December 30, 2011

Adventures at the Makishi Market & Kokusai Dori

Kokusai Dori, also known as International Street in downtown Naha is mildly put as an interesting place. Anyone from my home town will understand my comparison that Kokusai Dori is like the Japanese version State Street, only weirder. The street is lined on either side with small shops that sell everything from Awamari - the Okinawan (and much more potent) version of Sake, to Habu Sake - that's sake with the very deadly Habu snake pickled in it just the worm in the tequila, to designer clothing, and even a Starbucks. Bestill my heart, I got my first cup of Starbucks in MONTHS.

Off of Kokusai Dori there are little "arcades" or hallways that make up the market. Anything and everything you could ever think of can be found down these little arcades. There is a maze of hallways with Kimonos for all sizes, hand blown glass, Okinawan pottery, jewelry, snacks, flowers, men's, women's, and children's clothing, albeit a little on the ugly side. . . anything your heart could desire can be found here.

Buried within the depths of the arcades is the Makishi Market. It's somewhat hard to find if you don't know what you're looking for. The directions I found on the internet had us turning down one of the arcades called Heiwa Dori. You walk until you come to a curtain shop (which also sells rugs and fabric FYI) and you turn right. Look for sets of glass double doors on your right. You will smell the fish and the meat before you even see the doors. Follow your nose. Yes, these were the honest to goodness directions. . .

We found the market. Now I love to cook, and shop for ingredients. But being in this market where everything is written in Japanese, and no one speaks english, I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff in there! I would love to go back on a day when there are far fewer people. There are just counters of the freshest meat and seafood I have ever seen. And upstairs above the market proper, are restaurants where they will cook what you purchase on the spot. My husband and I are going back next weekend and getting ingredients to make our own sushi feast. Can't wait.

Now finding the market was not a problem for us. Saying the smell will lead you is an understatement. You KNOW when you smell that market. We all knew we smelled it because we all stopped walking and went "OH." My parents had come out for Christmas and we'd all ended up with one of the worst stomach bugs they've seen around here. We were all finally on the mend and this was our first outting in about 4 days. My poor father couldn't even stomach the smell, so my mom and I went through the double doors to explore and just see what they had to offer.

As we explored the smaller arteries off the main arcade, I noticed something that I've seen happen every other I go out into town with my kids. Japanese women go NUTS over my kids. I mean crazy! They snap pictures, they coo. . . my son has been petted on the head more times than I can count. At first I thought this was an anomaly since the Japanese people are usually very polite and not so touchy feely. But it happens everytime we go out into town. They LOVE my kids. And it finally clicked. They love the blonde hair. Both of my kids have corn silk colored hair.

We ran into another American family while we were in the arcade and one of the little girls had red hair. I said that the Japanese are probably all over that little one, and the mother confirmed that her red headed daughter gets petted a lot too.

All in all, this place is somewhere I am dying to get back to. Now that I know where I am going I will probably have the courage to go on my own. Or maybe I will take a few of my friends. To another year filled with new adventures. . .

Happy New Year to all.

December 22, 2011

My Ghosts of Okinawa

Thunk, thunk, thunk. Swish, swish. . .

and a little later. . .

Knock, knock, knock. . . I think something just touched me. . .

Ask anyone who has lived on Okinawa any more than 5 minutes about the ghosts here. Everyone has a ghost story to share. It's either a personal encounter, or a story that's been passed from person to person. Recently, I shared my encounter(s) with a friend, no longer caring if she thought me to be insane, only to discover that she had had ghostly experiences too. The Japanese, and the Okinawans in particular are a very superstitious people. Since ghosts, and anything to do with the supernatural is right up my ally, I looked around and did a little research on the ghosts of Okinawa. I came to find out that this little island is fondly known as "spook central".

I certainly do not doubt the prevalence of ghosts here. One of the bloodiest battles of WWII was fought here. Many soldiers, both American and Japanese, and Okinawan civilians died during that battle. TheOkinawans worship their ancestors, not a "God" in the sense of Christianity, Judiasm, or Islam. Tombs located randomly all over. Small, single person tombs, and larger tombs to accommodate many family members. The prevalence of these tombs is somewhat spooky, and unnerving, yet you get used to it eventually. Homes, restaurants, hotels, and more are not uncommonly abandoned by the Okinawan people due to a haunting, or other supernatural experience occuring there. So no, ghosts in my home do not surprise me.

