Category Archives: Empathy

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

Happy Days

I have some good news.  Last week my son proposed to his girlfriend, and she said yes.  Not that there was any doubt.  It’s just the latest positive development in his life.

The reason I ever launched this blog was because, five years ago, he was in prison. In addition to the predictable emotions like despair, I felt relief that I now would know where his was, and deep shame.  Counterintuitively, it made sense for me to write about it for all the world to read.

He entered prison a drug addled, bloated, overweight, broke, middle-aged chronic alcoholic.  This was just the latest in a 20-year string of bouts with unemployment, homelessness, crime, and broken relationships.

It would have been easy for him to use drugs and alcohol inside, but Vince chose to be sober in prison.  He also started writing alternate posts for this blog.  They were heart breaking, hilarious, and articulate.

He made it through an intensive “boot camp” program, where he worked on self-discipline, attitudes, and thinking processes.  He also started running, something he hated but continues to this day.

He came home a little over four years ago and moved in with me.  That was rough.  He dated a woman but it didn’t work out.  He got a job in a laminating factory and moved in with a couple guys who were also trying—some successfully and some not—to stay sober.  He started his own blog.  He bought my beloved old Mini Cooper from me.  He dated another woman but it didn’t work out.

Two years ago, he was offered a cook job at a country club on Lake Minnetonka.  That’s where he laid eyes on Amanda for the first time, and it was love at first sight.  He moved in with Amanda and her two young daughters.  From the start, he has been all-in on parenting.  He can now put “expert in potty training” on his resume.

One year ago he bought a house in the tiny town of Silver Lake. He traded the Mini for a minivan.  He worked with me to publish the first year of this blog as a book.  He applied for better jobs, and in the end was offered a great promotion at the country club.

The girls’ father is under a two-year no-contact order.  Vince has supported Amanda as she has courageously fought to finalize her divorce, custody, and child support arrangements.  Last month Vince and Amanda were awarded full custody.  The three-year-old calls him daddy.

In court, Vince made a statement to the girls’ father—that if and when he gets his act together, Vince and Amanda will work with him to welcome him back into the girls’ lives.  The guy thanked him.  I was very proud of Vince.  A lot of men wouldn’t have done that.

Here they are, at the country club where Amanda works, after the big proposal.

In June he’ll mark his five-year sobriety anniversary.  They’ll be hitched in August.

All of this is to say that very few situations are ever hopeless.  Similar to my own story, it didn’t happen overnight and it took a combination of working hard as hell and letting go.  Vince has plugged away, working his program, trying new things, taking risks, sometimes failing, but mostly moving forward.

In three weeks I’ll be in Japan.  I still feel way behind on the planning.  I created a Google docs spreadsheet to try to keep track of it all and it looks a mess.  I’ve got six out of eight accommodations booked.  I’ve got my JR Rail Pass in hand.  I’m finally able to retain some place names from one day to the next.

Progress, not perfection.  One of the AA slogans that is good to keep in mind whether one is an addict or not.

Last night as I was reading about Japanese baths again (I worry about the baths and the shared bathrooms), I was struck by how many iconic cultural traditions Japan has given to the world: origami, sumo, haiku, sushi, manga, anime, samurai, geisha, bonsai, and Zen.  There are probably more.  Is there another country that has created or adapted so many traditions that are recognized worldwide?

Good Bye

It’s been a month since my last post.  I was going to get back into regular writing about travel—specifically my upcoming month in Japan—but life intervened.

Two nights ago I felt my aunt’s wrist and neck for a pulse while she took her last breaths.

She chose to start hospice services after a year of chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy didn’t cure her cancer but only stripped everything out of her life that made it worthwhile—she stopped reading, attending ladies lunches, knitting, and over-posting on Facebook.

And so a month ago a nurse and an aide started coming to her home once a week, then twice, then 3-4 times, and in the end it was every day plus a private carer.

My cousin Molly, who lives nearby, was there almost 24/7; her brother came from Madison and stayed for the last 10 days. My sister and I made the one-hour drive every other day and alternated overnights.

After two weeks, a hospital bed was installed in the livingroom.  She gradually stopped eating and drinking.  As the pain advanced she receded.  Tylenol and oxycodone were bolstered with morphine and fentanyl.  I know there’s an opioid epidemic, but believe me if you are dying and in pain they are miracle drugs.  She had said she preferred to be lucid over being drugged-up, but that’s easy to say in the beginning.

