• Erica Pollock

Surviving Back-to-School 2020: Lessons from Tokyo Disneyland

Updated: Sep 18



The cells of my body hum with excitement as we begin down Main Street U.S.A. The storefronts with their vibrant colors and yesteryear cheer, the greenery oh-so-perfectly coiffed, the pavement at our feet spit-shine clean, almost glowing, in the anticipation of a new day of fun in make-believe paradise.

You'd never know my brain was short-circuiting!

The sweet, yeasty aroma of churros and waffle cones drifts in the air as I catch my first glimpse of Sleeping Beauty’s castle …. Wait … what?!? The hardwire of my brain freezes, a glitch in the system. Something’s off. I can’t make sense of it …. But yes, something’s different, and the world begins to tilt….


There’s the castle. The beloved, familiar castle where, when I was a kid, my parents would tell us to meet them if we ever got separated. On every visit to Disneyland, this was our beacon. But there’s something different, dare I say there’s something wrong, with my beacon, and I can’t make sense of it……


I shake my head a bit. It’s nothing. Let’s go have fun. We continue on to the right, Tomorrowland in our sights. Oh yeah, Star Tours here we come -- always my first stop. As we join the line, I look over my shoulder to watch the rockets turn in their endless orbit …. But they aren’t there.


I was 21, living in Japan

for the summer with my college roommate Makoto and her family. It had been an incredible summer so far, exploring my friend’s home town, being “adopted” by my Japanese Ottosan and Okkasan (dad and mom) -- I’m not sure if my young mind grasped just how privileged I was to have this experience.


But as in all our life journeys, the visit was not without its challenges. I was learning totally new customs -- how to eat properly, how to dress properly, how to navigate when I was out and about, even how to bathe and how to use a toilet that was smarter than me. Not just the mechanics of it all, but the etiquette as well. My brain was inundated with so much new information -- language fatigue and culture fatigue were ever-present companions. I'm embarrassed to say, my heart did a happy dance every time we saw a McDonalds, a staple of the good ole U.S.A.!



That’s why I was so looking forward to this visit to Tokyo Disneyland. I grew up in Southern California, and Disneyland was a familiar haunt at least once a year. I couldn’t wait to surround myself with familiarity for a whole day!


But when Sleeping Beauty’s castle turned out to be Cinderella’s castle, yet another period of adjustment ensued. And it was sneaky, this adjustment. Not quite as glaring and obvious a change as using chopsticks instead of cutlery, but subtle, and in its subtlety it gave my tired brain yet a new, unexpected challenge.


My friends could see that I was puzzled, but they had no idea how to guide me. They couldn’t see through my eyes. Their experience was different from mine. Not to mention, they spoke a different language. My journey today was not going to be their journey today. I felt alone.


So I picked up my tired brain, somewhat disappointed in its expectations, and took a moment to recalibrate. While I craved familiarity, my “normalcy,” could I rise to the adventure of the unfamiliar, yet again? I acknowledged that along with all the familiar joys and comfort zones I’d find in the park that day, my brain would need to continue to adjust to unexpected changes in the facade. It’s a little thing, but it’s strange how much it shook me.


Adaptability is hard.

We in the western world live in a very privileged reality -- some might call it a fairy tale paradise. Yes we’ve got our very real battles -- the human journey is challenging no matter where we live. But in fall 2020, I find that the Disney facade of my comfort zones are shifting, both subtly and starkly. It feels like I'm in a foreign land, without the fun. Can you relate?


By the end of summer, your kids were so excited to get back to school. See all their friends, get back to the familiar, to their daily job as kids: learn, learn, learn, so they can grow into thriving adults. But alas, your daughter is quarantined on day one of school because she sneezed. Or perhaps all your kids made it through the gauntlet of the COVID morning screening, and their familiar classroom doesn’t feel so familiar anymore. No desks pushed up against each other where you can pass silly notes to your friend. No unscheduled bathroom breaks. No lockers. Only walk this way, not that way, in the hallway. Subtle changes that tilt their world on its access. Can their young minds adjust, recalibrate, and move forward?


Whether you’re remote learning, homeschooling for the first time, or a seasoned homeschooler grappling with loss of social engagement, there are both subtle and stark shifts in your reality. You woke up looking forward to California Disneyland's Frontierland and New Orleans Square, but found them replaced with Tokyo Disneyland's Westernland and World Bazaar. Ha! Bizarre. It’s a good word for today.


The human mind is capable of great adaptations. Moms and dads, you feel knocked to your knees ... again. Your kids have been knocked to their knees too, and you feel so ineffective in helping them. You are all in a land where you have to learn a new language, new customs, new basic daily mechanics. Together you are navigating the unfamiliar, and while you have friends, you feel alone -- you as a family have to navigate what’s right for you, and the journey is going to look different from any other family’s journey.


The challenges themselves, those pesky things that interrupt our children's lives .... perhaps this is the true opportunity for education in 2020. Life skills, coping skills, adaptability, positivity. These are excellent lessons to learn. But there’s a point when, as parents, the overwhelm inhibits our ability to guide. When the changes get stacked against us and we begin to drown in them, it’s time to take a moment to recalibrate. Step back. Yes, even take a day off.

Mako resting her feet during one of our rides.

There’s a Japanese concept called “ma”

which directly translates to “pause”.... But the concept is richer than that. "Ma” is the intentional creation of white space in the human brain and spirit. It’s a time to hit the pause button, so to speak, on sensory intake, intellectual intake, so that you have a quiet space in which to make sense of it all. In the "ma", sense is made of your day. Meaning is discovered.


When Mako and I were overwhelmed during that summer of '99 -- she with translating everything for me, and me with, well, everything -- we'd go for a quiet bike ride through the rice paddies. No need for talking; just the wind in our ears and the rhythm of our feet pumping the pedals -- that mindless rhythm acting almost as a metronome, calming our chaotic, wearied minds.


"Ma" is like a pause in the music. Pauses in music are critical for two reasons:


1. Without the pauses, the musician cannot last long.
2. Without the pauses, the listener can miss out on the music.

Imagine a composer carefully planning out the pauses, while musicians train their voices, their fingers, their arms, to pace through until the pause. It's the secret to their endurance. Additionally in the pause, the listener is not only able to absorb the experience of the musical composition that preceded it, but prepare herself for the change in feel, in tempo, in mood, that is coming in the next notes. The human ear needs that pause between shifts, so that it can fully take in the next part of the musical journey.


In the turmoil that is fall 2020, it’s not only okay, but VITAL, to take a pause. Step back, breath deeply, and make sense of the new music, however nonsensical it may seem. What do your weekends look like? Are they full, or can you take time to pause together as a family? What would "ma" look like in your family life right now? Perhaps a bike ride? A game of catch in the yard? A meandering walk in the forest (or, as the Japanese say, a "forest bath")? Or a simple cuddle on the couch, crocheting or knitting together.


Learn from my Japanese travel fatigue. Whatever your "ma" looks like, the intention is clear: turn your brain off from the worry and all the thinking for one day, or even for just a few hours. And perhaps, oh just perhaps! -- your inner composer can find the rhythm of its music, now taking the lead, turning that hodgepodge of notes into a beautiful symphony for you and your family.


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