On Graduation

There’s this date that looms in my peripheral vision, steadily approaching, often menacing; graduation.  I try not to think of it it but at the same time it feels foolish to avoid.  I’ve been in college far too long, longer than I ought to have been; and yet as much as I yearn to break free of it all, at the same time I just need more time.   I want a do-over.   Those first few years were just practice rounds.  I’ve realized too late that this isn’t what I want to be…

When you’re in college, you can work a crappy job, and nobody judges you because you’re just working your way through college.

When you’re in college, you can live in a hole in the wall, and nobody judges you because you’re paying your way through college.

When you’re in college, you can be the biggest loser, but you still have potential.  Once you graduate, the potential seeps away from you, like half life draining, until you’re nothing but a loser in a dead end job and a crappy apartment.  And student loans to pay.

What’s my half life?  42 days and counting and I don’t know what I want to be.

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A room of my own

After my parents separated, my dad moved to an apartment complex about 30 minutes away.  Although it was a one bedroom, I had my very own closet in which to keep my toys and books. On those weekends I visited I would sleep on the couch; but my bedtime was earlier than my dad was willing to relinquish the tv, so I would go to sleep in his bed and he’d carry me out to the living room when he’d finished.

I’m not sure when he moved again, whether or not it was before or after the big custody dispute, but eventually it was acknowledged that I needed a room of my own. Before I’d always shared with my half-brother (who has a different father and thus did not now factor into the equation) and so it was a thrill to decorate the room by my own aesthetic. I fancied dogs at the time, and it showed in my bedding and on my bookshelf.  My father is a very neat person and so I kept my own room remarkably tidy, a skill I’ve since lost.

I remember my first television.  It was a birthday present when I was eight or nine, a tiny thing by today’s standards but I was so proud.  On Saturday nights I would stay up late to watch Snick on Nickelodeon; Roundhouse and Are You Afraid of the Dark? and The Secret Life of Alex Mack.  And then the programming would end and I’d switch off the television and go to sleep.

I was eleven when my father moved to Florida, the place he’d spent most his childhood.  I didn’t take it well, in the long run. The first time I came down to visit, I had no bedroom, not even a toy closet.  He’d given all his things, all our things, away to Goodwill.  He’d asked me, before moving, if I’d wanted anything, but I said no.  I think I had assumed he would take it all with him, it would be there for me when I visited.  But my legos were gone, my Littlest Petshop play set, my Beverly Cleary books.  My bed was a mattress in the living room.  My father’s home wasn’t my home anymore. I felt like an unwanted guest.

My father eventually moved to a larger apartment in Florida, and when I visited I would stay in the guest room.  There was my old dresser, my old nightstand, even my old television, looking so much smaller than when I’d first gotten it as a child.  I would put clothes in the dresser, set up my phone to charge on my night stand.  But it was always the guest room, never mine.  Did other people stay there when I was away?  Did other people hang their coat in the closet?

Over a decade after moving to Florida, my father decided it was time to build a house of his own.   It is a two story house, two bedrooms, a long sprawling deck, even a fireplace, reminiscent a bit of our first family home back when my parents were still married.  I stayed over Christmas, in the guest room.  The furniture, my old furniture, had all been replaced.  New bed, new dresser.  Nothing left of me.  I left my clothing in my suitcase for the entire stay.  No use unpacking. The room wasn’t mine. I would be leaving soon.

When I went back to live in Ohio, I stayed in my mother’s guest room. We fixed it up a bit for me, put my posters on the walls, my clothes in the closet, things scattered about.  But there was always dissonance, things that didn’t quite fit to me, relics of a time when I wasn’t there.  The room has since been turned into a nursery for when my brother’s baby comes to stay.

I am an adult now.  I keep my own room, my own home.  It is mine in all aspects; I decorate, I pay the rent, I deal with pests and problems.  And yet, for as long as I’m renting, I’ll always have the feeling that it’s not truly mine.  I can’t paint the walls pink, or hang a hammock from the ceiling.  The bed and nightstand are not mine, pre-furnished.  These are other peoples things, and I have to take care of them, because in a couple of months, in a couple of years, I’ll be leaving.  No matter how many posters I stick to the wall, I’ll always be in the guest room.

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My friendly neighborhood druggists

My preferred pharmacy is slightly inconvenient.  From my old dorm it was just a couple minutes walking, but since I moved on campus it’s become slightly out of my way.  No more picking up scripts on the way to the store– my health has to be scheduled now.

I could easily have switched to several pharmacies that are closer to my new location, but I stick with my old pharmacy not out of laziness (mostly) or fear that the transition would be painful. No, I stick with them because they know me by name.

