Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Last Flight to Fargo

This last July, I made a quick trip to visit some friends in Boston. My final day there, after an idyllic morning reading a novel at my favorite chocolate shop and then visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, I headed to the airport to fly to North Dakota, where Keith’s entire family (eighteen people) were gathering for the weekend.

Friday night in the summer, the airport was a mob. I got one of those fun "boarding passes" where your seat is assigned at the gate. So, I went to the gate. Except it wasn’t the gate, even though the computer screen said it was. I waited in line for twenty minutes only to be told to go to customer service. No one was there. I glared at my phone, refreshing the flight information every thirty seconds. I emailed Keith. “Pray I make my flight. I don’t have a boarding pass, and there’s no gate for the flight.” “Yikes,” wrote Keith.

About half an hour later, another gate was assigned. I waited in that line for twenty minutes, only to be told that that wasn’t the gate either. “So where is it?” I exclaimed, exasperated. “We were supposed to be boarding ten minutes ago, and the flight is still marked ‘on time.’” The gate agent gave me a deer-in-the-headlights look, and picked up the phone. After several minutes on hold, he set the phone down. “Actually, this is the right gate,” he said, business-like manner returned. “I just didn’t know.” Huh. “What do you suppose our chances are of leaving on time?” muttered the man behind me in line. “I’d say zero,” I muttered back. The gate agent handed me the long-awaited boarding passes and I shuffled away to search for a place to sit down and wait.

I was assigned “zone 4” for boarding. Zone 4 seems to be my lot in life. It’s the last group to board the plane. The inexplicable thing is, I found my seat next to the window in the last row.

The departure time passed. I began to fan myself frantically. I had a short connection time, and Minneapolis is a big airport. We pushed back from the gate… and sat. “We’re just finishing up the refueling,” said the pilot. What were they doing all that time we were sitting at the gate? Twenty minutes later, we were stuck in rush hour traffic on the tarmac. Then bad weather changed the departure pattern from the airport, so again we waited. I started biting my nails. I was scheduled to be on the last flight to Fargo that night. If I didn’t make my connection, I would be the only one of the eighteen Olson family members to be absent from this once-in-two-plus-years family gathering, and Keith’s mom would not be able to say that everyone had been there… and it was all going to be my fault, because I had insisted on going to Boston.

My mind switched into frantic-problem-solving-mode. I could rent a car in Minneapolis and drive the rest of the way… for five hours in the middle of the night. No. Who was I kidding? Driving long distances in the daytime makes me drowsy. Someone could come pick me up? No… wouldn’t save any time, and someone else would end up missing the party too. I mumbled a half-hearted prayer, not really confident that God cared whether or not I made my connecting flight. After all, the tarmac was swarming with delayed planes. Why should I get special treatment?

Once we were airborne, I used the inflight wifi to email Keith. “I’m sure I'm going to miss my connection. What should I do?” “Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out,” came the response. I waited, still biting my nails. “Your connecting flight is delayed until 45 minutes after you arrive, and it leaves from gate F8. You should make it,” said the next email. 45 minutes… could still be pretty tight in the Minneapolis airport, when starting from the back row of the plane.

The nice people in the seats next to me let me get out first, and I filed down the aisle, out the door, to the jetway… what gate was this? I steeled myself for a sprint through the airport. F8, F8… I walked through the door into the terminal. Where was F8? I turned around. “Fargo,” said the reader-board above the door through which I had just walked. F8. This was gate F8.

The gate agent’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “Welcome to Delta flight number 689 with service to Fargo, North Dakota. We’re experiencing a delay due to late arrival of the aircraft. There was a bit of weather on the east coast. We’ll begin boarding as soon as possible.” I laughed out loud in the middle of a crowd of grumpy North Dakotans.

“お待たせしました(Sorry for making you wait),” I whispered, confident that no one would understand my apology.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Chickens Move House

A cacophony of angry squawks and outraged clucking broke out next door. I looked up from my book. Mom, across the patio table, glanced towards our neighbor’s house.

“It looks like the chickens are finally moving into their new coop,” she observed, amused.

“I guess chickens don’t like moving any more than I do,” I said.

