It was a simple, humble plan. Last year, because our compost pile was not cooking as fast during the chilly Tokyo winter, ever-resourceful husband decided to start a vermiculture bin. He was quite pleased to discover that the red worms already propagating in our existing compost pile were the correct type of worm to inhabit a thriving bin. Â While turning the pile, he found many healthy and eager helpersÂ and quickly settled them into a small container on the kitchen window sill. They had a pile of dirt, yummy leftovers to burrow through and a comforting cover of wet cardboard. He tucked his little buddies into their new home and we trudged up the stairs to bed.
For whatever reason, I did not sleep well that night. I flipped and flopped under the covers and only succeeded in getting to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. So, when the alarm woke me a couple of hours later, I felt nauseatingly fatigued. Down the stairs I stumbled to make some breakfast.
The attack was unexpected, to say the least. A wriggling wave of red and pink undulated its way towards the kitchen sink and along the crack towards the dark corner behind the microwave. Those worms were everywhere. Luckily there was nothing in my stomach toÂ come up. Back up the stairs I ran. â€œYour friends have taken over the kitchen,â€ I explained to my bleary-eyed man. â€œI am not feeling like breakfast this morning.â€ I left him to worm-wrangle while I quickly left the horror movie playing out in our kitchen and biked to work on an empty stomach.
And on the way to work, of course, I got a flat tire. Sigh.
When I got home that night, there was a new container in place with a tight lid. And it was nowhere near the kitchen counter. The wormsâ€™ new home was in hubbyâ€™s office next to the computer where nothing at all could ever happen….
The â€œAttack of the Red Wormsâ€ has put so much into perspective. When I wake up in the morning and come down to the kitchen to fix breakfast, I think what a wonderful day it is, to not have worms on the counter in the morning. And every day, even a Monday, is wonderful, because, as you know, it could always be worse.
Now, we have a change of plans. We do have a compost bin in the kitchen, crowded in next to the compartmentalized recycling bin and the bread maker in the narrow, dark aisle that pretends to be a kitchen. (Too many cooks in this kitchen can use up all the air.) But this compost bin uses friendly, aromatic, beneficial â€œgoodâ€ bacteria to help speed up the decomposition process. (See EMRO website.) No worms, no wafting fumes; just a good source of compost. Oh, and they are anaerobic… they donâ€™t need air. Good thingÂ â€˜cause thereâ€™s no extra oxygen in this claustrophobic corridor of a kitchen.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
“I have asked you to move that eyeball and skull for TWO WEEKS now,” I sigh with exasperation as I set the offending items on my daughter’s messy desk. Of course, I finally have to move the nasty things myself. Maybe I am exaggerating just a bit, since it has been only one week since Halloween. But I’ve had to look at that ghastly fox skull and its accompanying sticky glow-in-the-dark eyeball every morning since then, when it was left by the bathroom sink where I brush my teeth. Does anyone else have to put up with this type of stuff? An animal skull gaping at you from under your hair accessories while you snatch a barrette off of its hard cranium. As if it needed that barrette. But now it’s looking at you as if you just stole something from him. Or maybe it was a her. Can’t tell at this point.
There is a story behind the skull… (isn’t there always?) It was rescued from the bottom of Lake Nojiri up in the mountains of Japan where we go most summers on vacation. Merely the bones were rescued, unfortunately not the fox, and Elsa had spent many happy hours diving for every bit of bone that she could to piece together a complete fox skeleton. She was proud to be able to point out to the other bone divers that the skull (which was the first part brought up) was certainly not a bird because birds did not have teeth and especially not long canines as this skull definitely did. The skeleton was lovingly assembled on the dock and then bundled home in a bag to be soaked in bleach and scrubbed clean. (No I did not agree to do that.)
The fox skull ended up decorated with dramatic black lines and attached to my daughter’s hair as the crowning touch to a creepy roadkill-Goth ensemble that she pulled together for her last year of trick-or-treating. She will be in high school next year after all, so of course she won’t go dressing up next year… So this year’s costume was her last hurrah. It was quite the deal. She even had the added chill of red contact lenses. Lovely.
