When the sun had finally risen high enough this morning to cast enough light for gardening, I pulled on my shoes and went outside for my third day of battle against The Weeds. Normally, when I've weeded, I've gone up against weeds. Lower-case weeds. But these weeds are special weeds. These are weeds that definitely require a capital "W."
Having never known battle against humankind, their roots have attained enormous proportions. Going out there armed only with my hands and a pair of gloves as I have in the past would be wildly insufficient to go up against these foes in my garden-predecessor. Instead, I'm attacking them with tools provided by my shocked but delighted new neighbors. Said neighbors stood and watched with open amazement the first time I threw myself into the struggle against my yard.
We began chatting that first evening. Pleasantly cursing my friend and predecessor for his inattention to the garden, I tried explaining myself in my broken Japanese. It didn't work very well, so instead I paused in my weeding and pantomimed shaking an imaginary C-Sensei by the shoulders. "Why? Why?" In C-Sensei's defense, "Kaasan" said with a smile, C-Sensei weeded "Chotto dake." Only a little. But this jungle, she indicated, was not the result of one year's inattention. She didn't want me blaming him for the entire mess, even if I was only doing so comically.
Counting on her hand, "Kaasan" flipped back through all the English teachers who have preceded me in this apartment. "Before, before, before, before," she murmured as she counted back. In all, she figured, seven teachers have left only grass and weeds to grow in the backyard - my soon-to-be garden.
Their shock thus explained, I smiled and resumed weeding. I had not long been at it when several tools were offered up for my use. Without these, my progress to date would surely have been slower.
To really get at these weeds, I have to pretty much turn all the soil. I'm shovelling everything up and, after having turned over one row of soil to work through, I kneel and begin pulling at the weeds by hand. I separate the soil from the roots with a couple of shakes and toss the weeds into the enormous mound on one side of the garden. It's growing so large now I wonder if I ought to name it.
One row of weeds takes about an hour and a half to attack. This has given me plenty of time to think, and my thoughts have wandered far and wide. They've covered the abstract, as when I found myself unabashedly comparing weeds to social problems: hacking only at the surface means the real problems will ever remain. More frequently my thoughts have turned to reflections on my new home, and how within it I can best see how Japan has changed me. My mere presence in the backyard serves as proof of that change.
Before Japan, paradoxically, I would have been one of the teachers who never looked beyond the weeds to what the backyard could be. I have never paid a great deal of attention to my external surroundings. A little dirt never hurt! This was my cheerful personal motto, and I used it and variations on it repeatedly when my roommate in Yamaguchi asked if I couldn't take a little initiative in cleaning.
"Why? It's not like we're wading through trash," I would say, thinking it must be hard to be a neat freak and never be able to rest because even as you did, more dust would be accumulating.
"No, but... look, isn't it nice to have things clean?"
I pondered this, every time, briefly, before providing, "I guess so." I didn't really care. I, like Homer Simpson, thought of home as that place where I could find food, my bed - and my laptop. End of story. As long as those things were there, what else really mattered?
When our boss tried to intervene, saying, "Clean is better," I kindly explained I figured neat-freakism for a kind of mental illness. There were more important things to me then than having a particularly tidy house and I couldn't understand why such a background matter to me could so consume people, and so deeply. Calm down! Enjoy life! Asonde kudasai!
It was only after I moved to Mimasaka, starting with a brand-new place, that I began noticing when dust accumulated. It was nice to see sunshine glimmering off the newly polished floors. Dishes piling up in the sink detracted from the feeling I was in my own shiny, new place, so without noticing as it happened, I began sweeping up little messes as they were made. I'd immediately break out a paper towel if I spilled something, and I took conscious pains to make the place feel like my home. It wasn't just a place I was living. Far removed from all the things that had been important to me in my life before, I had to make a space that really felt like mine. I had to make it more than the place where my things were stored. Tidiness - if not perfect cleanliness, because a little disorder is good for the soul - was part of the change, but far from being the whole.
I wanted a home, not just a house. No longer could I tolerate the college student life, camping at whatever place I happened to have my things. I needed more than that. I needed to return to a place it was pleasant and relaxing for me to be, a place I'd want to return to at the end of a hard day. Else how could I ever make it through the tough times away from family?
Thus it was that, where I had seen a bed of weeds when this was my friend's apartment, I moved in and saw a project. I saw in it what it could be, what I wanted it to be. Before, I would have seen it as extraneous and irrelevant, an area beyond my immediate concern.
But this time, with nearly a year in Japan, with all the time and all the freedom in the world to discover who I am and what I want, I realized I want a garden. It seemed at first a disturbingly adult thing to want a garden. It's a lot of work, after all, to transform that mess into something pleasant not only to look at but spend quiet evenings reading within.
What have I got here, though, but my time and this space? I have plenty awaiting me at home, but in Japan, I need to seize and make the most of everything I have. I need to remind myself why I'm here, to own the experience in every way I can. Taking that backyard and transforming it with my own hands would, I felt, be the best way to really make this place feel like home. Maybe I will only live here for a year. Even if I stay here longer, the fact remains it is transitory. I will not stay here, in this new home, forever. Yet...
...that is no reason not to care now, to detach myself from my physical existence and let all the beauty that I might help create out there fall by the wayside. I have this time. I have this apartment, and this garden. If I only have it now, now is all I have. And I have plenty of it.
It's time to hit the weeds again, before afternoon has struck and the sun makes working out in the garden a sweaty, awful ordeal. The cool hours are better, and the dusk hours best of all. As the world grows silent and the birds slowly cease their singing, I'm granted the peace of feeling briefly what it's like to have a place that is my own. The children have gone inside and the silence means that, for maybe the first time in my life, I am left exclusively and blissfully to my own thoughts.
I wonder what I look like from above, just a speck in a Superman tank top crouched over a small plot of yard segmented by cinderblock from my neighbors'. The further up an observer moved, the smaller I would become, the more miniscule a part of this increasingly green landscape. I've always felt apart from all the places I've occupied, but I suppose from far above, I really am indistinguishably part of all this. Being in the garden I'm granted the chance to really feel what that's like, to for once simply feel I am a part of all that is around me rather than walking through and observing from my own self-perceived distance.
This isn't just my house. It's my home, and in that garden, I get to make of this home what I want of it. As I do, I'll smile at the sound of the neighbor children - my students - laughing and screaming, occasionally asking me plaintively, sweetly, "Sensei, asobu?"
Asobimasu. I'll play.
It know doesn't look like it, to little kids, but I already am playing.
Deborah Lea can be reached at email@example.com.