away in the corner of the shrine grounds that I’ve traversed many times before, too quickly to notice the details. It’s a magical garden.

Where was it before?
Where was I before?

I’m ashamed of my blindness.
Thank you family for opening my eyes to the new in the old.
Thank you for taking me by the hand as you travel slowly.

*            *            *

Today is a perfect sunny day.
Cool breeze.
The city in bloom.
In my family’s honor, I decide to reroute myself. I decide to take a walk on the other side of the river.


There on the other side is a path I never took with a statue I never saw and a pond with koi fish that I never introduced myself to.

Where was it before?
Where was I before?

I sit on a flat rock at the edge of the pond watching koi fish come toward me. Like clockwork, they sense my presence and suck the surface of the water with ferocity. People must feed them often, I think. In a predictable pattern of classical conditioning they expect food and hover near my feet.
Their scales like paintings.
I follow the glimmer of sunlight that bounces off their wet bodies, slips onto the skin of the water, and fractures when the wind blows ripples in the pond.

*            *            *

I continue my walk about town, taking paths untaken, discovering shrines and parks I’ve never seen before. After 9 months, I thought I knew Kanazawa in and out.
I was mistaken.
It’s incredible how much discovery lies dormant in the familiar if we choose to look at it from a different angle.

I loop my way back to the koi pond, expecting the fish to swarm again at my feet, the sun to dance again, as before, on the surface of the pond.

Only ten minutes have passed, but the scene has changed.

There, standing still on a rock, four feet from the edge of the pond is a


I hold my breath, afraid to move, afraid to change the sublimity of this image. All the people passing by carry on as usual. They walk their same walk. Paying no attention. No one seems to notice the heron.
My heart beats faster. I’ve never been so close to a heron before.
I sit again at the edge of the pond trying to soak it all in before it changes. The koi fish come over. The sun reflects in the water. The heron stays motionless.
I become aware of beauty and fragility and the waves of impermanence that bring freshness to the familiar.

Suddenly, the heron turns its head and looks me in the eyes. It spreads its wings, leaps into the air, and soars above my head.
Between its wing beats I hear a message.
Wake up Brenna. Wake up.
What appears the same is different.
Travel slowly and you’ll see.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Under the Ume

Is it crazy over there in Japan?
How are the Japanese people coping?
Are people scared? Anxious? Sad?
What’s the mood in Kanazawa?

*            *            *

Last weekend, I went to Kenroku-en Garden to see the plum blossoms, called ume blossoms. Ume blossoms pop before sakura, or cherry blossoms. They are one of the first signs of spring.


The flowers stay close to their branches, hardly altering the shape of the tree. 

The garden was alive with people marveling at the flowers, using macro lenses to capture their anatomical details. It was like going to see a rare Picasso exhibit on opening night.

Under the ume,
Couples cozied up on benches and stones.
Children danced.
Families picnicked.

A respect for renewal.
A sigh of relief at regeneration.
An appreciation of impermanence.

*            *            *

“So, what are you doing this weekend?” I ask before our lesson is over.
“I’m driving to Fukushima.”
Surprised, “Really?”
“Yes.” He bows his head and continues, “Driving truck of food and medical to shelter. My company give to Fukushima.”
Silence, but my heart weeps in awe at his generosity.
“The other day I talk to shelter person. Very difficult situation. Many old person.”
Worried, “What about the radiation warnings?”
“Japan is small country. We have to support each other. My name means protector. I live up to my name.” He bows his head again, glasses slipping off his nose.
Silence…and a hand over my chest.
It seems unreal that my heart with these exploding sensations can fit into a cavity called my chest.
Silence…because what I will say is better expressed with my eyes. But I say it anyway.
“You’re a very good person. I respect your decision.”
“Thank you.”
Two smiles. Four eyes. Two hearts. Two currents of breath spiraling around each other. I teach English, but in these moments, the body prefers to speak its own language.
Silence…and then a smile.
“April is happy time in Japan. Hanami, cherry blossom viewing. Will you see sakura with me when I get back?”
Immediately with a smile, “I’d be honored to.”

