For Grandma

I had planned to write this a long time ago. Alas, the shorter days of December have done nothing to alleviate my agenda. So now, with the salty taste of tears on my lips, I am finally getting to something I should have never delayed.

Today, the world grew a little darker when an exceptionally brilliant light was extinguished. For nearly a century the light of my Grandmother’s love filled the world around her. It came to life before females could legally vote, and continued to blaze through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the dawn of the internet, selfies, and the first black president.

It’s truly amazing what her little light has shone through. It has flickered through some of the best and worst times in history. Yet through it all, her light remained too bright for just one candle. She kindled the flame of a beautiful family. The home she kept and her three amazing children are a testament to the power and influence of my grandmother’s love. Though they may be drastically different people–whether it is the free-spirited passion of my aunt, the loyalty and fortitude of my uncle, or the mindful caring of my mother–Bertha Storey’s love shines through each of her children. It lives on in them, and continues to kindle the flames of an ever growing family. Grandma’s light, radiant and warm, nurtured her three wonderful children, who in turn have spread their light on, to the next generation.

This thought makes me realize that the light of Bertha Storey has not left this world. In the last several weeks, it consistently pained me to say, “Goodbye,” to end each conversation with her on the phone. Alas, the pitfalls of language hindered me from expressing my true feelings of thanks, and my understanding that our conversation will never end; I can see and hear my grandma in the idiosyncrasies of my mother every day; I can talk to her whenever I need to.

Bertha Storey’s candle has lit those of countless others, while never diminishing in brightness. She was like a buddha, in her understanding that, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Until the very end, with each life she touched, she gave the full force of her love and compassion, and her light spread. Now, the source of her love may have gone, but her flame still burns strong in the collective lives of the ones she left behind.

Today the world grew a little darker than it was yesterday, but it is still infinitely brighter than before my grandmother’s flame first came to life nearly a century ago. And thanks to her, the world will continue to grow brighter as her flame spreads from her children, to her grandchildren, and beyond. I will nurture her tender flame in the hopes that it will guide me in times of darkness and that I will be able to leave the world a little brighter—as she did.

I will not say, “goodbye,” because she is still burning in each of us lucky enough to have known her. It is comforting to know, all we need to do is look inside to find my Grandma’s warm smile, hearty laugh, and sharp wit. She is not gone, so I will not say, “farewell.” Today I will only say, “Thank you,Grandma, for the gift of your undying love.”


It’s Time to Change Trains

It’s gonna be depressing to watch America’s sigh of relief and misguided sense of accomplishment if Hillary defeats Trump.  It’s an important fact that we (unfortunately) chose—from an entire nation of potential—these two candidates to champion our causes and guide America’s future. And this is what many people are forgetting: That our candidates are elected representatives of the popular opinion for their entire party (roughly half of the country). Continue reading “It’s Time to Change Trains”

The Historic Tattoo Culture of Japan

Having tattoos in Japan can be difficult at times. I’ve had the embarrassment of being refused service at restaurants. I’ve been kicked out of bathhouses due to complaints from other patrons (despite having told the staff that I have tattoos). I’ve even been asked to put a shirt back on at the beach. It can be trying.

Usually, I brush these situations off. It was my choice to put ink into my skin and I should be willing to accept that not everyone is ok with that life choice. And for the most part, I can accept it fairly easily. What really gets me is the unilateral connection that Japanese society makes with tattoos (irezumi specifically) and yakuza.

I sincerely understand that the content of certain tattoos can be offensive and explicitely linked to unwanted cultures, but not all tattoos scream yakuza. Tattoo culture is a diverse artform with a long and rich history. It has cropped up since ancient times in cultures across the globe. Everyone can easily picture “tribal” tattoos from pacific island cultures. It goes without saying that tattoos can (and are) an important part of historical tradition and culture in many places.

Although most pople would deny it, this is even true in Japan. Since ancient times, tattoos have been used in Japan, having nothing to do with the yakuza. With new research and efforts like this, I hope that Japan can start to change it’s anachronistic and conservative views of tattoo culture and embrace the native beauty it once did.

The Jomon Tribe project delves into Japan’s prehistoric mystery with a stunning new photographic exhibition. Tokyo’s TAV Gallery is currently playing host to a stunning photo exhibition called “Jomon Tribe,” which melds some of Japan’s most prehistoric markings with 21st century tattoo designs. The collaborative art project between underground culture photographer Ryoichi “Keroppy” Maeda and tattoo artist Taku…

via Modern Primitives: New exhibit wonders what Jomon-period tattoos might have looked like【Photos】 — RocketNews24

Independence Day (Minus the Aliens)

While it may not be The Fourth for several more hours back home, it’s already a hot and humid fourth in Japan. Today I am very conflicted by a plethora of emotions. Of course, it is easy (when thinking about the US) to fall into a pit of despair and focus solely on the maladies which beset our nation: gun violence, hate speech, terrorism, the resurgence of Cold War-esque fear mongering politics, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Kanye West… to name a few. The common jokes about moving to Canada (or never moving home for some of us) have a painful sting as the truth behind them comes closer to a reality. The world is watching in anticipation as our Great Experiment is tested, yet again. It is almost a daily occurrence that I am asked questions about Trump or violence, and to be honest, I’m rather tired of defending my country’s recent folly.

