Here, There and Everywhere

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Ashita (Tomorrow) – Part 3

Excerpt from children’s story collection Solar Girl and Lunar Boy.

Ashita (Tomorrow) – Part 3 (Conclusion)

Whether it had been divine providence, coincidence or random luck, I’ll never know; but my faith in Buddha and the precepts were instantly restored. I attended the temple weekly and diligently started reciting my sutras. I even entertained the idea of becoming a nun, until a wonderfully romantic dream convinced me I’d never make it as a recluse.

Reverend Tsukiyama brought the application later that week, as well as some phone numbers of other families who had daughters in the program. Haha knew one or two and called them that evening. I walked into the kitchen as she was finishing her last call.
She hung up solemnly and said we’d talk about it in the morning.

“OK,” I replied, acting as if it didn’t concern me in the least. “I think I’ll call it a day. Goodnight Haha.”

I figured the sooner I went to bed, the earlier the sun would rise. I brushed my teeth, put on my nightclothes and snuggled in for the hopefully brief darkness, but the night crawled by like a sleepwalking sloth.

Sleep deprived and blurry eyed, I was waiting anxiously at the breakfast table when Haha, Chichi and Soba (grandmother) straggled into the kitchen.

“Well?” I exclaimed, almost lifting off my seat.

“Well what?” Haha replied.

“You know what!”

“Oh, that,” she said.

They sat and stared down at the table. Haha was the first to break. She glanced my way with a brilliant grin.

“I can! I can!” I jumped up and down and kissed them all. “You won’t be sorry! I’ll make you proud! Thank you. Thank you. I love you all!” I bowed so many times I thought I’d surely broken my back!

Chichi turned away and went outside without saying a word.

Haha and Soba were crying. “I’ll be all right. Don’t cry,” I said.

Chichi left for work without speaking to me.

That night Haha followed me to bed and sat on the side as I got under the covers.

“I’m sorry Hon, I didn’t mean to bring a cloud on your head.”

“What do you mean?”

“We weren’t crying because we were sad. Well, we are sad to see you go, but it’s more than that.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” I cautioned, feeling a bit uneasy.

She continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “Soba and I are happier for you than you’ll ever know. We’re so proud of you.” She smiled and started crying again.

“Haha.” I put my arms around her. “What’s wrong?”

She wiped her wet cheek on the sleeve of her silk kimono; the one Soba had given her back in the fifties. “Nothing’s wrong,” she sighed. “Everything’s right. You’re doing something Soba and I never had the chance to do.” Her eyes watered again. “I think we’re feeling a little sorry for ourselves. I didn’t want to be a nurse, but I did want to write and play music.” She paused, gently caressing the blanket with her callused fingers. “Who knows, I might have been pretty good at it too.”

“What stopped you?”

“It just wasn’t something women were ‘supposed to do’. Our duty was to home and family, but I can’t blame it all on that.” She looked away. “I was scared. I’d never lived apart from my family. I knew what to do at home. I’d seen it done all my life. It was safe. I did what was expected.”

I started feeling guilty. “If only we hadn’t come along,” I thought.

Seeming to have read my mind she quickly added, “It’s not your fault! I couldn’t imagine life without you. When you’re a mother you’ll know how much I love you. No, I don’t regret having children.” She smiled and shook her head. “It’s hard sometimes and tiring as hell . . .”

“Haha!” I exclaimed. I’d never heard her swear before.

“There’s something special about each and every one of you.” She stopped, as if she’d just realized something profound. “I wish I wasn’t such a scared-y-cat.”

“Well?” I asked.

“Well what?”

“Why don’t you do something about it?”

She blushed. “It’s too late for that.”

“Too late?!” I exclaimed. “Remember that poem you wrote a couple years ago about the farm?” She nodded bashfully. “It was great! Everyone said so. Why don’t you start writing again?”

“I wish there was time, between chores and kids I barely get any sleep as is,” she said justifiably.

