First day back

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First day back after a long hiatus is usually the worst.

It is cranky and sleepless as a new parent.

It is as uncomfortable as struggling back into a wet bathing suit.

It is the old chestnut writing prompt: to write about not writing.

It is acknowledging that yes, the flat of raspberries from the farmer’s market is partly a jam-making meditation, partly a form of procrastination.

It is hmmmm, forgot my cell phone at home. Maybe I need to go back home.

It is oh shoot I have a deadline to meet.

It is “you are SO unmotivated and if you were a writer, you would have written every day like Annie Lamott and Stephen King BOTH say you should.”

It is wondering about all that social media time and energy. Crafting status updates and Tweets? Micro-blogging? Or another form of not-writing?

It is maybe I should clean out my email inbox.

It is walking back into the indie cafe where the indifferent baristas will make my drink beautifully, even if it’s got chocolate syrup in it, to be back where there are windows and just the right amount of steam hissing and conversation and music for me to focus.

It is the ideas in my head that have yet to meet the page: the essay about No-No boys and No-No Boy, the essay about growing up multifaith (Buddhist and Catholic), the essay about yoga and water slides, the blog post about finding the end to my book (finally! finally! finally!), the book chapter about butterflies and auspicious coincidences.

It is scattered as a box of crayons, and just as full of possibility.

It is to keep my head down and do the work.

It is I’ve missed you, writing life.

For a sister getting married: senbazuru (1000 cranes)

1000 Cranes-Triangle

“What are those?”

I’m staying overnight with my daughter and her friends on a field trip. My daughter’s best friend is looking at the ziploc bag of paper, sitting on the hotel bedside table.

“They’re origami cranes. You remember the story of Sadako that you read in your class this year? If you fold a thousand, you get a wish?”

“Yeah. Can I look at one?” When I nod she takes one out of the bag, carefully. “They’re cool.”

“I’m trying to fold a thousand for my sister’s wedding. It’s a Japanese American tradition. Cranes are supposed to live a thousand years, and so you fold one for each year.”

She’s still holding one of them in the palm of her hand. “So do you believe in all the legends and myths about the cranes?”

I think hard for a second, feeling my way towards the answer. I’ve never quite thought about it before. “For me, folding cranes is not really about the belief that the wish will come true. But it takes a lot of time and commitment to fold a thousand. If you’re using small pieces of paper, you have to be really patient and careful. I don’t think that if I make a thousand, my sister’s automatically going to have a long and happy marriage. But it’s kind of like prayer, right? It’s a way of showing how much you hope the wish will come true.”

*****
I’m folding a paper square in half diagonally, and half again (triangle, triangle), and then half and half again across the width (rectangle, rectangle). I think about what it means to make a thousand.

I learned how to make a crane in Japan when I was seven, from one of our cousins there. I spoke almost no Japanese; she spoke almost no English. But then she brought out squares of colored paper, and sat at a low table, and we were able to talk somehow. Years later I made hundreds of cranes in college. By the end of my junior year I was able to fold them in the dark, watching a movie during class. The muscle memory stuck. I made a thousand for my own wedding. I start with some of the leftover gold paper that I used for our wedding.

1000 Cranes canoe

*****
As I’m folding the cranes, I’m thinking about my sister Teruko. My sister cares about handmade objects in her artwork. She’s made hundreds of origami cranes and lilies, ceramic statues, mandalas, prayer flags, and maneki nekos (good luck cats). She believes in handmade objects: ceramics, origami, paintings, sculpture. She believes in touch, in sculpture, in the everyday magic and care that go into creation. Her interest in communication through touch carries over to the rest of her life, where you’ll often find her hugging people to meet them, petting her cats, or touching a stranger lightly on the arm to establish a connection.

While I’m folding, I start to see why Teruko believes in the handmade. To make a crane asks you to work with the paper, patiently and intimately. You have to crease the paper firmly. If you don’t crease firmly, the paper won’t do what you need. What you do to one side, you usually do to the other: there’s a wonderful symmetry in each act. Mistakes can be made easily. If you fold one piece over too far, the wings get stuck and the crane will never emerge. You’re folding the paper so many times that it becomes thick, to become the body of the crane. You make triangles, rectangles, squares, diamonds, even canoes—all in a series of complex steps that’s eventually meant to make the paper fly.

