Eight Lessons my Children are Learning at Japanese School

Last year our family moved to Japan. Within just a few days it was obvious that everything was different. And after ten months of Japanese living, I wrote a blog, “Nine lessons I’ve learned from my Japanese Friends.”

We’ve now lived in Okinawa for over a year, and our learning continues as our kids attend public Japanese schools. A few weeks ago my 9-year-old daughter shared, “I’m so glad I go to Japanese school. Otherwise, I would never have learned tumbling on the bars! Or how to paint!”

But artwork and gymnastics are only part of the picture. Here are eight additional lessons our family has learned from our Japanese school experience.

Lesson #1 – Start your day OUTSIDE

Japanese children walk to school each morning…early! When the sun is just up over the horizon, our streets are full of cute kids laden with backpacks and trotting down the road. They get to school on their own, navigating crosswalks, busy narrow streets, and all types of weather. And, they do it without a fuss!

Their return route is the same: over a mile of walking and weaving through fields and neighborhoods on their own, enjoying nature and fresh air.

My own children were tentative at first about the long walk to and from school, but now it’s a regular part of their day. They set out early in rain or shine and get themselves to class. Their independence has made my life so easy! But that’s only one benefit.

We’ve also discovered that starting the morning outside makes kids cheerful! By the time students—including my children—arrive at school, they are breathless and their cheeks are rosy. Their hearts are beating and they are prepared to sit and learn.

The same is true on the return route. My kids come home from school with sweat beads on their foreheads, cheerful chatter on their lips, and a healthy appetite. I love it!

Lesson #2 – Manage your own life

There’s another benefit to starting the school day with a walk: responsibility.

Because Japanese children walk to school, they also manage their own school supplies, and that includes lots of items! Besides the usual pencils and notebooks; elementary students also carry jump ropes, calligraphy sets, swim caps, water bottles, sewing kits, PE clothes, musical instruments, hats, umbrellas, school shoes… The list goes on!

Since the kids all walk, there’s little chance to go back for a forgotten book unless you can run quickly or are willing to be tardy.

When children do forget a school item, they return home and retrieve it by themselves or survive the day without it.

Those without PE clothes wait on the sidelines. A forgotten sewing kit means foregoing home economics class. And missing homework equals a reprimand from the teacher. These consequences are not mean, just natural outcomes.

At first, I worried about my kids and their occasional forgotten items. But soon I came to appreciate the natural consequences. When my daughter forgot her paint set, she sat through art class watching everyone else have the fun. And the next day she triple-checked her supplies so she wouldn’t miss out again! It wasn’t my fault she was unprepared, and as a result, she didn’t whine at me or expect someone else to solve her problem. I’ve seen a conscious change in my kids’ ability to manage their own lives, and I love it!

One morning I found a dropped school handkerchief on the side of the rode. The nearby crossing guard told me to leave it right there, as the owner would surely return eventually. In other words, the general idea is to let children make simple mistakes and be responsible themselves. What a refreshing idea!

Lesson #3 – Change your shoes

“In America, everyone wears one pair of shoes and they walk inside and outside,” expressed my daughter one day. “That’s just so irresponsible!”

I laughed at her comment and her new perspective on filth. But I do agree. Walking inside with outside dirt on your soles isn’t very polite. Japanese people step in and out of shoes as they come in and out of the house, in and out of the bathroom, in and out of a school or business.

But the lesson goes deeper than mud. It’s about caring for something that’s not your own, thinking respectfully about someone else’s space, and doing your part to minimize filth.

Moses was taught by God, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

While schools, homes, and businesses may or may not be holy, the principle is sound: show respect.

Changing shoes is a physical act with internal benefits. It invites visitors to act respectfully toward the place and people. Students revere their teachers and classrooms as places and people of learning. Wearing “school shoes” all day reminds children where they are, and helps them to remember that they are guests.

In my opinion, homes are certainly holy, and taking a moment to “put off thy shoes” is a wonderful custom. Removing shoes is one tradition we will definitely maintain when our time in Japan ends and we return home.

Lesson #4 – Yard work is healthy

Wait…yard work at school? Yes. J

Japanese school children start their day—or spend part of their school day—doing outside physical labor! They use rakes and brooms and gloves and clean the schoolyard.

I love walking past the grounds and seeing students sweeping sidewalks, pulling weeds, raking the ball field, and watering plants. 

Working outside is hard work, especially after a mile-long walk to school—but it’s so fulfilling. Gardening is good, so why not add it to the school curriculum? And putting students in charge of their landscape also adds to the responsibility factor.

Watching the Japanese students do outside chores reminds me that a daily dose of yard work is a healthful choice for anyone!

Lesson #5 – Cleaning is required

Let’s face it: cleaning is a necessity for life! And that’s why I’m grateful and amazed that it is part of the Japanese school day. Every one of my kids—from kindergartener to 8th grader—is required to clean every single day at school. After lunch, students slide all the desks to one side of the room and sweep and mop the floor. Then they slide the desks to the other side and do the same. While some kids are mopping, others are washing windows, wiping desks, and even sweeping and mopping the hallways and stairs.

