Isolation in Japan

When have I felt isolation in Japan?
Not in the train. Not in the warmth of the morning rush, standing with the other coma-quiet,
commuting bodies, white wires winding down from every ear. Outside observers may see weary,
worn workers, but within it is serene, a silent space, a place to meditate, to dream.
When have I felt isolation in Japan?
I feel it as I age. As I move further away from the typical, ink fresh on their diplomas, gap-year
group who see Japan as a place of adventure before their real life begins. I feel it whenever I
struggle to connect to my community, when my community is so young, so drunken, club-crazed,
when we lack even a generation in common.
When have I felt isolation in Japan?
Not in the flow of the unfamiliar – scenery, speech, seasons. Daily transit feels like travel.
There is the thud of taiko in my heart. Freed from distractions, I scribble or sleep as
incomprehensible conversations fade into white-noise. I eagerly await hanami drinks, kakigori,
maron cream cakes, Melty kiss and anything kikan gentei.
When have I felt isolation in Japan?
When I walk through customs in Coolangatta Airport, Gold Coast, Australia. When I feel the
awful, self-loathing taste of counter culture-shock, when everything at home seems strange,
frustrating, dirty, slow, bogan. When I realise the Australians I know in Japan, are different than the
Australians I meet in Australia. Have been changed, Japanised, readjusted, or brainwashed to better
fit their host culture, while slowly losing touch with their own. As have I.
When have I felt isolation in Japan?
Sometimes people are born into their homes. Sometimes they must move before they find
them. The guilt isolates my heart. Sometimes people you should have the most in common with fail
to. The frustration isolates my soul.
Then other times, while watching from a warm, well-timed train, the morning light paints
Osaka city into a picture. I don’t feel isolated. I feel that here, I fit. Firmly, fully, family. Finally.

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Blades of Grass

We, the last warriors of the world,

see our war-shattered realm as a was, and an is, and a what might yet be.

Strong is our connection.

The ones before had tears that dried in a barren land.

Only memories to tempt the blackened earth to sprout colour,

tendrils of greenery, and life, and wonders

that only exist in memories.

Our children will finally wash the blood from the stones.

Coax more than memories from this land,

that still skims along the tipping point,

still yet hoping for the sky’s return,

for soft, growing soil,

for grass.

The blades of grass daring to remain sprout from endless mounds of charred soil.

They have withstood all, bending, but not broken despite the heedless winds, despite the careless flames,

despite the tread of our oblivious feet.

We, the last of the chosen race, dominant beings of Earth,

sit in the ashes and fragments of our kin,

teaching morality tales, and myths of an ocean of people,

feasting on a river of food,

turning the world into a swamp of the rejected.

Dust in our mouths, the bitter fruit of knowledge.

Our war fought so long, the cause we have forgotten.

Lullaby a protest song, trying to remember the words.

Believe that that blood is thicker than water, neither should ever be spilt.

We, staggering survivors, witnesses of the fierce four steeds,

promised today to never deprive another of what we would not deprive ourselves.

To never behold tragedy and proclaim,

I have no power to relieve you of your suffering.

Though it took us to suffer to realise.

Lest we forget, must remind of not of who we lost, but why.

The reason of our pain, though not the sting of it,

gives us hope enough to sprout without fearing the fire.

For sprout we must.

We.

Nothing separates us now.

No status of humankind, no adornment of the skin.

There is nothing but the firm grip of one hand on another,

and the worth of the words we barter among ourselves.

Green with life as from the dead we rise.

We. Us.

We are the blades of grass.

Funky

The house is painted in Communist colours,

its glass is frosted, the panes are closed.

The tin roof is rusted around the rivets,

and the khaki walls resemble wet cardboard.

It has a front row seat to a river of bitumen in flood.

Its neighbours fix drill parts,

and around its skirts cluster the non-recyclable scrag of take-away societies.

The house is empty, old and forgotten.

But…

It could be funky.

The Disagreement

“I’m sorry it had to end this way.”

“Me too. “

We turned in opposite directions. I trudged, and skipped faster in turns, blood pounding in my ears, making me dizzy. I knew that difference existed in the world, but I hadn’t realised it was as close as my street, as close as my best friend before.

