The Radical Choice of Staying Put


During the summer, things got a little tense. In the intense heat, our brains melted into goop, angry, restless goop. We decided to do what we always do when we get restless: move. Staying in Japan is pretty much our only option at this time (for various reasons: economic, scholastic, affectionate) so I frantically applied for jobs all around the country and began the arduous task of waiting. To keep my impatient mind occupied, I started running at night and writing in the early morning. Both being activities that I love to do and activities that I have managed to evade for most of my adult life (excluding periodic bursts of commitment). And yet in the vacuum of the waiting game, I found a schedule that actually worked for a tired mother of four schoolchildren. Suddenly Gotou had a new appeal: it became a place where I could work. Not just teach and pay bills but get actual work done. The push to leave the island diminished, even when the response to my applications turned out to be very positive. The logistics of moving did not seem worth the interruption of our daily lives. The kids are in school: they have their friends and after school activities. Jason has his sculpting studio finally established with several works-in-progress actually in progress. My teaching schedule is set and for a day job is rather straightforward. And most of all it keeps a roof over our heads and a visa in the passports.

Perhaps it is natural for us ageing expats/nomads to eventually figure out that if we want to accomplish more than just collecting a series of addresses then we have to sit down and just work. And really there are far worst places on this planet to come to this realisation. Gotou is a quiet but beautiful rock in the middle of the sea. It has all we need for right now. And while I don’t think we will become permanent members of the community, for now this is home.

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The Sunshine State//日照州


Yesterday was my youngest son’s first undoukai/sports festival. As usual, I waited until the morning of the event to get ready. I was unable to give it my full attention though because at the same time I was following reports about Hurricane Matthew on social media. I’m from Amelia Island, Florida. My family now mostly lives in St. Augustine. Both were hard hit by the storm. The coastline has been changed. Power is still out as I type this. Boil advisories in effect. Trees down everywhere. Coastal roads destroyed. It’s bad. It’s distracting. But it was time for undoukai and the bentos were packed and the sewing complete.

This year it was held in the elementary school’s gym due to rain. As a teacher, I had to help out and watch my kid, something I am rather used to at this point. From my viewpoint, I could see not only the students but the audience as well, parents and grandparents for the most part. And standing there, having fun on the other side of the planet, I felt a pang of homesickness. It was strong enough to cause tears to well in my eyes for a fleeting second. At that moment the storm was raging during the night of my hometown. Most people had evacuated so I felt pretty certain that everyone would be okay. But everything would be different after the storm passed.

For Floridians, hurricanes are something we accept, along with the alligators and shitty politicians. For those of us in the diaspora, it is not only heartbreaking to be away during a time of collective crisis, it is also hard because we cannot update our memory maps. To hear that landmarks are gone and not be able to see that with our own eyes means that there is a flaw in our map now that we cannot repair until we go back. The first thing we will want to see when we visit again are the changes. (When the Waffle House in my hometown closed, those living far away demanded photographic evidence.) Hurricane Matthew tore up our maps this week. It is psychologically shocking for us to be both useless in terms of helping recovery efforts and to have an outdated version of home in our minds.

I love living in Japan (for the most part) but if you want to get into a heated and lengthy discussion with me, just mention Florida. My home state is notorious throughout the nation for being riddled with problems and no one knows more about those problems than a Floridian. For the multigenerational Floridians, most of these problems stem from invasive species (flora and fauna with a particular emphasis on homo sapiens). Like with this hurricane. We know that hurricanes come and that Florida can take it, that we will survive. We also know that barrier islands are called barrier islands because they provide a, well, barrier between the sea and mainland Florida. They are meant to shift and be battered. And thus if people build on houses on barrier islands, their houses will shift and be battered. Florida also has a sophisticated drainage system in the form of wetlands, wetlands that developers are keen to fill in so that they can build more houses on. More houses for people who are unfamiliar with the uniqueness of the Florida ecosystem to move into and complain about the uniqueness of said ecosystem. Complaints that are heard by politicians who respond to moneyed voters rather than the long-term residents who have been struggling in a stagnant economy to continue to call themselves Floridians.

