Tuesday, October 18, 2005


This may seem an odd point of contemplation for the knee-jerk nonconformist that I am, but I've been thinking lately about the urge to belong, and the search for a place to make a Torah-shaped space. Up until two months ago, I never thought about this, although if I had I would have said that I was never very good at fitting in and never much wanted to (chicken or egg?). Almost 11 years as a military wife has certainly cemented that opinion: once you're digested by the guts of this machine, you discover pretty quickly that you're either a joiner or a loner. While I've made friends with other military wives (I hope you're reading this, and I hope you know how much I've valued your friendship), it's almost always been with other loners. Joiners almost always get caught up in the farce known as "wearing your husband's rank." In a nutshell, WE aren't the ones in the military, and WE don't have a rank. WE'RE supposed to all be equal; it's only our husbands who have to know to a hair's-breadth who outranks whom, who salutes first. As we all know, it doesn't really work that way --- generals' wives have personal secretaries, chair committees, and host teas to which corporals' wives don't get invited. Lt. Col.s' wives are certainly aware that the impressions they make and the networks they develop will have a slightly-greater-than-butterfly-effect on their husbands' chances of promotion. You can't take a tae-bo class at the base gym, or join the PTA (in some places, even the KIDS wear rank), or even go to Sunday brunch at the officers' club without tripping over all of the joiners grooming and nipping at each other. It's worse in some places than others, and I remember Quantico as being the most rotten with rank. When my husband was made Warrant Officer, I was summoned to a coffee at the base general's house and made to tour the residence while a volunteer personal secretary/docent delivered herself of a stream of absolutely numbing detail on the not-particularly-unusual antecedents of every duvet cover and china ornament in the place, following which the general's wife (a former elementary school teacher) gave a sitting room lesson on how to behave now that we were officers' wives. I tried to ask pertinent questions about exactly when one begins to hand-over-heart salute a moving flag when one is stationery, and the appropriate time to leave one's calling card in the cleverly disguised calling-card holders that certainly weren't ashtrays scattered throughout her house (and one can only assume the homes of all flag officers). But I was also thinking some things that no longer fit in with my philosophical goals of right thought and right speech, but which in outline went something like .... nope, can't work even the outline into good Buddhist practice.


So after almost four decades of adamantly not fitting in, I was sandbagged by Kansas City. No one who hasn't lived there would believe it, but Kansas City is seething with nonconformists. From the moment I went to a friend's potluck dinner and realized that almost everybody there had renamed themselves --- T'gallen, Phoenix, Astral ... only Wolfgang still had the name his mother gave him --- I realized that finally I had found the place where nonconformists, in the process of backing as far away from the groom and snarl crowd as possible, had simultaneously backed into one another. And once you've met one, it's like dominoes falling and you've met a dozen. T'ger gave me comp tickets to hang out at the KC Renaissance Festival, where I first encountered and fell deeply in love with the djembe. Ed gave me a djembe and told me to go to Sacred Earth Arts to learn how to play it. The woman who owns Sacred Earth Arts introduced me to the sisters who help organize the Gaea Goddess Gathering, and invited me to the benefit where I met the editor of "Redfruit" ; before long I was learning to drum with Women of the Drum, and that led to the war protest rallies that I know they're still having every week at the J.C. Nichols park with the horse fountain, and to playing to support Take Back the Night and the Quaker Friends peace benefits, and before you knew it we were all drumming around a fire with some groovy, semi-naked heathens at the Heartland Pagan Festival. I bought books and traded books with The Right Duke at Prospero's Book Store, and got overflowing boxes of organic produce from Local Harvest, which Gambit helped me load into my liberally (in both senses) bumper-stickered car. Our son found a Sebastian-shaped place at City in Motion dance studio. I've never been anywhere with so many artists, dancers, and musicians all feeding one another creative energy. And I thought that we would stay. We were supposed to stay --- Ed was supposed to be able to extend his tour there until he retired, so we bought a house, and for the first time maybe ever, I made a space for myself that was bigger than my corner of the couch with a book. This was my home. These were my friends. This was my place.

What's Your Favorite Place?

