Never Garden on Your Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday, a real thirty-something affair, with my amazing husband skipping work to make a day out of it. I loused it up and I am now reeling from pain.

It started-off grand. We dropped the kiddos off at preschool together, then rode the train to a pretty rad part of Tokyo. We gobbled liqueur doughnuts. I’d nibbled two by 10 am, very enthusiastically. We hung around the area and sipped Prosecco in an Italian courtyard. We passed outdoor coffee tables made of skateboards and I tried on heels from Bangkok. We made the day pretty fun, then rushed to get the kids.


Everything would have been delicious, amazing, more than fine. But no. I had to trim the little tree in our front yard. After all, it nearly touched the neighbor’s wall.

Why, o, why, did I have to snip and pull those ivy vines? Why’d I have to mess with the perfection of a birthday?


Because I am both greenery hippie and wannabe florist. Because I thought time in soil brought balance and something enlightened, a moment to reflect. (Shaking head, sadly, like a mother seeing her child putting both legs in the leg hole, repeatedly). I brought in a handful of branches from the tree I snipped. I carried them in, barehanded. I plunked them in my crystal vase at the kitchen sink, and only five minutes later, I freaked the hell out. Freaked out. First I saw one caterpillar, then another, and another, until I was full-on cursing while kids and husband watched Sesame Street in the adjoining room. I wriggled that disgusto-dance we chicks do when we even hear the word “lice”. It was bad.


This morning I woke up one digit older with a neck and forearms on fire. Then it became my tummy and hips. Those buggers got me everywhere. It’s their little nasty hairs. They sense danger and BAM. Somehow they try to kill you. Suddenly you’re me, biking to the dermatologist’s office when the sky is threatening big rain. You’re paying a big lot for the visit and meds, and wishing that little tube of steroid creme was to be applied every five minutes, because no way the 2-3 times a day treatment will do anything. And Claritin. Neither is doing anything to help.

Websites say these gross catastrophes may last a solid few weeks. Nah, dog. I don’t think this is how I should roll into this thirty-something year. My kids go to touch me and I nearly scream. My daughter hugged my arm and poor thing, I made her cry, just responding to the painful itch. I may be driven to meet toothless criminals in alleyways of Shibuya to get on some non-insured experimental drugs. I may be driven to sleepless madness at 3:40 am and chop down that bugger of a tree, just in case any are lurking. You see how quickly one can lose everything they love because they couldn’t just enjoy a doughnut and some downtime?

So thanks, you nasty little caterpillars. You ruined my birthday and messed me up good. Hear that, you little twerps? I’m older now and wiser. Listen–no matter how much your inner green space wants to, don’t go near a garden on your birthday. Don’t look at dirt. Don’t muse over floral spray. If you must have a flower, let it be silk, or construction paper. Let nature come by way of dolphins on a CD. Give up eggs and only support pasteurization. The only living things should be us. 

(Too far?)

PS You understand why I had to buy a two-pack of insecticide from the store and kill them all.

PSS The next time I engage in a moment of gardening, I will look like a hypochondriac beekeeper. Seriously, I don’t think I’ll get any sleep. Talk to me, anyone who’s up.

Stay Cool in Tokyo, With Leza Lowitz

This post is more of a public service broadcast. Beep bee dee beee bee dee bee beeee. You’ll understand soon enough, you, who are sitting clear under an AC vent, or frantically waving a fan.

Tokyo is a jungle, an urban jungle. It is a humid, sultry sweat house of a place during summer. This is when you may choose to flee, or take five showers. There are the lovelies, however—the ways to make it grand, or at least (better than) bearable.

Yukata parade

Leza Lowitz, the famed, exquisite author, has some lifesaving tips to keep you from heatstroke. Do you know Leza’s work? She is the definition of “prolific writer” and writes through and within many genres. Her latest is Here Comes the Sun, a memoir chronicling young Lowitz’s life in Berkeley, California, to a woman making a life rooted in Tokyo. Through deep, poetic writing, Lowitz shares how yoga and a desire for mothering helped her to realize the nature and depth of her heart and the ability to mother. She captures a soul’s longing and shows us the glory of a heart poised for possibility.

