Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Japan Series! - Fushimi Inari Taisha

     Now that I've explained my extended leave of absence, let's jump right back into the Japan series!

     Of all the shrines we visited on our trip to Japan, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto was my personal favorite.

The torii gate at the entrance.

     Upon approaching this beautiful shrine, we could immediately see the color palette used throughout a lot of the site - red and white complemented by the green of large bamboo trees as well as other plants I couldn't identify. The huge red torii gate that greets visitors at the entrance was far from being the last one we would see there. In fact, the entire shrine is home to thousands of torii gates, many funded by donations from the patrons of the shrine.

View of one set of torii gates from above.

     The multitudes of torii gates are in several areas lined up one after the other, creating an experience almost like walking through a tunnel of red painted wood or, in some places, grey stone, with glimpses of the surrounding forest showing through the gaps between the gates. The entire path winding through all the gates can take hours to traverse, but we were limited to only one hour. Peek-sensei advised us to walk as far as we could in 30 minutes, then turn around and retrace our steps in order to meet at the front torii gate at the designated time. I wanted to take my time, see the sights, and snap some pictures, so Billy and I didn't manage to make it very far before our time was up. (Billy is determined to go back on our next trip to Japan and walk all the way through, no matter how long it takes!)

This is about the farthest point we reached.

     Another notable aspect of Fushimi Inari Taisha was the fox statues that were located throughout the shrine's ground. As I understand, these represent fox spirits, or kitsune, which are one of the many types of animals considered "messengers of gods" in Shinto beliefs. The kitsune in particular are closely associated with Fushimi Inari Taisha itself. The various fox statues we found there were all beautifully made and looked a little imposing.

I like how this one seems to be looking right at you!

     Billy and I also stopped for a moment to sample some dried fruit at a vendor's stand in an open square. It was delicious, but with our limited budget, we couldn't find a package small enough for us to afford. -_-'

When people come to pray at the shrine, they pull on the red and white ribbons to ring the bells at the top.
At this fountain near the shrine entrance, visitors wash their hands and mouths as a purification ritual.

Some of the smaller shrine structures.

     On the way back towards the entrance, we noticed that the backs of many of the smaller red wooden torii gates were inscribed with kanji and hiragana. Peek-sensei later explained that they listed donors who paid for each gate to be erected.

Here you can see the inscriptions on the backs of the torii gates.

     When Billy and I arrived back at the front torii gate, some of the others from our group had already made it back, and were saying goodbye to a group of Japanese people we'd never met before. One of our friends turned around and pushed a small, warm object into my hand, saying something along the lines of "You've gotta try this!" After tasting the food, I recognized it as takoyaki, which I had tried before in the States, when my other Japanese teacher, Miho-sensei, had made it for us to try in class. Takoyaki tastes kind of like gooey bread with chunks of cooked octopus inside, and it was delicious both times I tried it. Only after I had eaten it did my friends inform me that they had been given the food by the group of strangers they had just been talking to. Of course, I wouldn't normally recommend eating food received from strangers, but we all turned out okay. ^_~

A Shinto priest.

A miko, or shrine maiden.

     And that pretty much sums up my experience at my favorite shrine in Japan, Fushimi Inari Taisha. Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for some more of my favorite shrines and temples!

P.S. - Click here for the full list of Japan series posts!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Why I Haven't Blogged in a While, Why I Quit My Job, and What I've Learned from It All

     So... it's been quite a while since I've written a new blog post. I want to explain why that is, but at the same time, I want to avoid making excuses. Instead, I'm going to tell you what I've learned from this period of time in my life.

     Trigger Warning: I'm about to discuss some mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts, so if this will cause a problem for you, I suggest you stop reading now.

     In August, just before I launched this blog, I got a job as a preschool teacher. I thought it was what I wanted, because it's what I went to college for, and definitely better and higher paying than a fast food job. I had several blog posts prewritten already, and topics planned for more, so I didn't think continuing the blog while working full time would be a problem.