Sebastian, our son, is seven years old and going through that time where you're becoming aware of your parents as individuals in a world full of people, and you become obsessed with discovering all of the details about them that make them unique. What's your shoe size? What do you do at work? What was your favorite toy when you were a kid? What was your most embarassing moment? (We decline to answer that one.) What's your favorite place? Ed and I field the barrage as well as we're able, so when Sebastian asked me a few days ago about my favorite place, I answered, "My favorite place is where my family is." Given our peripatetic lifestyle, this is not only the best answer but also the right answer. Even before I married the military and started moving every three years, I don't remember having lived in the same place for more than five years (and, I think, that was from ages 5 to 10). So from the beginning, I've been a hoarder of symbolic objects, a saver of special rocks and ribbons used for the funerals of pets and gifts from 4th grade boyfriends and pieces of rough art crafted by the friends I most hated to leave. After all of these years, my collections are more presentable: Ed and I picked up river rocks from places we lived or visited the first several years we were married, and I made a fountain with them. We have a LOT of original art from people we know. We save clothes and jewelry and photographs from four continents' worth of travel. But I know what I'm really doing --- I'm hoarding a cigar box full of totemic objects, things that will have to stand in for the people and places I've had to leave. My box has just gotten bigger. My sense of home has never been fixed on a place --- imagine my wild envy of my best friend, who grew up in a home that has been in her family for generations, who had her wedding on its lawn, and can bring her daughter there to see where her family has lived, longer than the past century. I'm a snail, a hermit crab, and because I have to carry every memory's object, I also have to cull, ruthlessly, every three years. The baby swing that rocked all of my children to sleep has gone to Major Thrift, and I cried as I set it out. Prospero's got all of the books that everyone outgrew; I gave away the club dresses of my 20s, still faintly perfumed with memories, the wool suits that my grandmother made for me 20 years ago, the crib that my stepsister's children slept in before my children did, the sectional sofa that I got from a friend in Jordan ten years ago, that drove me to distraction because my children loved to make ramps and towers and tents with the seat cushions. But this endless distillation of meaning into fewer and fewer objects only brings into the harsh light what I already knew was true. Home is not, after all, the place to which you are accustomed, no matter how well you know its random noises and odd corners, no matter how long you've had to feel as if familiarity means possession. I must remember, whenever I begin to grieve for places lost, that my home has always been wherever the immensely precious, fragile, obliviously bonky heads of my children rest, dreaming, before another contentious, busy day, wherever my best friend, my husband surrenders his watch over us all to sleep (where he and whoever happens to be The Baby usually end up snoring in bass-and-soprano tandem). We possess nothing. Everything can, and sometimes must be, left behind; where you really belong is never determined by an inventory of items, but by the presence of those to whom you, yourself, are indispensible.

Wisdom comes from seeing your Self clearly.
Compassion comes from seeing your Self in others.

---- posted on Meditation Circle at tribe.net

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


As promised, here at last are pictures of some of the things I've found most striking so far about living here.

I see this boat twice a day, I think at high tides, and I have no idea what kind of ship it is. It has a tall gantry-like thing at the stern, but no obvious cargo on deck, and I've never seen nets. Ed thinks it might be a dredging ship working to deepen the port.

mystery ship

vending machine
Here is one of the ubiquitous Japanese vending machines.
Buddhist monk
This is not, of course, a picture of
the actual monk I saw walking
down the sidewalk with a tall
wooden staff, last week. (no camera!)
But, as I was trying to puzzle out
what sort of person he was, Ed brought
home the October issue of Okinawa
Living, and I saw this picture of
a Buddhist monk. One mystery solved!

This is one of the banyan trees in Isa Park, a little park next to the seawall, right across the street from our house.

Isa Park

This is the reason we chose this apartment.

view from our balcony

Here are two views from the seawall.

Hamby Town and Mihama

Fishing boats anchored behind the breakwater

Here are a few of the small things that make me happy:

jasmine tea

blue tabi socks

my drums

And here are the three things in Japan that make me the most happy:




Many thanks to Buddy, for pointing out that almost no one was allowed to post comments the way I had the defaults set. I've fixed it now so that everybody who visits can post a comment, and I wish you would. :)

In Passing

Waiting for words to come from the moonlit sky . . .

Suddenly, dark clouds drift across like chilling smoke

But don't let your heart be darkened like them ---

The moment always passes and gladness will return.

----- Kwan Yin

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Cultural Immersion

I've been in Okinawa now for ten weeks, and events have been overtaking me with ferocious regularity. We live in a Japanese apartment (although admittedly one constructed to take advantage of the housing allowances of Americans), Atanasia is going to a Japanese Montessori school, I've already done my first gig with the drum group Afrikasia (of which every member but me is Japanese), and I've gone to my first month of djembe classes (ditto). I'm past the stage of large surprises, mostly --- I no longer walk to the passenger side of the car when I intend to drive, and I almost never try to signal a turn with the windshield wipers anymore. I know how much the coins are worth, including the two that look almost alike, and I can do the rough yen-to-dollars conversion in my head. Right now, 100 yen are worth about a dollar, so everything is priced in pennies. My rent is 255,000 pennies, a bottle of water is 110 pennies, and enough Chicken McNuggets and french fries to feed all three children is 14,500 pennies.

