Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Carols, Candles, and Cookies

Today's coffee: Tokumitsu Costa Rica full city roast

To catch you up, if we haven't talked in a while, Keith and I now work at COEN Life, among various other commitments. Now that we are through our initial transition period, I am finding that I have more time to write, and more to write about, so here's hoping for more blog posts in the near future! Here is a story from Christmas Eve last year.

“Why don’t you come to one of our Christmas events?” Keith handed a flier to a regular café customer. She sneered at it. “I’m not a Christian.” Keith related this exchange to Dale, our boss, later; he shook his head. “I don’t think we can expect many people to come.” Suddenly the hundreds of fliers we had printed seemed like overkill.

The sneered-at flier
It’s hard to get anyone to attend an openly religious event. We knew this. Many churches and Christian groups solve this problem by advertising a concert or other non-religious event, then, when the captive audience has been assembled, preaching an evangelistic sermon. It has not been our strategy at COEN Life to preach to captive audiences, but rather to pray and respond to opportunities when they arise.

For Christmas Eve, I put together a Lessons and Carols service with well-known Christmas carols and readings from the beautifully translated Japanese edition of the Jesus Storybook Bible. I also designed the aforementioned sneered-at fliers; I think they were rather nice looking, but they honestly let the guests know that they were in for something religious.

Christmas Eve fell on a Tuesday, a busy day at the café. We hoped that people would stick around for the Christmas Eve service, but maybe it would just be us. Maybe it would have been better to do “candle service,” as it’s called in Japanese, on a different day, we fretted, since Japanese people likely want to spend Christmas Eve with their families or their lovers, not at a religious event. Still, we pushed the three big tables together and began to set up. Karen fitted the candles in their holders. Keith checked to make sure he had all ten songs marked in his hymnbook. Hiromi, tasked with reading the stories, made a few last minute edits to her manuscript. I sang through the archaic Japanese translation of the carol I would sing solo. I confirmed with Dale and Karen when I wanted lights and candles lit and extinguished for dramatic (and theological) effect.

A few minutes before the café closed, Hiromi and I took our places at the head of the table, Karen sat by the advent wreath, and Keith at the piano. A few café guests lingered at the table, while others headed home. Then, to our surprise, people started coming in. A few had gone home after their English classes but had decided to come back! The seats around table started to fill up. Eighteen people, nineteen… I started the service with greetings and an explanation of the Lessons and Carols tradition. Then the twentieth person came in and took the last seat at the table. I prayed for God to reveal himself to us in the telling of his story.

We sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Dale turned off the lights, and a hush came over the room as Hiromi began to read the creation story. A world came into being in our minds in the darkened room. We alternated carols and stories, with the prelude from Bach’s 3rd cello suite and my debut at accompanying my own singing on the ukulele thrown in.

Karen lit the Christ candle as Hiromi read the story of Jesus’ birth. At the end of the service, Karen lit her own candle from the Christ candle and we passed the light around from one person to the next, until each person held a burning candle—powerful symbolism of the power of God to change lives and turn darkness into light as each person welcomes his presence in their lives.

After the service, as we feasted on Christmas cookies and hot apple cider, I talked to some of Hiromi’s English students. “I could see the story happening,” said one of them. “It was beautiful—and it was so real.”

I have learned not to judge the success of an event by how many people come, but rather by whether those attending have become more interested, more curious, a little closer. A person who has been given something beautiful, and who feels loved and accepted, will certainly remember, even if they don’t come back.

Want to read another story from our work at COEN? I wrote one for the OMF Japan blog.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The Fragrance of Daikon

It was evening, and a light dusting of snow coated the front walk. Eager to be home, I opened the outer genkan door… and was hit with a wave of intense smell. Surprised, I looked around. A bag of plastic recycling that didn't get collected over the New Year holiday sat waiting on the floor--surely plastic hadn’t started to stink? But what else could there be? That’s when I saw a bedraggled plastic bag containing a shriveled daikon pickle balanced on the gardening cabinet, presumably an offering (or a prank?) from one of our neighbors. Keith followed me into the genkan. I pointed to the pickle. "Wow," he commented, wrinkling his nose.

Confident as we were that daikon pickles are supposed to stink, and trusting our neighbors’ pickle-making ability, we immediately brought it into the kitchen, cut up a bit of it and arranged it with a tea egg on top of our traditional January 7 okayu porridge. It was delicious.

We took the precaution of double wrapping the rest of the pickle before putting it away. And now there’s a bag of concentrated fart in our refrigerator.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Matthew 11 for Me

A couple of weeks back, I was working on Advent liturgy... and this sort of happened. I hadn't written a poem in months, and this one got written in five minutes. It was definitely meant for me, but I share it here for all my friends and colleagues during the breakneck Christmas season. May you find rest, friends.