This was a momentous day. Our neighbors had been talking about the new chicken coop for the entire month since our arrival in Seattle. The old coop and chicken run was dilapidated, and a steady stream of rats came in and out, attracted by the kitchen scraps on which the chickens feasted. Making a new coop, however, was a big project—especially one this nice.

I went over to see the new coop. It was big, well protected from wild animals and the elements, and most importantly, painted red.

What chicken wouldn't want to live in a red coop?
The old coop
Our neighbors had set up a fence between the two coops, and chased the chickens out of the old chicken run and into the new one. But one hen stubbornly refused to move. She clucked aggrievedly as all the other chickens were herded away. No amount of coaxing or kitchen scraps could entice her to leave the familiar comfort of the old coop.

I didn’t see how our neighbors eventually moved the last hen. But a few days later, looking at the contented chickens in their new home, I never would have guessed anything had happened had I not overheard this little drama next door.


Friday, September 14, 2018

The Unexpected Sabbath

Last week was rather “exciting.”

On Tuesday night, the most powerful typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years came through the Sapporo area. I spent much of Tuesday bringing plants inside and securing things in the garden. Then I put in my earplugs and tried to sleep. The earplugs didn’t block out the house shaking, though.

Wednesday, Keith painted the living room ceiling. This had been on the to-do list for… oh, a year or so. I met a friend for dinner in Sapporo; I made my way home amidst a dramatic lightning storm as the typhoon bid us farewell. I was tired (no sleep the night before), so I went straight to bed.

And… no sleep for Keith and Celia Wednesday night, either. We woke up to the house shaking again—a large earthquake—shortly after 3 a.m. Thursday morning. As my cell phone’s earthquake warning blared, I fumbled around in the dark for the light switch. We stumbled downstairs on shaky legs to have a look around; the extent of the “damage” was that a few lightweight things, such as our rice cooker scoop, fell over. Earthquakes aren’t exactly uncommon around here, but this was big by Hokkaido standards, and the biggest we’ve ever experienced. This one was about 80 kilometers away, magnitude 6.7. (And since I was half-asleep and disoriented, I can’t really remember much about the earthquake itself.)


The power blinked off, then back on again. We went back to bed, but didn’t sleep much, since the aftershocks came one after another. After one large aftershock, the fan switched off, leaving us in stifling heat, so we knew the power had gone out again.

I got out of bed around 6:00, bleary eyed. I went to make coffee… and no water from the tap. I hadn’t bothered to fill up the hot water pot or top off the Brita pitcher the night before, as is my usual bedtime routine. Yikes. I checked the fridge: three jugs of water and iced tea would tide us over until the water came back on. And the gas stove worked. Coffee was back on the menu!

At about 7:00, I walked over to see if I could get us some more drinks at the convenience store. Cars lined both sides of the street, and even with the lights out I could see a line of people winding all the way around the store. I gave up and went home. I took quick look around the outside of the house, and I noticed we had lost a few more bits of mortar off our chimney, but I wasn’t sure if that had been caused by the earthquake or the typhoon.

Keith came downstairs into the empty living room. All the furniture had been moved into the dining room except for a tall bookshelf, earthquake supports removed for painting (the only time since we moved in). Keith looked up at the bookshelf. “That could have been bad,” he observed. But the bookshelf, and all the books, were exactly where we had left them. Seeing pictures of overturned furniture and broken roads from others on Facebook, we realized we had been extremely fortunate.

I had fleeting thoughts of getting work done, except that my laptop was where I left it the night before, in my bag, unplugged. With near-dead batteries on my laptop, not to mention dead tired, I wasn’t going to be getting much work done. Traffic lights weren’t working, so going anywhere would be a pain, gas was scarce, and we heard of roads messed up by the quake in some parts of Sapporo. So I responded to messages from concerned people, checked in with some friends, and then gave up on the thought of work.