What about the janitors? There are none. Seriously. Japanese students are the janitors at their school. Every day they learn there, and every day they clean there. In fact, special white “cleaning towels” are required school items that parents send each semester. It’s truly amazing!

But the best part is, cleaning time is recess! When I picked my son up early from kindergarten one day, he was upset because it was right in the middle of cleaning time! He was busy pushing his white mopping towel across the floor with his friends, and I interrupted the fun to take him home. As students clean they talk and laugh and enjoy a break from the rigors of study. Teachers stand by and direct, but kids do the labor.

The students also learn other cleanliness skills. My kids were also formally trained in class in washing their school shoes and PE clothes…by hand. I love it!

And the side benefits? My children are cleaner at home. Their cleaning skills have been being fine-tuned, and they understand the necessity of daily cleaning. That’s a win!

Lesson #6 – Plan your day

Each morning Japanese students write their school schedule in their planners. Actually, they write the schedule for the following day: Tuesday is written on Monday, Wednesday is written on Tuesday, etc.

This written schedule includes classes like science, math, social studies, swimming, home economics, English, cooking, calligraphy, ethics, etc.  Writing ahead of time gives kids a full 24 hours notice about what items should be brought to school the following day. Plus, they can glance at today’s schedule (written yesterday) and remember what the day will hold.

What a great tip for life!

Can you imagine a nation of people who plan their lives 24 hours ahead? This simple habit is an advantage for all ages. And, one trait I hope my children carry with them when we leave Japan.

Lesson #7 – Use your hands

The Japanese school curriculum includes more than bookwork. Carving, sewing, painting and other handicrafts are also included. I’ve been amazed at some of the tools my kids are required to bring: knife carving sets, calligraphy brushes and paints, sewing kits… Teaching kids fine motor skills is important in the Japanese culture. When my children bring home artwork from their Japanese class it’s framable! It’s obvious that they have been taught precise skills, useful for the rest of their lives.

When my 4th grader told me her teacher was asking for students to bring an “extra hand saw” to school the next day, I laughed out loud. I’m fairly certain that managing a classroom of 4th graders each carving out their own wooden decorations with pocket knives and small saws is not approved in the American school system. But I do think we’ve lost something valuable through our over-cautious legal rhetoric.

Kids are talented enough to learn real skills at their age, and the Japanese schools build line-upon-line, grade by grade.

This added emphasis on actual homemaking, painting, wood working, origami, and shop skills are a cultural benefit I absolutely love.

Lesson #8 – Eat your lunch

“My favorite food is squid,” shared my son. “What???” I choked. But he was serious! “We ate it for lunch and I really like it.”

School lunch in Japan is cooked from scratch and served at noon. Large pots of soup, rice, and side dishes are taken to each classroom where students in turn serve bowls for each classmate. After everyone has their food, the teacher invites all to say, “Itadakemasu,” (I humbly partake) before eating.

By noon, kids have a very healthy appetite, so they all dig right in and enjoy!

Once in a while seconds are divvied out from the leftovers in the pot. But even better, students are required to at least try everything, and—in some classrooms—completely finish what they are served.

I love the many lessons learned here: prepare real food, eat what you’re served, take time to give thanks, finish your meal, don’t waste food, and eat together.

At first my kids rushed home from Japanese school “starving” for a bag of chips or a sugary granola bar. But after a few weeks their taste buds changed. Now they genuinely enjoy the healthy meals and are eating like pros: miso soup, tempura, rice, fish, potato balls, all sorts of veggies, rice, mountain roots, rice….

“I ate all my lunch today!” my kindergartener started announcing. He not only eats lunch, but he also enjoys the afternoon snack: a piece of apple, a square of tofu, a sweet potato.

And I’ll always treasure the day my 5th grader shared, “I ate the sweetest orange for dessert today!”

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I love the lessons our kids are learning in Japanese school: health, fitness, personal responsibility, respect, organization, cleanliness, true satisfaction, and real eating. We’ll miss these experiences when the time comes to return to the American school system. But I hope we can maintain the habits we’ve gleaned. Thanks, Japanese friends, for more life-changing lessons.

5 Lessons We’ve Learned in 25 years of Marriage

Last week my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We feel so old! Where has the time gone? We’ve had 10 children, lived in 10 different homes, and raised our family in 3 states and 2 countries. It’s been an adventure, to say the least!

Every story is unique and life isn’t perfect for anyone, but perhaps there are some universal truths that apply to all of us. As we’ve contemplated our years as a couple, we’ve identified certain principles that have become foundational to our family.

For what it’s worth, through the ups and downs and blessings and bumps, here are 5 lessons we’ve learned in 25 years of marriage.

Worship often. For us that means regularly attending Sunday services as well as the temple—a holy edifice we revere as the House of the Lord. But no matter how you choose to believe, putting God first brings definite strength to a marriage. When we make sacrifices and acknowledge deity we are blessed in ways we can’t always understand or foresee. Our family and children and circumstances benefit from the protection and vision of a power higher than our own. We believe that keeping God at the helm of our marriage has given us direction and peace. The sacrifices we make to worship daily and weekly are definitely worth the divine dividends.

