Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face. ~ George Elliot
Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face. ~ George Elliot
I decided to make it a great one and go all out for my birthday this year. Why not?
Most happiness is created–whatever else may be going on. It doesn’t often land on you unexpectedly (though it’s more than wonderful when it does). Since I can’t dine under Michelin stars, I opted for Philippsen stars and planned a splendid meal.
All day the house is full of fantastic smells. Yesterday I baked a lemon cake. This morning I made lemon cream frosting, iced the portion of cake I’d set aside for dessert, and put a sparkler in it.
Resisting a week-long glut of way-way-way too much happiness, I sliced and froze the rest along with 6 additional muffin-sized ones. Who says you can’t make happiness last?
That done I prepped the leek & bacon quiche tarts I plan to have as an appetizer with the 1/2 bottle of Veuve Clicquot I put by. After that I plated a salad of cabbage, Brussels sprouts, radishes and micro greens which I popped into the fridge ready to pull out, dress with a light yuzu, mayo and white balsamic vinegar dressing and serve.
For the main course I enjoyed rolled chicken thighs stuffed with pesto, prosciutto and provolone cheese, breaded in Panko bread crumbs. I finished that with Brussels sprouts caramelized in butter and minced garlic as a side.
For this course I kept a bottle of Meiomi Pinot Noir in reserve in order to stretch the bubbly to the dessert course. Insurance. Just in case.
Gochisosama deshita. There are subtleties within that meaning as well, because gochiso means “luxurious food” or “feast,” even when the meal has been simple. Gratitude is an interesting sentiment. (With my thanks to Edible Communities: Eat Your Words.)
The object of this lesson is to create arrangements suitable for those occasions when people gather around a table, often a dinner table but not always. Normally the arrangement is placed in the center and should suit the size of the table. If people are seated around the table, the maximum height should be about the distance between one’s elbow and fingertips. (Lanky people get more leeway.)
The various elements of the arrangement and the table setting ought to be in harmony and attractive from all angles. However, heavily scented flowers are best avoided. Ideally, if successful, the arrangement should spark conversation. Although, if you’re Japanese or a student of ikebana, you’ll understand that it’s necessary–good manners–to offer comments.
In this instance Sensei wasn’t keen on my choice of container. Still, I saw the opportunity for creating something that was asymmetrical from each point of view with this beautiful ball and its multiple throats.
Each day I was given a packet of branches and flowers ordered for the lesson without any input from me. Though normally quite fragrant, these sweet peas had no scent, and the number of spirea branches used so few as to have no negative affect on the viewer.
In English, Sogetsu School’s tagline reads: The flower becomes me. Google Translate renders the Japanese as Flowers become me. A difference of some significance if one is inclined to dance on the head of a pin.
However, I often wonder whether that’s freighted with cryptic nuances dependent on oblique references to ancient poems.
In English, the flower might turn into me, grow into me, or convert to me. Or it could suit me, fit me, and flatter me. Or does it express me; revealing something of my being and what I am becoming?
The longer I study the art of ikebana, the more frequently I consider these questions.
Part way through my quarantine my friend A and I chat via Skype. I tell her I know that returning a month ahead of schedule without achieving any of the goals I’d set for my Tokyo sojourn was necessary and that I acquiesce to that reality; however, I also feel deep disappointment and loss. Even so, thinking that my loss doesn’t compare to the loss of a loved one or a job due to the virus, I acknowledge that others suffer much more than I do.
A says: There is no hierarchy of loss. A loss is a loss. To think that others have it worse is pointless.
It’s one of the most validating and consoling things anyone has said to me. It’s true. My loss is a loss. Although I won’t be constantly moaning about it, that doesn’t mean that I won’t feel it deeply. A is right. Belittling a loss (whatever it might be) is not helpful.
Shortly after my conversation with A, D asks via email whether I’m “settled in” to the “new routines” yet. Oh no. Every day still contains some level of surprise. I haven’t experienced several weeks of self-isolation, learned the new protocols at every place of business or acclimatized to the “new routines.”
I uprooted from my normal life in Victoria two weeks before isolation was implemented in BC. While concerns in Japan had risen to the point where the government closed schools and cultural venues for the month of March, in Tokyo business carried on much as usual.
The main difference was the absence of tourists during peak season. However, temples, shrines, parks, shops and restaurants were open, although the ones I frequented were doing about one third of their usual business and struggling to hang on. It was relatively easy to keep distances and manage risks as I didn’t have to commute in packed trains.