It seems that most of our neighborhood came to the same conclusion I did. Plenty of people had been dispatched to help those in need closer to the epicenter, so the best thing for those of us in Ishikari to do was to help each other out and stay out of the way. Can’t work, can’t go anywhere, power’s off, nothing to do, and the weather’s great; SEIZE THE DAY. People milled around on the streets, while animated voices and laughter wafted out of open windows. Families and friends shared stories and pooled resources for meals. (It’s harvest season in Ishikari; it’s not like anyone was going to go hungry.) Children played outside, delighted at an unforeseen holiday from school. Eventually after we recovered a trickle of water, (after I filled up every jug in the house) I did some gardening, and saw others on our block doing the same. In a nearby park, amidst trees uprooted by the typhoon, Keith spotted a father and son together catching bugs. The atmosphere was altogether like a holiday, but with no TV to distract anyone from uninterrupted family time. I almost felt guilty for thoroughly enjoying the day. Almost.

Keith and I ate hotdogs on the patio as we watched the sunset. One by one the stars appeared in the cloudless, moonless sky, brilliant above the dark city. Neighbors stood in the street, looking up, giving expression to their awe in hushed voices. I fiddled with my camera, trying (and failing) to get a good shot. Keith, who has been memorizing various Psalms, recited:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him ruler over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all flocks and herds, and animals of the wild, the birds of the sky, and the fish of the sea, and all that swim the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

In the midst of a disaster, we had been spared—more than spared, we were completely unscathed. Joy at this undeserved grace and the glory of God revealed in his creation welled up in my soul—but it was a joy made complicated by grief, since 80 kilometers away, people and houses were lost in landslides. Does this mean we shouldn’t rejoice and give thanks? I think not. There is so much to be thankful for.

(A week on, things are mostly back to normal in Ishikari, except that milk is scarce, and the grocery store is less stocked than usual. We still have frequent aftershocks. Recovery efforts continue closer to the epicenter. Please pray for those who lost loved ones, homes, possessions, and a sense of safety. And we could all do with some uninterrupted sleep.)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Daylilies, and the Art of Paying Attention

Shortly after we moved into Matsu House two years ago, I discovered a mysterious plant in our garden. Its leaves looked the same as irises, and its flowers like lilies, but with five or so buds on each stalk. There were lots of them, so I cut one and brought it into the house. To my surprise, by the next morning, the flower had faded, but a second bud was starting to open. I observed the flower, fascinated, over the course of several days, until all the buds had opened and faded, one by one.


I looked up the flower in my book of Hokkaido wildflowers. It’s called Ezo-kanzo, or Nikkokisuge when it is part of a flower arrangement for tea ceremony. I realized that it was the same flower we had seen covering an entire hillside on Rebun island several years previously.


See all those yellow bits?
I watched for it in eager anticipation at the end of May the next year, and it became one of my favorite flowers to display in my tea room.



In June this year, I said goodbye to my garden as we headed to the US for two months of home assignment. One evening at a friend’s house, while touring his garden, I saw familiar looking leaves and seed-pods. I turned to Keith. “Those look like…”

“Those are Daylilies,” our friend explained.

“Daylilies,” I repeated. “Because they bloom only for a day, and then the next bud blooms?”

“Exactly,” he confirmed.

It turns out I had seen Nikkokisuge flowers, which I now know to call Daylilies, before I ever went to Japan. I went to Boston, and found them blooming by roadsides in the suburbs. Then I went to North Dakota, and found them in the garden of almost every house, including the house where Keith grew up. They thrive even with winters colder than Sapporo’s, it seems, and they come in colors other than the orange-yellow variety native to Hokkaido.

In Southborough, Massachusetts 
In the garden at Keith's parents' house, after a rain storm
I had seen Daylilies, but I never noticed them. How many other lovely things am I missing because I’m not paying attention?

Friday, August 03, 2018

Parable of the Apple Trees

There is an apple tree in the backyard of the house where Keith grew up in North Dakota. He tells me that it’s about 20 years old, rarely pruned or cared for, allowed to grow wild.


Defying the wisdom that says pruning will make a tree bear more fruit, its branches are so loaded with ripening apples that they nearly touch the ground. No pesticides or fertilizers have touched this tree, but not an insect in sight.


How beautiful it must have looked in the spring, covered with pinky white blossoms! Even now, pale red of ripening fruit bursts against a backdrop of vibrant sage green leaves.


