This month’s guest post comes from author Leza Lowitz, where she shares part of her memoir (Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras). Her account touched my heart. She writes:
When I first met Shogo’s family, I fully expected them to reject me, want him to marry a Japanese woman. But they didn’t care.
‘We’re just happy he’s found someone,’ said Kyoko, Shogo’s mother. ‘We’d given up.’
Shogo’s parents had tried to arrange an omiai meeting to set up a prospective partner for him. Shogo had turned it down.
‘Go-en ga arimashita,’ Shogo’s mother tells me.
This is no small thing for her to say. As a fifth-grader, she’d been sent to the countryside to live for two years during the Second World War. When she returned, she saw her entire neighborhood firebombed by American B-29 warplanes. She and her mother had run to the nearby woods behind the local shrine with the others, but a voice told them to turn around and go back. The others died before their eyes; Kyoko and her mother were saved.
She’d met Shogo’s father through her younger sister, and they married. Shogo was the first child, followed by two sisters. When he was a child he’d read books about America and watched American TV shows like Leave it To Beaver, and listened to Western rock ‘n’ roll. By the time Shogo himself was in the fifth grade, America was no longer the enemy. It was ‘big brother.’
Kyoko tells me that, really, it’s not so surprising that Shogo fell in love with an American girl.
Even though she is very ill, she wants to do the tea ceremony for me in her teahouse. It’s a special, meditative sharing of matcha, a moment of silence and appreciation, a moment of presence. The tea house in their garden, hand-built in the traditional style by her friends, is a rarity in Tokyo. Four different kinds of wood are used in the construction. The entryway is a small square door that one must crouch to enter. In feudal times, samurai had to remove their long swords to enter a teahouse. All had to bow, and be humbled.
Shogo’s sister Ayano suggests we bring in a chair.
‘I’m not doing the tea ceremony seated on a chair,’ I protest. ‘I’ll sit on the tatami like everyone else.’
‘As you wish,’ she concedes. She’s the sister who suggested we put a Western bed on the tatami mat. I had to tell her I’d been sleeping on futons, laid out on the floor, since I was a teenager.
In the tea house, Kyoko’s movements are studied and beautiful. Each turn of the whisk, each placement of a cup or ladle choreographed and graceful.
Shogo’s father sits stiffly, his sisters expectant. It is the first time they’ve been in the teahouse together. And they’ve come together for me.
This is usually Kyoko’s domain, her safe haven. She’s opened up her world to me, and in so doing, to them as well. She’s opened her heart to me, given me her blessing, her only son.
I bow down in gratitude.
She places both hands in front of her on the tatami, and bows in return.
I feel calm and at ease, the way I felt so many years ago at the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, where I often went for solace. Though merely steps away from the site of the Summer of Love, it felt worlds away from the upheaval of the social revolution of 1960s Berkeley, California, where I’d grown up. Being here now, in this quiet corner of Tokyo, feels natural. Maybe even like destiny.
And anyway, it’s my family who’ve been problematic. They might have hoped I’d settle down with a nice Jewish guy, rather than a quiet Japanese atheist. And yet, I remember something my hippie aunt Peggy had said when I was in junior high: how knowing what you don’t want was a step toward figuring out what you do. I knew I didn’t want someone like me. I wanted was to break the pattern set by my parents’ unhappy marriage. I wanted my marriage to work. Or at least I hoped to stack the decks in my favour.
So this small moment of peace, this offering, is also my way of surrender. I want to be there for Shogo. Because after a five-year battle, Kyoko’s stomach cancer is at stage four, and there’s no hope for recovery.
So I‘ve sublet my apartment in San Francisco. I will share his small five-tatami studio and stay as long as he needs me. He will go to work while I go to the hospital to care for his mother.
* * *
‘Are you going to marry Shogo?’ my friend Tomoko asks one day.
‘I don’t know,’ I reply. ‘He hasn’t really asked me.’
‘Well, everyone should get married once,’ she explains, ‘otherwise you’re not entitled to get a divorce.’
I laugh at the statement because it so embodies my own feelings, my own fears. For it’s marriage I fear more than anything. Anything that is, except divorce. In my mind, one leads to the other, and my parents’ divorce was enough to make me shy away from marriage altogether for years, if not forever.
Deep down, I fear I’m not emotionally equipped to be either a good wife or mother. I don’t know what a wife is, really. I don’t know how to sacrifice myself just enough to please my husband – if that were necessary – but just enough so that I won’t lose myself.
Lately, however, I feel the equation might be a false one. Maybe sacrifice, for me, doesn’t look the same as it did for my parents.
Shogo and I seem to have worked out a kind of cultural give-and-take, like putting avocado into a sushi roll, making a California roll. Something completely alien to what you’d normally find in Japan.
Tomoko is married. Happily, for the most part, to a professor of philosophy with whom she travels often to Europe. She’s a professor of English and writes poetry in English because she says it does not bind her the way she feels her native language does. She has one daughter and is nervous about my talk of marriage for two reasons: the first is that a dedicated bachelorette is considering marriage at all. The second is that the combination of an American feminist and a Japanese man spells trouble. But I don’t consider myself either of those things.
