Dumping Desks & Changing Minds


I was the girl with the broken-down desk, contents spilled out from its flappy wooden cap. My teacher had dumped it. Dumped it right there in front of the whole class, girls and boys all slack-jawed, making me hot with shame, frozen with embarrassment. This was supposed to cure me of a messy desk, heal me through shame.

She dumped it twice that year.

I am the woman now, with children, ages six, three, and four months. I am older now and married to a man, who, at one point, may have thought I'd be a rad house tender, a home-artisan of sorts. No, he may have never been under such illusion. He saw the trunk of my car, laughed through nausea at the forgotten lunch Tupperware, turned science experiments.

I promised him there, "It won't always be like this."

I live here now, with my crew, in a narrow home in Kita-ku, Tokyo. It's a good thing we are a slim people because there are some places in the home you cannot really exhale or stretch out in. This is my challenge, my life's challenge: creating clear space so the artist can think, so the kids can grow, unchoked by clutter. So my husband can see beyond all that I should do to get this place in order, so he can see me, see beauty. I’m rather like Sisyphus. Sometimes I take on every task myself and overwhelmed, forget how to breathe.

I  call out for help, then pull my weight, I think I can manage the space and I nurse my infant girl, race to drink coffee and make breakfast. I cycle through manic "where do I start" and Supermom, creating the space for my kids to make collaborative smoothies, paintings, fireman station-boat-amazon in the living room, and we even manage to roll around the gook of rich almond and cashew butter and all the fixings for energy balls in their gooey little hands.

Again, I stuff it in, believing that a mother, woman, wife, an adult, any human should surely be able to maintain space by herself.

I can make my narrow house narrower. I can make myself suck in all the damn day. I can grow quite tired. It’s an exhausting place between trying and apologizing, working and hiding the little progress I make.

And yet, peace is breathing out. Freedom is an exhale, is it not? An expansion of space. I love in the poetic Psalms, King David sings, "You have enlarged my steps under me, that my feet did not slip", and this, "He brought me forth also into a broad place; He rescued me because He delighted in me." Psalms 18:36 and 18:19.

I deserve to participate in this kind of peace, the kind that cuts a path through the physical and lands in my mind, even expands my heart. An exhale. I need refuge and sanctuary, heck, at least garbage and clutter swept off my floor. So I ask for help.

I scrawl the number a friend suggests I call. I write, "Laisa", phone number, and pertinent details. And then I promptly lose the paper. I lose it between all of my mother-days, all of the space between nursing, breaking up arguments and changing diapers. Almost two months later, I find it. I call. If I could "do-over", I might have tattooed it to my thigh or at least taped it to a wall. I call. She will come.

I freak out and have to phone my mom. It doesn't matter that we are nearly 7,000 miles away; I am a thirty-seven-year-old woman with a desk that may be dumped. I'm afraid of what this woman, this yet-stranger with think. I need systems. I want clarity, want the verdant beauty of those frilling fig leaf tree over my dresser. I want some magazine-look in my room, want sexy, smart design, and a place that is mine, ours, and so nice, that I don't shoo our children out for fear they, too, will inherit my dust.

"Mom, what do I do? What if she says it's too messy, that I'm beyond her services?" The little girl in me wants to stuff the mess away, hide the junk in bottomless drawers, but I'm off of room, honestly. And yet, I recognize the health that comes when we throw open the doors and yell, "Healing!" Nothing good lives in darkness. What life can thrive in closed, secretive doors?

That teacher was right---we must throw open those doors and let light in, let others see--- she just went about it with a motivation that didn't work for me. Shame should not be the key.

Here in Japan, there is an expression for the face one shows others, the outside world, and the face of our reality, the one reserved for our private reflection, for family, maybe, behind tightly locked doors. Typically, people in this culture meet friends out, even brunch with family out.  Everyone's houses are small. We will never see any friend's clutter, never help them climb out.

I believe, though, that there is a certain level of health that may be measured by how open one's door is, how much light creeps through the crack or comes in like a torch light.

See, because we all have a mess, somewhere, don’t we? I am finding, most of us have a junk drawer. I hope we also have a friend who is willing to dig in and go spelunking, helping us release that which we no longer have need. Partners who will allow us to cry and get all snotty and need dozens of tissues. I hope we call out to friends who will laugh and howl with us as we blow open the lid of our secret lair, the place where we can't fully create all the artwork, can’t fully walk out our blessed roles, the place too littered that we lose our own peace and can’t find the important notes.

"Melissa, you can apologize twice to her. No more than that." My mom knows me well. It’s sage advice. In the end, I don’t apologize, but I thank the woman summoning all the dust from around the washer, the one in all of my stuff. I could slump down, cheeks burning with “I’m sorries”, embarrassed in that seven-year-old way, but this being vulnerable is okay; I’m moving towards change. I stand up straight. Someday I'll fall in love with making space, with carving and curating. I'll go pitter-patter to negative space, to the place of possibility and I won't have to chase my children out. I'll be like Marie Kondo. Together, we'll survey the space, how light just dances about, we'll see room, not limits. We'll fall headlong in love with breath, with how continuous our breath is, no stops, no making our shoulders rounder, our bodies more compact.

We busy moms, we giving women, we converse here, teach our babies on these floors and counters, rise up and lay down in our relationships, in our marriages. The space is for us to enjoy. It should be clear. Gorgeous, even. Pretty, somehow, despite all the mining and extracting it may take to get there.

A peaceful space is for our spirits to expand. We were made to create and engage with our world, showing our daughters and sons how to stand and leap on legs, strong, on foundations that don't tremble. Eyes that span the horizon and look upon on own humble households with love, not tension or derision.

I'll stand on my land, my little plot here in clustery Tokyo, and I'll have the authority to quite gracefully, open the door and let others in. I’ll open all the windows and plunk fresh flowers down on every table, choosing the strength to vulnerable, seen, and never abandoned.

Journalist: Melissa Uchiyama  (@melissa.uchiyama.946)