“Make time,” I insisted. “Basho and Yutaka are old enough to help out. You could practice your music too.”

“You’re so sweet.” She gave me a big hug. “I’ll think about it.”

“I love you Haha.”

“And I you.” Our necks were damp with tears. “I miss you already,” she cried.

I sat back smiling. “I’m only going to be two hours away.”

“I know.” She laughed.

“Chichi acts like I stuck a knife in his back,” I said sadly, looking at the floor. “It’s not like I’m going to Europe or something.”

Haha brushed the hair from my forehead. “He’ll come around. You are like the rising sun to him. He can’t imagine not having you here.”

“You don’t understand,” I said, feeling my cheeks getting wet once again. “He had me promise . . . I promised that I’d never leave Hamatombetsu.” I hid my shame behind my hands.

“Yuki,” Haha whispered. “Yuki. Look at me.”

I looked through blurry eyes.

“He never told me about that and you know why?” Haha asked. I shook my head. “Because he knows it was a foolish thing to ask a little girl to promise. How old were you . . . nine, ten?”

I stopped crying. “I was nine. It was on our way back from visiting Shogi in Sapporo.”

Haha shook her head. “He had no right to have you make such a promise.” Haha looked out the window. “He knows you can’t hold on to joy or try to put it in a chicken pen. You have to find your own way Musume, with your own heart.” She held my hand. “I’ll speak with him. He only wants your happiness.”

In less than a month I was informed of my acceptance, but it wasn’t until my crying Chichi and I got in his old beat up truck, waved goodbye and drove down the familiar, pot-marked dirt road, that it seemed real.

Haha had been right. Chichi came back to me the morning after they’d given me their blessing to go. He told me they would visit as often as they could. He helped me pack, gave me what little money they had and said he’d always be my “Number one fan.”

I wondered if my prayers had helped push my wish to the top of the karmic pile or the Bodhisattva’s had just taken a nap and knocked it off by accident. Then again, perhaps Sapporo wasn’t the land of honey and happiness after all. I looked back at my shrinking family and sobbing friend Kiri, who were waving in the distance. Through my bittersweet tears I realized that my ashita had become imadoki (today).

THE END

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Ashita (Tomorrow) – Part 2

Excerpt from children’s story collection Solar Girl and Lunar Boy.

Ashita (Tomorrow) – Part 2

Now I was being pulled, like an obsessive magnet, towards Sapporo’s alluring illusion of happiness. I was infected with a virulent virus known as TRISSES (The Rice Is Sweeter Somewhere Else Syndrome).
I wasn’t sure how to make my break – work, elope, runaway or hijack a bus? My teenage desire contradicted all financial logic. Our family had no savings account, wealthy relatives or hidden cash to save me from the purgatory in which I wallowed. My parents had no inkling of my nightly anguish and I wasn’t about to let them in on the secret. If they discovered my desire to go to Sapporo, their fears about “that depraved city of immorality” would descend upon me like a swarm of locusts. I had never forgotten the promise I’d made my father and neither had he.

When times were tough, I’d always been harangued into attending the local temple and praying for understanding and humility. After awhile I discovered that the prayers and priests divination’s often coincided with the will of my parents, teachers, and other illustrious icons of the community, but I figured I might as well give it one last try.

On a sunny Saturday in July, I decided to attend temple on a personal quest. I was turning eighteen in two weeks and could see the tiny grains of sand falling through the hourglass at the speed of light.
I wasn’t the kind of girl to stay home and play house or get married. Having grown up with six younger siblings, I was certain I’d rather be tortured and hanged then ever marry and have children! I didn’t mind if other women want to live that life, but it wasn’t my cup of tea or so I thought at the time.

