Because Everyone Has A Story - BEHAS

An Odyssey of Self: The Life and Lessons of a Wandering Scholar - Robert W. Norris : 129

April 02, 2024 Season 12 Episode 129
Because Everyone Has A Story - BEHAS
An Odyssey of Self: The Life and Lessons of a Wandering Scholar - Robert W. Norris : 129
Because Everyone Has A Story - BEHAS with Daniela
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Join us as we listen to Robert W. Norris, who shares the chapters of his life's novel. His experiences span continents and cultures, from the Redwood forests of Northern California to the bustling streets of Fukuoka, Japan. Robert's tapestry of experiences weaves a tale of adventure, identity, and the undying influence of a mother's love.

Robert was born and raised in Humboldt County, California. In 1969, he joined the Air Force but became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He served in a military prison for refusing to fight in the war. In his twenties, he travelled across the United States, went to Europe twice, and made one journey around the world. In 1983, he moved to Japan, eventually becoming a professor at a private university. He spent two years as the dean of students and retired in 2016 as a professor emeritus. He is the author of three novels, a novella, and over 20 research papers on teaching. His most recent book, "The Good Lord Willing and the Creek Don't Rise: Pentimento Memories of Mom and Me," is his life story and tribute to his mother. Robert and his wife live near Fukuoka, Japan.

At every crossroad and challenge, Robert saw an opportunity to grow and redefine what it means to be home. His narrative takes us through the old hippie trail, the cultural shocks of reverse migration, and the embrace of a foreign land that eventually offered the sense of belonging he sought. His story is punctuated by the books that guided him, the family dynamics that shaped him, and the personal convictions that propelled him forward. Through Robert's eyes, we discover that home isn't always a place—it's where we find pieces of ourselves.

As we conclude our conversation, Robert shares the profound lessons on contentment and purpose he learned through suffering and the pursuit of happiness. Our discussion transcends the material, touching on the cross-cultural insights he gained from a life spent around the world and the tranquillity he found in his later years.
Let's enjoy his story!

To connect with Robert: Website: https://robertwnorris.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bob.norris.374

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Thank you for listening - Hasta Pronto!

Daniela SM :

Hi, I'm Daniela. Welcome to my podcast. Because Everyone has a Story, the place to give ordinary people's stories the chance to be shared and preserved. Or stories become the language of connections. Let's enjoy it, connect and relate, because everyone has a story. Late, because everyone has a story. Welcome. My guest is Robert Norris, author of the Good Lord Willing and the Greek Don't Rise. Pentimon. Memories of Mom and Me.

Daniela SM :

Robert was born and raised in Humboldt County, california. He joined the Air Force but became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, so he was in prison for six months for refusing to fight in the war. I found his story to be insightful and fascinating. Years old and his profound lessons of contentment and purpose he learned through suffering and the pursuit of happiness were particularly inspiring. Our discussions went beyond the material, touching on the cross-cultural insights he gained from life spent around the world and the tranquility that he has found in his later years. Rob's life journey is full of excitement, self-discovery and everlasting love for his mom, who was his best friend. Robert and his wife live near Fukuoka, Japan. Let's enjoy his story. Welcome, Robert, to the show.

Robert W. Norris :

Thanks, daniela, I'm glad to be here.

Daniela SM :

It's good to see you again I know, and you are all the way in. Thanks, daniela, I'm glad to be here. It's good to see you again, I know, and you are all the way in Japan, right.

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, it's 8.25 in the morning over here.

Daniela SM :

Yes, and here is 3.24 pm. But from what day Is it today Monday or is Tuesday for you?

Robert W. Norris :

It's Tuesday right, it's still early in the morning, so I'm still getting my brain together. Let's see, it's Tuesday, tuesday still getting my brain together.

Daniela SM :

Let's see, it's Tuesday. Tuesday, yes, okay and so.

Robert W. Norris :

Robert, tell me a little bit about you. Well, I was born and raised in a small logging community in Northern California, a place called Humboldt County. I had a kind of idyllic childhood growing up in the Redwoods. My father was a logger and a hard worker.

Daniela SM :

And so now you've been living in Japan for how long?

Robert W. Norris :

I came here in 1983. So it's now 41 years, I think over half my life.

Daniela SM :

Yes, wow, I know you have a story to share. Tell me why do you want to share your story?