It is hard to feel so passionately about a place and to be away from it. And as a bit of a contradiction, I do not want to live in Florida. Most Floridians I know don’t want to live there. We love it and despise it. The weather is terrible, for a start. The mosquito is the state bird. There are pythons (invasive species in south Florida that is spreading north) and rattlesnakes and water moccasins and coral snakes and all those harmless snakes that look like venomous snakes. There is no public transportation so you are always driving and because it is hot, people are always a little angry and slow which, I believe, creates car accidents. It is flat and there are only two seasons summer and mild summer (which occurs around Christmas and when Floridians break out their hoodies). And of course, the number one enemy of Florida: Voldemort. But at the same time, most of us in the diaspora also say we would love to move back (if only we could afford it). We are contradictory folks, Floridians.

As far as this hurricane went, we were lucky. Only a few lives lost compared to the hundreds in Haiti (another place that is equally beautiful and terrible). I still don’t know how the house I grew up in fared but considering the shape we saw it in last, I have my doubts. In these coming days I will be half there and here as I follow the images coming in from friends and family, in my own feeble attempt to update my map.

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Volume 2:: Home Videos

So there was a little more editing in this volume but still working on the cinematography side of things (hard to do when you are chasing your subjects). This is our summer vacation, essentially. From mid-July to yesterday.

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City Mall//シティモール

One of my favourite jokes about the Goto City Mall is that it lives up to its name, which transliterated from katakana to English reads shitty. It is essentially a grocery store with a big 100 yen shop, a Mr. Donuts and an udon restaurant, plus a small variety of shops upstairs. According to one of Jason’s friends, it is where people on Goto go when they are sad. It is also the biggest/only shopping centre on the island. And it is where we go when we get bored/hot.
The heatwave is unrelenting so we escaped to the air conditioned comforts of the City Mall today via bus. IMG_1065IMG_1066IMG_1068

It’s fun for the kids as there is a small arcade (with older games but it doesn’t really bother the kids as old games are better than no games), a toy shop, and a bookstore upstairs.
Which is why I usually don’t bring them since the main draw for me is Mr. Donut’s iced coffee and the 100 yen shop. But I figured that they deserved a break from melting into the tatami so I brought them along and forked out change on demand (the good thing about always being, um, financially challenged, my kids really do know the limits of my wallet so after a few games they declare themselves done). Nico beat me in air hockey 9 to 1 somehow then Colette and I went on to play a metals game that features an animatronic dinosaur with a missing arm.
We spent several hours at the mall today, spanning the arc of the hottest hours. We had our donuts and yakisoba and then went for a walk in down a mountainside road before returning back for some kakigori (shaved ice). And when we left the City Mall, the kids complained that they had had a terrible time (which is code for they are sad to be leaving because they had an awesome time and are just trying to guilt you into returning). Going there is not something we can do often because the fun/novelty of the place would be quickly extinguished with even weekly visits, but for today I was really glad to have such an enjoyable shelter from the sweltering summer.

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How my garden grows//どのよう私の庭が成長する