I don't know anything about the ground that our townhouse is built on but I am convinced that there are spirits that visit me. Shortly after we moved in, my husband was sent out for a training mission for several weeks. The first few weeks were quiet and uneventful. I became accustomed to the sounds of our home, our neighbors. The neighborhood dogs barking in the evening, and the sound of the airconditioning kicking on were all sounds that I eventually got used to hearing.

One night I had gone to bed early and quite suddenly my bed started to vibrate, and then shake. Could have been an earthquake, yes, but not night after night after night. Shortly after my bed becand shaking I started hearing foot steps coming up my stairs. Not necessarily an uncommon thing, true. However, our house is built like a bomb shelter. Everything is concrete. The stairs are concrete and covered with carpet, the walls are concrete and covered in paint, everything. The only thing that is drywalled, are the interior walls. So the sound of footsteps coming up our concrete stairs, down the hallway, and approaching my bedroom were not something I should have been hearing. Especially while my kids are in bed asleep, and my husband was away.

Along with the footsteps, I could hear knocking on the exterior walls. The concrete exterior walls. There was also knocking on walls that weren't shared with nextdoor neighbors, or other rooms in my house. Including the wall between my shower and my husband's closet, and my closes and the empty stairwell. You could explain it away with pipes, and waterlines, etc. But Our homes are wired and piped through the floor. Our walls are concrete.

At night while I'm laying in bed, and it's all quiet, I can hear what sounds like a radio tuned between two stations. I hear this almost nightly. I hear it still. Sometimes it's loud enough to sound like I am standing in the middle of a crowded room. Sometimes it sounds like there are children playing in the hallway. No matter what it is, it's always there.

And finally the clincher. I was laying in bed  reading a book and I hear the footsteps come up my stairs. I hear them come down the hall. I heard them come into my room. I could hear the swishing sound that clothing makes when you're walking. Then it stopped and I felt something sit down on my bed, and put it's hands on my legs. It didn't scare me a bit. I just put my book aside and fell asleep.

I contacted the medium who did a reading for my family shortly after my brother died and asked him what he thought of my situation. I told him that I didn't mind if the spirit, or spirits stayed just so long as they weren't evil, and didn't scare me or my kids. He gave me some advice. So I promptly said aloud one evening, that only good spirits were welcome here, anything else had to go. And in keeping with the Okinawan customs, I went out and bought myself a pair of Shisa. The Shisa are half dog, half lion and are said to be protectors. They are almost always seen in pairs. The Shisa with his mouth open keeps evil spirits away, and the Shisa with her mouth closed keeps good spirits in.

I don't mind sharing my home or my city with spirits and ghosts. I am ok with the fact that there are some who reside in my house. The fact is that they were there first. As long as I can live comfortably in my home I'm ok.

I guess I really did get a true welcoming to Okinawa.

December 6, 2011

Dear Anonymous,

This week I really wanted to write a post about the ghosts of Okinawa and my recent experiences with them. Nearly anyone you talk to who has lived here more than a few months will have a ghost story or an encounter to share with you. However that post and my excitement to write it will have to wait.

Tonight's post is very different from anything I have ever written. I am so angry I don't even know where to begin, and the anger is from years of biting my tongue and being "the bigger person". But I've come to believe that there is a point at which biting one's tongue and being the bigger person is detrimental to your own self preservation. There comes a point at which you can no longer remain silent. There comes a time when you must speak up for yourself.

Tonight what I write has little to do with being a military wife, and more to do with being just plain human. There are few things that have affected me so deeply as to change me and my beliefs forever. The first was marrying my husband, the second was the birth of my children, and the third was the death of my brother. Naturally as my uncle's life hangs in the balance, (and though he is doing well now, his situation is precarious enough that we could still lose him) I have spent a lot of time thinking about loss. Possibly losing him, losing my brother, and other losses that are much too close to home.

To be completely truthful, death and loss have been a constant reality in my life since I married my husband. I've come to peace with the reality of death. However there are others with whom I share blood lines who have not come so far. The lack of compassion for the losses and sacrifices made my parents and I is almost inhuman.

