Archives for category: Musings and Meditations

Everyone has what I call “Sliding Door Moments.” If you’ve seen the movie Sliding Doors, you probably get what I mean. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a movie about a woman’s (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) life shown in 2 parallel timelines. I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, but just in case, SPOILER ALERT. In one timeline, the woman catches a subway train just before the doors slide shut and gets home in time to see her boyfriend cheating on her. She breaks up with him and falls in love with someone else. In the other timeline, she misses the train and doesn’t catch him. She stays with him, even though neither one of them seems to be getting much out of the relationship, and he continues to cheat on her. END SPOILER ALERT.

As I’m sure you’ve probably guessed, a Sliding Door Moment is a moment in our lives when something occurs or a choice we have to make radically changes the course of our life. For example, one of my Moments was January 8, 2008 in the early morning. At that moment, I seriously, SERIOUSLY considered not going to the airport and not getting on the plane that would take me to Japan. I clearly remember thinking, “I don’t HAVE to go.” That’s an example of a choice that I made in a Moment. An example of a seemingly serendipitous Moment would be when the representative at Chase Visa gave me the advice that eventually helped me out of debt.

250 yen for one strawberry. To buy or not to buy?

250 yen for one strawberry. To buy or not to buy?

Both of those moments profoundly changed my life. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, all of it was difficult. But at the end of the day, I am here because of those moments, and they helped make me who I am now.

Even though I like my life and who I am now, it’s tempting to think, “What if?” Of course it’s not tempting to wonder about the Moments that obviously led to good things. I have never once tried to imagine what my life would be like if I still had all that debt. But what if I hadn’t gotten on the plane? I had a really good life in the U.S. I had lots of friends, I liked my job, I was very involved in my church. There was absolutely nothing that I wanted to run away from. There are also lots of events I wouldn’t have missed if I had stayed: marriages, births, concerts, parties. Another Moment I often wonder about occurred back in 1987. It was the moment I forgave my high school boyfriend for cheating on me. Forgiving him led to 7 more years in a totally unhealthy relationship, a devastating breakup, and depression. What if I hadn’t forgiven him and instead broken up with him? Wouldn’t my life have been better?

As easy as it is to dwell on those Moments, to convince yourself that life could have been better or easier, it’s so wrong to do it. Most people will tell you that you shouldn’t regret those episodes in your life because they made you stronger and wiser. That may be true, but that is not the only reason I like to leave the past in the past. The Bible tells us that God has a plan for each one of us, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And as if that’s not enough, He also says He will go with us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” and “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” He never once promises His way is easy or painless, but He does promise we won’t face our challenges alone. If we trust this, then we know that those Moments were meant to be. There is no point in wondering “What if?’ because there is only what is.

So the next time you find yourself dwelling on a decision that you should or shouldn’t have made, remember that you are right where you are supposed to be.

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This morning I led our staff devotion time and I shared a very personal story about debt. I’ve shared this story maybe only 2 or 3 times, though I have let others use it in financial counseling situations. At the time that it was going on, I felt extremely ashamed and kept it a secret from my friends. But now I am happy to share it if it helps someone understand the crushing weight of being in debt. Anyway, the reason I shared this particular story this morning was because I was talking about..love.

Perhaps I don’t highlight this part of the story enough, but the person who recommended the debt consolidation service to me, which helped me get control of my debt, changed my life merely by being kind. When I tell my story, I usually focus on the stress of receiving (and avoiding) phone calls from debt collectors. So stressful! They are not nice people. I mean, I know they have to do their job and all, but it’s very clear that they usually look at people like me as “losers” and “deadbeats.” I can understand it. From their little cubicle where they work every day to bring home a paycheck, it seems very simple: if you use a credit card, you have to pay the bill. If these people have never experienced debt themselves, it’s easy for them to think that a lack of payment comes from a lack of willingness to pay. To them, we are just people who are trying to get something (or a lot of things) for free. And that just is not fair; everything has a price.

I was not shocked by this attitude when I was met with it. Defensive and embarrassed, but not shocked. It’s extremely difficult to think outside our personal experience, and it’s very easy to apply our own situation to everyone. I think this is a common way of thinking for most of the world, and it’s not limited to this particular situation. That whole “walk a mile in my shoes” thing? Way easier said than done. It takes time and effort to try to understand where someone is coming from when their situation is so different from our own.