All the dogs, in all the white houses with their well kept lawns, barked and growled as I passed, some even trying to attack me through the fence. I could hear the dogs in the distance barking at her too.

At least in this we are the same. I thought, kicking a stone towards one of the fences.

Mum looked up from her washing, surprised to see me home so early. She frowned as I told her I’d had a disagreement with Marie.

“I thought you two had so much in common.”

“So did I! We both like maths, both play goal defender for our team… she bought me those long pencils for my birthday and we shared the pack. I can’t understand how we can think so differently!”

“It’s an unfortunate fact of life, love. Why do you think we’ve moved so many times? Do you remember all the crazy neighbours we’ve had?”

“I remember when we left the town with all the cat people.”

“Yes! What an awful, smelly place that was. We really needed to find other like minded dog-owners. I just love walking around this neighbourhood! Knowing that every dog nearby is capable of crushing a human skull in its jaws makes me feel so secure. Do you remember the town where it was unpatriotic not to grow vegetables? You couldn’t play soccer because they didn’t believe in grass.”

I remembered eating roast pumpkin slices with olive oil, liking the taste of fresh tomatoes for the first time, and learning how to catch fireflies in early summer. I felt disloyal reminding Mum of that though.

“They taught us the nutrients in different animals’ manure.”

She shuddered appreciatively at my contribution. “Oh yes! Somewhat of an analogy for our attempts to plant ourselves. So many variations, but all of them… hmmmm, bit blue for this time of the afternoon.” She turned back to her dish-washing. “In any case, you just can’t argue that lawn isn’t the best frontage for a neat home. It was honestly easier to move. Once you compromise on one thing, the end is Sharia Law enforced Communism – and we don’t want that!”

“I wonder if we will have to move? Or Marie?”

Mum put her cup down with a clank. “Marie, I should think, love. What was the issue?”

My heart began to pound again, my eyes straying to the freezer. I realised suddenly that the whole basis of my disagreement that afternoon had been based off a decision made alone, a few moves ago.

“Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s something we will agree on. You know this family’s values.” Despite her words, Mum’s face had become more grim as she followed my gaze.

“Well… we were going to the store. Marie wanted to buy some ice-cream. I asked what flavour.”

“And?”

“She said chocolate but…”

Mum had opened the freezer. From deep in the back, covered in ice-crystals, she uncovered a small tub of chocolate ice-cream.

“It’s never seemed that important to me before.” She said, looking at the ice-cream rather than me, “But, I never thought I would raise a non-chocolate eater. Where did I go wrong?”

I stood up slowly, as she finally raised her red-rimmed eyes to mine.

“Melly, I want you to go out for a bit, and think on this choice you’ve made. I want you to think if this decision you’ve made is something you really want to drive us apart. Your father and I will be having a long talk about whether we can accept such a perversion of our beliefs in this house, once he gets home from work.”

“But… Mum.” I struggled to speak through my panic, struggled to craft some alibi, a defence, building up to a flat out renouncement of the difference that had suddenly appeared between us.

I lost the moment though, as another fear muddied my thoughts and pushed itself out my mouth: “… How will you find me?”

“Brutus will find you.” There was an answering snuff from the screen-door as Mum’s pet pressed his giant head against the steel, causing tortured squeaks and covering everything in a slime of drool. I had always been afraid of that dog, and the idea of him let loose to seek me out filled me with almost as much dread as the idea that he might never come.

She made me some sandwiches with more tears than words, and clicked the lock behind me as I stepped back out onto the lawn.

My body felt weak. All I wanted to do was sink down into the freshly mown grass. Making it to the end of the driveway was the most difficult, but each successive house with its white fence and snarling dog was so similar, I could trick my mind into believing I was still by my own.

“Hey Melly.”

Marie stood in front of me, plastic bags in hand.

“Um… I’m really sorry I brought up food. My parents always say, “It’s easier to ignore what you don’t know exists, so never talk about politics, religion, sports, television, personal routines or what you want to be when you grow up.” I should have guessed really that food would be part of that list.”

She held out one of the bags. Inside was a small tub of vanilla ice-cream. My favourite.