Robert W. Norris :

The simple answer, I think, would be just my mother passed away about three years ago. She was almost 95 years old. It was right around my 70th birthday. So there was a lot of reflection that I had to do in thinking about her life and my life and relationship, that we had, the influence that she had on me. She was a remarkable woman and she had a remarkable life, and I'd been thinking for a long time well, I'd like to write about my nomadic adventures when I was in my 20s and 30s and how I came to Japan. And so I decided well, I just want to pay tribute, I want to keep her spirit alive in some way, and so I wanted to combine both our stories together. I had all this email correspondence, regular mail correspondence, audio tapes, video tapes so I had a lot of material to use and just wanted to pay tribute to my mother, let people know how the unconditional love of a mother for a child is something that's really important and helps them to survive the ups and downs of this crazy life.

Daniela SM :

Yes, but then you wrote something about your mom, but you wanted also to combine your stories, and so that's how you decided to write a book about both of you.

Robert W. Norris :

That's right. That's right. It ended up being a combination biography of her life and a memoir of my own life and basically the influence she had on me and even though we were separated, during these 40 years that I've been in Japan, you know by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean we managed to keep up correspondence and she visited Japan about eight different times and we had a lot of adventures together. The whole story covers about 100 years, a lot of her family stories and a lot of my own adventures and all the ups and downs of life.

Daniela SM :

Wonderful. What is it that you were doing in Japan? You had a profession there.

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, I eventually became a professor at a small private university here. I started out working in the English conversation schools in the 1980s and then at the time I didn't really have any qualifications to go much beyond that. But by correspondence course I ended up getting a master's degree. And about the time I got my master's degree a full-time position opened up at a women's junior college where I was teaching part-time and I applied for it, was hired, and so I ended up joining the teacher's union and paying into a pension fund. And now, 25 years after that happened, I'm retired and so I have lots of time on my hands and I can do a lot of writing. And I had done a lot of writing before, mostly autobiographical novels, and you know, back in the 1960s when I grew up, came of age, more or less.

Daniela SM :

Of course the Vietnam War was raging, and so Wait, wait, don't tell me more, because I haven't asked you.

Robert W. Norris :

So when? When does your story start? When do you want this story to start? The first was I was court-martialed for refusing an order to go fight in Vietnam. This was in 1969, 1970.

Robert W. Norris :

And at the day of my court-martial I was charged with the military crime of what they called willful disobedience to a direct lawful order, which carried a maximum penalty of five years in military prison. A maximum penalty of five years in military prison. I was found not guilty of the original charge, but guilty of a lesser military crime, which was called negligent disobedience to a direct lawful order. The difference between the two was that I didn't use the word no when I refused my order. I just kept repeating the same sentence over and over again of I don't feel I'm mentally or physically capable of killing another human being, and so that single sentence actually saved about four and a half years of my life. So that more or less introduced me to the power of language.

Robert W. Norris :

Fast forward a few years later I ended up being sort of part of the counterculture and, like many young hippies of that time, in the early 1970s I took a trip kind of a search for identity, I guess you could call it where I hitchhiked across the States and bummed around Europe for a few months and I was constantly running into a lot of young Europeans who were doing the same thing, a lot of young artists and poets and musicians, and they were all expressing themselves and seemed to be living fulfilling lives, and I was heavily influenced by that. I felt a bit envious that they could all speak three or four different languages and I could barely speak my own language, and so I came back to the States with the idea that I wanted to become a writer and so I started writing and studying literature, and so that had a big influence on me as well.

Daniela SM :

How do you know how to repeat that sentence?

Robert W. Norris :

Oh, I had a good lawyer who was actually another military officer. He had been anti-war fellow himself, and he'd spent eight years studying to become a lawyer. He was also eligible to be drafted, and so, rather than try to escape to Canada, where he would lose all his qualifications and all his ability to do any kind of legal work, he decided to join the military as well and work from within the service. Actually, at that time there was a lot of anti-war sentiment and activity from within the military itself, and so I was his first big case, and he worked really hard on it, and that was an angle he pursued. It would have been very difficult for me to be found not guilty of any kind of charge. He thought that if I didn't use the word no, there would be a good possibility that they couldn't convict me of the more serious crime, and that's the way it turned out. So it was his legal counsel that really helped me out.

Daniela SM :

So, but you were convicted of a smaller crime. You had to go to jail.

Robert W. Norris :

Yes, yes, I spent about six months in a military prison and then I was kicked out of the military with what they call an undesirable discharge. There's, the highest ranking that you can get is an honorable discharge, and then that would qualify you for all these governmental benefits like low interest loans if you're going to buy a house, or what they call the GI Bill, which would help with your fees for going to college or be a lot of advantages. Employment opportunities would be increased advantages. Employment opportunities would be increased in those days if, if you applied for a job on on the job application form, you had to sign a part where there was a question that asked have you been in the military and, if so, what kind of discharge did you have? And so I had to write down undesirable discharge on that, and then there would be a big argument about the Vietnam War and I would usually come out on the bad end of that.

