Why is “Knocked Up” So Much Fun to Say?

 

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Before I was Melissa with three big, wacky kids, I was Melissa with two big kids and one in the oven, working through my life here in Japan. I was pedaling my bike until I couldn’t anymore and getting the strangest looks. I was a mom of three, but first two, and one, and before my eldest was born, I was just me, me trying to figure things out in my new home of Tokyo. Me, daily reconciling the differences between my two homes, Florida, America, the family, friends, and sunsets I left behind, and the home I was just getting to know, alongside my husband.

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Obgyn, heck, dentist appointments can be uncomfortable enough in the culture you know, but here, with a different language and forms to fill-out, and a variety of cultural differences and norms? When you’re becoming a mother, you want to feel somewhat capable, like a real adult who can communicate and later advocate for your child and family. You don’t want to feel childish, unable to convey your needs or clearly word your questions. I left some of those appointments in tears. (Picture break-downs and here-and-there success at bookstores, public offices, shops, and train stations).

Writing, through all of these times, has been empowering, and therefore, healing.

So, too, has mothering.

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I’ve come out of all of these experiences a stronger and more confident me. Motherhood is challenging in any scenario, wherever you live, with a great number of supports or especially solo. With writing, I’m finding my voice and connecting with others. As women, as mamas, it’s powerful to know we’re seen, we’re heard, and we’re supported. It’s important to read of bravery in its many forms, of pioneering and making it work.

I can now say that I’m part of a great and splendid project with the expression, “Knocked Up” in the title! Hooray! The book showcases 26 women in 25 countries, all navigating the unique experiences of giving birth abroad and really, daring to make a life with kids.

I’m grateful for having an avenue, a gorgeous book in which my essay, my little baby, found a home. I can’t wait to read the other stories! From my essay and used by the wonderful editor, Lisa Ferland, in our Kickstarter site:

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I ask you to spread the word and share this project. Support, tweet, give, do anything you feel led to do.

Join in, please. I know if I would have had a book like this going into it, I’d have been greatly encouraged. We are never alone, but it can feel that way sometimes. Books, words, stories that connect, all have power.

Come on, don’t you want to say/share/tweet you’ve been, “Knocked Up Again?”

To GIVE click here!

To SHARE click here!

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**Gorgeous black and white photos above by the amazing Mel Willms.

Merci, thanks, and arigato!

 

Fourth of July is another Monday in Japan—xoxo, An American Living Abroad

Abroad? Expat? Interloper? For how long can you stay and live in another country and still be considered to be living abroad?

Well, perhaps it depends on your home country. America allows its citizens to live abroad indefinitely, maybe forever, and still have the right to return at any time. In other words, I can retain my Americanness, in citizenship, and still reap the opportunities that living away affords me. I never have to choose; I will always be a citizen.

As it is, I miss my culture and country a bit extra today. It is the Fourth of July and I sit knowing there will be no fireworks tonight in Japan. I didn’t think to order any celebratory red, white, and blue goods early-on to be shipped–no tiny flags, no confetti with stars. Besides, my husband and kids are at work and school. It is a normal day here in Tokyo. While all of my American friends and the bulk of my Instagram thread shows lobster rolls and barefoot kids in cutoff shorts enjoying picnics and sparklers on parade-sidelines, I think about my Americanism and the dualities, the good and bad of living abroad.

People are complex beings. In eighth or ninth grade, I wrote my own mythological story to illustrate the origin of some emotion. I wrote about a rainbow after a storm and two Greek sisters experiencing something both devastating and profoundly beautiful. It was a whole dramatic story leading up to the origin of “bittersweet”. We can have warring emotions, two realities coexisting.

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To be of a certain culture living away from one’s home is often complex. One may love their newer home but greatly miss those they left behind. One may adore the transportation system and their new view, a high-paying or more satisfying job, but feel torn at times. It can all be a bit bittersweet, no matter how great the call or reason to come to this new land.

It is the 4th of July and it is more than nostalgia I feel. I identify as an American. I celebrate the country’s ideals. As a foreigner, I have spent almost eight years here in Japan adjusting and missing my family, adjusting and comparing cultures, walking in between language and customs.

Even if I spend the rest of my days here or anywhere away from the US, if I retire, become a grandmother here, continue to adjust and even become adept at language here, I will always, to some extent, be living abroad. The American in me may not ever cease being American. That is fine, that is A-okay. I’ll be complex. That is, after all, only human. We don’t get “wiped clean” to receive something new. We can gain and trade languages, add stamps and experiences to our passports, even become residents in a new country and still always be American, or Swedish, or Mexican. We don’t ever have to give up identity. This stays with us even while other variables shift. People are layered with gorgeous details and complexities. My sun-splattered freckles may stay with me forever, though I am far from the beaches and summer days of my youth.

