The beauty of visible grief

Out of all the griefs there are, a child’s grief may be one of the hardest to witness.

I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe it’s partly because children feel emotions with naked intensity. If they’re hurting, they’re hurting badly. But I also think that as a culture, we often want to protect children from death, from grief, from feeling sad. There’s some strange unwritten agreement that childhood is supposed to be sadness-free, and that it must be innocent, even though we know (or forget) that these words would not always describe our own childhoods.

Childhood is part of life, right? And all life contains some slice of sadness. Why should childhood be any different? It may even hinder a child’s emotional growth to deny them the opportunity to learn what my friend Jeanne calls the “skill” of grieving.

And still, it has been difficult to watch my oldest daughter grieve. I’ve been watching my child, and many other children, grieve for the last two weeks. It has been hard. And this has surprised me: it has been beautiful.

Maybe for you too, “principal” was a word to fear when you were growing up. You only saw one if you were in trouble. Principals were Grownup and Scary, and they stayed mostly in their offices. They were somewhat like hibernating bears: you didn’t want to see them, and you didn’t want to make them angry.

But C’s principal, Bob Dahl, was a beloved leader for staff, students, parents, and community members alike. He died a couple of weeks ago. He’d been sick and out of school since last October, but I think that many of us thought that he would recover.

So many people have Mr. Dahl stories. When C went to visit school one summer with Josh, Mr. Dahl was there, unpacking boxes of textbooks for the teachers. Mr. Dahl took them around the school, looked up her teacher’s name, and showed her what her classroom would look like. He did his very best to make sure that C felt welcome and at home. This was the summer before she started kindergarten. The last time I saw her with him, she was giving him a huge hug at her first grade back-to-school welcome celebration. C trusted him very early.

I’ve heard many other stories about Mr. Dahl, and they all say essentially the same thing: he was a kind, respected, and reassuring man. All this, and we’ve only been part of this community for two years. I can only imagine what it must be like for the families who have known him as their principal for ten or fifteen years, who have watched several children grow up in Mr. Dahl’s school. I can only imagine what it must be like for the staff who worked with him for the same amount of time.

As a parent, it was comforting to see Mr. Dahl each morning and afternoon at one of the crosswalks, where he did crossing guard duty. After the first few months of school, some of the older students joined him at the crosswalk to help. At first, I thought it was just charming—a way of saying that the highest administrator of the school had something to contribute to the small everyday workings of the school.

Upon second thought, though, it was clear that crossing guard duty was one of the smartest things Mr. Dahl could do as a principal. Crossing guard duty meant that he was there at the school: he was reliable, he was visible, and he was accessible. He greeted parents and students as we came to school and as we left. Crossing guard duty was more than his office hours, because office hours require the student go to the instructor. It was his way of bringing his office down to the crosswalk.

The evening after Mr. Dahl died, her teacher called us at home. (I thanked her later for the call. Imagine what it cost her to break the news to twenty-four families, while still reeling from the loss herself. She’s worked for him for fifteen years.) Though C was getting ready for bed, Josh and I decided to tell her anyway, instead of waiting for the rush of morning activities. We sat her on the couch between us, and explained that Mr. Dahl had died. We had explained death to her when she was a toddler, in the simplest possible terms—that someone’s body stops working. (A flexible thinker even then, she thought that death meant that they needed to get new batteries.) A distant family member died a couple of years ago. A family pet had died a year before that. We’ve talked about my dad, and she’s now old enough to be a little sad about the grandfather she never got to meet. But Mr. Dahl was the first person that C knew who died. This is really the first death that she’s old enough to understand. When we told her she buried her face on her dad’s shoulder, and she cried a bit. “Why?” was her first question. We talked about it some more. And then we read her some extra stories, and tucked her into bed.

What I really want to tell you about, though, is how amazing it has been to watch this elementary school, this larger community, teach my child how to grieve.

When I dropped C off at school that Monday morning, parents and staff were already weeping and hugging at the playground. But thanks to the school district, grief counselors were available the next day for the entire school, including parents, staff, and caregivers. The counselors had been pulled from other elementary schools that day. If kids became too sad to function in class, ventolin inhaler generic they went to the library, where they could talk to counselors, and do simple activities like coloring or doing math problems. Many classes did some form of activity to honor him, even the kindergarten classes. C’s class, which usually talks about kind words and deeds in a “kindness circle,” formed a circle to talk about Mr. Dahl and his kindnesses. They made a book of drawings and notes to give to his family.

And then there came the visible symbols of public grief, which have been equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. Two classes, whose rooms face the street, painted murals on their windows: “We love you Mr. Dahl.” Flower arrangements arrived from neighboring schools, and were placed on a table near the main school office, with a guest book to sign. That very afternoon, the school marquee changed to mark his passing. This week, students and parents have written on colored plastic memory flags, and tied them to the chain link fence surrounding the school playground. (You can see some of them in the first photo, above.) Many students wrote messages and traced their handprints onto colored construction paper, and someone made these into flowers to decorate the stage in the school cafeteria. The hallways are filled with the children’s letters and drawings for their principal. At the candlelight vigil that the school held this week, the school chorus sang a song that two students had written for him.

And for two weeks now, there has been a steadily growing pile of bouquets, handwritten letters, illustrated signs, and balloons at the northwest corner of the school. Members of the school community have laid these at the crosswalk where Mr. Dahl used to stand every day.


At our house we’ve talked about Mr. Dahl off and on, whenever C wants to raise the subject. Though it makes C sad to talk about him, I think it is also comforting to her that she can talk about him. Yesterday she brought home two things: a wallet-sized picture of him, and a blue plastic bracelet that says, simply, “[Our school] loves Mr. Dahl.” After the memorial flowers have wilted, and the signs have come down from the hallways, the children will still have this bracelet that they can wear as a symbol of collective mourning.

Not so long ago, in Victorian England, mourners wore special clothes which were black, and (after a time) half-mourning clothes which were lilac or gray. Having to wear these clothes might feel somewhat restrictive now, I know. But I’ve been wishing for those outward symbols of mourning. If you’ve been reading here, you know already that I’m writing a book about my father, and his early death when I was ten, and that this book is partly my way of grieving. It’s taken me far too long—well over two decades—to learn how to grieve my father.

