Japan, or How to be Away From Home

Write about the first time you went away from home alone — The Autobiography Box by Brian Bouldrey

japanThe first time I truly left home was in 2002. I had been picked to represent my school on a trip to Neyagawa, Japan. That was a trip of so many firsts: first time away from home, first time my parents wouldn’t be a phone call away, first trip out of the country, first trip on an airplane.

It was a crash course in air travel, that. Norfolk, VA, to Newark, NJ. Then, Norita/Tokyo. Then, Osaka. 24 hours, with layovers, and yet the same day? The same afternoon? Or was it the next one? I sat in the Tokyo airport and watched blankly at the windows, wondering over the blue sky, bright sunshine. It was supposed to be night time, right? If I got on the plane at 5am, it should be the middle of the night. Yes. No.

The next morning after that trip, my homestay mother laid out a spread fit for a king. A king not suffering from jetlag. There was sticky white rice, eggs, sausage, a seaweed salad. Then, a bowl of cereal. And yogurt.

One of the first things we were taught getting ready for the trip was that we should never turn anything down that our families made us to eat. We should at least try everything. I picked at each piece of food gingerly. It was more than I ever ate for breakfast, and I could only imagine the dishonor that awaited me if I ended up yacking it into their robo-toilet (I wish I was making this up, but it had controls and temperature settings and a padded seat). And God, the dehydration. My throat was a dried sponge, and I was in a country that didn’t have water bottle at every table.

Once the jet lag eased off, though, there was so much to see. We toured the major spots of Osaka, including the Panasonic Technical Center, the Osaka Historical Museum, the Mint and Osaka Castle (which was surprisingly very modern inside, despite the beautiful ancient architecture outside). We attended classes at the local school. We practiced zazen (a form of meditation) in Uji and visited Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. Then, there was Nara and its bazillion wild yet tame deer, that would eat right from your hand.

Then, our last journey was to Hiroshima. That could be an entire post unto itself. I’ve never been in a place that made me so very, very aware of myself. The atomic bomb landing on this city in Japan had always been like the Civil War or the French Revolution, in my schools — something that had happened that I knew the scope of in numbers and dates but little more. But to see it so clearly documented, told in photographs and dioramas and in the few things left behind…it all became very real. New and raw.

I want to go back to Japan someday, at a time where I can move at my own pace, where I’m not hauling the baggage of teenage despondency. I want to see that world that can be equal parts joy and peace and the other metropolitan buzz — want to see it without that nagging homesickness, that awareness of being in an alien place and longing for familiar.

I want to take my time. I want it to take its time with me.

One day, I’ll see Tokyo once more.


I’ve started walking again. I’m trying to do it every day. And it’s awesome, actually. The animals I’ve seen on my treks around my neighborhood have included:

– A bunny
– Groundhogs — I startled one today as I was walking on the sidewalk, and as I was passing a bush I heard this rustling…I thought it was a cat. Big guy was running off into a meadow. No, not running. Trundling. A wibbly, wobbly badump badump badump, his long body trying to slink along but having such stumpy legs that it can’t happen. Do I look like that, out here?
– Several deer — these are my favorite. Last week I saw a doe with her fawn and I swear I felt like I won the lottery.
– Dogs
– Many cute sparrows

Some days, it doesn’t feel like much. The ritual of getting dressed in clothes you don’t mind sweating in, finding socks that won’t get eaten in your shoe, lacing the shoes so you won’t get blisters…it can feel like eternity just making it to the other side of the front door.

As I’m sure you’ve read I have started my 500 words per day for the Clarion Write-a-thon. I wrote on Twitter a few minutes ago:

Aiming at 500 words per day is like rehab. But it’s something, though, and it feels good. Every night is a little easier.

Walking and writing: they go hand in hand. It’s all a matter of not thinking, not letting those crippling thoughts stop you from just showing up. It’s simple to give in to gravity, to not fight against it, but at the end of that mile, at the end of the night, the feeling of being so alive is worth the baby steps.

It’s not a marathon…yet.

It’s not a book…yet.

But it all adds up.

Permission to Dare

The following is part of an exercise I’m doing with Tama Kieves, who is a lovely and brilliant coach. I highly recommend her book, Inspired and Unstoppable, if you feel like you are struggling in owning your life’s work. This is my letter permitting myself to dare: dare to dream, dare to try, dare to come up short and try again. It was a very emotional experience, just letting it all out. I hope you get something out of it — I know I got quite a bit putting into it.


For some reason, as I was writing part of this, I felt like Max in Where the Wild Things Are.

I am allowing myself to do it all. I will have the whole cake, thank you, and if I want, I’ll have the carton of ice cream too. And when I’ve doubled over in agony, I will blame no one – not even myself – because I did what I wanted and there is no greater joy than the pain of succeeding.