Choose children. Consciously choosing to have children and raise a family is like Adam and Eve departing the Garden of Eden: leaving a pattern of ease is difficult, but our eyes are opened and we understand good and evil and see life more clearly. Through experience we come to know what truly matters and spend our time on things that will last. Sure, raising a family is no cakewalk, but it is a true exhibition of the age-old adage that ‘you reap what you sow.’ Effort and experience blossom into eternal blessings. The number of children we bear isn’t what’s vital; it’s the conscious choice that matters. Putting someone’s life above your own brings sweetness to everyday living, even despite the drudgery and exhaustion. And in the end, choosing children brings us joy.

Take opportunities. The greatest regret people have when they grow old is that they didn’t take enough risks! Marriage is the same. Life is full of chances, and we can and should benefit from ventures outside our comfort zone whenever reasonable. The more opportunities we pursue, the more life gives us in return, until our days are full and rich and wonderful.

One theme of our marriage has been, “Why not?” We only live once, and aside from making obviously stupid decisions, we’ve tried to take the road less traveled and accept good risks when they come. Job promotions, service callings, solicitations to move, and even dinner requests keep life interesting and full. Life rarely sends us an invitation more than once, so when a good chance rolls by, take it!

Bloom where you’re planted. This is actually my in-law’s life theme, and we’ve adopted it as a couple, too. Similar to the Boy Scout adage to ‘leave every place better than you found it,’ blooming where you’re planted denotes a level of contentment with our current circumstances and situations. (In comparison to my last point, yes, take opportunities, but don’t waste your days looking over the fence in wishful agony.) As human beings we have the ability to improve the world around us. We can paint walls and fix up homes, even in grey neighborhoods. We can plant gardens and flowers, even in the downtown smog. We can reach out to those around us and make friends, even with a grumpy co-worker or neighbor. We can create temples and palaces and lives no matter where we live.

I’m grateful for a husband who has planted gardens in rocky soil, made friends with neighbors who didn’t wave the first time, and painted and patched surroundings, both temporal and abstract. Making the most of each situation has made life ideal. Realizing that we are creators and have the ability to grow, change, and bloom is liberating.

Choose to Celebrate Life is a choice, tied to our agency. We can literally choose happiness or misery. We can live the life we want to live. We can make choices to pursue the career we want, serve those we wish to serve, have the health we desire, and create and build the deepest stirrings of our hearts. Accepting our agency is exhilarating. The glass is always half full or half empty, really.

In addition to embracing our power to be, we can also purposely and purposefully celebrate the little things in our marriage and homes. Form traditions, give flowers, mark anniversaries, blow out candles, revel in holidays, anticipate milestones, make things special, and go the extra mile to bless our spouse, our children, and those around us. I’m not talking about cutesy living. I’m describing traditions and anticipation that give stability and strength to a marriage. Some of our sweetest moments as a couple have occurred because we planned ahead, took the time, and marked with gratitude what we have and what we have accomplished.

What will the next 25 years bring? God only knows, and I’m sure when we celebrate our fiftieth anniversary we’ll be much older and wiser and have even more adages in our pocket. One thing we know for sure is that the life lessons will continue, both the good and the bad, and we are excited to travel the trail together.

A STRAIGHT COURSE TO ETERNAL BLISS

Two weeks ago our family went hiking through the jungle—the REAL jungle. There were vines and roots and trees and branches and plants and HUGE spiders and hidden SNAKES and slippery cliffs.

Our capable friend brought his machete to help us cut back the overgrown trails and his snake tool and dog in case we saw a poisonous Habu.

As we stepped carefully through the undergrowth our hearts pounded with adventure and our eyes feasted on the raw beauty of the deep foliage around us.

The end result—after miles of hiking—was an experience we will NEVER forget and a view that was INDESCRIBABLE.

While our jungle adventure was successful, I can’t even begin to imagine attempting the same tedious route without a guide, a machete, a faithful dog, and some ropes to help us down the steeper parts of the trail. These small items were invaluable in providing us a “straight” path to the beautiful views we saw.

My everyday life often feels like a jungle trail! It is full of tasks to complete, unexpected phone calls, sudden changes, piles of laundry, floors to mop, and children who need me at the drop of a hat! Somedays I can’t move even an inch forward for the tangled vines I am hiking through!

Yet this morning, a phrase in the scriptures caught my eye: “a straight path to eternal bliss.”

A straight path? Eternal bliss? Where do I sign up?!?

These words, written by Alma in the Book of Mormon, made me stop and ponder the chapter.

Alma is teaching his son Helaman about the Liahona, a compass-like tool which led Lehi and his family in the wilderness.

Alma 37:40: “It did work for them according in their faith in God,” which would help the spindles to “point the way they should go.” Verse 42 further explains that when they forgot to exercise their faith and diligence they “did not travel a direct course.”

