Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On Japan and Generosity and Jewelry

When I went to Japan to teach English at a middle school in 1992 I thought Japanese kids were going to love me.  Mostly because kids in the US always did.  I was a Sunday School teacher and a babysitter and a Girl Scout and a big sister, and where ever I went I found little kids and they found me.  

When I reported for the first day of school at Anesaki Chu-Gakko in Ichihara-shi, it was an oppressively hot and humid Monday morning.  A group of girls was standing in front of the school and they noticed me right away.  As a tall Westerner, I stood out.  I waved at them and waited for them to run towards me.  

Instead, they ran away screaming.  

I tried to imagine how I was going to do my job under these circumstances.  As a JET (Japanese English Teacher), the Japanese Ministry of Education was paying me to be in the school for the year to form relationships with the kids and encourage them to use the English they were learning in the classroom.  

That was going to be hard if I couldn't get the kids to stop running away from me screaming.  

As a first step, I got the kids used to being in the same room with me.  Of course I was there for their English lessons.

I also spent time with them outside of class.  At lunchtime instead of sitting in the teacher's lounge with other teachers I sat in the classrooms with the kids.  When it was time for o-soji, I cleaned the glass windows and swept the hallways, right along with the kids.  (Japanese schools typically don't pay for janitors, instead the kids spend about 15 minutes each day cleaning their own space.)  At some point the kids started coming to my house on weekends and they invited me to theirs.

Over time they warmed up to me and soon I found myself once again surrounded by children all the time.  They asked a lot of questions about what life was like for teenagers in America.  And they wanted to know what Michael Jordan and Madonna and River Phoenix were like in real life.  

To be clear, I never met any of those people.  

One day, a sweet quiet girl whose name I can't remember gave me a necklace.  Her friend had given it to her and she gave it to me.  It was a tiny coral star on a delicate gold chain.  There was a school rule that students couldn't wear any kind of jewelry other than hair ties.  As she gave it to me she said, "I can't wear this but you can."  

I thought that was the sweetest sentiment in the world.  I can't use this but it will make me happy to see it on you.  

It felt like the purest sense of generosity.  I wore that star to school a lot and it always made her happy.

Over the years I've acquired and lost a lot of jewelry.  Typically I don't buy expensive things so I don't have to be upset when I lose them.  But that coral star has somehow stayed with me.  From Japan to the Monterey Peninsula in 1996.  From Monterey to Silicon Valley in 1999.  From Silicon Valley to Beijing in 2005.  From Beijing to Nashville in 2011.  Somehow that coral star always managed to get into my bags and relocate with me.  

Coincidentally, coral has become one of my favorite colors.  Or perhaps that's not a coincidence at all, maybe it's exactly what you would expect given the way the color  came into my wardrobe via that first little star.  The other day I wore a coral sweater to work and that little star was a perfect complement.  During conference calls that day I found myself wrapping my fingers around it, the pad of each finger settling into one angle of the pentagram.  I thought about that sweet little girl and her generous spirit.

I have long since lost touch with her but where ever she is I hope she's in a place where she can wear whatever jewelry she wants.

And I hope she still has that sweet sense of generosity. 

And if by some chance she sees this post and wants her necklace back, nothing would make me happier than to give it to her.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Post Where I Thank Donald Trump

"I need to know there are still rational people in this world!  I need to be surrounded by them - thousands of them!" she said though her tears, a flame in her dark eyes.  "I just need to know I'm not the only person left in this world who sees how crazy he is!"

Of course there are rational people who voted for Trump.  One day Audrey will learn to say, "I don't agree with your views but I can appreciate why you feel that way."  But this was not the time for that.  One day she will develop empathy and understanding for others' viewpoints, but for now she needs to fully express her own. 

It was late Thursday evening, the night before Trump's inauguration and the mood in my house was somber.  I had just flown in from a business trip to Ft. Lauderdale, a trip that had been physically and emotionally taxing for me.  I was looking forward to a slow, quiet weekend at home that looked something like this:

coffee with my bestie
walk on the greenway
soccer with Grant
make something in the crockpot
bubble bath
hot almond milk with ginger

But my roadmap for a peaceful weekend started to crackle and burn at the thought of making a trip to Washington D.C. for the Women's March.

Would we drive?  That would mean at least 20 hours of driving in one weekend, all to be at the march for a few hours.

Would we fly?  At this point tickets were at least $1,000 per person and I wasn't sending Audrey into that chaos alone.  I would need to buy two tickets. 

I felt tired just thinking about the trip so I tried to make the case that there  was going to be a march in Nashville and that according to the latest estimates there should be 2,000-5,000 people there.  That was thousands.