But I will never stop defending it. I have been and always will be proud to be an American. I am deeply aware how lucky I was to be born in the USA and that I have benefitted from being a citizen my entire life. ‘The land of opportunity’ is still alive and well, and I could never turn my back on her. The multitude of problems in our nation make it easy to forget just how amazing that same country can be. Japanese people love to say that America is dangerous because everyone owns guns. I can’t argue that guns aren’t a problem, but this generalization of an entire country based on highly publicized yet localized events is a problem that I think the entire world needs to take into consideration (particularly thinking about the dangers of Islam and refugees). Of course there is danger in America; there is danger throughout the world (yes, even in Japan). But it is insane to think that that danger makes up a majority (or even a significant minority) of the experiences to be had.

My country is not a bigoted, hate-strewn, gun-filled hell of mass shootings and racism. It is a one floor house surrounded by a sea of green and the smell of fresh cut grass on a humid Michigan afternoon. It’s a bonfire in the backyard with my friends and family as my father stands in the distance, smoking a cigar, and launching fireworks into the night sky. It’s a cup of coffee at my favorite run down café where they serve free snacks to the homeless. It’s a lecture hall in which a professor has the freedom to question our political and social institutions without fear of overt censorship or imprisonment. It’s that same lecture hall where any and every student (regardless of gender, race, age, ideology, etc…) has a right to be educated. Sure, bad things happen, and we don’t always live up to the ideals set before us as a nation, but through and through we keep fighting for what we believe is right and the “American Way”.

My nation is all of this; the good and the bad. It is a splendidly imperfect amalgamation of people and ideas that has given the world some of its greatest and worst memories. My nation is my home, and I love my home with a passion. I implore you to take some time today and think about what makes America home for you; and once you’ve found that thing, hold on to it and fight for it! I hope that everyone has some delicious barbecue, watches beautiful fireworks, and drinks some good beer. But most of all, have a good Fourth of July.

The Light of Life

The bright white light of Life can be too much too look upon with the naked eye. It can blind us, and often does. It relentlessly showers us with harmful UV rays of obligations, hardships, and challenge. So much so that even if we are wearing protective lenses and SPF 1000, we may still get burned. Yet, day by day we must venture out into the world and fend off Life’s piercing beams. Continue reading “The Light of Life”

Why Rafiki?

Well I suppose the most obvious answer is that I love bananas and climbing things. Anyone that has known me for a second knows that nothing could make me happier than a bowl of fresh fruit (which seriously brings into question my decision to live in Japan: Land of Exorbitant Fruit Prices). And if you’ve ever seen me standing at the bottom of a tree, you’ve probably also seen me try to climb said tree.

But let’s be honest for a second; it took a lot more than my (semi-erotic) love of fruit and climbing to convince me to tattoo a children’s animation character onto my body. Of course, my long-lived love of Rafiki began with the original ‘Lion King’—and I feel the need to place the disclaimer that I have never seen the sequels. So my perception of Rafiki is solely based off the first movie. I suspect they went more of a childish route with him, unfortunately—but it has grown from my original impression of the baboon (I know he is technically a mandrill), and matured as I have. That being said, my love of the movie (having watched it enough times to wear out the VHS) was a major factor in the tattoo. So let’s look at his role in the movie and follow how my perception of Rafiki changed with age.

The first time he graced the silver-screen was at the climactic moment of Sir Elton John’s immortal song, ‘Circle of Life.’ The hoard of wild animals that have congregated around Pride Rock move to form an aisle for Rafiki to walk down—even bowing as he passes. He embraces Mufasa as a friend with a warm hug, blesses Simba, and has the privilege of presenting the new prince to the realm, atop Pride Rock. Even as a child, I was keen enough to understand that he was an important figure.

Yet, at this point, no lines have been spoken, and Rafiki has only been presented in a ceremonial sense. His whimsical nature has yet to be revealed. It`s not until the scene in the jungle with Rafiki’s famous chant, “Asante sana, squash banana. Wewe nugu, mimi hapana”, that we get to see the genius of Rafiki. As a child, the scene was playful and fun. I fell in love with Rafiki for the comical cadence of his speech and his erratic movements (including whacking Simba on the head). But as I grew older I began to understand the things that he said had much deeper meaning than seemingly nonsensical responses to frustrate Simba.

When Simba yells at him to, “Cut it out,” Rafiki replies, “Can’t cut it out. It’ll grow right back!” This can be seen as a playful excuse to keep singing, but it can also be read as a comment on Simba’s current turmoil. Rafiki is saying that you can’t solve a problem simply by ‘cutting it out’. Simba tried to cut his ties to Pride Rock and his responsibility as the next King by living in the jungle and refusing to return—despite Nala’s pleas. Rafiki is saying simply ignoring the dilemma (by running from Nala) won’t help anything.