Daniela SM :

And so, after the six months, where do you go?

Robert W. Norris :

I was just kicked out of the service and so I returned home. I tried to go to school. For a while I worked some labor jobs, sort of minimum wage type of jobs. One was in the sawmills of Northern California. That was pretty heavy labor, what they called the green chain, pulling wet lumber that was freshly cut off a tree and stacking it in different carts to be used for plywood later. Yeah, it was just a time of, I don't know, searching for identity. I guess I felt somewhat alienated from the States, and that's what prompted me to hitch across the States and bum around Europe for a while. That was a good decision. I met a lot of influential people and it gave me a lot of confidence.

Daniela SM :

Traveling around. How old were you?

Robert W. Norris :

Let's see. Well, when I was court-martialed I was 19, and then I got out of the military when I was 19. My job before that was a guard for B-52 bombers, walking in circles around these huge bomber airplanes that were dropping all kinds of bombs on North Vietnam, kinds of bombs on North Vietnam, and so that had a lot to do with night after night just thinking about the power of these machines that were doing so much killing, and I had to think about the war a lot, and I was talking to a lot of other soldiers and there were underground newspapers on the base, and so that was a kind of education in itself. When I returned to society, I tried college for a while, but because of my experiences I felt somewhat alienated from the kids around me who really seemed a whole lot younger than I felt, and so I thought, hmm, maybe I don't belong in the States. And so I found a book called Europe on $5 a day at the time, and so I just put a bunch of camping material in a backpack and hit the road. I had been reading books like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and some books by some of the expatriate writers, like Henry Miller from the 1930s and Ernest Hemingway, and so I thought Europe would be a cool place to see if I can't find something different.

Robert W. Norris :

And sure enough, I found a whole different way of life, a whole different way of thinking. There was a kind of acceptance of what I had done. You know, there's a lot of stuff that was going on internationally in the late 1960s and early 1970s and a lot of the young Western European I guess you could call them hippies of the time. There was an underground kind of network of information where if you met up with somebody and you camped out for a few days together, they would pass some information on to you. If you go to Spain or if you go to Amsterdam or if you go to London, here's the address of a friend and you can stay there. I was able to pick some fruit here and there and get paid not in money terms but with a meal, and it paid not in money terms but with a meal and sort of a vagabonding type life, and that was really interesting. It was a high adventure for me at the time.

Daniela SM :

Where do you get that love of reading?

Robert W. Norris :

Probably from my mother. She was always reading. She was very artistically inclined. I remember as a boy, almost every birthday, every Christmas, we were always getting these books like Mark Twain, huckleberry Finn stories, a lot of adventure stories for young people, and so she was always reading. She was always studying. She was very musically inclined, very artistically inclined, and so I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where books were always very important to us. I'd always been reading and always had a head filled with wanting to experience adventures myself.

Daniela SM :

With wonder, with wonder, do you have any siblings?

Robert W. Norris :

Oh yes, this is kind of a complicated story. Actually, I had an older brother who had been adopted, and then my mother lost a couple of kids in miscarriage and then. So they adopted this older brother. But then she got pregnant again with me and I was born a couple months early by cesarean section, and the doctors told her that she couldn't conceive after that and they wanted a girl. So they also adopted a girl. So I had an adopted brother and adopted sister, and then my mother and father divorced when I was about 10 or 11. And within a year they'd both remarried and their new partners had also been married and divorced and had kids. So all of a sudden I had all these new siblings, stepbrothers and sisters and let's see, at that time there was three stepsisters and a stepbrother. And then my father and stepmother had two children later on, and so I guess that's what they call a half-brother and a half-sister. So all told, there were nine kids, two fathers, two mothers there was enough to make a baseball team.

Daniela SM :

Yes, wow, okay, and so then you were kind of, even though you had nine brothers or nine siblings, you and you still kind of were on your own. You decided to travel and you were on your own, really.

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, there was a bit of an age difference, and so I didn't really spend a whole time with any of the siblings. We all kind of lived in our own worlds. I spent the school years with my mother and stepfather, the summers with my father and stepmother, and then my final two years of high school I spent the whole year with my father and stepmother, and then at the time every young man had to face the draft in the States, and so I didn't want to be drafted and be sent to Vietnam directly, and so one of the alternatives seemed to have been either joining the Air Force or the Navy. The Air Force recruiter I went to visit and to get some information. He painted this really golden vision of how great life would be in the Air Force and I could play basketball 24 hours a day, have all kinds of adventures everywhere, and I bought this hook, line and sinker. First day in the military. I realized I had made a big mistake, but at any rate, yeah, that time my brother was a little bit older. He was about two or three years older, which is a big difference when you're in your teens. He lived in a completely different world from what I lived in. And then the younger ones were four or five years and more younger than I was, so I didn't really spend a whole lot of time with my siblings and we all got along pretty well. There were no serious problems there. But in the end I just chose my own path and fate kind of intervened, and it really wasn't until many years later that the importance of my mother's life hit me.

