The ghosts sit on the bookshelf beside my desk, wild-haired, wearing silk. I look at their faces, a kabuki brand of comic sternness, hoping they’ll tell me something, knowing they can’t.
I inherited the porcelain ghosts from my neighbor Amy, whose parents’ house was filled to capacity with everything from shrimp figurines to polished-wood Noh masks. After her mother died and before the estate sale crew swept through the house, I walked the rooms with Amy, cataloging the contents of cabinets, sorting documents from recyclables. “If something like that catches your eye, take it,” she said about the ghost dolls. “I don’t want to see them becoming someone’s Oriental tchotchkes.”
I remembered the time my mom—who like Amy’s grandparents was born in Japan and ended up in Los Angeles—liberated the Buddha statue from its spot outside the bathroom doors at the Unitarian Universalist church we attended. The first Sunday the old minister and his wife were gone, she and one of the choir members lifted the iron Buddha and set it in the garden among succulents on a hillside overlooking a canyon. “A Buddha by the bathroom!” she told me afterward. “How disrespectful.”
My apartment has other resident creatures besides the ghosts: a family of kokeshi dolls with wooden bodies the color of toasted mochi and my skin; a couple Daruma; a pair of owls. The impulse to bring them home is part spiritual, part aesthetic, part nod to the idiot part of myself that can’t see Gollum without laughing. I grew up with magical stories, not just Japanese ones, and I like to surround myself with evidence of them still.
I need evidence to remember who I am, where I come from. My parents met in Los Angeles, far from their hometowns in Osaka and Oregon. Together, we moved seven times before I finished high school in Palos Verdes, an L.A. suburb at the rocky lower lip of the Santa Monica Bay. I’m used to being the authority on nothing but mythology, a mix of family memories and ghosts.
In the dominant mythology of my family, told to us again by others, I’m the one who is okay, a story I hate for the way it separates me from my brothers, who despite everything are more like me than anyone else in the world. Their demons are more visible than mine: one because he can’t hide anything, the other because his secrets have erupted. I would rather not hide either.
* * *
On New Year’s Day, my parents and I meet at the pop-up Shinto shrine in Little Tokyo in downtown L.A. because my mom wants to pray for luck, mostly for my brothers, who live in the Midwest now and once went months without heat due to a shady landlord. One of them frequently sleeps in his car, even in the winter. He seems to live on instant ramen and the wildest meats he can find: chicken feet, frog legs marinated in pig blood. The other studies neuroscience and poetry, diving deep and so far always coming up again.
New Year’s Day, or Oshogatsu, is the one Japanese holiday we’ve consistently celebrated: my Japanese mom, my American dad, my brothers, and me. When we were younger, we celebrated with traditional osechi dishes, made by either my mom or my auntie, each bearing a specific kind of luck: syrupy black beans for hard work, tiny candied sardines for a good harvest. Now that we’re grown and my auntie is nearly one hundred, we meet our Japanese American relatives at an Olive Garden or Marie Callender’s in the San Gabriel Valley. Afterward, my auntie hands out the syrupy black beans in tiny glass jars.
On one side of the white tent holding the pop-up shrine, a folding table displays rows of omamori, good-luck amulets, embroidered silky rectangles on cords for safe driving, love, business, passing exams. My mom chooses one for each of my brothers, which the shrine attendant passes across the table in a plain brown paper bag. My mom tucks it in the tote bag I made for her with fabric she chose from a local quilt show: on an olive green background, a repeating pattern of Daruma, the round red dolls that stand back up when you push them over, representing perseverance. “Nana korobi ya oki>>,” goes their slogan. “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” For my mom, they are also avatars of my brother, the one with the meats. When he lived at home, he had a row of them in different sizes lining the top of his bookshelf.
We walk to the other side of the tent, which holds a wooden altar decorated in offerings of mochi and mandarin oranges. A collection box in front bears a sign explaining how to pray: a sequence of claps and bows. The tent shrine lacks the gravity of the shrines I visited when I lived in Japan for a year during college—the path of red wooden gates, the craggy rocks offshore decked with paper garlands, even the local neighborhood shrine with its accordion-folded lanterns and Shiba guard dog. But absent all of that, the tent will do for my mom, for us. We throw our coins into the box, clap, bow, clap again, and leave the tent.