1000 cranes crane

I’m folding yet another set of cranes, waiting to pick up my oldest daughter from school (triangle, triangle). Folding more at night for months before bedtime, while I’m reading a book (rectangle, rectangle). Folding a hundred on the road trip from Seattle to California and back again. Folding another fifty on the family vacation road trip to Cannon Beach. Folding a handful while I’m checking my e-mail, while I’m watching a movie with my daughters. Over months I’m folding, like a pastry chef with cake batter, gently mixing in some of my life, and light, and air.

Handmade is a kind of magic: it carries a person’s touch to another person.

*****
As I’m folding I’m thinking about yellow, one of the colors that my sister’s chosen for her wedding. Yellow is the color of our childhood home. It’s the color of summer sunlight in Northern California. It’s the color that the sunlight made when it came through the shoji screens in our childhood house. Her other color is gray. Yellow and gray, and also gold and silver: colors of things that are meant to last.

I think about our mother and the gift she gave us, the gift of each other (triangle, triangle). I don’t know how she gave us each a sister, when she struggled with her own for so long. But I do know that she gave us each other. She wanted us to be together, to help each other, to talk to each other, to be kind to each other. That’s why I wanted to have two children, not just one. It has been one of the richest relationships of my life.

I think of my sister’s belief in collective efforts: the beauty and power that happens when people come together to work. And so there are cranes in this thousand from our mother, from our auntie (one of our dad’s sisters), and from my oldest daughter: three generations of women coming together to show our hope for my sister’s marriage.

But most of all I think of my sister, and her art. What do you give the beloved little sister who’s getting married, the one who’s been with her love for so long? What do you give the sister whose art is so gorgeous and so brave that you can’t believe she’s your sister? You give her a thousand cranes, senbazuru, and you hope that they give her the energy and inspiration, maybe even the materials, for her next installation.

And so the wedding gift is not just a wish, or a belief; it’s the celebration of a knowing. She and her love know what it is to fold a thousand cranes. They know the repeated, intricate work of turning something that seems ordinary, even flat, into something that can fly.

1000 cranes 1

(For Teruko and Garrett, our love and support always. Love, Sis)

On writing and braising

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One of my happy places: Elliott Bay Books in Seattle

“If I were reading you like a novel, it makes perfect sense.”

My friend Megan was trying to comfort me; I’d been lamenting about not-writing, again.

“You reached a solid point with your book, and right now you’re taking a break. Things need to percolate. Or maybe think of it like this: it’s like braising. You’ve seared the meat, and sealed in the juices, and now it’s time for the long, slow braise.”

She was speaking in terms of books and food, which helped.
*****
Over the last couple of months I’ve stepped away from the book, and I’ll probably be away from it for a little longer. I took a day job, a short-term contract gig for a few months. It’s a big project, but it’s interesting, and it uses my skills and background from higher education. I’ve been lucky enough to only take freelance gigs for organizations and causes that I support, and this is no exception. The job is flexible and remote—meaning, I get to work from home, or a cafe, which is where I am now. It works particularly well with our family life now, where Josh is working in Seattle, the girls are at various schools, and I’m at home keeping domestic and culinary wheels running. I get to work with the college staff, who are clearly dedicated to the college’s mission. As I think many community colleges do, this college walks the talk of accessibility and diversity. Though I’ve had to step away from my own book, I’m also comforted a bit by the prospect of bringing in a paycheck, as small as it might be. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to contribute to our household income, and how that contribution satisfies part of me.

And yet. I haven’t been working on my book. I’ve been collecting links for the book again, about how we read on the page versus how we read on the screen; about how the jail at Tule Lake (where I think my grandfather may have been held for a time) is being renovated and restored. I’ve added a few book-related books that I want to read, especially Deborah Miranda’s memoir, Bad Indians, which works with some of the issues in my book: intergenerational trauma and revising history. (I recently got to meet Deborah and it was wonderful.) Not much writing, though.

