A few months ago I started working on a portrait of my friend's daughter, for fun. I had already done the ground in loose, wash-y strokes, and wanted to try to keep the same looseness in the face, too.
From the outset, though, I layed down some heavy, chalky colors that simply would not harmonize. Too much contrast; too dark, too purple... Next layer, I'll reconcile that, I told myself.
Next layer: I merely solved one set of problems and created another. I probably should have left well-enough alone but oh right ha ha ha I never do that. Still too purple. I can fix it.
So around and around I went, falling into the same traps, having the same struggle, session after session. Stubbornness is a sneaky beast, isn't it? I worked myself into such a lather, determined to render the effortless sweetness of this expression with MORE effort.
A painter friend suggested, despite my frustration and against my better judgment, to keep pushing.
Just to find out what the paint will do. Here's the evolution:
HI dreamed the other night that we were at Kyoto Station, and there was a huge crowd waiting to board a train. The kids and I were getting pizza across the street, and when we turned around again the crowd was gone. They had all boarded the last train, and we had missed it.
"Like you were stuck in Kyoto?" Jason asked when I told him about it.
"No, like all of Kyoto left me." I replied.
Back in January, Jason did this thing where he applied for a position at a university in Oxford, England. I knew he was on the look-out for job openings, but I naively assumed any possibilities would bring us closer to home, not around the world in the other direction. He applied almost as a warm-up for the slew of postings that come available in the fall of every academic year, so I put it out of my mind and forgot about it until he found out he'd been short-listed as a candidate, in early March.
A couple of months later, he had a phone interview. Because of a time-zone calculation error and further delays, the call ended up happening at 2 o'clock in the morning, in the freezing front foyer of our Kyoto machiya. The following morning he summed it up like this: "I bombed it."
I reminded him that he usually dramatically underestimates himself, and that he probably did better than he thought. He was adamant, though, and actually a little relieved to be free of the torturous post-interview wait.
We were both genuinely gobsmacked, then, when they called barely four days later to offer him the
position. I was too shocked to even muster an I-told-you-so about his middle of the night interviewing skills.
ENGLAND?! I wrote in my date-book. And then cried for two hours straight.
As our remaining months in Japan unspooled, I tried my best to keep an even keel. While we worked through the logistics of an international hop-scotch move, I mapped an inner topography for the emotional trade-off and energy needed for yet another beginning.
I couldn't imagine going back to Rhode Island, I couldn't imagine what life in the UK might be like, and I couldn't figure out how to enjoy the waking present moment in Kyoto. I felt unmoored and brutally homesick.
I just had to make it here, to this day, then. Things would become clearer.
"We don't have a home," Auden started telling people, "We just rent a house and then move to another country."
Jason left last night, the kids and I will join him in three weeks. Now is the limbo, the space between the things. After all the moving we've done, you would think I'd be all practiced and limber and enlightened about Living in the Now, but it is painful and graceless every time.
No, not graceless: while we wait for our future to take shape, we are being housed and fed and entertained and shuttled about by my gracious and generous family, who ache just as we do in the bitter and the sweet of this move. And there is the lake.
But because all our moves seem to be pushing us to the ocean and to islands, I have taken to heart this line from Neko Case's "City Swans":
When we're in Michigan, the first thing to do is go to the lake.
After a year of feeling perpetually uncomfortable and hungry, of reaching and trying and keeping myself aloft, I can rest and be filled up on this lake.
Jason and I celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary; the kids are bingeing on cereal and TV. It is undeniably easy to be here... It's too easy. I feel guilty.
But the light on the water at eight o'clock is like something sinking into me, smoothing over what has been ragged and hyper and demanding, reflecting back something pure and unsayable.
Driving home at dusk last week, I watched fireflies light up the ditches by the side of the road -- astounded, in reverie, that there were so many. They lit up the edges of our way home, they kept flashing, pulsing, flickering... What is it? I thought. What is it like? It's so reassuring, how they are there they whole way, no matter which way we turn.
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.
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 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.
Feels like I need to explode but can't: stretched and taut, straining, straining, all tension and no release. Painting is blue-balling me.
I see what I want in other people's work -- I get inspired about colors to use, ways to resolve my compositions, and then when I face my own canvas, I absolutely flounder and every mark I make is just a new dilemma.
I hem and haw and dither, making little jabs and swipes, hoping, desperate for a point of entry. Finally, 20 minutes before I have to quit for the day, I attack the piece with giant angry strokes, usually undoing all of the fussy small brushwork I'd just spent the previous three hours creating, and that's the only decent mark I'll make all day. I hate this equation.
It seems like this is not true art-making, this haphazard accumulation of mistakes and corrections, of tentative attempts and premature declarations. I have changed! No, fuck, still the same.
How can I see what I want, imagine what I want, and not be able to create it? What is in the way?
Can't you just picture the God of Artists, bemused, tirelessly triaging: ranters to the left, manifestos to the right; blue-balled by your own ego, here's a sharp kick to the shins.
It's been a season of fumbling, and griping about fumbling. And reluctance to write because of the griping.
Don't I reconcile with myself every time? I make the peace offering, I put down the brass knuckles.