Leza Summer

Here Comes the Sun was part of a triad of current books by expat authors in this post, here. (Sorry, the giveaway is over, folks).

Leza, to be sure, knows Tokyo summers. She knows the work of pressing in to greatness despite humidity or any temporary condition. We’ll call this post, “Here Comes the Heat”. Get it?

If Lowitz was a doc, she’d prescribe this:

 1. Leave Japan. (Leza tries to stay out of Tokyo during August if she can).

2. If you can’t leave, visit the ice-cold baths at a local sento or, say, Bath King (Ofuro no Ousama) in Oimachi.

Do you know onsens and sentos? Here is my blogpost on cooling off (and getting naked) at these ancient baths. Consider it a retreat.

3. Go to Kamakura and visit the bamboo forest at Hokokuji Temple (go super early to avoid crowded trains).

4. Drink Plum (Ume) Syrup soda.  (Or alcoholic version-plum wine). I like to use seltzer water with the Plum Syrup. Make sure to let the plums sit for three weeks so all the juices come out.

 See this video from Cooking With Dog for both versions. 

I knew Leza and I would be fast friends when we met! Maybe it’s partly because we’re such ume soda/ume chu fans! I could swim in the stuff!

Take that fizzy, plum tonic and read more of Lowitz’s work! You’ll dog-ear every page.

There is the fierce Jet Black and the Ninja Wind (which also partially takes place in Tokyo, and certainly Japan). There are Yoga Poems, and an always fresh one I love, Green Tea to Go: Stories From Tokyo, among others!

Visit Leza Lowitz’s beautiful blog here.

Young Skin is Thin, Where are the Nurses?

“Tell me about your scar”, requests my daughter. “Tell me about when you were little”. She wants details. She wants revelation. She wants new stories to churn about and imagine.

We’ve calmed down from her head slamming on the stairs ten minutes prior. The slap of her narrow forehead on our wooden step still reverberates through my own head. Despite our efforts with ice, a purple bruise flowers with an enormous egg of a bump. Motherhood is sometimes, near-constant wincing.


“Did you ever get hurt?” She searches my face for a sign or mark, wanting to connect through injury. My hand goes right to the place. This scar is more than thirty-years old and before Arizona drugstores carry Mederma. Any fading is thanks to time, sun, and my mother smearing on the vitamin E goop from inside those football-shaped capsules. She’d puncture the gelatin with her teeth and spread on that heavy liniment across the left-side of my forehead. It felt and smelled so heavy, it could have been whale oil. I wore it nightly. 

“Can I touch it? What happened?” My little girl, at four, is nearly the age I was when I fell. I was also a spunky, thin girl, interested in dance, movement, and giggling. These things all occur on the couch with jumping. My hair is piled in a knot. I wear a white dress of eyelet, made by my mother. 

The story is this: I am bouncing on a couch in a living room, somewhere. It is a sectional couch, the shape of an “L”. A glass coffee table composed of glass corners, glass on two shelves, sits in the middle. I bounce. I squeal. I catapult too high to land on my feet. I do not even clear the couch. I am a high dive jumper, just a speck in the sky, graceful at first, until then the realization that I will not land in the miniature pool of water.

My forehead careens with the table corner. I imagine whacking the table in two clean pieces like a little Bruce Lee, but the only damaged piece is me. Forehead skin is thin. Even now, I pinch it, and it is little more than card stock. The only skin thinner may be eyelid.

A forehead can bleed. Like really, really. We steal into our Volvo for a drive to the emergency room; we drive quickly; my skull peaks out. Nurses are not available. I am confused; isn’t this a hospital? Our assigned doctor knights my parents “temporary, it’ll have to do” nurses, clothing them with the cursory blue scrubs, and the three begin the job.