I've figured out some of the small stuff, too. In Japan, there's a vending machine on every OTHER street corner (which is efficient, since everybody is willing to cross the street and still find it convenient). They can be anywhere --- at the beach, set into people's garden walls, outside trendy little boutiques in pastel shades to match the signs, right next to restaurant doors, out in the middle of a stretch of road with not much there but a streetlight. Somehow, they all have power, because the drinks are always beaded with condensation. They have names like Dydo, Boss Coffee, and Pokari Sweat (something like colorless Gatoraide). The drink in the taxi-yellow can with black kanji and a small white flower is jasmine tea, and it really does smell faintly floral. I crave it; I have a stash at home now. The drink in the taxi-yellow can with the brown kanji and the faint outline of a Chinese lion is NOT jasmine tea, and makes my stomach feel a little knotty. I know there's mint tea in there somewhere, but the cans with the green leafy plants on them are full of green tea, which of course makes sense in retrospect. I haven't actually tried Pokari Sweat.

I own three pairs of tabi socks already, and I'm not afraid to wear them. I bought them because they have a beautiful orange koi fish centered over your foot as you wear them, and the fish are so vibrant and elegant. But it's still too hot to wear tabi socks with your sandals and not look like the most gooberish of tourists. Right now, I'm developing the callouses between my toes --- everybody wears thong sandals, EVERYBODY (except the people who work outside for a living, who wear white rubber boots). But these are not the flip-flops of summer-camp bath houses; we wear thong sandals with sequins, gilt sandals, clear plastic high-heeled sandals, carved and painted wooden sandals, somber sandals and sparkly sandals and the funky functional kind with the ring around the big toe. Of course, many people in Japan wear other kinds of footwear, but we all walk with a slight shuffle, because we're all wearing shoes that can be slipped off whenever we go inside. I have been able to purchase shoes in Japan, but my outfitting adventures ended there. My feet are size 6 1/2, in the U.S., and at home it's sometimes hard to find shoes because stores don't usually carry a lot of stock in the smaller sizes. Here, as I discovered after much experimentation, I wear a size LL (that's "double-large"). And although I really have plenty of t-shirts to last me through the apparently endless tropical summer (it's still in the mid-80s here and very humid), styles here are different: women layer the shirts that we would wear alone, at home, to create an effect that's substantially more conservative. But my efforts to buy clothes here haven't yet resulted in my owning anything I can actually wear. I've tried to explain this to the women I drum with, but I don't think I've really gotten the extent of my sense of dislocation across. I'm 5'2" and this morning I weighed 120 lbs. At home, I'm a small person, although granted not among the most waiflike. Here, surrounded by Japanese women, I hulk, I loom, I spill out of my clothes and my chair. My biceps are the size of their calves, my sarongs could wrap around any two of them. While there are Japanese women my size here, I have no idea how they clothe themselves.

My drum classes are exciting, challenging, very informative. I've learned more about African-specific djembe technique in three classes so far than I have in two previous rounds of workshops at home --- but to be fair, the classes here are smaller and the teacher has more time to offer individual comments. But I'm wrung out by the time I make it home (Okinawa City is about half an hour away). Daiki-san speaks a whole lot more English than I speak Japanese, but it's not enough for complete sentences, and everybody else is Japanese, so I spend two hours a week staring intently at his hands while he's playing, and at his face when he talks so that, through the gestalt of brain-numbing levels of concentration, body language, occasional words of English, and demonstration, I can sieve fragments of meaning from the incomprehensible whole. Actually, drum is as good a way as there may be to communicate with other people who don't speak the same language. I don't have to understand most of what he's saying to understand when Daiki-san tells me that I've got the timing slightly off in the second half of the phrase, or that I need to make certain tones brighter than others. He's really very encouraging; I had imagined Japanese teachers would be more remote, more formulaic. He's concerned that I'm too tense, that I'm not enjoying playing enough. Which is ironic, since people who have watched me play have sometimes commented on the huge silly grin I wear. It's just the effort of focusing, I think, and the realization that in this style of drumming I lag behind the rest of the class in technique. But I'm learning fast. :)

