Posts tagged Homelife
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)

Sharing the Load

The first time he prepared my coffee was on the morning of our five year wedding anniversary. Our daughter was two, our son had just been born a few weeks earlier, it was nearing the end of the fall semester - one of the more overwhelming times on the academic calendar to which our family is beholden. We had no plans to celebrate until later that month, no gifts for each other, but his simple act of kindness was gift enough that morning for this sleep-deprived mother: a hot, steaming cup of creamy coffee perfection, waiting for me right at the table.

The best mornings now start when he gets my coffee ready. It's "my" coffee for several reasons, the most obvious being that he doesn't drink coffee - abhors the taste, hesitates to kiss me after I've had my cup. But he knows how much it's like a warm hug to me in the morning, to hold that cup in my hands as the day begins.

It was purely an act of love for him to learn the process: boil the water, grind the beans, measure it out, let it steep for no more than 5 minutes, pour, add cream. And it's an act of love each time he prepares it for me and there's a hot cup ready and waiting like a love note in the morning. It doesn't happen every morning, and I'm glad for that - I have a habit of taking things for granted. This isn’t one.

We struggle to give gifts like this in other ways. When we were still engaged, an older couple that we both admired had us over for dinner one night. They had two children who were right in the sweet spot years - not yet teenagers, but well beyond the preschool years, able to self-entertain. We loved watching the way this couple worked together, how they seemed energized by each other and so grateful for one another and their life. They were complete opposites in so many ways, much like us: he, a fun and funny but straightforward thinker: systematic, organized. She, a total flower child: loud with laughter, bright with personality, easygoing with love and by all appearances not tied down with a schedule.

We asked about what it was like to be married, specifically how they divided household tasks between them. I hadn't even quite thought about how we would do this, but since my husband and I both seemed like energetic people at the time, I assumed we would see what chores needed to be done and just complete them on an as-needed basis. Chore charts, assigned tasks, all of that - it seemed rather silly and a little too OCD for me, a Type B woman.

But our friends surprised me when they suggested a predetermined division of household chores.

"It should be clear whose responsibility it is to empty the trash, do the laundry, do dishes," they said.

Their reasoning then still sticks with me to this day:

"When it's not clear where the division of responsibility is, you can end up getting in more arguments. And," they added, "clear division of household chores allows you to choose to serve one another."

It’s serving each other with gifts in the form of noticing when the laundry needs to be done, and doing it on behalf of the person to whom it has been assigned instead of complaining that it hasn’t been done. Gifts in the form of not complaining when the trash hasn't been taken out (again), but choosing instead to lay down ourselves and sometimes even our justified grievances and take it out. Gifts in the form of laying aside one's own preferences for alone time to pitch in with yard work. Aim to outdo each other with service.

It all sounds lovely and beautiful, as it did that evening, but we are not exactly the poster couple for the "serve each other" movement. Not even close. We get in arguments sometimes, and I expect to some degree we always will. They’ve grown fewer and farther between over the years. We still try to stake our claim on our rights instead of choosing to think of one another first. The hope is that we'll grow in that, too. Honest conversations are healthy, good, and productive - we need to express feelings before they boil over, but we also have to assume each other’s best intentions.

But each step, each small thing done with great love, as Mother Teresa would call them, counts. One time, I mowed the yard with a baby on my back. Several times he starts the laundry and finishes it all the way through to being put away, enlisting our daughter to help him. He starts the dishwasher; I empty it. We alternate which child we put to bed each night, but occasionally we each step in and take on the challenge of both so that one of us has an evening to breathe or recover. (Ok - not all of the tasks feel like small things all the time. Putting two children to bed can feel pretty monumental, actually. Solidarity, mamas and daddies.)

I tape white index cards near the laundry hamper and near the sink. On them, in black Sharpie, is written the word “grace”. Grace: favor or goodwill toward one another. It can go both ways. It can look like making a conscious effort to get your dishes into the dishwasher (hey there, honey!). It can also look like choosing to turn a blind eye when someone has forgotten to put them in the dishwasher, and filling in the gap for them. It can be getting the clothes into the clothes hamper and it can be choosing to pick up the handful of socks that almost made it in...without complaining. It often involves reminding each other that we are on the same team. Always.

We are in the middle of the trench years, the ones that pull and tug at our every last thread of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional energy. There will be a lot of expectations to which we won’t measure up. What I hope my children see the most, however, is how we choose to love each other in this space, how we choose to share the load. I want them to see that love is not about taking, but giving. That it’s not about complaining, but appreciating. That it’s not necessarily about being nice, but being gently truthful with your partner when things are hard and you just haven’t had time to keep up with the piles and piles of laundry, or mow the yard, or get the oil changed in the car or sweep up the Cheerios that have been under the high chair for the past week. That love is not about demanding, but serving. It will always look like putting a bit of yourself down to lift the other up. Love may even look like serving hot cups of a beverage that makes your loved one’s mouth less than kissable, just because seeing the smile on their face makes it totally, totally worth it.

Journalist:  Catherine Gordon