Monday, March 18, 2013

Clarity, an Essay on Where Are You From?

I know why it takes years to write a novel now. Friday evening I read my work to a public audience for the first time at Women Speak with Women of Appalachia. Every time I read the piece in preparation for the event, I changed something. Reading to an audience partly obscured by the bright lights wasn't like standing at the podium in Coach West's speech class at DGF High School back in Rota, Spain, but I managed. I wanted to catch an eye and latch on for dear life, but the glare prevented me from locking in on anyone. Listening to others' stories and poems, I found myself moved by a tale of sibling rivalry with it's inherent quest for acknowledgment as well as swimming in the loss of control by a mother grappling with a son's war experiences through cooking and baking recipes in her kitchen. It was a privilege to have the opportunity and it was worth all of the time spent writing and tweaking to have the chance to read aloud. Without further ado, here it is.


Clarity

“Where are you from?” This question was often asked of me because my dad was in the Navy. When people asked, I wasn’t sure because we moved a lot. By the time I was a teenager, we had spent years living in Europe surrounded by ancient cities, cultures, and traditions. The people I saw off base every day knew where they were from, and I longed to know where I was from. I had a feeling I wasn’t Spanish or Italian, but when I asked my dad if we were maybe English or German, he rolled his eyes and said, “You’re a fifth generation hillbilly from Ohio kid.”

Ohio? Ohio was where we drove to visit family every summer. It didn't seem terribly romantic considering that some of my relatives in Ohio still had outhouses. I wanted to be from some place ancient and mysterious like Granada or Iona.  I didn’t want to be stuck to the vinyl seats of my dad's Chevy Nova during the marathon drives from Florida to Ohio reading Archie comic books and asking, “Are we there yet?” I wanted to take the Orient Express to Switzerland.

Ohio wasn't like the places I'd been in Europe. There were Italian and Spanish restaurants in Ohio, but I had never seen an Ohio restaurant in Europe. The only Ohio culinary tradition I could think of was pie for breakfast. In Europe, they had ancient festivals and town parades with relics of long dead saints. In Ohio, we visited the county fair and toured livestock barns. In Spain, we ate churros dipped in thick hot chocolate. In Ohio, there were "elephant ears" served with great big cups of lemonade. In Spain, they had the running of the bulls. In Ohio, they had tractor pulls, demolition derby, and the Tilt-O-Whirl. It was an existential crisis of sorts at that point in my adolescence. 

That is not to say that I didn't feel a nostalgic tug when my dad mentioned Ohio. Ohio summers were dinners of vegetables just pulled from the garden, family lounging on green grass, canoeing down shaded rivers, and cousins in hot pursuit of lightening bugs. My parents picked up where they left off with their friends and family, catching up on all the local news. In Ohio, friendships went back to first grade. In the Navy, you asked, “How long will you be here?” before making friends in hopes of finding some that might be there until the end of the school year.

Another thing they had in Ohio was basements. I'd seen a dungeon or two in Europe, but no basements, and we certainly didn't have them in Florida which is where I spend most of my childhood outside of Europe bouncing between Navy bases. 

The basement was a magical place for me as a child. These dark, cool, cave-like places were fitted with work tables, peg boards hung with tools, flat surfaces littered with pieces and parts, and seemingly endless rows of my grandma’s canning jars filled with this and that from the garden. In the basement, my grandpa repaired machines and my grandma reupholstered furniture, built lamps, and stored summer’s bounty. In Florida, we bought things in a store. In Ohio, my grandma and my aunts “put up” beans, corn, peppers, carrots, beets, jellies, jams, apple sauce, and even mustard. In Florida, we didn’t make much other than dinner. The brief sojourns to Ohio contrasted with the rest of my childhood, spent in Navy towns more notable for the presence of topless bars, pawn shops, and suburban sprawl than gardens or lighting bugs. 

It certainly wasn't Europe, but I’d always sensed a stability in Ohio that I didn't feel elsewhere. As fate would have it, I married a Navy guy, from Ohio, and continued the nomadic existence of my childhood. I worked as a hospital nurse and at every new duty station, people invariably asked the question that now seemed like salt rubbed into an open wound, “So where are you from? What do you do?” My husband never hesitated to answer, "Athens, Ohio," but I usually resorted to a deep breath, and, "I don’t know, my dad was in the Navy."

When children came into our lives, negotiating work and home created a tension between where my heart was and where it wanted to be. Work provided financial compensation and a sense of accomplishment-- people sought out my advice and expertise and often followed it. Home was full of people and things that had unending needs. I had it my head that there was some kind of balance I could achieve that looked like my neighbors and friends--  perhaps a part time job, a new position, a schedule for home life, a meal plan with shopping lists? I longed for short cuts that covered all the bases if performed at some unattainable level of efficiency. While my Capitol Hill neighbors put on a good show, the constant numbing fatigue, juggling of schedules, and dining on takeout was not how I had imagined living my life.

