Posts Tagged ‘winter’

August 9th has been something special to me for quite a long time. When I was 24, August 9th was the day I arrived in Japan to start my adventure teaching English in a Japanese high school. I spent my first day participating in the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

I was a long way from home, and I spoke to my grandfather that night to try to calm my nerves. He had always been reticent to talk about his experiences in World War 2, but that night, separated by thousands of miles, he talked about his own time in Japan. He arrived there in late August 1945, with orders to help rebuild Yokohama, which like much of Tokyo had been destroyed by US bombing raids. (We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as extraordinarily destructive, but the firebombing of Tokyo destroyed half the city and killed 100,000 people. The firebombing of Yokohama killed 35,000 and left every major building in the city destroyed or damaged.)

Until the war, my grandfather had been a farmer, and for much of the war, he was a radio repairman for Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater. Following Japan’s surrender, he was repurposed again as an engineer and construction supervisor. While I was in Japan, I went to Yokohama, where I was able to visit a grade school and a hospital that dated to 1945, and almost certainly would have been reconstruction projects that he oversaw. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet one of the Japanese people he worked closely with, as he had passed away a few years before.

In Japan, I taught at Nagaoka High School, which was the alma mater of Admiral Yamamoto. While I wasn’t teaching, I wandered the countryside and wrote. I wrote so many things, including first drafts of two different novels. Japan is the place where I swore that if it was possible to write books, sell them, and get paid for the work, I would do whatever I could to get there.

It doesn’t hurt that when you’re snowed in somewhere between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range with only 3 television channels, you have plenty of time for writing. The first winter I was in Niigata Prefecture, it snowed over 40 feet. No, that’s not a typo. Snow fall was really in excess of 480″. It snowed every day for four months, anywhere from a couple inches to dozens of inches.

When I learned that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things would be released on August 9, 2016, I was happy, even though it was too late to share that joy with my grandfather, who was the most bookish adult in my life as a child. That day will always carry the ghosts of those who died in Nagasaki, but it also holds a lot of powerful memories for me, including the bond with my grandfather, and now the day my publishing career was well and truly launched.

On this day I often think of the resiliency of humans, and our capacity to rise above obstacles and limitations. I think of my grandfather, far from his wife and newborn son, charged with a task that he was wholly untrained for. Handed a set of blue prints and assigned a Japanese translator and a crew of men, he helped build schools and hospitals. I think of those men, too, and their families, living in the aftermath of a devastating war. My grandfather was part of an occupying army, and yet those men treated him with respect and invited him into their homes, where he shared the modest wealth of his rations and their hope for a better future.

So many things in life are not easy. There is pain, suffering, disappointment, but there is also joy, success, and the bond we share with other people. I hope we can all remember that today.

Bryn and 3 students standing under a cherry tree

Celebrating the end of winter

(If you’re curious a what good old fashioned Nagaoka snow storm looks like, here‘s some footage from 1963 that’s even worse than what I experienced.)

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Wanna go again?

I started writing stories when I was five or six, almost as soon as the basic syntax of English had gelled in my head.  Like any relationship that lasts that long, there have been dry spells and rough spots.  Times when I hated writing and wanted it to stop coming around.  Times when I loved it, stalked it shamelessly, cried and begged it to come back to me.  Best friend.  Worst enemy.  Indifferent neighbor with a dog that barks at 3 am.

Most often, and especially since I started writing novels, it has reminded me of a boy from my home town.  Jimmy was a few years older and rough.  The sort of boy who by sixth grade was taking smoke breaks on the school loading dock with the lunch ladies.

Winter in southwest Kansas is mostly a place brutal wind and no precipitation, a place without hills for sledding.  Every once in a while, we get real snow, deep and luscious.  Snow so deep it turns barns and buses into sledding hills.

I think I was ten, Jimmy thirteen and already gone onto junior high.  A few blocks from my house was a construction site and a foot of snow had turned the house frame and a nearby pile of dirt into the perfect hill for sledding, if you were brave enough to scrabble up to the second story roof and ride down on cardboard.

For the most part I watched–the writer’s curse.  To observe and document.  Jimmy had just come down the hill and stood in jeans, boots, and a t-shirt.  No coat, no gloves.  He lit a cigarette and laughed with his friends, daring them to go up.  Then he turned to me, nobody to him.  I doubt he knew my name.

“You wanna go?” he said.

I don’t know if I nodded, shrugged, or anything, but he took me by the waist and boosted me up to grab the edge of the house’s front porch roof.  He came up after me, dragging a chunk of cardboard from a refrigerator box.  With him forcing me ahead, we climbed up over the front gable, onto the upper roof, and shuffled to the chimney stack by the garage.  From there lay a plunging hill of snow, supported by nothing–just a massive drift built by the wind coming off the Rockies.

Sitting up was too dangerous, concentrated too much weight in too little space.  We went lying down, me on my stomach on the cardboard, Jimmy on top of me, his cigarette almost in my hair.

We didn’t stop when we hit the bottom, but skidded another twenty or thirty yards, going too fast, into the ditch and up over the unplowed road.  In the field on the opposite side of the road, I lay stunned in the middle of corn stubble.  Jimmy leaned over me, his cigarette crumpled in the side of his mouth, a streak of blood from his nose to his lip.

“You alright?  You’re okay.”  He grabbed me by the front of my coat and hauled me up, laughing.  Both of us laughing.

“Cool, huh?  Wanna go again?” he said.

On the best days, that’s what writing is like.  Wanna go again?

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