Then in the midst of that uncertainty as Tokyo’s numbers began to rise day by day, the Olympic Games were postponed. Talk of lockdown became more frequent. As I had no desire to hole up in a 300 square foot apartment only to serve a second quarantine the moment I landed in Canada, I made the wrenching decision to return.
Though I made every effort to use the quarantine period wisely and enjoy it, those conditions are hardly conducive to “settling in.” Then, after my confinement ended mere days ago, I faced the new constrictions governing every action I need to take in order to meet my most basic needs. It’s as if I have returned to a foreign country.
Worse, and perhaps most shocking is the behavior of people. If they pass closer than 2 meters (for all of 2 seconds), they no longer stop to engage in conversation, but hold their breath and scurry past. Sometimes they cringe and draw away. Some even gasp and cry out. Overworked and distressed checkout clerks who must sanitize the conveyor belt between each customer no longer engage in the pleasantries that were once a cheery aspect of Victoria life.
After a few days of that sort of freedom, I’m definitely not settled. While my home is comfortable and comforting, the isolation and changes at every level are additional losses I’ve yet to integrate into the whole. It will take time.
Never mind. Many times I have counted blessings through my tears. I’ve always chosen to do my best and make the best of grim situations. Eventually I adjust. I can do it again. That doesn’t mean it is easy.
This afternoon, about an hour after I finished the old-fashioned, Mennonite-style spring cleaning I gave my home during week two of my quarantine period; I received an email from the Government of Canada informing me that it was over.
As I consider what was different about my life during 14 days of Federally Ordered Quarantine and days prior to C-19, at first it seems not much.
Though I will be able to drive, shop for myself and go for walks, the news is not a Get Out of Jail Free card.
Self-isolation remains necessary. Major changes will be part of the new normal:
Anything else I might get into is what I usually do and maintained while under quarantine.
However, what I noticed (even before I left Tokyo where I was taking extra precautions) is how much more energy I consume as I use strategies to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading the virus.
However, all of these are minor moves in a long game. As it seems we are going to be stuck in isolation limbo for some time to come, we have the time to realize the multiple levels on which this invisible threat changes—even devastates—everything. Despite all the “virtual togetherness” and stories of human kindness which emerge in the flood of negative news, eventual outcomes remain uncertain for us all.
In the meantime, as we wait for the sword to fall I’ve decided to paint the main bathroom, kitchen and trim. Before I moved in to my present home in 2019, I replaced the carpets and painted the rest of the walls. However, I left the remainder for a time when I had less to do. That time is now.
A week ago I arrived at my “place of quarantine” in the early evening (about the same time I left Tokyo on the same day).
Immediately I place my luggage on the enclosed balcony outside my condominium.
There the bags and their contents sit. I wait for the period of time that it can be presumed (according to the best knowledge we have) that any COVID-19 which may have attached during the handling process has perished.
Then, standing in front of the machine, I carefully remove my clothing without shaking it and put it into the washer. Afterwards I sanitize the lid and any areas I have touched on arrival. That done, I step into the shower and scrub the way people are instructed to do before day surgery.
Once I put on my pajamas I establish clear red and green zones in my home. Only then, wearing gloves, do I remove any items from my bags that I need to use immediately. I thoroughly sanitize those and scrub my rubber gloves the way you’re supposed to scrub hands after I am done. Why? The virus lives longest on rubber gloves and hard plastic surfaces.
After that, I relax with a splendid single-malt while answering email and checking the news of the past 36 hours.
A neighbour who’s been keeping an eye on my place for insurance purposes has put a carton of milk in the fridge before my arrival (which also gets sanitized). I have coffee and oatmeal on hand, so I am okay until breakfast. After that I need to solve the problem of an empty fridge.
The restrictions expressly forbid getting my own groceries even though the person getting them for me might very well be one of the 25% who spread the disease without having symptoms, or be in the stage of the disease before symptoms show. But rules never cover everything.
Or coughs from other shoppers may have deposited the virus on anything in the store. The Finns have put a very creepy cough cloud animation on the web showing how far and how long the droplets travel. Normally, a healthy immune system takes that invisible stuff in and makes short shrift of it; however, we’re way beyond “normal” now. Without testing, we are wise to presume that everyone and everything is contaminated and behave accordingly. This is how people with compromised immune systems live all the time. The rest of us are waking up.
Saturday morning I call Thrifty’s home delivery service and explain my situation. The cheerful woman on the phone says: Oh yes. We can help. Do you have an account with us? No? Well, you go online, open an account and then early Tuesday—as early as possible—you put in your order. We only take orders on Tuesdays. We don’t, however, guarantee delivery before Thursday.