Very dramatic, but now do I have to look at a skull everyday? And what about those dead beetles and the occasion insect leg that I find laying around when she hasn’t been very conscientious about her insect collection. And there was that extremely long hair worm that lived in a jar for I don’t know how long. You will never imagine where that came from. Do a search on “Hair Worm” if you really want to know. The one she collected came from a praying mantis. Why can’t she just decorate her room with stuffed animals like other normal kids? I like stuffed animals and the live ones are nice too. I’m just not too fond of the unstuffed ones. I guess what we really need is a creepy lab out in the back yard to hold all of these wonderful treasures. As long as it was far away from my toothbrush. Then I think I would feel much better.
I’m sitting at my computer, looking out the bleary window at the needle-rain outside. I am forced to stay here and continue to type since I do not want to leave the only warm room in the house. No central heating here in our Tokyo home, and it’s FREEZING downstairs. I trot downstairs to search for chocolate. “It’s not cold,” drawls Joel, stretched out on the couch, laptop on his lap. I put my frigid fingers on his chest just to prove my point and he sucks in air through his teeth. Doesn’t yell though, cuz that would validate my statement. Instead, he asks me to get his soda pop out of the freezer where it’s been chilling. Brrr! I need mittens just to pick the bottle up. How can he drink freezing soda on a day like this? I quickly put my down jacket on over my turtleneck and sweater, shuffle over to the couch in my poofy slippers and hand him his ice-cold refreshment.
I’m guessing that our fridge is running very efficiently right about now, since the temperature in there is about the same as the temperature in the kitchen. By the time I get back upstairs (with my down jacket on) my fingers are so cold and stiff, that I can’t type… so I sit on my hands for a while. At least my butt is still relatively warm. I’m realizing that I am a reptile who has married a mammal. Of course, his warmth is one of the reasons I did marry him in the first place, so now I must resign myself to these inevitable temperature negotiations. Living with a hottie has its drawbacks.
On November 3, 2009, I became a victim of a well-orchestrated, completely effective and precise manoeuver that I call… Slumber Sabotage! At 9:23 pm, after wobbling out of a very hot, very deep tub of water (“ofuro,” as they call it in Japan) loose and relaxed as a jellyfish in a bowl of wine, I melted into my futon bed on the floor, pulled up the layers of covers, gave a sigh of contentment, and closed my eyes. Ah. I did forget to fill up my water bottle. “Joel, could you fill up my water bottle when you come back up?” Finally, in bed before 10! Sigh.
I think it must have been the sigh that touched it all off. Mothers aren’t really supposed to relax; at least not until they’re installed in a couch at the old folks’ home. “Do you know where the credit card is? You used it last.” “It’s on the table.” “I looked on the table and didn’t see it.”
Okay, so I was the last one to use the card at the grocery store to buy food since we were almost out of yen. I knew that feeling of contentment was never really meant for me. I had stolen that sigh from somewhere; from someone who deserved it more… from someone who consistently put things back.
I toss back the quilt and within two seconds, I have lost the accumulated warmth. Two imperatives drone in my head: Find the card. Get back in bed. I start to count as I head downstairs… one, two, three, four… Within ten seconds I have located the “missing” card. Well, it was hidden under a lid… a TRANSPARENT lid. I turn to recapture the embrace of warm blankets.
“Do you know where my backpack ended up?” “No.” “And my iPhone AC adapter?” Oh, great. I was the last to use that too. “Isn’t that it on the table?” I point to some white cord thingy with flattish connectors at both ends, hoping that I can slip away before he sees that it is not the requested bit of technological flotsam. “It’s the one that plugs into the wall.” Yes, I know that, but I just want to go to sleep. I shove my hand into my own backpack, (I know where MY backpack is) and miraculously pull out the requested cable. I put it on the table next to the card and head back upstairs.
Sigh. It’s 9:34 and I’m ready to drift off. Wait. Wasn’t that my daughter still sitting at the table downstairs when she is supposed to be in bed? Out of bed once more… and it’s not just a matter of swinging my feet over the edge of the bed onto the floor. I am laying on the floor. I have to stand all the way up. Down the stairs, with empty water bottle in hand, to pack the progeny off to bed, refill the water, and collapse back into bed. Big sigh.
