Old Soul, Beginner’s Mind
The best hiding place for a set of car keys has always been – and may always be – hanging on the trip lever of a toilet tank.
I’m scared my kids will have even more anxiety than I do—the systems now will only worsen with time.
It’s always hot in Shinjuku
You are running. The sidewalk feels foreign under your feet, hard and unremitting against your running shoes. Although a sidewalk capable of being foreign in the first place is a unique product of your imagination, a luxury permissible in a slightly dehydrated mind sated with…everything, the gauntlet of First World Decadences that people like you like to rage against while sipping ice water. In a world where all you have is words, you learn to latch on to language and its many hypocrisies, to exploit the backdoors that lie between sentences. The doublespeak that Orwell once feared becomes a reality upon the quicksilver tongue of your mind. You have few principles, but you bend them tenaciously. You wonder why you were thinking about a foreign sidewalk in the first place.But then again, everything feels foreign here because, well, everything is foreign. You are in a foreign country, a country that for all the affluence it shares with the one you call home is nevertheless alien. Your tongue, dry as it is from the heat, chafes at Japanese syllables. It slips like oiled marble over the slash-and-curl characters that are supposed to translate into sounds you barely know, and that angers you, because language and all its liberal arts derivates are supposed to be your secret, your thing, your raison d’etre, and when you find yourself confronted with a language whose depths you cannot plumb you feel as if you have been deprived of some fundamental right. Those who wield language rarely have the power to wield anything else. Exhaustion seeps through your lungs, though it isn’t exhaustion per se; more like a dryness, if anything, as if someone’s sanding your throat, your bronchial tubes with names you never bothered to look up. You think for a brief moment that you’d be all right if you could get some water into your lungs, before you realize having water in your lungs isn’t actually a good idea. You feel weak- weak in your physical inability, your clumsiness with the languages you supposedly treasure, your twenty-dollar bills that are worth no more than a thousand yen and a few coins at the nearest automated teller machine. You’ve become so adept at picking apart other people’s weaknesses, at scavenging other people’s failures for your own self-esteem, that being made aware of your own faults is all the more searing. You know self-reflection is a virtue. You just wish it weren’t so damn painful. That in itself, you think, is another fault. And your mother wonders why you don’t go out more often. But then again your mother is not here because right now she is in a country whose language you actually do speak, surrounded by people you actually know in an environment where everything is not so utterly alien. So you are running for yourself, running despite the heat because after all you’re only human and you need exercise and Vitamin D like everyone else. So, astride your rationalizations, your wracked posture and the multiple convenience-store plastic bags-cum-trash bags lining the wall of your tiny hotel room like coffins, you decide to go out, anywhere that is not in, a gesture you fool yourself into believing is a huge internal concession on your part. You wonder why you take the irrational step of acting rational only when you have exhausted all other options.
Maybe it’s because you don’t do it that often, but every time you run, you never quite know where you are running to- or if you were never running towards anything in the first place, and all your life, you’ve just been trying to run away.
It takes a special kind of person to consider getting lost in a Tokyo subway tunnel a successful exercise in building character. But you’ve always been special. You’ve been told you were special ever since you were born, and you’ve learned to live with that definition, learned to play with its capricious meanings and connotations until you could use its wide umbrella to justify almost anything you wanted about yourself. You could ace tests because you were special. You could fail tests because you were special. Everyone else was special, but you were special, special precisely because you could milk the word and everything it represented like no one else.
By law, you’re required to wrestle with your roots and your heritage at least twice a year. It’s kind of an unspoken devil’s contract for those in your occupation- namely, a second-generation immigrant and a wannabe wordsmith. Or rather, a rite of passage, if you will. You’re not allowed to publish until you’ve sufficiently wrung out in so many twisted loanwords the gigantic disconnect between the decadent lifestyle you lead right now and the bones of your ancestors fertilizing some farmer’s ridge in Shaanxi.