Yikes! Houston we have a problem. That’s six days without groceries.
Plan B: Before I left Tokyo a few people had offered to help with groceries and such on my return. However, for various reasons when I contact them, they are not able to fill and deliver a list of groceries for me. I begin to consider how I might create a disguise with my old eyeglasses, a baseball cap and mask, go out after dark when my neighbours are not likely to be out and about, and shop at a store not in my neighbourhood. Of course, I risk being caught and fined. But when weighed against 2 liters of milk, 500 grams of coffee and 500 grams of oatmeal to tide me over for 6 days, it seems my only option.
Of course, I would leave my phone at home as it could be tracked—and I had considered providing my Japanese phone number on arrival for exactly that reason. It’s possible that the officers scanning my information might not hone in on the 080 prefix as foreign, but in the end I thought better of it. I don’t want people in uniform on my case for any reason at any time. If noticed, they’d suspect I had something to hide and then things get even more complicated. However, my wicked plan has another hiccough. The transaction will show up on my credit card.
However, I have one person left on the list of those who have offered help. My last resort before undertaking my desperate clandestine operation. Fortunately L comes through. On Sunday she arrives with three bags of groceries and 4 liters of milk. I pass her a cheque in a Ziploc bag (which she can sterilize before removing the cheque which has not been in a red zone at any time).
Then the groceries go straight to the red zone. I sanitize each item before storing it. This is why I have ordered only items which can be properly scrubbed in soapy water.
In the following days I get myself sorted. I leisurely prepare and store the food I’ve received in single portions and for later use in various recipes. Usually I purchase smaller quantities, but I need to adapt to less frequent trips to the grocery store. Might as well start now.
I make comforting meals in quantities that I can enjoy immediately as well as freeze for later.
Frankly, though some say it gets harder with age, this has been the easiest bout of jetlag in the more than 22 years I’ve been traveling between Canada and Japan. Thankfully, I get to spend the quarantine order in my serene home and can enjoy online connections with friends. I can’t imagine a quarantine confined to a cruise ship cabin, military barracks or third-rate hotel as others have endured.
Except for a digestive system that resists the transition to the new time zone, my energy is great. I miss walking most. I would love to hop in the car and visit a park or beach during these glorious spring days.
However there’s always something to occupy my time. Whatever it is always takes longer now because I need to be mindful of whether my hands are red or green at any given time.
I know, I know. It’s early days but so far so good.
Nothing, absolutely nothing went as meticulously planned. Almost every aspect of my Tokyo experience was a disappointment or challenge of an order that tested every ounce of grace I could muster while trying to maintain a Buddha mind.
Even so I had an amazing experience. It was not unlike going to a restaurant wishing to eat a certain dish and the chef sends out something else. It was not what I ordered and not what I really, really, really was dying to eat; however, it was beyond delicious.
When I disembarked from Air Canada flight 004 I was well rested. I’d had a great sleep, I was in wonderful spirits, and I had a deep level of serenity (good thing) in spite of facing a 6-hour layover in an empty airport with only a Starbucks, a couple of junk food joints and one newsstand open. I got through Customs without any difficulty after which I was directed to the Quarantine Officer to my right.
Wishing to fully understand what I would face on my return (which was significantly different from what I could enjoy in Tokyo), I’d read the Federal Quarantine Order. It contained comprehensive pointers, but not everything I might or might not be permitted to do was clearly spelled out.
I approached the officer with a smile and a cheery good morning. He handed me a piece of paper and sternly told me that I was now under a federally ordered quarantine, to go straight home and follow the instructions on the sheet.
Thinking I’d get Brownie points for my thoughtfulness I said: Thank you. I read the quarantine order online before I left Tokyo. However, I have a couple of questions.
Yes, go ahead.
Am I permitted to be alone in my car and go for a drive?
No. Stay at home means stay at home. What if you had an accident? What if you ran out of gas?
This was delivered in a tone that said: What part of stay at home do you not understand?
First, though I refrained from saying so, the document does not say to stay at home. The sheet he handed me read: Go directly to your place of quarantine without delay and stay there for 14 days from the date you arrive in Canada. Do not go into community settings.
Second, there are many types of places where one might be quarantined which are not addressed in the instructions. Parts of the order deal with what to do if more than one person lives in that place; however, the directions make numerous assumptions and are somewhat vague.
Third, the document spells out how to fill up with gas if you are driving yourself to your “place of quarantine.” That “what if” is covered. As for accidents, those can happen in any “place of quarantine” as easily as on the road. The logic of his answer didn’t fly.