I entertained the thought, rather briefly, about being a teacher. There were a few teachers I admired, respected and even fell in love with. Mr. Sato was my favorite. He had the nicest smile and always complimented my papers. Simple comments like, “Nice work.” would send Kiri and I into spasms of joy and late night talks about how one of us would make Mr. Sato our boyfriend. The fact that he was married, with children and twenty years our senior, seemed irrelevant at the time. Why should that matter when he was “so nice and cute”?
With somewhat more mature reflection, I doubted I could stand in front of thirty pairs of beady little eyes to impart any semblance of knowledge or words of wisdom. I’d surely wilt on the spot from fright.

Then the thought of working as a nurse embedded its tentacles in my skimming mind. That was something I knew absolutely nothing about. What could be so hard about that, I reasoned, handing doctors instruments, putting on bandages and saving people’s lives? I didn’t know about the ugly stuff, the pictures you don’t see on television – people throwing up on your newly washed uniform; exhausted interns screaming obscenities at your “incompetence”; wiping the bottom of a smelly old drunk dying from liver disease.

Haha (Mother) couldn’t believe how anxious I was to go to temple that day. “What’s gotten into you? I’ve never seen you so fired up.”

“Nothing special, I just want to recite sutras and pray for Buddha’s compassion.”

She looked me up and down, smiling with a look that said, “Yeah, sure.”

We arrived ten minutes early, dressed in our finest attire. I didn’t even mind wearing the totally embarrassing dress Haha had made for me to wear on special occasions. She had hand-stitched it from some strange fabric my aunt had given her. She gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. You could see the pride she had felt when she handed me the package and bowed. Internally I had moaned. “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that old-fashioned fake-flower monstrosity!” But all she heard was my dutiful reply, “Thank you Haha. It’s beautiful.”

I rushed inside and sat on the mat. The rest of my bewildered family soon caught up and joined me, looking around nervously, ill at ease to be sitting so close to the altars.

Reverend Tsukiyama recited his ancient incantations, the followers paraded there off key voices with theatrical vengeance and everyone responded with stifled coughs and yawns. Silently, I plunged the depths of my imagination and begged the Ancestors and Buddha’s to reward me for all my good karma. “Please, please!” I begged. “Take me away from these endless fields of wheat, barley and chickens and deliver me to the Pure Land – Sapporo!”

“Get up child,” Haha whispered. “Service is over.”

The priests were shuffling down the corridor towards the hall entrance.

“Over?” I said in shock. “It can’t be! Nothing happened!”

“What are you talking about?” She felt my head. “You feeling OK Musume (daughter)?”

“I’m fine,” I mumbled, as we formally bowed and headed out. Haha kept eyeing me like a suspicious inspector.

What went wrong? I’d done everything! I helped take care of my brothers and sisters, seldom argued with my parents and never even thought about sex or drugs – well, not about taking drugs anyway. I said my nightly prayers and didn’t even hit Sashi Mutsui when she called me a “stupid little pig”.

I was a good girl. Why was I being singled out for punishment? Who were these dead priests and Bodhisattvas anyway . . . the farmers of suffering . . . the divine bean keepers? “This one’s good. That one’s bad. You deserve pleasure. You deserve pain. And you, Yuki, you have to live in Hamatombetsu until you shrivel up and die!”

I swore I’d never set foot on temple grounds again. “You call this a temple?” I admonished, looking at the empty space between the high, engraved ceiling and polished floor. “If I’m going to be stuck here the rest of my life, I might as well jump into the funeral pyre now and let my ashes blow away with the wind!”

As we reached the entrance, Reverend Tsukiyama motioned our family aside. The Reverend was somewhat of a village icon. In his forty years of service he had initiated, married and/or buried almost everyone in town. He’d known me since I was a wailing little bundle of flesh. He was a creaky, robust, silver-haired representative of communal devotion and tradition. Seeing his face reminded me of the day he caught Kiri and I orange-handed, sort of speak, on these very grounds.

