Our Family Adventure in Japan

 I apologize to my readers for my prolonged absence. I’ve spent most of the fall and winter of 2013 neck deep in a fiction project. Because it’s the school holidays, I’m taking a moment to pause for breath. (Apart from reading Harry Potter with my seven-year old, doing crafts with my four-year-old, and cleaning my half of our home office, I’m taking a break from almost everything). I also made a pledge to myself to return to my blog, and here I am.

Also, an update on the aforementioned, upcoming comic strip. In the fall, my collaborator and illustrator became pregnant. Due to a difficult first term, she was unable to work. She’s feeling better, and we’re back at work! More to follow in the coming months….

Last fall, we flew the whole family to Japan. My youngest being four and a half, my oldest seven and a half, we thought it not a bad time to travel halfway across the world to a foreign country, one with a thirteen hour time zone difference. And while the experience was challenging (my son ate only rice for three weeks), it yielded numerous rewards.

For one, being in a completely foreign culture strengthens family bonds. For another, we had the reward of experiencing a country we’d wanted to go to for a long time, one rich in nature and culture.

I spent a relatively short time there, so I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert on Japan—I’m not. But two things struck me: one, that Japan is parent and child friendly. I also noticed how rooted Karate-Do etiquette is in Japanese society.

Japan appears to be structured around family. Given the relatively low birth rate, I find this curious. Nevertheless, many things seemed to be made with the needs of the family in mind. The bathing culture in particular is family friendly. (Can I rave for a minute about how much I love Japanese baths. For one, I love lounging in water. I also appreciate that young girls witness women’s nude bodies in all their varieties, a healthy counter measure to media images of unrealistic women’s bodies.)

One village bath, in Yakushima (a small island south east of mainland Japan), had a wooden crib in its change room. I watched a young mother leave her baby in the crib while she went to bathe herself and her two other children. Old women gathered around the crib. The baby, who must have been three or four months old, squinted up at them, gurgling as the women cooed and fussed. In my own lonely months as a mother of young children, I would have given everything I owned for that kind of communal support. I found it hard enough to get away for a shower!

The degree to which the Japanese have solved those little everyday problems we encounter in modernized society astounds me. They seem particularly attentive to parental needs.

In many public washrooms in Tokyo and Kyoto, small, hanging booster seats are found not only in cubicles, but also beside the communal sinks. Mothers can seat the toddlers in the boosters while they themselves use the washroom or wash their hands.

Only a parent can fully understand the benefit of these hanging seats. No longer will you have to teeter off the toilet to try to grab a toddler attempting to crawl under the cubicle door, while you simultaneously try not to pee on your feet. No longer will you have to leave the sink prematurely in order to pursue a child, your hands dripping a trail across the floor, under others’ disapproving stares.

Visiting Japan, I understood for the first time where Karate-Do etiquette comes from. Everyone went out of their way to be helpful. We don’t speak a word of Japanese, but Japanese people were willing to work on understanding us.

And people bow, of course. Not only that, though. They are extremely attentive. When you speak to someone, they are fully present. Their bodies are still. They listen. Then they do everything possible to meet your needs. Everyone we met seemed to practice loving kindness, a practice undoubtedly rooted in Zen Buddhism.

I’ve often been told that Japan has a very low crime rate. I have an uncle who works in the police force in Paris. He informs me that Japanese tourists in Paris are often victims of crime, simply because, coming from a somewhat crime-free society, they’re unusually trusting.

On the day we left Tokyo for Kyoto, my husband forgot his wallet beside a subway ticket machine. Our train tickets, credit cards, and the cash we had just retrieved in preparation for our travel day (many places in Japan run on cash only) were in that wallet. Leaving us at the train station, he went back to our point of departure in the hopes that someone had retrieved the wallet. I sat the kids down on their mini suitcases at the side of an underground corridor, where thousands of commuters tripped briskly back and forth between subway and train lines. For the next two hours, we read books and, to the kids’ delight, ate vending machine chips and chocolate.

Two hours later, he was back.

He told me the story. The wallet had not been at the ticket machine, and, desperate, my husband approached the ticket collector. By dint of gestures and the Google Translate feature on his phone, he communicated his predicament. The collector pointed him in the direction of what turned out to be the Lost and Found room. There, my husband found his wallet. Train tickets, credit cards, and several bills were there, all untouched.

 

 

 

Standing on One Foot

Are you a woman, or a mouse? (Annie Dillard The Writing Life)

 

When to practice karate? This is always the question. I’m constantly trying to fit in all the things I enjoy doing, things that define me.