She had chocolate. My family’s favourite. We sat down on the curb together, cracked open our different tubs, wrapped in their bags so no one else could see, and began to eat in silence. Growls, and squeaks from the dogs around us teased my hopes that Brutus was already on his way. Just wait until I finish. I thought, eating quickly.

The vanilla was so good though I wanted to linger. It was just like I remembered, even if I couldn’t recall exactly the place where I tried it. Just a park, a few dollars in my pocket, and a cart selling only that one flavour of ice-cream.

“I’ve never tried chocolate.” I admit. “What’s it like?”

She shrugs. “Mmm, I don’t know how to describe it. Sweet? I love it, though.”

“Can… can I try some?”

“…sure, if I can I try your vanilla?”

We swapped, both hesitating at the first taste. Chocolate was really good. Almost as good as vanilla.

“Is it possible to like two things?” I asked Marie in a low voice.

She looked around, then leaned in. “I actually like cats… as well as dogs.”

We share a wide-eyed look of shock at ourselves as I admitted, “And small, non-dangerous dogs, too. Mum hates them though. We’ve moved at least twice because of pet issues.” My ears physically twitched at a sudden spate of barking, but it was a postal worker, delivering brown-wrapped boxes.

Marie sighed, “Actually, that’s another reason I came tonight. We might have to go again soon. There was a disagreement at Dad’s work. They found out he says grace after eating, instead of before it. When do you guys do it?”

“Oh… we don’t.”

“Really? I didn’t even know that was an option. Mum said we might have to leave the country for somewhere like Australia where they say grace right.”

Silence fell again, and we swapped back to our original flavours. Soon, the tubs were empty, the guilty contents consumed. My neck was becoming sore from constant scanning of the empty street.

“I hope you can stay. I don’t even care about our disagreement any more. And all the other stuff we probably don’t agree on too.”

“Yeah, we totally should practice disagreeing but staying friends more.”

I jumped at the sound of dogs howling in the distance, but the seemed to receding in the opposite direction. Another false alarm. The sun had sunk to the point that our shadows stretched long down the street, back towards my house to those I hoped even now were leaving the house in search of me.

I would welcome even Brutus right now.

“Melly? You ok? We don’t have to do anything, if you don’t want to.”

“I know. I do want to, though. I want to disagree and stay friends. I want to try stuff, even if I think I might hate it.” The sun began to slip behind the tree-line. My neck hurt, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from the distant end of the road, and the house I had decided was probably, had probably been, my own. “I just don’t know if people can live like that.”

A Changing Wind

Gusting. The wind always seems to be roaring about me. Strong enough to catch at the keys rattling by my hips. Three sharp toothed guardians almost fully covered by flaking red rust, that has migrated to my fingers and is now rubbing off onto the faded folds of my shorts. Digging around in the pocket opposite the ancient keys, I draw out a bunch of my own amid soggy ends of tissues and other scraps that make up the land-fill within my clothes.

Vape awaits me patiently as I struggle with an armful of papers that had come with the keys. Like a cheeky pixie, the zephyrs tug free the rust-stained roll of papers from their vulnerable position under my arm, and several skitter along the pavement with me in frantic chase.

Finally inside the car with a dishevelled heap of documents on the back seat that are important enough to make me run, but which I can’t bring myself to read yet.

Though older, I usually feel that I am in better shape than my car, nicknamed Vape as an unkind allusion to the various coloured (and smelling) vapours it releases, but usually I’m not recovering from an unexpected sprinting session. Some guy, who is otherwise forgotten, remarked once that, like some people and their pets resemble each other, my car and I share striking traits. Neither of us likes to move very fast, are hard to get going, especially in the mornings, and could both probably use a good vacuum. My new acquisitions are covering a mass of, possibly essential, material: last semester’s students’ work, new textbooks to review, sandwich coupons. One day, like Troy, it will be excavated.

The car has lasted me longer than most relationships, and kept me true to my student roots, though these days, in slightly more respectable professorship, it doesn’t get used as much. Instead the partner’s well-groomed, grown-up adult sedan is my serious chariot, within which mess is not tolerated.