These people who are on the phone all day making the same kind of calls over and over again? I bet they’re tired. I bet they’re disheartened. I bet they’re cynical. I would be. I’m sure I would find it difficult to maintain a positive attitude all day every day, to be kind and understanding with every person that says they can’t pay what they owe. It’s so much easier to put everyone in the same box, the same mold. After all, whether a person answers with tears or with threats, isn’t everyone essentially saying the same thing?

To be fair, I was definitely saying the same thing as everyone else. I was avoiding the phone calls, making minimum payments, making excuses. In no way did I stand out from the crowd. There was no way for anyone to know that I was losing sleep or that I was paralyzed with fear. I had no idea how to get help because I was too embarrassed to ask for it. What made all the difference was the way that one woman on the other end of the phone chose to treat me. I made the phone call expecting it to go like all the others: get scolded for making a late payment, be sternly advised to pay more, and be told thank you in a manner that suggested I didn’t deserve to be thanked. But instead, this call changed the course of my life. This woman told me gently (but very plainly) that, according to my payment history, I was never going to pay off this debt without help. Then she offered to connect me with a debt consolidation service. I was so stunned by her effort to help me that I began to cry. I tried to tell her through the tears how grateful I was and how she was the first person to help my by suggesting this, but she just waved it off. The whole call was over in less than 5 minutes.

I don’t know anything about this woman. I don’t even remember her name. Maybe she gave everyone this same information. All I know is that it was this one simple act of kindness that led me to get control of, and eventually pay off, my crushing financial debt. My entire life was changed (for the better) by just a few kind words. She chose to treat me differently not because she knew me and knew what I needed, but because she chose love. It’s so easy to judge others, to compare them to ourselves. I do this every day! It is a constant challenge to remember that love starts with ourselves. If we love others the way God loves us, it can change someone’s life forever.

Have you all seen this new Pantene commercial that tells women to stop apologizing? I just came across it the other day and I’m really confused by it. I get that the point is to help women feel empowered. And some of the examples are really valid. For example, the scene where the guy sits down and takes over the whole armrest. The woman who was already sitting there is the one who moves her arm and says, “Sorry”. The guy doesn’t even glance at her. Clearly, he’s a rude jerk who should have apologized to her. And yes, the scene with the multiple women apologizing to the guy who comes in late and wants to sit down was ridiculous. But what about some of the others? Was it really wrong that the woman said, “Sorry,“ when she walked into the person’s office? We have no idea what the person was doing in the office before she walked in, but the door was clearly closed. It would not be unheard of to think that a closed door means the person is busy. I don’t know what they’re teaching the kids these days, but I was taught to use words like “sorry” and “excuse me” when you interrupt someone. Was it such a terrible thing for the woman to apologize when she and the man started talking at the same time? Yes, I know, the man didn’t bother to apologize, but that doesn’t mean she has to be rude as well. It was polite of her to say, “Sorry, you go first.”  Is the commercial saying that women don’t have to be polite because men aren’t? Is it saying that everyone should just be rude and selfish no matter what your gender? Being empowered does not mean being rude. A little common courtesy never killed anyone. Perhaps if we all exhibited a little more polite behavior no one would need to be empowered by shampoo commercials.

Here’s a better ad, in my opinion:

 

I have lived most of my life in the Chicago area, and I suppose I have a love-hate relationships with the seasons. Especially winter. About 20 years ago, I moved to Los Angeles for a while. While I absolutely loved the year-round mild weather at first, I began to long for the seasons that I was used to in the Midwest. Now that I live in and experience the seasons of Osaka, I realize you need to be careful what you wish for. While the winter in Osaka is far milder than in Chicago, the rainy season here is the worst. So I have compiled a list of why 梅雨 (tsuyu – the rainy season) is the worst.

