Like the Lotus
December 29, 2006
I am standing on a cliff fifty feet above the Pacific Ocean, balanced on a precipice between two oceans. I don’t know how life has brought me to this place, this beautiful rock on the Northern Izu Peninsula on the island of Honshu. But I’m here, with my husband and dog. We’ve hiked up twenty miles to stand on this small point of rock in Dogashima, 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 of those who have held my hand to pull me up the mountain of life. I feel safe, yet I am literally perched on a dangerous place, a narrow cliff that juts 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, Musashi Miyamoto or 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 wall to 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 3-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 foot drop. 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 day 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 our lost children.
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 it may have 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 is 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 has adopted an infant in Japan. When I contact her, 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.
“Japan is a difficult country to adopt from,” everyone says. 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, as 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 request or 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 a child, 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 as their children are ashamed and don’t want their peers to know they are “hafu.” And because he is “different,” I don’t want him or her to be the victim of ijime, school bullying. That could lead to hikikomori, someone afraid to leave the house who spends his childhood at home. Even worse, it could lead to jisatsu or 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. He was beaten up in school, too.
“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’s 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 our strange pit-bull mutt and his family’s eccentric lineage. In a conservative neighborhood in a conservative country, we already stand out as freaks. Why not embrace it completely?
In September, the agency calls about a little girl. We say yes. Nothing happens. In December, 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 international adoption agencies. Most of them don’t write back. The few who do bother to respond say they don’t work with families who live abroad. We apply in Vietnam. We wait some more.
Finally, I make my husband 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, ok? 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.
A little boy is available.
“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. More people have cameras in Japan than they have driver’s licenses. 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.
Feb 1, 2007
We visit Shinji 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 with their balls, 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 behind 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.
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 Shinji 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 way. 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 has Divided Us Will Merge
September 14, 2007
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. So we return to California to hold a Jewish baby naming ceremony for Shinji. Many people from my mother’s community gather to welcome him, though we are strangers. Shinji is given the name Benjamin after his maternal grandfather, who came from Ludz, Poland, and Walter Benjamin, the Jewish writer/philosopher and member of the resistance in WWII. There is a ceremony where we throw all of our sins into the Napa River. Any time between Rosh Hashana 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 year 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. All over the world, it is a holy time. In India it is the Ganesha festival, honoring the Elephant god of new beginnings and remover of 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 have 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 special 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.
Shinji sits atop his father’s shoulders wearing his beaded yarmulke, smiling and dancing. Shinji is Jewish and Japanese, he is universal.
I look at my husband and see that he is crying, too.
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 has ordered a special cake for Shinji decorated with Pokemon, though Shinji seems to be the only one there who does not know who Pokemon is. He devours the cake, which says: “Mazel Tov, Shinji. 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. Shinji 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 been as quick and as plentifully as it might otherwise have come.
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.
(First appeared in the May 2010 Shambhala Sun magazine. It also will appear in Best Buddhist Writing anthology 2011, edited by Melvin McLeod, and published by Shambhala.)
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
I am not sure if the adoption experience per se has affected my poetry as much as becoming a mother. It has made me more patient, compassionate, understanding. At least, I try.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
Orange and black butterfly
alights on a potted sage
in an alley.
Put one hand on top of the other,
spread your fingers into wings,
move them up and down,
together and apart.
What else is there to do
than to become the butterfly,
winging through the world,
Its freedom our freedom,
its beauty our beauty.
but the echo
of a temple bell
after it has been struck.
but an awareness of being.
Form finds form
as in painting, prayer, song.
finds a welcome,
for without resistance
there is no yielding,
What if all your mistakes
were really divine designs
to teach you how to see
What you struggle against
eventually becomes you,
the way river becomes ocean,
small water inseperable
from big water,
everything in flow.
There are those who believe life is like a recalcitrant garden—
no matter how many times you pull the weeds,
they’ll grow right back: no provocation, no fertilizer,
barely any sunshine, not even much water.
They think that like the poison Oleander
the more you abuse yourself, the stronger you grow.
I’m not a believer.
Drench your neighbor in compassion,
give them a Japanese rock garden any day.
They don’t care to be cultivated by abrasion,
don’t want to blossom under duress.
They need only to be tended to gently,
contemplated in serenity by moonlight,
raked over gently,
(Poems reprinted with permission from Yoga Heart: Lines on the Six Perfections, Stone Bridge Press, June 2011)
ABOUT THE POET:
Leza Lowitz was born in San Francisco in 1962 and grew up in Berkeley, California. She has a B.A. in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley, and an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For over two decades, she has been bringing together the worlds of poetry, writing and yoga, sharing her experience in Yoga Journal, Shambhala Sun, The Best Buddhist Writing 2011, The Huffington Post, The Japan Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among many others. Her award-winning poetry has been translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, Burmese and Farsi.
The author of over 17 books, Lowitz is the recipient of numerous honors for her poetry, fiction, and translations. Among them are the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Best Book of Poetry and The Bay Area Independent Publisher’s Association Award for Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By, the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, an individual Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a California Arts Council Individual Fellowship in Poetry, an Independent Scholar Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and together with her husband, Shogo Oketani, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature from the Donald Keene Center for Japanese Culture at Columbia University. Other honors include the Copperfield’s Dickens Fiction Award, the Barbara Deming Memorial Award in the Novel, the Japanophile Fiction Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award for Editorial Excellence, the Tokyo Journal Fiction Translation Award, and two Pushcart Prize nominations in Poetry.
Lowitz first made her way to Tokyo in 1989, where she worked as a freelance writer/editor for the Japan Times and the Asahi Evening News, and as an art critic for Art in America. She wrote regular radio reviews for NHK Radio’s “Japan Diary” and was a lecturer at the prestigious Tokyo University. Since 1990, Lowitz has been Corresponding Editor to Japan for Mänoa, for whom she has guest edited two features, including Silence to Light: Japan and the Shadows of War. She also broadcast book reviews on Asia for NPR’s “Pacific Time Radio.”
After almost a decade in California, Lowitz relocated to Tokyo in 2003, where she opened Sun and Moon Yoga. She is grateful to be able to write and to share her love of yoga with others. This essay on adoption appeared in Shambhala Sun, and is forthcoming in The Best Buddhist Writing 2011. She adopted her son in 2007 and considers him her wisest teacher.
She can be reached at www.lezalowitz.com and www.sunandmoon.jp