Robert W. Norris :

She was kind of a woman ahead of her time and she was a bit of a misfit herself. In the 1950s there weren't many working opportunities for women, and so she was a stay-at-home mom. But she always had dreams in her head too. She got married very, very young, and the marriage didn't work out. Once all the kids left the nest she started working, and in her forties she became interested in flying and so she took these night courses and she ended up getting a private pilot's license. Later on she actually worked for the Department of Forestry as a fire spotter in the Lake Tahoe region. She would go up in a small Cessna airplane and fly over these forested areas, mountainous areas, and if she spotted any smoke or anything she would report it in, and so the firefighters could come in and control the fires, and so that was kind of exciting for her and controlled the fires, and so that was kind of exciting for her. After she divorced a second time, she went to night school again and she got qualified to become a legal secretary. And she ended up becoming a legal secretary in her 50s and worked until she was 78.

Robert W. Norris :

And so she was a very strong, independent woman, always supportive. She got a lot of criticism for being too lenient with her kids and then she was a very powerful voice in defending me against criticism by, you know, neighbors and friends and relatives, for, you know, becoming a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and she was actually kicked out of the Catholic Church because of her second marriage. At that time the Catholic Church wouldn't allow you to get remarried if you had been divorced, and so she was a battler, she was a fighter and very independent. Later on we started comparing life experiences and telling stories. We always stayed in touch, always through correspondence. Wherever I was in the world we would be writing back and forth and she became my best friend, really best supporter. Later on, after I moved to Japan, she actually started studying Japanese too, and years and years later we were able to communicate through the internet, actually have video conversations. Then we would have Japanese lessons. I would be teaching her Japanese over the internet in her 60s and 70s.

Daniela SM :

Wonderful and so, robert. So your mom sounds like an amazing woman and you're right for showcasing her life. That's incredible, very unusual, that at 40 years old, she wants to become a pilot. So you go to Europe, you're traveling, you say you're making really good connections. Yeah, so how long were you there before you went to Japan?

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, that's kind of a long, interesting story itself. I'll try to be brief here, but, as I mentioned before, when I was about 22, I took my first trip. I hitchhiked across the States and then bummed around Europe for about six months or so until my money ran out and then returned to the States with the idea that I wanted to become a writer. At least try to become a writer. Of course you have to eat, so you have to work, and my main means of survival in those days was I learned how to cook, and so, with my itchy feet and rambling around here and there across the states, I could always find a job in a restaurant someplace. In most of my 20s I was working as a cook and actually ended up working as a cook on some of the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, which paid pretty well, but it was a bit like a prison experience itself. You know, you stuck out there on this mechanical island for about three weeks at a time, working 12, 15 hours a day, no place to spend your money, so you could save up some money fairly quickly. Yeah, I started out writing short stories and then kind of like a runner, starting with short sprints, you know, eventually running longer distances and writing longer stories. And I had some money saved up and I was about 26 years old at the time and I was ready to write a novel.

Robert W. Norris :

So, again under the influence of all these expatriate writers like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway, I thought Paris would be the place to go. So I went to Paris, and while I was in Paris this is 1977, the same cheap hotel that I was staying in there was an Iranian and an Afghan, and one day I came back from just walking the streets and they were trying to convey a message to the desk clerk, who spoke only French and he couldn't understand them. And so they asked me can you help us? And I'd picked up a little bit of French by then. So I gave a very crude interpretation to the desk clerk, who seemed to understand, and these two men were overjoyed, and so we became friends very quickly and they invited me back to their countries or Iran before this might be interesting, good for writing about adventures.

Robert W. Norris :

So this began maybe about a year-long journey across the old hippie trail, you know, through the old Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and then Turkey into the high eastern mountains of Turkey. Lots of adventures there which I wrote about later in my memoir. We narrowly escaped a couple of times in the high eastern mountains, but then into Iran where I spent about two months. This is before the Islamic revolution of 1979. It was still somewhat safe to go through there. I spent about a month in Afghanistan, another month in Pakistan, another month or so in India Total about a year.