It’s 9:39. I am drifting off to La-La Land. Slumber is such a blessing. SMACK! I have slapped myself awake. The sound of a mosquito suddenly whining right next to my ear has prompted this reflex action. At least I killed the mosquito, although my ear is still ringing from the blow. Stupid mosquito. Stupid reflexes. Back to the business of sleep. It takes longer to drift towards slumber, though, after you’ve been slapped up the side of your head. I take one last, drowsy glance at the clock… 9:45… ahhh. I’ll be asleep before 10.
BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP… Aaugh! Who is setting off a car alarm at this time of night? Sounds like our car alarm. How is that possible? Who cares… they can steal the car. It was a free gift anyways and we usually use our bicycles. The alarm stops. It was Elsa who set it off looking for her phone. “Have you seen Elsa’s phone?” I am NOT getting up to look for that phone. I AM ASLEEP!
Joel comes to bed. Sigh. Finally. My personal heater… comes with computer attached?!? He settles in to watch a download of “The Daily Show.” I just want to sleep. “Do you have headphones?” I ask pointedly. He takes his show elsewhere. Finally, peace and quiet. I creep slowly to the edge of that welcoming, fuzzy land of sleepy-pie. Almost asleep… come to Momma… shh.
“I got you some water!” Aaaargh. I am wide awake again. “I already have some water,” I snap “No, I brought it. It’s right by your bed.” “Yeah, next to the bottle that I just filled.” Too tired to argue, I look at the clock… 10:48 pm. Sigh. Completely different kind of sigh. Sleep Sabotage Mission Complete.
This was the photograph (or close to it) that caught my eye as we wandered about in the atrium of our school. The teachers were engaged in a creative learning exercise, and we were told to choose one photograph… pages of National Geographic magazines were scattered along the walls, waiting to be chosen. IÂ was drawn to this singular image, like space debris to a black hole. Yeah, sometimes I feel like debris. So I snatched it up and then tried to figure out why. Why was this suddenly my corona?
Contrary to what some early humans believed, having the sun blocked out in your part of the world (or in a temporary portion of your life), does not mean the end of the world… it is actually an opportunity for a new perspective… a chance to see what is not always visible in your life. The corona, the crown of the sun, is only visible during a total eclipse. Some opportunities or qualities in your life are only visible during the times of deepest darkness. And you know, often the life darkness does not last that long… just as in an eclipse, when you have only a few moments to see that shimmering halo around the sun, your moment of seeing in the dark can be fleeting. Get the most out of it.
One of our group members mused that she did not recognize it as an eclipse at first. It looked to her life an extreme close-up shot of an eye. The black circle was the pupil. Interesting how one thing can represent two opposite concepts. It is either the very solid moon blocking the circle of life, or the window to the soul; the pupil that, with its blackness absorbs everything it sees. An impediment or an invitation. So many things in life go either way. So many times, it seems my life could go either way… sucked down into the black hole and being absorbed into emptiness or absorbing everything that an eclipse of my life has to teach me.
My bicycle died the other night. It did not go quietly. It screamed out its death throes through the crowded streets of Tokyo and all the way through Tama Cemetery before giving up the ghost.
My daughter, Elsa, was spared the gruesome symphony. She had biked on home alone, earlier in the evening, and I followed later. As soon as I started off, the moaning began. Every time I pedaled forward… creak, creak, creak. I thought perhaps that the chain and gears had gotten rusty by being out in the rain. Just gotta loosen the bike up a little. I pedaled faster. The screeching got louder. Pedestrians turned to stare.
When I stopped pedaling and merely coasted along, the grinding stopped. At least I could control the cacophony to a certain extent. I coasted past a clump of commuters waiting at the bus stop. Blissful silence. But I was losing momentum and soon had to pedal again.
The squealing, grinding sound started in again, louder than ever. It was the loudest sound that I had ever produced on the polite streets of Tokyo. It echoed off the buildings and drowned out the sound of the busses and cars. It was louder than those obnoxious sound trucks that roll through the streets before every election, prompting plots in my rattled brain that involve rocket launchers and explosives. But now, I was the obvious source of the noise pollution. By the dark looks that I was getting, I’m sure that more than a few were hatching plots of their own.