My lips were Buddha’s lips, but in that moment I was not quite of Buddha mind.
There is nothing like a uniformed toad with a particular presumption of his own privilege and demigod, daddy-o mindset whose most vigorous form of exercise in the past 40 years has been wagging his finger at others to test the Buddha mind.
I had other legitimate questions but refrained from asking any of them. He’d only think me an impertinent smart ass. It was safer to plead ignorance after the fact should I ever need to do so. Instead, I said with much more sweetness than was in my heart: Sir, please understand that I am not challenging you. I am merely clarifying what the rules are—exactly—so that I can be sure to obey them and not make mistakes.
Even though the intel on this particular virus, it’s character and measures we should take to minimize risks to ourselves and others changes by the hour, I understand the protocols of establishing and maintaining red and green zones in my home as well as minimizing the risks to all concerned very well. I’d been practicing them in my Tokyo home for weeks. This dude probably leaves the seat up—but I digress.
If he were less steeped in ignorance and puffed up by his costume he should have operated under the assumption that his breath may well have contaminated the very paper he had just given me with COVID-19. Frankly, we must assume everything we touch needs to be sanitized. But that’s not quite the level of consciousness we’re at. We’re getting there. The question is: Are we getting there fast enough?
After their brief moment of glory, once the leaves burst green among the pale sakura blossoms, the combined colours often appear dusty and unremarkable against late winter’s brown hillsides. The magical phenomenon so long awaited is all but past.
The Narita Express creaks, clacks, groans and sways toward the airport. I am the only passenger in the car.
When I pass through Tokyo Station the platform is empty. However, once the NEX glides into the countryside farmers alongside the tracks prepare the rice fields. A reassurance of sorts that some things—at least for the moment—might remain the same.
At Terminal 1 I am the only person to disembark from the 12-car train.
Small clusters of employees at various kiosks try to look busy. Though signs ask people to maintain a distance of 2 meters, in one area young employees in smart uniforms are cleaning the wheel chairs. Not one chair each and 2 meters apart, but 5 people on one chair polishing the spokes, wiping the seat, sanitizing the arms, polishing the tires. Social clumping is the norm here. Social distancing will take a while to catch on.
I get my bearings, pick up my suitcases from Yamato Transport and make my way to the Air Canada check-in counter. As I hand the large suitcase over I tell the attendant who hoists it onto the scale that I know it’s overweight. I’ll pay for it.
You’re okay, it’s only 49.9, he says. Whew! I’m shocked. Is he giving me a break? I’ll take it. In a few seconds he tags the bags and I am on my way to the shopping and restaurant sections with lots of time prior to security check-in and boarding. I use the time to walk and enjoy a meal of wagu beef.
I drink a glass of wine and watch the sun do her best to look cheerful behind the haze. No crimson glory from her tonight. The faded sakura trees along the far side of the runway stand up straight, but I can see their heart isn’t in it. Not honne. Only tatemae.
Clearing security involved no line up whatsoever, just a few stragglers dumping stuff into bins, then onward to a quick stamp at the immigration/customs wicket. Everywhere personnel outnumber the passengers.
Once through the doorway and looking for the direction of my departure gate the gentleman in charge of the Special Assistance vehicle, a gregarious soul about my age, almost prostrates himself asking to drive me.
I meant to refuse until I realized how desperately he needed something to do. Thankfully my silvery hair might make the charade believable, and if anyone wished to quibble I did have a broken heart. Not every affliction is visible.
The aircraft’s departure was delayed by two hours. The sun beat into the seating area so I moved to an empty area on the opposite side to charge my phone. The last thing I wanted at this stage was to be denied boarding because I looked feverish.
However, no one checked with validating instruments. Just a verbal question as to whether I felt sick or had symptoms. Who would answer truthfully if they had? Besides, the 25% shedding the virus without symptoms are as dangerous as the ones who are ill.
But wash your hands anyway.
At the time I regretted the wagu beef with its unnecessary sweet sauce as it was less than the best I’ve had. However, I was grateful for it as it beat the boxed potato salad sandwich, mini-Toblerone chocolate bar and bottle of water in-flight dinner service.
No pillows. No blankets. But with only 150 passengers on board, unless traveling as a couple or family, individual passengers enjoy three seats each. After dinner I belt in loosely from the middle seat, take a sleeping pill, curl up and dream a conversation with the COVID-19 virus.
An hour out of Vancouver we receive a dry croissant, a cup of fruit and a bottle of water. No coffee service. At 10:30 AM our craft lands and settles into stillness like a swan on water. The sleep has left me refreshed and my second April third begins. Twenty-four hours earlier I had been walking around my Tokyo neighbourhood storing pictures in my heart and on my camera.