We had snuck into the temple courtyard one day after school, like teenage fruit-stealing ninjas and devoured some delicious temple persimmons. They had been hanging invitingly on the lowest branch when we’d first eyed them after service the previous week. We had gleefully conspired then and their to stop by, when we thought the reverend was out making house calls and help ourselves to one of our favorite treats. Everything had gone according to plan, until we’d turned to leave and Reverend Tsukiyama entered the courtyard.
What could we say? We had orange persimmon juice all over our hands and faces. At first, it looked like he was about to laugh, but then his face turned very stern and he admonished us severely, naming every hideous realm of suffering we would end up in if we continued our lives of crime. We hadn’t known that after we’d gone running home that it had taken every ounce of control he had to not break out laughing when he’d discovered our shocked, setting-sun colored faces.

“Yuki,” the Reverend whispered. “Have you thought about your future?”

“What?” I said, still in a belligerent, melancholy daze.

“Your future. Have you thought about your future?”

“My future? It’s all I think about.”

“Well,” he chuckled mischievously. “If you don’t want to be a teacher or politician, I heard about a hospital in Sapporo that trains young girls to be nurses” his eyes sparkled, “and it doesn’t cost a single yen.”

I was stunned. He smiled a rapturous grin, then put on his stern, fatherly face. “Of course, it’s not entirely free. There is a catch.” My eyes were as big as saucers. “Once you finish their two-year program you have to work at their hospital for another two years. They provide room and board.”

I felt like I’d just been hit in the head with a large rock. “I thought you knew about this,” he said. “I’ve been telling all the girls about it.” My mouth hung open like a hungry carp.

I managed a few syllables, “No. I never . . .”

“If your parents don’t mind,” he continued, “I’d be glad to stop by later this week with the application and phone num . . .”

My shouting drowned out the good reverend before he finished his sentence.

“Yes, yes, yes! How do I apply? When does it start?”

He didn’t have time to answer. I turned to Haha and Chichi and pleaded shamelessly, “Please, please say yes!” I was jumping up and down like a kid who wanted a sweetened dumpling.

They hesitated, then Haha anxiously asked, “You want to be a nurse?”

“Yes!” I shouted. “With all my heart.”

“You never mentioned this before.”

“I thought it was impossible.”

Chichi turned stoically towards my black-robed savior and stated calmly, “We’ll think about it Reverend. It’s most kind of you to consider Yuki worthy of such a program. You know you are always welcome in our home.”

“They’d think about it?!” I screamed in my head. The answer to my prayers had just been delivered like a divine telegram and all they could say was, “they’d think about it!” I took a deep breath, put on my best face and managed a feeble semblance of control. At least they were considering it. In my vocabulary, that was as good as a yes!

At that moment my little girls promise to my Chichi to never leave our village had been washed away in a flood of excitement, but he hadn’t forgotten. Caught up in the moment, I didn’t allow myself to see the pain and sense of betrayal that was boiling under my father’s skin.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

PART 1

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Saint Catherine’s Baby

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

The moist air, surrounding the 16th century creation planted its wet kisses upon the cold stone walls, which slid luxuriously down its weathered face. The creeping ivy, chlorophyll pulsing through its dark green leaves, caressed the soft hearty moss. New generations of recently born shoots sprouted from the elder ivy’s fingertips, seeking their lone paths in the cracks of St. Catherine’s monastery.

The religious encampment had been built on the storm infested Western coast of Ireland; its founders seemingly intent on locating the most masochistic environment possible to beat their souls into sublime submission.

The last residing nun, Sister Rose Marie, had died a blessedly sudden and peaceful death at two in the afternoon, on an unusually balmy Easter Sunday, in the year of Our Lord 1968. She and a faithful supporter, Mrs. Bernadette O’Brien, mother of Walter O’Brien, had been on their knees praying in the chapel when it appeared that the good sister had a heart attack and keeled over quietly onto the floor.

“Her hands was frozen in prayer, they was,” Mrs. O’Brien had religiously repeated for years thereafter. “She had the smile of an angel.”