I finally have the time: since September, my children have been enrolled in full-time school. Ah, the joy of experiencing, for the first time in six and a half years, a long stretch of time: the hours between 9:30 and 3:00 (or, more realistically, between 10:00 and 2:00, for I need time to clean the kitchen, shop for groceries, prepare meals. Not to mention the time needed to eat that indispensable second breakfast.) But seriously, I’m convinced that every stay-at-home parent remembers that first day when their children stay away from the house for an extended period. I mean, a WHOLE DAY!

My main problem is that once I start doing something, I don’t want to stop and move on to something else. Do you know “Eureka,” that 1980s TVO cartoon on the Laws of Physics? There was one called Inertia. Inertia: that’s me. I always picture myself as the pebble in the cartoon: once you give me a push, I keep on rolling.

In practice, that means that if I start my morning off by writing, by afternoon I’ll still be writing. On the other hand, if I start my day seasonally categorizing my kids’ clothes, by the afternoon I’ll still be kneeling on my daughter’s purple rug, sorting through an unholy mess of bottoms and tops (my mother-in-law, bless her, is a passionate shopper who raised three boys, and is therefore thrilled to overbuy for her granddaughters), trying to decide if the hole in the bottom of her tights can actually be seen if she’s wearing a skirt over top, and, if so, if she can get away with wearing the tights another season (I’m the opposite of my mother-in-law – I dislike shopping and I hate throwing things out.)

Also, if I start my morning doing karate, hours later I’ll still be doing karate. After finishing last year’s summer day-long karate training, I felt primed to continue training for three more hours.

Because of my innate inertia, I make it a point to begin each morning by writing. Since September (not counting Jewish Holidays – why oh why are there so many darn holidays, and why, again, are we sending our kids to a Jewish school?), this has been my schedule: return home from school drop-off; eat a second breakfast; drink a caffeinated beverage; write for three hours; and eat lunch. The afternoon is a mixed bag of reading, meal prepping, grocery-shopping, tidying our narrow front hallway (ancient Victorian houses, sheesh), and doing anything else that needs to get done. All this to prepare for that moment when my lovely, high-energy children crash through the house, demanding that I fulfill their urgent needs. Yesterday, while I sat by the local pool watching my eldest take her swimming lessons, my three-and-a-half year old tried to get my attention by poking my, umh, chest, a practice I put a stop to immediately.

I am not like the extraordinary Carrie Snyder, an inveterate multi-tasker. Last spring, I read in awe that she was entertaining a sick kid (one of four), meal prepping, and proofing her latest book—simultaneously. (The Juliet Stories is nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. You can find Carrie at http://carrieannesnyder.blogspot.ca/.) I could never do this kind of multi-tasking. Never. For one, I hate interruptions. For another, there’s that small problem of inertia.

I’ve somewhat come to terms with the fact that I’m a long-distance runner, rather than a sprinter. And I’m embracing my inertia. I’m also starting to think that a much nicer way of talking about my inertia is by referring to it as my aptitude for intense focus.

All this to clarify why I start off each day by writing.

But where does karate fit in? I have three priorities in my life: family, writing, and karate. The order I put these in depends on mood and need, either mine or my loved ones. But how to include all three, more or less on an equal basis?

And how do I fit in all my other passions? I’m an exercise junkie, and I love running, swimming, doing yoga, and muscle training. Above all, I love walking. When I was little, my dad and I used to take long walks through Toronto ravines, and I’ve kept the habit of doing these walks. On these walks, my mind works out all sorts of problems, particularly those related to writing.

So.

At the moment I’m managing to fit in karate practice twice a week, always in the afternoons, on no fixed day (this is in addition to two, formal evening classes). On other days, I go to the Yoga studio. I swim. I walk.

Yesterday, in one of Toronto’s ravines, I stopped walking and let loose some punches, for practice. Just a few moves: I was wearing my long, wool fall coat, probably the most expensive item I own (bought three years ago on Boxing Day), and I was nervous about tearing it. I was also embarrassed, and surreptitiously looked around the ravine to make sure that no one was looking. Would someone, seeing me, assume I was not in my right mind, someone who, in my husband’s words, was “reacting to internal stimuli?”

Then I remembered my old Sensei, Konzak Sensei, speaking about courage. “Are you a man, or a mouse?” he would ask. I’ve always amended this to “are you a woman, or a mouse?” (Yesterday, I was thrilled to come across this same aphorism in Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life.) So I kept throwing out punches. Then, noticing my shoes were caked in mud, I stopped punching and continued walking.

I’d love to hear from all of you—readers, mothers, karate-ka—about how you include exercise in your routine. And how you manage your numerous passions. In the meantime, I’m embracing something my friend and skillful career coach, Ayelet Magen, says. Balancing is like standing on one foot, she notes: you wobble, move from side to side as you struggle to stay upright.