Next we learn the meaning of his chant, “Thank you very much, squash banana. You’re a baboon and I’m not!” Again, to a child, this is just nonsense (much as it seemed to Simba). But as I look back at this line, it has several underlying themes. The first would be the cultural depictions of baboons as slightly comical animals. Rafiki could be saying that Simba is acting like a fool, or a stereotypical baboon. A second reason that this isn’t such a ridiculous song for Rafiki to sing is that he isn’t actually a baboon; he’s a mandrill (a relative of baboons)—though I’m not sure if this was actually the intent of the writers. (He is also fulfilling Scar’s prophecy of being “a monkey’s uncle,” but that’s more of my own comical interpretation than anything). And last, by singing a Swahili children’s rhyme, he is evoking an ideology along the lines of “Hakuna Matata”. He is trying to convey the folly in Simba’s turmoil. The question that Simba is asking, “Who am I?” is really much more simple than the lion is willing to admit. Rafiki is suggesting that Simba is over-thinking his quagmire and that the answer will come in the simple and carefree explanation that he is the rightful heir to the throne. Simba is the only one standing in the way of that realization.

When Simba catches up to Rafiki, the mandrill is sitting in a meditative pose upon a rock. Here, he corrects Simba’s use of the past-tense by saying, “I know your father.” This is a line that I think flew over my head as a kid. All I knew was that the following chase through the jungle was entertaining to watch: Rafiki swinging from vines and Simba desperately trying to keep up. Of course, the meaning was soon revealed in when they arrive at the pond and Rafiki shows Simba how his father “lives in him.” While this is a good visualization to help Simba connect with his departed father, I think that Rafiki’s philosophy is much deeper in this moment. Rafiki is showing Simba the interdependence of all things. Rafiki is able to connect with Mufasa—someone with whom he isn’t related—because Mufasa affected his life. The monkey wouldn’t be who he is without having encountered Mufasa—in the same way that Simba is the rightful king because of his relation to his father. The sage understands that though a person’s physical presence on Earth may have ceased, their influence continues to ripple and affect the world. Nothing that the ghost of Mufasa says to his son is new to Simba. All of it is either common knowledge, or has been previously explained to Simba in the movie (i.e. the circle of life). It was the continued effect of Mufasa’s life that made Simba realize what he already knew, and this is what Rafiki meant by saying, “I know your father.”

Despite viewing all that had just happened, Rafiki chooses to make light of the situation and sums up the vision of Mufasa to nothing more than “peculiar” weather. But Simba has yet to be convinced in the right course of action, which prompts Rafiki to whack the lion on the head. As a kid this always made me laugh—so much so that I usually missed the next lines said. Rafiki very bluntly states that Simba needs to learn from the past and face the pain (a good message), but the line before that; “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past!” is of far greater importance from a philosophical stand-point. Rafiki is touching on some deep Buddhist philosophy (even if unintentionally) by questioning the reality of the past. Despite running from it his entire life, Simba has actually been living in the past. He has defined himself by the memory of what happened to his father, so much so that he has convinced himself of its reality. Rafiki is showing the fictitious nature of past and memory. They can be powerful tools to help us learn (as Simba shows by dodging the next attack), but the past can also be a deceptive agent that falsely defines us. “Where you are,” and “what you are doing,” may be influenced by past decisions, but that does not define “you” in the present moment. Simba has fallen deeply into the quicksand of memory and fixed identity, and Rafiki is showing him the way out—laughing and howling with joy as the lion runs off.

To children, Rafiki is a loony character that troubles Simba yet teaches him many things. I know that I learned many things from the monkey as a child, but most of it was taken at face-value. I couldn’t see much deeper than the literal words and actions of the characters. It has only been with time, and my own readings in philosophy, that I have come to understand what/who Rafiki is. He is a sage that understands the charade of appearance. He knows that the depth of his knowledge and wisdom have nothing to do with his outward playfulness and frivolity. He is a buddha showing Simba the Way through “skillful means”. He knows that the lion couldn’t understand his philosophy to the extent that Rafiki does, but the monkey knew how to convey the basic ideas without Simba ever fully realizing what was happening.

Rafiki reminds us that we must never forget our inner joy and wonder. We must be willing to swing from the trees and sing silly songs, lest we become lost in the seriousness of adulthood. He tells us that we are free to act and think as we please. That no matter what our past is, there is no moment other than the present that matters. We should act in the moment. Never dwell in the past for you cannot live there.

These are the ideas that I value in life. I strive to become more knowledgeable with each passing day, yet never to forget to take life less seriously. I know that my past does not define who I am, even though I have trouble remembering it at times. Rafiki is always resting on my shoulder to remind me of these values and help to keep me grounded in what Camus would call the absurdity of life. All I can say is, “Asante sana, Rafiki. Wewe nugu mimi hapana!”

tl;dr  Rafiki is a character with much greater value than a crazy guru figure; he is a reminder that the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom should not be inversely related to adolescent wonder, joy, and frivolity. He is also a deeply philosophical character with profound ideas of ‘self’ and ‘interdependence’.