I coasted past some fellow bikers. I didn’t want to cause an accident. It is rather difficult to steer a bike when both of your hands are desperately clapped over your ears. I wanted to plug my own ears, but then I would have to stop and at that point, I wouldn’t be noisy, so what use would that be?
I squealed sheepishly into a bike shop and stopped behind the proprieter who was watching TV. “Sumimasen… excuse me…” He turned to look at the gaijin, the foreigner. I explained the problem in the best Japanese I could muster, and then demonstrated the horrible noise. He knew exactly what had happened and reckoned that the cost of overhauling the bearings in the pedal crank would not be worth the cost considering the general condition of my poor old bike.
“It will eventually just freeze up, you know,” he counseled. “You won’t be able to turn the pedals.” “So, I’m about 20 minutes from home still,” I told him. “Do you think I’ll make it?” “Probably… maybe,” he said, trying to sound hopeful. I got back on the bike and continued to screech through the streets.
“Just let me make it to the bottom of our street,” I prayed quietly, “then I’ll get off and walk so as not to disturb the neighbors.” It was a relief to finally make it to the wide, empty, dark roads of Tama Cemetery, one of the largest graveyards in Tokyo. The raucous scraping sounded even louder with no other noises with which to compare decibels. It was loud… yes, I couldn’t help but think it… loud enough to wake the dead. Fortunately, most of the grave sites there are inhabited by ashes which might only be disturbed by a strong wind, and not merely a loud sound.
I made it to the other side and the quiet of the stones, lanterns and long wooden prayer sticks closed up behind me, thankful to be rid of my racket, I am sure. I few more turns of the pedal and I would stop at the bottom of the short hill. Sure enough, on the last possible stroke of the pedal, the bearings seized up and would not move. I coasted to a stop and rolled my bike to its resting place. It has been there, leaning against the wall ever since. Maybe I’ll bury it in the cemetery.
Every once in a while, I am struck by the astonishing grace of a moment in time. It hits me with a comforting thud in the middle of a mundane moment. Like tonight… lounging on the couch (what a luxury that it… not often indulged in and so it remains a luxury) and listening to father and daughter practice the pace of strumming a ukulele. They pass the instrument back and forth, teaching and learning, easily and with (surprisingly) no conflict. The song fits the laid-back evening with its simplicity. Nothing else is needed. The blessing of the moment washes over me. I am aware of it more acutely, perhaps, since my older daughter will leave for college in less than two weeks… and we will not see her again for a whole year.
Thankfully, the pace of my life has slowed so that I can enjoy these evenings together. Last year about wore my strings out, I was strumming so fast. Now I can relax into a saner rhythm that includes time to simply be with my family. Nighttime crickets, drying laundry, silky dog ears, and breathing next to my husband in bed; moments of grace in a stressful world. Moments that hold me together.
“I am living in the land of Lamentations,” I said to myself last summer. I was sure of it. Joel had lost his job; his whole division had been dropped. The sponsoring company was not going to renew the work visa. I had not been able to secure the full-time job I had been hoping for. Sickness had pounced on me with wretched regularity. My son had been hospitalized thousands of miles away back in the States. He had finally, after years of teenage rationality hit his rebellion phase. His grades and our relationship suffered. My daughters were resenting the fact that they had to hunker down in this non-California Japanese desolation far away from their beloved friends. We were daily struggling with a seemingly untrainable, unrestrainable furry toddler with sharp teeth who resisted our efforts at domestication. I was struggling with the fact that my brain was no longer as spongy as it used to be and no matter how many times I needed to use it, the japanese for “Don’t worry, my dog doesn’t bite.” (kamimasen) came out sounding like, “Don’t worry, my dog doesn’t mind.” (kamaimasen). And in many ways the second sentence was more accurate. My dog still has not really learned to mind.
So the school year ended and off we went to the peace and rejuvenation of Lake Nojiri. One daughter was terrified of the giant hoppers and would climb up on my head whenever she saw one, and the other daughter caught an army of interesting bugs and brought them into the cabin for further study. One room was turned into the bug morgue and the odor was not pleasant. Our very large puppy, Bjorn, came along and to liven things up a bit at the lakeside, he plowed into an innocent bystander and broke her thumb. Not to be outdone, I broke my own toe, but then again, that happens every year. I was beginning to think that was losing my way in the wilderness of Lamentations.