As her conscious moments became fewer, I admired her practicality and acceptance.  There was no drama, philosophizing, or protesting.  I think I might be a quivering mass, crying and pissed off and asking, “Why! Why?”

She suffered anxiety as death neared—who wouldn’t?  But it was manifested in physical restlessness, and for that there was another drug, and yet another drug for nausea.  She would have hated that other people were performing functions for her that she could not—like applying balm to her lips and swabbing the inside of her mouth.

One of the hardest things was hearing other people cry, like my aunt’s 80-year-old cousin, a former cop.

Molly, on whom the lion’s share of the care had fallen, found inner resources to do things she had sworn she would never do.  We all did.  It takes a village to help someone leave this life.

When our anguish over her suffering peaked, we would consult a brochure provided by the hospice team.   Turns out, dying is a predictable process—except for the timeline.

At the last moment, I had turned off the oxygen pump that had been producing a steady kah-khoosh … kah-koosh soundtrack.  My cousins and I were standing in the kitchen talking about who would want such-and-such household items: the memorabilia from my aunt and uncle’s long careers at a private college, the cut-glass pickle boat, the bisque statuette of a shepardess who had stood on the mantel for decades.  We managed to laugh a bit, probably from sheer exhaustion.

Suddenly we realized she wasn’t breathing.  We watched, frozen, as seconds ticked by.  She gasped and inhaled.  We moved to her bedside and I took her wrist, then felt her neck for a pulse.  She took a few more breaths, then stopped.  I wanted to cry out, “Don’t go!” but my boy cousin was saying, “It’s okay mom, you can go now.”  And of course he was right.

These thoughts run through my head: “She was 89, she lived a good life.  She was your aunt, not your mother.  This shouldn’t hit you so hard.”

But our families grew up three houses apart.  My aunt and mother shared a job for a while and alternated child care. We ran in and out of each other’s houses and went to the same schools. As an adult, I drove up to spend a night or two with my aunt and uncle and cousin on a regular basis.

During her “wave of energy” (see booklet), I told her I had always appreciated how I was able to just be myself around them.  She said, “You’ve been like a second daughter to me.”  I didn’t’ say it but I thought, You haven’t been like a mother to me.  You’ve been a great aunt. 

Never underestimate your value as an aunt or uncle or cousin.

Despair Down Under

I can’t stop thinking about the mass shootings in New Zealand.  I won’t use the real name of the shooter; I’ll just call him the Little Man.

The professors and pundits on the News Hour had this to say about it: This is just the latest and it won’t be the last terrorist attack that is part of an international “White Power Movement.”

This is the issue of our age.  There are 25 million refugees in the world right now—more than at any time since the end of World War II.  That doesn’t include displaced people (40 million), who are those who are still in their own country but who have fled their homes due to war or natural disaster.  It doesn’t count economic migrants (untold millions) who have left their countries to seek work elsewhere.

All this movement brings people into contact with others who are different from themselves.  Or it just creates the impression of it; we all see caravans and individual refugees, immigrants, and migrants in our newsfeeds.

People like Little Man aren’t crazy.  They don’t spring up at random.  They don’t have any original ideas or philosophies.  They may not know one another personally, but they connect online and read each other’s “manifestos,” as LM called his.  They’re just plain racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic men.

And there’s the demographic commonality—they’re all men.

I think about the little boys I tend at the YMCA child care center.  There’s the three-year-old who waits by the front door, wearing his Superman cape, saying, “Mommy come back?” over and over in his plaintive, squeaky voice.  When mommy does come to pick him up, he exclaims, “Mommy here!” as though she is even more exciting to see than Superman.  There are baby boys and toddlers who want to be picked up and held, and rocked, and hugged.  Until they get to be about five, they play with girls as easily as boys, seemingly unaware of any differences.

Eighteen years from now, will they be punching their girlfriends, slapping their kids, kicking their dogs, and charging into houses of worship or college campuses or government buildings with assault rifles?

One night another three-year-old boy came to me, pointed to another boy, and whined, “That brown kid took my ball!”  I told him to go get another ball.  I didn’t try to lecture him about his use of the word “brown” because I knew he was being literal and descriptive, not racist.  And he was only three.  In 20 years, will he be marching in White Power parade with a torch, yelling hateful slogans?