I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to help my daughter grieve, or if I could stand to watch her grieve. I think that if I hadn’t been writing the book, I would have wanted to detach from far too much these past few weeks. I would have avoided talking about it, asked her not to talk about it. And I probably would have avoided the school as much as I could. I would have stayed away from anything like a memorial service or candlelight vigil.  I think I would have sprinted towards full emotional retreat. Emotional detachment’s been my coping mechanism for far too long.

Now I wish that I’d had something like C’s blue bracelet to tell the world that I was in mourning when my father died. Sometimes I felt as though I was in a completely different planet than almost everyone else, and I couldn’t remember how normal life felt. Maybe because I was a child, I felt strangely important. I knew that this massive catastrophe had happened and I was one of the few people who knew about it. I wish I’d had a bracelet or a sign, even a sandwich board I could wear, that said, “My father’s just died.”

And yet I don’t know how many people would have talked to me if I had worn such a sign. Why is there such a silence around grief?

I’m thinking of so many people I know who have lost someone vitally important to them. I’m thinking of family members and friends who have lost loved ones to aging, miscarriages, illness, suicide, accidents, abandonments. Some of these deaths have happened under brutal and inexplicable circumstances. There are so many of us, walking around with so much loss, and we don’t really know each other. I bet we could have a sandwich board party, those of us in the Grief Club. I bet the membership would be larger than any of us would expect. But we don’t speak enough about our losses to each other. Shouldn’t we be able to offer more than “I’m sorry”’s to each other?


These last two weeks have been hard. And they’ve been beautiful. My daughter’s elementary school community has taught her how to grieve. The teaching’s happened not through direct instructions or textbooks, but a tapestry of collective actions. And I’m so grateful that it’s happened in terms that she can understand:

It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry. Crying might even make you feel better.
It’s kind to comfort other people who are also sad.

We are never alone in our grief, though it often feels that way.

Beauty is not only possible but crucial at these times. It unfurls when we need it most.

And finally, one of the best things to do with grief is to bring it into the light.

I take it back

The skies were cool and gray, and they’d been that way for weeks. At first these looked like red beads, or berries that had fallen from a nearby bush.  So when I walked towards the back of our yard, taking out the garbage, two red dots in the garden bed caught my eye. On my way back inside, I thought I’d check to make sure that the berries were still there.
They weren’t. They were tiny heads of rhubarb, getting ready to come back from the winter.


It’s funny, the hobbies I’ve picked up since I moved to the Northwest from California. Cookbook collecting. Jam-making. And, funniest to me, gardening. I’m terrible at houseplants, so cross your fingers for the two plants I’m managing to keep alive. (Jade and Ruffles, I hope your days are not numbered.)

And gardening’s something that I never understood. It sounded mind-numbingly boring, something I’d ranked up there with home decoration as Grownup Old People hobbies. For a very long time, I remember snorting and tossing away the gardening and home decor sections of the Sunday newspaper—who does these things? (People who have gardens and homes to decorate, I now understand. Along the same lines, I never understood the appeal of a yard with a lawn until I had one. It’s like a park….behind your house!)

When I moved to the Northwest, I thought it was quaint that the number one hobby here is gardening. It really does make us sound like a region of nice senior citizens, puttering around with our pruning shears and shaking our passive-aggressive fists at, I don’t know, the non-recyclers. Gardening! I take it back now, I really do.

Not a yard with ornamental bushes, though we do have some of those. I mean, a garden, with raised beds for food. Except for those dates in high school, food gardening is some of the most fun I’ve ever had outside. I’m not a hiker, I’m not a kayaker, I’m not a skiier….all those Northwest pastimes that I’m supposed to enjoy. But I do love having a garden.

Since we started our garden, we’ve had some amazing years and some not-so-great years. We’re nowhere near Barbara Kingsolver’s family in Animal Vegetable Miracle, able to raise and put up food for an entire year. We’ll be regular farmers market customers for a very long time. But we’ve had tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, Rainier cherries, and blackberries, all from our own garden: from our own backyard. Summers have been quietly delicious.

(First, cookbook collecting, then jam-making, and now food gardening. Upon reflection, the senior citizen part of the gardening stereotype may not be too far off. I’ve turned into my grandmother, who loved all of these things.)


Last year wasn’t a great garden year. We had high hopes, since the Rainier cherry tree had snowballs of blooms that nearly covered the branches. The blooms weren’t pollinated enough, though. (We’re trying Mason bees this year, which are supposed to pollinate more than honey bees and aren’t as prone to stinging humans.) We planted some basil, lettuce, zucchini, tomatoes, and these performed modestly well. And for the coming year, we planted rhubarb and strawberries. With both of these crops, it’s recommended that you don’t harvest anything the first year (even down to pinching off the blooms of the strawberry plants), leaving the plants to conserve energy towards the next year’s harvest.

I bought a rhubarb crown, planted it, watered it but-not-too-much, and hoped. It obligingly grew several large leaves and stalks. And then at the end of summer it died, shriveling into a brown fist. Our next-door neighbors have an incredible set of rhubarb plants, and those didn’t seem to have died altogether. So I thought that was it. I’d let my rhubarb die.


And then: those drops of red in the garden that day. The rhubarb was coming back.

Northwest sap that I now am, I nearly cried. I had to look so closely at the plants, to make sure they were not berries dropped in the garden bed. These pictures are about as close as I could get to the crowns, and even then, they look bigger because I stuck my camera so freaking close to them. Those wood chips in the pictures? They’re probably no longer than a knuckle on your finger. I’m surprised they didn’t put up celebrity hands in self-defense—no papparazzi, please.

The color was just what I needed to see on such a gray day, after months and months of gray days. Our color palette here is mostly greens and grays and blues, and while I’m grateful for the greens, I also miss other colors during the winter. By the time spring comes back, glorious blossoming spring, I’m ready for the color.