The good news? My dreams have been working hard in the emotional territory of the book.
*****
When I say “my dreams,” I mean the kind that happen when you sleep, not the fluffy pink and gold dreams that appear on inspirational posters. I’ve been dreaming again. I’ve been sleeping the kind of sleep that’s less interrupted. I’d always been a pretty good sleeper until things started to fall apart a couple of years ago. Then I began to expect my 3AM wakeups, lasting for at least half an hour or more. Eventually, I’ve started sleeping better, and I’ll tell you this: better sleep has meant better dreams.

When I say “better dreams,” I don’t mean happier dreams, necessarily. But they’ve been vivid dreams, realistic dreams with a dash of fantasy, where I can see and hear, and where I’ve told people—within the dreams!—that I’ve had dreams about them. I’ve woken up trying to remember enough to write them down.

Each time I wake up from these dreams, I am scared or surprised or shaken, and sometimes all three. Each time I wake up from these dreams, I find the same message blinking in my mental inbox: my subconscious creating dreams is a path to writing fiction. Dreams contain elements of what might and what might not happen, based on familiar characters and unfamiliar settings. (Exhibit A: a dirigible appeared in one of these dreams, followed by a record store. Nope, I’ve never been in a dirigible. Unfamiliar. But I haunted Tower record stores for almost 10 years while Josh worked there. Very familiar.)

The subconscious piece explains, at least in part, why I’ve been terrified of writing fiction, even though writing novels represent my ultimate fluffy pink-and-gold dream. To write fiction I will need to venture into territory that’s even more frightening than memoir. This vivid place, this subconscious place of the visceral, the physical, based on a combination of real-life scenarios (scenes, details, conversations) and what may never be…that is where I am already writing fiction. If I am stuck thinking about stories as moments, just moments, rather than the series of moments which lead up to moments…well, maybe that’s the trick to rethinking my approach to writing fiction.

If my subconscious is already writing fiction, surely my conscious mind can write it too. I am terrified of writing it—I’ve never taken a class in writing fiction, although my friend Ann insists that my reading novels has been my class in writing fiction. I am terrified of the necessary, repeated failure that is bound to come with creating something new. I am terrified of the inevitable gap (as Ira Glass puts it) between the quality of what I want to write and the flabby, shitty first drafts that will emerge as I write fiction.

I am going to disappoint myself, over and over. I just need to keep my head down and commit to the work. Fiction is writing based on endless possibilities—which terrifies me the most—and it’s writing with the most freedom.

If I had a new career goal, that might be it: to write, and embrace that kind of freedom.

*****

Latest Writing News and My First Giveaway!

Since I last wrote a post, one of my essays was translated and reprinted in a few countries—an unexpected and lovely gift, thanks to the Discover Nikkei Project of the Japanese American National Museum. I’ve also been reprinted over at Avidly’s series about the writing life, a wonderful online magazine about loving things “with intense eagerness.”

Last but not least, I was happy to write a blurb for the latest edition of New California Writing 2013, where the nice folks at Heyday Books called me (squeal) an “author and food writer.” As a thank you for the blurb, Heyday sent me two copies of the book, one to keep and one to share. So, I can give one away. It’s a wonderful collection of some of the best recently published writing about California. Here’s what I said about it:

This edition of New California Writing has so many things that I miss the most about my home state: a vision of beauty from the redwoods and Point Reyes to the desert; an awareness of the abundance and the human costs of agriculture, through winter deserts and peach orchards; a wicked delight in probing the geographies (and faultlines) of diversity, from Mojave Indian Barbies to sushi and black-eyed peas. Established writers like Joan Didion, Robert Hass, and Julie Otsuka inhabit the same space alongside emerging voices. Each page-turn gives us another rotation of the maddening and breathtaking kaleidoscope that is California.

Giveaway rules: Leave a comment below if you’d like the “to share” copy and I’ll draw a name via the Random Number Generator on May 15th. Fill out your e-mail address in the form–you do not need to include it in the comment box, though. For now, I need to limit the giveaway to the US. If you are under 13 years old, please ask your parents to fill out the comment form. One entry per person. The deadline for entries is May 15th, 2013, 12:00AM PST. I will post the winner (and contact them for a mailing address) on May 16, 2013. I was not compensated to give the book away.