I will not allow the way I survive to make me think less of myself. I am a success in that I have shown my strength. I’ve lain down on the bed of nails and I haven’t leapt up, letting the weight of my foolishness drive the points deeper. I’ve remained, and one day, when I’m ready, I will calmly stand and walk away.

I am allowing myself joy and happiness. I am making a suit out of my adulthood that I will hang on the back of my door when the day is done and change into my footy pajamas, my paper crown and play. I will do the business tomorrow of selling the happy scribbles I make at night. I will hold the child within me and let her be inspired.

I will not allow the past to dominate the present. The false gods of anxiety, depression and self-doubt may knock at the door, cold-call me at all hours, but I will not let them in. I will not surrender myself to a shadow of time that tries to pry at my consciousness and shake old photos and calendar pages in my face. I will climb the stairs to my room and be still.

I am allowing myself patience and space. I am allowing myself dates and good chocolate. I am allowing myself funny t-shirts and pats on the back. I am allowing myself comforting hugs. I am allowing myself gratitude and attaboys and a list of all the awesome things I’ve done. I am allowing myself forgiveness. I am allowing myself tonight and tomorrow and the next day and every sunset and moonrise there could ever be.

I am allowing myself to be and rest in the comfort that I still am.

5 Things I Learned About Writing (And Life) from my Mom

Your mom is the first person who gets to see you at your worst: naked, gross, kind of bloody, screaming. They look at you and for some reason, they don’t run away from that horror show. And they stick around and deal with years of crying and pooping and crying and bleeding and crying and…well, that was my experience anyway. Even though you may not realize it at the time, your mom teaches you things, and those things affect what you choose to do and make with the time you have.

These are just a few of the things my Mom taught me that I have found have impacted my writing. You might learn a thing or two as well.

1. Life is too short to do stuff you hate. Whenever I think that I’ve made the worst decision ever, Mom tends to tell me about how she almost became a nun. We talk about all the steps she took to reach that goal and how, once she was there, all she could think about was leaving. Never be satisfied with misery just because you think you owe it to yourself to wade through the muck. Come at writing and working from a place of joy. If that place can’t be found, time to look elsewhere.

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Over the years since I moved to Pittsburgh, I have had to call my Mom and commiserate over bad times. I can call my Mom in tears, and usually before the end of the call, we’re laughing about whatever is going on. Nothing you’re doing – whether it’s a memoir about the worst time of your life or a set of poems about death and despair – is so bad that you can’t take a second, smile and realize that you’re alive.

3. Come at it a little at a time. The other day, I was talking to my Mom about how to organize my home. We are both packrats, and I always marvel at how everything seems to have a nook or home at my mother’s house (“That’s organized?” she asked me, laughing). However, she gave me this advice and it’s made a world of difference. It’s so easy to fall into being completed overwhelmed, but that’s only if you come to the mountain and immediately cry because you’re not at the top. One step at a time. One word. One sentence. That’s all it takes. You’ll get there.

4. You can’t always be in control. This one is always a doozy for me. I’ll be sweating and screaming about something – anything – and after minutes of sound advice, my Mom will finally say, “You have to give it over to God.” And I’ll make some inappropriate noise at that, and she will tolerate it, because she knows she’s right. You can’t always have your ducks in a row (look at Youtube; those things are always falling into holes and grates and getting blown over by fans, etc). Sometimes you have to sit down at the screen and say, “Okay, God/universe/Muse…I don’t know what’s happening, but let’s give it a go, huh?”

5. Live life with joy and spontaneity. Some of my fondest memories are of the random things my mother and I have done together: trips to the beach or to a bookstore or even to a fancy mall. You don’t need a crazy trip to Hawaii to get your creativity going or rejuvenate your energy. All you need is the willingness to step out of the normal day-in-day-out of your existence. Have a little adventure. You’ll be a better writer…hell, you’ll be a better person. I know I am.

Thanks, Mom.

On Getting Bit (And Still Sticking Your Hand Back In)

It’s tough going from owning guinea pigs to owning mice.

Guinea pigs are sort of like big, furry bricks. You can pick them up, place them in your lap, pet them and then return them to their habitat. That’s the big draw to those big-lipped bundles: you can handle them with relative ease. Wanna cuddle and watch TV? Cool. Snuggle in bed? No problem.

Not so with mice. Even domesticated mice are running on 110% fleeing energy, operating under the fair assumption that anything and everything is trying to end their short lives. When I first got my two mice last year, I thought that I could at least enjoy their presence in the tank they shared. One day, I reached my hand down with a few pieces of food. Virginia – the more sociable of two at the time – was cool with that. Milk-and-cream-colored Sylvia, however?