Robert W. Norris :

And by the time I got back to the States I had a serious case of reverse culture shock. That feeling, that dream of wanting to live and work and study in a foreign country, just became stronger by the time I got back to the States. So I thought well, maybe someplace in Europe Spain or Greece or someplace like that would be interesting to try to live. As it turned out totally unexpected. But I ended up coming to Japan in 1983 under the advice of a writer friend of mine who had spent time in Japan and really had a good time. He told me that there was the possibility of finding a job as an English teacher.

Robert W. Norris :

Japan's economy was really starting to boom in the 1980s. A lot of companies were hiring native speakers to try to teach English to their engineers, who they would be sending overseas to work in factories. And I ended up coming to Japan with the address of a friend of this writer friend, and they put me up for a couple of weeks until I got settled. I found a job immediately as a teacher in a conversation school and eventually I met my wife and so once I got married then I made the commitment to becoming an expatriate for the rest of my life. Here, plus, japan was just such an interesting place to live. It was so different from anything I'd experienced before in the language, in the culture, in the people, the food, everything. I just felt like I'd finally found home.

Daniela SM :

That's so beautiful, but can you tell me more about that culture shock? You think that that happens? I'm sure you have met a lot of people that are travelers or live a nomadic life. Is that similar to everyone? How do you think that culture shock happens?

Robert W. Norris :

I can't really say for other people because I really haven't compared experiences with a lot of other people In my own case because of the tail end of that journey overseas. The second time was in India. By the time I got to India I was almost out of money, so I was basically living on the streets and I was actually physically very sick, I think mentally very sick, and I spent a bit of time in Calcutta and living amongst sort of the leper colonies, what, yeah, all these unimaginable diseases and deformed bodies. It was like a nightmare existence and mentally, you know, I was kind of lost, suffered, I don't know, some kind of hepatitis or something at the time, you know, and so sleeping on the streets with these people, it was almost as if I'd gone to hell and I was finally able to make it back to the States. You know, whenever I would try to talk to people about what I'd been through and how places like Afghanistan, it was like traveling back into the days of the Old Testament and all the women wearing the burqa where you couldn't see their faces. Not that their life was so horrible, but it was just so different from what I'd experienced even in Europe. And yet you saw in the people that there was a certain amount of happiness and contentedness, and so it came to me that material things don't really mean that much anymore, as long as you have family and people to take care of you or to love and you have a reason to get up every day to go in the fields and work in the fields or do whatever work that you're doing. It was like I had my head completely twisted around, and then when I came back to the States and I tried to explain all my experiences to everybody, it was as if nobody cared. They were all living different existences.

Robert W. Norris :

By this time I was in my late 20s and so a lot of my friends or people that I had known previously were raising families, they had kids, they had their own realities and they weren't really all that interested, and so in my head I felt as if I had been to hell and back and nobody cared.

Robert W. Norris :

I took probably six months to a year to sort of readjust to living in the States. Again I started drinking pretty heavily, going down a bad route. So again, I think it was my mother and her support that kind of saved me. She would listen to my stories when nobody else would listen to them and she would always comment and kind of compare with her own experiences in life and some of her relatives had had quite a bit of trouble early on in their lives and she was just so patient and so loving and so kind and at that time, rather than a mother-son relationship, I think we just became best friends and we always communicated and so she was like my rock of stability. I could always communicate with her. But that dream of wanting to live and work and study just got stronger and stronger, and so I was lucky enough to realize that in Japan.

Daniela SM :

Yeah, that's true. You were lucky that you didn't lose your weight. You know that you still had a vision and a dream. Had a vision and a dream. But how did a nice trip like that, meeting really nice people, going to Afghanistan and to Iran, ended up in India being so poorly? Is that the right word?

Robert W. Norris :

I don't know, perhaps my own way of seeing the world shifted gradually the farther east that I went, you know, from Europe, and I still had some money in my pocket. I had a few thousand dollars when I initially went there. But as we continued east and this Iranian friend convinced me that it would be easy to find a job in Iran. Convinced me that it would be easy to find a job in Iran Because at that time, basically a lot of American oil companies were in Iran and the Shah of Iran had a good relationship with the West. And as it turned out, once we got to Iran I wasn't able to find any work and so I was just walking the streets most of the time and using up my money. I started using a few drugs at that time, I think I just got depressed a little bit and then realized that I can't return to the West because I don't have the money to do that. I just got to keep going east and see what happens and in a sense I just completely gave up my what, threw my fate to the winds and I didn't care what would happen one way or the other and I just felt the need to keep moving.

Robert W. Norris :

Actually, iran was relatively wealthy at that time because of the oil money, but once I crossed over into Afghanistan, that was a big shock. It wasn't that far hardscrabble type of life. Of course, I couldn't stay for very long. The length of the visa was only for a month or two, and so I had to keep going east More and more.