You are Asian, although for an embarrassingly long time you understood little of the distinctions that bubbled between the five letters of that word. Okay, let’s try again. You are Asian- you are Chinese. Which is a pretty safe- if “safe” is the right word here- margin to occupy amidst an otherwise wide swath of descriptive range. You aren’t Taiwanese, or Japanese, or Korean. You are an eighteen-year-old Chinese-American, and you’ve lived long enough in the country represented by the second half of “Chinese-American” to know that being Chinese-American means not having to be marginalized by the fringes of an already-marginalized ethnic group. To be the majority amidst a minority. That, like a lot of other things, is something you’re used to by now. Which, you have to admit, is all kind of odd since you’re discovering all this in a first-world coffee shop near Shibuya.
You’ve never been much in the majority of anything, though, now that you think it over, which is even more telling in the context of a community where to be a part of the majority meant being above the norm. To your credit, you obeyed that tenet as long as you could- you read your books, got your grades, memorized your times tables, but some time in the future, some time around when your math homework and the opposite gender started getting harder to understand, you realized that you couldn’t keep up with your brain anymore, and the world refused to slow down long enough to let you catch up.
Or maybe your brain just couldn’t keep up with you.
You linger on that thought long enough for the abstract smell of coffee to worm through your nose. Japanese is such an expressive language, and you think you’d still find yourself saying that even when (if) you someday understand it. People are so animated here, which you suppose is a necessity when you’re trapped in such a small country with so many other people. You can’t waste things; not movement, not time, not emotions. People don’t ever loiter in Tokyo, the homeless in Shinjuku-gyoen-mae notwithstanding, as if one could lose something by standing still. You’re always constant, always kinetic, accelerating or decelerating but always in motion by some force that no one, least of all you, can understand. All you can do is mouth formulas in response, by rote: F = ma. All you can do is live your life in stasis, the unchanging stone in the mouth of a proverbial river, watching as the rest of the world passes you by.
(On the subject of waste: you think about how the convenience store people always give you two more plastic bags than necessary, but then again you realize that’s because you’ve always resorted to silence in these sorts of transactions, yielding to the suffocatingly wasteful politeness of people and customs you don’t know and never will.)
(You finally end up spending ¥14250 in a bookstore for about six books, wordlessly handing the credit card your parents cosigned in your name to the bespectacled ordinary cashier. In all of Japan, bookstores are the one institution that don’t rely heavily on attractive staff; you take it upon yourself to guess that the kind of person that chooses a bookstore for blowing large amounts of money isn’t the kind of person interested in the conventional benefits of the service sector. She swipes away, you sign away the equivalent of, say, a quick calculation later, half an hour of a night in Kabuki-cho. You don’t have the heart to do another quick calculation to find out how many hours you’d have to work in the U.S. to cover this. Or how many someone else would have to.
(You feel vaguely sick to your stomach, as if in the realm of frivolous purchases involving your parents’ money, books were a particularly heinous example. You like to think you’ve developed a sense of financial responsibility from being on your own, but the truth is, you’re scared. It’s because you know precisely what responsibility entails that you shirk it, disguising your cowardice as prudence and your nausea as morality. How could you not be afraid of it? You’ve been on the receiving end of it for over eighteen and a half years.)
(But books are all you have. Books are your sickness and your cure, and you are sure, ten years in the future, when all the bookstores are shuttered and gone, victims of debt and the times, you will still have books, your one abiding rationalizing vice.)
Books are decadent; words are decadent, language is decadent when you live in an age where Social Media and Technology and the Inherent Vices of the Human Condition have butchered the English language into so many monosyllabic scraps. You feel vaguely guilty, somehow, as if spending the equivalent of about $185 on dead-tree media is as elitist as buying out a $1000-night suite in Ginza. Which, in a way, it kind of is. Words are a privilege of the upwardly mobile, people who have the luxury to savor things as small as the taste of language on one’s tongue. You are a foodie for words, a connoiseur, playing with letters the same way others’ lips dally with truffles and wine.
The thought makes you feel ill for a moment. After all, no 18 year-old wants to wake up one day and realize they’ve turned into their old English teacher.