We never really stop being that original person–the little boy or girl with memories of writing their name with sparklers on the beach, the kid who was afraid to try a new food, the shy preteen who realized they felt alive waterskiing at summer camp. The humor, even that we grow up with, watching movies and hearing our uncle, mom, or grandpa tell jokes. All of it is important. All of it speaks to identity.

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The way I grew up, all of the memories, the holidays like Fourth of July, vacations, and conversations–see, they make up our foundation. The way, the culture in which I grew up, that which I saw and experienced will always be my foundation. Part of that, a major part of this, is location, right? Country of origin. Opportunities, moments, the gifts and sadly, the tragedies that affect us. How we see others deal with pain. How we as a family, as a people, as an individual celebrate. These attributes can be tied to country. How we even view “diversity” and “challenge”. It’s all in there.

I am an American with a certain lens. Yes, it’s been widened a certain extent by living abroad. I will hopefully continue to grow and change, but I may never really ever stop being or at least at times, feeling “foreign”. I will continue to lay down roots. My children, though, for as much as they are Japanese, will always also be American. We can be complex people. People rooted to a space but also thinking of what we miss. This is some of the magic of America, in its collective self. Americans are not one type, not one general physique, not one accent, or one non-accent. We’re from all over and may live all over. All of us living abroad become part of the body, joining in a new cultural identity, landscape, an workforce, but we also retain our roots, enjoy new opportunities while celebrating our origin.

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My kids don’t know that if in the US today, they’d be home from school, gobbling blueberries, making eating someone’s wiggly Jell-O dessert, hugging their aunts and cousins. We’d probably be at the beach or in Philly with Grandma, looking at The Liberty Bell. They’d certainly know the words to our national anthem (Reminder, self. Teach this). They may not be privy to the nuances of each American holiday, but I do and I miss these things.

Yes, I get the double goodness of new holidays to celebrate in Japan, but I don’t have it all. There are costs to widening one’s vision. We don’t get to see our family, those close friends we left up close. We get tinges of nostalgia and the joy and pain of comparison.

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We get other kinds of popsicles and treats made out of sweet beans, but there is no ice cream man coming down our block in his ice cream truck with the song. There are no shops with the red, white, and blue flag hung outside. There is no Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving in Tokyo. There is no float with veterans waving whom we may salute.

A holiday of one’s birth country or childhood may prompt some sadness or at least a moment of wistful thinking if we aren’t stateside or with others to commemorate the day. Celebrations may be internal and with a bit of pain. We see a whole big view and there is more cost than the international flight. There are new friends, though, a more complex understanding of war and international relations. There, like in my typed-up myth, is a whole rainbow to discover, yes. There is a greater appreciation for those here who bridge my world with their kindness and acceptance. There are trips to plan–both domestic and international. New memories to shape.

There are Fourths of July that are bittersweet. I am, after all, an American living abroad.

 

 

Making Peace & Raising Babies Out of Culture

Making our way out of the house, there are a few things you should know: it is June 27 and while coolish now, temps will continue to climb. I have with me in the stroller, my little girl, almost three-weeks-old. In Japan, it is obligatory for newborn babes to stay in the house a solid month—recovering moms, too, as they are both doted on by her mother. (This supposes that the grandmother/mother of the postpartum woman is alive and available and that the woman does not live abroad).

My baby and I receive stares. We are out and it hasn’t been one month.

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I am not new to the culture here; it is my third baby in Tokyo and because of that, I now have thicker skin. In the beginning, with my first, I was fragile. My second, too. We moms and those of us living in a foreign territory are vulnerable to jabs, even from well-meaning ladies who ask, “Isn’t your baby cold?” with sometimes piercing eyes and stern tones. A perceived judgment from a doctor any neighbor seemed to wield every power to make me cry and shrink into my skin. It used to, anyway.

On our walkabout this morning, my neighbor raises her eyes in alarm when she sees me with baby. “Ehhhh? Is it okay to have her out?” with an implied “already??” I know how to reassure her now with the Japanese for “It’s okay; it’s a very short walk, just around the neighborhood.” The stress is on “short, little, brief”, as in “Don’t worry–I know the rules and feel my own concern.”

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At the nearby market, the fawning cashier asks how old the baby is and upon my reply, she shuts down, just after giving me a double-take, mouth in a grimace. Three weeks is not the correct answer.