***

Shawn and Marcy didn’t give a witch’s ass about the history of St. Catherine’s. They’d been driving randomly from county to county, looking frequently in their rear view mirror; expecting nothing but trouble.

They’d discovered St. Catherine’s while returning from an off-the-road farm, where a farmer had given them a couple gallons of petrol from his broken down tractor. While carrying the fuel back in a couple of plastic milk containers, they accidentally turned right, instead of left to their energy starved car.

“’Tis this way,” Shawn said with assurance.

“’Tis not,” Marcy insisted. “Was that way.”

Shawn frowned, shaking his head impatiently.

“Remember that rock, why don’t ya?!” Marcy pointed at a large chipped boulder to her left.

“I’m a going this way. You coming or not?” He started walking without waiting for her answer.

She trudged after him, complaining to the gravel below her feet, “An idiot, he is.”

When they rounded the bend that brought St. Catherine’s into sight, Marcy gasped.

“Jesus!” Shawn exclaimed,

“It must be ancient.” Marcy stumbled forward.

“Think they be any dragons?” Shawn teased.

They pushed hard upon a rusty-hinged, thick wooden door. It cracked open. The wind played with itself in the center of the courtyard, rising, turning, diving and suddenly taking flight. Calls of “Anyone home?” were absorbed into the stones like water in a dry sponge.

“Why’d they build such hideous things?” Marcy whispered, as they walked into a shadowy, stale room, her dirty black hair stranded on her shoulders.

“They must’ve been tilted.”

“A bunch of bloody lunatics!” Marcy scowled.

“Absolutely,” Shawn agreed, his bushy red hair, freckles and twice broken nose, nodding obediently.

Marcy had on a long coat to cover her thin, full-length skirt. She hated skirts, but couldn’t tolerate much else these days. “I can’t wait to get back into some jeans,” she said, looking down at her swollen belly. “Without this coat I’d have frozen my tits off by now.”

“Look at these windows!” Shawn said, “They’re small enough for dwarfs.”

Marcy pulled open a door to some side rooms that contained a single wooden platform for a bed in each small musty enclosure.

Shawn looked in over her shoulder. “What a dreary thing.”

“They was some awful poor brothers this lot.”

“Didn’t know there was anyone with less than we.”

“Och, but they chose it, didn’t they?”

After further investigation they returned to the trail and found their car. They parked close to the rocky path leading down to the sea’s edge and hauled their belongings back to the monastery, into the warmest, best protected room they’d found; the chapel.

They had enough food for a couple of weeks, groceries they’d picked up in County Clare, using a stolen credit card they’d lifted upon leaving Dublin. They could drive back when they needed, go to another store or town and use a different card. They thought about switching the car, but figured they had a little more time before it was reported missing.

As darkness fell, they zipped their sleeping bags together, put them on the torn carpet by the altar and tried to get some rest. It didn’t help that Marcy had to pee again and again. There was no indoor plumbing. It seemed as if she’d just snuggled in and gotten all warm and toasty like, when nature urgently called. The freezing wind coming off the Atlantic screamed over her head as she rushed to and from the outhouse. CONTINUED

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Choosing To See Color

I grew up in the segregated North, in Redding California. Redding was mostly a lumber mill town when I was a child; a place people only saw on there way to somewhere else. My father worked in the lumber mill for over 40 years. Besides the Native American family from the Hoopa Tribe that lived across the street, white faces surrounded us, including our own when we looked in the mirror.

We played frequently with the “Indian Kids” as people called them and often heard our “good” neighbors’ accusations and insinuations about “those kids” father having a “drinking problem”. “He is Indian after all,” they would say, as if that explained everything. As a child, I didn’t understand the bigotry or stereotyping that was occurring. All I knew was that their father was rarely home and if he was we had to be very quiet.