Heading toward the customs area I pause as I always do in front of Susan Point’s ‘Flight,’ which holds the record as the largest spindle whorl—oddly symbolic in an uncharacteristic way now.
Then with tears in my eyes I turn to face the five-meter Musqueam Welcome Figures at the bottom of the stairs. Who knows when they might greet me this way again?
Then late in the afternoon of this second chance at a day I depart for Victoria into watery sun-drenched skies at the same time I was scheduled to leave Tokyo.
The journey is done. Federally ordered quarantine, the new reality begins.
Some years ago I worked through the “Proust Questionnaire.” I keep the questionnaire on my desktop and revisit it sometimes to see what might have changed. I did so tonight because the computer threw the draft of this post on top which gave me pause. Was there something I was supposed to remember?
Of course there was. The question asked: When and where were you happiest? My answer: When the first story I ever pitched became a 4000-word feature in Kyoto Journal: Perspectives from Asia, when I got my first assignment from The Globe and Mail, and when I attended ikebana classes three days a week at Sogetsu Kaikan in Tokyo.
That answer remains the same. I’m not necessarily unhappy elsewhere, but that’s when and where I was/am happiest.
Tonight a fierce wind howls outside and sometimes rattles the windows. Again and again sirens wail into the night. Earlier, before sunset, I walked among the sakura trees as the petals streamed from the branches. After waiting through the winter for that ephemeral sign of spring, in what seemed like an eye blink it went from burst to bust.
Tuesday I booked my tickets to Vancouver and Victoria. Wednesday I shipped two suitcases to the airport with Yamato Transport. I bade far too many goodbyes and savored the last beautiful meals I’ll enjoy for a long while. Today, more of the same, but because it was my last full Tokyo day I drank champagne.
Some days ago before departure was on my mind, I noticed a sign and snapped a photo as I often do.
I hope so. When I think that in less than 60 hours I will be under quarantine and unable to leave my property, it will be a new perspective. I’ll give you that. Will it be bright? Who can say?
The potential of a Tokyo lock down increases as the numbers of C-19 cases escalate. On my arrival 4 weeks ago Japan was an outlier compared to the rest of the world. Or that was the party line while the 2020 Olympic Games were still at stake.
Now that those are off the table, over the past 5 days numbers of cases have risen drastically daily. If that plays out as expected mathematically and has been observed elsewhere in the world, in two weeks’ time those numbers could be thirty times the daily totals seen now.
Sogetsu School will most likely not open April 15 as hoped. If by some miracle it did, it would only close again during Golden Week, the first week of May which is an annual national holiday. Even if the pandemic should de-escalate (a most unlikely outcome), classes will not open before mid-May, if then.
My private teacher should not risk her health traveling between her home and her studio and frankly, neither should I. It’s also pointless to sit in my room in Tokyo with nothing to do as well as face possible isolation or quarantine with similar prospects both here and the moment I land in Vancouver. Therefore, this morning with a sorrowful heart I booked a return flight to Victoria on Friday, 3 April.
There was so much I anticipated which did not come to pass.
Very fortunately, the private teacher who took me on gave me an intense boost and pushed me forward in our brief time together. But more than anything, I ache with the deep disappointment of not being able to finish the main thing I came here to do—complete Level 5 of the Sogetsu coursework. As amazing as that aspect of Tokyo’s appeal is, not being able to enjoy the many artistic and cultural events which I so wished to see was secondary.
I followed my heart and invested much time and energy to make it happen. You do that for love. For most of 2019 I lived dreaming of stepping back into my Tokyo life: school and a vibrant city with endless opportunities on offer. And for a moment I have lived (mindfully and intensely) a fraction of that dream, but not at all the way I imagined or wished.
More heartbreaking, I doubt that I will be back. I dipped deep into my savings to return this time because I longed for it so much. Ikebana studied at the source is quite beyond anything that it is elsewhere.
That said, as sorrows go it’s better to bring them on—combine the jet lag with the mandatory quarantine and get the grieving started. It’s more important now to channel my energy to protect the things that matter most—my physical, mental and spiritual health, and perhaps even my life.
Shifting priorities as circumstances change is not the same as defeat—not when something which seemed central to my purpose a month ago has become a kind of burden. It would be misguided to hold on.
A feral cat howls incessantly outside my window, and its voice articulates everything I feel.
However, just as the ethereal petals afloat on the wind find their rest, I too must let go.