Color may be one reason why we love to garden in the Northwest. But this year, gardening’s also about renewal, about second chances, about plain brown patience and rich green reward. I needed to see that, especially on a day like that day, after a winter like this winter has been. I’m still working through the occasional grieving, still driving through the uncertainty fog, and I still don’t know what will happen next.

The garden reminded me how to look, and what to see. “The rhubarb’s back! The rhubarb’s back!” I told C, and we ran to the backyard so she could see it, too.

Girl’s Day (Hina Matsuri)

It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve been writing bits and pieces, but not a nice satisfying chunk of writing. That’s okay–at least, I am trying to remind myself that this is okay.  All of it is part of the process. But it’s hard to trust the process on some days. Yesterday I took Anne Lamott’s “one-inch picture frames” approach and just tried to write as many small moments as I could. I’m not sure that these will make it into the book, but it’s clear so far that I needed to write them down, if only to download them from my brain.
I promised you some small breaks from the writing process here. So I wanted to tell you about the Girl’s Day celebration we had this year.

About Girl’s Day
Girl’s Day is a Japanese (and Japanese American) holiday, originally intended for little girls and their families and celebrated every year on March 3rd. We have a book about Girl’s Day and Boy’s Day, with photos and traditions, mostly intended for kids in Hawai’i. When C read about Girl’s Day and asked if we could celebrate it too, I couldn’t say no. I want her and her sister to know about Japanese culture, to know that this is part of who they are.

Girl’s Day (Hina Matsuri) is the Festival (matsuri) of Dolls (hina). Most traditionally, the family has a set of  hina that they take out every year for a few weeks before March 3rd. The hina are usually dressed in the court robes of the Heian era. Some sets are as small as just the emperor and empress on a stand, while one famous set in Japan has over a thousand dolls.

I never celebrated Girl’s Day when I was growing up, but this fact also means that I got to play with the day and the traditions as I went along. There are lots of traditions about Girl’s Day, and while I love some aspects of these traditions, I also like adapting tradition in order to keep the day meaningful and fun.  Hiragana Mama‘s collection of links about the day was especially helpful.

We made the day about dressing up fancy, eating special food, and playing with dolls. Josh finally finished making the dollhouse from a kit that we bought for Christmas, so the girls got to play with the dollhouse, too.
Ultimately, I wanted to keep the intention of Girl’s Day, which is about connecting girls to their families,  letting the girls know that they are loved and cherished.

The food
All of the food served on Girl’s Day symbolizes something, including hopes for the girls’ longevity, strength, and purity. A clear soup with clams is sometimes served, but I didn’t think any of our girls would like it this year. (Some of the food is offered to the dolls themselves, but I forgot this part. I’ll buy a small bowl to place by the stand (hina dan) next year. A sake cup might also work, since it’s the right size.)

Other foods that we served:

  • Thin egg crepes over rice from this recipe
  • Orange slices cut into flower shapes. We used to cut these up for dinner parties when I was little, and my family still likes to serve these on New Year’s Day.
  • Pink and green mochi. The mochi are supposed to be diamond-shaped, and they’re supposed to be pink, green, and white. I almost made the mochi, but decided it might be too much work (with everything else). Josh brought some guava and kiwi mochi from Uwajimaya, which was just fine.
  • Crepes. Yes, I know these are French, but here’s my reasoning: Japanese people are really good at making crepes. And some of the best crepes I’ve had are from places in Japantowns. I sweetened some cream cheese with powdered sugar, and made some strawberry sauce. I also had some ham, turkey and cheese. We presented them as fancy pancakes, and the girls loved them.

Girls usually dress up in kimonos and have their pictures taken next to (or in front of) the hina dolls. I actually have two things which were appropriate here: the yukata that my relatives had made for me when we visited Japan, so long ago, and an orange Korean robe which my sister sent to C. M didn’t want to wear her robe, which was fine. I just let her (and her cousin) ventolin tablets 4mg dress up in fancy dresses. C looked adorable in the yukata, though. Both girls wore hair accessories that my auntie had bought in Okinawa.  I wanted them to feel comfortable, but fancy, and special.

The hina (dolls) and their hina dan (doll stand)
This project took a while, but I’m a crafty sort of girl. I love taking materials that are available and then transforming them into something else. There are a whole bunch of wonderful cutouts online that you can download and print off. But these didn’t feel right to me. (I did print off a coloring page for each of the three girls, as a sort of party favor for the day.)

  • The dolls: I made the emperor and empress dolls, adapting this set of origami guidelines along with a washi ningyo kit that came with black crepe paper for hair and cutout white circles for faces. I made a small gold sensu for the empress, who often appears with an open fan. The emperor’s hair is shorter and more like a topknot. And then I made very simple stands (shaped like Vs, attached to the back of the dolls) which help the two dolls to sit up.
  • The doll stand: The emperor and empress appear on a stand, which is usually striped. I took an Altoid tin and drew stripes on the front. I also used a folded sheet of gold cardstock as a makeshift screen behind the dolls. Next year I’d like to make the screen fancier, maybe with a cutout decoupage from origami paper.
  • Cherry blossoms: And I knew that I wanted to make cherry blossoms. I’d been looking at this project for a while. So I picked two twigs from our backyard that looked small and interesting enough. I twisted small triangles of pink tissue paper and glued these onto the branches. I took paper cups, deconstructed one to make a template, and then covered the paper cups with blue origami paper. I turned the cups upside down and stuck the branches into the bottom.
  • The hina dan (doll stand): The actual stand is a black box that contained some beautiful Japanese bowls. Over the front, I draped a swath of obi fabric that my friend Marcy had sent me from Japan. It has gold origami cranes embroidered all over it. And, just for good measure, I folded three tiny cranes and put them in front of the dolls. Here’s how it turned out:


I wanted this day to be a day of celebrating little girls and family. So we invited my niece, as well as her parents, though they’re not Japanese. And we invited one of my best friends, B, and her boyfriend. Though B grew up in Kansas, she had read about Girl’s Day when she was a little girl. My girls have adopted her as an aunt. She brought a copy of an old children’s book, The Japanese Twins, which is about a little boy and girl growing up in pre-World War II Japan.