One of the biggest transitions I made when we moved here a year and some months ago was to leave behind a huge vegetable garden and begin container gardening again.
I have always grown something but when we moved to Florida that something became our food source. I learned how to battle caterpillars and ants and drought. I managed to make tiny seeds become giant, flourishing plants. And I learned how to use the bounty of okra and peppers and tomatoes and eggplants and how to be overjoyed with the one watermelon that survived the raccoons. It was one of the most challenging and educational projects I have undertaken in my adult life. And I was smitten.
Then I moved to a tiny house surrounded by concrete except for a small strip of hostile rocky dirt between our neighbour’s tiny house. And it is dirt that they prefer to be dirt as they will spread poison over the soil at the first sign of life. So I returned to containers, except for a small rectangle of the dirt that the previous tenants had used as a flower bed and remains untainted with herbicide. The first year I was ambitious and bought too many plants from the bonneted farmer on the street corner. They were okay in the beginning but my heart was not into it and they became consumed by weeds.
I did discover the art of growing from clippings and filled the flower bed with hydrangeas of various varieties, mint and rosemary and basil. And then after much research I found an heirloom seed company that I could order from online and pay for them afterward at the post office. How I restrained myself can only be explained by the lingering heartache from the previous attempt.
The seed packets sat longer than I realized as I am not very good with keeping track of the calendar pages as they expire. So a couple of weeks ago, frustrated with American politics, I took to the dirt and planted my seeds. Simple selection of Okinawan okra, cherry tomatoes, purple peppers, and sesame seeds. As I mentioned yesterday, it has been a really long summer with no sign of relief so I don’t feel it is too late in the growing season.
Today I transplanted the seedlings into bigger containers, deep buckets for the okra, long rectangles for the tomatoes and peppers. The sesame will go into the flower bed as the mint and shiso have given up their ghosts for the year and the hydrangea will be transferred to pots. The sesame will grow tall until it produces the seed pods that I will have to net in order to harvest my seeds. They will be a little unwieldy before then and the neighbours will probably titter and fuss but that is okay. I will have my little harvest in before they can find their poison.
Perhaps it will be a long time before I have another garden like I did in Florida. Most likely it will. Until then I will have to make due with whatever dirt I can get my hands into.

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夏休み// Summer Holidays

Oh my. I am not going to lie. This summer is breaking me. And I am from Florida. We would probably not be suffering so much if we had something fancy like an air conditioner. But we don’t. We don’t have a car either. Or a bike. We do have highs in the mid-to-upper 90s. We also have crazy beautiful beaches, blue skies everyday, a non-stop symphony of cicadas, popsicles, and the pool.
All elementary schools in Japan have a pool after a few drowning incidents a couple of decades ago alarmed the nation to the fact that kids were not learning how to swim like they used to (back when they had more free time and were less urban). So it was mandated that every elementary school have a pool. When we lived in Nagoya, the pool was on the school’s roof. Now the pool is a few blocks away from the school, sandwiched between two Buddhist temples and a mountainside graveyard. During the summer holidays the pool is staffed by neighbourhood volunteers who essentially just sit on the side, making sure that everyone showers and nobody drowns. And, because it belongs to the school, there is no admission fee. My oldest two go down there during the day with their friends and in the late afternoon, the younger two get their turn.


Today was no exception, though I had switched roles with Jason for the afternoon since I had a migraine and needed to sleep it off. When I woke, the kids informed me it was time to go so we went. A couple of older boys were playing in the pool and shouted their hellos to Aki and Haru. When the kids were finally in the water, the boys adopted Haru and helped him to get over his timidity. By the time they were finished today, all of the kids were doing cannonballs, even Haru. I stood to the side since I forgot my swim cap and watched dragonflies couples dancing over the water and the occasional giant black butterfly dip down towards the rippling surface. In the graveyard the frames had been erected for the Obon lanterns that will hang there from tomorrow. And walking home, the children’s cheeks sun kissed and steps slow from exhaustion, I realised that we had had a proper summer break moment, a moment that would be remembered over the vast amount of time we have spent melting on the tatami mats.

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Random Bits of Us:: July version

Last month, I got a new to me iPhone and have been accumulating little clips from life here on Gotou following around the four primates who call me mom. I plan to improve my cinematography and editing skills so hopefully these monthly mixed tapes will become progressively more watchable. Until then, they are probably just of interest to blood relatives and close friends but I thought I would post it here on the off chance that you wanted to see nine minutes of shaky videos clips all smashed together.
Hope you are well. xo
July 2016:: Random clips of us

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Let’s Play// 遊びましょう

We are in the middle of the rainy season so that means when the clouds break, we are out the door and usually to the park. This last Sunday was one of those days and we went to the nearby seaside park with this little rocky stream running through it. It was a very small break but the sky was blue, the dragonflies were on patrol, and all of us felt much better after getting some sunshine on our skin and dirt under our nails.

