The Gardener of the Lane

via Daily Prompt: Blossom

“I saw a princess,” the little girl sings as she skips through the large silver gate, followed by her chuckling father. “I saw a princess!” She twirls and giggles, round cheeks glowing with excitement.

“Come on, honey,” her dad says, nodding to me, then reaching for her hand. I nod back, but he’s already looking away, moving towards the nearly-empty car park. The Lane had officially closed thirty minutes ago, but it always takes a while for stragglers to clear out. In this kind of place, people tend to take their time.

I smile, the girl’s voice still echoing in the stillness. Turning, I start through the gate, then pause. An old man is hobbling towards me, wiping his eyes with a blue handkerchief. “Sir,” I ask. “Are you all right?”

He smiles up at me, a teary grin, waving the handkerchief in the air. “Oh, son,” he replies. “I’m more than all right.” He takes my hand in his large, leathery one, and shakes it. “Thank you. Bless you, and thank you.” With a sniff, he explains, “I saw my Mary again.”

I smile, returning the handshake. “She’ll always be here. I’ll watch out for her.” He gives my hand a final pat, then continues his shuffled steps out of the Lane, raising a shaky hand for the last taxi still hanging around.

I shift my pack on my shoulder and step through the gateway. No matter how long I work here, every time I enter the garden, it’s always a bit of a shock. The wind is what gets you first, whispering to you as it passes. Calling, teasing. It swirls around me, hugging close like an old friend. Next to the gate is Today, the buds just barely peeping through the ground in every color imaginable. The farther you go down the Lane, the the taller the plants become, until off in the distance you see giant, multi-colored trees and massive bushes whose roots dig down unimaginably deep. I never have time to go out that far, but I always wonder. I hum as I take a step into Last Week, tiny blossoms only an inch or so tall on both sides of the dirt path, each petal a kaleidescope of swirling clouds. I force my eyes away from the darkest of the petals – there’s nothing I can do for them yet – and I continue on to where I’d stopped the night before, several years ago.

Flashing lights catch my eyes on both sides of the path, stems a moving rush of silver, light passing like cars on a highway. They push out of the ground, leading to roses, lilies, dandelions, and thousands more I can never hope to remember the names of. Each one tells it’s own story, and I consider stopping to look closer at a few of the pulsing white ones, but I have a job to do.

I reach Five Years Ago, and my eyes spot something in the distance. As tall as the saplings around it, but black on top, and blue on the bottom. Another straggler. I consider setting down my pack, but decide against it, somehow feeling that I’ll need it.

An ivy vine reaches out to caress my wrist and I gasp at the ice that immediately washes over my skin. The garden is replaced by soft while all around, small flakes falling, one tickling as it lands on my nose. I hear laughter behind me and whip around, suddenly caught in the chest by a ball of white that explodes as it hits me. I blink rapidly and the snowball fight fades. Lucky a good one caught me. I reach into my pocket and pull on my thick gloves so other vines, not all as icy sweet as the first, can’t reach me.

It takes me a good ten minutes to come withing speaking distance of the lone figure. He’s a young man standing by a dark, thunderstorm-purple rosebush. I pause, then sigh and steel myself. “Excuse me, young man,” I call, walking closer. “We’re closed now.”

He looks up, lips tight, brow furrowed in despair and my chest tightens. Loosening his fists, he shows me palms dotted with blood. “I-” he clears his throat. “I was trying to pull it.” Our eyes both move to the roses. The petals flutter in the breeze, but I try to not look too closely. I don’t want see what he so desperately wants to remove.

I shake my head. “You can’t pull it,” I tell him gently. “Those roots are,” I glance around for when we are. “Fifteen years deep.”

He takes a shaky breath. “Fifteen years. Yeah, I know.”

I touch his shoulder gently. “I can’t pull it. And I can’t cut off the blossoms. But I can trim it. I can make it smaller, less vivid.”

“You can do that?” He asks.

“Well,” I give him a gentle smile. “I’m the gardener, after all.” He nods, and I take out the shears, then poke around the rose bush. The flower in question dances, like it’s aware of what I’m about to do. I raise the shears to a leaf just below the blossom. As I cut, I can hear the young man’s sharp intake of breath. I continue, working slowly but deliberately, making sure I get all of the leaves. Next, I pull out a small knife, and I go to work on the thorns, shaving them off one by one. The young man’s relief is almost touchable. After a few minutes, I’m finished. I turn to him again, and there are tears gliding silently down his cheeks.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

Hesitantly, I reach out and pat him on the shoulder. “You’re welcome. Now, you head on home, okay?” He nods. “And next time you come, don’t come back to this one. I’ll look out for it. Find one of yours in a brighter shade. Those are the ones you want to remember.”

Wiping his cheeks, he takes a few steps towards the gate just barely visible in the distance, then pauses and turns back, waiting for me.