It’s because you don’t have anything else, you think bitterly. You’re suddenly playing judge and defendant in your brain all at once, trying to justify yourself to the Powers-That-Be on why you deserve to occupy so many cubic feet of space on this planet, consuming so many resources without providing anything of value in return. You are not a math freak or a computer genius, variables and code spilling from between the fingers with which you milk obscene amounts of money from the vacuous world behind a computer monitor. You like to think you’ve disdained all that, you know, materialism and money-chasing, but it’s sour grapes. It’s always sour grapes. In the absence of any other significance in your life, you’ve latched onto words as your modus operandi, words which you cannot use since you’ve gone to a foreign country where no one speaks them, a trip in order to find yourself and all you’ve done is spend obscene amounts of money on a credit card which is yours in name only.
The Boy Beyond the Curtain
I was not alone in the ER hall,
For six hours I have been listening to a boy
Whine through the thin blue curtain with a white trim.
His head hurts too.
It throbs and stings, a pain of seven
Almost a pain of eight.
The doctors have answers they spent
Their youth committing to memory,
But the mother fights as mothers do:
“We can’t find a quiet place in our house
I guess he will just have to suffer.
Hey! Stop faking it will you?”
Her laughter makes me jealous.
And he begs her, and the doctors,
Begs to be able to go on the
Senior field trip.
It’s already been paid for,
It’s at the swim club with the nice water slide.
“Howyou do this to me?”
We have so much in common.
She’s rather ditsy for a nurse,
Confusing which fluids to attach
To my IV unit. A very human woman,
Hospital air has not bleached her skin,
Made a desert of her knuckles.
Though, human is a gentle way of saying,
She makes simple errors, instantly fixed
Still, she worries my mother
From time to time.
But my nurse is still smiling
Enough for the three of us.
Her features are pressed
Into her face, eyes sunken but
Somehow bright amber.
They glow with a will to keep looking
Though she has seen too much.
Children have died, most likely
Before her eyes, and yet she
Is smiling as if the darkness
Native to the foundation of this building
Is stout and weak,
As if it cannot touch her.
As she changes my bag of saline,
I wish to ask her to diffuse into it her
Admirable sense of optimism.
But by the time I have the courage,
Mustered and on my flat, dry tongue
She is gone, off to the next patient.
Perhaps they will be as lucky
As I almost was.
The Cleaning Lady
Your hair was knotty and stripped,
My floor clean but perhaps
A bit dusty from the person before me.
I could not move enough to
Make a mess of anything,
But how I wished to make a mess of everything.
You walked in humming a song I didn’t know,
Your broom was matte red,
Sections of bristles were missing
But that did not seem to harp your chipper tune.
At first you ignored me and swept the mess
You were paid to see into your green pail,
Cheap plastic with the dollar store sticker
Still stuck to its center.
But then you looked at me.
Your broom fell down and you knelt down,
Took out your cross, golden and
Took my hands into your hands, and
Asked me to repeat pious things,
Asked me to imitate the bravado in your voice,
Asked me to inform the devil that I would live through this one,
And I laughed to myself.
“I’m Jewish,” I thought.
What could your apostolic words do for me?
Soon after, you left with your broom, and prayers, and cross.
And I laughed to myself.
But I want you to know,
Knotty cleaning lady with the booming voice,
That though I laughed and disconnected myself from your spirit,
Did not immediately see the deeper value of your words,
I did not take for granted your hope,
Your belief in me, and in my health.
Nurse Part Two
Unadorned woman, you spoke Russian,
And I was so grateful to hear
Slavic sounding words roll off your tongue,
To have our common language bring my
Reddened ears home.
To hear the most familiar accent
Fill the room while my parents were out
Having a well deserved smoke.
We had the same sense of humor,
And you helped me walk to the bathroom.
You understood me, I was certain,
Because you did not ask me to rate my pain
Or wave a pen between my eyes,
Humming to yourself as my eyeballs rolled
To the location of the ballpoint.
Instead, you asked me about my hobbies,
And asked me if I was hungry.
“I just ate,” I said. And you laughed, looking
At the thick plastic hospital dishware.
“How about a milkshake?”