I’ve had many days when I haven’t been on a direct course. I fumble from task to task, never completing anything, feeling growing frustration as the hours wane, and finally dropping into bed without any sense of accomplishment or success.

However, some days I DO feel like I have a productive and successful day—with my children, my husband, and my assignments.

So, how do I ensure that most, if not all, days are a direct course to happiness?

Alma teaches that it’s the “small means” (v. 41) that work the miracle of showing us the way. Reading our scriptures, starting with prayer, taking time in the morning to connect with God, following the still, small voice; and being willing to serve and listen and care along the way.

Miraculously, these small and simple acts open the jungles and show us the glorious way.

Wow. I can do small. I can do simple. I can do easy. If these daily actions make my path straight, then count me in!

Verse 44 further explains that heeding the Word of Christ will “point to you a straight course to eternal bliss.”

A STRAIGHT course sounds GREAT to me!

I hate making mistakes, losing time, backtracking, etc. when I know there is a direct way to happiness!

As followers of Christ, we have the blessing and opportunity everyday to travel “straight” to eternal bliss. What a life-changing promise!

I’m certainly not ignorant of life’s challenges, or of the unavoidable pitfalls of living that we all encounter. But I do believe that the commandments and covenants we honor through the Gospel of Jesus Christ help us live a happier and more fulfilling life than if we were trying to walk our paths alone.

And the best news of all is that everyday—even every moment—starts anew. If we find ourselves off the beaten trail without a machete, or struggling down a slippery slope without a rope, we can pause, reconnect with God, listen, get back on the best path and move on.

Is life easy? It can be, when we take the time for small efforts and therefore walk straight paths to eternal bliss.Oh, and the view at the end will be worth it!

Prayers for Japan


First published in the Casper Journal  March 16, 2011, a week after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

I’m Japanese.  

I know, I know. My hair is brown and my eyes are green.  And, my ancestors come from Germany and France.  Still, I consider myself Japanese.

I lived in Japan as a college student for a year and a half, 16 years ago.  I ate their food.  I spoke their language.  I lived with Japanese natives. And, I came to love the people. 

My heart stopped when I turned on the news Friday morning and heard about the massive earthquake and tsunami there.  

I could picture it all:  the manicured rice fields; the ornate homes; the small cars; the organized cities.  I envisioned school children walking home from school, their crisp uniforms worn to perfection.  I pictured the mailmen on their green motorbikes, delivering mail quickly and efficiently.  I pictured the shopkeepers personally welcoming each guest into their stores; mothers, with a child on the front and the back of their bikes, pedaling the narrow streets to take a child to preschool.  And I pictured the devastation of an earthquake, and a tsunami.

My heart broke.

When I first received my assignment to Japan, almost 15 years ago, the land seemed foreign and strange.  Friends assured us that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world.  They were right.  During my time there, I was never afraid.  Even when I was out after dark, or sprained my ankle, or was alone on a train, I knew I was in good company.  I did experience one large earthquake, but was unharmed.  

There is something very dignified and kind about the Japanese people.  The friends I made and the culture I learned have shaped my life since then. In fact, it was difficult to return to America after living in Japan.  When our plane landed in San Francisco, everyone around me looked big, boisterous, pushy, and a bit rude.  Americans tend to gobble their food down, instead of enjoying it bite by bite.  Americans barge into homes, muddy shoes on their feet, as if carpet will last forever.  Americans want everything big, and bigger; instead of being grateful for what we have. 

Thankfully, some of the Japanese culture I learned now permeates my home and my family.  We leave our shoes in the “genkan” (entryway).  We often eat with chopsticks.  My children are all relatively talented at Origami.  And, we eat rice daily.  Our large rice cooker has a permanent spot on the kitchen counter.

Once, when our favorite Botan Rice was on sale at the grocery store, I stocked up.  When I arrived at the cash register, the cashier eyed my shopping cart full of rice.  

“Do you own a restaurant?” She asked with raised eyebrows.  

“Oh, no,” I responded.  “I’m Japanese.”  

“Uh,” she replied with a confused look, glancing at my eyes, my hair, and my skin.  She silently checked me through the register. I giggled inside.  

Seven years ago, my husband and I returned to Japan to attend the International Rotary Convention.  Although it had been ten years since I had stayed there, the people were still as gracious and polite as I remembered them.  And, the food was just as delicious.  

We took the country train back through the small towns where I had lived.  The terraced rice fields were just as green and neat as ever.  It seemed that the same old grandmas, their heads covered in scarves, were bending to plant the seedlings.  Bikes still crowded the train stations and the roads, although most people now had a cell phone to their ear. 

We took a day and toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  After several hours inside of the museum, my heart was ready to burst for the terrible tragedies caused by the atomic bomb.  As we exited the museum, a choir of school children—dressed in uniform—was singing a beautiful song on the patio.  Their voices were clear and unified.  It seemed they were singing victory; the victory of a broken people who had risen from the ashes. 