“Go on,” I tell him. “I have the rest of Memory Lane to work on.”

 

Inspired by a pair of prompts: What if memory lane were a real place? by Promptarium, and Blossom by The Daily Post.

 

 

 

Stepping off my own beaten path

Today, I took a new path. I blazed a trail into the unknown and learned a very valuable lesson along the way: don’t leave your apartment without your keys. Because your boyfriend will leave and lock the door behind him.

As a result, I ended my workday at 4 o’clock, daydreamed about being home and on my couch in the A/C, and made it all the way to just outside my apartment building when I realized I didn’t have a key to get in, and R wouldn’t be home for six hours.

Fortunately, his work is only about a thirty-minute mixture of walking and riding the train away. In a direction I’ve never had reason to go before.

Now, you might think that living in a foreign country always feels… foreign. Or maybe you think that after a short while it all becomes commonplace. Both of those are true. The train ride to work for me feels as familiar as it does to any other commuter. Walking around my local park or supermarket is as normal as wandering around the small town I grew up in. But as soon as I step off the path that I travel every day, that’s when I re-enter the foreign country and remember, HOLY CRAP I LIVE IN JAPAN.

So taking that new train to that new city, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it was enough to shake me up a little and remind me that there’s so much more out there that I haven’t seen, even as close as a ten-minute train ride away.

Which makes me wonder, how much did I miss when I was living back in Kansas? How many fascinating places did I not go because it all felt so normal to me? It doesn’t feel so normal from a thousand miles away.

A quick reminder that it’s always good to step outside your comfort zone.

 

Japanese phrase of the day: ぬるまゆにつかる

“neh-roo-mah-yoo nee tsu-ka-roo” – to avoid a challenge (stay in your comfort zone)

 

 

 

 

Discounted Sushi and Alpaca Wine

I. Adore. Supermarkets.

In Kansas, after I finished college, I lived about a five minute drive from Walmart, and was at least ten minutes further from an actual grocery store. This resulted in a whole lot of frozen food being put in my cart, with a couple boxes of pasta also being a staple in my grocery list. In my small hometown, there were only two grocery store options, and both offered limited options on fresh foods (and also cereal, which my parents and I both agreed was a top-5 item). As a result, I remember way too many weekends of driving to a bigger city thirty miles away, helping my mom pack an entire cart full of groceries that were supposed to last a week or two, and then having to take four or five trips in and out of the house to unload the bags from the car, even when we enlisted my father’s help.

In Japan, there’s a supermarket a three-minute walk from my apartment. It has vegetables I’ve never even heard of before, and fish I didn’t know could be eaten outside of 5-star restaurants. If you show up after nine, the day’s sushi will be marked down and you can get about ten different kinds of fish in one bentou for the equivalent of about four bucks. It’s magical.

As a result, I make homemade meals 9/10 times, using fresh ingredients rather than frozen or non-perishable. Meat comes in smaller portions, so I don’t have to plan multiple meals using one container of beef or chicken. Produce tends to have the faces of the farmers who grew it right on the label. And there’s about ten times as many alcohol choices than I’m used to back home (possibly because everyone walks to the store since it’s so close, possibly because casual drinking doesn’t have much of a stigma, or maybe because most young people here are too honest to buy alcohol when they’re underage) and best believe I take full advantage of that. My interior decorating now includes an entrance hallway lined with about 20 different kinds of empty wine bottles. I do have to go to the supermarket much more often now – about every other day – but it’s so much more convenient than back home.

Casual observation of the day.

The Realization

I wrote this quite a while ago, after hearing a story about a man who died trying to save fellow soldiers. Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual story; the hero who gives his life for others during a war. But this particular news article, it made me wonder. What was the man thinking? What would have happened if he had lived?

 

“A flamingo.” Coffee nearly flies out of my nose and I cough, trying to prevent myself from choking on the liquid mixed with laughter.

“Any animal in the world, and you choose a bright pink bird?” I wipe my mouth and look with incredulity at the man next to me. Corporal Anderson Tyler is a bull of a man, with the arms of a gorilla, the sturdiness of an elephant, and the unwavering focus of a viper. He sits next to me, cutting pieces off of a chunk of wood. I can’t tell what it is yet, but I know it will soon come to life as all the others had.

“Yeah, but it’s like the most popular bird. It’s the bird all the humans copy and all the other birds want to be.”

I nod. “So you want to be the Homecoming King of aves.”

He chuckles at himself but shrugs. “I guess that’s a yes.” I laugh and sip at the rest of my coffee. We sit in a large tent, soldiers and corporals and lieutenants buzzing all around us. Many of them are discussing the new rumors of the enemy that had reached camp, or trying to gain the eye of the general who is newly in attendance, but Corporal Tyler and I prefer to hang back and watch until given orders.