But I knew the hospital menu, sparse and disappointing,
Yet you promised me I could have one.
You asked simple questions: “Chocolate or vanilla?”
Of course, I told you that vanilla would do.
Bright plastic lid, straw with the red spiraling stripe,
The taste of soft serve ice cream, you
Brought me the real deal, but
More importantly you brought me
An icy whipped piece of the world
I feared slipping away from.
As I sucked up on the straw I tasted
The promise of joy, the promise of
Good things to come, and I
Suddenly felt immune to the
Dark alleys and narrow corridors
Closing in my brain.
Nurse Part Three
I’d seen you before as a solid color blur,
Neon speedracer through my room’s window.
Yesterday was a yellow day for you,
Today you are hot pink, smoldering color in everything
Your nails hair shirt pants legwarmers, except
Your nurse’s shoes, but I forgave you.
Silly voice, unnatural and it must itch your throat.
I appreciate you in ways the younger children might not.
Spectacles are welcome, distractions a must,
And the younger ones probably clap for you smile for you,
I’m too old to clap and smile
But I know the time it must take
To dye your hair a few times a week,
Repaint your nails after a long day,
Miss time with your family
To make yourself up like an accent wall.
I’m wise to you, rainbow nurse,
And while you fuss about my room I want to,
Wish to, tell you to just relax, remind you
I’m old enough to understand how exhausting it can be
Giving your all, just to make sure
Your patients feel closer to distant memories,
Of being away from this place not knowing it stood proud
Down the road from a college campus, with a courtyard in the back.
“Thank you,” I mutter,
I was still shy back then.
What a shame that you didn’t notice me show
How grateful I was for you trying so hard
To make every one of your patients,
Youngest to oldest,
Feel the gentle breeze within the polar opposite of here.
“Do you know why we’re here?”
“Sure do, I’ve got a brain tumor and you’re the oncologist.”
“How did you know that?”
“I read your tag.”
It wasn’t supposed to be a joke,
But you had designer bags under your eyes
And I had a renewed spirit, and we
Seemed like a good match.
Morbid humor bouncing back and forth between
The drained pediatric oncologist and her
I met other doctors.
Strong men with mousy voices,
Stern faced women whose quivering lips
Made me wonder if this was the right job for them.
A round faced trio that had trouble getting their words out,
Men with three dollar haircuts proud moms happy wives.
But none of them had first-class voices
That flew me off to a lakeside bench,
Or anywhere else simple enough to shoot the breeze.
I told you that I liked your hair,
That you looked like this other doctor from this other time,
From better days, and you thanked me.
“Short hair is easier to maintain,” you said.
It was choppy towards the ends, splashes of red
From the few minutes you found yourself outside
Walking through the carpark.
“You’ve got a really great sense of humor,
I wish I could just stand here all day.
Feel better, alright?
I hope, uhm, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
You were thereabouts my age and very funny,
Someone I would have been too shy to
Try and make friends with in high school.
And you snuck away from work here and there
To sit on the edge of my high tech bed, and
Talk to me as if I were your friend not your patient.
Your laugh was bubbly, overflowing as if
The soda machine got stuck, and the syrup
Kept funneling out without enough cups
To contain the delightful fizz, and pleasantly,
It goes everywhere without issue
Without making a mess or making things sticky,
Just your topshelf bubbles.
You asked me questions like the others, but
Yours were thoughtful questions, the kind,
The kind you might ask someone you’ve known
All your life as if you’ve just run into them on the street,
Yearning to catch up with the person who used to
Compliment your life perfectly.
And you made me laugh, took the edge off
Removed the pressure of putting up a front
By telling jokes to distract from the dismay.
No, you told me jokes and helped me
Laugh through the horrors face the tears,
Collect them into a glass jar and toss them off the roof.
Letting the rainy weekday afternoon wash away
The sticky misery clotting my lungs.
A joke to chase a dream,
To stifle how I think,
To clear me of acid thoughts and morose maggots.
Erika Wendy Schneider is a writer living in New Jersey. She is inspired by honest media, rounded characters and nomads in airports.