VANCOUVER, Wash. — Sarah Coomber describes herself as a 'budding perfectionist' when she was a student at Oak Grove High School in Fargo in the 1980s — gunning for academic and musical honors while applying for scholarships and volunteering, she says, to demonstrate her 'very goodness.'
So it might have come as a bit of a shock that just six years later, as the age of 24, Coomber was struggling a bit.
After a short-lived marriage and subsequent divorce, she found herself unfulfilled in graduate school at the University of Minnesota.
"The marriage and grad school were not what I thought they'd be," she recalls during a phone interview from her new hometown of Vancouver, Wash. "I'd think, 'How did I get here? Is this my trajectory?' I was surprised by how my life was not working out."
Coomber's answer was to make a trek back to the 'happy place' she had found as a teenager: Japan. In her new book, "The Same Moon," the former Forum reporter (1997-2001), details how she ran away from her "wrecked" life in Minnesota to go back to Japan to reflect, heal and figure out what was important to her.
An unexpected love begins
In the summer of 1986, Coomber was awarded a U.S. Senate Scholarship to spend the summer in Japan as part of a student exchange program.
"I really didn't know much about Japan. I had wanted to go to Germany," she laughs.
But upon arriving in the small city of Hagi, she immediately bonded with her host family despite the language barrier. She even had a brief summer romance with a handsome, young baseball player named Ryota, who inspired the title of her book.
"Ryota gave me the moon the summer I turned 17," is the first line of her book and explains how Ryota pointed up at the sky and noted that the same moon looked down on both America and Japan.
She says Japan gave her a sense of wholeness she didn't feel at home — a place where she could shed the expectations she had placed on herself.
"My time there was a chance to re-enter a childlike state, being led around by Miho and her younger sister Yukie (members of her host family) being cared for by accepting parents and grandmother, having little responsibility — it was a beautiful break," she writes.
Back home, but looking east
Once back home in Minnesota, she returned to the hustle and bustle of her senior year. But she wouldn't forget Japan over the next few years, taking courses in Japanese language, art and literature and working at Concordia College's Language Villages. By the time she was a senior at St. Olaf college, she was able to make a brief return visit to Hagi, where she was able to converse more easily with her host family members who were "as delightful as they had been when most of our communication depended upon charades."
She even touched base again with Ryota, and they wrote letters after she made it back home to the States. But they drifted apart. Coomber eventually graduated college and got married. But after 10 months of marriage and what she describes as her "dull" graduate program, she made the leap to go back to Japan by applying to teach English in Hagi in 1994.
Back to Japan
She was instead assigned to teach in Shuho-cho, a small city of 7,000 in southwestern Japan. She says she was hoping Japan would become a place to reflect.
"My goal was to really isolate myself, to try and reflect on what had gone wrong," she says. "I didn't want to get involved, since I thought I'd only be there a year. Looking back I realize how backwards that is."
Instead, she says she immersed herself in her surroundings and the culture of Japan and ended up staying for two years from 1994 to 1996. She compares her relationship with Japan to the Japanese art of woodblock printing — at first black and white — seen through the eyes of her own culture. But with each subsequent visit becoming layered with color like her new memories and understandings.
She says it's a conversation that is particularly relevant today with all of the controversy surrounding immigration and other cultures.
"I think the more we take the time to listen to someone else's story, the more we understand," she says. "Having a one on one conversation with someone from another culture is so enriching to our lives and others."
As Ryota noted on that night in 1986, we all live under the same moon.
She says while people might decide they want to isolate themselves as she did when she first started teaching in Japan, she's come to understand human connection matters.
"No matter what we do we have an impact on others," she says. "That's what living is all about."
Thoughts on paper
Coomber says the book was decades in the making as she first started jotting down notes when she was a 16-year-old in Japan. Later, she wrote essays about Japan as she pursued her Master of Arts degree in mass communication. (She also eventually earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.)
"My advisor told me 'you should write a book with all of this,' " she says.
So between working in public relations for a school district and being a wife and mother of one, Coomber put her thoughts down on paper. She says she wants the book to give people a sense of hope.
"Sometimes, our lives get all messed up. Sometimes it takes a radical change to make things better," she says. "It doesn't have to mean moving to another country. It might just be taking a different route to work or making a new friend. Sometimes we just need to get out of our own way."
For more information:
Coomber will be do book readings at the following times and locations:
- Beagle & Wolf Books, Park Rapids, Minn., on Tuesday, July 23, noon to 2 p.m.
- The Willow Bookstore, Perham, Minn., on Tuesday, July 23, 3 to 5 p.m.
- Zandbroz Variety Store, Fargo on Thursday, July 25, 6:30 p.m.
- Ferguson Books, Grand Forks on Saturday, July 27, noon to 2 p.m.
- Ferguson Books, Bismarck on Sunday, July 28, 2 to 4 p.m.