Robert W. Norris :

My money started to run out and so I wasn't able to eat nutritious food all the time I I just got physically kind of sick, and I think that physical sickness affected the way I was thinking. By the time I ended up in Calcutta I had almost no money at all and just living on the streets and in a sense, very fascinating because spending time with the untouchables, the people there that are living on the streets, and I didn't really see any suffering in their own eyes. In fact, what I saw was a kind of mirror that they were looking at me and feeling sorry for me is the way I interpreted it in my head as if they had found their position in life and accepted it, even though it was a hard existence where I was still searching for something. That kind of twisted my head around a little bit.

Daniela SM :

That sounds really profound Interesting.

Robert W. Norris :

Fortunately, once I got back to the States, I was out of money.

Robert W. Norris :

I had sold my car before leaving, so I had maybe about $1,000 in the bank once I got back to the States and I immediately went to my mother's and stepfather's place and spent three or four months with them, and so I would write all day long trying to put all my experiences down on paper and what I thought about them, and in the evenings I would talk about these experiences with my mother and grandparents.

Robert W. Norris :

It was a much-needed time of I don't know rest and recuperation from doing battle, of just trying to exist on a daily basis in a different part of the world, and so I think I needed that period of time and I was able to work out as a form of therapy. Writing became a kind of necessary form of therapy for me. I was able to more or less vomit everything that I felt about life and all the confusion that I felt, whatever beliefs religious or philosophical or otherwise that I'd had previously kind of disappeared in India, and I was able to get all that down on paper. I could never, of course, sell it, it was too sort of radical, but in a sense it was a means of recovery. After that I went back to cooking again and continued for about another four years until I found a new life in Japan.

Daniela SM :

So is this a rover who left, a very, very different rover that came back for your experience. But it seems like you were not only good experiences. You had some traumatic experiences or just challenging experiences that make you a stronger individual.

Robert W. Norris :

I think a combination of all those Initially, yeah, the confusion of how did I survive all this? There were a couple of near-death experiences. Of course, whatever faith I'd had I don't really consider myself an atheist, more or less an agnostic I believe in the possibility of God. The experiences that I had on the streets of India sort of wiped away any faith in some kind of spiritual being, and it was just constantly in my head this big question mark of if there's a God. If there's a God, how could he or she allow this kind of suffering for humanity that I'd seen on the streets of Calcutta?

Daniela SM :

Yet you didn't think that they saw themselves suffering.

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah.

Daniela SM :

They look at you like you were the one suffering.

Robert W. Norris :

Right, and that confused me even more. Yes, internally, what's the purpose of my life? Why am I here? Why did I experience all this? So I was investigating all these questions just by writing as much as possible and discussing with my mother at night, in a sense. You know, if you've ever had the feeling of a bad hangover in the morning and you feel better after you vomit, feeling of a bad hangover in the morning and you feel better after you vomit that's the feeling I had after spending a few months of getting everything out of me on the paper and then somehow gradually finding my way again in the world.

Daniela SM :

You know, robert, I remember I was doing a familialization trip and we went to Mexico and I remember going around and people that were working with me they keep saying, oh, look at them. So poor, I realized. But they're happy, they don't know where they're missing because they don't know. And so we having maybe more knowledge or more access to stuff, I think we suffer more. So I think that that's kind of a little bit of what you say. I didn't see it on the same extreme as you, but I feel like we are very quick and maybe it's a North American way of thinking that if you don't have everything that we think is needed, then you are suffering. But it's not true.

Robert W. Norris :

Well, the farther I've gotten away from those experiences, maybe the more objective I've been able to look back on those experiences, and part of that is writing as well.

Robert W. Norris :

I've come to think that all people have their own cross to bear in one form or another, that none of us really escapes, and I don't know if there's any purpose to all this, but at some point or another we're all kind of destined to go through some kind of suffering. The Buddhists recognize that as saying life is all suffering, and the way to get through this journey is to somehow find ways to alleviate that suffering, whether through meditation or chanting or devotion to whatever your task is at hand, whether it's working in the fields or working in a factory. At any rate, I think if there's any answer to all this, it's finding a purpose to your life. Finding a purpose to your life, and for me, I found that in Japan eventually, and that was the world of education. Throughout all the years that I spent studying about teaching English as a second or foreign language and then trying to apply those skills in the classroom in a variety of different situations, I ended up finding out that I learned more from the students than they ever learned from me.

Daniela SM :

That's a wonderful way of thinking.