And frankly, I felt a little scared at the thought of making the trip.  A drive through the night to D.C. would be dangerous in and of itself, and a protest like this one might attract violence.  I didn't feel ready to handle any of that.  

But my daughter was sitting on the sofa next to me with tears in her eyes, asking me to take her to a place where she could see that she was not alone.

And so we made our plans to drive to D.C. as soon as I got off work on Friday.

Then at work on Friday I found out that my coworker Shai was also planning to go for the march.  Weeks ago she had joined the team that was organizing the Nashville March and at the same time had bought a bus ticket to D.C. for the weekend on a crowd source bus.  Across a crowded conference room I yelled to Shai, "Audrey and I are driving!  Go with us!!!

And then there were three.  

So in the evening of Friday, Jan. 20, Shai and Audrey and I started our drive through a long and foggy night and as the sun rose on Jan. 21 we pulled up at my sister Christi's house in Maryland, where we slept for two hours and then got up and took the metro into town.

With each metro stop the train turned a deeper shade of pink as we picked up more and more pussy hats and protest signs and mothers and daughter and sisters.  We cheered and clapped for each other, and I thought, "There are so many of us!  Even this far away from the Capitol, there are so many of us!"

That feeling of 'so many of us' - that intensified as we exited the subway onto the street level.  Metro stations around the city were dumping buckets of pink pussy hats into a swollen river of marching men and women.

There were several police officers and as we passed we thanked them each for their service.  They smiled back and said it was their pleasure.  Statistically speaking, at least half of those officers probably did not agree with our views - but there they were, fighting for our right to express them.

That made me love my country and our Constitution more than ever before.  

As we got closer to the Capitol the river of pussy hats broke the riverbanks and started to flood the entire valley of the Mall.  There were so many of us that we couldn't even march - we stood and soaked in all of the energy and beauty of it all.

"Yep, it isn't just us.  There are lots of people who feel the way we do.  And our democracy is still strong enough for us to come out in throngs like this and protest," I thought.  Tears streamed down my face and I didn't even try to wipe them away.  Surrounded by my sisters - and many brothers - crying felt like a totally normal thing to do.

(This was my favorite sign.  "They tried to bury us.  They didn't realize we were seeds.")

A woman walked up next to me and smiled.  "It's amazing, isn't it?"  She nodded at the crowd all around us.  I smiled and nodded and cried some more.  An unspoken understanding passed between us. "I don't love crowds and I'm a little afraid right now but I know you are too and yet this is more important than all of that.  Thank you for helping me be strong."  I have never felt as threatened and as safe all at the same time.

(This was my second favorite sign.  "Barack, you rest.  We got this.")

Audrey hugged me.  "Thank you so much Mommy for doing this for me."
 ("Let's try to get a better picture of you," Audrey said.  
"Honey I think we can give up on the thought of there being any good pictures of me this weekend.  I've been awake for two days now.")

"Is it what you hoped it would be?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking out at the flooded pink landscape, punctuated by colorful protest signs.  "This is exactly what I needed.  Thank you so much."

Messages of goodwill were streaming in through social media.  Friends who agree with our views cheered us on and thanked us for representing them.  Even those who don't agree wished us a safe journey.  And the early reports said that the crowd in Nashville had already far exceeded initial expectations - instead of 2,000-5,000, the streets were packed with 10,000 protesters. 

After several hours of floating in the lake of pink protest, we were ready to drift back to our homes.  While the trip to D.C. had been dark and foggy, the trip back home was dark and rainy.  It would have been a hard drive under any circumstances but Shai and I had been awake for almost two days now.  We fueled ourselves with Dr. Pepper and Mt. Dew and happy conversation until finally, at 1:00 in the morning we arrived back in Middle America.  We dropped Shai back with her husband and baby, and then Audrey and I went home and went straight to bed.

When we woke up the next morning we were both starving, so we made a breakfast of English muffins and eggs and smoothies and coffee.  We sat together at the kitchen table and convinced each other that the whole thing had actually happened.  Audrey thanked me again and again for taking her, and I thanked her for getting me to go.  I wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been for her, but now that it was over I was so grateful that we took this chance to raise our voices.  

The amazing thing about that weekend is that so many forces came together to make it possible.

Without me, Audrey would not have been able to go to the march.  And without her, I would not have dared to make the trip.  

Without Shai, I would have been the only responsible adult on that perilous journey.  And without us, Shai would have been sleeping on a bus for two nights. 

Without Donald Trump, I would not have found my First Amendment Voice, and I wouldn't have had this amazing weekend adventure with Audrey and Shai.  

And so with a grateful heart, I say thank you and amen to all of those things.