* * *
I used to wonder why I felt uncomfortable calling myself an atheist, even though I probably was, still am, one in the eyes of my Catholic, Mormon, and nondenominational Christian friends. In Texas, where I spent ages twelve through sixteen, atheists wore the label loudly, to make space for themselves in a state of assumed Christianity. But I grew up with some kind of religion, one I didn’t even call a religion, one I couldn’t name.
My mom is a big-time feeler. She often cried as she read us bedtime stories: The Chronicles of Narnia; the Wrinkle in Time series; Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki—beautiful books she bought with her employee discount when she worked at the bookstore in Little Tokyo when she was younger, the bookstore where she met my dad. “This goes so deep,” or “Humans are like this, aren’t they?” are the kinds of comments she makes often, even now when she tells me about a news story she read on her lunch break. Long after her mom died, she called out for her in Japanese, randomly, like while washing dishes. She explained to me once that she thought her mom was still here somehow, scattered in the air. I pictured her dissolved like the original Little Mermaid, seafoam.
My dad, meanwhile, liked to bring us outside when something interesting was happening with the planets. Once outside a ramen shop he pointed out three planets and the moon making an arc across the sky. A woman came out of the restaurant halfway through and asked him to go through them again. My mom didn’t even look embarrassed.
As we moved across the country, these were our constants. These and the Unitarian Universalist church, less a church than a liberal collective, people craving meaning on Sundays without dogma or specificity. In Peoria, Berkeley, San Jose, Dallas, Bellevue, and Palos Verdes, we had potluck lunches, Wiccans celebrated sabbats, atheists walked out of sermons at a Christian-leaning minister’s mention of God.
My dad says he and my mom picked the Unitarian church for us because they knew that if they didn’t, our friends might take us to an evangelical church, and a couple of mine did. In elementary school, I went to Vacation Bible School with a neighbor, where we made snow globes out of baby food jars and where, on the last day, the pastor asked all campers ready to accept Jesus into their hearts to go into a back room connected to the sanctuary. My neighbor came back crying because by the time she’d gotten to the room, they’d run out of coloring books.
I wanted to be Christian sometimes. I was jealous of the Mormons’ dances, the Catholics’ conspicuous Ash Wednesday club. My religion was the ghosts of my memories and my parents’ before me, so different from my own and hard to picture from the distance of an ocean or a long state. It was friendly spirits and the fictional characters like them—Daruma the namesake monk with his legs numb from meditation, Jizo by the roadside, the Moomins’ gentle companionship, the red shoe girl dancing until her feet bled, makkuro kurosuke (soot sprites) hovering communally like a school of fish over the floors of the house in My Neighbor Totoro. It was nostalgia for trees that lined the neighborhood we’d just left behind—broad-leafed maples, oaks shedding helicopter seeds, the romantic ease of eucalyptus—a separating of my spirit each time we moved, the guilt of multiple allegiances, a tangle of roots below, branches above reaching.
* * *
Ingrid was the first person close to me who died. She went to the Unitarian church with us in Palos Verdes, and when I arrived at sixteen, fresh from Texas, shy, she gave me her warm, bustling attention. She had a loud, German-inflected voice, short white hair, and a confidence she didn’t waste on bullshit. The summer before I left to spend my third year of college in Japan, she gave me a ring her parents had given to her. She had no daughter, just a son ten years older than me who had been my sculpture teacher in high school. Her cancer came back that year, and she died before I came home.
