I am standing on a cliff fifty feet above the Japan Sea, balanced on a precipice between two oceans. I don’t know how life has brought me to this place, this beautiful rock on the Izu Peninsula on the island of Honshu. But I’m here, with my husband and dog. We’ve hiked up 20 miles to stand on this small point of rock on the Dogashima coast, watching the waves crest below and the falcons crest above.
It’s my birthday; the dawn of a new year. I sit down on this line of solid land that cuts into the cliff and give thanks to all who held my hand to pull me up the mountain of life. I feel safe, yet I am literally perched on a narrow, dangerous place on a cliff that drops straight down to the ocean. But it’s not the literal I am interested in. Deep in my heart, I feel a sense of security and peace that I’ve never felt before. So I shift my weight to one foot. I lift the other foot up, place it onto my thigh. I look straight ahead and hold my focus. If I look down I will be overcome with fear. I hold my tree pose, breathing deeply. Strength and courage flood my cells. I repeat my mantra: “I am calm, I am poised… at the center of life’s storms, I stand serene.”
It’s taken me 44 years to get here.
I’ve searched half the world for this feeling.
And I know, of course, that it is fleeting.
I don’t have a Zen master, a guru, or even, really,a religion. But neither did Tu Fu, Basho, Miyamoto Musashi, and countless other poets and wanderers who made their way through hills and valleys, over mountains and rivers, to seek solace. They didn’t have to sit in a meditation hall and stare at a wallto look inside. They just looked around and paid attention to what was near them.Their teachers were the mountains, rivers, rocks, and trees. Their parents were Mother Earth, Father Sky. Then they woke up. Or should I say, were awakened. I’m waiting for my epiphany. I’ve found ten thousand other ways to be a mother, but I’m still waiting for a child.
I have a friend who took his three-year-old boy up to the mountains in the Japanese countryside. The boy ran ahead excitedly, as little boys will do. There was a wooden footbridge. It hung over a steep ravine, a hundred feet deep. The boy ran ahead onto the footbridge. The footbridge was made of planks of old wood. Not many people walked in the mountains anymore. There were gaps in the planks. Big gaps.
The father watched.
Every year on the date the boy died, my friend posts a memorial picture of his son on his blog. The boy playing a drum set. Standing in front of a samurai helmet. Smiling for the camera. Making the peace sign with both hands. No words, no commentary. Only his son’s picture and the word “elegy.”
To remember. To honor.
Life is not safe. I know that. Nothing is certain. Things we hope for, dream about, come or don’t come, and then are gone.
I meet with my friend often. In our own ways we both mourn the children we do not have. Somehow we have been drawn together in this strange world to mirror each other’s pain. To give each other comfort and hope. We will move on, our mutual presence seems to say. We give each other that.
My husband is chonan. In Japan, this is a serious business. Chonan means the oldest son and heir to the family name and whatever fortune the family has acquired. While we’d been “away” in the paradise of Northern California for ten years, his younger sister had been doing the dad’s cooking and laundry. But his sister, now in her thirties, wanted to start her own life—open her own business, move on. We couldn’t ask her to take care of the dad forever. It was Shogo’s turn—our turn.
I hadn’t wanted to go back to Tokyo, the busy life, the pollution, the stress. But I loved my husband, and wanted to be with him. And I knew that a good marriage was based on compromise, even sacrifice. After all, the root of the word sacrifice is sacred. In the highest sense, to sacrifice is to do something completely for someone else, with no personal gain. As an independent American woman, that took some getting used to.
And it was time to start a family.
I’d gone about trying to have a child the way I’d gone about everything else in my life: one part perseverance, one part “trusting the process.” And I thought, as many do, that “if it’s meant to be, it will be.” I had a full, fantastic life and no regrets. But after eight years, I did something I’d never done before in quite the same way. I got down on my knees and prayed.
And then my beloved aunt got cancer. Her one regret was that she did not have children. She worked all her life in child protective services, and had wanted to adopt. She urges me forward with a force and conviction that only impending death can render.
I learn of an Australian psychologist who adopted an infant in Japan.She gives me the name of the government agency—Jido Sodan Jo. The application asks questions like: Why do you want a child? What kind of upbringing and education would you give it? What are the most important values you would share with a child? What about religion? Filling out the application is challenging,but it is an opportunity for Shogo and me to become very clear on what our values are. So we send in our application and wait.
Everyone says Japan is a difficult country to adopt from. Not only are there few children up for adoption, but it’s the only country in the world where you need to get the extended family’s approval for the process.