I lean back in my seat, eyeing the new general. He doesn’t look like much, just a thin man with a thick beard, but the stories I’ve heard of him are anything but dismissible.

Something dark moves in the corner of my vision. I turn my head and look to the opening near me. A man appears, one I knew well. He is a native, a translator, and his name is Hamad Usain. I look down at his hand. He sees me watching and closes his eyes, then his hands make a quick movement and he tosses what he’d been holding into the tent. It rolls to a stop just ten feet in front of me.

One second. Shock registers. I’ve worked with Hamad for three years and had never seen this coming. I know the names of his three little girls. He knows the name of my mother and the story of my first day in kindergarten. He’s played baseball with Corporal Tyler and several of the other other men in the tent. He loves his country and his god and peace.

Two seconds. I find myself on my feet. Everyone is shouting now, backing away and turning around. My sergeant stands in front of the general, attempting to shield him. I consider throwing it, but we are surrounded on all sides by soldiers and tents, going on for several layers, far outside my capabilities of throwing, no matter how many times it has been suggested that I be the pitcher.

Three seconds. Suddenly, I’m not on my feet. I’m curled up on my side near the front of the tent, squeezing my body as tightly as possible around a ball barely the size of my fist. I imagine my abs, my stomach, my spine, see in my mind how they will be ripped apart in milliseconds and I hope that it will be enough.

Four seconds. I see my mother. I see my sister and her son, lifted onto the shoulders of my father. I see the girl I’d kissed just days before leaving the U.S. I see the faces of men, women, and children, covered in dirt and cloth and blood. I see the gun that never leaves my side. I see the dream I’ve had since preschool of swimming through the Great Barrier Reef. I see the class I’d taken after high school, the one I’d liked but hadn’t studied hard enough for. I see the things I had done instead of studying. I see my favorite bar and my favorite burger. I see the piece of wood Corporal Tyler had been cutting. I see the general. I see the U.S. flag hanging above him. I see my second grade teacher, the one who first taught me about the army. I see rain. I see the picture of Hamad’s daughters. And then I realize: I don’t want to die.

Five seconds. I squeeze my body even tighter, squeeze my eyelids closed until I see stars. And then it feels like my whole body is on fire and I think, This isn’t so bad. I had thought dying would hurt more.

And then I realize that the roaring in my ears isn’t death. It’s life. I hold my position, wondering why the grenade hasn’t gone off yet, wondering just how long I’ll have to wait to die. I don’t want to die. I swallow. I count to three. I slow my breath. This is impossible. I count to three again. This doesn’t happen. I count to ten and I almost laugh, realizing the magic of reaching the number. I hear voices, at first garbled and then clear. “You’re okay. You’re alive.” I open my eyes. And nothing is the same.

Here Goes

I thought about it, but I didn’t really take it seriously before I moved: the fact that moving meant I could start a new life. I could shorten my name. I could make new friends. I could start new hobbies. And I did.

“My name’s Dan,” she said as I sat next to her in my first day of training. It was her second, as, due to VISA delays, I’d been late getting to Japan.

In my head, I saw two possibilities in a split second. “I’m Karita,” wanted to come out, a reflex after 22 years. But I wanted something different. I needed it. And maybe it sounds small, but to me, it was the biggest change so far. So I said, “Hi, I’m Kita.”

Moving to a place where no one knows you is almost like there isn’t a you. No one knows your personality, your preferences, your dislikes and styles. So I went new places. I tried food that I can’t even name – like, literally, I don’t even know what that was – and some that, unfortunately, I could: octopus as purple as an iris, chicken intestine, tiny fish with eyeballs. I took up new hobbies, like photography, guitar, and skateboarding. Rock climbing is next on my list.

I think I was trying to make an entirely new me. I wanted to forget everything I had left behind and become someone who hadn’t lived through any of it, who was so much cooler, more experienced, just plain better. But, slowly, I came back to me. I realized that adding new pieces doesn’t mean I need to get rid of the old ones. I started saying no to foods that look questionable. (I’m not all that picky, but if your stomach churns at the thought of putting something in your mouth, don’t do it.) I stopped putting up with people’s bullshit just because I wanted us all to be friends. I accepted the new parts of me that I thought should stay, but stopped trying to be someone I’m not. And I returned to my oldest passion: fiction writing.

At the end of my senior year of college, I was sitting at lunch with the sports administrator and the university’s president (it’s a small school). The sports administrator asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to be honest, and I told him that, although I’d basically denied it for most of my life, I really wanted to be a writer. The president spoke up and said, “But what are you gonna do for money?” He’s an endearing old man.

So, with an internal middle-finger-up to everyone who’s – intentionally or not – put me down, I’m gonna do my best to become the best damn writer I can be. Will I make a career out of it? I don’t know. But will I love it? Without a doubt, and if I’ve learned anything in life so far, that’s what really matters.