Come to me, all you who are busy and self-important,
 And I will make you humble.
  Take my work upon you and do it with me—
   For I have all the time in the world to help you—
  Stop this meaningless spinning of plates.
 For my work brings joy
To those who lose their self-imposed burdens that they might gain eternity.


Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Bike-Riding Crow

“Caw!” said a voice. I jumped. From the depths of the garage, a crow stared out at me. This cheeky bird was perched on the handlebars of my bike.

The crow cocked his head to the side; his bright eyes shone with curiosity. But I wasn’t about to go any closer. Crows had been dive-bombing us in our garden ever since we moved in, so I didn’t trust this one, even if he looked a bit smaller and friendlier than the others.

I looked at Keith. “What do we do?” We were running late for an appointment, and since we were still searching for a car, bikes were our only mode of transportation. But I couldn’t very well take my bike out when a crow was perched on it.

Keith started around to the back of the house to try to chase the crow out of the garage from behind. He didn’t get very far, because two other crows, possibly the parents of the crow in our garage, cawed angrily and swooped down around him. He came back holding a broom. “Shoo!” he called, swiping at the crow with the broom. The crow didn’t move.

I stared at the crow, and the crow stared back. “What should I do? There’s a crow in my garage, and he won’t go away!” I said in Japanese to no one in particular. A group of elderly women happened to be walking by, and they stopped to see what the strange foreigner was so worked up about. “Look, he’s sitting on my bike!” I exclaimed.

One of the women wordlessly grabbed the broom from Keith, turned it around, and extended the handle towards the crow. “Come on, little one! It’s okay! Come on!” she encouraged. The crow immediately hopped onto the end of the broom, allowing himself to be carried out into the street. He sat there for a moment, dazed by the bright June sun, then took a couple of hops before he flapped off.

Keith and I sputtered our thanks; she gave a curt bow before continuing on her way.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Hints of Spring

Chop, chop, chop.

Birdsong is not the harbinger of spring in Ishikari. I know spring is coming when I hear the sound of my neighbors breaking up the ice on their driveways and sidewalks and even on the road in front of our houses. On sunny days after the roads are clear, they fling scoops of snow out into the road so that the warm asphalt melts it.

The winter is long here—three or four solid months of snow. We are more than ready for the ice to melt and spring to come. The crocuses are also ready, waiting just beneath the earth’s surface to emerge as soon as the snow is gone, after which they bloom within days.

Winter has already been defeated by the coming of spring. We feel it in the warmth of the sun, but the snow still covers our gardens, so we cannot see it yet. Our heads are filled with visions of the crocuses, daffodils, and katakuri lilies that are just waiting to be freed from their prison of ice. And so we help, my neighbors and I, spreading the snow and breaking up the ice.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

On Amateur Pottery

The master potter, my teacher, sat at the pottery wheel and switched it on. The mound of clay whizzed around, spitting out drops of muddy water. She stuck her thumbs into the center of the mound and gently pulled outward and upward, and a shapely bowl formed in her hands. She switched the motor off and looked up at me. “Like that. Got it?” I nodded. It looked so easy.

I centered my mound of clay on the wheel and sat down. My cellist’s hands were strong and steady, so I was confident. “Ready?” asked my teacher. “Yep!” I chirped. She switched on the wheel, and I imitated her motions, sticking my thumbs in the center of the mound… except that the clay, mounted on the wheel, was stronger than I was. My hands jerked around, as the unruly clay refused to be controlled. My teacher sprinkled water on the clay and guided my hands until I had pulled a wobbly bowl. “It’s a chawan!” I exclaimed. “Great, now let go,” said my teacher.

But my finger caught the edge, skewing the bowl into a not-at-all-chawan-like shape. My teacher pointed out that the bowl would still work as a modern-art sort of cream pitcher.
The next week, I sat again in front of the wheel. This time, I wasn’t going to mess up. This time I was prepared for the strength of the wheel. I wasn’t going to let it jerk me around! I stuck my thumbs again into the center of the mound, and slowly pulled upward. Not enough water; I added some more. Again, I pulled upward. Still too dry. I added more water, and the clay yielded in my hands, forming a pretty cylinder. “It’s a flower vase,” I exclaimed, elated. I gingerly let go, but the edges immediately started caving in towards the center. Again, the clay defeated me.  “Too much water,” explained my teacher. “It’s okay; it will still work as a vase.”

