“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” – Henry David Thoreau
After graduating college, I moved to Japan to teach English as a Second Language. I was 22 and eager to get the hell out of my comfort zone and move somewhere completely new. As life goes, I met my now ex-husband during my second year in Japan and ended up living a total of 8 years there before we moved back to the U.S. together to start a family in Seattle.
Spending my 20s living in a foreign country, I learned a great deal about independence and the difficulty of carving out a little life for myself based on what was truly meaningful to me. I struggled. A lot. But in between those tough times and hard lessons, I created moments that I will always hold dear to my heart. Despite my bumbling around, I was gifted with the opportunity to make whatever I wanted out of that life experience.
One of the strangest and most beautiful things for me was living year after year immersed in a culture with profoundly different traditions surrounding the holidays. In Japan, Christmas is considered somewhat of a “Valentine’s Day”-type holiday. You go to work and school and then you go out on a date! With your boyfriend! And you eat “Christmas Cake”! (It’s like a birthday cake…???) The spiritual & peaceful stuff happens during the New Year. Everything shuts down for 3 days, you visit your family, go to the shrine, eat wonderful traditional New Year’s food. No champagne or partying. It’s absolutely lovely.
For me, I would get very homesick around Christmas time. A few years I flew home to Seattle, but mostly I stayed. Being married to a Japanese man meant that we could share our traditions with each other. I rode my bike all over Kochi (a very rural town on Shikoku Island where I lived), hunting down anything Christmasy. I scoured kitchen stores and found star-shaped cookie cutters. I made frosted sugar cookies and fudge for my students, delivered on Christmas. I insisted we rent “Sleepless in Seattle” and watch it on Christmas Eve. I would cry. I expected very little and yet those small traditions were huge to me.
In turn, I enjoyed such beautiful Japanese traditions. On one of my first holidays there I had flown to Bali for Christmas with a friend who was working in Tokyo. I came back to Kochi late on New Years Eve night, just in time to hop on our bikes and ride to the local shrine by midnight. The shrine’s enormous bell is rung 108 times (to symbolize ridding oneself of the 108 human desires). Traditionally you eat long soba noodles and watch the first sunrise over the water. These simple little rituals soon became comforting to me.
A few years before I left Japan, I ran my first marathon. Kana, the woman who saw me through my marathon training and became a close friend, started me on my New Year’s race tradition too! I think it was a 5k we did every New Years Day, and I think she always won it! New & old traditions.
As a single mama to a teenage boy, I so hope to instill in him an appreciation for small joys. I know the holidays can cause pressure, stress and eventually end with a sense of feeling letdown. Personal stresses, financial stresses, worry. I experience all of these. As I put up the lights, trim the tree, roll out that favorite cookie dough, I am calling upon my younger self; the one who lived more readily in the moment, willing to accept things as they are, rather than hoping for more.