When the Navy assigned my husband to Japan, I took a break from my nursing career. Having just come from the work-equals-identity culture of the Beltway, it was not an easy decision. But, I looked forward to the new focus on home life, my children, and exploring Japan. 
We ignored every bit of advice from our fellow Americans and rented a house forty-five minutes from the umbilical of the Navy base. With our children enrolled in a local Japanese yochien preschool, it dawned on me that I had a job. The title of which I still hear repeated throughout the day: “Mama.” Being a Japanese yochien preschool mama is a full-time occupation. As with other jobs in Japan, you are expected to be completely devoted to your work and give one hundred percent. There are obento boxes to make, smocks and bags to sew, and mandatory “volunteer” events, meetings, and activities to attend, weekends included. 

My willingness to show up, even though I couldn’t speak Japanese, meant that I, the gaijin (a foreigner), was included. And so, we “band of mothers” collaborated. We read library books to the children (I in English) and then went for coffee. We wrote, practiced, and performed our requisite “fun” skit for the children for weeks and then celebrated our grand finale with an all-you-can-drink-for-ninety-minutes party at a local Izakaya (a pub), just like Japanese men in the corporate world do after closing a deal. 

As my children’s school days grew longer, there was more opportunity for me to participate in Japanese culture. From cooking lessons in Japanese for five years, the Japanese names of vegetables like nasu (eggplant), daikon (radish), and engan (greenbean) came into my vocabulary and proved helpful at the farmer’s market. New textures and flavors like the umami rich savory dashi stock, the chewiness of mochi pounded rice, and the sour surprise of the umeboshi pickled plum found their way to the table at home. From Ikebana, I learned to arrange flowers as they asked to be arranged.

An American friend took time to teach a few of us to use our sewing machines. We were a group of beginners, and we made every mistake imaginable. We sewed the fabric backwards, sideways, and inside out, and became intimately acquainted with the seam ripper. But, for the first time, the gifts I sent home were sewn by me.

Living in a country with a language I could not speak and time devoted to the needs of others, left me with things to say but no outlet. I started a blog. The internet connected me with readers, a blog widget dutifully counted the clicks of those who stopped by, and the surprise when an idea transformed into a story kept me coming back to the keyboard. In pursuing these “simple” things that too often get pushed aside in the bustle of modern life, like cooking, sewing, and writing, I discovered the wonders of creating.

Art, for me, had been a passive thing-- admiring the works of the masters. It was art beyond my capabilities. But, my experiences in Japan opened my eyes to another understanding of creativity and in a sense took me back to those summers in Ohio.

I think back now to the things my grandparents did-- the furniture given new life, the bounty of a summer garden, the jars lining the basement shelves. Creativity was part of my grandparents' daily lives in a way that I had not experienced until I landed in Japan. I thought back to my time in the Beltway, to those movers and shakers I had once envied. I wonder if in the pursuit of position, power, or prestige that others define for us, do we loose the connection to the imagination and the creativity that more truly defines us?

In the city, people could hide behind expensive cars, trendy clothes, and important titles. I had never found that simple serenity my grandpa had sitting on his porch as daylight faded with his pipe, listening to the crickets chirp, the frogs sing, and watching the lazy flight of the summer lightning bugs.

When our time ended in Japan and with the Navy, my husband and I asked each other where we should go. We arrived at the same place, Athens. Over the years, we had regularly visited. It was a place where, as my husband used to say when we came back, we could "hear the air and smell the earth."  

My city friends might not understand the lure of Athens. There are no fancy restaurants touting an exotic “catch of the day” flash frozen in a faraway ocean. Instead, the waitress with her three pony tails and one nose ring, informs you that the seasonal vegetable of the day is “butternut squash with apples” from a nearby farm. Dressing up at times is simply a pair of clean jeans. Having your nails done means that you’ve checked for dirt after gardening. Instead of following someone else’s vision of success and hoping for the elusive promotion to the circles of power, people tend to follow their own vision and everyone seems to have an artistic alter ego.

Life in Athens is slower, there are fewer distractions, and with that, I have found clarity. I know now what I didn't understand all those years ago when I asked my Dad where we were from. It’s about creating a life that feels good on the inside. 

I haven't worn pearls in a long time, and I don’t worry about what to wear opening night at the opera anymore. Here, I write, make Japanese recipes for the American kitchen, restring beads on a broken necklace, and trade loaves of bread for blocks of tofu. I focus on the work of my hands as it comes to fruition. 

Here in Athens, I have a back porch where I can sit at the end of day. This summer, as the light fades, I will be sitting there, sipping a mug of tea, listening to the crickets and the frogs, and watching my children chase the lightning bugs. I’m from the hills of Ohio now.

The Hills of Ohio