And now, there are ashes to rise from, again. Ashes from a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

It’s been several days since the quake.  Thankfully, I’ve made contact with friends and family members in Japan, and have found that they are safe.  There are still others that I worry about.  

However, I have no doubt about the resilience of the Japanese people.  They came back strong after the Second World War.  They will come back again—organized, polite and grateful for what they have.  Their culture teaches them patience, hard work, and service.  It will bring them through this tragedy.  That’s the Japanese way.  A way Americans might take note of.  

Until they recover, my prayers are with them; prayers for my beloved people of Japan.

(When I wrote this article, ten years ago, I had no idea that I would now be living in Japan with my family.)

Nine lessons I’ve learned from my Japanese friends

Six months ago my husband and I moved to Okinawa, Japan with six of our children. Yes…I know. Crazy!!!

We bid farewell to our country life in the States, flew to a small tropical island, and set up house.  We left our classic hobby farm and spacious home for a small rental house next to banana and mulberry trees; started driving on the left side of the road, and traded our snow boots for snorkels. It’s been an adventure!

Even though I lived in Japan 25 years ago as a college student, coming back here as a busy mom has reminded me what a unique people the Japanese are. Their traditions and culture are inspiring! In fact, being here in Japan has inspired me—and my family—to re-examine several aspects of how we live.

Yes, the language, culture, and climate are different; but the biggest change has been our altered paradigm. Instead of seeing the world through the rose-colored, affluent lens of small-town Utah, we now view life with a broader vision—complete with more empathetic hearts and a greater understanding of people in general.

Here are nine lessons we have learned from our Japanese neighbors and friends.

  1. Eat Less

There is a truth, universally acknowledged, that when you eat less, you feel better! Everyone knows Americans eat too much, but living in Japan has taught me how much Americans actually eat—and, I’m slightly embarrassed. We thrive on Big Macs and Biggie sizes, while most of the world survives on rice and veggies. The bottom line is we, too, could subsist (happily) on less.

Five of my children attend local Japanese schools and eat school lunch everyday with the native students. At first, their daily bowl of rice and seaweed soup left them feeling “starved”, but after a week their bodies adjusted. Now they happily scoop up their rice with their chopsticks and slurp up their soup in the bowl. And they are content. On rare days when a piece of bread is offered, they eat it carefully and savor the sweetness. When fish or chicken is part of the meal they are grateful. And if they get a slice of orange or pear for dessert, they consider it a good day.

No, the Japanese meals aren’t stingy, they are simply sufficient. Instead of Dino bites and mac and cheese, they offer tofu and cabbage, or fish and beans. Compared to our old school lunches, these meals actually feel real. They are not processed, but produced by local farmers and cooks.

I am grateful for this change in our family food mindset. At home we still enjoy lasagna and Cheerios and all of the traditional comfort foods we are used to, but we now know that they are a nicety, not a necessity, a luxury not a likelihood. As Mary Poppins said, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

Eat less, America.

2. Clean More

I know, I know. This sounds like an abusive rant. But the truth is, Americans often view “cleaning” as a chore for the lower class. We leave the floor mopping and toilet scrubbing to those who can’t get better jobs; and we sometimes live in grime ourselves at the excuse of being “too busy” to clean up or maintain our lives.

Japanese people, on the other hand, consider cleanliness a skill that even the young should learn. I find this perspective refreshing. After all, isn’t cleanliness next to godliness?

I remember when I went to pick up my kindergartener from his first day of Japanese school. There he was, dutifully washing his classroom floor with a rag. Was I appalled? No, but I was slightly shocked. Where were the janitors? The cute colored carpets? The cozy “classroom jobs” like line leader and teacher’s helper?

Then my older kids filled me in: “Every morning when we arrive at school, and every day after lunch all of the students spend 30 minutes cleaning the school.”

My kids explained that they wash windows, scrub floors, pull weeds, and wipe down walls. I was shocked and impressed. But what surprised me more is how much my children enjoyed it!

“I have to get to school early today,” my daughter remarked. “It’s our class’ turn to sweep the school yard.” Sure enough, when we arrived at the school there were several kids with “stick” brooms, sweeping the dirt, pulling up weeds, picking up trash, and preparing the grounds for the morning lessons. Fun? I guess so! As I watched, the Japanese kids laughed, visited with friends, worked together and were genuinely happy.

There are side benefits, too. One Saturday when I needed something to keep my kindergartener busy, I simply asked him to “wash the stairs.” He happily found a rag and showed me how he could get it wet and wring it out properly before mopping with it. Hooray! Happy boy, clean stairs, happy Mama.

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Live Simply

Japanese school playgrounds are not fancy: a dirt field, an exercise bar or two, maybe a baseball diamond. Nothing compared to the elaborate slides and jungle gym equipment I generally see at American schools. At first—much like the cleaning—I was slightly appalled.

“How do children have any fun on an empty field?” I wondered. But again, my kids set me straight.

“We run around and play tag, or kick a ball, or jump rope, or dig in the dirt and look for bugs.” In other words, their creative minds still find plenty of play during recess, and they actually thrive with the challenge of living with less.