And I wanted to connect the day to my family, too. I mentioned that I didn’t celebrate the day while I was growing up. However, I have a picture that my sister framed and gave me. It’s a picture of the two of us in front of my grandmother’s set of hina. I put that picture next to my hina dan, and then put a picture of my daughters and my niece next to that. I wanted to connect those little girls with the little girls that my sister and I once were.

Traditionally, a big focus of Girl’s Day is marriage. As I understand it, this is why the hina are supposed to be from a Heian wedding. The day is supposed to represent your hopes for the girls’ future. But I didn’t really want marriage to be the focus here. If they want to be married eventually (far, far, far in the future), that’s great; if not, that’s great, too. Instead, my sister-in-law and I wrote short notes to the girls, describing our hopes for them. I’ll keep these notes and I hope that we’ll add to this jar of notes every year.

What special holiday traditions do you celebrate in your family? How have you adapted these traditions (or not), and why?

Another card

“Mommy! Mommy! I made something for you!”

As we pick up my kindergartener from school, she hands me a white envelope. I open it. There are about a dozen puzzle pieces that she’s colored by hand, in all the primary Crayola colors of the rainbow.

There are no corners, so I start to group the different colors together. She stops me. “No, no, Mommy. The greens don’t go together! I made it a tricky puzzle.”

It takes me a while to piece the puzzle together, with her help. Together we discover that there’s a piece missing, which sends her to her backpack. Several of the pieces are peeling away from the cardboard backing. There’s another piece or two missing, and we’re not sure where they are. But that’s all right. The puzzle forms a heart, and in the middle, she’s written, “Mom I Love You.”

Now that I’m a mother, I have a hard time accepting what the media sells us as “good Mother’s Day presents.” Brunch? Sure, if your mom likes brunch. But what if she likes picnics better? Flowers? Same deal: sure, if she likes flowers. But what if she’d rather be gardening and planting new ones in her own yard instead? Where are the top-10 suggestions for the Mother’s Day presents that ask you to honor what your mother likes, or what she likes to do?

As for me, I know that I will always love the presents that my daughters make me, with their own hands.

When I was a little girl, I remember making a Mother’s Day present for my mother. Two green plastic strawberry baskets and yellow paper and string. It was, ahem, a Ms. Pac-Man figure (yes, it was the 80s). Out of strawberry ventolin inhaler price baskets? You kind of had to be there to see it. And while my mom didn’t love, much less play, that video game, I loved the feeling of making something for her. “You’re so creative!” she exclaimed. And I glowed, hearing her say that. Together we had made snowflakes to tape onto our glass sliding door, and we hung ornaments made out of cutout Christmas card circles. So the act of making a present for her was to say: “I like to make things. And that’s because of you.” True, it might not have honored exactly what she liked, but I like to think that it honored the spirit of what she liked to do, as a parent.

I don’t know how my daughters will remember my mothering, but I do know that making things, and making things together, is one of the main things we do in our house.

There’s a poem that I’ve been thinking about obsessively, for the last several days. There are various versions circulating around the Internet, but all attribute the lines to the Persian poet Hafiz:

Even after all this time
the sun never says to the earth, “You owe Me.”
Look what happens with a love like that,
It lights up the Whole Sky.

When I found this poem, my eyes prickled with tears of recognition. That’s the very best of radiant maternal love.  I hope I can manage to pass on something like this kind of love to my daughters. That’s what my mother’s love has done for me. That’s why I’m a writer.

Mom, I still like to make things. And it’s because of you. Happy Mother’s Day.

A new conversation: Behind the Menu Status Updates

Dear Colleen,
I’ve been thinking a lot about your latest post, “Friend to Foodies.” I like to think that you wrote much of it with a gently mocking affection for your foodie friends, me included.

I am guilty of much of what you describe: homemade jam (check) and cakes (check); farmer’s markets (check); reusable shopping bag, (check, but recycled plastic); Facebook status updates advertising what we are eating for dinner (check). Here’s the passage that I thought about the most:

“But alas, foodies are indeed everywhere. And now, thanks to social media, I get to hear what all of you food enthusiasts are up to, which is like 90% cool, and 10% annoying because you make it sound so effortless, like you are lazily sipping on chardonnay, throwing together ingredients from your garden for your adoring friends and loved ones…who will clap as you plate the food.”

I wanted to talk about the 10% annoying part a bit, because I recognize that feeling. I think this part says a lot about how we think about ourselves as working parents, as working mothers, and a lot about what’s not said. There are so many ways to judge ourselves and each other.

See, what struck me about these two identities, working parent and eater/foodie, is that both involve an endless daily supply of incredibly personal decisions. Most of us try the best we can. We try to make our lifestyle reflect our values and priorities, but we can’t be successful in every single decision that we make. The academic in me, heck, even the writer in me, says that there are larger conversations to be had. So, let’s talk about the menu status updates first.

Confession #1: In my household we make time to cook, and grocery shop, but far less time to clean.

I know my menu updates on Facebook might sound, as menus do, like lovely descriptions. But, like menus and status updates, they are just the tip of the iceberg lettuce of life. Some of our meals do take a fair amount of work, and preparation, and hours of grocery shopping, all of which I enjoy most days of the week. I’m lucky that I love cooking and grocery shopping; I can’t imagine how difficult home cooking would feel if I didn’t.

Sometimes the menu status updates are elaborate because the meals do take a great deal of time and preparation. Arroz con pollo is one of our favorite meals, but it takes at least a couple of hours and several stages, involving chopping, marinating, simmering, and baking. On some days I wonder why I succumb to my craving for elaborate or time-intensive dishes, if I have to cook them.