Apple growing in Japan, on the other hand, is an arduous process. Each apple is covered with a mesh bag to protect it from insects, and carefully turned to ensure even ripening. Thinned to only a few apples per branch, each large, shapely apple is intensely sweet with a perfect crunch.

Our apple tree in Ishikari is a spindly little thing, currently experiencing its second summer. Who knows when we will eat its fruit? We’re told it will take five, maybe seven years. We watched nervously this spring as one branch came close to breaking in the strong wind. Insects plague our poor tree, and torrential rains produce orange spots on its leaves.

Our tree, just starting to put out leaves this spring. It looked lonely, so we gave it some daffodils and shibazakura (moss phlox) to keep it company.
North Dakota apples, crisp and tart, can be had for free, in large quantities. In this town, even if you don’t have a tree yourself, surely you know someone who does. Japanese apples often cost more than 100 yen (about a dollar) each, even when they are in season. While in North Dakota or Washington, a person might eat apples every day, in Japan they are a special treat, to be eaten only when someone gives you one as a gift. Keith doesn’t like me to buy them, because he can’t stomach paying for something which has always been free.

I gaze longingly at the apples on this overgrown tree. If only our little tree could grow up to be like this one.

But it won’t. The climate, the soil, everything is different. Japanese apples are costly, hard-won, precious. But oh, are they ever sweet.

Monday, July 02, 2018

You're invited: Storytelling and Preaching at Westside Pres

For those of you Seattle-area friends who missed our lunch event at Newport Covenant yesterday, we're doing the same sort of thing again:

Sunday, July 15
Westside Presbyterian Church in West Seattle, 3601 California Avenue SW, Seattle
We will be telling stories and showing pictures during Sunday School at 9 a.m., and Celia will be preaching from James 5. The service is at 10 a.m.

Blast from the past picture with the lovely cherry tree at Westside Pres.
We hope you can come!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

You're invited: Lunch and Stories at NCC

Dear Seattle-area friends,

We are having an event at our home church, Newport Covenant Church, on Sunday, July 1! We will tell stories, show pictures of our work and life, and there will be a game and a cultural demonstration. And you even get to experience the traditional Japanese after-church-lunch, curry rice.

Lunch will start at around 11:45.
If you are also interested in coming to the service, it's at 10:00. Celia will play cello for prelude and offertory.
The church address is 12800 Coal Creek Parkway SE • Bellevue, WA 98006

Feel free to email if you need more information. See you on Sunday!


Here's a few pictures from the last time we did this:




Save the date!

We're on home assignment! We decided to try out the quick-and-painless(?) short home assignment, in which we only had to prepare our house for house-sitters, rather than pack up everything for storage.

One last camellia was waiting for us at Celia's parents' house.
For those of you who are interested in connecting with us or attending a presentation (stories, slideshow, etc.), here is our schedule. We will be putting more details of the events on the blog, or feel free to email for more information. Looking forward to seeing you!

July 1 Newport Covenant Church: cello offertory and presentation of our ministry over lunch
July 6-7 Attending symposium (The Tears of Christ and the Silence of God) at Regent College (Vancouver, BC)
July 8 Keith preaches at Vancouver First CRC
July 13 Sharing at Covenant Shores (Mercer Island, WA)
July 15 Adult Sunday School presentation and Celia preaches at Westside Presbyterian (Seattle)
July 22 Sharing at the home of a supporter in Portland, OR
July 23-27 Celia visits friends and supporters in Boston
July 24-August 7 Keith visits family and friends in Grand Forks, ND; Celia joins him July 27th
August 12 Attending Newport Covenant
August 13 Sharing at OMF Seattle prayer meeting

Monday, May 07, 2018

Beautiful Scars

I like going to the beach. Not so much for the swimming, although I like doing that too, when the weather is right and the conditions are good. (Definitely not for sunbathing.) I think my favorite beach activity is looking at stuff and picking stuff up. My senses become so attuned to finding beauty in the tiny objects mixed in with the sand that I can only think of those things, or perhaps the things they remind me of.

We are at the beach this week, not on vacation, but to have time without distractions to reflect and write and prepare for our home assignment this summer.