‘Would you have to call him ‘Master? Go-shujin sama?’ Tomoko asks, biting her lip.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘It definitely sounds weird. What do you call your husband?’
‘Anata. Darling,’ she says, blushing.
‘That doesn’t sound much better.’
She twists her lip. I hope I haven’t hurt her feelings.
‘If we ever got married, would I have to call you those names?’ I ask Shogo when I get home.
‘You think too much,’ he laughs.
* * *
Later, when Shogo’s mother asks what we’re going to do in terms of a kekkon shiki (marriage), I mistake her words for shikibuton, a fluffy blanket used as the topmost layer on a futon. The mistake is not wholly innocent. If Shogo and I do ever walk down the aisle, we would probably prefer the privacy and comfort of the shikibuton to the formal display of the Japanese kekkon shiki, an expensive affair held at chapels or hotel ballrooms and complete with rounds of toasts and speeches. It is now customary for the bride to wear a formal white kimono and hat to hide her ‘horns of jealousy’, and then change to a puffy Cinderella-type dress you wouldn’t wear to your worst nightmare of a high school prom.
I tell Kyoko we’re thinking about it, combining the two great Japanese tactics of ambiguity and procrastination. She accepts this answer and smiles.
But it’s a crafty smile, and I know that even though she’s weak and ill, she’s just reconsidering another more effective approach. Shogo is his mother’s son, after all.
Still, Tomoko’s worries turn my feet cold.
‘If we ever get married, can we live in separate apartments, like Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne?’ I ask.
Unflustered, Shogo says that would suit him fine.
I think: This could work. Marriage is an agreement between adults, not a right to ownership. We’re both adults. I’m thirty-three. He’s thirty-five. Though neither of us has ever been married, we’ve been around.
* * *
Shogo’s mother’s condition worsens: we’re at her bedside constantly.
‘Why don’t you marry?’ she asks as I spoon cooked pumpkin into her mouth. ‘He’s a good man. You’re a good woman. You love each other. Be happy. Life is short.’
For once, I have no comeback. ‘She’s right,’ I say to Shogo, surprising myself.
‘She’s always right,’ he replies.
Before Kyoko dies, we decide to take the plunge. We go to Tiffany & Co. and buy the rings. We splurge. I want to do it once, and do it right.
We marry one Friday in Tokyo at the American Embassy, a simple civil service where I have to sign an Affidavit of Competency to Marry.
It’s not a fluke of translation. This is at the American Embassy, after all.
Signing my name at the bottom of the document, I wonder: What is marital competence and how is it determined? Fortunately, there’s no test administered. Just an oath. I raise my right hand in the ‘stop’ motion to take the oath, swearing to God and my country that I am competent to marry Shogo.
The paper is filed. We decide not to tell our families until after the fact. We want to start this new chapter on our own. We go out for a sushi lunch, toast each other with sake. But, we’re not done yet.
I’ve married Shogo, but he hasn’t legally married me until we register our marriage at the local ward office where we live. But by the time we finish our leisurely wedding lunch, it’s too late.The office is now closed.
‘You still have an out,’ I tell him, laughing.
‘You do too,’ he replies.
Shogo’s family has a small party for us at an udon restaurant. His mother is frail and so, so ill, but her smile is radiant. She brings me flowers she has artfully arranged like a waterfall.
On Monday morning, we eat breakfast together.
‘Are you feeling competent?’ I ask.
‘It doesn’t seem fair to leave you hanging,’ he replies.
We take the plunge.
But old habits die hard, and I do not take my new husband’s name. This causes a commotion at the ward office. The clerk says there is no ‘official space’ to put my own name on the form.
Shogo stands his ground. ‘Well, make a space,’ he says, knowing that one thing about bureaucracy is that it most definitely cannot make a space.
I stand by and watch, knowing it would have been much easier for him to request, or even insist, that I change my name, but he doesn’t. He hasn’t. He just waits for the bureaucrat to find a way to remedy the situation. With a quiet certainty that I’ve grown to love.
The man goes off to consult with his superiors. After much shuffling, air sucking, consulting with others and whispering in the backroom, he returns. The result? I keep my own name and we make our own koseki, his family registrar that goes back generations.
‘Welcome to Japan,’ Shogo tells me. ‘Now you’re official.’
‘Let’s enjoy being newly-wet,’ he says. I don’t correct him. It seems like just the right word.
House of Dreams, 2005
Ten years later, Shogo and I leave the California coast where we’ve lived for a decade and return to live in Shogo’s family home in Tokyo. Though I missed the peace and quiet of Northern California life, I was delighted to inherit my mother-in-law’s rustic teahouse.
I loved tea, but what I was really excited by was having a room of my own, where I could write. Like all good teahouses, this one had a name: the House of Dreams.
A century earlier, Thoreau – who’d lived in a hut in the woods – had written: ‘A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.’ With a teahouse in Tokyo, I’d struck gold. There was much I wanted to ‘let alone’.
With Shogo at work, I took a pillow, notebook and pen – a computer seemed sacrilege to such a place – and crouched down through the nijiriguchi (‘crawl-in entrance’).