This road-trip to Cairns however was an adventure which needed the support of an old friend. In humidity that acts like an unending warm shower, however I did miss the sedan’s air-conditioning.

There is a small, hard envelope amongst the other papers. It feels like it contains photographs, but, like the rest, I am not game to open it quite yet, just deconstruct the meanings of each faded letter on the outside. The graceful cursive, done in ink. Do they still teach cursive in schools? Ink, rather than ball-pen, is he someone with a creative flair, a literary bent? An eccentricity? Is he someone who owns quilted waist-coasts and spends conversations insufferably concerned with the price of premium goose-quill? Will I ask who taught him? Or will such questions fall between us like all the years have?

On the yellowed back are names and dates. It occurs to me that after all this time these may be all that is ever left to me of my son, Scott. I assume June is his wife’s name, followed by (two?) children. Skylar slash Damia. I didn’t spend much time choosing his name, and now my boy is the only one in his family with one so boringly normal.

The envelope and its unopened secrets back on the passenger seat, Vape shakes itself dog-like as it resurrects, and we begin to pull away from Cairns, aimed towards the northern highway.

Pregnant rain-clouds cluster on the hills, still holding jealously to their brood for the moment. Northern Australia colours are so rich after the dried-out stretches down south. How can one ever appreciate so many shades of green? And there is a sense of age, despite the fecundity. This is where the last virgin forest survives, the last echoes of a wild country that existed before dairy farms and cane-fields.

Driving into rainforest, the storm winds rising from the coast quiet a little, hemmed out by the canopy, netted in leaves. I don’t like it. This muggy, slow, breathless feeling of being contained, without clear air or space.

Or maybe that’s just the sign of a building anxiety attack?

What will I say, when he asks me: Why has it taken so long? I sent you the letter years ago.

Well, you see… Could I wordlessly indicate the state of the car, with a shrug to say, can you guess how my house must look? Could we laugh about it? How I almost had thrown away his messages out of sheer unawareness of their existence sandwiched within unpaid journal subscriptions and travel itineraries.

But they were found, and my house suffered through a one-woman cyclone as I scoured for any further missives. But there was (perhaps) only this one, leading me like a treasure map to Cairns, to the old, black-iron post-box containing these keys, an address, a map. Proof of a family of four living somewhere in these hills.

Why does he (did he?) even want to see me? What am I to him? The mother, who at 28, had no excuses regarding lack of funds, or worldly inexperience, to explain handing over her baby. Does it count that I knew the mother I chose for him would be better than me? I gave a child to a barren womb filled with all the maternal vibes I lacked, because I never wanted children. Life is stunningly unfair sometimes, I only sought to redress the balance.

What should I tell him? She asked me, already staring deep into his hazy blue eyes. Whatever you want. I had replied. Leave me out completely, if it makes it easier.

As a teacher, how would I instruct my students to analyse this situation? This sudden driving (nay speeding! Back down to 80, girl!) need to see that infant, now man, again?

Am I doing the right thing?

Vape complains as edge it from the road onto the muddy verge. I kill the engine and just stop a moment. Mosquitoes surge against the windows.

Am I doing the right thing?

There is a roll of papers on the back-seat that might tell me. I flick past the typed letter on top. This is my instinct, my issue, to bypass the boring looking things and stack them in a pile somewhere, always intending to return to them… eventually.

My eye catches colour and finally stops. Crayon drawings. Christmas trees and lumps that are possibly people. Happy Birthday cards. To me.

And between them, smaller and more normal than I would usually look at, letters from Scott. Telling me about his dairy farm, about the difficulties of hiring backpackers, about their hopes to expand next year.

There is eight years worth. Each card from Scott signed by a smaller, smudgy hand, that gets steadier each time.

After absorbing each one, until I could redraw them myself, I flip reluctantly back to read the typed letter. It is from her, his mother in everything but DNA. My anxiety renews.

It is shorter than I expected.

I told him: Your mother is a force of nature. At any time, some part of her is up in the atmosphere so it might take a while to get her attention and you must be patient. But eventually she will come.

Now, I told him that, because I know you won’t make me a liar, and I didn’t promise him anything else. I warn you though, that I think he has plans to convince you to become less mother and more mum.