The PE skills are impressive too. My kids have been taught and tested on cartwheels, frontwards and backwards rolls, turns and flips on an exercise bar, and high jumps over vaults. It’s really incredible.

A few days ago my girls excitedly shared, “We just got four swings on our playground!” Four swings for several hundred kids to use each day. Kids—that I might add—who have walked a mile or two to school while carrying their supplies and wearing…a mask.

4. Wear a mask. Asians have been doing this for years. Just do it.

5. Don’t use your car horn. Never. Ever. Ever.

Wait, what? Yep. Don’t ever use your car horn. I’m serious. Unless someone is dying, don’t push the button. Even if you’ve been cut off. Even if the guy in front of you stops suddenly. Even if the line of traffic slows because someone is entering or exiting. Just don’t use your horn. This is how the Japanese live, and I’m always amazed.

When someone absent-mindedly doesn’t start moving right at a green light, the Japanese all wait patiently, “ohne” horn. When someone noses in front of them, they kindly let them merge, without honking. Can you imagine how relaxing it is to drive without road rage? If you make a mistake, that’s ok. If you mess up, no worries about feeling terrible. Just do your best and assume that everyone around you believes you are doing your best as well.

The other day I made the mistake of glancing at my phone while waiting at a red light. When I finally looked up again, I had entirely missed the green light, and had to wait another whole cycle before I could go. And, not only did I miss the green, but all the cars behind me did, too! I was so embarrassed!

But thankfully, the long line of cars waited patiently and silently, without laying on their horns, assuming my text must be more important than driving through the intersection. Well, my text wasn’t that important. But I did learn how courteous the Japanese people are, and I decided to be kinder myself. Remember, don’t use your horn.

6. Take your shoes off.

Leave the grime and dirt of the world outside. Don’t bring it into your house. It’s that easy.

I promise, taking your shoes off will make your home cleaner and somehow, softer. Those who enter, including your children, will feel more respect for the sacred space within your walls. As the Bible teaches, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Homes are holy. Walk softly, in clean feet.

7. Take daily naps

We’ve had a few painters and other maintenance workers in our yard recently. One day when I walked outside to get the mail, I was surprised to see a worker curled up comfortably on the driveway. Another was sleeping under a bush, and a third worker was prostrate on our porch, catching some shut-eye. After my initial shock, I smiled, grabbed the mail, and left them all to their few minutes of break.

After that, I watched and discovered that everyday they took a few minutes to rest, in a prone position. How smart! Everyone needs an afternoon nap, even those of us who are not infants. Taking a brief siesta in the afternoon rejuvenates and regenerates us. It’s a piece of our American culture that we should reinsert, and would likely make each of us a little more cheerful.

Which brings me to my next point:

8. Be Courteous

Japanese people are incredibly courteous and kind. Their polite, quiet mannerisms and ability to follow directions and rules make Americans look like brazen bulls. Bowing to your neighbor, always (always!) extending a greeting on the street, and willingly obeying laws and guidelines make their communities simple and safe. I am embarrassed to turn on the news and view the bashing, the riots, and the shameless disregard for authority that Americans often display. I am not referring to our right to free speech and the power that We the People are blessed to hold; I mean the lack of restraint and respect that comes from common courtesy for mankind. We can do better, America.

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9. Be content

I realize that being discontent is an American trademark. We are bred to stretch our horizons, go further, and aim for the stars. That’s the American Dream. However, while spreading our wings is commendable, there is also something beautiful about simply being content.

I’ll say it again. “Enough is as good as a feast.” Japanese people are inspiringly content with their lives: a simple house, a car with maybe a carport, veggies and fish for a meal, some flowers on the balcony. By American standards many of them are poor, yet they are grateful and happy. As I walk the streets of our neighborhood I see small yards, simple gardens, and plain houses. Yet the children play happily with a ball or a piece of chalk, and it is enough. Their parents live in one place throughout their lives, assist the grandparents, learn a simple trade and have a good life. Perhaps there could be a happy medium between the grit-driving/always attaining lifestyle patterns of the Western world and the peaceful living of the East. Be content.

Yes, aside from the rice, the ocean, the fish, the shoes, and the myriad of other culture differences, I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from the Japanese. When we return home, I hope my kids will carry some of these patterns of living in their pockets: health, cleanliness, courtesy, contentment; and make their own lives—and our future neighborhoods—a better place to be.

FIRST FROST

In honor of Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month, I share my own story of grief, written in 2013. This experience is one I will never forget, a tender memory. Even though I have 10 other beautiful children, one is still gone…

Summer is beautiful. The world is full and ripe and gorgeous. Everything blooms and grows and produces. There’s enough and to spare, until autumn. Then the first frost comes. It comes with little warning — a summer day, a warm night, a slight cloud on the horizon, and a weather forecast. If you miss the signs, you’re taken by surprise.

“What happened to the garden?” my daughter asked one morning. We looked out through the glass patio doors. Just the day before everything had been full and green, but suddenly the beauty was gone. We ran outside to see.