Maybe they’re on the ball, these pharmacy girls.  Maybe they’ve got such a steady stream of Japanese tourists that I stick out like a sore thumb.  Whatever the case, I barely set foot in the door when the call out to me by name.  “Oh hello, Miss Sophielynette*.  We’ll have your prescription ready in just a minute.”  She doesn’t even have to check to see what I’ve come in for.  She just knows.  Maybe they’re psychic, these pharmacy girls.  These on the ball psychic pharmacy girls.

Or maybe I’m just in there too much.

They like to chat as they’re ringing you up.  How is school going?  I forget when I told them I was in college, but they know.

“Going away for the holidays?” she asks when I stop in toward the end of semester.

“Just a short trip,” I reply awkwardly as she nonchalantly rings up my private life.

“Going to Japan again?”  And I kind of cough a little as I realize, I really do come in here too often.

“No, just visiting family.”  I collect my purchases and rush out, wondering why I feel so suddenly embarrassed.

It’s the strange sort of relationship that you have with these people who know you quite literally inside out and yet you don’t even know their names.

I grew up in a small town, where everyone knows everyone’s business and the cashier chats you up at the grocery store.  I grew up and moved away from all that, to the nameless cities of transient strangers and tourists cycling in and out.   I don’t mind the anonymity.  I don’t pine for the country.  But I still gravitate back to my little pharmacy, where they always greet me by name.  Maybe I’ll learn theirs someday.



* you don’t think I’d tell you my real name, did you?  Psh.

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Awaji Island Excursion

Awaji Island lies between and acts as a connection for the main island of Honshu and the island of Shikoku. The Akashi Kaikyo bridge spanning to Honshu is the largest suspension bridge in the world. Our excursion included the Nojima Fault (where originated the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995) and the Naruto Strait where whirlpools can be observed at high tide.










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Minatogawa Shrine


In my Way of Tea class a few semesters back, as we reviewed the history of Japanese aesthetics, I learned the difference between Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines. I’ve since forgotten, which is perhaps a reflection of the grade I got on my final, but it seems the two have all melded into a single entity in my mind. Don’t they all tie slips of paper on a rope wall, wash their hands from a well, and ring a bell to get the gods’ attention? This happened today at the Shinto shrine, I’m sure, but didn’t it also at the Zojoji Temple on New Years? I’m religiously conflicted.


The study abroad students went to the Minatogawa Shrine in Kobe today. Beforehand we were briefed on the protocol. Then we swarmed the temple, a horde of funny-looking funny-talking college kids with no manners, blocking pathways as we walked side by side. I hate traveling in groups.


We washed our hands at the well, left then right, then a swish of water in our mouths but don’t drink it! Then we lined up at the temple to do our prayers.


Start by throwing 5 yen into the offering. 5 yen in Japanese is said “goen”, which shares the same pronunciation as a phrase for good luck. If you are a horrible thrower and your offering misses, apologize to the gods and try again. Tug the rope to alert the gods of your presence, bow twice, clap twice, say your prayer, then bow a final time.

Of course, I may have gotten it all wrong.


Cameras in hand, the students scattered across the grounds, clustered together in groups and pairs save for the lone girl who would really rather sightsee alone, thank you very much. The students bought trinkets and fortunes, exclaiming over their luck. At another small shrine, the bowing and clapping and offerings were repeated to the god of good studies. Rubbing the head of a stone bull was said to give you good luck.


We gathered on the steps for our final group pictures, the teachers juggling handfuls of cameras so everyone could have their own shot. Finally the security guard shooed us off, and peace fell in the shrine once again.


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I am afraid of heights– not so much the height itself but the risk of falling. I find great fun in ferris wheels but make meclimb a ladder and I might start crying.

I am afraid of the dark. It’s one of the reasons I prefer the bright city lights. An overactive imagination is to blame on that one.

I am afraid of power tools. I do not wish to be in control of machines with the ability to cause harm. This fear was evident enough that whenever I’d walk into the woodshop to work on a project some teacher would intervene on my behalf.

I can’t watch scary movies. Ghost stories terrify me. Some nights I still fear whatever lurks beneath the bed.

I do not consider myself brave. And yet whenever I tell people of my plans to travel to Japan alone, it is a word I inevitably hear. I’ve never understood that. I’ve been flying alone since the age of 11. I walk the airport with purpose, breezing through security, strolling to my gate with casual confidence. In truth, the fact that I enjoy traveling alone seems to puzzle people. What if something happens? What if you get lost? To me, getting lost is half the fun.