Again, the next week, I sat in front of the wheel, a large mound of clay prepared for shaping. I switched on the wheel, sprinkled a little water (but not too much), inserted my thumbs, and began to pull upward and outward—slowly, carefully—and then in again, and out again. “Don’t over-work the clay,” my teacher warned. “It’s okay, I’m almost done. This time I’m making a kensui bowl!” I released the bowl, switched off the wheel… and watched in horror as the delicate bowl collapsed into something like a rumpled old boot. “No… not again… this was my last chance!”

My teacher shrugged, a twinkle in her eye. “You weren’t going to master the wheel in three weeks. Don’t worry; you can still use this one to practice glazing.”

There was always coffee around at pottery class. So I tested out this bowl that my teacher shaped and I glazed. Works pretty well!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


I sit at your table, hungry
For anything, really; it’s been a slog
Through wasteland of death and destruction.

“Do you want to eat?” you ask.
“Yes! I’m so hungry,” I cry,
And you smile, as if this
Is what you’ve been waiting for.

You pile plate after plate onto the table—
   tender roast beef and crusty fresh bread
   macaroni and cheese (the way my mom makes it)
   orange-glazed ham and ensalata caprese
   salmon sushi and oden and gyoza
   pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert
All these my favorites; how did you know?

Then I look up, and I see them—
Why are they here? My enemies—I drop my fork
And pick up my knife—but they stay where they are.

They stare at the food piled up
On the table, a greedy look
In their eyes, but they do not eat.

I look up at you. “Why are they here?
Why don’t they eat?” I ask.

You smile sadly and turn.
“Come to the feast, friends. You are hungry—
Come and eat!” but they sneer.
“We are not hungry; we are fine. We do not need
What you offer”—as loud growls and gurgles
Denounce them as liars.

“They too
Have been welcomed, but they will not accept,
So they watch, perhaps till they starve.”

A pang of compassion. I turn
With grace on my lips, and a plate in my hands—
But your hand on my shoulder—“It’s enough,” you say,
“You can’t make them come; you must show them
My goodness. It is mine to give and theirs to accept.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Where I Belong

Today’s coffee: Valentine’s blend (but I’m still drinking New Year’s blend at home)

It seems like ages since New Year’s Day, and at the same time, it seems like no time has passed at all, as if I were just opening my jū-bako to show off this year’s osechi to Keith. But since it is still January, Happy New Year! 今年も宜しくお願い致します (Please be kind to me this year too.)

Osechi, the traditional Japanese New Year’s feast, is the most complicated and labor-intensive meal of the year. I spend a day planning, half a day shopping, two or three days cooking, and then about two hours arranging the food in a three-tiered lacquered box (jū-bako). There’s a word in Japanese describing an undertaking like this one: 面倒くさい (mendō-kusai), which literally means “stinks of trouble.” The benefit of all this work is that we eat it for days. Traditionally it’s three days, but with only two of us, it lasts at least a week, until we’ve had enough, but it’s still not gone. “Maybe you should make smaller batches next time,” suggested Keith.

Filling the boxes...
Step by step, as each item goes in
This year included, I’ve made the full-on osechi meal six times. The first time, in 2010, I could barely read Japanese; I was saved by the step-by-step instructions with pictures in my osechi cookbook. Some of the ingredients and cooking techniques didn’t even show up in my dictionary, so a lot of guesswork was involved. This year I didn’t use a dictionary at all, since my cooking obsession gave me the motivation to learn all that complicated vocabulary and more. Keith says our osechi gets better every year with practice, but he’s probably also getting accustomed to the taste.

As I made grocery lists and translated recipes and shopped for expensive ingredients this year, part of me wondered why on earth I put myself through this rigmarole (almost) every year. It’s tasty, but perhaps not three-days-of-solid-work tasty. Hardly any of my Japanese friends even do this; if they eat osechi (it’s kind of old-fashioned), they order it from a department store or restaurant. So why?

I suppose it’s the same reason I eat turkey and all the fixings on Thanksgiving Day, despite it not being a holiday here, and despite the trouble and expense of getting all those imported ingredients. It’s because back home, all my family and friends are eating turkey and sharing around the table what they are thankful for. When I eat the same meal and give thanks with my friends here, even in Japan, it’s like I’m affirming that even with the ocean dividing us, I still belong to my family and to the community in which I grew up.

By making and eating Toshi-koshi soba (year-crossing soba) on New Year’s Eve, osechi and ozōni (soup with mochi) on New Year’s Day, nanakusa-gayu (seven-greens rice porridge) on January 7, and so on, I remind myself that I belong here too, to this place and to these people.

Each of the foods in the osechi feast symbolize a hope for the coming year: red and white foods expressing the festivity of a fresh start, tiny fish for fruitfulness, beans for the ability to work hard (a wordplay in Japanese), kombu rolls for joy (also a wordplay), lotus root (which has holes) for clear-sightedness, taro root cut into turtle shape for longevity, yellow foods for prosperity, and so on. I eat these foods together with my friends here as I share their same hopes and prayers.