The Next Big Thing: Blog Hop, 2013

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Hans Ostrom has kindly tagged me in this year’s blog meme, a series of writers talking about their works in progress. (Thanks, Hans!)

What is the working title of the book?
I’m still playing with the title—but for now? Life After History: Talking to the Archives of My Dad’s Life.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It started when my young daughters started to ask about my father. They knew he was dead, but they wanted to know more about him. My daughters will be children of the digital age, and I wanted to think about concrete ways to give them a sense of his presence. In trying to “restore” him for my daughters, I was struck by how much technology and communication has changed from the time of my father’s death (in the early 1980s) and our Facebooking, online lives now. So I started looking at the hard copy archives of my dad’s life: his unpublished book, manuscript his military records, his recipes. My sister’s a visual artist, and we also thought it would be wonderful if she could create a series of works that visually responds to the artifacts and his life (and death). She does some amazing work and I can’t wait to share it.

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a memoir, although it will also include excerpts from my dad’s unpublished memoir and pictures of my sister’s artwork. Three voices for the price of one!

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
That’s a tough one, especially for a memoir; who do you cast as yourself? Lea Salonga, Tamlyn Tomita, and Suzy Nakamura are talented and beautiful Asian American actresses, and approximately the right age, but I am not sure I’d ask to cast them as me, precisely for those reasons!

For my dad? One of my grad professors, Steve Sumida, is an amateur actor, and looks a lot like my dad. I’ve gotten to know Ken Narasaki a bit, and he’d also be wonderful to play my dad at a few different ages. But actors like Sab Shimono are probably closer to the right age.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s the story of two writers meeting on the page, and the results of that meeting: how I tried to restore my dad for my daughters by talking to the archives of his life, how technology helped that quest, and how I became a writer again through that process.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Still writing that first draft, going on two years now.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
There are so many sources, though of course there’s my dad’s book. He died when I was ten years old, and left (among his many other papers) an unpublished memoir about his family’s incarceration at Tule Lake during World War II. I’m also inspired by other Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Eugenia Kim, who have written works based on the lives of their families.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I’d love to see the book spark different conversations about the legacies of memory and history. So many of us have experienced sweeping technological changes in our lives, but we’re also anxious about the costs and benefits of these changes. What gets lost between page and screen? What gets restored from screen back to page?

If the thousands of registered users on Ancestry.com are any indicator, many people are interested in genealogy and their family histories. People who are interested in family history might also wonder about the archives of their own families, both digital and in print.

Some of the book is about grief; I had not really processed some of my grief about my dad’s death for over twenty-five years. I’d like to think about this book as a step in helping to move grief conversations from the self-help aisle and into other areas of the bookstore.

And of course I hope that people (both within and without the Japanese American community) who are interested in the World War II incarceration experience will find a great deal that resonates.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’d love to find representation with an agent who believes in me and my work, and an editor (and publishing house) who feel the same way.

This year’s word

Trees and sidewalk

Though I still jog occasionally, I’m sold on the urban hike. A walk, rather than a run.

Mornings are best. A few weeks ago I read a helpful rule to fight procrastination—“do the hardest thing first.” Apparently, exercising is that for me, and so to help maintain my exercise habit, I often walk down the same street. It’s one of the loveliest streets in my city, and it leads to a lovely old (and recently renovated) park. The setting, the routine, and the time of day all tell me physiologically that it’s time to exercise. I’m off before I quite know it.

Now, this street really is something special. There are decorative guard lions, statues of angels and dancing ladies, waterfalls and fountains.There are tall horse chestnut trees with huge leaves; the leaves can grow as big as my head. There are stunning views of the water. There are fantastic carpets of fungus and trees with petticoats of moss.

Tree moss

There’s one house with Miss Havisham (or, Miss Piggy) scalloped lavender stage curtains. Another house has a converted real estate flyer box outside, urging passersby to “take a poem or leave a poem.” Sometimes I’ll notice the patterns that  different leaves have left on the sidewalks, other times I’ll look at paint colors, and still other times I’ll look at  patterns of tree bark.

