Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Miscellany of the New Year

Working freelance must be something like Inuit whale hunts. For infinite lengths of time, you float on the surface of the ocean, alone in the vast grey plain of the sea, under the chill grey dome of the sky. And nothing happens. You watch your breath hang on the air before you, and nothing happens. Maybe the wind blows. Maybe it doesn't. And nothing happens. And suddenly into the middle of the empty grey world bursts a dark, living mountain, and between one breath and the next you become lost in the struggle simply not to drown. Whatever uncounted amount of time follows is consumed in the struggle to convert something almost inconceivably huge into something that will feed your family. So here I am, spattered with blood and stepping carefully around the random pieces of blubber that still need to be put away, exhausted but satisfied in the knowledge that I've stockpiled what I can against the empty days ahead, before the next hulk breaks the horizon.

So here's a quick recap of what's been happening since the sighting of the whale:

>>> Christmas was very nice, and once again thanks to all who honored our request to send only a few gifts. I understand exactly that sending armfuls of wonderful things is a way of reminding the children that you love them even if you can't see them,
but for several years now I've been concerned by a few things. First, I don't want the children to focus so exclusively on the piles of loot that show up at the end of each year. The moment one of them counts the number of presents they each got and complains about injustice, that's the minute I'm instituting the one-gift-per-child-per-relative rule. Secondly, and on a much more subterranean level, I'm concerned about fostering this kind of secular, cultural Christianity where children are encouraged to fold their hands piously and talk about the Virgin Mary every year. Yes, I tell Sebastian (the only one old enough to ask, right now) that Jesus was an important teacher who taught that people should be kind to one another, and that some people also believe that he was the son of god, but that other people believe other things. Sometimes we talk about some of the things that other people believe. I don't have a problem with Christianity (although I have issues with some Christians), but I deeply resent the assumption that everyone is, and should be, Christian at Christmas. Honestly, I would much rather settle on some other winter holiday, since it does feel hypocritical to celebrate the holiday of a religion to which I do not subscribe. Of course, I don't want to be one of those funky commune mammas who don't let their kids watch TV or taste Oreos or get presents at Christmas, either. And I don't want to put the children in the weird position of having to explain to classmates that they don't have Christmas in their house. But every year I come closer to comfort with the idea of celebrating the winter solstice with a tree and a (very) few gifts.

>>> Ed enlisted the children in a big New Year's house cleaning, and we did indeed clean the house "from top to bottom and side to side." We all helped, and it took the whole day, and it didn't stay clean for very long, but we had fun. It really did feel auspicious to start the fresh year with a fresh home.

>>> Drum class continues to be one of the high points of my week. Often, I make the 30-minute drive into Okinawa City in a foggy mood, my thoughts a little blurry and sad. But it is impossible for me to feel anything but joy, once we start drumming.
It doesn't really matter to me, whether I'm playing well and the rhythm is carrying me away at a gallop, or whether I've fallen off and am running along behind as fast as I can --- it's all good. It bubbles up inside me all sharp and sparkling, and sometimes I can barely keep from laughing aloud while we play. And while I still haven't had that "Thirteenth Warrior" moment, when all of my intense concentration pays off and suddenly I understand what people are saying (thank you, Jennifer, for putting into words the feeling I've been trying to explain!), after six months I feel more relaxed in my little bubble of occasional incomprehension, and I think the other students are warming to my enthusiasm even if they despair of understanding a thing I say.
Finally, here are some pictures of a few of the regular students, and of Daiki-san our teacher. Last month, we learned a modern Guinean rhythm, "Liberte," that is so compelling stones would dance to it. As soon as my friend Albert gets his podcasting site up and running, I'll take my blog over there so that I can record some of what we're doing for you to hear.Nobu, the guy wearing the hat, makes djembe drums. Most of them are made with the wood of the 100-year-old "lucky tree" that was felled in his neighborhood for new development, but he also made the Sun Drum. It started its life as a very small Indonesian hand drum, before Nobu added a goatskin head and djembe cording. Suddenly, the drum has a surprisingly deep resonance, a lovely full-bodied sound. But the really inspired part is the base he added, which lifts the drum head up to playing level and transforms a little decorative drum into a musician's instrument. And look --- he shaped the circle on which the drum rests into a sunburst. It's beautiful. Beautiful to look at; beautiful to feel, silky smooth; beautiful to smell, either the wood from the lucky tree or the oil he used is very fragrant; and beautiful to play. I bought the Sun Drum as a gift for my dear friend Elaine, who took care of the ladies during the interminable quarantine, and it was hard for the drummer who'd been using it to practice to give it up, as it was a little hard for me to send it off.

>>> The ladies finally arrived, after much complexity and delay. The government of Japan changed their pet-importation policy weeks before we were scheduled to leave the States, and the new regulations took 8 months to follow from beginning to end. So, very sadly, we had to leave the ladies (Sadie, who is 18 years old now; and Shemal, practically a kitten at only 13) and our Good Dog Chance in Kansas City with my dear friend and Woman of the Drum Elaine, and with our new friend Doggy Godmother Jane. Ed went back to Kansas City in December, just as soon as the quarantine period was over, to bring everyone here, but a winter storm hit the day they were to leave, and it was too cold for the airlines to allow pets to board. We tried again last month with more success, and although another storm whipped through Kansas City only hours after Ed's plane took off, he and the ladies made it to Japan safely. After a few days of sleeping off the jet lag, Sadie and Shemal have adjusted to our new home with apparent happiness. As I predicted, the window seats are cat magnets, and both ladies have taken the children's enthusiastic interest in stride.
Sadly, Chancie couldn't come to Japan. He's 12 years old now, which is really quite old for a dog as large as he is, and Ed said that Chance was looking more elderly now than when we left the States last summer. Travel is always risky for animals, and far moreso when they're older. And Chancie is so happy with Jane: he has a big doggie door so he can go outside whenever he wants, he has two comfy napping spots, and Jane not only gives him a lick of peanut butter for a treat every week but even bakes special dog treats for him. If dogs had an organized religion, Jane would be a saint. Although perhaps she
already is, and we simply haven't translated enough of the Canine Canon yet to be aware of it. We had planned to bring Chance with us because he's our family and we love him, and also because he may not have many more years left with us, and we wanted him to feel safe and comfortable and loved for all of them. We could never have guessed that we would find Jane, who loves him, too; we are indescribably fortunate, and thankful.

