Orion in front of a minor shrine at the Hokkaido Shrine, June 2019

The last normal year

Published 2022-03-03
This is one of my 💚 favorite essays

In June 2019, I chaperoned my oldest child and about a dozen of his classmates on a school trip to Sapporo, Japan. Our kids attend a Japanese language immersion school, one of the largest such public schools in Portland (indeed in the country). This was the standard trip for kids matriculating to middle school — two weeks in Japan including homestays and a week in a Japanese school. Our school had been conducting these trips for 25 years, by 2019 they were conducted with routine efficiency.

At a minor shrine (I forget which) on the grounds of the enormous Hokkaido Shrine, my son showed me the appropriate ritual. First we washed our hands in a special well. We stood before the minor god and made an oblation into a fancy wooden box: a few hundred yen, and then we (silently) spoke to the minor god. A request for some fortune, or a reflection, or an expression of gratitude.

This isn’t like making a birthday candle wish. You can totally talk about what you asked the minor god. I asked my son, “what did you say, buddy?”

“That I’m glad I’m here in Japan with you.”

I think of all the stuff I took for granted in 2019: travel to Japan, chatting with parents in the hallway at school, testifying at city hall, beers at brewpubs, tech meetups, PTA meetings, commuting, bookstores, bike races, ballet performances, swim practice. The most dire thing we could imagine at the dawn of 2020 was “more turmoil in the larger political universe.”

Then 2020, of course. Although even at the time to me felt like a cozy catastrophe.

I had some small hope that with vaccines and a regular human being for US President we might restore a little stability in our worldview in 2021. But maybe the stability I grew up with — especially of the last 30 years, my entire adulthood — maybe that’s the anomaly. My middle child missed her 6th grade trip to Japan because of Covid, my youngest might miss it because of…who knows what. The expected situation now, between pandemics and floods and forest fires and wars in Europe, and surely other black swans, is: “your plans may be cancelled.”

In the span of about a week the world has reconstituted the Cold War. I was a teenager in the 1980s and more than half expected never to see adulthood. I always reckoned that if we found ourselves in another Cold War it would be a familiar feeling. But the first Cold War was decades old by the time I was born, it was a shitty situation but had arisen slowly enough that the world had found equilibria within it.

What’s on the other side of this? I dunno. I can hope for something good; I can try, in my small way and in this small corner of the world, to build it. I can also be grateful that for now, for here, life is good.

I try several times a week to make an oblation to a minor god, who lives on Portland’s highest hill. It takes about an hour to ride my bike from our house to its shrine, which is just a paved circle in a park, next to a water tower. I don’t wash my hands. I don’t throw money into a pretty box. The ride itself is the oblation; the tiny suffering I endure: sweaty or cold or wet or sunburned, and always it makes my quads sore. No matter the route, I have to ride through the trees to get there, and there is a Japanese word for how it makes me feel: shinrin yoku 森林浴 — a forest bath. Every time I do this I express a gratitude, internally:

“I’m glad I am here on this hill. I am grateful for a body that lets me do this. I’m glad for my family and friends, and my dog, and this city, and the comforts and blessings of my life. Some day I will ride up here one last time. My body might fail me or a calamity prevent me returning. This might be my last ride up here. All the comforts and blessings of my life will vanish, someday. I hope they vanish into something better. But I am grateful that I have them today.”


Update 2022-03-07

A Japanese friend informs me the shrine in the photo is the Kaitaku shrine