But more often than not, the menu status updates are my ways to focus and meditate: a space to find calm and quiet amidst the whirl of activity that is our house between 4 and 7 PM most days. On good days, this might involve gleeful screams, an ABBA dance party, and several thundering laps around our dining room, kitchen, living room, and hallway. On not-so-good days, this might involve several tearful pleas for “chocky milk,” or just one more Bugs Bunny cartoon, or the clattering of fifty plastic blocks from the Duplo table. Most days are a healthy mix of both. Writing a menu status update can be my therapeutic reminder that I’m looking forward to a good meal, and that makes me happy.

So these status updates help me to relax. But they also mean that the more time I am cooking and baking, the less time I am cleaning. I know people don’t usually status-update a beautifully clean living room, but when I see those living rooms in houses I visit, especially those houses where people have small children, I think about how effortless they seem.

And that’s when I understand the “90% cool, 10% annoying” ratio. These living rooms look amazing. I envy their peace. But how do these families time find to keep it clean? Like you, I envy, but my envy involves that mythical clean and organized family who never has to clear off the table before they eat; who stores every toy in its original box in its proper basket on its designated shelf; who never finds pretzel crumbs and dried cranberries in their sofa cushions. My house is, let’s just say, far from immaculate. We make lots of time to cook, with family expeditions to various grocery stores, but far less time to clean.

I have similar feelings about the craftymom blogs that I read. I love seeing what these women create, and yet I wonder how they have enough time and energy, much less a clear-enough workspace.  Doesn’t it make you feel better when, occasionally, the cracks show through the seemingly perfect narrative? When they admit that they too, need time to breathe?

I have more confessions to make “behind the status updates” (I’m a picky eater! My kids are kind of picky, too! I use convenience foods along with from-scratch foods!). For now, though, I wanted to know what you thought about this column, “Busy Signal: The Very Busy Home Cook.” I loved so much of what Pete Wells had to say: what time constraints and energy levels look like in households with several small children and two working parents, what houses look like where the breadwinners’ work does not get “left at the office.” I loved the idea of not shaming “those who do not have the time to cook,” and I even loved the idea of better processed food.

I know that there are privileges in our two-income lifestyle. (Kudos to the single parents out there. A fist-bump to all those folks looking for a job. Gratitude to those who volunteer and work at places like food banks.) And yet with all due respect, I wondered if folks would have responded differently had Wells been a working mother writing this line: “I have definitely learned something about cooking for a family at the end of a day spent in an office: It’s very, very hard to do.” Would it have had the same impact?

I look forward to hearing more about what you have to say about this combination of issues, about working and parenting and home cooking. I don’t hold myself up as a model worker or parent or home cook, but maybe there are a few anecdotes or strategies I can offer, or things that our commenters can offer. And maybe that conversation can help everybody. And I hope you’ll do the same.


Next to the road

Dear baby bird M,

This morning I found a car rental receipt for May, 2007. I had to do a double take—the date was May 17, and I had one car seat so your older sister was with me, and I flew in and out of Sacramento…but the year was 2007. Were you born yet? I had to ask myself. No: that was one year before you were born in May 2008. About five months before we knew about you.

When I realized this, I was stunned. I can’t believe that it has only been two and a half years since you were born. Since that day, I have felt so protective of you, my second child, second daughter. Your dad and I are oldest kids, and now your big sister’s an oldest kid. You’re a youngest kid in a household of oldest kids. So I have felt protective of you in different ways. Maybe you don’t always want to play what your big sister is playing (although this is rare, it’s true); maybe you don’t want to watch that movie that she chose; maybe, gasp, you have your own choices and preferences. I want to protect yours, if I can. I understand big sister urges all too well: we want to express our love through teaching, protecting, guiding. But I want to honor you, too.

When I knew I was pregnant with you, I remember being worried. How could I love you like I love your sister? And of course, the answer was that I can’t. And I don’t. Loving your sister taught me that I could love someone differently than your dad—but just as equally, just as helplessly, just as deeply. You taught me that of course I can love a daughter differently from your sister. And yes, just as equally, just as helplessly, just as deeply.

Now, I know there are older and younger sibling gripes. Your dad and I try to manage these as best as we can. Older siblings gripe about how younger siblings get more attention for being “the baby.” But younger siblings gripe about being treated permanently like children. Older siblings gripe about having to go first, or “breaking parents in” to the first sleepover, the first driving lesson, the first time away from home. And younger siblings gripe about how little documentation there is for them, compared to the oldest child.

And oh, this last one is so true. I’ve talked to a number of parent-friends who have two or more kids, and it’s not just you. I wrote down daily, weekly, monthly things about what your sister was doing at this age. Milestones: first steps, first words, first meals. She had her own web page. We do take pictures of you, but not as many; we update your shared web site every three months, rather than every week or every month. I have felt, keenly, the lack of documentation that we have had for you, compared to what we had for your sister. It happened with me, too—there are so many picture albums of just me, the oldest and for four years, an only child—and not as many picture albums of your auntie, my younger sister. So this is something like an apology for not having enough pictures of you, or equal documentation of you.

But it is also a letter to tell you this: if the older sibling is about the magic of the milestones, the younger sibling is about the magic of the middles.

When your dad and I held your sister as a baby, we were terrified most of the time. We didn’t really know what or whom or how to trust, as parents. Good students and lifelong readers to the core, we consulted What To Expect (both before and after her birth) every week. We loved it, but we were also gut-scared.

And you? By the time you were born, we had learned better how to trust ourselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my very favorite pictures in the world was taken on the day you were born. It’s a picture of you, burritoed up in the white flannel hospital blanket, and your big sister C, with the biggest look of surprise, looking up and laughing. I asked my sister, your auntie, to take these pictures, as many as she could. I knew that I’d still be in surgery for a little while after you were born. And I couldn’t be there when you met your sister for the first ventolin inhaler price time. It broke my heart a little, to tell you the truth. So first you should know this: the urge to document was there the day you were born, even though I couldn’t be with you, and the urge is still there.

And second, you should know this, immediately: very early, you taught me how to enjoy the in-between. As a baby, you were a world-class champion cuddler. Even now, your body melts into my lap, pours itself onto my shoulder. Your head still snuggles into my neck, that sweet spot that babies seem to seek and find, automatically. What will I do when you no longer want to sit on my lap in the morning during breakfast, or lounge against my legs as you eat your snack? You crave physical contact, lots of it. I’ve never been that way, but I love that hunger in you.