Sorry if this makes things more difficult for you, but you gave me a gift once. My time has come. I give it back.

With unusual smoothness, Vape slides back onto charcoal coloured highway, and before long, we turn onto a muddy side road, breaking through the gloom of trees to edge ponderously up a scrubby hill. The wind rocks the car in a rough greeting.

There are gates, each one yielding noisily to a different key. We clatter over cattle-grids. The road, sharpened from recent deluges had melted into the grass along it like molten copper. It is, thankfully, a short journey for my off-paved-roads-virgin vehicle.

That must be their house. A typical Queenslander house on stumps, surrounded on all sides with verandahs and a peaked corrugated iron roof at the bottom of a smooth-sloped, midori-coloured valley. A cluster of sheds, paddocks and other farm-like equipment surround it.

Vape stalls outside the last gate. The starter-motor refuses to turn. I can see a blonde bob of hair within the mosquito netted verandah moving around. Suddenly nervous I flip the photo and gaze down again at the smiling couple, my son (so handsome!) is dark-haired, a bit serious looking and definitely a man of the land with his jeans and akubra. Despite the farmer exterior, I can match him to the graceful calligraphy on the front and in the letters. There is a sense of dedication about him, of sticking with things until they become beautiful. June, is light reddish curls and bright, cottons clothes, at the time of this photo healthily into the late stages of her pregnancy. They are framed by this exact scene, even the menacing weather, with newly planted palm tree sprouts (they are quite tall now) by the stairs bent into yoga poses by the wind.

The child is blonde, and quizzical, come half way down the steps of the house, wondering who it is loitering outside the gate. She looks about 8.

Skylar or Damia

Demmie it is then.

Did I bring boots? Nope. My shoes shed mud each step in fat chunks, as I abandon the car, opening the last gate smoothly.

“Mum and Dad around?”

She nods.

“Right then.”

There is a festival game blowing fragments of me around in my gut. Like all the rubbish in my car, and drawers of my desks is flying free. Will they ever settle?

I knock on the door, but she goes to turn the handle. The door sticks. My weathered hands join her smooth ones. It resists us on the first attempt, but a glass rattling gust assists and all together we push it open. It is much cleaner than I would have expected from the house of my offspring.

The palm trees straighten as the wind outside finally calms.

As always, feedback or comments are welcomed. Spelling is Australian.

The Family

He’s been gone too long.

Those in the house, have not forgotten the face,

only the shape of the soul within.

With the awkwardness only a family

of unfamiliar people can have,

they welcomed and withdrew.

His mother, his father, his sisters, his brothers,

fully filling their home with their busy bustling

between buttering bread and placing plates,

the setters and the servers.

While he can only wait, watch,

outside of the rituals and routines,

written off years ago.

And so being apart felt familiar,

more than the noise of his nieces.

He climbs the hill that has always cradled his parent’s house in its lee.

He walks its scrub strewn streets,

its withered winding ways,

well worn when he, when they, walked them.

Explored time over in expeditions to the bedimmed beneaths of bushes;

Over lorded by older sister dynasties;

Devastated for dirty battles and strip-mined for staffs and stick weaponry.

Site of seed collections hoarded, lost, forgotten, sprouted.

He remembers the first time he took time to notice the roughness of a tree,

If he thinks hard, can feel the prickle of remembered bumps

ghosting his fingertips.

He stands by this tree,

Slowly dissolving,

The man’s coat no longer fits.

If he thinks hard he can still remember,

the security he felt inside his father’s car;

the pride in helping his mother’s gardening;

the sting of sibling unfairness,

and the warmth of sibling inclusion that even now in exclusion,

he can feel ghosting him just beneath the skin.

He feels it all so strongly here,

now.

Will it evaporate with the electric lighting, etching away the dark?

But that he could draw them out here between the trees in the dusk,

let the dimness dissolve the face’s features and the differences of the years.

Let loose all nieces,

their screams and chatters like a long echo,

to remind the adults of their story.

Mashed-up, remixed, retold.

Remembered.

This is one of my few poems published in a real book and you can find it in: Elements of time : past, present, future an Accentuate Writers anthology along with many fine authors of short stories and poems.