spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300 / Peter Russell
This Cuba cold is a pain and a drain. If I imagined I would be in form to explore the experience we 74 travelers shared, I was wrong. What follows then is a reflection I made in the Unitarian Universalist worship service last January. It is about being wrong.

Some wrongs are simple. Sent a mass mailing with an incorrect date? Done that. Formed an opinion about someone based on nothing but a hairstyle? Done it. Bought a $600 brown knit wrap at a craft show, got home and hated it enough never to wear it? Done that. Filed an income tax return from a sick bed, high on decongestants? Yup.

But what about more complicated decisions? When I flew Japan Airlines back home to California in the early ‘70s, I was leaving a privileged but constricted life as the wife of an American businessman with a Japanese client. I was the mother of three boys. The youngest, born in Japan, was nine months and I took him with me. The other two, ten and eight, I left in Japan with their father. I imagined they would follow, and we would be a mother and three children in a one-bedroom rental with the boys sharing a bedroom and the baby in the living room with me.

But in Japan, the boys were enrolled in a private school, with the benefits of a company-provided car, driver, maid and three-bedroom house in Tokyo. Thus, when they came to visit me in the place I could afford, a low-income section of Los Angeles, they clamored to go back and live with their father. I told them, “No, you are going to live with me, but I will let you visit your father before school starts.” They went and they did not come back. I waited for them to start school in September. Their father sent their clothes, but he did not send them.  Several years went by before they visited me and their little brother again. And when they came, they made it clear that they would not stay, as their father had been moved to Thailand where their lives continued: interesting and privileged.

When I left my older sons and my marriage, my privileged life in Tokyo with unlimited access to the American Club, what filled me with a conviction of rightness about what I was doing? What did I believe that brought me back to California, to no job, no car, single-parent responsibility for a baby and just $350 in my pocket?  I didn’t know if my decision was right or wrong.

Kathyrn Schulz in her book Being Wrong, wrote “Beliefs are models of the world that help us take action; and accordingly, incur consequences.” The beliefs that led me to leave Japan were many: I didn’t belong overseas coasting on top of the culture as the wife of an American businessman. Without a useful role, my life lacked purpose and a sense of belonging. I believed the war in Viet Nam was wrong but because of my husband’s business venture, I could only demonstrate carefully in the streets of Tokyo and dodge riot police.  I felt my sanity and my identity were at risk. My belief that the older boys needed me, and I should be their father’s wife carried far less weight.

And so I pretended that this jaunt to Los Angeles was temporary. I said to the boys as we waved goodbye,  “See you in a few weeks,” though I would not come back, and of that I was certain.

Schulz says about certainty that “one of the most defining and dangerous characteristics of certainty … is that when we are caught up in our own convictions, other people’s stories –which is to say other people—cease to matter to us.” It’s true, I didn’t think, “My sons have no mother now.” “My husband, what will he be thinking?” In the certainty of my decision, I mattered most.

Was I wrong? Was I right? Should I have stayed? Should I have gone?  A lot of time has passed and, at least in this case, I have come to see right and wrong as sides of a mobius strip, twisting wrong and twisting right with risk and outcome always in play.


Guy Rittger
6/4/2012 05:16:44 am

As the eldest of the two sons left behind in Japan, let me add my perspective on that period of turmoil and transition. More specifically, let speak to an 11-year old boy's desire to return overseas rather than remain in a place that was, by then, more foreign to him than the Asian world in which he'd lived for the preceding 3 years.

Indeed, before returning to Los Angeles in the winter of 1971, I had been on my way to my father's new job in Athens, Greece, by way of Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Munich, Paris and London, courtesy of Japan Airlines. Somewhere along the line, the proferred job evaporated, and we found ourselves back in Tokyo, living in a one-room flat, taking up where we'd left off in school. But looking for a new job while caring for two pre-teens was a complicated package to juggle, so at term's end, my brother and I were duly dispatched to Los Angeles, to finish out the school year and await further instructions.

My experience during what turned out to be a 5-month residence with my mother, in that Los Angeles urban outlier called Gardena, can be characterised, with a certain degree of hindsight, as "terrifying". This is not a commentary on my mother but, rather, on the envrionment in which we lived, which struck me as wholly unfamiliar and filled with danger. Sixth grade public school was not much different in 1971 as it is today, and the thought of attending Perry Junior High School in the Fall filled me with dread.

And yet, fear was not an emotion to which I was accustomed, as from the ages of 8-11 I made my way to and from St. Mary's International School, first from the Shibuya district, and later from the suburb of Setagaya, riding buses, subways and trains with no concern at all about personal safety. We traveled all over Japan by car and public transportation, staying at Japanese inns in remote villages where foreigners were seldom, if ever, seen in those days. All of that seemed normal to me and well within my comfort zone. It was ordinary American life that felt entirely alien and threatening, and fueled my desire to escape.

Fast forward to 2012 and, having lived in the United States continuously since 1977, I still find the country unsettling and threatening. And now, perhaps more than ever, I am driven by the desire to escape back to the experience of the comforting otherness of foreign cultures, where I feel at home.

All of this to say, perhaps, that the present judgment on your past decision is largely favorable, though not without costs for all involved. Growing up outside the U.S. effectively immunised me against the American exceptionalism - with its corresponding fear / hatred of foreigners - that runs rampant today.

Thus, in a word: "Arigato".

Gregory J Rittger
6/4/2012 07:43:49 am

As the second son in the above narrative, I can only concur with Eldest Brother. Gardena Cal was an American equivalent of Saigon "74 when compared to the Japan experience. One incident stands out in my mind- Walking in the early evening behind a neighborhood supermarket, with friend Elmer and Youngest Brother, a group of young toughs threatened me with a knife while at the same time deferring to Elmer who happened to have the good luck of carrying Younger Brother at the time. I clearly remember crying out for help and trying to convince those toughs that the little kid was MY brother. Of course they were all about bluff and bluster but at the time they seemed pretty serious.
As it has turned out, I have spent my entire life in SE Asia. As Elder Brother mentioned it is what I came to know as home. I feel safe here.As for what was right and wrong at that point in your life, I'd say it is immaterial. Fast forward to here and now. I find it hard to imagine that any mother could be as respected, loved and cherished for who they are, as you.

As my friends in Cebu PI would say, Salamat.

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