Wednesday, August 6, 2014

sayonara, and other pieces out of time

Already, Japan is worlds away. 

Even as we packed our last boxes, distributed our things among friends and neighbors, bade elaborate goodbyes to one and all, I was trying to grasp at something. That fleeting, floating thing I knew I would inevitably ache for as soon as we left. 

Not the house, not the streets, not the encounters, but the air that filled in all the spaces between them. 

I knew I couldn't take it with me, knew I would miss it; can't talk myself out of it.

That air, you know? That light, falling in between our narrow rows of houses, falling on our shoulders as we walked to the park again again again, the corner store again again again, not aware but painfully aware of how beautiful it all is, even as the flaws are apparent, the loneliness ever-present -- the shoji are lovely, but a few have holes, are sticky in their tracks -- still, it is special and therefore WE are special. 

One doesn't like to give up one's loneliness so quickly, it turns out. It lingers, like a vivid dream.

The kids are not sentimental: they are bingeing on cartoons and cereal, entirely spoiled by trips to the Lake and access to the neighbor's pool. It is summer! There are long-forgotten toys! 

We return to something so familiar and so comfortable, and it's this I missed all those long months away, so you can imagine my confusion when I glance at a picture of myself sitting on a stone wall in a temple, and even though I know I was crabby that day, and tired, and the kids were bickering, I want to go back there. Just for a moment. 

But I can't take what I already have, and so I go around noticing the air here, too -- slanting through the giant maples, plied by the lazy calls of mourning doves -- while Auden races ahead, out of view, and Isla falls off her bike, and cries, and then laughs through her exhaustion. 

It's this, it's this, it's this.


Thursday, June 19, 2014


We're on the cusp of leaving. So I started a list of the things I will and will not miss about living here...

the moody mountains
the clean, crooked streets
the baths
the fashion
the way it rains so lightly sometimes, like little flecks of water
the politeness and ritual in every little exchange

sitting on the floor
being functionally illiterate
being stared at
the lack of physical contact (and especially this absurd hand-wave gesture that happens among some women upon greetings and departures -- sometimes it turns into a wimpy hand-clasp, but sometimes stays aloft, the hands slightly repelling eachother like backwards magnets, it's maddening) 
not knowing what is going on 90% of the time
the politeness and ritual in EVERY LITTLE EXCHANGE 

The general word for 'excuse me' is sumimasen, which literally means "it never ends." Whenever I'm feeling like a chump because I can't get the hang of even casual interactions, I imagine people saying that in English and it cracks me up. Like, whoops, didn't see ya there! It never ends! 

A friend of mine who lived here for a long time told me she once bumped into a parked bicycle and automatically apoligized. TO THE BICYCLE. It never ends.


Not too long ago I was chatting with our neighbor, an elderly man who is also an artist, and he was telling me where I could see an exhibition of some of his work. Then he inquired after Jason, and I replied that he was out of town that weekend; but as I was answering, I suddenly realized that maybe he hadn't asked about Jason? Had I misunderstood the word for husband? What's that word that sounds like 'husband' but isn't? Oh god, he asked me about something completely different, and here I am yammering on about Jason's work... By the time I recommitted myself to listening, I had completely missed the next thing he'd said. 

That's how most conversations go. It's uncomfortable to let on exactly how much I don't understand, so most of the time I smile and fake my way through, hoping to get a foothold on a word or a phrase sooner or later. 

It reminds me of riding my bicycle in San Francisco. For several years I lived In Bernal Heights, on top of a formidable hill. I had no car, so I biked everywhere, and that hill was waiting for me at the end of every ride. I came to have an insane amount of respect for that hill. I composed breathless poems to it as I sweated up it. I knew exactly where I had to change gears so as to save the lowest gear for the steepest part. I biked up it almost every day for three years, and it never felt like it got any easier. All the other hills in San Francisco, though? PIECES OF CAKE. 

Japanese feels as relentless as that hill.

But then sometimes, by magic, simpler exchanges plunk right down into my brain, like coins in a vending machine, and don't even need to be translated. 

And then there's my first-grader, who speaks Japanese at school all day, and will willingly do his Japanese homework, but becomes a boneless whining mess when made to practice reading English.

 (Actually, I think he kind of has a point there -- though it can be made perfectly well without the whining -- one I discovered when trying to leave a note for him that he'd be able to understand. I ended up writing it in Japanese because it would be EASIER for him to read. This is completely for bragging purposes, and has only a little to do with the pesky vowel rules of English):

See? Try to simplify yourself in English and you sound like a Neanderthal.