1) It’s hot. Now, I am no fan of the cold rains that we get in Chicago in April. But the rainy season in Osaka takes place in June and July. The hottest part of the summer actually occurs right after the rainy season (in July and August), so it’s pretty much building up to that. Plus, you have the added effect of point number 2, which is…

2) It’s sticky. Humid. Muggy. Sultry, stifling, mushiatsui. Whatever you want to call it, it’s pretty miserable. You know how in the Midwest we look forward to a good rain because it will cool things off? Not the case in Osaka. In fact, it gets worse. Now, instead of just having moisture in the air, it’s also steaming up from the ground. The second you walk outside, your clothes begin to stick to you. You learn to bring a fresh shirt with you everywhere. And your apartment? Fuggedaboutit. No longer able to open the windows because of all that rain, you are probably stuck with an air conditioner in only one room and/or a fan. Those of you who have experienced a power outage during a summer storm may have a clue what I’m talking about. But Japanese homes don’t have central air conditioning, so it never gets all that cool to begin with. Your home begins to feel a bit like you are living inside a bowl of warm gelatin. May God help you if you need to be in the tiny bathroom for more than 30 seconds.

3) It’s wet. This seems like a no-brainer. I mean, it’s raining, so duh. But what I’m talking about here is the complete inability of any person to stay dry. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, it’s not bad. But definitely don’t wear good shoes, because even driving can’t save them. Many places don’t have parking lots, so you can’t make a quick dash from the car to the door. You’ll probably have to walk a bit. Riding a bike? Yeah, that’ll be covered in #5 below.

4) It’s dirty. I always liked the clean, fresh smell after a storm. The rain always seemed to refresh things, make them greener and cleaner. Here the garbage just stands out more clearly. I don’t even like to think about it. And it’s not like Osaka is filthy on a fine day. The rain just somehow makes it worse. We don’t have puddles; we have tiny cesspools. I rarely wear sandals on rainy days here for fear of what I might step in.

5) Riding your bike becomes treacherous. And ridiculous. There are a couple ways to attempt to stay dry while on a bike. Neither of them are good options. #1, which few people do, is wear a full-length rain suit. A rain suit is pretty much a pullover plastic coat with hood and a pair of plastic pants. While this sounds like it will keep you dry, it actually has the opposite effect by causing you to sweat profusely. I mean, you’ve encased yourself in plastic, so what did you expect? The other option is to carry an umbrella. Believe it or not, this is actually illegal. Yet, almost everyone does it. I have yet to hear of someone who was ticketed for carry an umbrella while biking, though it’s probably a good rule. The problem with doing this is twofold (I guess threefold if you count the whole breaking the law thing). First, it only covers your head and torso. Your legs will still get soaked, so you’d better have an extra pair of pants with you. Secondly, it makes a slightly dangerous mode of travel extremely dangerous. I’m pretty good on my bike, but even I don’t feel like I have complete control when I’ve got only one hand on the handlebars. Biking is already dangerous because so many people do it and nobody ever looks where they’re going. Add to that umbrellas that could smack you in the head and loss of balance and you’ve got several accidents waiting to happen.

Really, if there’s any way you can hole up in your house or leave the country during tsuyu, do it. You won’t miss anything, trust me.

A friend of mine recently recommended the movie Saving Mr. Banks to me. We were having one of our epic conversations about the Oscars (3 hours on Skype, and that’s not even a record for us) and Tom Hanks came up. If you saw Captain Phillips, then you know it was an absolute travesty that he was not nominated in the Best Actor category. Seriously, the last scene alone should earn him an Oscar every year for the rest of his life. Even if he didn’t do any movies that year.

Anyway, my friend said Mr. Hanks was also fantastic in Saving Mr. Banks. In fact, he was so insistent, that I felt I had to see for myself. So I settled in with it last night at home. I knew pretty much nothing about P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, so the whole movie was a revelation (although be warned, the movie takes quite a few artistic liberties, as I learned from my research afterwards). I wasn’t a Mary Poppins fan before, but I am now. The whole story was wonderful, moving, hopeful. It is no wonder that I cried through the entire thing. Really. Pretty much from beginning to end. If I wasn’t crying because something bad happened, I was crying because something good happened. There really was not a lot of down time for me. In fact, I was watching it in the evening and I eventually got hungry at some point and decided to eat dinner. I even cried then. The tears streamed down my face and into my food, forcing me to literally eat my own salty tears. It’s attractive, I know. Sobbing and chewing. This is why I live alone.