“I want you at her feet”, he says to my father. It is game day and this ER doc is Coach. “You”, he tersely directs my mother, “stand behind her head, and hold down her shoulders and arms”. There is not a lot of time for encouraging and collecting feedback in the ER. Work with what you have”, might be their slogan.

They do not provide any sedative, or local anesthetic. Poor mom holds a flailing freaking, wailing girl with lots and lots of blood. He might have been on stitch four, or maybe not even the second, but my mother, begins to slack. She starts to faint, slowly descending to the waxed veneer of Tucson hospital tile.

She curves and spirals as if hit not he head with a comedic plank, all the while, chanting this like a dumb cartoon octopus “Would sommmmmmmmeboddddddy pleeeeeease helllllppppppp meeeeeeeeee.” Crash. We lose our makeshift nurse. Somebody shoves smelling salts under her nose and carts her overtaxed senses to a room.

Doc finishes my stitches, covering his work with a Band-aid. Dad and I set-off to procure my mom. By the time we find her in her private room, I can smile, Snoopy balloon tied to my thin wrist, and Dad holding my other hand.

“What happened to you?” I ask. She hit her head so hard, it’d been a real concussion. We wait around some more before she receives the okay to leave. 

This is the story I tell my girl as she balances on my lap, ice on her own hurting spot. She is now part of my history, the memoir of my flesh. I touch the place those stitches tied up my little kid skin. It still hurts. Is this scar tissue?

Despite the trauma, maybe it’s good to have a scar, I think. To have met something head on, a trade for a story to hand down. I make it my “be careful, as this is why we must never jump on couch” speech, turning up the details of bone and blood. I relay it with hilarity at my mom and her one shot at nursing. It can be whatever I want. It is my scar, the history of vitamin E on a little girl, and all the jumping around glass.

She gazes at our sectional “L” sofa, eyes shiny, a-squint with plans. Our coffee table is not glass, but wood. They are up, scrambling to play, leaving the ice pack abandoned, soggy tissue clinging. I put it back for the next collision. 

What are your childhood scars or marks from teen years? What are the marks you’ll tell your kids about?

A Time for Seaweed: Why We Go to the Beach

I packed for our five day, four night beach trip to Shimoda, like it was a month away at the Jersey Shore. I packed like every guide in a fashion mag suggests. I even packed a coral scarfy thing that could double as sarong. Mostly, though, I wore my new high-wasted bikini every second, and a striped thin dress.

It is magical, this getting away. We need big horizons, especially us city people. We need concrete and buildings to move out of the way. These are the memories we need to build.



We invited my husband’s parents, the loves that they are, and my girl’s Godmother. I can’t decide if I want to write a tourist-specific article, or feed you some beach house recipes and describe all the drinks we drank, or just rattle-on about seaweed and shells.



The bottom line? Families, couples need the sea. We need walks down to the shore, with stones and big jumbles of seaweed. We need to take our kids’ fleshy kid hands, and climb over rocks to tide pools before walking back to wash our sandy feet under a spicket.




It was a pocket of riches, this time at the beach. And the magic of Shimoda? It is not flat, but a landscape, windows full of lush mountains as well as sea. It is lagoons and a canvas of stars.

I still have my tan and none of my burns have peeled.

What is This “Kvell”?

To “kvell” is to beam inwardly, on your face, too. To see all that is right. It is the opposite of “kvetch”. It’s a Yiddish word.

I kvell, feel proud of my kids, just admiring their beauty, noting their observations, and awareness of the world, their sweet sensitivity. I gaze, I laugh at their hilarity, their kindness and outrageous senses of humor.

I’m on Kveller, my third post, talking about the beautiful work involved in moving from outsider to friend. I have my rough moments here in Japan. It’s so important for women to feel that they are not alone.

Here it is, “I Felt Like an Outsider Living in Japan, Until I Befriended Another Mom”.


Nothing Fits, They’re Getting Big

Our boy has new shoes. They are red. They have that runner’s tread and slope at the toe. They are Transformers, I think. 