After she died, her husband asked my mom and me to take clothes from her closet, and I took too many, sad at the thought of them having a home with a random person who didn’t know the way she powered across the church courtyard with her arms full of fair-trade tea. Each time I gave a piece of clothing away, because it didn’t look good on me, because she was in her sixties and I was twenty-two, I felt ashamed. She had cared about filling her house with talismans too. I thought it was the best house I had ever seen. Set below the street, it opened on a shaded courtyard that attracted families of peacocks, whose visits she encouraged with food. Inside on white walls was bright artwork brought back from her travels as an international flight attendant. In the backyard, a beautiful mess of fruit trees. After she died, her husband took up watercolor painting and their mantle filled with the cliffs of Palos Verdes, a meditation.
* * *
A year after college, I moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment on L.A.’s eastside with my boyfriend. My parents and I lived less than an hour apart, a tiny distance compared to the thousands of miles that had been between us when I was at college in Vermont, but suddenly I thought about their future deaths all the time, especially as I lay in bed, imagining earthquakes, bombings, random shootings, cancer, the slow creep of health problems they already had. My brothers moved away from home and, like my mom, I worried about them too. I imagined a future in which one died and left us all heartbroken but my mom forever inconsolable.
One day, for an article, I interviewed an artist whose partner died young of a rare form of cancer that began with a pain he mistook for a cramp, and suddenly I felt a cramp on the right side of my body that moved whenever I had to pinpoint it for a doctor. Sometimes it seemed to come from my ovary, sometimes it extended down my leg, sometimes I felt it just under my ribcage, which popped like a joint when I rubbed it from the right angle.
My whole body felt compromised and dangerous, and I imagined dying all the time: under an overpass where I sat in traffic, in a poorly lit parking garage. When I considered starting a new project, I imagined dying before I could finish it. Going for an early-morning walk seemed an invitation for attack. Because I worked from home, I could spend whole days in my apartment, going outside only to buy groceries down the street and check the mail, steeping in self-loathing that spiraled around and around, catalyst and consequence.
I tried to write about it, hoping to tame it through organization, but writing about anxiety felt like making a sculpture out of fog. It was diffuse, amorphous. My writing devolved into lists, the same ones over and over: things to just do already, schedule of an ideal day, contents of an ideal capsule wardrobe. I hated looking at these depressing lists, so I’d abandon them and make new ones from scratch when I felt the urge: foods to eat, old projects to finish, things I want to change. My world shrank to just me—lonely, bored, exhausted.
* * *
As we leave the shrine and walk through the rest of the New Year’s festival stalls, my parents keep talking about my brothers and the good-luck charms they bought them. It’s not that we don’t worry about you, they tell me, but you’ve always been pretty good. You’re pretty much doing fine.
I’m thirty now, which feels too old to court my parents’ attention or crave their approval, but I do both anyway, telling them about stories I’ve written and healthy meals I’ve cooked as if holding out my report card for a promised Sanrio store reward. Maybe that’s why, when I tell them over the years that I’m struggling with anxiety and depression, they don’t seem to remember for long. You’ve always been pretty good.
For several months, I had a therapist who more or less said the same. His wife was Asian and white like me, which he mentioned more than I liked. He seemed to idealize creative jobs. “Your life is cool,” he said once. “You wrote an article for Oprah Magazine!” Maybe I had asked him for gold stars. In the end, he told my insurance company that I’d gotten better, causing them to cut off my mental health coverage. He broke the news to me by voicemail. Was I crazy for thinking I needed help? I didn’t fight his decision or even call him back. You’re pretty much doing fine.
I knew there was a full spectrum of mental illness beyond my experience. One of my brothers went to school with someone who attempted suicide by jumping out a second-story window, someone who couldn’t control his bowels, someone who took a well-meaning cliché to heart and believed his late father actually, physically lived inside him. In comparison, I was okay, privileged with mental health. But I wasn’t fine.
Many of my friends weren’t fine either. We talked about what it meant—which proportion was about us, our chemical makeup, and which was just a normal reaction to life in a racist, regressive country and heartbreak over our parents’ dreams for us. We started trading notes—experiences with antidepressants and therapy, helpful books and articles, pep talks encouraging each other to do first things first: get out of bed, take a shower, go have some coffee.