Beautiful scenery and fresh air and exercise are aids to creativity, so I went out for a walk this morning between essays. Last time we came here, I was drawn to smooth rocks and moon-snail shells. This time, I have been collecting beach glass.

Beach glass is often used as a metaphor for the process of maturing through adversity: continually tossed by waves with sand and salt, the sharp edges are worn down.

I couldn’t help but remember, though, my Dad’s warning to me when I got my first camera: never let your camera come into contact with sand. The sand will scratch the lens, and it then the camera will be worthless.

The beautiful opaque surface of beach glass is actually made up of scratches and scars that will never “heal.” Until the glass is recycled, those scars will remain. These shards are indeed worthless for their original purpose, but not ultimately worthless: re-purposed, they could become something far more sublime than a beer bottle.


As I look back over these last two years, I’ve struggled to remember the encouraging things that happened, and even more so things that will be meaningful to anyone other than me. But this walk on the beach has made me hopeful that eventually I will see some beauty and purpose even in my own brokenness… maybe even this week as I write!

How will God use my scars to show his glory? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Which brings me to an important announcement:
Mid-June through mid-August we will be in North America on a short home assignment, based in Seattle. We are in the process of working out our schedule, so we will have more details soon. We’re looking forward to seeing many of you this summer, and sharing the stories we’re writing this week!

Monday, February 19, 2018

And above all these put on love

“Sit up straight,” said the Voice.

“Really? Is that all you want to tell me?” I responded, a bit nonplussed. “Are you my ballet teacher?” I still remember the comments on my bad posture and a particular piece of “art” on the wall of my dance studio as a child: the slogan, “You are what you eat” illustrated by a drawing of a slob holding a piece of pizza. This never stopped me from wolfing down a huge plate of Mexican food, slathered in cheese, every week after dance class. I guess that’s not the same as pizza, so it doesn’t count, right? Exercise increases one’s appetite. But I digress.

The previous day, I had gone for onsen and a massage, having strained my back clearing snow from in front of our house to make a space for tea-party guests to park their cars. (Lifting while twisting seems not to be the right way to haul snow around.) I didn’t realized how slouchy I had become until the massage therapist stuck her knee into my back and then pulled back on my shoulders… and my shoulders didn’t want to cooperate. Ouch.

With those thoughts in mind, I set aside my irritation and sat up straight, or as straight as I could. I noticed that the strain in my lower back eased a bit. I thought back to the previously mentioned tea party; of course I had been wearing a kimono. While I had it on, I completely forgot about my strained back. An obi, properly tied firmly but not too tight, is a wonderful support. I can’t slouch even if I want to.

A friend once asked me if wearing a kimono changed the way I think or act. At the time, I said no, but as I consider that question again, I think the answer is probably yes. There’s something about being forced to sit up straight, to take small steps, to move slowly, carefully, gracefully, deliberately. People who feel shame, I read recently, are likely to slouch, perhaps as a self-defending sign of submission. By straightening me up, my kimono restores my dignity, or at least the appearance of it.

Obi (帯) is an interesting word, and an interesting garment. It is several meters long, made of stiff brocade fabric. It is the sash that holds the kimono together; a kimono has no buttons or strings or snaps, so without the obi, the kimono cannot be worn. To wear an obi, you wrap it twice around your waist, and then tie it in an elaborate bow, completed with several other decorative strings.

A friend from my kimono circle practices tying an obi in a particularly festive way
When I was preaching from Colossians 3 last spring, I came across the word “obi” in my passage. Here is Colossians 3:14, in English and Japanese:

“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (ESV).

「そして、これらすべての上に、愛を着けなさい。愛は結びの帯として完全なものです。」 (新改訳聖書第三版) (Taking a stab at a literal translation of this, I would suggest “And then, over all of this, put on love. Love is, as a binding obi, a perfect thing.”)

God’s love, wrapped tightly around me, is what keeps me from falling apart. God’s love holds me up straight and restores my dignity when I am bent over with shame and despair. God’s love, supporting me, reminds me that I am not alone; the battle is his to fight, not mine. God’s love wrapped around us holds us together as his people even when separation seems like the better option.

“Sit up straight” turned out to be quite a good suggestion, after I unraveled what it meant.

“Thank you,” I whispered.