Today, a family member who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this blog, called my mother to discuss my uncle. My mom is 3rd in line to make decisions regarding his current situation and care. During the course of conversation, this person told my mother that she "wags my brother's death in their face." My mother was asked by this person why she isn't over it, and why she can't move on. . . my poor mom, so deeply hurt by these words called me to talk.

Upon hearing this, I decided that this is the moment where I can no longer be silent. This is where I must speak. I am stuck on Okinawa, desperately wishing I could be with my family right now, but there is nothing I can do. If only this person knew how lucky they are to have 5 living brothers and sisters as opposed to 1 dead oneerhaps they would not treat their siblings as such.

So I sat down and I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. I wrote in hopes that something I said could shock certain people into reality. I can only use this as my forum because if I actually sent the letter, the fall out would come down on my mom. Not on me. And, I'm pretty sure that the people whom this is about don't care enough to even know that my blog exists, or that I even live on Okinawa. But I'm so angry I just can't shut up. I just can't.

So here it is:

Dear (name removed for privacy),

My mom told me that the two of you spoke today. I was so happy to hear it. I know she was happy that you called as well. Until you said that she “wags Nick’s death in your face”. I know that it’s hard for you to hear, and talk about Nick. It’s difficult for all of us. But to say that she “wags” his death in your face is a terribly insensitive thing to say.

Let me tell you something about my brother’s death. My mom, dad, and I will NEVER be over it. EVER. It is something that has changed us all so deeply, so fundamentally that there is no way to fully recover and be what we once were. How can you not understand that? Nicholas (name removed for privacy), my brother, my mother’s and father’s only son, died violently and unexpectedly! At 21 years old!!

Tell me how long it would take you to get over seeing your son’s body smashed on the rocks. Seeing where his brains spilled out of ears because he hit headfirst. Seeing ridges where his skull was cracked and crushed through the skin on his forehead. Knowing that his organs were so badly damaged that they were practically mush. How long would it take you to get over having the sheriff and the coroner come to your front door? How long would it take you to get over having to drive down to the morgue to identify your son’s body? How long would it take you to get over seeing your boy laying naked and lifeless on the metal gurney? How long would it take you to get over having to call your pregnant daughter, knowing her husband is in the field and she is 1500 miles away to deliver the news? How long would it take you to get over the need to hold his ice cold hand for as long as you could before they closed the casket for the last time? How long would it take you to get over having your son’s body incinerated in the crematorium because the pain of putting him in a box in the ground was much worse.  How long would it take you to to get over knowing that you’ll never see, or hug, or hold your baby, your child, your only son ever again? How long would it take you to get over the fact that you’ll never celebrate another birthday, or Christmas with him? How long would it take you to get over knowing he’ll never get married and have children? You’ve never had to do it. My mother did! Nick's death will affect us for the rest of our lives!!!! Please get that through your head, and your heart.

There is not a need for you to discuss his death in detail. All it would take is a simple, “How are you doing today?” or even “I know the holidays are hard. Are you getting through alright?” Thats all!! If discussing Nick’s death is difficult for you, have you even considered how hard enduring it has been for us? Ignoring it completely, as though it didn’t happen is terribly painful and insulting. All it takes is a simple validation of how awful it has been for my parents and me. Not nasty comments about how we’re not over it yet, and why can’t we move on. My mother sent out a letter to you, (name removed), and (name removed), BEGING for compassion and help. She received very little in return. My husband’s family has shown more compassion and concern to my parents and me than you have in the last 5 years. 

Nick’s death is not about you, and you have no place judging how my parents and I mourn. We will mourn how we choose. For the first year or two, it was all we could do to live through each day with the sorrow. We didn't have the space in our souls to consider much else. Only God will judge us. Not you. My mother does not need snide comments about how long it takes her to get over it. SHAME ON YOU for saying such a thing. We will not tiptoe around Nick’s death because it’s uncomfortable for you. WE are the ones who have to live with it every single day. We miss him every single day. My children will never know my brother, their uncle. They will never have cousins from my side of the family. As my parents age, and eventually pass, I will not have my brother there with me as I should. And I’m supposed to just get over that?? 

If you ever took the time, perhaps you would see that our days are no longer consumed by grief as they once were. Perhaps you would see that with the help and support of those who truly care, we have crawled out of the black hole of sorrow, and are living as best as we can with the pain his loss that endures. Maybe you would see that it doesn’t hurt all day every day anymore, but when it does hurt, it is just as acute as though it happened yesterday. Perhaps you would understand that we go to work each day, we spend time with friends and family, and we carry on as normally as we can. Maybe you would see that finally there are more days where we can smile and laugh rather than cry. 