Once thriving squash plants were now lying, black, on the ground. All around us were wilted tomato plants, yellowed peppers and brittle beans.

“Our tomatoes,” said my son, picking up a squishy mess.

“We should have picked them all last night,” I lamented.

“Is summer over?” asked my younger daughter.

“Yes,” I replied. We shivered as we walked back into the house to eat our warm oatmeal.

The chill outside wasn’t the only sudden change. Hearts can also experience frost. Our lives have generally been summer — abundant, plentiful, warm and happy. But every life has some sorrow. It usually comes suddenly. We don’t watch the forecast or want to acknowledge the cloud on the horizon. It just happens.

Longfellow observed, “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”

I may have seemed cold last month, but I was only sad. Sad when the doctor said, “No heartbeat.” Sad when an ultrasound confirmed the lifeless form. Sad when I had to break the news to my husband, who was across the country on business. We cried together on the phone. Sad when I tried to pretend that everything was OK, until he came home and we told the kiddles together.

“No baby?” Their shock was visible. “No new crib?” “No baby name?” The frost had come to our family. Overnight our dreams were wilted.

For a few days everything hung in the air, waiting and in denial.  Our tears had been cried, and there was nothing else to tell.  It almost seemed that summer might still be around, hopeful that it wasn’t quite fall.  But it was.  

One evening, during an evening out, I could feel it.  “It’s time,” I finally said to my husband, and we left our activities to go home.  

On the way we passed happy people talking, hugging, unaware of the turmoil inside of us.  “Every man has his secret sorrows,” I thought again.
Outside the sun was setting, gorgeous and brilliant.  A sign?  Even sunrises are inspiring.  Soon the world would be dark.  

We walked carefully to the car as more oblivious people hurried past.  Everything was heavy and tense now, but we still drove slowly, peacefully, thoughtfully home.  

Together, we walked in the front door, and in less than a minute a tiny being was there with us.  Just bigger than my thumb, and perfectly formed – ten fingers, two eyes, two eyebrows, a nose, tiny lips, tiny legs, and a hand curled up by its cheek.  We gasped and cried.  The frost had come, for real.

When the children woke up the next morning we told them. It was autumn. Summer had really ended. They cried, too. It was a solemn day.

That evening we gathered by the apple tree in the orchard. The branches nearly touched the ground, forming a protective shadow over the earth beneath. We held a tiny box. Together we shared and sang and wept. Even the toddlers, too little to understand, could feel the bitterness.

How could this be? Our lives had always been summer. Always. Didn’t we have nine gorgeous children right there with us? Nine had come, all overdue — even a set of twins had arrived without a hint of trouble. They were our summer. But no matter the bounty of summer, frost brings a pang of loss.

The little box was put in the earth, and spontaneously the children threw flowers and petals on top of it. Then we covered it with dirt, and placed a tiny, heart-shaped rock to remember. Angel baby was laid to rest.

The days passed, and our sorrow began to heal — ever so slightly. One crisp day we went out again to the garden. There, not far from the little mound in the apple orchard, were the drooping plants and weeping tomatoes.

However, next to them were orange pumpkins, suddenly visible now and bright in the molding blackness. Everywhere tree leaves were golden and glorious. The mums, next to the wilted daisies, were brilliant with color — yellow, purple, orange. The grapes were sweet and full, the frost bringing out their flavor, and the apples and pears were ready without a moment to spare. Everywhere the deadness was filled with new autumn vibrance — life we hadn’t noticed before.

“Mama, look!” called my 1st grader. He was ready with his wheelbarrow and wagon to gather the fruits of fall.

That night we ate our autumn soup, drank fresh grape juice and ate pumpkin muffins. “I like the fall,” said my son. “Summer is nice, but you don’t appreciate it until the frost comes, and makes the world a different kind of beautiful.” I smiled. Where sympathy had been before, I now had empathy — empathy for anyone who had listened for a heartbeat, or held a lifeless child, or had a box under an apple tree.

“Every man has his secret sorrows,” and now I had mine. But just like the frost, those sorrows somehow made the world brighter. I looked at the faces of my children around the table — they were brilliant, like the mums and the grapes and the pumpkins, sweeter and dearer than before. Our frost had ultimately brought life. With a new song in my heart, I stood to serve the fresh apple pie.

House of LIGHT

Our Japanese rental home

“Mama, we’ve always lived in homes with lots of light.”

The unexpected yet earnest comment from my 13-year-old son caught me off-guard. I was folding laundry and he had just come upstairs to say goodnight. As a typical teenager, he usually was more concerned with his friends than he was with the number of windows in our house. But I was pleased with his observation.

“You’re right,” I said. “We like light in our house.”

We had just moved into a rental home in Japan, and it had been a challenge finding enough space for 8 people to comfortably exist. Families our size were not common on the tiny Asian island.

But despite our idiosyncrasies, we were lucky enough to find a home with wide, tall glass doors on each floor and spacious windows in every room. I loved looking out on the “jungle” vacant lot next to us and the ocean in the distance. Having views and light would certainly make our foreign transition smoother.