In the late fifties and early sixties, from the age of about six to nine, my mother started working part time and hired a woman named Alberta to watch my sister and I at her home. Alberta was black and her husband, Lemual, was a Baptist Minister. They had two children, Albert and Brenda. They were probably the first black people we had ever met in person, let alone seen. They lived in a small dilapidated home in a run down part of town. Later, as a teenager, I became aware that most of the black people in Redding lived in a poor section of town, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.

Alberta was a big, dark brown woman whose loud strong voice could stop us in our tracks. If Candace (my sister), Albert and Brenda and I were outside playing tag or hide-an-seek and Alberta called for us to come in, we didn’t linger, but headed in as fast as our legs could carry us. She was strict, but caring. I remember her giving us big warm hugs that enveloped our little bodies, until it felt like we had disappeared.

Occasionally, Alberta would take us all to her husband’s church and we would play outside while she attended choir practice. We would all moan, along with the other black kids hanging around, about how boring it was and wondered when they would be done.

Albert and Brenda fought off and on, like brothers and sisters do, but never picked on Candace and I. It was in Brenda’s bedroom that I first heard soul music. I think it was The Supremes, The Miracles and “Little” Stevie Wonder. We would dance and sing and laugh at all our dancing and clowning around, until Alberta told us to “Quiet down in there!”.

After three or four years, when my mother had divorced and remarried, our family moved to a bigger home, farther out from town and we stopped going over to Alberta’s. Mom said they kept in touch with Alberta and her family for awhile, but they eventually moved out of the area and she hasn’t heard from them in decades.

In the late sixties, I “went with” a girl who was black in high school. It only lasted a few weeks. At first I just followed her around until she noticed me, then we talked on and off and held hands once or twice. She was easy to spot, because she had a gigantic Afro and was one of only four black kids at the entire school. At the time, I was doing everything I could think of “against the establishment” and this was simply another way to proclaim my independence and spit in the face of convention. It didn’t really mean much to her nor I and I doubt if she would even remember it today.

What strikes me about all these experiences of childhood, adolescents and as an adult, is that I, as a white man, have always had the choice of when and how I chose to interact with or befriend people of color or deal with race. Sometimes I have done so when it fulfills a need, is convenient, gives me a sense of having “helped” someone or fits my self-image of being an excepting, understanding person. It was for my benefit and I had control of if and when.

When I interviewed Lee Mun Wah, a well-known facilitator and videographer, for my book on transforming grief for social good, he said, “We don’t take the time to really look, to really experience. The American Indian is right when they say, ‘You want my customs, my rituals and my land, but you don’t want me.’ What we do is, we use people and cultures. We use them when it’s convenient, for a service, for artifacts. Rarely do we take the time to understand how we relate to each other.”

At times, I too, have not really looked or listened. I have put people in boxes and preconceived easily digestible categories that make life comfortable and lead me to believe that “everything is so much better nowadays than it used to be.” And it is, in some respects, but it shouldn’t stop me from looking honestly at myself and not minimizing or candy-coating another persons experience out of my own need for security.

In Notes of a Native Son (1953) James Baldwin wrote, “The black man insists that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being. This is a very charged and difficult moment, for there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naivete. Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity.”

I wish things were simple. I wish just talking about race and prejudice was simple. I wish everybody was treated equally and had the same opportunities, but we’re not. The best I can do is not be afraid to look at myself and the person in front of me through rose-colored glasses and tell the truth as I see it, inside and out. Nowadays, my friends who are black or brown are my friends because they are simply my friends and the same is true for our children and their friends. I don’t try to pretend however, to my self or others, that everyone is now treated equally.

In our society (and most around the world), the color of your skin still matters. I’m not going to turn away from this reality and act like the privilege’s I have as a white man in America don’t exist. I’m choosing to look at this reality face to face and call other white men and women on it when they act as if everything has changed and they say things like “We’re all equal. It doesn’t matter what color someone is.”. Race matters. If you don’t think so, try walking around in brown or black skin for awhile and see how you’re treated.

We have to acknowledge and respect our differences and take off the blinders, before we can move beyond difference and see that there is only one of us here.

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