Any criticism of how my family chooses to mourn my brother’s death, or how we keep his memory alive is disrespectful to all of us, and it is unacceptable. You will not do it anymore. Period. Just because you don’t understand how we mourn does not mean that we are wrong. All we’ve asked of you is support and caring. Perceived or not, that is something we did not receive from you. Expecting a time limit for how long it takes to “get over it”, is not supportive or caring, and clearly shows your lack of an understanding of the mourning process.

You will no longer criticize how my mother mourns for her son. You will no longer ask her why she’s not “over it”, tell her it’s time to “move on”, or tell her she needs to consider YOUR feelings about it. You will validate the sorrow she feels about Nick’s death no matter how uncomfortable it is for you, because she is the one who lost her son. You did not. If you must say something regarding Nick or his death, it will be thoughtful and kind. Not wrought with criticism or judgment. You CAN be selfless enough to give that much.

I am not interested in a response from you. I am not interested in excuses, explanations, or any kind of justification you may have for your behavior. My mother, father, and I are allowed to mourn my brother. We will continue to mourn him, love him, miss him, and remember him forever. We have a right to do that without a set time limit from you or anyone else. We have a right to do that without expectations placed upon us for when we will be over it, because we never will be.

You can’t undo the pain of the past, but you can work to make the future better.


December 1, 2011

Never Felt So Far

Most of the time I love, Love, LOVE, living on this island. There are a few small annoyances and inconveniences that get to me occasionally, but I really am enjoying myself. Because of the total awesomeness of Vonage, I really haven't felt all that far from home. I talk to my parents every day. Sometimes twice.

Until today.

I won't get into the how or the why I knew something was coming, (thats a different post all together) but for days I've had this feeling of foreboding hanging over my head. I couldn't shake it off. There was no reason for me to be feeling the way I felt. My favorite holiday is almost upon us, my parents are coming out for a visit, and my husband is home to celebrate the season with me and the kids. What more could I ask for?

Then I got a phone call from home. One of my favorite people in the world, my uncle is ill. I mean VERY ill. He had a heart attack, and subsequently open heart surgery which included five bypasses, and the repairing of one valve. Things were going well. Until they weren't. He was stable after the surgery and then he just crashed. I don't know how many times he "died" before they were able to bring him back. . . by opening him back up and massaging his heart with their hands. . . the doctors said at this point it will take a miracle for him to live. ----- So all you believers, PRAY!!

To say I am heartbroken is a huge understatement. My uncle has always had a place in my heart. He was in the Navy. He cherishes and values his service, and anyone else who serves too. Then when my brother died, my uncle and I became pen pals of sorts. He is one who enjoys the tradition of the hand written letter. Over the years we've exchanged a few, including one shortly after my brother's passing. He asked me to never share the contents of that letter to anyone. And to this day, I never have. He had been prompted by the short duration of my brother's life and unexpected death, to reflect on his own life. I'm not sure why he chose me to be the one to hear it. Maybe he knew that I would still accept him without judgement, despite the mistakes he's made. Maybe he knew that I would always see the good. And after my daughter was born, he stood as her godfather at her baptism.

Now he lays in the hospital waiting for the inevitable to come. My mother is near hysterical. And here I am. Here I will most likely stay. Normally if we were in the states, all I'd have to do is hop on a plane and I could be there in just a few hours. Being here makes it much more complicated than that. I have the paperwork to get me on the flight list, but the chances of actually getting my kids and myself on a military transport plane this close to Christmas is very slim. Anytime other than the holidays and we'd be good. Nor do we have the money to pay $2,000+ per ticket for me and my two kids to get a commercial flight home. And the kids would have to come. There is nothing else I could do. So here I sit waiting for news. And waiting sucks. It kills me that I can't be there for my mom. She adores her brother. But my dad is there and thats going to have to be good enough. I'm probably not the first spouse out here to have faced this kind of thing. But that doesn't make me feel any better.

Today I can physically feel just how far away I am. I can feel the sadness and the worry across the thousands of miles. Even through the phone I am hyper aware if the measured distance between my loved ones and myself. I've never felt more isolated, more helpless, and more far away from home.