For the first three and half months of your life, you were colicky at around the same time, around 4-6PM. It was usually dinnertime, which meant that we had to take turns, or eat later. I never thought that I would have been mostly all right with holding a screaming, seemingly inconsolable baby, but there were also times when I was so happy that I got to hold you. I wasn’t so scared. I didn’t take it as a personal insult or parenting comment that you were screaming every day. And every once in a while, when I held you, pacing, swaying, singing, breathing deep… you’d calm down. I like to think that it was because you knew me, knew my smell, in the most mama-baby animal primal way. I wasn’t looking for your first smile, your first anything. I just knew that I loved holding you, breathing you.

Now you are making new leaps and bounds with your language, it seems almost every day. You’ve gone from naming, to demanding, to describing, to pretending, and even to analyzing (“Can I sit down to put my pants on?” you asked this morning. “It’s easier.”). You love wearing the same clothes as your older sister: “We have twins!” you like to say to her. You’re catching your balance more, and you can now trot sturdily after your sister, chirping “OK! C!” Your Japanese-manga-size eyes stare up at us from under your blowsy, curly bangs, and all three of us, we who live with you, are at their mercy. Your sister even runs to get a tissue when you sneeze.

Your moods are usually sunny or stormy, and most of the time you like to be sunny, silly and funny. I don’t remember the first time you said your first word, but I do remember when you said to me, without any kind of prompting, “I yahv yoo.” You still want to be carried a lot (“uppy!”) and you still love your “chocky milk” from the store. You love to pretend to put your baby doll to sleep, and you want us to pretend along with you. Tonight I was a crocodile. A couple of weeks ago I was the Cookie Monster. Who knows what I’ll be next? I can barely measure, much less document, when and where and how all of this is happening.

But we are learning how to express ourselves in newer and better ways, you and I. Though I can remember what life was before you were born, I am amazed by how richly you and your sister have textured my life, how thoroughly you ask me to live my life every single day. Stitches that outline a shape? Pretty, sure. But intricate embroidery in lush, multiple colors, unfurling designs: now, there’s something like my life now. A century of stitches.

That’s why I can’t believe that you’ve only been alive two and a half years.  And that’s why I’m not writing this letter to celebrate any developmental milestone. You, the younger sibling, have taught me that the journey of parenting is not only the direction of the road, the distance to the next rest stop, or the relief of the endpoint (and really, how to envision an end to parenting now?).

Thank you for teaching me to see the beauty of the landscape next to the road. You are the long tall grasses waving in the wind, the green hills relaxing in the distance, the white lace dancing on the waves.  You taught me that parenting’s also holding you, breathing you. These are the journey of parenting, as much as anything else.

Love, Mama

Maybe that’s why

Dear C-bird,

It’s the night before your first day of kindergarten. Tonight, as I tucked you in, you wanted to talk about how you didn’t want to go to kindergarten. The only thing you liked about kindergarten, you said, was the outside playground part. And that you got to pick your own lunch (peanuts, pasta wheels with feta, dried cranberries, homemade chocolate chip cookie, apple juice). And that you get to see Kaiden every day. Those are some of the familiar things.

We’ve been trying to get you ready for kindergarten, of course. All summer we’ve been playing at the playground, so you know that “park” really well. You saw your classroom and met your teacher last night at the open house. It’s got a lot of low tables, and tiny chairs, and white wooden cubbies, and a round bench, and a couch, and a piano, and so many new books within arm’s reach, and a view of Puget Sound. We’ve read books about kindergarten, and we’ve talked about some of the new things you’ll learn, like counting money, and new songs, and reading books without someone having read them to you first.

And still, there are traces of fear amid the traces of excitement. Dad and I have been trying to explain to you that our brains don’t like new things at first, and that’s what your brain has been doing: it’s resisting the new. So you won’t know what you like about kindergarten until you get there. We won’t really know, either. I kind of hate that.

But it’s hard to explain ambiguity and ambivalence to you at five, because at thirty-six, I’ve been feeling this way, too. I’m excited for you and scared for you, even though I know you will be fine. You’ve been practicing the monkey bars, challenging yourself to hold on just a little longer, or drop down all by yourself, or making it all the way around from one end to the other. You’ve been wanting new games to play on the computer. The crafts that you usually love (drawing, paper cutting, gluing) are getting old. Even daycare, which you’ve loved for several years, is getting stale. That’s how we know that you are ready, have been ready for a new school.

I’ve been wondering if I will cry when we drop you off tomorrow. And you might know this about me already: I hate crying. I’ve heard all these stories of moms crying on their kids’ first day of kindergarten and I’ve wanted to resist. Why? I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t like the idea of crying just because I’ve been told that it’s a moment to cry. The PTA may even plan a coffee-and-kleenex moment.

I’m so happy that you are ready for kindergarten, that we are sending this confident, sweet, giving little girl out into the world for school. You draw pictures with captions for your family and friends. You run to pick up your little sister when she falls down and cries. You like doing “strong things,” whether it’s climbing a rope ladder, mixing a huge bowl of cake batter,  picking up your little sister for a twirly hug, or trying to outrun your dad at the track. You’re picking up new facial expressions every week, it seems: this week you’re holding up your hands palms-up, looking up at the ceiling, shaking your head and smiling bemusedly. You think hard about what should and shouldn’t happen in a book or a movie, and you still ask questions about characters’ motivations and actions. “What is it with him?” you like to ask, as the bad guy throws a temper tantrum or makes somebody else sad. You think it’s cute that Yoda has a light saber, and you picked out your first graphic novel, a Star Wars one, at the bookstore. This morning at breakfast you were preparing your little sister, telling her that you were going to go to kindergarten tomorrow, and you didn’t want her to be too sad. You and your sister are amazing, and you still make us laugh every single day.

Now, the script for mommies crying on the first day of kindergarten goes something like this: “She’s growing up! It goes so fast!” And you are, and it does. (And I don’t mean to offend any mommies who do cry for these reasons.)