There was one point, on my first visit to Japan, where I was afraid, and that was when I mistakenly thought I’d lost my passport. There were tears, there was worry, but in the end the passport was found, so no harm came of it. But I have been lost in Japan, more often than not, really. And I have lost things that were precious, and I have worried about money. But rarely was I afraid. What is there to be afraid of?

I don’t think I’m brave. I don’t try to be. I just don’t see a reason for fear.

At the end of this week, I’m flying to Japan again. I’ll spend 6 weeks in a homestay, living with a Japanese family while I attend class at the local university.

For this, I am afraid.

I am not afraid of being alone, of being lost, of being far away from home. Quite the opposite. When I was alone, it didn’t matter what stupid things I did. It was just me watching, just me to remember later and laugh about it. But to spend my days with a family, to witness my every mishap, to be shamed by me? It’s such pressure. Despite my enthusiasm for the language and culture, I am a very poor Japanese student. What if I struggle in school? What if I say the wrong thing to my family? These things terrify me. Suddenly I am being held accountable by more than just myself.

And that’s the truth. Of heights and darkness, of all these fears, the thing that frightens me most is interacting with people.

I am not brave. But I must try to be.

I leave for Japan in four days.

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Dear Diary

Some mornings I wake up groggy.  Some times I linger in dreams.  And some mornings I am pulled instantly from slumber by an urgent buzzing in my brain.  Things to do today.  No time for dawdling.  Things to do.

Pajama clad, I pulled my computer onto my bed to put the finishing touches on my final essay for 20th Century Chinese Literature.  Then I rolled out of bed, threw on some clothes, and headed out to my Japanese Final Exam.

The weather assaulted me as soon as I stepped outside.  Something in the air, a thickness associated with the absence of rain, was giving me difficulties in breathing.  I puffed on my inhaler as I waited for the bus.   Constrained as I am by public transportation, I tend to arrive at my destination either ridiculously early or unacceptably late.  With a Final Exam at stake, I chose the former, and arrived on campus over an hour before things would begin.

Trekking over the grounds in the muggy heat was less than desirable, and to my disappointment, though not surprise, I found the classroom locked when I arrived.  Forehead dripping, I joined the other students camped out outside the room and began to frantically review my class notes.

Japanese has never been my strong point, despite my devotion to the culture.  My teacher had warned me the week before that this Final Exam would be the deciding factor in whether or not I would pass the class.  I have already failed Japanese 102 once.  Failing it a second time would be an inexcusable failure.

The humid air surrounded me.  Bugs flickered around my face.  Nearby, a bird dug through the foliage, devouring insects.  I tried to concentrate.  Transitive verbs.  Intransitive verbs.  Honorific forms.  I spoke and even sung out loud, trying to retain the foreign language in front of me.  Finally the doors opened, and we all filed in.  I ran into a fellow classmate.  “How do you think you’ll do?”  He asked.  I just laughed nervously.

The classroom was actually a lecture hall, ascending in rows of arm-desked chairs.  We were instructed to use staggered seating so that no one would be next to another.  The lecture hall filled.  The chatter rose steadily, then fell.  The teachers (for they were all there, all sections) stood at the front of the class.  They called for silence, cleared desks, phones off.  The tests were passed out.

Eight pages long.  We had two hours.  I had two mechanical pencils and a thick white rectangular eraser.  The first part was multiple choice.  Nothing looked familiar.  Was it all a trick?  I circled one.  The test went on.  Some things I recognized, others were quite foreign.  My mind was blessedly calm, but even in the air conditioned room my asthma was giving me troubles.  I had my inhaler handy in my pocket.  I didn’t want to be scolded for digging into my school bag when I just needed to breathe.

The reading and writing sections were last.  My reading is stronger than my writing, but I was able to use parts of the reading to help me complete the writing.   I double checked my paper then grabbed my bag and stumbled down the stairs to the front.  There was my 101 teacher, smiling encouragingly, and my 102 teacher asking, “Daijoubu?” I smiled at them, turned in my exam, then walked out.

This was a strange door.  I wasn’t entirely sure where I was, but already the adrenaline was starting to hit me.  I was finished.  Done!  I had just completed my last exam of the semester, of the school year, and I was finished with school.  Not finished, finished, certainly not.  In less than a month’s time I will begin my study abroad.  Yet for that moment I had reached the end of a long journey. I had worried so much about that Japanese exam but finally, here was freedom.  I walked onward, nearly skipping, surely grinning, swinging my bags in my hands.  I stopped into the bookstore to sell back my textbooks.  The clerk accepted all but two, puling them all together and awarding me seven dollars and twenty five cents.  Armed with my earnings, I went to lunch.

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