Robert W. Norris :

I think, through all the suffering and searching, in the end I was able to find peace and happiness and found my wife, who's been a great support and a great partner. And again it seems almost as if everything was predestined. You could say I had to go through all these earlier confusions and experiences and frustrations and it's hard to call them sufferings now when, comparatively speaking, my suffering was very minimal compared to what a lot of other people go through but I think I had to go through all of that to find this contentment in a later stage of life. If there's anything I've tried to impart to the people I've come across in the field of education and my students, it's the old wisdom of this too shall pass, or this is just one step towards your ultimate destination.

Robert W. Norris :

There is a purpose and a reason to all this madness that we're experiencing right now. Probably we won't completely understand it Just acceptance, I think, more than anything else. Acceptance always be receptive to another person's reality. Never judge another person's reality. Empathy is very important, all these things and again, I don't adhere to any religious belief or philosophical belief, it's just something very personal. But I just feel that I've had to go through all those early experiences to reach the point that we're at now. This point is a very comfortable, fulfilling one.

Daniela SM :

That sounds amazing, beautiful. I love it. At what age do you think that you could say you felt contentment?

Robert W. Norris :

It would have to be probably after I retired. I mean, I've felt periods of contentment, but they were never permanent, always sort of impermanent. Well, it's kind of like existence you know we're not here forever of like existence. You know we're not here forever. And so I would have to say, yeah, each stage of life has brought something interesting and something fulfilling, but at the same time something frustrating and something confusing and even painful at times. You, our bodies, are weak vessels that break down a lot Mentally. You know, some things can be quite overwhelming. In the end, I think right now is the best time.

Robert W. Norris :

I probably felt the same way when I was in my 50s, but then something would come up and then we would fall backwards a step or two and get back into those old feelings of depression and darkness and thinking negatively, but somehow moving forward again. I think my mother's influence. She was a very optimistic person, but she always expressed her optimism in a very interesting way. The title of my book is the Good Lord Willing and the Creek Don't Rise. Pentamental Memories of Mom and Me. And I remember whenever we kids would face some tough situation or she would hope for something or wish for something and she would always say, well, everything will be all right, and then she would qualify that by saying the good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, meaning if we're lucky. It was kind of symbolic of her attitude towards life.

Daniela SM :

Besides that book that you just mentioned, have you written other books.

Robert W. Norris :

I published three novels and a novella way back in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Robert W. Norris :

Those were by small, independent publishers and in each case those publishers went bankrupt and so they returned all the copyrights and everything to me and I ended up just to keep the books alive, self-publishing them.

Robert W. Norris :

I hadn't written anything for about 20 years until, as I mentioned at the beginning, when my mother died and I had all this material to think about and to go through and relive both our lives in a sense and reflect on everything in our relationship that I thought, hmm, I want to combine the two lives into one book. It took about a year to write, then another year to sort of try to send it out there for potential publication and went through a couple more rewrites and I ended up going through what's called a hybrid publisher. We worked together on that for about another year, so it was published about a year ago. It was a very interesting and satisfactory experience. Every time I look at it I can see the cover. My mother's picture is on the cover. The picture is from her high school days, and so she was a very good-looking woman and you can see the sort of brightness in her eyes and she's looking at the future and looking at it through bright eyes, and it was kind of symbolic of her innate optimism.

Daniela SM :

That's beautiful, the stamp that she left on you, right? I mean, I think there's a lot of people that love their parents, and so many that they are not as lucky. So that is a beautiful memory that you got times that you have with your mom and beautiful that you were able to write a story, but not just because you love her, it's also. Your mom was extraordinary and had an interesting, different life than the common women at that time, so that was pretty cool.

Daniela SM :

And even the women at this time, at 40 years old, becoming a pilot I don't see that being very common.

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, she was great. She had a wonderful sense of humor too. More than anything else, I remember laughing a lot with her and that was another key to my recovery Once I got back from India. I think was the fact that I was able to spend two or three months with her. She would listen to my stories seriously and comment on different things here and there, and they would always remind her of some experience of her own from the past. But she would always top it off with something positive and even a joke at the end where we would be able to laugh at these miserable situations. And I just remember how infectious her laugh was.

Daniela SM :

She will listen, acknowledge, yet find something positive and laugh about it. Right, because you know you could listen and laugh about it, but then you don't feel acknowledged. It's like dismissed, but no, she knew how to be empathetic.

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, and she knew how to lift me up out of the doldrums and put a smile on my face and yeah, these things, we overcome these things and tomorrow's another day. Things will turn out better, the good Lord willing, and the creek don't rise.

Daniela SM :

When you met your wife, was she also able to take similar part as your mother, or is she completely different?