“She freakin’ bit me,” I told my husband, showing him the red pinch mark on my hand.

“Yeah…what did you expect?”

I didn’t want to admit it, but I expected some White Fang shit. I expected some initial wildness that would melt to warm love between me and my tiny furry friends. But after a few more times, I got tired of the itty bitty bites, so I left them alone to their happy, mousey lives.

Fast-forward about fifteen months. After a brief bout with a dime-sized tumor, Virginia passed away. I struggled with the idea of getting Sylvia a friend (“You’re going to end up the crazy cat lady of mice if you get into this cycle,” I was warned) but she was mostly pleased with having the tank to herself. However, I didn’t want her to get depressed or bored, so I decided I would try once again to make our friendship work so she could stay stimulated.

Everything I read explained that to win the trust of a mouse, you have to make sure they have a strong sense of security. How do you do that? By slowly getting them used to you. How do you do that? Sticking your damn hand in the tank again.

“This isn’t going to work if you keep taking your hand away,” my husband explained as I pulled my doughy digits out of Sylvia’s line of bite. I hated the thought of the little bugger getting her teeth on me. Again.

I read a topic in a book on rats about using soft foods to keep the rat engaged as they become accustomed to your presence. I decided to give this a try. Why not? Turns out Sylvia loves peanut butter, and she quickly got to liking it being given to her on a spoon.

It took a lot of courage to get to the next step: putting peanut butter on the tip of a finger. Every voice in me was like, “This is not going to end well. You know that, right?”

But as that little mouse came up and happily started licking my finger without so much as a pinch, I can report that no bad happened.

How often do we pass up opportunities because we’re afraid of getting hurt again? It’s easy to just say, “I’ll find a better way to occupy my time.” The things that really matter, though – the things in life that bring real joy – may require taking a risk and defying everything that tells you it’s safer to stay back.

I’m glad I tried again. Wouldn’t you?

29 Things to Do While I’m 29

I made this list before my 29th birthday (obviously?). I’m surprised how many I have done so far in just the last few months, but I’m getting all revved up to get to work on them before October. Some of these are a bit more…abstract than concrete in terms of goals go, but I think you’ll see where my mind was headed as I prepared for my last twenty-something birthday.

1. Finish paying off my student loans.

2. Write a letter to someone I admire to say ‘thank you.’

3. Figure out who God is to me.

4. Do something sweet for my husband.

5. Kayak in Pittsburgh.

6. Commemorate awesome days in creative ways.

7. Go on 24 hour adventures to neighboring cities.

8. Take pictures and make notes more often.

9. Fall in love with death.

10. Explore good music.

11. Read for pleasure.

12. Thrive in crisis.

13. Stretch and dance regularly.

14. Create and embrace my own style of fashion that speaks to me.

15. Cook for others.

16. Stargaze.

17. See a sun rise over the river.

18. Schedule fun.

19. Treat myself to a spa day.

20. Recreate my bed.

21. Clarify and accept my own concept of what marriage is.

22. Eat thoughtfully.

23. Write something beautiful.

24. See a whale.

25. Stand up for something.

26. Stick myself in a very uncomfortable situation.

27. Take on a great pain for someone else.

28. Play in the snow.

29. Ride a train somewhere.


That’s the theme for 2014. Brave.

Now, if I told that to people who keep up with me, it might not seem like such a big deal. I do ridiculously random things on a day to day basis. I’ve never been one to turn down an invitation to anything, and many times I’ve even ended up in strange, uncomfortable situations for the sake of the story.

The fear I am tackling is not one of the outside world.

Fear for me has been more subtle than the shakes. Quieter than teeth-chattering. More subdued than butterflies in the stomach. That’s not to say I haven’t experienced these things — I still don’t do great with the dentist or needles or flying. But those are fears I can walk through like a coming wave.

No, instead, fear is quiet when the moment calls for a word. Fear is sitting when standing would be best. Fear is an extra half hour of television, or surfing the web, or doing this instead of that. Fear is still. Fear is not moving at all.

I’m tired of the quiet.

This year is about saying, “What am I afraid of? What is stopping me? What do I need to do to stop being afraid and just do – do and share and make and talk to the world – and break this terrible paralysis?” Above all the resolutions to break habits and shape new ones, I will be working on breaking the cycle of inaction, of gravity. To achieve staying motion, I must get in motion, and to do that I have to be brave.

Because objects in motion tend to stay in motion. That’s the idea.

2014. Brave. What’s the theme of your new year?

Full of Cheer!

Cat in the Hat

A study revealed that 80% of Americans do not like Christmas. They find it a stressful, difficult time of the year in which they feel pressured to buy gifts, fall into debt and spend time with people they don’t like.

I am the 20%.