He read it and understood it and was unabashedly proud of himself. I have to admit that I am unabashedly proud, too -- I look at him and think, that's MY KID, turning the tumblers inside the locks of comprehensible syllables, and my god he sounds exactly like all the other defiant and punk-ass first-grade boys around. 

Still. I have this chip on my shoulder: while I'm marveling at my children's effortless grasp of verb conjugation and they way they charge into communication, I get so annoyed when other people treat it as such a remarkable thing. Usually it's because I overhear someone, at the playground for example, saying it to someone else -- "Oh, foreigners! Oh, they speak Japanese!" Even if they say it directly to me, it still comes across as a veiled insult, like, you have managed to transcend your natural stupidity to acquire our difficult and important language. This is a common theme when I talk to the little old ladies at the sento, "Japanese is so hard, isn't it?" they say, proudly. And I get all bent out of shape because YES YOUR LANGUAGE IS HARD, it has me in fits. But any language is hard, and any language can be learned. 

I wish I could give my kids the gift of being bilingual -- for poetic and practical reasons alike. I wish I could say we will keep speaking Japanese to them after we leave, but I am supremely lazy: without the immersion, the imperative evaporates. 

I suspect that there are many more things I will miss after we go, even the infuriating and confounding, because they are also humbling. This is what happens in a cultural collision, and much of bad attitude here is an extension of my invisible cultural privilege in The United States. Being uncomfortable for 10 months is really a small price to pay.

Now, wait for the next post where I get my Midwestern accent back with a vengeance.


Thursday, June 12, 2014


The kids and I keep finding little chips of pottery -- at the river, mixed into the concrete on the way to the park, under the trees at Gosho. Treasures! the kids call out. I fancy that they're talismans of a sort. 

Yesterday we found a handful at the river, winking up from among the stones; today, several in the park. Walking further, I found even more, and it became too much for a poetic interpretaion. This is just broken pottery that gets mixed in with the gravel, wherever it is spread. 

Can it be both? Quotidien and meaningful? Divine interjection with a human explanation? 

Either way, I had the idea to paint them, to treat each chip as its own complete composition and see how they turn out. It seems fitting. I'm always drawn to that shade of indigo, how completely it is complimented by the creamy white. I'm just going to take that at face value and not read anything into it. 

Meanwhile: this piece is giving me fits.

The upper left corner in particular is being stubborn. Everything I've tried there looks silly.

I know I'm in a bind when I've divided the piece into quadrants like that, because then inevitably I start protecting the things I do like, when really the solution to that corner probably lies in changing something fundamental about the whole thing. 

It's getting hard to charge ahead, now that it's almost time to pack things up and head Stateside for the summer. Maybe by the time I unpack this one in the fall, I'll have found the missing piece and will know exactly what to do.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

flight pattern

I have a recurring dream about flying.

I have some kind of machine, sleek and simple like a saucer sled, and in the beginning I can lift up and take off without a thought. I can feel the surge of power propelling me upwards, the same as opening the throttle on a motorcycle: intimate, responsive, thrilling. As the dream goes on, though, the power drains out. It diminishes until I can only take off with great effort, or, finally, am left trip-stumbling along the ground, unable to make it go.

Each time I have the dream, the details are a little different -- the scenery from above, the mechanism of the flying machine -- but the trajectory is always the same. The exhilaration of the ability to take flight, followed by the crushing disappointment of losing it. 

I had this dream the other night, and it finally occured to me that it is exactly the feeling I have about painting. 

Sometimes it's so effortless and intuitive, I really do feel propelled forward, elated by the energy of it. 

The very next day I will expect to launch myself again, and will fall ass-over-teakettle into mistake after mistake until I resign for the day, cross-eyed and cursing. 

How does it work? How do I make the thing go? I have no idea. 

I talked to Jason about it, who is a writer, so he understands the fickleness of creative flow, and he said, "yeah, and you still have to start out each day expecting to fly."

It's taken for granted, this hallmark of making art. It's the quintessential cliche: ah, the struggle

I can appreciate it a day or two later -- it's just the nature of the thing, and there's no use in trying to understand it. But when I'm in the thick of it I want to break brushes, slash canvases, rend garments. I want to pull down the curtain and see everyone else's mistakes. 

It's lucky to fly, and it's out of my control. My work is to stand up again, arms extended.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

a good look

On the bus the other day I was sitting in the back near a small group of Australian tourists, and I eavesdropped as they chatted about their shopping exploits and temple visits. They were in high spirits, gabbing away and laughing loudly. 

