I Sought a Good-Luck Charm to Write. I Found My Body Instead
To choose an omamori is to cast a wish.
Have you heard of the rule of three? Ojichan had. He took the family to pray, buying omamori for us for protection against the bad luck we were so clearly facing. This was the first time I saw the colorful silk pouches and tags, some with bells and loops for hanging. It was also the first time I prayed. Ojichan laughed when he saw this five-year-old in baggy peach shorts press their palms together and raise them toward the sky, looked up to where they’d gathered god was.
No, he twinkled, speaking the only language we shared, a wordless language of side glance and gesture, you throw a coin, clap twice in front of your chest, bow your head.
The number of claps, especially, has been hard for me to retain through the years. Luckily, my family’s safety wasn’t on me. As my parents and I flew back to Newark Airport, my obaachan recalls, Ojichan went back and prayed, and prayed some more. My family has never been especially religious, but we do believe in luck. Whatever the third calamity was, my parents and I were none the wiser. We were safe. We were loved.
For a while, despite my trepidation, my unprotected wish seemed okay. Obviously, the only way to fulfill my wish of writing something, let alone something good, was to write. Hard, but simple. I made a schedule, writing on Monday and Tuesday nights after work, plus the odd weekend. I cleaned my desk and made tea and sat there. When I needed a boost, when I was tired or just didn’t feel like writing, I sharpened the pencils on my desk and held them to my nose, their wet-stone-and-cedar smell grounding me, putting me in the mood. Tea and pencils. So pure, so cute.
I began to regard my lack of omamori with the self-satisfied enlightenment of having wanted something and no longer wanting it. Maybe this was a lesson: I did not need good luck to write. To make a wish at all about my writing had missed the point: Writing took consistency! Repetition! A simple formula for getting in the mood! And it took will, not just one’s own, but the will of the work: “If the essay or novel or poem wants to be written, it will speak to you while the conductor is calling out the streets,” writes Alexander Chee in “On Becoming an American Writer,” an essay I have read many times. “The question is, will you listen? And listen regularly?”
I have something that wants to be written, I thought. Smug, I did the writer’s version of making a wish: I pitched an essay. Or maybe it was the writer’s version of casting a curse: I set out to write about something I thought I’d figured out.
There are some calamities, like running over your grandchild’s too-big shoe, or nearly crushing them under an air conditioner, that happen too fast to see coming. The ones I fear are different, slower. Sometimes you don’t even know they’ve been happening until many months later, in the mourning season of summer, when you look back and realize you’ve made a wish that makes no sense, that those you love have left this earth and perhaps you have too, that your body aches no matter what. Or that you’ve changed your number to avoid spam only to receive another number that is next-level worse, cursed, so you must change it again. In this sense, the omamori are right: Who’s to say which costs more, digital security or avoidance of evil? Some days, they feel the same.
By June, I’d given up on tea rituals and pencil sniffing. I’d stopped sitting at my desk after work on Mondays and Tuesdays. In July, I couldn’t sleep. In August, I dropped my body into a pool and found I had forgotten how to tread water, something I had never struggled at before. I had left my body; how could we move together? I am still too close to all of it to say much more than this: It had—has—been a summer of insomnia, unexplained aches, unshed grief. I was, am, in the middle of something; let’s just call it bad luck. I was, am, sick of being so good at running on so little. Or maybe it was time to face it: I have never been good at this, least of all writing.
I began to think I’d needed that omamori after all.
In Chee’s essay, he recalls thinking as a young writer, “Why wouldn’t you do the work? What could possibly stop you?” When I read this the first time, it shamed me that I had so many ready answers of my own to those questions. The shorthand for all of them was luck, everything that isn’t want or willpower. Bad luck could stop you. Depression could stop you. Grief could stop you. Your body’s needs could stop you. So many things can stop you.
The ones I fear are different, slower.
Since I stopped freelancing, I’ve had the privilege of writing without needing it to pay my bills. For those of us with that privilege, a lot of writing advice centers on will, on priority. Do you want to do it? How much? Like moss, our writing must progress, however slowly, through the margins of the day, week, month, year. Though it won’t be easy (ha!), the important thing is to prioritize it, the advice goes. But I for one cannot write by will or work alone. And I do want to write. Among many other things, it helps me live a life whose transformation is possible. It helps me meet my self.
I think this is why writing is hard: Writing is an act of translating what is true inside through the medium of language. It is laborious and exhausting because it requires at least two kinds of mindfulness, becoming conscious of oneself and converting that consciousness as precisely as possible into words, which are gooey and imprecise. The body is essential to writing because it is where sensing lives. And I can’t write when I don’t want to feel.
The only way back to feeling, to writing, is through my body. I have no other choice.
Even when I think of times when I’ve felt the power of an omamori, it was less that I sensed its protection than that I’d been reminded of how my body felt to wish, to hope, to want, like a pelvic tilt, a straightened spine, and so it was a kind of touchstone by which I could access that feeling. I stashed the red, gold, or blue silk charms where I knew I’d touch them regularly, accidentally, when one fell from my wallet at the register or my hand brushed another as I reached for ChapStick in my car.
Without an omamori, I have been meeting my body instead. This is a touchstone that will always be here, as long as I have a body. To be here, tuning to myself, calls for both attention and surrender. It is a choice I make, and in this way, it is not unlike casting a wish. I stand in the ocean and get knocked over and a suntan and sand in my suit and tangled hair, and that all feels very nice. I suck up pickles and salt and vinegar because that’s what you need when grief—call it bad luck—sets in. I stretch my side body, between each rib, a slow yawn, a spiral, a dance. I admit, even without the excuse of insomnia, that I’m tired. I stay in my tired body as I remember how to tread water. I let the bones in my forearms ache with what I miss. I let what hurts rise in me like tide in a bog, I hold it, I practice a language that needs no words. I am safe. I am loved.
For now, I do my most consistent creative work here, sensing, away from my laptop and journal. Maybe this makes me a bad writer, or an undermotivated, poorly disciplined one. But it’s the only kind of writer I feel capable of being.
And I’ve figured out something else, that what my ojichan really taught me in those few wordless moments at the shrine was not about omamori or wishes for luck or even prayer, but a simpler, portable act; he showed me how to bend in toward myself. My body remembers this too. Clap twice in front of your chest, bow into yourself. And when I can’t find will or wish, when I don’t want to feel, I practice, instead, doing this. I stand with my feet hip’s distance apart—two fists between the arches of the feet—and bow into myself, hang, hold opposite elbows, sway side to side, breathing in and out, slight bend in the knees. It doesn’t take much to remind myself I’m here. And yet sometimes, doing just this, I access something that’s hard to resist. I feel it somewhere below my belly button, almost in my pelvis—and I want to write.
Katie Okamoto's writing has appeared in Catapult, The Atlantic, Eater, TASTE, Metropolis, and BuzzFeed Reader, among other places. She participated in the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop for non-fiction and memoir and is at work on a book. Formerly, Katie was the senior editor at Metropolis, the architecture and design magazine, in New York City. Find them at katieokamoto.com.