With one of these friends, I went on a women’s retreat in Vermont, a two-hour drive from the town where we had gone to college. We started each day with yoga, then journaled to various prompts, learned about crystals and menstrual cups, and did guided meditation at night. Apart from my friend and me, everyone else in the sixteen-person group was white. The retreat leader talked vaguely about traditions without specifying whose traditions they were.
I tried to approach the experience with a healthy balance of openness and caution. It couldn’t hurt to write down the thoughts I was ready to let go of and throw them into a fire. It couldn’t hurt to manifest dreams for the future as long as I didn’t get too prosperity gospel with it. And wandering the grounds, where sheep and alpaca grazed, in the clean Vermont air after a rain, felt, simply, good, as did the last day’s meditation exercise, where I saw myself lying on the mulchy ground of a redwood forest, looking up into a dusky canopy.
Back in L.A., I did another meditation workshop taught by a Japanese American artist I knew. In the exercise I remember most clearly, we walked slowly in a circle in a dimly candlelit room around an altar, eyes closed, picturing ourselves walking backward in time. We remembered our lives in reverse, until we were fetuses carried by our mothers. We pictured our mothers’ lives in reverse: what they heard, what they wore, what they saw when they looked up at the sky. Then we did the same with our grandmothers. I realized how little I knew about those physical details, but I liked spending time embodying that wonder: My mom as a kid in a dress her mom made her. My young obaachan leaving her small town to study sewing. All of us looking up at the sky.
* * *
In Los Angeles, the difference between seasons, in temperature and color, is small enough that it’s easy to forget what month it is. After moving so often for the first twenty-three years of my life, I had gotten used to marking time by place: the Seattle years, the Vermont years, my year in Japan. I’ve now lived in the same apartment for longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. The days can slip by unmarked if I let them.
This fall I started taking antidepressants because I was tired. I had tried other treatments—I even visited a local Unitarian Universalist church but found that it didn’t feel like home anymore. I kept burning out. I’d start exercising and making more of an effort to eat well, and each time for a couple weeks I’d feel optimistic and a little smug, like I’d finally figured out how to handle life. Then, exhaustion. I hadn’t wanted medication—I’d watched other family members struggle with it and absorbed their distrust.
When I started taking antidepressants, I saw it as an admission, the subtle start of a new era, a daily reminder to notice life and try to nourish myself. Winter came. I decorated for Christmas with friends, stabbing cloves into mandarins to make pomanders like my mom used to do, making pom-poms, decorating a tiny tree. One of my friends took me to her hometown Christmas market in Montrose, where we listened to carolers and ate her favorite childhood cake, a Swedish princess cake with sponge, cream, and jam layers covered in green marzipan.
I thought about ways to mark the days while living in the same neighborhood. Another friend’s company tree lighting. The new seasonal pastries at my favorite bakery. The pale pink bloom of the jade plant outside my building. The end of wool-knitting weather and the start of linen. Candles on longer nights. Celebrating friends’ accomplishments and showing up when they needed support. Basic things, the things the static in my head had been drowning out.
* * *
I wanted to wait to tell my parents about the antidepressants until I had something concrete to report. The death anxiety went away first—so quickly considering how long it had stayed. I noticed first on a freeway overpass, the 110-105 interchange, one of my least favorites for its height and curve. The fear came with prickly skin, but rather than sparking a spiral that lasted for hours, it left.
Still, I wanted more progress: a consistent routine, confidence, weight loss, easy sleep, my writing voice back. At the shrine tent, I buy a sticker for my new notebook, one in a pack of three I’d just bought at the local bookstore, an act of consumerism to seal my resolution to write. The sticker has a pair of foxes on it, messengers to Inari, the patron god of the Shusse Inari Shrine, which runs this festival stall. It’s only when I show it to my mom that I learn the sticker is specifically for good luck in business, which she sees as a great sign for my writing.
She calls these good luck objects and rituals “kokoro yasume”—basically a chance for the heart to rest. Her worry is infinite, but omamori mailed to my brothers can take a bit of it and transform it into luck. When they hang them from their bookshelves or rearview mirrors, the omamori turn into reminders of my mom, our family, where my brothers were before they moved to small-town Illinois, who they are beyond their present thoughts. For me, the Inari sticker could be a daily intention, a reminder that my need to write has become just a little more insistent than my fear.