Why is light so vital to our souls? And to moms? I can think of lots of reasons. But the bottom line is, LIGHT makes us feel light.

As Pa Ingalls observed when digging his well, “Where a light can’t live, I know I can’t.”

Thinking back on our previous homes, I love remembering our wonderful windows in Kaysville, Utah; Casper, Wyoming; and Las Vegas, Nevada. Light and windows have always been a priority for us.

And my rule of thumb as a mom is, start the day by opening the blinds. Let the light in!

Get out of bed, open the windows and then get on with the to-do list.

Folding laundry, doing dishes, sweeping floors, managing little people, and all of the ups and downs of motherhood are much easier to deal with when the beauty of the earth is visible through our windows, and when the light of the world is streaming into our lives.

So when you’re feeling overwhelmed with the cares of life, open your shades, sit by a window (or out in the yard or on the deck) and soak in the sun.

And you never know, your teenage son may learn from your actions, and love LIGHT as much as you do!

Memoires of Bettye-Down-the-Street

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August 5, 2020

My dear friend, mentor, and neighbor, Bettye Jane Hodgkins, passed away a few hours ago, at 4:30am Pacific Time, August 4th. Bettye was 99 years, 5 months and 4 days old.

I was here in Japan when I received the news a few hours later, at 4:30am my time, August 5th. Something woke me up and I know now it was Bettye, letting me know she was on the other side, through an email sent by her dear daughter, Christine.

When Bettye passed in America it was actually evening in Japan. There was a full moon and my husband, Mark (whom Bettye adored), suggested we go out and look at the sky from our balcony. It was cool outside, and we stood for a long time, gazing at the moon and then looking out at the ocean from our home in Okinawa. Little did we know at the time, but Bettye was slipping quietly to heaven.

It is impossible to measure the good or influence a person can have in 99+ years of living. I only know bits and pieces of her first 78 years of life. But her final 18 years were filled with meaning for me and my family.

Bettye had four incredible children, all whom I met. She was a devoted wife and mother. She was an artist, and always had a canvas set up in her kitchen, with paints and brush at the ready, a few finished pieces displayed on her fireplace mantel. She was also a writer, like me, which is partly why we became close friends 18 years ago.

My husband and I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada with three young children in 2002. A day later, our 4th child was born, in our home, just four houses down from where Bettye had lived for over 60 years. Thomson Circle is a quiet place in the busy city. It’s an older neighborhood, with large mature trees and big yards full of grass—the perfect place to live with children.

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Of Justice, Mercy, Equality, and Peace

IMG_1169_OriginalOur news is full of voices demanding equality and “justice for all.” With a deep love for my country, and with empathy for those who also declare injustices, I can’t help but wonder, ‘Which of all these parties is right?’

This morning during my personal study I came across the words of Elder James R. Rasband who spoke on the Doctrine of Christ during the April 2020 General Conference:

“One thought has come again and again—without the Book of Mormon and its clarity about the Doctrine of Christ and His atoning sacrifice, where would I turn for peace?”

Peace is what I long for right now. Peace from riotous voices. Peace from the demands to erase history. Peace from the clarion that we live in an oppressive nation. Peace from raging pandemics and contradicting solutions. Peace from oppressive dictators around the globe.

And at the same time I truly desire justice for all. In this tumultuous world, can I find both?

Justice through Christ

Elder J. Rasband explained that we feel true peace when we fully understand that “Christ’s merciful sacrifice fulfills all the demands of justice.” In other words, believing in Christ provides the assurance that all will eventually receive justice.

When seemingly finite efforts to ensure that “all men are created equal” fail, we can trust that justice will be served through Christ. This understanding brings peace to my soul.

President Boyd K. Packer taught, “restoring what you cannot restore, healing the wound you cannot heal, fixing that which you broke and you cannot fix is the very purpose of the atonement of Christ” (November 1995 Ensign). Yes, true justice comes through Christ.

But there’s more. This same Savior also provides mercy and equality. Continue reading

Approaching Zion—A Quality Quarantine

IMG_7756I hate to express unpopular opinions, but for many reasons I am LOVING this quarantine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of deadly viruses or endless school closures, but some of the resulting outcomes of a worldwide pandemic have actually benefitted our family. The mandatory quarantine is one example.

During the mush and mix of motherhood—especially on days when I feel totally overwhelmed—I have often wished for a long VACATION: a few weeks (or months) where the world stops and we can actually catch up on life. Right? Get through the family photos, organize the cupboards, finish the books, watch the movies, take the walks and DO everything on our “someday” lists.

Well, my at-home dream vacation wish has come true!

Our calendars are EMPTY! Our kids are all HOME! My husband CAN’T go to a meeting or run an errand or leave on a business trip. The soccer games are gone. The dance practices are on hold. The flute lessons have been cancelled. There is NOTHING going on.

Frankly, this absence of appointments is HEAVEN! For a few blessed weeks (err….months) the world has stopped spinning.

And I love it. Continue reading