I got sick, Laura got sick, Joel got sick. Elsa did not. Constant dirt under the fingernails does have the advantage of boosting your immune system. During the last couple of weeks up at the lake, I got an infection. I was not in a happy place and I’m afraid I was less than cheerful and I often took it out on the ones that I loved. I pulled others into my land of lamentations.
We went sailing, Laura and I. We entered a sailing race in pre-typhoon winds. We were going at a good clip when the sail came loose and the boom dropped on the deck. The winds were so strong, we could not re-attach the sail. We had to tip the boat sideways, drop the mast and sail into the water, and with the help of another boat and three people in the water, managed to tie the sail back on and finally make our way back to shore. I was so exhausted after that ordeal, I could barely stand. I hobbled back to the cabin with a bruised knee and continued my lamentations.
I had gone back to California with the girls in early July to get the house ready for two sets of renters; upstairs and downstairs. Clearing the basement had taken a long time, but it would be worth it if the rent would cover our mortgage. Back in Japan, I was relieved all that was over and done with. We had a renter for the upstairs and a new renter for the downstairs. I could relax in the peace and quiet of the lake. Joel called from Tokyo; he had some bad news. It was about the house. But, of course, what now? Apparently, the guy who had just begun renting the downstairs of our house back in California had been thrown in jail along with his girlfriend for possession of drugs. There was a big confrontation with shouting and guns and handcuffs. We were very apologetic to our neighbors. We told them that we will no longer trust the results of background checks. We are new to this landlord business. Our neighbors have had experience as landlords. “It happens,” they said, “not your fault.” Still, I felt like I had become a homeowner in the Land of Lamentations. And I wasn’t sure if I could afford the mortgage.
Joel came to rest at Nojiri on the weekends. He brought his bike so he could ride around the lake. It was relaxing for him to be able to get in some good long rides. His last ride was rather short. While pedaling fast up hill and cornering, his pedal hit the pavement on the downstroke and he went tumbling over his bike in a spectacular wipeout. And when he had picked himself up, the tire blew. At least there was someone there to see it. In fact there was a whole group of runners who saw the accident; they happened to be from Chofu, our neighborhood in Tokyo. They gave him a ride back to the cabin and we patched up his bloody arm and leg as best we could. He had to go back to work the next day, but on the train, of course, he discovered that he was ill. He had just cause for lamentations, but he was actually just happy that he got to go on a bike ride.
When he got home that Monday, he found that Elsa’s beloved hamster had passed on. Earlier, her second beetle had also died. True, Sally was elderly, for a hamster, but it was still a reasonable cause for lamentations. Poor Joel had to place the body in cold storage, in the freezer, and wait for a week until we could bring Elsa home for the funeral and burial. It was a sad procession to the cemetery. Sally, the hamster, was buried under a tree and laid to rest with a small handmade cross to mark her grave. Even for the small things in life, the lamentations can be large.
So what is the end of it all? Do my lamentations magically stop on the doorstep of some sun-drenched happy day in the future? Lamentations are a part of life. We live through them. Our tears stop. Some things heal quickly and other things take time. Weeping lasts but for a night; joy comes in the morning… or the next day… or the next month. God does not ever leave us. God carries us through. Sometimes we are oblivious even when God is obvious. So, even if I am traveling through the land of Lamentations, it does not mean that I have to buy a house here. One mortgage is enough. I will keep traveling.
I am enjoying the perfect dog nap. Cozy and furry with that friendly dog aroma settling around me like a blanket. Breathe in. Breathe out.
For a long drowsy moment it does not matter that I seem to have lost my life’s focus, or that I am desperately trying to knit the future together before I fall into it. For now, my canine friend is content to lie with his back to my belly and his warm muzzle on my forearm. Breathe in. Breathe out.
The rain falls. The refrigerator hums. The clock ticks. The list of things that must get done has worked its way down between the cushions of the couch. Breathe in. Breathe out.
The cool air reaches my nose through the filter of fur. Reality must first make its way through the beast protecting me, lying across my threshold. My friend softens the onslaught and guards the door. Gazing in, and finally gazing out, I leave the warmth, find the list and begin.