     But everyday when I came home from work, I was too tired to do anything but veg in front of the TV or computer. I didn't have the energy to cook dinner, keep my house clean, or work out, much less blog or make jewelry for my Etsy store. I struggled with emotional eating during this time, too, and gained back a lot of the weight I had previously lost. Eventually, I began to sink into depression.

     For me, that was pretty normal. I have bipolar disorder, so I've struggled with depression many times throughout my life. Over the last few years, I've learned some strategies for managing my bipolar symptoms, but there's still going to be a bit of fluctuation in my moods. So I guess at first I didn't think it was that big a deal, and I thought I could handle it.

Best illustration of bipolar disorder that I could find.

     But over the next several months, the depression got continually worse. Now, I want to be clear here: it wasn't a problem with the company I worked for, or any of the people I worked with. I loved all my kids at the school, and got along well with my co-workers. My bosses were reasonable in their expectations and helpful whenever I needed anything. The job duties would not have been too demanding - for a mentally healthy person. But for me, the normal, everyday stresses of teaching and caring for 15 or so 3- to 5-year-olds were too much. Not too much in the same way as a job so horrible that you feel like quitting on the first day, but in the tiny, almost imperceptible way that builds up over time until it feels overwhelming.

     It probably didn't help that I was an introvert in a job that required nearly constant social interaction (which, in case you didn't know, many introverts find draining). If it hadn't been for my time doing paperwork in the office in the afternoons, I probably would have broken a lot sooner.

     Most people may be able to work through stress, but for me, too much stress triggers my bipolar mood swings. Being tired all the time also caused me to have difficulty taking care of myself mentally by using my usual strategies to control my symptoms. I wasn't getting any exercise, eating right, or getting enough sleep, which only aggravated the problem.

     Eventually, my depression got so bad that I was feeling suicidal practically every day. Whenever I was alone, I constantly had to fight to keep from acting on these thoughts. I was always having emotional meltdowns at home, and had a hard time keeping it together at work some days, too.

     My husband, Billy, told me I could quit my job if I needed to, but I was stubborn. I felt like if everyone else could handle the stress of their jobs, I should be able to, too. I felt like quitting would be admitting I was too weak to handle my life - a life I knew was less difficult than those many people have to deal with. Now I see that suicide would have been essentially the same admission, though it didn't seem that way at the time. And I guess I thought at least that way I wouldn't have to face everyone and explain why I couldn't handle it. I worried what my friends, family, and co-workers would think if I just suddenly quit a reasonably good job. (At the time I wasn't ready to share the real reason with everyone, as I am now doing.) I also sort of felt like if I couldn't handle a teaching job after spending three years in college and putting myself into debt to learn how to teach, then all that time and money would have been a huge waste. And on top of that, I was worried about money. We had a bit saved up, but it wouldn't last us long if I didn't have a job at all.

     But even with all these reasons to stay at my job, I was rapidly approaching the point where it would basically come down to quitting or suicide. Not that either option was good, but I knew that I would eventually, inevitably, do one or the other, unless something unexpectedly changed.

     Then an opportunity came up that surprised us. Billy has wanted to open his own computer repair shop for a few years now. He had been fixing a few here and there, just operating out of our home, but he wanted a physical location. One day we found out that the rent of a unit he had looked at had recently dropped by 25%. We talked about it for a long time, and decided to go for it.

     It might have been a better move financially for me to stay at my teaching job and for him to quit his regular job (in-home assistance for disabled people) to run the computer shop full time. But because of my recent struggles, we decided that I would take over his hours with one of his two disabled clients, he would keep working with the other, and we would each work part time at the computer shop. I don't know much about fixing computers, but I knew I had the organizational skills to help with record keeping.

     So we rented the unit and put this plan into action. I quit my teaching job, telling everyone I was quitting to help my husband with his business - which was true, but not the whole truth. I apologize to anyone who feels deceived because of this, but honestly my mental health is my personal business to share or not, as I see fit, and I didn't feel comfortable sharing it with everyone at that time. Now I do.

     Now that I was working part time at a regular job and part time at our business, where I didn't have much to do most of the day, you'd think I could start blogging again, wouldn't you? But I didn't right away, because I felt that I owed my (few) readers some explanation before jumping right back in, and I still wasn't quite ready to give that explanation honestly and openly. Now, two or three months later, I've realized some things which made me decide that it was time for me to write this, and that I was ready.