This is not the first time I have made a fool of myself crying over a movie. When I saw Forrest Gump in the theater, I cried so hard my contacts fell out. I had to hold them in my palm and hope that they didn’t dry up before the movie ended and I could go to the bathroom and pop them back in (it was close, but I made it). My friend told me in the same conversation that one of his favorite memories is the time we went to see Atonement together. He said that there was a point during the movie where there had been a lot of noise and then it suddenly got quiet. It was at this moment that he heard me make a little gasping, sobbing noise next to him. A sound which reverberated throughout the silent theater. Yep, that was me.

But at least he was understanding about my crying. Yes, he may have teased me later, but it was not at all mean. Unlike Betty the Drama Queen. Betty the Drama Queen (one of my very favorite people and a great friend) used to just flat-out laugh at me during the movie. In fact, her laughing usually distracted people from my crying, for which I was suppose I should be thankful. BDQ and I went to see The Passion of the Christ together at the local theater. Before entering the theater, she said she needed to stop at concessions, where she proceeded to buy a diet Coke and popcorn. As if we were going to see a Michael Bay movie. And if that weren’t bad enough, during the scene where Jesus is being flogged, BDQ kept whispering in my ear about how amazing the makeup was. The whole experience turned out to be the one time when it would have been totally acceptable to break down crying, and yet I could not shed a tear. How could I? With frequent offers of popcorn and whispered exclamations of, “Oh my goodness, HOW did they do that?! Doesn’t that look fabulous?” I just couldn’t get into it.

Yes, many a time I’ve been close to requiring hospitalization after a movie. My earliest memory of losing it during a movie is when I was about 10 years old and my family went to see The Fox and the Hound. I cried my eyes out. I can’t imagine what the parents waiting in line thought when they saw me come out of the theater, eyes all red and puffy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them quickly took their kids out of line and said, “Hey, I’ve got a better idea. Let’s go bowling instead!” But you know, I wouldn’t change that about myself. It’s rather cathartic to cry like that. I always feel better afterward, if a bit exhausted. And I’d rather be reduced to tears by a movie than by my own real life.

ImageOne of my all-time favorite movies is Until the End of the World.  It’s a 3 hour (the director’s cut is 5 hours) futuristic road movie about chasing love, happiness, and a controversial invention that turns your dreams into home movies.  All set in the year 1999.  In the opening scenes of the movie, the narrator, played by Sam Neill, gives us a brief description of the times: “1999 was the year that the Indian nuclear satellite went out of control. No one knew when it would land. It soared above the ozone layer like a lethal bird of prey.  The whole world was alarmed.” I’ve been wondering if we will think back on 2014 in a similar way, remembering it as the year Malaysian flight MH370 went missing.

Malaysia jetI mean, they lost a jet, a huge Boeing 777.  Filled with people.  And equipped with all kinds of state-of-the-art communication devices.  How can that happen?  They’re saying today (though it could easily change tomorrow) that someone had to have purposely turned off all the devices and whatnot that allow the plane to be tracked.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is not good.  I mean, that sounds like someone wants the plane to not be found.  Is it the pilot?  A passenger who hijacked the plane?  Charles Widmore?  No one knows.  But in the dead time following the Olympics, the Oscars, and a weekend binge of House of Cards, the mystery of it all is somewhat alluring.  Not to make light of it – I’m sure the families who are praying for their loved ones to be found are not at all fascinated. More likely they are dumbfounded, angry, and desperate for a resolution.  But for those of us who are not intimately connected, it’s compelling.  How and why did they do it?  Where are they now?  Are they alive, and if by some miracle they are, why haven’t we heard anything?  And the question no one wants to ask out loud, how long until we give up?

Pray for MH370So what world event will define 2014?  It’s still too early in the year to make that call.  So far we have a few contenders: the Sochi Olympics (memorable more for the sketchy accommodations than for the sports themselves), Crimea being separated from Ukraine and annexed to Russia, and now the missing plane.  Who knows what else will happen in the next 9 months?  I’m just relieved that there’s already enough to overshadow the shock that Matthew McConaughey (Matthew McConaughey, for Pete’s sake) won an Oscar.