This week, I've crossed the line from drummer to drum geek. I think the difference is that a drum geek is someone who not only owns several different drums but is actively attempting to learn how to play them all. You may know how attached I am to my one and only djembe, the one with the huge deep voice. I've heard that, to make a djembe, the crafter has to take the wood from a living tree, and the tree has to remain alive or the wood can't be used for a drum. Probably apocryphal, but still a good metaphor for the way I feel about this drum. It's too big for me, objectively, I wrestle with it in order to play it, but I've decorated it with ornaments from people I treasure, I swaddle it in layers of padding as I labor to carry it from home to practice. I bought a special drum-geek stool to make it possible for me to get high enough above the drum to play it. I feel as if I'm not the owner of an article, but the custodian of a relic or a fetish, as if I'm charged with keeping this drum as well as I'm able, but that its story only intersects mine. I love my drum in the same way that I loved my century-old house in Kansas City, the way I love a particular stretch of bottom-land outside Eleanor, West Virginia, the way I love the family grave site some Appalacian family tucked inside iron-fence walls on the side of a hill that now overlooks Interstate 64 but once had nothing but the glaucous curves of hills between it and the approach of evening. But my drum, my charge, is more than half as tall as I am, it weighs 30 lbs., and it's hard to carry and almost impossible to play with a harness (while standing and carrying it, that means). *** The following is drum-geek-speak and may be skipped by my many non-drummer friends and family members. *** I've pulled it to tighten it once, and wrapped it several times on top of that in the attempt to tune it tightly enough to play the style of African djembe we're doing in class, and I feel like I'm trying to make my drum into something it's not --- it has its own voice, and in trying to turn it into a vehicle for another kind of sound I'm afraid of losing the thing that makes this drum unique. So, after a lot of soul-searching, I decided to buy another drum for performances with Afrikasia (our next gig, next weekend, is among a roster of a dozen or so groups, in a club roughly the size of an RV) that I can not only play with a harness but can keep out of the way of a club crowd. It's made in Bali (Indonesia) and has a carving of a long-necked, long-winged, long-tailed bird that wraps all the way around the body of the drum. The wood's dark and has a hard shine, although I don't think it's been varnished. I can lift it with one hand. I can lift it with a hand that's already holding a child. :) It needed only a very little tightening to make that bright, crackling, ozone-charged sound, and the head's much smaller, so I don't have to reach so far for the bass. It feels a little like, well, not like having a second child, because of course you already love a new child as completely as the ones you already have, and not like having a new love, because there's already a tinge of finality to whatever feelings you have about your old love, and a swell of excitement and intoxication about the unknown new. Perhaps it's more like getting a new coworker after someone you were close to has left --- you want to like the newcomer as much, but you still feel a little standoffish, and maybe disloyal, too.

So there's a new djembe in my life, but the real geekiness is just developing. I've also joined a belly dance troupe as a drummer; my first gig with them is in two weeks; I'm doing an African rhythm segment that the dancers will dance to. But being a belly dance drummer means you really need to play the doumbek; I've been practicing with a borrowed one, so I've ordered one of my own, plus a kind of middle eastern tambourine called a riq so I can be the designated percussionist. Yeah, I'm a drum geek, and I'm proud.

I've unpacked and put away four thousand pounds of our household goods shipment, but of course the most essential ephemera is still lurking in the half-dozen boxes I haven't gotten to yet because the packers, according to some arcane formula, labeled them "knick-knacks" and "decor" but which (one can only hope) apparently also contain the cord that connects the digital camera to the computer, as well as other small but essential items of electronic paraphenalia. Ergo, there are still no pictures of our stunningly larger and somehow ever more beautiful children, or of dozens of other things I want to show you --- the view of the sea from our windows, the fishing boats tied up in the tidal estuaries, the Buddhist monk I saw on the sidewalk last week, the inside of a Japanese public bathroom (turns out women CAN pee standing up --- the toilets are like horizontal urinals set into the floor), trees growing green bumpy fruit called Buddha's head that are marvelously white and sweet and creamy inside, and the particular shade of mauve that Japanese drivers are partial to this year. There's a long list in my head of things to show you, although I'm not much of a photographer, so I promise to try to have pictures ready for my next post. What do you think of the blog idea? I wanted a way to let you all know what's happening without clogging your inboxes with long messages and multiple attachments.

May all beings be endowed with happiness;
may all beings be free from suffering.


This is a link to Masahiro's weblog. He's a member of Afrikasia, and a far better photographer than I'll ever be. If you scroll down to the entry for Sept. 11, you can see a photo of Afrikasia (including me) performing at an outdoor festival.

And for those of you who haven't already seen them, here's a link to my artist friend Vickie's web page. If you open the "Coffee Girl Opening" gallery and go to page 2, there are pictures of my Kansas City drum group --- Women of the Drum --- performing (me, too) at Vickie's art opening at the Coffee Girl.

Here's a link to T'ger's home page --- the best in peasantwear! Go to the "T'ger's Toggs" gallery, and on the second page is a picture of Salen and me working in T'ger RenFest booth (that was two years ago, I think, when I was pregnant with Indiana --- can't tell in that dress though, can you!?!).