It was a winter morning. The windows rattled, and a draft blew the candle out. Cobwebs formed a chrysalis on the tatami. Once Kyoko’s haven from husband, kitchen and children, it was now a museum of Celadon tea bowls, brown flaked bizenyaki cups, and tetsubin iron pots red with more than the usual rust. Walls of clay and grass dampened with the rains. There was very little difference between being outside and in, but hadn’t that been what I wanted? I tried to endure.
I went back daily, but I couldn’t write. Without the ring of the telephone, the dog, the doorbell, and even electricity, the hut was too quiet. I couldn’t work. So I did what I did in the ‘outside’ world: procrastinated. I swept the tatami, dusted, lit incense, put flowers on my personal, improvised altar. Still, I wrote nothing. And not a Zen nothing-nothing.
My sister-in-law Hitomi used the teahouse, too. She used it to read Tarot cards for businessmen, who paid her well for her vision. I meditated on the flowers for each season – camellia, hydrangea, cherry blossom – a universe in their petals. Sometimes Hitomi and I went in together and just sat, eyes closed in the half-light, remembering. Other times we opened Kyoko’s wooden boxes, reading the delicate brushstroke calligraphy of her poetry, discovering silent treasures, like her knowledge of her husband’s many love affairs, stored in shadow and tears.
And sometimes we felt her presence, strongly. It was by the smell of incense, sweet, exotic, and filled with mystery, that we’d know she’d arrived.
Kyoto teahouse sandalwood. She always burned it in the evening before plumping the pillows for her guests.
She used to sit back on her heels in formal seiza as the steam from the boiling water rose around her, folding the cloth for the ceremony steadily. She chose each bowl carefully to reflect the drinkers’ disposition. She noticed everything.
She told me that her husband thought this was something men did, collecting women like tea bowls, turning them around in the palm, admiring them, drinking from them and putting them down. And it was. Just what some men of that generation did.
She never told him that she knew. She spent her inheritance on serenity, built herself this small rush-mat refuge. She lived her best life as a mother, wife, woman, savoring both the bitterness of tea that melts in the throat and the sweetness of the cake that washes it down.
Since she passed way, I uncovered my own impulse, late in life, to be a mother. And I fought to adopt a child, to become a mother in this foreign country. All because she had challenged me to marry her son. Because she was so certain that it was our destiny. No one else had ever looked me in the eye and insisted I stay a particular course. I still remember what she offered me: her own full gaze. And in that gaze, she saw me wholly. And I saw myself.
I brushed her hair as she lay on the starched white sheets, stroking each strand gently like her sister had done before she died in the war.
She looked at me and said, simply, wakatta: I understand.
And then she left this world.
I know that she is far from gone. She lives on in her teahouse, in her son, and in me. Like an animal covering itself with the smell of the dead to disguise itself from predators, Kyoko infused me with her wisdom, woman to woman. She floated it out under tables, in cupboards, in wooden boxes and tea bowls, into the deep recesses of the tatami mats, into my heart.
Now, as I sit in her teahouse and dream, I feel it seeping into my skin. I hold my hand over an empty page and try to write.
I’d always blamed my inability to write on lack of time, space and quiet. Now that I had all three, what was there to blame? Seasons changed. The clay walls let in moisture when it rained and baked when it was hot. My page remained empty.
Until the rainy season, when the frogs croaked. And the summer, when the cicadas cried. And the humid days when mosquitoes feasted. And the winter, when spiders spun their webs and hunted.
What I’d mistaken for silence was a symphony. The House of Dreams was a construct. Nature was here first, with its own cacophony and chaos. The original inhabitants of this garden had arranged their lives around this quaint obstruction. I battled them at first, but they were resilient. No human was going to win out over nature.
I needed to be like the haiku poet Issa, who wrote:
Spiders, never fear–
I keep house
Humbled, I began to notice the different strains of the frog’s song, the varying melodies of the cicada’s cry, and the unique designs of each spider’s web. I took a page from Issa, who’d observed the world in this small universe, which expanded his own:
Every creeping thing,
The bell of impermanence.
I began to track the comings and goings of my tiny roommates. I got out of their way.
And I began to write.
About the Author:
Leza Lowitz lives in Tokyo where she runs a yoga studio, tends her century-old garden, and cares for her young son, husband, and two half-wild wolf dogs. The above is adapted from her new memoir about her quest for peace (and motherhood) acrosss two continents, two decades, and two thousand yoga poses: Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras (Stone Bridge Press, June, 2015).
Leza has written over eighteen books in many genres. She has received the APALA Asian Pacific American Award in Young Adult Literature, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Award, the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Poetry, a Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a California Arts Council Individual Fellowship in Poetry, a National Endowment for the Humanities Independent Scholar Fellowship, and the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. Her books Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By and Jet Black & The Ninja Wind are amazon best-sellers.
Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Yoga Journal, Yoga International, Asian Jewish Life, Shambhala Sun, The Best Buddhist Writing, The Huffington Post, and The Japan Times. Her Young Adult novel in verse about Japan’s March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Up From The Sea, will be published by Crown Books For Young Readers/Random House in 2016.