*            *            *

In less than one week, the cherry blossoms will bloom in Kanazawa.
People will eat and drink and laugh together under the trees.
They’ll walk their dogs on paths of pink petals.
The wind will continue its inhales and exhales, tossing old flowers this way and that, making way for new shoots.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nature's Paradox

Three weeks ago the late winter sun splashed its brilliance across the Kanazawa sky. I walked home extra slow that day.

Two weeks ago I opened my curtains to let in the morning, and a white heron skirted past my window. It left me breathless.

One week ago a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit the Tohoku region of Japan. Shortly afterwards, tsunami waves over 20 meters in height hurled themselves onto the land. Shock turned to fear. Fear turned to sadness. Sadness turned to compassion.

Yesterday morning a swallow followed me to work, dancing to the rhythm of its tweets. I gave myself permission to smile.

I’m confounded by the paradox of nature—simultaneously playful and dangerous, continually giving and taking life.

Today the air smells of melted snow and new earth. Spring has come. The weight of wool clothes and whipping winds has lifted. I'm liberated.

I'm also chained. 
Chained to the news. Every day the death toll rises. Every day more people are displaced.

For Japan, spring has ushered in new shoots and the promise of pink, but these gifts of nature cannot easily be received in customary celebration.

“I’m sending food to my family in Yokohama.”
“My friend in Chiba is trying to leave, but the trains are full. She’ll have to wait another week. She has a baby, so she’s worried about radiation.”
“I feel guilty hoarding canned food and bottled water, but I’m afraid.”
“I’m angry at the government.”
“The Japanese media is hiding the truth.”
“The situation isn’t getting any worse.”
“Do you want to go back to your country?”
“I’m thankful for the help of the US military.”
“Will people stop buying Japanese goods because they are worried about contamination?”
“I’m moved by the generosity and humanitarian efforts put forth by so many people to help Japan.”
“We will rebuild.”

*            *            *

Cherry blossom buds continue to stretch and grow.
Soil is turned inside out.
The cycle of the seasons.
An old woman hobbles past kids playing ball in the street.
The cycle of a generation.

I inhale everything and sweep my arms up to the sky. I exhale everything and bend forward. Elongate my spine. Hinge and fold. Step back into downward dog.

More than ever I use my yoga to cultivate peace and radiate compassion.

When I give to Japan, I’m also thanking Japan for its many gifts to me.

*            *            *

If you want to help Japan with relief efforts, please visit these links:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's sakura!!

The pink has descended on Japan.
As the country prepares for sakura, or the infamous spring cherry blossoms, a pink commercial explosion introduces…



school uniforms:

I never thought I’d embrace a color most girls in America are pigeonholed into accepting. “It’s a girl” is code for, “Now I can buy that adorable pink pajama set.”

I used to run from pink like it was the devil.

“Oh, I don’t want it. It’s pink.”
“Do you by any chance have this in another color?”
“It’s too pink for my liking.”
“I’d take purple over pink any day.”
“It looks like a flamingo threw up in here!”

But in Japan, pink is a gender-neutral color.

It’s the color of spring.
The color that marks the end of snowy days and frigid nights.
The color that cracks a smile on everyone’s winter mask.

Most kids know how to say pink before they can say hello. It’s a friendly color that can warm timid children to a scary looking English teacher putting on her silly face in a desperate attempt to win their affection.

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes...”
“A, B, C, D, E, F, G…”
“One little, two little, three little elephants…four little five little six little elephants…”

Blank stares.
A tighter grip on Mommy’s leg.
Wrinkled faces.
The quiver of a tear.

Oh no, this isn’t going so well…

…time for pink…

And I whip out the old color flashcards. Like a magnet, the kids hurl forward toward pink. They start to smile. They start to high-five me back and detach from their parents. I look into their eyes, and I know I’ve won them over.

*            *            *

The sun sets a little later these days. 

Today I went for a walk without a jacket. I walked along my favorite river path thinking about my past seven months in Japan.