After walking through the festival, we buy drinks at a nearby coffee shop, the one that came to Little Tokyo just after I did, as a young reporter working for the local Japanese American community newspaper. Sitting on the patio, under a canopy of paper umbrellas, I tell my parents about my medication. Their faces fall in this way, heavy with care, that makes me want to both take back my words and bottle their eyes-open love for all the times in the future when I’ll need it.
They have questions and suggestions: Are you sure you want to go down this road? Did you try ashwagandha? Are you taking fish oil? Maybe meditation will help. Go for walks every day. What dosage are you taking? That’s enough—don’t increase it.
By the end, I’m glad I’ve told them, if only to come a little more out of hiding. The next day my dad calls just to tell me it was nice to spend time together. He doesn’t mention the medication, but I think I hear the subtext. It’s the same one present when I call to ask if he’s seen the full supermoon yet or the eclipse.
I’m trying to notice the moon’s phases. I’ve started reading about Shinto and witchcraft, which are both based in nature—as home for spirits, as a marker of time, as a source of meaning. It’s new to me, after years of death anxiety, to see evidence of time’s passing as beautiful rather than bleak.
My morning routine now goes like this: antidepressant and vitamins, incense and writing. Sometimes I light the cypress incense and walk away to make coffee or take a shower. Sometimes I can sit still and write as I watch the orange glow sink down the stick, turning it into a column of ash that tumbles over in chunks. The slowness feels like an offering.
Sometimes beautiful, slow things are the most unbearable, like fragrant jasmine season or my parents’ lifespans. They will end and I am already sad. Noticing hurts. Noticing is the only thing worthwhile.
* * *
Just before the new year, a friend invites me to his family’s mochitsuki, a day of making mochi to eat on Oshogatsu. I went once before, when his grandfather was still alive. He had diabetes and one of his kids warned us not to let him eat mochi. Hours later, I saw him sitting in a folding chair eating mochi with both hands, looking blissful.
The family takes mochi-making seriously. It happens assembly-line style, starting with rice steaming in layered tins over camp stoves. The steamed rice goes through a grinder, then everyone takes turns pounding the paste with a wooden mallet the length of my torso. One person plops the pounded rice on a floured table, where another person pulls off pieces the right size and throws them down the table to be caught, shaped, and placed on a board to cool. At least forty people help. They’ve been doing it for decades.
It’s easier for me to talk with people when I have something to work on, whether that’s making mochi, knitting socks, or conducting an interview for an assignment. I like to ask about sensory details and hear people come to life as they talk about their processes and how they came to be. The mochi needs to be gently rounded across the top, and smooth, with a pinched seam at the bottom.
My friend’s mom sends me home with bags of mochi to share with my mom and one pair of large kagami mochi for the altar offering. I don’t have an altar and neither do my parents. The closest we have is my childhood dog’s urn, which is a rectangular plastic box with a wooden heart tag tied around it, etched with his name, Max. When I visit, I wash an apple and put it on top of the urn. I don’t think Max can taste it from the afterlife, but the exercise helps me remember him and the way he plopped down defiantly in the grass on walks. Whether ritual magic is literal or not is beside the point.
I keep the kagami mochi and put it on the ledge in my kitchen. I’d like an altar one day, for photos of my grandparents and my boyfriend’s. When 2018 becomes 2019 and the mochi develops a line of mold right along its seam, I throw it out and replace it with flowers.
I’m reading about other holidays. At Setsubun in February, I’d like to eat a fat sushi roll and throw dried beans out my door to ward off demons (they’ll land at my manager’s step, so I’ll have to go sweep them up). At Tanabata in July, I’ll take time to think about Orihime and Hikoboshi, the lover-deities only allowed to reunite once per year. When planets fall in interesting alignment, I want to be the kind of person who looks up at the sky.
Mia Nakaji Monnier is a writer in Los Angeles. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and more. She received a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California.