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, they share a lot of same qualities. My wife is also a very unique individual. She was a student at one of these conversation schools that I was working at initially in the Osaka area. She was in her late 20s at the time. I was probably what? 32 years old, I think, when we met. Her English level was really quite high and her purpose in studying English was to gain the highest proficiency rating, and she was working for a Dutch company in Kobe, and so she was doing a lot of interpreting and translation work. She was just a really hardworking student who loved English. She had a really quirky sense of humor and she laughed at my stupid jokes in the classroom, and we didn't start dating while she was a student.

Robert W. Norris :

Long after she left the school, she attained that qualification and I think at the time I had a girlfriend, but about a year later both of us were out of relationships and we ended up going out and we had such a good time together. Within a few months we were living together and not long afterwards we ended up getting married. Actually, after we got married, we separated for a year. She came to the States. She got a job working as a Japanese language teacher in a big business school in Arizona for a year, and so she was able to gain her own overseas experiences, and I got a job in a vocational school that took me to a different town where I am now Fukuoka is the name of the town. When she came back from being gone for a year, we suddenly had all these shared experiences of having been an expatriate for a year, and so she had experienced American culture from a foreigner's point of view and I had experienced Japanese culture from a foreigner's point of view, and I think these experiences brought us closer together.

Robert W. Norris :

Our means of communication is a kind of mix of Japanese and English and nonsense, and she has a very similar sense of humor we laugh at the same things and she was able to meet my mom on several occasions, and they got along just famously. In fact, one time my mom was in her 70s. This was in 2003. I had a summer off where I didn't have any responsibilities for the university where I was teaching, and we ended up going to Ireland to search mom's father's family roots. We found information dating back about 200 years, maybe nine generations of her family roots, and so it was a very magical time and mom was just in seventh heaven the whole time, and she and my wife Shizuyo call her Shichon. They hit it off right away, and that trip brought them together even closer. It was interesting for me to see the two of them become such great friends, so we were lucky that they were able to meet each other and spend precious time together.

Daniela SM :

Great, that sounds amazing, and you're very fortunate to have two beautiful women inside out with you, robert. What's next?

Robert W. Norris :

I'm going to tackle the study of Japanese kanji once more, the most difficult part of Japanese. I've been able to make progress in speaking and listening enough that I was able to do my job. When I was teaching at the university, outside the classroom, 95% of my job had to be done in Japanese, with meetings and recruiting students and dealing with parents and this and that I always kind of neglected the reading aspect and writing aspect of kanji. I attained probably maybe a junior high school level of proficiency junior high school level of proficiency but I had always had this dream of being able to read some of my favorite Japanese authors in the original rather than English translation.

Daniela SM :

So kanji. I'm sorry for my ignorance, but kanji is the writing of Japanese.

Robert W. Norris :

Yeah, japanese actually has four different writing systems. One is the Romanized version, which is taken from what they call the Hiragana Katakana. These are the kana, sort of a phonetic alphabet of the different vowel sounds and consonant sounds. They can be spelled out just like our alphabet, english alphabet, is. And then the kanji is the actual Chinese characters that have several different readings, depending on what combination of kanji characters. There's what they call a Chinese reading and then a Japanese reading, and sometimes there might be four or five, as many as seven different potential readings, whether you're using old Japanese or new Japanese. So it's a very complicated system, but they're pictographs, is what they are, and each individual kanji character tells a story and makes it quite fascinating. It's a lifelong study, but that's my new purpose is to be able to read a novel in Japanese without having to rely on translation too much.

Daniela SM :

Wonderful Robert. Thank you very much for your story. Actually, I know that one hour is not enough. You have so many interesting points that you touched that I think that we can develop into one more episode here about contentment, one more episode about your travel and your challenges in India, more about your mom, of course. It has been fascinating and I am grateful grateful that you actually reached out to share and that we actually met.

Robert W. Norris :

Well, thank you very much for the opportunity to tell somebody all these stories. I'm sorry if I took up too much time blabbing away.

Daniela SM :

No, Robert, this was your time. We will put in the show notes everything about your book and how to find you.

Robert W. Norris :

Okay, well, thanks. Yeah, if we get a chance, let's do it again.

Daniela SM :

Yes, of course. Thank you, Robert.

Robert W. Norris :

Okay, thank you, Daniela. Bye-bye.

Daniela SM :

I hope you enjoyed today's episode I am Daniela and you were listening to, because Everyone has a Story. Please take five seconds right now and think of somebody in your life that may enjoy what you just heard, or someone that has a story to be shared and preserved. When you think of that person, shoot them a text with the link of this podcast. This will allow the ordinary magic to go further. Join me next time for another story conversation. Thank you for listening. Hasta pronto.

Robert Norris
Life Adventures and Family Connections
Journey Through Culture Shock and Redemption
Finding Purpose Through Life's Challenges
Life, Love, and Writing

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