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Green Persimmons// 青い柿

kakiThis year the persimmons decided
they were tired of being autumn fruit
They wanted to know what it was like to
have the full summer sun ripen their
skin orange, to have a bird other than
inky crows rest amongst their limbs
If they could have talked with the loquat first
they would have seen the folly of their
idea but they were ignoring the loquats since
they had refused to answer any correspondence
the persimmons had not noticed the gardeners
and their saws, taking down the branches of their
old friends almost bare except for a few
long ridged leaves, more yellow than green
So the persimmons went ahead with their plan
and flowered in the spring, assisted by
pollinators who had hatched early in order to get
as much business done as possible before the
summer heat made it tiresome to fly
The scheme was going along well, they saw swallows
building nests and dragonflies, not red ones
that patrolled the autumn skies,
but blue ones, green ones,
summer ones
The fruit grew and grew and though they knew something
was a little strange, a little off, they ignored it and
dreamt instead of long summer days, of children
in shorts with skint knees, holding sparklers,
the silver and gold light bouncing off the driveways,
Of being harvested along with watermelons and corn,
of being considered a treat, so early in the year
Then the storm came, a storm they had not anticipated
In the first few hours, they managed to hold onto most of the fruit
but as the gale winds raged on, their strength waned
Those who could hear tree-speak would have been saddened that
night to hear the weak cries of the persimmons:
can’t hold on, can’t hold on, can’t hold on


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About the rain… // 雨について。。。

In Nagoya, my home for three years, there is a display at the municipal science museum showcasing the annual rainfall in the city. They used test tubes and blue beads to depict the amount of rain. Most of the tubes were empty save a handful in June for the rainy season and a couple in September when a typhoon came ashore. The kids and I counted and did some quick math: 356 sunny days. Nagoya is a concrete desert so it is incredibly hot in the summer and incredibly cold in the winter with strong winds blowing through in between. Prior to living in Nagoya, we were on Gotou for two years. Two years of hail, thunderstorms, ceaseless rain, hail, constant cloud coverage. 356 days of sunshine seemed worth the blistering heat and the bitter cold.
We came back to Gotou fully aware of what we were getting into but it does not mean that I do not complain about the weather. It does mean that the rare days of blue skies and warm breezes make me dance with my children and sing silly made-up songs that embarrass the older ones. I am trying to accept and appreciate the temperamental weather. We live on an island in the sea: it is part of the deal. Gorgeous beaches, delicious food, cozy small town life, and a magnetic for every cloud that travels up and down the East China Sea.
As part of my effort to embrace the erratic climate, I am documenting it and learning how to describe it. Japanese is useful for this purpose since it is brimming over with rain-based terminology. Look at this list of words used just for describing the intensity of the rain:

弱雨 じゃくう jakuu weak rain

小雨 こさめ kosame light rain

小降り こぶり koburi light rain

微雨 びう biu light rain

小糠雨 こぬかあめ konukaame fine rain

煙雨 えんう enu misty rain

細雨 さいう saiu drizzle

多雨 たう tau heavy rain

大雨 おおあめ ooame heavy rain

強雨 きょうう kyouu severe rain

横降り よこぶり yokoburi driving rain

吹き降り ふきぶり fukiburi driving rain

篠突く雨 しのつくあめ shinotsukuame intense rain

集中豪雨 しゅうちゅうごうう shuuchuugouu severe localized downpour

I was looking over these words today, trying to accurately describe the heavy rain that had been coming down since midnight. I stood outside, immediately soaked, looking at the flooded garden next door. What is the difference, I wondered, between severe, driving, and intense? And since the storm seems to be just passing over us, does it qualify as a severe localized downpour, even though it has been pouring down for over twelve hours? I think what I should do is combine all the terms into a new kanji that will represent Gotou’s specific rain. Most likely if I studied Gotou dialect (Gotou-ben) more, I would find that there is already an entire set of words designed just for island weather.
Of course that would require going outside to find someone willing to teach me Gotou-ben and, well, it’s raining.

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