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Monday, July 25, 2011

Home Is Where the Heart Is

The trip to Sacramento, CA. brought back a flood of memories. The stark contrast of the green forests in Washington compared to the golden hills dotted with live oaks in California, reminded me of why I disliked Seattle. The blue skies and the bright sun caused me to squint. I hadn’t worn sunglasses in 7 years. The temperature in the central valley was unusually mild for July…75 degrees. “It’s so flat and open here,” I commented to Erika. My mom’s neighbor was kind enough to pick us up from the airport. This gave me a chance to look out of the car window and remember that “California feeling”. The cars drive faster, the roads are wider, the stop lights are quicker, and the people are dressed in shorts/ t-shirts. Yes, this is California. The warm sun felt fantastic. The air was dry and there was a light breeze cooled by the distant ocean. Everything felt so familiar. I knew this place like the back of my hand and I wanted to see my old stomping grounds and meet our dear friends. I was careful to say or think that I was back home again. Was I back home? This was a question that I desperately needed to answer before I moved to Japan.

When I was recently in Japan, I made it a point to ask myself if this was the place I could call home. I would sit and gaze at my volcano and wonder if I would miss “Home”. As I walked the back roads of Tsukahara, I wondered if my home was in Japan. To answer that question I had to relate to my current situation…living in Federal Way. I often asked Erika, over the course of the past 7 years, if Federal Way felt like home. She said, yes, and stated that where ever I was and the doggies were, she felt like it was home. There is a lot of truth to that. Home is where the heart is. The problem for me is that my heart was never in Seattle. I moved here because I had to. I could not give up 15 years at the same workplace so easily. It was a good job and we both knew it. We had to move because the situation required us to do so. In all honesty, Seattle has felt like a long stopover. You know the feeling…it’s like staying at a motel in an unfamiliar town. I have never felt like this was my home…not even for a minute. Some of this feeling was because I never allowed it to be my home. We made a few friends and for me that was saying a lot. I do not make friends easily. I have held an unfair grudge against this city because of the way I migrated here. The feeling of living somewhere because “you want to” compared to living somewhere because “you have to” is light years apart. I took those feeling I had bundled up inside for these past 7 years and brought them to Tsukahara. Would I feel the same in Japan?

As I walked the back roads of Tsukahara with my wife and Sakura (neighbor’s dog) a magical thing happened. I started talking to complete strangers. A mother and her daughter were blowing their truck horn to bring in the cows that were grazing near the volcano. After a few minutes, the mother started searching for the cows. She must have been in her seventies, but she was as strong as an ox. She marched out into the tall grass and called for her cows. After a while, she disappeared into the bushes. We waited patiently with her daughter. A person bicycled past us and stopped to chat. He rented our home before we purchased it. We talked a bit as the mother continued to look for the cows. I wanted to help search for the cows. Then, another close friend from Erika’s hometown of Suminoe, drove by and stopped. We had known them for many years. All of this occurred on a tiny road in front of the volcano in Tsukahara. What’s so magical about the moment was that I realized I knew all of these people and I was comfortable with them. The new neighbor with the cows invited me to help gather her cows in a future roundup. This sounded like a great opportunity for me because their land was located right next to the volcano and I would have a chance to be a “Japanese cowboy”. Our dogs were invited too. I could not stay to watch her mom find the cows, but we did make another friend. The experience of making new friends repeated itself throughout my recent trip to Japan. Actually, this experience had repeated itself over and over during the many trips to Japan. It’s just that at that magical moment in time I came to the realization that I felt like I was home. I embedded those emotions in my brain and carried those thoughts to a very special place in my heart…Green Valley.

Green Valley stirs up emotions of a wonderful time Erika and I shared. I had a great job, Erika worked at the best place ever and her supervisor and coworkers were the greatest. We had a beautiful home with a gorgeous Japanese garden. We had time to do our hobbies including stained glass and woodworking. I could fly my remote controlled sailplanes off a nearby hill and walk the dogs for miles without seeing a single person. The small community was surrounded by man-made lakes and we felt safe there. A small shopping center opened up which allowed easy access to grocery shopping within walking distance. On Saturdays, we would walk there to pick up some scones or croissants for breakfast. A farmers market was nearby which provided us with all kinds of inexpensive fruits and vegetables. We were in the countryside, so we could walk to pet/feed horses and look at the vineyards. Our next door neighbor was the best. We shared a lot of the same interests and beliefs. We were very lucky to have them. Yes, it was a very special time in our lives.

Of course, not everything was perfect. I did have to commute 1 to 1.5 hours each way to Oakland. The commute took its toll on my health and happiness. I was having personality conflicts at work. I often found myself complaining about the smallest things. When I look back, I felt sorry for Erika. She endured a lot of complaining from me. She worries that I will do the same in Japan. However, she has noticed that I have changed for the better. Rather than complaining, I get out there and do something about it. Erika has shown me how to do that.

During this past trip to California I had a chance to hike a couple of hours in Rockville Park, overlooking Green Valley. I was convinced that of all my travels, there was no place more beautiful than the view above Green Valley. My previous dogs had their ashes scattered there. It was the place where I would go to fly my sailplanes, and the place I could go to gather my thoughts. It was a very special place in my heart. With my memories of Tsukahara swirling in my head, I could finally sit down and answer the question about whether if Green Valley was the home that I longed for or if Tsukahara was the place where my heart was. I walked along a ridge overlooking the distant hills that were shrouded by the marine layer. The marine layer is like a giant fog/cloud bank that provides a natural air-conditioning effect when the westerly winds blow during the summer months. The effect is dramatic and can cool the area by as much as 20 degrees compared to the central valley. This is one of the reasons why the Napa Valley was such a successful wine growing region.

I hiked the park trails and a flood of memories came to me. I could almost see my dogs playing near the mighty oak trees. The air was cool and dry. The warm sun was filtered by passing clouds. It was a glorious day to be hiking in Rockville Park. I felt like I was the only one there. After about 1.5 hours, I hiked back up to the ridge and found the spot where I often thought was my favorite place in the whole world. It was a magical place for me, however it felt different than before. I could see that my attitude had changed. It was comfortable to be back hiking the trails. It felt comfortable to see friends. It felt almost…too comfortable. I imagined my future life in Japan and compared it to my past life in Green Valley. It’s hard to describe, but for some strange reason I had this urge to complain about something. I thought about all of the homes being built right up to the park’s boundary line. I thought of the warning signs: Beware of Coyotes. Keep Your Dog On Leash! I’ve never had to worry about that before. Of course the coyotes are in the park. They have nowhere else to go! New homes are being constructed everywhere. I looked out and saw Fairfield as I stood on the ridge. New businesses and construction were overtaking what I once thought was countryside. I remember back in 1966 when the only stop was a single stop sign (I sound very old) in Fairfield.

When I was climbing up the trail into the park, I came across a lady of Middle Eastern descent. She stared at me like I was from another planet. She continued to stare at me until I could not see her anymore. I felt uncomfortable, as if my comfort zone was violated. I wanted to blame her. This place, that was my home of 40 years, felt strangely foreign to me. It was like the area grew/changed and I was no longer part of it. There was nothing I could do about it. I just accepted the fact and left with the confidence that I had answered a question that had been bugging me for a long time. My future home was in Japan and my heart was on the mountainside overlooking my volcano in Tsukahara. I couldn’t wait to go back.


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