My first impulse was to turn to the Japanese woman on my other side and apologize for them. I'm sorry -- they don't know how loud they are. On a Japanese bus, all is civilized and quiet: personal space is carefully demarcated, and conversations are discreet. In this setting, loud foreigners seem positively barbaric. 

I didn't want to be implicated by association. So I did that annoying thing that ex-pats do here to show they're not tourists: I avoided looking at my fellow foreigners, definitely did not smile, and waited for an opportunity to say something clever to my seat-mate in Japanese.

Then I realized what was happening. I was seeing myself reflected in them -- their English, their flushed faces, their gratuitous body language, in a way that I never see myself reflected in Japanese people. It was startling to recognize myself so suddenly, like looking into a mirror when I was expecting a window. 

This may be the most disconcerting thing about being a gaijin, there is a clear line between inside and outside, and an irreconcilable tension between wanting to be unremarkable on the one hand, but visible and recognizable on the other hand. 

Donald Richie sums up the feeling in The Inland Sea, "Like all Americans, like all romantics, I want to be loved -- somehow -- for my precious self alone."

I decided to let the Australians go ahead and be rowdy on the bus and enjoy their vacation, let the stereotypes go unchallenged. 

But it stuck with me the rest of the day: who is this self that needs reflecting? 


I spend so much time studying faces, reading the stories they hold, deciphering the light behind the mask.

When I paint, my concerns are purely about color and value and the quality of the brushstrokes -- rendering the marvel that is human skin, translating the planes of the features into a mosaic trompe l'oeil.

study for Amie, 8 x 10", oil on paper
When I'm done it's always somewhat of a surprise to see a person there. 

I study my own face too, sometimes with bemusement, sometimes with cool apprehension. As with my art, I am eager to know what others see, at the same time that I feel embarrassingly exposed. What makes a good painting? What makes a face open, like an invitation?

When I go looking for mirrors, I get windows.


Friday, May 9, 2014


It didn't take much to finish this piece... A quick swipe of yellow, a little extra white washed over the blue like a veil.

It's one of those pieces that, at the end, I wish I'd taken pictures throughout the process to remind myself how it evolved, but when I'm in the midst of it I can't be bothered. Who wants to format and sort and arrange a dozen images, each just incrementally different than the last? I should hire someone, maybe. 


In this case it would have been appropriate to document its accumulation of layers, though, because it's ABOUT layers. I guess all of my abstract work lately is about layers, but the title for this one came in a little flash and seemed so fitting: "The Irritation Creates the Pearl."

When shelled mollusks are threatened by injury or parasites or other foreign intrusion, they secrete calcium carbonate to coat and neutralize the irritant. It's the same distinctive irridescent substance that lines the shells themselves, called nacre. In the inner mantle, the soft tissue of the mollusk, around the irritation, the concentric layers of nacre build a pearl. I read that the mollusk will continue adding these layers for the rest of its life.

I wonder if we are capable of this, too... building beautiful concretions around our wounds and irritations. Scar tissue isn't merely defensive, after all, it has a certain luster. 

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to have just the one image. The finished piece. It contains all its layers, some of which are secret. Just like yours and mine.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

as we go

The kids are back in school after their year-end break: Isla in a new class at kindergarten, and Auden, suddenly, impossibly, a First Grader. He barely made the cut-off date, starting just days after his 6th birthday. 

Now he walks to and from school with a group of other kids in the neighborhood. Even though we've been inching toward this kind of independence -- by sending him to the corner store for tea and snacks, and by not having heart attacks when he walks to the park by himself -- I am still finding it almost preposterous that we have reached this stage. I'm guessing the stomach roiling subsides after a while?

Isla likes to run around outside too, and hide in the narrow spaces between houses, in doorways, in the maze of narrow streets around our house. When I find her, she squeals with laughter, looking mischievous and triumphant. 

This is probably the safest place we could possible live, but I still have to fight a rising panic when I'm not entirely sure where they are. 

The other day they packed their carry-on suitcases full of toys and wheeled them out to the street, stopping at one friend's house, and then another, which I didn't discover until after I had gone full bore, riding my bicycle through the neighborhood, calling their names.

What kind of double-edged sword is this, anyway? The minute they stop needing me at their side every minute, I become freakishly masterful at conjuring catastrophic What-Ifs. 

Here they are, discussing their plans to travel to Bulgaria.

I want them to have this freedom, I want them to discover things on their own... Especially here, where they own what they find in a different way: words, connections, patterned pottery shards embedded in the concrete on the road to the park.

I suspect there's no other way to offer this except to practice as we go. So if you want me, kids, I'll be in the kitchen not having heart attacks.