Bloodlines are seen as all-important; one’s ancestors are one’s link to the past. The family registry, or koseki, goes back generations and lists each birth and marriage, tying family to family. When we got married, I did not take my husband’s name, and this caused a commotion at the ward office when the clerk said there was no “official space” to put my own name on the form.
My husband stood his ground. “Well, make a space,” he said, knowing that was impossible. One thing about bureaucracy is that it most definitely cannot make a space. It would have been much easier for him to requestor insist that I change my name, but he didn’t. He just waited for the bureaucrat to find a way to remedy the situation. I kept my own name and was added to the koseki.
Then doubts start to flood my mind.If we succeed in adoption, I’ll be bucking the system again.
I know how difficult it is to raise achild, let alone one who is adopted in a country that is not particularly open to adoption. In Japan, most adoptions are kept secret. Some children don’t even find out until their parents die.
So we brace ourselves and ask my husband’s father for permission. I find out, to my surprise, that his own father was adopted. Samurai on one side, gangster on the other. My husband has them all in his ancestry—geisha, gangster, samurai, rickshaw driver. This assortment of characters pleases me, makes me feel less strange for my difference, more welcome. My father-in-law says yes.
We ask his sister, since she lives with us. She says yes. We breathe a big sigh of relief. But still I worry. All the possible scenarios tumble through my mind: I am a Westerner and the child will not look like me, so everyone will know he or she is adopted. I know of foreign women who don’t take their half-Japanese children to school because their children are ashamed and don’t want their peers to know they are hafu. And because the child is “different,” I don’t want him or her to be the victim of ijime, school bullying. That could lead to hikikomori, someone who is afraid to leave the house and spends their childhood at home. Even worse it could lead tojisatsu—suicide. I know I am being neurotic, already thinking about the difficulties the child will face in grade school, middle school, junior high, high school, and beyond. I know I am already being a mother.
I share my fears with my husband. We were both beaten up in school.
“We turned out okay,” he says. It was why I studied karate and meditation, which ultimately led me to Japan.
“Yeah, but we got our asses kicked a lot!”
“Maybe we went through it so our child wouldn’t have to,” he says.
“That’s a nice thought,” I shake my head. If only that were how it worked.
We decide that we are already a rainbow family, he with his long hair and stay-at-home job, me with my red streaks and funky yoga studio, not to mention his family’s eccentric lineage and our strange pit-bull mutt. In a conservative neighborhood in a conservative country, we already stand out as freaks. Why not embrace it completely?
The agency calls about a little girl. We say yes. Nothing happens. Months later they call about a boy. We wait. They offer the child to another family. Many young couples are waiting to adopt, and we are low on the list due to our ages.
I have to do something proactive. I am fiercely committed to living my dreams. If I’m not, who else will be? I contact a dozen adoption agencies. Most of them don’t write back. The few who respond say they don’t work with families who live abroad. We apply in Vietnam. We wait some more.
Finally, I make Shogo call the orphanage. I insist that he tell them to stop calling us every month to ask if we are interested in a different child.
“Tell them to put a perpetual ‘yes’ on our file, okay? Tell them that whatever child they have available, we are interested.”
“Yes. Whatever child.”
I want to say all those things like, “It isn’t fair,” and, “Why us?” but I already know the answers to those questions, that there are no answers. This is our fate, our journey, our path.
And somehow, miraculously, it works.The little boy they called us about a few months ago is available again. “Yes!” we say, eager to meet the child who is destined to be ours. But when they come to our house to tell us about him, the information is sketchy at best.
“Do you have a picture?” I ask.
This astounds me. Japan is the land of the camera—how could they not have a picture?
“Are you interested or not?” they ask. They’re not messing around with this child. He’s suffered enough.
“We’re interested,” we say together.
And for the second time in my life, I get down on my knees and pray.
We visit Yuto in the orphanage for hours, days, weeks, months. Finally we can bring him home for an overnight. Then, finally, we can bring him home forever, just after his second birthday.
We go to a playground where he can see the bullet trains passing overhead. At the playground, he comes up to the other kids and wants to play with their toys, or play ball, or play with them in general. He likes to hold hands. He wants contact, touch, closeness. Because he grew up in an orphanage where everything was communal, he misses it. He has no concept of personal ownership.
The first time we give him Ai-Ai, the stuffed monkey we’d brought to take with him in the car—he tries to leave it at the orphanage. We have to convince him that he can keep it. He’s never had a single thing of his own.