It’s cool–I’m secure. I walk with shoulders back, smiling at anyone who gives me eye contact. I’m proud of getting out. I’m proud of her.

In the old days of living here, abroad, and raising babies? I would not have felt this cool peace. I would have shrunken back from the sun, afraid of others’ opinions or I would have felt real anger. I’ve leveled out. I’ve found my voice and my rhythm, no mattter what.

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See, mothering can feel so foreign already, so mothering abroad can at times, feel overwhelming. A new mom can feel quite weepy, anxious, or a mix of forty different feelings inside.

Add the dynamic of being outside of one’s home culture? Eesh. Whatever we thought we were good at before may not even be relevant anymore in a different setting. Without language, too, we can feel like dopes. Or maybe we look reckless.

I’ve shocked, surprised, concerned the entire area with the fact that I bicycled while pregnant. I have been told on and talked about. I’ve defensively lifted my chin a bit too much sometimes, wanting to show that despite my lack of fitting in, despite my lack of language, I have my education and my own mother’s advice. Mommying in another culture can shift more than your body. It’s a journey, truly, of the emotions and the mind. Sometimes all of that gets mangled and tangled as we try to find our place and the things we’re good at in this new role.

To have a voice and lift the unspoken words onto a page has been, for me, some of the best medicine. To use my voice in a culture where I am limited has been the best.

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So I talk and I sing and I compromise, too. I make room to incorporate the bevy of wise advice and wonderful treats found here (longer stays in hospitals and birth houses here; granting more independence to children; introducing different first foods to babies on a different schedule) thanking and appreciating others for their input; assuming first that they come with love instead of judgment, etc. I encourage new moms, too.

I have a bigger toolkit now, a broader palette—one that incorporates and understands two worlds, two languages, and so many more people. Sure there may be tough moments, but I’m grateful for the confidence that generally beams where insecurity used to slump. The questioning, negative comments, and glances I more easily shrug off.

I know I’m a good mom now more than ever, perhaps. My voice, my choices and the cultural decisions I weave into our life bring about confidence. I stand on the firm rocks of who we are as a family, who I am as a mom and woman, the confidence of two cultures who will catch me and gird me up. Maybe they’re also two worlds which laugh as I try to figure it all out.

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**Attention!!: For many mothers and women raising children abroad, finding our voice is that much more paramount. I’m using my voice, along with 25 other women in 24 other counties. We share our unique stories of change, belonging, joy, and loss in the book, Knocked Up Abroad Again. 