     1) I should not be ashamed of having a psychological disorder, and it's my duty to talk about it in order to help others who struggle with the same feelings of shame. There is a huge stigma against the mentally ill in our society. I've seen it in my personal life, like the time when an acquaintance described another mutual acquaintance as "bipolar-crazy." It felt like a punch in the gut, and I wanted to say "Bipolar doesn't mean crazy," but I didn't say anything, because I didn't want her or anyone else within earshot to know that I had bipolar disorder myself. Now I wish I had said something anyway. Some people with psychological disorders are stable enough to be able to pass ourselves off as "normal" (if such a thing exists), but if we don't let anyone know that we have these disorders, how can they be expected to realize that not all mentally ill people are like the stereotypical "crazy person" they've seen on TV?

     I've also seen the stigma in our culture as a whole, like when mental illness is immediately blamed every time someone commits a horrible, violent crime. It's never the only factor in such situations, when it's a factor at all. More importantly, most people with psychological disorders aren't a threat to anyone but themselves, if that. Personally, I've never been tempted to physically harm another person - only myself. But again, society mainly sees the extreme cases of mental illness, because those of us who have less extreme illnesses are likely to hide them out of shame.

     TL;DR for #1: If I want the stigma of mental illness to change, the best thing I can do is openly talk about my experiences and help others understand better.

     2) Everybody has limits, and knowing yours is actually a good thing. In the past, I've sometimes had a tendency to quit too easily when faced with difficulty. But if I know that something is damaging my ability to take care of myself physically and/or mentally, quitting may be the wisest thing to do. And there shouldn't be any shame in that either. It's a lot better than stubbornly refusing to admit that I've taken on too much and overloaded myself.

     So what if I couldn't handle the stress of teaching preschool? A lot of mentally healthy people probably wouldn't be able to handle it either! Some people can't work at all, because of mental/psychological disabilities. I hope that it doesn't come to that for me, because I would like to be able to continue to contribute to my small family's financial well-being. But if I can't, it's no more shameful than someone not being able to work because of a physical disability.

     3) My education is not wasted if I don't use it in the traditional way. My early childhood education classes will help me immensely with my own children when that time comes. I can blog about psychological disorders and provide comfort and understanding to others who struggle with them, partly because of my personal experience, but also partly because of my education in psychology. Learning Japanese and getting to visit Japan were amazing opportunities for which I will always be grateful. Although I do wish I didn't have college loans to repay, I refuse to regret going back to college. It was one of the best times of my life, and learning is one of the most valuable uses of my time and money that I can think of.

     4) If I'm so worried about money and what others think of me that I'm willing to sacrifice my mental health, I'm not displaying much faith that God will take care of me. I knew for a while that quitting was the right thing for me, but I thought I shouldn't because I thought I needed to handle everything myself. Once I reminded myself that God would take care of our needs, it left me free to take care of my own health, which is one of my primary responsibilities as the steward of this body He's given me. Starting a business is risky and a little scary, but because we're trying to do what's right for us, I really believe God will take care of everything we need.

     I felt like these realizations were important enough to me that I wanted to put them out there for the world to see (or at least the tiny percentage of the world that will read this blog post). In addition, writing them out helped me understand my own thoughts better and reminded me of what I believe.

     Epilogue: I am doing so much better emotionally since I quit. My moods are much more stable, I've hardly had suicidal thoughts at all, and I'm just generally happier. My marriage has even improved, and Billy's business is doing fairly good as well, if you're wondering! :)

     If you've read this far, congratulations! You've won the Geeky Ginger Girl Gold Star Award for Sheer Determination. :p

     Now that I've gotten all this off my chest, I probably will be able to get back to blogging fairly regularly. I may not stick to a strict schedule, because I don't want to push myself too hard and let this become a stressful thing. But I do have several things I'm excited to blog about soon!

      Please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings about this post in the comment section - but, as always, please be kind and considerate of others' feelings, including mine! Thanks for reading! :)