He is the opposite of other kids, who have to learn how to share. He brings his own toys to share, but the other kids don’t take much interest in them. I don’t want to try to make sense of things like this, or explain everything to him. He’ll learn. I want to cut a path in this crazy forest of life with him. Sitting Zen. Walking Zen. Playing Zen. Mothering Zen. It’s all practice, and we have a lifetime.
But my aunt doesn’t. I want him to meet her before she dies.
So we bring him to San Francisco. He loves his seven-year-old cousin Shaviv, but he cannot pronounce Sh, so he calls him Habib. My sister tells me Habib means “friend” in Hebrew.
We see a homeless man with a cat on the street in front of Macy’s on Union Square. The cat has been hit by a car and the man needs money for its hospital bills. Everyone rushes by the man and the cat, but Yuto pulls my arm, insists on petting the cat. Then he sits down on the pavement and tries to pick up the cat to hug it. I tell him the cat is hurt and he shouldn’t touch it. So he pets it instead. Now people stop to look at the little boy sitting on the sidewalk, blocking their path. Some mothers pull their children away. A photographer stops to take a picture. Others put money in the basket. More children come to sit by his side.
Somehow, he brings together the splintered worlds of strangers. He is a healer of cats and hearts, a small wonder in this world of so many wonders. If I ever felt any doubts, I do not now.
All That Divided Us Will Merge
Though there are many customs for birth in Japan—the mother returning to her parents’ house, a celebration of the child’s first solid foods—we’ve missed them all. In California we hold a Jewish baby-naming ceremony for Yuto. Many people from my mother’s community gather to welcome him, though we are strangers. Yuto is given the name Benjamin after his maternal grandfather, who came from Lodz, Poland, and Walter Benjamin, the Jewish writer–philosopher and member of the resistance in World War II. There is a ceremony where we throw all our sins into the Napa River. Any time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in the Jewish tradition, it is customary to throw breadcrumbs into a body of water as a symbolic act of repentance. The ritual is called Tashlich, a sending out. We gather at a waterfront to “cast away” the sins of the past and resolve to have a better year in the one to come.
My mother and stepfather, father and stepmother, my sisters and their sons are there. The whole family has gathered to heal and rejoice. It seems to be a holy time all over the world. In India it is the Hindu Ganesh festival, celebrating beginnings and removing obstacles. In the Muslim world, it is Ramadan.
My mother’s friends, most of whom I don’t know, come up to congratulate us. Some tell me their stories, of how they too were adopted, or how they adopted children, and what a wonderful mitzvah it is.
Tossing bread into the water, everything is still. It is a beautiful moment.
The congregation has prepared a blessing for the occasion. It says: May the one who blessed your ancestors bless you. We hope that you will be a blessing to everyone you know. Humanity is blessed to have you.
Yuto sits atop his father’s shoulders wearing his beaded yarmulke, smiling and dancing. Yuto is Jewish and Japanese; he is universal.
I look at Shogo and see he too is crying.
Humanity is blessed to have you.
The adults gather and say the Shabbat prayer:
And then all that has divided us will merge
Then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both women and men will be gentle
And then both men and women will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
Then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the environment
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
My mother ordered a cake for Yuto decorated with Pokemon, though Yuto seems to be the only one there who does not know who Pokemon is. He devours the cake, which says: “Mazel Tov, Yuto. Welcome to the Tribe.”
My aunt passes away. I am stricken with grief. She is my beloved, my friend, my mentor, my guide. But I cannot cry forever. Yuto has been given a pogo stick and wants to bounce on the sidewalk. It is dangerous, but he can’t be stopped. He seems impervious to pain, though I know he is not. It’s just that he learned not to cry at the orphanage, where help might not have come as quickly and plentifully as it would in different circumstances.
Suddenly, he points to the pavement.
“Cho cho! Cho cho!”
A butterfly lay on the ground. A beautiful orange and black monarch.
“Nette imasu”—it’s sleeping. I use the Japanese euphemism for death.
He leans over its lifeless body.“Shinda?” he asks. Is it dead?
I wonder how, and where, he has learned that word.
“Yes,” I say, scooping up the butterfly in my hands and bringing it over to the garbage.
But this will not do.
“Hana! Hana,” he stomps his feet and motions to a potted daisy bush in front of the house. Understanding, I carry the butterfly over and put it to rest on the bed of flowers. He covers it with a leaf. Then he points up. Sora, he says. Sky.
Satisfied, he takes my hand and leads me back to the pogo stick, where he bounces and bounces until dinnertime.