Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Our boat lurched and slowed,

engines still roaring against the weight of the ocean. Ahead of us, a pontoon weighing as much as twenty-two elephants floated silently, waiting for another day’s adventurers. It may have been a kilometer away, maybe three. Distances are tough to judge out on the pelagic – for a land-lubber like me anyway.

The sapphire blue water slowly gave way, revealing an amoebic sprawl of emerald greens and hints of white. Meandering conversations faded as men with tank tops and girls with bikinis and men and women and children crowded the white railing keeping us safe three stories above the South Pacific. The air sat hazy, clouding the horizon as if intent on adding to the dreamy quality of the moment. Many of us had traveled hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles to see this. Most of us would never see it again. Yet somehow, even with my senses under siege by the grandeur of the Great Barrier Reef, my heart racing with the anticipation of diving into these waters, dreams propelled and sharpened by mask and snorkel and fins and unnamable emotions, my mind turned to home.

The phenomenon is nothing new to me. Travel - in a perverse way - creates in me a certain longing for constancy. Predictability. A semblance of routine. Clean clothes. My bathroom and shower and my own refrigerator. My pillow. Things that, for me, comprise ‘home.’

But the feeling is fleeting. By the time I’ve got my mask spit-shined and my feet are dangling in the water, these thoughts have long dissipated and gone. Fish and coral and God manifest await beneath my goofy rubber fins. Home is the last place I’d want to be right now.

Road signs and thin-walled houses and fields flat as lake water filling the canyons among the surrounding hills, the Japan passing by outside my bus window breathes with such familiarity now. As many times as I’ve left and returned, this adopted country of mine has always greeted me with the subtle sense that she still harbors secrets. That I’ve still got much to learn. Much to discover. That I’ve been accepted, but not yet fully initiated.

This time, though, something is different.

Our deepest thoughts are often difficult to put into words, and now is no exception. The best I can say is that it seems the novelty of Japan – and any remaining intrigue, allure, inspiration and whatever other intangibles had previously tickled my senses – has finally, after 8 years, 1 month and 5 days, worn off.

Walking across the Abukumakogen rest area parking lot to go use the men’s room – could there be a more mundane moment? – it occurrs to me that perhaps this ongoing journey I call my life in Japan had ceased to be such. ‘A working vacation’ I always liked to say, referring to my life abroad. But the blurred line has slowly been sharpening, and the vacation part has all but disappeared, leaving me with...a home? Yet for all the familiarity, this place I occupy does not feel like home – not as much as I’d like it to.

As I wash my hands and shake them dry (in Japan, paper towels are so rare as to constitute an anomaly) I acknowledge the ideas that have been building inside me for some time.

It’s true, I don’t want to live in Japan forever. It also seems fairly evident I won’t be leaving anytime too soon. There lies before me a period of life – months, a year, maybe several – that separates me from my next great adventure. It is this intervening time that is begging for my attention.

‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,’ it has been said. Now more than ever, I understand what this means.

I may pack up and move to Europe next year. I may return to the great wide American west. I might grow old right here in Fukushima. Life happens. Life surprises. I’ve been on vacation too long. And traveling overseas is not going to change what ‘home’ is or is not.

As I give up on the cool October air and wipe my damp hands on my shorts I decide I need to become more involved in the life going on around me. Make some new friends. Spend more time with the ones I have. Pick up a few more English lessons without wondering when I am going to have to tell my students I'm leaving. Put up a few more pictures on my walls without thinking about the day I’ll just have to take them all down.

Back on the bus barreling northward through the rain, I listen to my son talking about nursery school and singing songs in Japanese. My wife reaches over and holds out a half-empty tray of natto-maki, something I could not even fathom eating a mere two months ago. I pinch one between my fingers and pop it in my mouth, and resume reading the book in my hands, about a guy who runs a hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred miles at a stretch while living an otherwise normal family existence.

And I think that home is not so much a place, but what I do in the place I am in.