The first time I saw the house, I cried. Hard. The sort of cry that makes your chest hurt with the effort.
We have been offered this house which is about 90 minutes away from Tokyo to live in for a couple of months. It will be torn down afterwards so in the meantime, if we choose to live in it, we can do whatever we wanted with it.
As we stepped in, we didn’t bother taking our shoes off. It was that dirty. Our nostrils were assaulted with the dank, musty smell of an old house that has had its windows shut for ages. There were bugs crawling the perimeter of the genkan (entrance) and we had to brush off blackened cobwebs. The house was in a state of extreme disrepair. We had to walk carefully as the floor was soft in some spots and threatened to cave in. The kitchen was disgusting: the walls were the color of burnt wood, blackened by decades of grime which crumbled when touched. The tatami mats were so ratty and discolored and were in a much shabby state than the 15 year old mats in house we were currently in, which made us wonder how old these mats were. As if their sorry appearance were not enough, they were laden with bugs and I itched just walking into the rooms. There was no sink, three of the faucets didn’t work, there was no shower head.
The toilet – the toilet merits an entire paragraph all to itself. The moment we opened the door, we were assailed with the acrid combination of ammonia, sulfuric compounds, and concentrated vileness. And there, a step up from the floor is the toilet, a squatty potty with no flush and no cover. The hole to the netherworld was bigger than an adult’s head and I shudder to think of how easily our 6-month old could fall through. The diversity of bugs swarming around the toilet rivals that of a tropical rainforest, and more were coming in through the small screenless window. “The big mosquitoes don’t bite or even land on you,” my husband said when I told him I needed to pee. I couldn’t bear to pull down my pants to expose my vulnerable reproductive parts to the treacherous cavern that harbors God only knows what else. But I did and did it quick. Using my free arm to fan the air around me and averting my eyes from the pit, I peed. It was slightly unnerving how it took half a second before any splatter could be heard down below. Ugh! I wonder how I’ll even be able to do number two.
We had three weeks before we needed to move out of our current house but that means only three weekends, or just six days, to work on the house to make it remotely livable since my husband works full time (not to mention the work of packing up our stuff). With two wee ones that need constant attention, I could only do so much work. It was just too overwhelming.
Many times as we struggled against the looming deadline of the move and the daunting task of painting, cleaning and repairing, we asked ourselves, why are we doing this again? We had to remind ourselves that we have a choice and that it is our choice to live in this house. We had to remind ourselves that we do not need to live here but we wanted to. Yes, there were nicer, cleaner, more well furnished flats available to us. Those would have very well suited my comfort zone. Yet I know that I will regret not taking this opportunity to live in the countryside. Husband and I have often fantasized about living outside the busy crowded city. Would the different pace of life suit us? Would we delight in having fresh clean air day in and day out? How would we fill our days? This is the perfect chance to discover the answers. I have always wanted to give our kids a taste of the idyllic childhood that I thought they should enjoy. One afternoon after working on the house, my husband said, “Tell me that when you see Ruby walking in the fields and splashing her feel in the river that this is not all worth it.”
It has been two weeks now since we moved in. Thanks to bug bombs, a huge bucket of white paint, solid plyboards laid on the floor, and fresh and fragrant tatami mat covers, the house transformed. Pictures on the wall, plants on the window sill, rugs on the floor, and all our familiar things (foremost is the family bed where we all regroup) made it so much easier to call this place home. I learned that you could get used to almost anything: taking a shower with a bucket and a scooper, pooping in a squatty no-flush toilet, and having all sorts of night visitors. We also have the best neighbors anyone could ask for.
I love Neil Gaiman’s speech in which he counseled the graduates of an art school, “Whatever life throws at you, make good art.” It’s quite serendipitous for us to move right at the beginning of summer. This will be the summer of our creativity.