This self-published wonder of a book is LIVE on Kickstarter! Come see, support, and spread the word! Help us use our voice. Without full financial support, this book will not be. 

~~~

And, heya–did you catch my post on Roasted’s Traveling With Toddlers series?

Here it is! There’s also Kenya, Colombia, Bali, China,…great for any of us who wonder about life around the globe as a curious traveler or expat.

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853 Things About Not Having a Car

If you live in the suburbs of South Florida and walk to the grocery store, you’re kind of a weirdo, standing on the swale of the road, while everyone gapes behind their sunglasses and steering wheel. You look like you’ve hit hardest of times and you might in fact, actually get hit. Not every place is Portland or a woodsy Vermont town. Not every place has a safe sidewalk you should be on past 7 pm.

If you want to be in a position to ditch the car, you ought to move yourself to a city, preferably New York, for the transit system. You’ve really got to either ride a skateboard, live in The Big Apple, or move to Tokyo (especially if you want a clean train).

Only then will it not be weird that you cart carrots home in bushels, underhand, or fill double bike baskets all day long. Here, you can walk. You can take Tokyo’s gazillion on-time, clean, and quiet trains, walk to any of 2,210 train stations (no joke, and this doesn’t include or account for the shinkansen. Go ahead and say “adios” or “sayonara” to the idea of a car. You’ll also be saying “tata” to insurance, to papers, to a loan or lease hanging overhead, and you won’t be weird. You’ll be on-time and in shape. You can put that gas money towards new shoes.

Okay, you’ll get wet sometimes, and snowed on, but you’ll have cheap transport and a clear connection to the climate and people. Mostly, you’ll love it.

You’ll become a “City Person”.

Here is a partial list of why living the “no car life” is cool:

The air becomes so delish with blossoming flowers, you can’t stop inhaling. Air. (Take now, April in Tokyo. It is the freshest, the time before summer sweat, all the air before mosquitos. It is the month of sakura and new beginnings, cute kids walking towards their beginning of a new school year. Or September when these itty flowers the color of goldenrod, called

Air. Take now, for instance, April in Tokyo. It is the freshest, the time before summer sweat, all the air before mosquitos. It is the month of sakura and new beginnings, cute kids walking towards the beginning of a new school year. Or September when these itty flowers the color of goldenrod, called kinmokusei, make you want to chew the air and grow your own fields of the stuff. It’s elysium. Think of all that oxygen.

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You can see your neighbors, actually know them more. Without a windshield of glass and a personal sound system, there is no limit to how deeply you may view and interact with your world. It’s like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but without chrome. Just the pedals, baby. I practice real face-to-face interaction that much more with our kiddos.

We know so many more neighbors without the bubble of a car. We know the old, the young, the shopkeepers, the new moms, and recognize the dry cleaners on their way home from errands. We know so many of the people who make our part of the city feel smaller. It’s connectivity.

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Beyond the “Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood” fuzzies, you can cry or curse and no one really hears you. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe keep that drama for the car.

Everywhere is your gym and nowhere is the cost. Simply by roving from point a to point b, you are more in shape. No gimmicks, just movement. You will become adept at biking while holding an umbrella or pedaling through flashes of rain or even sleet. You will be your own version of Iron Man.

In this city, if you’re not on your own wheels, you’re on a train track and that has its own advantages. Train people get so much more done. It’s like having the time-equivalent of a finished basement. It’s not cheating, but you have so much more room to do things. Learn a new language, write fifteen poems, braid lanyard key fobs, again! Sleep. Zone out. Nurse your baby. Whatever. No stress of finding a parking spot or making that light; your conductor has got it under control. Just get off at the right stop.

Plus, did you know that you can drink beer on the train in Japan? Or sake, whatever. You can get smashed if you want. No one is driving drunk. They’re all asleep on the train, leaning on you, and hopefully not getting sick. Every single day and each glittering night can be a party. You’ve got the train.

Okay, that’s it for now. I realize I haven’t come near my 853 Things, but I’ve scratched the surface.

PS My kids are home with me today because I just can’t fathom getting us to their school via bike or puddle-laden walk in the torrential rain that is ALL DAY. For good or bad, there’s that–something called weather. Sometimes, and this may be the one drawback, city people have to sit one out.

How about you? Do you wish for simpler time or schedule without the expense of a car? Wish your city was safe for biking? Or would you continue driving and paying for the parking required in a big city? 

More Than a Book Review, a Way to Shine Hope

The calendar page has flipped. We are now in February, speedily making plans into March. This brings up the painful realization that we are approaching the sad anniversary of The Great East Japan Earthquake, a magnitude 9, which brought the 40.5 meter-high (133 ft) tsunami and a whole host of devastating effects, including Level 7 nuclear reactor meltdowns. March can feel heavy in Japan.  

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Japan continues to hurt; after all, families were ripped apart. The national police agency accounts a staggering 15,893 deaths, 6,152 injured persons, and 2,572 people missing across twenty prefectures. Buildings collapsed in the hundreds of thousands, with approximately 228,870 people living away from their home in either temporary housing or permanent relocation. Even now. Many schools need basic materials. Mothers need sturdy walls and blankets for their babies. 

We are nearing five years and still, assistance is needed for the survivors.

I marvel at those who help, those who give selflessly and with all that they have. This is where the goodness of people shows. Teams, corporations, countries invested and showed up in our Japan to build hospitals, to ladle soup into shocked, saddened mouths. They cleared away muck and rubble, working to restore that which remained. 

These are the people we should join with physically, to lend aid or support.