Power of WordsI’ve been perusing other WordPress blogs and I’ve discovered something. There are quite a few would-be writers out there. Several times I’ve seen mentions of novels in the works, or dreams of someday being published. Nothing wrong with that at all. It makes sense that people who want to write would find an outlet in the blogosphere. I, however, am not one of them. Oh no. I have no desire to be a writer. All that pressure to write something meaningful, something that makes an impact on the world. No thank you. Alright, yes, it’s true, I guess I’ve thought about it once or twice. But only because so many of my friends have told me I should write. “What?” I say to them. “You’re crazy. What would I even write about?” What would I write about, indeed. I certainly didn’t pay any attention to that recent Buzzfeed quiz, What Career Should You Actually Have, when it clearly stated that I should be a writer. I really wouldn’t even know where to begin. Although, I suppose, yes, I’ve had a few interesting experiences. I’ve often thought that I’ve packed at least 3 lifetimes into the short time I’ve been alive. In fact, some periods of my life seem unreal to me, almost as if they were part of some movie I saw. In all honesty, my life would make a pretty good movie. I guess if I were going to be coerced into writing something, a novel loosely based on my life experiences that could easily be envisioned on the big screen would make the most sense. Not that I would ever really consider it. I mean, I guess I might actually try submitting some of my work somewhere if it would get everyone to stop telling me I should be a writer. That would show them, wouldn’t it? If I tried and just failed? Of course, if you look at it completely objectively, I probably wouldn’t fail. I’m pretty creative, I’ve had lots of interesting experiences, and besides, they can’t all be wrong, can they? But it doesn’t matter because if I wrote a novel and it was made into a movie, there’s no guarantee it would be a hit. Though between you and me, I can already picture some of the scenes in my head, and if you could get some major stars attached, like Jennifer Lawrence and maybe Matthew McConaughey, my movie would be huge. HUGE. I just wouldn’t want to deal with the fame, though. You know, you write a best-selling novel and it gets turned into a hit movie and suddenly everyone knows you and is making all kinds of offers and you’re the most popular person in the business. Way too much stress. Sure, there are perks. Traveling all over the world, getting into the swankiest restaurants, hanging out with celebrities, probably going to the Oscars. That’s really why I don’t want to be a writer. I mean, who wants all that? Not me.

I love the parking lot traffic directors at Mandai. Actually, you can see them a lot of places, but I go to Mandai pretty frequently so they are the ones I see the most. The parking lot traffic directors are great. They are almost always retired guys who work part-time at shops with lots of traffic. They wear uniforms and carry a “wand,” which looks a bit like a short light saber. And you can trust them completely. They are vigilant, constantly watching all around them for cars, bikes, and pedestrians in need of directing. Ready to hold up one hand to stop that car while waving you on with the light saber. Quite often when I come around the corner on my bike, the Mandai traffic looks a bit crazy. I consider getting off my bike and just walking it the rest of the way, hoping that the traffic clears out enough for me to pass through. But then the traffic director looks over at me and nods and waves me into the parking lot with total authority. All he says is, “Hai! Dozo, dozo,” but I know he means, “Go ahead, miss. As long as I’m on duty, you won’t get hit by any cars. My job is to serve and protect, and you can count on me to do just that.”
The other job I really appreciate is the bike lot attendants. Usually near the train stations there are bike parking lots where you can pay to leave your bike all day. There’s usually a guy in the little office where you pay, and then 2 or 3 guys, also retired gentlemen, who help you with your bike. In the morning, it’s not such a big deal. Everyone’s kinda coming in and parking his or her bike wherever. But when you return in the evening to get your bike, the parking lot is almost always packed tight. The bikes are all lined up in these neat rows, and they’re really close together. It would be impossible to get your bike out if it weren’t for the bike lot attendants. You just walk over to your bike, unlock it, and the attendant will maneuver your bike out and bring it over to you in the main aisle. When you leave your bike in the morning, they say, “See you later,” and when you return, they say, “Welcome back.” They’re like a bunch of kindly grandfathers. Probably they really are grandfathers, so I guess it makes sense.