I love Christmas. There are rarely days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day that I am not doing some small thing to stay in the holiday spirit. I love watching Christmas movies. I love baking. I love looking at cards. I love driving around to see lights. I love seeing the decorations in the city. I love good Christmas music.

But this isn’t a post that’s just me gushing about how much I adore the holiday season (though I do – have I established that well enough?). It’s also for you, dear reader. And that is why I offer to you Five Ways to Stay Creatively Sane During the Holidays.

1. Make sure to schedule in time for yourself. I fall prey every year to my own inability to schedule time appropriately. Looking up, I realize suddenly, “I leave for Virginia in three weeks and my weekends are booked – oh god!” And there are gifts to wrap, confections to sugar up, people to see and… Don’t be like me. Give yourself the gift of even twenty minutes a day to recharge and work on something.

2. Forgive yourself. I already know that I’m not going to be terribly productive this month. And you know what? I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I know that come January I will be back at the bag, and I know that I’ll at least tinker with a few things here and there. I’m not setting myself up for failure. Not for the next few weeks anyway.

3. Journal. I don’t jump on the journal wagon nearly as much as I should. This is a super stressful time of the year, and it’s easy to feel like you’re one of those cartoon characters that’s just gotten buried under a comically huge snow drift. When that’s happening, go into a small room with a notebook, close the door and write for five minutes. Get it out. Figure out what’s bothering you. You might find it actually doesn’t have anything to do with Aunt Marge or that guy your mom keeps asking you about over Christmas turkey.

4. Do good for others. Give back to your community during the holidays. Whether monetarily or through the gift of time, do something that benefits the human race. It feels great. You’ll feel like a super hero, and they will appreciate it. Even if you never see their face, someone out there is benefiting from your small donation, your willingness to do what’s in your power to make the world a better place. This always leaves me feeling inspired. Karma creativity – who knew?

5. Avoid negativity traps. I’ve been working on this ever since Thanksgiving, and the Internet makes it really, really hard. The horror stories of Black Friday, the griping about consumerism, the bickering about which new holiday gaming system is best…I’m trying not to take part in it. It’s a waste of time and energy you could be using on Ninjabread cookies. As I find myself having my time drained, I’ve started to stop and ask myself, “Does this contribute to who I want to be during this time of the year? Is this making me happy?” If the answers are ‘no,’ I find something else to do.

Happy Holidays!

Inevitable Supernovas

Sunday afternoon, we sit outside our house in the car. We’ve just come back from lunch, but we are listening to Fresh Air on NPR. It’s quiet except for the sound of Alain de Botton’s voice, talking about the culture of Americans and their perceptions on success. We fell back last night, and the extra hour has given the day a magical quality, a lengthiness not usually present.

I reach out for my husband’s hand. He takes it, softly, just a few of our fingers touching. It’s the slightest slip of contact, a breeze, a single tone of music, like almost nothing at all.

Twenty-four hours before, we were fighting. The tension in the house made it seem like the walls would buckle. It was the kind of powerful bad that makes one feel like they could be buried alive in it. When he left on an errand, I buried my hands in the freezing water and peeled hard-boiled eggs. Occasionally, I would hold the shells in my hands and squeeze until they broke into tinier, sand-grain-sized pieces. The rain pattered on the window, like it was trying to get in and reach me.

Nobody tells you these things, when you’re considering spending your life with someone. Nobody tells you that there will inevitably come a day when the chemicals of your emotions will create such fierce reactions that it will light the world on fire. They will try to say, “All couples fight” or “You’ll occasionally get on each other’s nerves,” but it’s nothing like the reality of the feeling of that moment.

“We are both moody, passionate people, and this will always happen.” He said it after he came home, and the storm had passed, and we were eating burritos together. We were touching. Our wounds were wrapped, the bleeding stopped, the battle done. Stalemate.

Never let anyone say that they have never fought with the love of their life. What they are actually saying is, we are an atomic bomb in the belly of a ship. We are in a holding pattern. We are still now, but when we fall, we’re going to take the whole world with us.

I look over at him today. On the other side of his smile, I can see the starburst colors of the leaves, the placid backdrop of blue sky. An unfamiliar sight in Pittsburgh autumn.

I smile too.

I understand why some people can’t stay married. It requires a patience unlike any other. It means waiting for the moments between the every day life and the blinding explosions of self-righteousness, anger, stupidity for the touch of warmth, the Sunday afternoon, the magic of the stolen hour. It’s not just “for better or for worse”; it’s all the time in between. It’s the best and the worst. Not so much I do as I will

I will forgive you. I will hurt you. I will let things go. I will forget. I will remember. I will cry. I will sit with you under a sun that only just touches the cold. I will burn with you when our star explodes. I will stand by your side until another one blinks into existence.

I will try.