But here’s why I don’t want to cry: I don’t want to stop you. I am so glad that you are growing up to be who you are.

I wanted to resist crying when I married your dad, too. But I was so happy that day, I was going to burst if something didn’t release. And I still hate crying, even though I’ve now cried out of joy more times than I can count, since you were born. “It’s a girl,” your dad whispered to me in the delivery room. “We have a little girl.”

Oh. Maybe that’s why it’ll happen tomorrow.

Love, Mama

Findings in fractions

Music Scores at the Seattle Central Public Library

Here’s a paradox to consider. I’ve got a lot to think about, so you’ll have to look past the academic scaffolding.

First premise: There are very few traces of my dad on the Internet.

You can Google “Taku Nimura,” or “Taku Frank Nimura,” and there isn’t very much connected to him, or who he was. I have active e-mail accounts, a Facebook account, a Twitter account, a page… and as a new daughter of this digital age, it makes me sad that you can’t Google my dad*, for lack of a better term. You can’t find his obituary, the most stripped-down version of a life outline (except for the tombstone inscription), in online newspaper archives.

(Maybe I will create a Wikipedia page about him, but there’s still so much that I need to know. And one wonders: if what makes someone “historic” is debatable, what makes someone Wikipedia-page-worthy?)

And so I wonder about the countless individuals who do not have an online presence, even now; I wonder about the connection between the Internet and identity. I’m not saying that Google should be the only way to find out information, but it’s the first stop for so many, for so much. I wonder about the impact technology will have on my daughters, and the impact it’s had so far. I wonder about them finding out more about their grandfather, in an age where they can’t find him, through search engines that mark their findings in fractions of a second.

Second premise: And yet, Internet technology gave me these things:

1. Pictures I’d never seen before of my dad, from a long-lost friend of his on Facebook. “Are those his granddaughters I’m looking at in your profile picture?” she asks. And that’s a relationship I had not yet connected with my father: he would be a grandfather, my daughters would be his granddaughters.

2. A blog comment here, from someone who knew my dad—during a time when I know so little about his life. I’m not sure we would have found each other without the Internet. I’m so excited to find out more.

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to realize this next thought, and my ten-year-old self would have resisted this, I’m sure. But here goes: my dad never belonged just to me, or just to my family. He also ventolin usa belonged to his friends, and other communities I’d never known or seen. The memoir that my sister and I are writing, then, may not be just a “dual” or “triple” memoir; it may also be something like a community memoir. I want to ask more people what they remember about him.

3. His Masters thesis in Public Administration and a bibliography that he wrote about Japanese in the United States. (Coming soon from Interlibrary loan, more Internet: cross your fingers!)

4. And this page from the California State Sacramento Library catalog, which makes me so happy. Taking my cue from my wonderful university reference librarians, I know that Google does not see everything. There is, however, a great deal of less-Google-able information, available from libraries.

5. A bookstore in Sacramento selling a poetry anthology; one of the poets is my dad.

Last part of the paradox: what does it mean?

Perhaps more obviously, search engines can erase (or obscure) an identity, but it can also restore an identity, in completely unexpected ways.

In the project I want to think more about what that means about humanity’s urges to record, document, remember. Google might not get me a quick answer about my dad, and I’m not sure I want it to do that, anyway. But I can still find him—or fractions of him—through these vast oceans of time and memory.

Despite our rapid technological changes, I think he would have loved our here and now. He wrote so many letters to friends and family. (My first copyediting job, by the way: proofreading those typewritten letters.) I think he’d have an active Facebook account, to share pictures of his granddaughters. And I can almost see him writing witty status updates. Like me, I think he’d share anecdotes about his family, menus of evening dinners, pictures from his travels.

Librarians, writers, readers: our human urge is to connect.

In the book I’ll be writing more about each of these artifacts. For now, I’m remembering that writing the book is one way to put my father’s presence back in the world.

The paradox rephrased: I’m writing both through, and despite, a technology and history that might otherwise erase my father.

*The dystopic novel I’m reading right now–set in the “not so distant future” describes such a person as “ITP” (Impossible To Preserve).

This picture says a lot about where, how, and why I’m traveling, taken at the Seattle Central Public Library:


It’s been quite a month, and while I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with my daughters, it’s also been exhausting. I’ve had to choose sanity and take a few expectations off of my plate: mostly self-imposed expectations, often the heaviest ones. Not all laundry must be clean and put away at all times; not every snack my girls eat at home must be homemade and organic and local (you can take the girl out of the Bay Area, but…); dinner does not need to be simmering on the stove when anyone walks in the door. Or, maybe one might be feasible, but not all three in the same day.

And yes: not every blog post must be perfect, beautiful, articulate, collected. For now, the point is to keep writing, whether it’s for the joy of it (Stephen King’s On Writing) or if it’s only for 15 minutes a day (Summer Pierre’s The Artist in the Office).  It’s the writing as habit that’s been an important transition for me this summer. And because of writing, I think I newly understand the phrase “collecting your thoughts.”

So there are a few thoughts I’ve collected, picked up, from the cluttered floors in my mind:

1. I’m not entering a writing contest just to win, really. Although winning would be fabulous, it’s more about the commitment to set a larger goal and put my writing out there. A lot of my thirtysomething peers seem to be running 5Ks or triathlons (or marathons) to commit themselves in similar ways. The contest deadline‘s this week, so I’m going to be working on that application. I’ve got a cover letter mostly finished, and am going to be revising these pieces.  And after that, I’m going to try to submit things elsewhere, maybe here and here. But I just want to keep my head down: write, revise, occasionally send (or hit “publish”).

2. Ever since I wrote about libraries a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about ways to help public libraries, beyond donating my books and beyond using the facilities. I was shocked to see that Seattle’s Central Library will be closed for a week next month, due to budget cuts. That library seems to serve so many, in so many ways. I’ve been heartened by NPR’s prediction that libraries will be the next cupcakes. I’ve seen several articles about libraries that have continued this thread in my mind. But I want to know what else I can do, or where to begin. I’ve been committed to American ethnic studies for almost a decade now, and I wonder if there’s a place for me to combine my commitments to that field with my renewed commitment to public libraries. Both of these institutions are firmly committed to radical inclusion and social diversity and educational justice; it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, that both of these things are also currently under attack.