It’s a slow evolution, so forgive me; I’m just starting out. Here goes nothing.

A Year of Change

2016

I go to the grocery store with a twenty-dollar bill, because that’s all I have. I focus on my shopping list, food that will hopefully last me a week. I tell myself, “Don’t buy that, you can’t afford it.” I’m hungry, so I grab a candy bar because it’s cheap. I head to the self-checkout, so I don’t have to be embarrassed if I’ve miscounted and don’t have enough money. I leave for home, hoping the few dollars change will be enough for gas.

 

2017

I go to the grocery store with a hundred-dollar bill, because there are two in the “Groceries” jar. I focus on my shopping list, ingredients for a new dish I’m making for dinner. I tell myself, “Don’t buy that, it isn’t healthy.” I’m hungry, so I remember to buy a couple kinds of snacks. I head to the self-checkout, because there isn’t a line. I leave for home, hoping I didn’t forget anything.

 

Expat Politics

“Trump!” He announces the topic as I step into the small classroom. I groan inwardly, the news of the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement still fresh in my mind. He gestures wildly at his companion, his best friend of nearly 30 years, and I think, yet again, how entirely opposite they are. “We talk about Trump!”
I glance at the woman. She keeps her eyes lowered, too polite to discuss with me, an American, the same thing that she had just been talking about with her friend. He has no such qualms. Spouting off rapid, excited Japanese, I can only catch the gist of what he’s saying. He pauses for breath and I nod, sliding into my seat across the small table from them.
“Trump is…” I search for the right word. “An idiot.”
They look at each other and she is no longer reserved, now having a new English word to grasp onto rather than the controversial topic. “Ijit? Idyo?”
I enunciate slowly, making my mouth movements precise so they can watch the words form. “An. Idiot.” He repeats me several times, his pronunciation worsening while she reaches for her phone and her go-to voice-to-translation Google Translate app. I shake my head. “Maybe that’s a bad word.” He quiets for a moment so I can clarify. “Trump is not smart.”
“Yes!” He nearly shouts it, fist high with the triumph of understanding. “He’s… face, no good. Brain, no good. World is not business.” Switching to Japanese in his excitement, he chatters first to me and then to his partner, once again both too fast and challenging for me to understand. His arm jerks up close to his face and quickly draws an angled line towards the ground. I catch “America” and “i-me-ji.”
She stops him, speaking slowly into her phone then turning it towards me. He is bad for America image of world.
Used to decoding Google Translate, I nod. “He’s bad for American image in the rest of the world.” It’s not a question. I’m agreeing.
With a big smile, he says, “Yes, that’s right,” then rattles off more Japanese. Our English lessons work slowly. Remembering, he changes back in the same breath, shaking his head to emphasize each word. “Trump is not smart.”

This is only the most basic of so many conversations I have had with Japanese people about the new U.S. president. It was difficult to explain, at first, how Trump made it into the running for my nation’s leader, but back then it was a bit of a joke. Next, it became hard to answer how he made it into the final two, as people across the globe realized the seriousness of our situation. Then, it became impossible to answer how he had won the presidency. My Japanese students didn’t understand. My fellow English teachers from other countries didn’t understand.
I was naïve and hopeful at the time that the repercussions of this wouldn’t be as bad as I was imagining. “Many American people want a change,” I tried to explain simply. “And Trump has promised a change. I just hope it is a good one.” The language barrier and my own confusion, disbelief, and denial made it difficult for me to fully express my opinions. But it did not prevent everyone else from expressing theirs.
I now have friends from Australia and New Zealand. I have friends from England, Ireland, Canada, Morocco, Taiwan, and of course, now, Japan. Combined, they’ve studied – and have work experience in – foreign languages, history, film, business, linguistics, education, science, medicine, literature, international relations, management, advertising, and philosophy. I have students who are businessmen, housewives, college students, lawyers, artists, salespeople, teachers, professors, landlords, translators, architects, and even the wife of a monk. A wide range of people with a wide range of experiences, abilities, and ideas. Yet they all agree on one thing. Donald Trump should not be the president.
My American friends and family members are split. Many of them agree with my foreign allies. A handful of them are conflicted because “vote Republican no matter what” never seemed to have such damaging consequences before. And a few of them stand faithfully with our nationalistic, artificial, disoriented president as he turns back the clock on progress while simultaneously turning the world on its head.
It’s time my country realized that to “make America great again,” does not mean what that man intended it to. True American greatness has never come from putting other people down, but from bringing them up. It has not come from excluding “the other” but from including the underdogs. It is not a competition to see who gets the title of World’s Best Country. And it is imperative that we stop thinking of our world as “us” versus “them.” Or else we will all lose together.