Thinking about the victims of the recent earthquake and all the kindness and generosity the world is showing toward them.

Suddenly, I hear a voice.
“SUGOI !!!!!!!”
You only need to spend one day in Japan to know what this means…
I look up. A family of three is pointing at what looks like an ordinary tree. I wait for them to leave before I take a closer look.

There before my very eyes are the first rosy buds of a sakura tree.

Stretching toward the sun.
Lengthening against the last winds of winter.
My heart leaps at their lovely color pink.

The sakura are coming!! The sakura are coming!! I’m five again.

And I skip into spring.

To learn more about the cultural significance of the cherry blossom in Japan, visit the link below to begin your research, or just read any book about sakura. Happy discovering!

Friday, January 21, 2011

The World is my Textbook

How many foreigners does it take to order a pizza in Japan?


One uninhibited beginner eager to practice her Japanese places the order.
One patient and willing foreigner with advanced language skills helps the beginner translate what the pizza lady says.
One enthusiastic foreigner gives moral support and reminds the beginner what her address is.

*            *            *

Every other day I get a new ad for pizza delivery. It’s all in Japanese, of course, but when it comes to pizza deliciousness is universal. I’ve been looking at these ads pile up on my fridge door for weeks. The magnet can’t contain them anymore.

Macro images of eggplants, mushrooms, and onions with cheese browned to perfection. Japanese pizza ads have a way of making one miniscule piece of pizza look like a huge mouthwatering pie.

I’ve been craving pizza. I’ve been wanting pizza more than I’ve ever wanted pizza before. It’s crept into my dreams. It’s wormed its way into my lessons.

“Okay, let’s review the food unit…uh…again…”

No need for review. Even three-year-olds know the word for pizza.

“So what’s your favorite type of pizza?” I ask as part of a warm-up Q & A. And we go around naming all the varieties. Then I come home, look at the ads on my fridge and start drooling.

I spent my Japanese lesson last week constructing a dialog for ordering pizza over the phone. I can barely say how are you in Japanese, but my gustatory impulses bludgeoned me through all the complicated grammatical constructions one needs a grasp of for ordering pizza over the phone in Japanese.

Armed with my dialog and a few other pizza-craving foreigners, I call.

“Ring, Ring.”

Right off the bat, the pizza lady doesn’t say what I want her to say. According to my dialog, she asks all the wrong questions in precisely the wrong order. I have to ask her to speak more slowly please, to say that once more. I apologize profusely all the while asking myself: Does she understand me? Did she get my name and phone number right?

Silence…and then…

An unintelligible question…

“Crispy,” I answer.

Silence again…

I think she understood?

As the conversation continues I press my ear more firmly to the phone, as if this action will somehow make it easier for me to decode the voice at the other end of the line. More than once when the Japanese equivalent of “can you repeat that please?” doesn’t cut it, I have my nearly fluent friend translate, but I never hand her the phone. Determined, I stick with the ordering until the end. I grip that phone like it’s my survival weapon.

Then suddenly…“Arigato gozaimasu.”


It’s over.

I have no idea if we’ll ever see that basil spice pizza or the seafood delight. It was a good try, I tell myself. And my friends pat me on the back.

Even if the pizza never comes, I’m in good spirits. How cool is it that my Japanese lesson consisted of ordering pizza?? No dry memorization from the books because the world is my textbook.

We settle into a movie and wait for the pizza to come… or not to come…

*            *            *

The clock tick-tocks. It’s round like a pizza. I feel like I’m waiting for the results of a very important examination. Silence. The anticipation escalates.

Suddenly our movie is punctured with a…


I excitedly answer the door. To my utter amazement, there he stands, three little pizzas in hand, warm and crispy. I receive them with a smile, pay, and pop off the cardboard covers before the door clicks shut.

We proceed to indulge in the tastiest homework ever!

After the first scrumptious bite, I sit back and let my salivary glands take over.

With this lesson under my belt, I think I’m all set for winter.