Tonight as I was riding my bike home from work, I had to stop for the train as I usually do.  As I was waiting, an old woman walked up and stood to my right about 7 or 8 feet away.  I gave her a little glance, but didn’t pay much attention.  But then out of the corner of my eye, I saw her edge a little closer to me.  I glanced sideways at her, wondering what caused her to move closer, but didn’t see anything unusual.  Then she edged closer still.  At this point, I became paranoid that she was going to make a grab for the small bag of groceries I had just bought and was sitting in my basket.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized the groceries were just begging to be stolen.  What was I thinking, putting them out in the open like that?  I could tell she knew I had found a good deal on frozen French fries and she wanted in. So I coyly wrapped the plastic bag handle around my handlebars.  “Just try it now, lady, ” I thought smugly.  The train passed and the rail went up and I thought I was home free, but then I found out the real reason she had moved closer.  Her diabolical plan all along was to step right in front of me and then walk as slowly as possible.  I had nowhere to go.  To the left was nothing but rocks and train tracks.  On my right, other bikers were passing me at the speed of light, only too happy that they were not the ones stuck behind her.  Well played, old lady.  Maybe I should have just given her the groceries.

While we’re on the subject of annoying things that people to do to other people (i.e. me) on the street, I think there needs to be a law that prevents groups of 2 or more people from forcing someone off the sidewalk and into rush hour traffic just so that they can continue to walk next to each other.  Or maybe they just need to start teaching basic physics in Japanese schools, because obviously they do not understand that 2 people cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  Unless of you is a ghost.  Which I am not.  And hopefully, neither are you.  If you are, then we’ve got even bigger problems.

USB typewriterI work in an organization staffed by about 15 people (plus several volunteers) in a 3-story building.  My office is on the 3rd floor, and I share it with 3 other people.  Were it not for these 3 co-workers, my day would be extremely lonely, since no one EVER visits the 3rd floor.  I even brought in flavored coffee from my favorite coffee shop in the U.S. to try to bribe people to come visit.  The attempt was a complete fail.  On the upside, the 4 of us got more coffee.  But today I am flying solo, and it has been a loooooong day.  To break the monotony, I wandered down to the first floor to make a lovely cup of afternoon milk tea.  One of the volunteers was sitting at the main table with a big stack of posters, so I asked her what she was working on.  She told me that she was putting these new stickers on the posters that informed people you could take a picture of the poster with your smart phone and then somehow donate directly through your phone. I just looked at her for a second in amazement.  I mean, she was obviously excited, so I knew she wasn’t making it up.  But it just sounded like crazy talk to me.  I know, I’ve seen those little boxes with the squiggly lines (which I just now Googled and discovered they are called QR codes).  I know you can scan those with an app or something (there’s an app for everything) and you can get special offers or extra information or something.  But this was just a poster.  I have no idea how it works.  It just amazes me.

Don’t get me wrong; I have embraced technology.  I  was an early iPhone 4 user (at least here in Osaka), and the only way you’ll get my iPhone 5 is if you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.  I’m actually very good at using it, too.  I was thrilled to be able to scan a boarding pass recently by using my phone.  When I was in the Philippines, one of my tasks was to set up the satellite phones.  I even taught my parents how to use Skype, which is nothing to sneeze at.  So I’m not technologically challenged.  It’s just that I remember the days before all this.  When I was in university, I typed my papers on a word processor.  It had a little pop-up screen that displayed 4 lines at a time (I was jealous of my sister when she got a newer one a few years later that showed seven lines).  My lab reports were handwritten in duplicate using carbon paper.  My neighbor once told me how she and her boyfriend, a student at a different university, used to communicate using a rudimentary form of what is now known as instant messaging and I just didn’t get it.  The first time I heard about this new invention they were working on called the World Wide Web, I couldn’t figure out how it would work.  How would you get information about anywhere in the world? Was there someone sitting at a computer that would answer your questions? I pictured this poor person sitting at a single desk in a poorly lit room patiently waiting for a question to answer, maybe with a glass of water and a sandwich next to the monitor.

What will they think up next, eh?