One morning last month I am on my walk, somewhat grudgingly. A grumpy gray cloud voice says, Oh, well, here I am again. The weather’s dismal, the fall leaves are gone, and there’s not very much to see. Then another relentlessly chirpy voice kicks in: You go down this street all the time, but I bet you can see something new. You just have to look hard enough. You just have to reach.

(I know both voices are mine, the grumpy one and the annoyingly chirpy one: they’re the two sides of my self-discipline. Self-discipline’s never really been a problem for me. What has been a problem for me is the high level of self-flagellation that can go along with a high level of self-discipline. Relentlessly Chirpy Voice is a great cheerleader, but also a surprisingly hard taskmaster.)

There are the same trees, the same pretty houses, the same real estate signs, the same leaf blowers near the bed-and-breakfast. The grumpy voice is ready to take a nap. Yet the chirpy voice keeps going: “I bet you can see something new! You just have to look!”

About a quarter of the way through the walk, there is this two-story brick house with a sign outside.

House

Oh, wait, no: real estate office. There’s a sign hanging on a pole outside the building. So I had always thought it was a real estate office. The curlicue writing on the sign says something about realtors…must take a look…

Oh, wait, no: apartment building. The sign tells you to contact a realtor office if you’re interested living there. The building is dark, with white columns by the front door, rose bushes, statues.  A fountain in front. More bricks on a path that sets the building pretty far back from the street. The sound of the fountain actually distracts me—it makes me think there’s nothing else to see. But wait, there’s an ironwork fence curves around a mess of greenery next to the building…

Oh, the fence. I hadn’t really looked at the fence before. I look harder at the ironwork fence: the ornamental scrolls and flowers. I look harder at the plants just behind the fence…and then, I see it.

A swimming pool.

As if I am behind a movie camera, the landscape behind the fence zooms away from me. Shiny silver handrail, shimmering green water.  The horizon, my very field of vision, expands—and there is, improbably, a pool.

Pool(Who has an outdoor swimming pool in the Pacific Northwest? No one I know. Surely, there’s a story there.)

I’m telling you about this swimming pool because I want to remember it as a metaphor for the writing life and its rewards. To look harder, to keep reaching, until the horizon expands and something gorgeously unexpected appears.

That’s how I found this year’s word for myself: reach.

It’s all about the reach

When I moved to Seattle in 1998, it wasn’t the rain that bothered me. It was the light, or the lack of light, especially in midwinter. (It was a particularly bad winter, the natives told me: an El Niño winter with hard rains. But the winters after that never felt very different, to be honest.) See, all those years in California, I used to time my dinner prep by the setting sun. Then I found myself finishing my Seattle dinners in November by 4:30PM. And oh, I missed the sunlight. There’s a reason Josh calls me a kitty—when the sun’s out I will close my eyes, stretch, turn my face towards the warm light, and all but start grooming myself, it makes me so happy.

It’s taken years for me to adjust to the Northwest light, but I think I got closer to fine this year. We bought full-spectrum light bulbs, and I started using them to help me wake up at my bedside table in the mornings. We painted our living areas sky blue and cheery yellow.

More importantly, the grayer the skies became, the harder I looked for color in my everyday life. Looking back at my photos from this year’s autumn,  I can see the patterns that a windstorm will create in the fallen leaves on the ground. I can see how luminous the dahlias are in September, how the pumpkins in October just glow in my daughters’ arms, how the filtered sunlight enlivens the red and yellow maples, just so.

This year’s photos showed me color, light, life. You couldn’t really see how gray and dark the skies had become.

Or, since color is relative, the colors were that much brighter because the skies were so gray and dark.

This year I finally learned the lesson of the solstice: it’s not about raging against the dying of the light. It’s about reaching for as much light as you can, every single day. When mid-December arrives, It’s about welcoming the return of the light, each minute by sunlit minute.

I’ll be back next year. I hope you will too.

(P.S. My essay about my family’s sukiyaki recipe was chosen “a very close second” in Discover Nikkei’s Itadakimasu series. You can read the essay and the generous comments from the Editorial Committee here. Happy New Year, everyone!)