I didn’t think his toes were nearly pressed to the inside of his navy shoes until I squat-down and checked. Tight! Small! One day the shoe is okaaaay, doable, and the next day, it is disaster bordering on neglect!

Kids grow so stealthily; the last pair of new shoes are suddenly a parody of how shoes should fit. We have flung my girl’s clothes from dresser drawer directly to doll pile! One has to be quick! You have one week to wear this new dress from your Auntie! Go! I want to see it on you at every meal and through the night! (Her fuzzy Disney bear has a pretty nice wardrobe from the handful of items just too nice to pass on or chuck). 

We have given away a fortune in baby clothes and gear, always to the same (lucky) recipient. I forward bags and bags of baby, toddler, and increasingly-big-kid finery. It is sometimes emotionally tough, sometimes a delight. I pass-on the treasures that appear in the most joyful photographs of my life! I clear what little small closets I have. Out with the old! It is healthy to be this way, but sometimes I ache.


Children outgrow their toys, their heirloom stitches, the gifts from faraway family members, the shirts that read, “ONE YEAR OLD BOY,” and all you can do it enjoy the thing while it’s here. I try to find that picture online, scouring Facebook for photos of my pigtailed one-year-old in her lilac dress. I dream up ways to sew all of their childhood costumes into one pillow. Even the best items can yellow in a bag, waiting. 

Shoes keep leaving. I placed about thirty-two pairs of kid shoes in a blue Costco bag downstairs. They have waited three days at the door, perhaps two months in the linen closet, and longer in the depths of our shoe closet, loitering awkwardly. Every kiddo-item waits for the boot, the revolving door called change and outgrowth. It’s enough to make you read The Velveteen Rabbit and cry. Everything is on its way out.

Is this what it is, every month, scavenging socks drawers for what is now too tight and ill-fitting? Will I bag up sentiment, cloth, and tread until they are adults? I am more than content to have healthy, growing kids. I am. This is what it should be. This is the best of the best, growing taller and lanky in their sleep, sprouting long feet, hair nails, and teeth, growing strong hearts that beat. I can get on board with that.

I’ll move out the old to get to the new. It’ll be great. We’ll get even better sneakers, three sizes too big.

Air France et Moi!

Air France selected me, along with a cadre of bloggers, to highlight the multitude of exciting international destinations Air France flies, nonstop!

I feel like an honorary Audrey Tautou meets tour guide!

Mel Willms Photography-75

At our beloved Tokyo Garden, Rikugien. Photo taken by

A flight can be life-changing. My mother treated me to Paris to celebrate high school graduation, fabulous after the French I’d studied! We flew Air France and I could not have been more struck with the inherent style found in every component of the flight.

Is it possible for Air France to be anything but glamorous over land and sea? French over the intercom, alone! Flight attendants in silk scarves, hair perfectly coiffed! Every moment of sailing insinuates, excites you for your destination.

The travel bug hit me then and it still strikes now! Actually, I did pretty well, flinging myself across the globe to Tokyo, where I reside.

Without further ado, here is my Tokyo, map curtesy of Air France, complete with pins and descriptions of some of my most favorite Tokyo spots! It is just a small smattering, but you shall see life between skyscrapers, cafés hidden in gardens, and art, so much art. View my Tokyo Map

To further celebrate the relationship between Paris and Tokyo, take a peek at this wonderfully sweet documentary! (Okay, more like a few minutes to peer back in time). Remarkable.

Tokyo is not a city to which anyone needs cajoling. It is one of those destinations, much like Paris or Madrid; you just know you’ll love. Tokyo is old. It is modern. It is frighteningly, refreshingly different and yet, the soul of the people, the life of the place just settles in your bones. It’s hard not to be a poet when writing about a home, a port, or a vacation you absolutely love.

Book your own trip-of-a-lifetime to fall in love with Tokyo or any city under the sun;

Air France is here to help.

J’adore Tokyo. Tokyo, aishteru! 

Et merci, Air France!

-Melissa and Kariin Jan 2013 WEB-39