What happens between four and 20?  There must be experts who know how we could interrupt the transformation of innocent children into hate mongers.

A faster intervention would be changed gun laws.  Little Man is Australian.  I’m guessing he moved to New Zealand because guns are easier to be had there.  There are three guns for every human in New Zealand. After a mentally-ill gunman killed 35 people in Tasmania in 1996, Australia restricted ownership of semi-automatic rifles and  shotguns and pump-action shotguns and reformed licensing.  The government held a mandatory gun buy-back in which Aussies handed in 643,000 firearms.

I have many friends and relatives who are a lot more liberal than I am.  I have never heard any of them propose that we rescind the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which says, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This is the “slippery slope” smokescreen used by the NRA and its members to block even the smallest, most sensible gun law change.

I idealized Australia. I thought it was kinder and gentler than the US.  But out of 25 million people there are bound to be those who believe being white makes them superior.

It’s easy to despair and feel powerless.  This is when I remind myself of the words from the Talmud: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, no one expects you, personally, to change gun laws or teach all boys empathy, but you can and should do something.

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

Explorers, Convicts, and National Sorry Day

Are you familiar with the Morrissey song, “Throwing My Arms Around Paris?” I hear it in my head sometimes when I am throwing myself out into a city—joyfully embracing as much as humanly possible in however much time I have.  The actual song is a downer, obviously—it’s Morrissey after all, the miserablist. But I re-mix it in my head to be uplifting.

I visited the RBG every day for three days.  There’s that much to see and do, and it’s just a lovely, peaceful oasis in the middle of the big city.

On my first day I caught a walking tour.  The morning was fresh from a night rain and the sun had not yet burned the heavy dew off the leaves.

My group included some Canadians, Melbournians, and Germans.  The guide was giving her first tour and said she was nervous.  She was still getting used to holding laminated photos of flowers and referring to them; they were upside down for her.  She was doing her best but kept saying, “I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to check it later.”

She thought this astounding tree was from South Africa.

After 20 minutes I carved off into an inviting-looking dark path through thick trees.  Have I mentioned I was enamored with the trees?  I emerged to see this banyan with knobs drooping downward; they would become buttresses for the growing tree.

What I hadn’t expected to find in a garden were story lines about three important populations in Australia’s history—explorers, Aboriginals, and convicts.

There was a garden named for Daniel Solander, a Swede who sailed with Captain Cook on The Endeavor around the Pacific and collected 17,000 species of plants, 900 of them from Australia.  Most of those were found around Botany Bay, just five miles from where I was standing.

He did this 70 years before Charles Darwin made his famous voyage on The Beagle. Solander didn’t live to read Darwin’s Origin of the Species; he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at age 49.

Next I crossed what appeared to be a dinky, unremarkable bridge over a tiny stream.  But no!  It was built over culvert of “high cultural significance” built by convicts in 1816 so the Governor’s wife could cross the stream in her carriage.

I turned around to find about 15 placards about Aboriginal history.  I already knew about the 1967 vote in which white Australians decided to count Aboriginal people in the census for the first time.  I guess it took that long for them to decide that Aboriginals were actual humans.

I didn’t know there had been a Freedom Ride in Australia in 1965, similar to the ones in the US about five years earlier.

I was pleased to see that one of the leaders had a Jewish name—Spigelman.  When I Googled him I learned he had immigrated to Australia from Poland as a three-year old with his parents, who were Holocaust survivors.  His parents are featured in the graphic novel about the Holocaust called Maus, by his American cousin Art Spiegelman.

Spiegelman was born in Sweden after the war.  His five-year-old brother had been poisoned by their aunt, who then poisoned herself, in order to save them from being taken by the Nazis.  It gets worse, believe it or not.

I have Maus sitting on my bookshelf.  If everyone was required to read Maus, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I wonder if we would ever have another war.

Spigelman went on to become an Australian Supreme Court Justice and patron of many humanitarian and arts causes including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It’s no surprise that Jews are overrepresented in human rights causes.  But why should it take something as horrific as surviving a Holocaust to motivate people?

Lastly, I was moved to tears to learn that Australia has a National Sorry Day, which “gives all Australians an opportunity to express their sorrow” about the stolen generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families “for their own good.”

Wow, who expected so much sad stuff in a botanical garden?

I hastened toward a more uplifting exhibit, about carnivorous plants.

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.