We use of our gifts, talents, and resources in different ways. At the time of the March 11 crisis, I was away from Japan. Upon returning, I was busy nursing my infant daughter and longed to go and just be with those hurting and those helping. I still long to hear what those who went say. I want to see the people through their eyes, hear all they wish to share and learn what still must be done.

Leza Lowitz, writer, and owner of a Tokyo yoga studio, has taken part in the physical, bringing massage and help to the people of Tohoku. She saw where homes had been, saw stacks of cars and boats, piled high by tsunami waves.

Leza touched the shoulders and necks of those who suffered trauma. Her very yoga studio made it so a library was built, a place of respite and comfort, complete with a garden. However, she couldn’t continue to make trips there, being a mother with certain responsibilities. Leza decided to use her gift and desire to help in another way—by writing.

“I felt that the bigger contribution I could make was by writing a book….others could perhaps do more hands-on volunteering. I could use my time and skills to write a book while still being able to stay home to care for my son”, says the author.

And so her journey towards Up From the Sea began.

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Leza writes from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old boy in his classroom when the shaking begins. We see, through Kai, what we could not see from the news. We see into his day-to-day, into his relationships with his mom, grandparents, and friends at school. We see his principal and teacher, the actions they took to make it to safety, and all that was left behind. 

Through Lowitz’s novel in verse, a format built like unrhyming poetry, unencumbered and free to tell with emotion, we walk through grief with Kai. We see disrepair and fear.

                                                       RUNNING THROUGH MY RUINED TOWN,                                                         pack flapping winglike against my back.

Plowing through blocks
strewn with heaps of
refrigerators
blackboardsbicyclestaxis
bustedpianosshelvesdesksstairs
allmixedtogether
in a marshland
grave.

We climb through tsunami wreckage with him and see Tohoku, see the world, really, on and post-March 11, after the tragedy. Through this form of verse, and through the authors’ own experience meeting a boy in a village who had lost his mother, the reader feels each phrase, each verse like a puncture or a wave. It is experiential and visual, in a way the traditional novel cannot live or tread. It is a deep work, appealing to young adults in being fast-paced and highly visual. This book is really for everyone.

 It is poetry in the form of a novel and it is beautiful. 

We are invited to join Lowitz and Kai in rebuilding, in coming Up From the Sea with a real semblance of hope. 

Leza Lowitz adds, “As you know, next month will be the fifth anniversary of the disaster. It is hard to believe that five years have passed. There is so much work still to be done in the affected areas. I hope my novel might help shine the light there still”.

Shine, it shall. This book, her first novel-in-verse, has been named BUZZFEED’s #1 of 5 Young Adult books you should be reading.

The Japan Times calls it “A powerful, deeply moving book.”

Leza is a prolific, award-winning writer. This is her first solo book aimed at the YA audience (her prior YA novel was co-written with her husband). She also has books of poetry, short-stories, and a memoir. 

Another nod:

“Up from the Sea touched me deeply with its beautiful message of hope and the resilience of humanity. Bravo.”  –Ellen Oh, author of The Prophecy series

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Visit Leza Lowitz’ website to read more of the accolades this book continues to collect.

Visit this Melibelle blog post of How to Stay Cool in Tokyo, featuring Leza!

It is the author’s hope that Up From the Sea become translated into Japanese. She would love to give away many copies to honor and strengthen the people of Tohoku. May it be so!

TOKYO PEOPLE:

Leza Lowitz will be speaking at the Tokyo American Club Thursday, Feb. 4th!

Non-members also welcome!

Thank you to Leza & to all who make it their life-long goal to shine brightly & always help.

A Day of Soup & Spilling News

The day I told my mom of a new child here growing here was the day I pedaled to buy chervil and thyme, more carrots and bouillabaisse. It was the day I walked my husband to the drive and into the street and acknowledged with tears that with my telling her, I’d feel more weightless– more joy.

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I cried up the hill, bicycling a basket full of warm baguette, the bottles of olive oil and herbs, all of spring and promises of summer, the cozy coming of winter, all for the soup to gather in fall. And I said, “I’m so glad you’re in charge of birth and death”. The trust in pedaling with an eight week, six-day-old baby, living inside.

(Which is the same day I bought these purple and brown irises home. Delicate purple and golden browns like Champagne and chanterelles. I brought the iris pots home, three of them for my 500 yen, 50 yen change, 3 of them for my garden, which is the same day I bought bubbly apple juice from France to celebrate a Shabbat, a growing with family). Celebrating is feeling alive.

I have to get through the telling. The worry that she won’t be pleased with the steps of my life, my ordered recipe. Peppermint tea for her and I pour out my words. Out come the pictures of a little bean in an ultrasound. It is all, extraordinarily, smooth.

We’re all here–iris outside the front step, and all that will be held in my body. Joy soothes the weary, all the jumpy nerves. A bouquet of leaves swirling and moss earth fragrant November. It’s a day we all want soup. It’s the day to make my mother tea and tell her our news.

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Yes, the day I made a fall soup is the day I spilled the news to my sister, too, her driving, “I am pregnant”. There is another growing child and she whooped and cheered and all my anxiety cleared.

That’s what I’ve been– clenched, sad, afraid I’d not get some needed ingredient. And now it’s the day of a thousand good breaths and the soup called relief which I’ll start right now. Here, in my life, are all the right people to love.

Now, now I can get excited. We’re all onboard and feeling warm.

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The best things take time and must be gathered courageously.

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!

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At our beloved Tokyo Garden, Rikugien. Photo taken by http://melwillms.com/

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