This is comforting, when so often I feel out of place and out of my depth, and sometimes I don’t even want to belong. But God brought me here and joined me to this community also; I affirm this by my feasting.

It’s no wonder, since I also experience my deepest belonging by feasting at the Table of Tables—and this sense of belonging informs and deepens the others as heaven and earth are joined together. I belong here and everywhere God is honored.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

One man, set free

I saw him out of the corner of my eye. A middle aged man, wearing the ubiquitous white paper mask, backpack slung over a black pea coat. A perfectly normal-looking Japanese man, except that his eyes were closed and his hands outstretched, swaying in time with this live Gospel choir performance in the middle of Sendai station.

Passersby stared at him, bemused expressions on their faces. The performers were too busy to notice; the small audience ignored him, or pretended to ignore him, hands folded, smiling placidly, tapping their feet almost imperceptibly.

Standing quietly in a row with the other audience members, I glanced over at him. I wondered who he was, how he of all people had been able to defy the unspoken rule that strong emotions be tucked safely away and brought out at only a few socially approved outlets, like at sports events or in a karaoke box. I felt embarrassed for him, and yet somehow awed. How was it that he paid no mind to the stares and sneers of those around him? Was he drunk? Was he lost in the music? Did he have a mental illness that lowered his inhibitions? Or was he having some sort of transcendent worship experience, all by himself, right in the middle of Sendai station?

Jealous tears welled up in my eyes as I realized that in this crowd of stoics, he was the most human of us all.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018


Fifty hours and thirty-one minutes until my next concert—Friday morning at 10:00, at the annual women’s Christmas concert at a nearby church. The last I heard, 142 people have reserved tickets out of a possible 150.

The program is a bear: the Rachmaninoff sonata, which is the most difficult piece in our repertoire by far for Shino, and the Beethoven fourth sonata, which, although not terribly difficult, takes immense concentration and precision, because the writing is sparse and every mistake can be heard.

This will be our first performance of the entire Rachmaninoff sonata; we’ve been adding to it bit by bit over the last two years. We were relieved to come to the fourth movement and find it not as difficult as the first movement, although there are moments which favor the composer’s gigantic hands over Shino’s small ones, and she has to be rather creative to get all the notes—including rolling chords that come in the middle of a quickly moving melodic line. (We’ve started calling this issue “the big hands problem.”)

Under normal circumstances, we might be inclined to put the Beethoven sonata first and the Rachmaninoff last in a program, but we felt it might be better to perform Rachmaninoff first, while we are fresh. I asked Shino if it was really okay to put Rachmaninoff in the program this time. “If I can play this, I can play anything,” she responded. (And, we confess, the beautiful piano at this particular church lit a fire under us to have the entire Rachmaninoff sonata ready in time.)

But while practicing yesterday, I started to panic and to second-guess the wisdom of our choices for this program. This transition is still rough, I thought. I still haven’t nailed that shift. This fast bit is messy. This melody is boring the way I play it now. If I mess up the counting during this rest, I don’t have the confidence that I’ll come in at the right time. And on and on and on. As a result, I kept practicing past that sweet spot where I’m warmed up and focusing well… into the place where I started making stupid mistakes because I was tired. I was out of time.

I feel this way before almost every concert—the despair that even though I’ve done my best to prepare, once again, this concert will not be perfect. I can comfort myself all I like with the assurance that no one will notice, but I will notice, and so will Shino. We are both painfully aware of our shortcomings as musicians.

Judith Glyde, my cello professor in college, gave me some excellent advice that I’ve never forgotten. The week before a major performance, it’s best to practice a lot early in the week, while daily reducing the amount of practice, with light practice the day before, and only warming up the day of the concert. Right before a concert, she explained, a performer is very susceptible to the effect of mistakes in practice. When you make a mistake right before a performance, even in a spot you usually get right, you panic, and hastily fix the problem… and then panic again when you get to that spot in the concert. So, although it seems counter-intuitive, it’s best to trust that you’ve done your best and practiced enough, and go into a concert well-rested and confident.

My life as a musician includes a constant letting go of the lofty ideal of a perfect performance. There is no such thing. It’s a paradox: I strive for perfection, knowing I will never achieve it. I can only practice so much. At some point I will always run out of time or energy or concentration.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could play this concert, enjoying every gorgeous moment of these two exquisite sonatas, not caring one bit if we mess up, or if anyone notices?

Forty-nine hours and fifteen minutes until my next concert…

At our last concert. If you look closely, you will see that we're about to start the first movement of the Rachmaninoff sonata.