>>> I never thought, when I started to sit in on the belly dance troupe's rehearsals in the hopes of having another opportunity to drum, that I'd become so excited about dancing. I've always felt like a complete bear, stumbling and uncoordinated, but after months of watching the dancers in the long intervals between the minutes I could drum, I started to think that maybe I should learn how to do that, too, if for no other reason than to have something to do when I wasn't drumming. The troupe's leader taught me how to do a skirt dance, and I was hooked. Have I mentioned the addiction of costumes? Before I knew it, I was taking beginner's classes, and getting dvds to learn from at home, and buying and making costumes. I've learned, surprisingly, that dance is like drumming --- once you embrace it, it's part of your creative repertoire forever.

I really love the idea of combining superficially disparate things. Our drum class had a session last week where trios were supposed to develop variations of the same rhythm, with different signature "breaks." I misunderstood our trio's discussion on this --- one of the drummers wanted to do a humorous dance in between our solos --- so instead of "we're doing a funny solo here" I heard "do a wild, crazy solo," and while I usually try to follow the lead of the more experienced African drumming students, or Daiki-san, when I play the solo improvs we sometimes do in class, this time I didn't restrict myself to the "traditional" djembe that the other players were doing. I played the music in my head: I used the cupped-hand slide from Arabic drumming that gives you the "doom-dum-do-di-DI" shift, I used the drop-pop conga technique that Regina taught us, and the high metalic ting-ting-ting sounds you can get from Caribbean drumming that African djembe doesn't use --- and this one time, it was MY music. I got the wriggly tangle in my head out into my drum so other people could hear. It would be fantastic to be able to do that with dance, to be able to combine different things I've learned so that I can get what's in my head out where other people can see it. I hope this dance troupe can be the place for that, because they're great women, and I have so much more to learn. But I've discovered something from drumming: if one outlet is closed to you, and what you have to say needs to be said enough, another path will appear.

>>> Sebastian told me at dinner a few weeks ago that he got his first K-I-S-S on the N-O-S-E from his friend Summer. Now that I think about it, I got my first kiss when I was about 7 years old, on the cheek, from David Bryant. See? No matter what, Sebastian will never forget Summer Jackson's name. Although more recently he asked me how you decided who you were going to marry. I told him he would just know, when it was time, but that he wasn't going to need to worry about it for a long time because nobody in our family was allowed to get married until they were older than teenagers (Sebastian's current understanding of "really, really grown-up"). He seemed a little relieved that he didn't have to take the plunge right away, but told me that he already knew who he wanted to marry: Celine (his newest classmate). Did David Bryant go from first kiss to just another boy in class so quickly? I don't remember that part.

>>> The first birthday of spring has arrived for our family: Atanasia is five years old. She had a big party at her school, with pizza and princess cake and a
bouncy castle, and every one of her 20 classmates gave her a really good present. As you can see from the picture, Indiana is deeply convinced that she can do anything Atanasia can do, and she's so observant that she can usually do it, too. She ate her party pizza and drank her juice box just like the big kids, and had to be dragged out of the bouncy castle protesting all the way, even though the turbulence created by half a dozen bouncing preschoolers was enough to keep her off of her feet. Indiana is a very tough, determined small person who is also one of the happiest people I've ever met. I attribute that to the potent influences of prenatal drumming and yoga. On the actual day of Atanasia's reaching the majestic age of five, she had another party at home, with homemade pizza and cupcakes with candles and yet more fabulous presents from her adoring public, er, family. Sebastian picked out a present for her, after looking at all the toys in six stores, and bought it with his own allowance money. Through no virtue of my own, I have been given the great honor (and challenge, and frustration) of parenting three of the most wonderful growing people on the planet. Atanasia told me that she knows what she wants to be, now that she's grown up: a mermaid and a rock star. "Not at the same time. First a mermaid. Then a rock star." Go, girl, go.

>>> Finally, I want to tell you about something that I saw yesterday. All week, a crew of men in light blue coveralls, white hard hats, and white rubber boots has been working on the power lines along our street. Two men with safety orange batons stop and start the traffic in a single lane past the big utility truck. Yesterday morning, I was the first car stopped going one way. I watched one of the men as he stopped traffic coming the other way so that I could pass. He's an older man, old enough to be a greeter at WalMart if we were in the States, and slight. A commercial van was coming towards him as he waved his orange baton up and down in the everyday way that means "Stop." But that part of the street has several sharp curves past a not-quite-two-lane bridge and other obstacles that require a driver's full attention, and the van did not slow down. The signal man made larger waves, semaphoring both arms above his head "STOP," but still the van didn't slow. I was waiting for the signal man to step aside and let the van pass, and to have my turn afterward. He didn't step aside. After his largest gestures weren't seen, the signal man stepped into the center of the lane, in front of the oncoming van, and bowed.

It took my breath away. Not because of the physical danger, although my heart was beating wildly for him, but for the amazing courage, the strength of the signal man's belief. And I am lost in imagining a world in which a gesture of respect is a thing that cannot be ignored.

With great love, and apologies that the wish is so belated,

Akemashite omedeto gozaimas'