3. I’m going to look a bit more into metaphors for history. Ever since I read my first piece of historiography in grad school, I’ve wanted to know more about it. I’m fascinated with Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” with Suzan-Lori Parks’s “great hole of history.” I’ve been thinking more about it ever since I came up with my own metaphor for history and title for the book.  Any cheap ventolin inhalers sale suggestions are more than welcome.

As a subset of that, I’m also curious about what makes something or someone historical. I’ll have to ask my historian friends and colleagues about that.  What strikes me about internment and Japanese Americans is that in some ways, internment is a big part of what makes Japanese Americans “historic”—and there’s so little about what happened to them after they left camp.  Are they no longer “historic” once the historical event has passed, in other words? What’s left once the boat and the wake have disappeared?

I’ve been mulling over the main character’s struggles in Louise Erdrich’s novel Shadow Tag:

How many times have I told you how difficult it is to resist the lure of the historical moment? The one action, the instantaneous truth that changes everything? How many times have I described my own struggles in telling stories, relating historical occurrences, searching for the sequence of events that results in a pattern we can recognize as history? There are always many moments, there is never just one. There are many points of clarity and many causes to one effect. However, after many, many of these points, these moments, have occurred, there is, I should tell you, a final moment. A final scene.” (48)

But I wonder about the desire to resist the lure of the historical moment. We find that the character’s narration is somewhat unreliable. I wonder if her desire to resist transcendence and knowledge (that is, the epiphany) is in itself revealing, and if so, how.

4. An MFA usually requires a large project. I’ve got my project. It’s already larger than I’d anticipated; at first, I thought it would be a reworking of a response to my dad’s manuscript about our family’s internment. And it is, but among other things, it’s also about:

  • technology and memory: how do different forms of documenting (from typewritten manuscripts to Facebook photos) inflect how and what we remember?
  • family and endurance: how has my family maintained its ability to laugh?
  • creativity and multimedia: the textual, the visual, meshed with the archival; the creative lives of me, my dad, and my sister

After I enter the contest, I’ll need to figure out how to plot my next steps. In the meantime, I’ve been happy to spend so much time with printed pages and much less time with online pages (not that I don’t appreciate you reading this!). More printed pages have meant that I’ve been reading books, not just replenishing the well but also stirring up the pot, and seasoning the stew, to mix a few metaphors.

Four things: that’s the collection which is in the laundry basket for now: a few wrinkled items, a few fluffy items, a few that need to be hung up and put away. I’ll add some links to this post tomorrow evening or Wednesday, and I’ll post more about my entry in the contest towards the end of the week.

(For those of who you who asked for a post about farmers markets, I did write one, but it became something else entirely: a meditation about home and a marching song. I’ll keep trying. And I’ll post that one, too, once I revise it.)

Revision of Assignment #1 (Tell a story in lists)

On Becoming a Writer (Again): A Progress Report of Habits

Clean desk.
Hours to complete: about 4.

Renew library card. Check out library books.

First checkout from the library: 2 books. Second checkout from the library: 1 book. Latest checkout from the library: about 14 books.

Read more fiction for pleasure.

  • Read Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a few stories from Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Laughed over one, puzzled over the other (perhaps am not hip enough? a high probability).
  • Tried to read Sonya Chung’s Long for this World, but had to return it to the library. Want other people to read this book—it looks like it will be important, transnational, historically relevant. But early in the book, had this terrible feeling that a feverish child was going to die. Couldn’t go on.

Read nonfiction writing.
Just finished Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France. An inspiration.

Resurrect the quote journal for inspiration.
Taste these from My Life in France:
• “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite” (302)
• “how lovely life can be if one takes time to be friendly” (66)
• “I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.” (67)

Carry several notebooks and pens around with you.

  • Saw my writer friend R’s clothbound journal a few weeks ago: the cover soft, lovely, well-worn like an heirloom quilt. Want my notebook to be like that: used, not reserved for special occasions, like fancy china behind glass cabinet doors.
  • Using one of those hardbound blank journals that had been a Christmas gift. Having that notebook is like having a camera: not only are moments and thoughts that much easier to document, but having the journal is itself a lens and a mandate.

Read books on writing.

  • Started Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s been recommended reading for writers, but all can think about, at least in this early part of the memoir, is “No wonder he writes horror novels.”
  • Started worrying about some of the different neuroses associated with writers: the sullen solitary, the competitive wit, the narcissistic venom, the icicle-forming insecurity. (Note to self: do not confuse writers with anonymous YouTube or newspaper commenters.) Thought about the writer who reads other writers and always loses in self-judged beauty writing contests. Always the bikini round, not the interview, that wins the day.
  • Wondered if this worrying about worrying is a writer’s characteristic.


  • Blog posts: 19
  • Status updates on Facebook and Twitter: probably too many.
  • Typed letter to a friend: 1


  • Posted first drafts on the blog, then second and third and fourth drafts.
  • Reflected more on earlier entries, such as the one about the act of loaning out and returning library books. Although still struggling to love abundantly, wonder if my love of owning books may be actually less about generosity and more about the idea of hoarding something. You hoard something that you love because you worry that it will be taken away from you.
  • Tried to remove as many “I”’s from this post as possible.

1. Collaged the lists, wrote, revised the first assignment into a linear story.

2. Oldest daughter commandeered one notebook from my purse, while we were waiting at the airport. She’s started to write and illustrate her first narrative book.

3. Opened my dad’s manuscript; had been scared to reread it; haven’t read it in over 25 years.

4. Woke up with a filmic ending of a story. Had never met the boy and girl characters, though had seen that particular off-ramp to downtown Seattle many times over. Two balloon releases. Not sure why. Wanted to know how the characters got to that image. Started to dream in fiction.