The Will (a short story)

The Will

by Tammy Stone Takahashi

To tell you the truth, there is a habit I have not yet broken.

In moments of anger that come like flashes of unexpected lightning in a quiet summer sky, I catch myself rearranging the contents of my will much the way I reorganize the crystal figurines on my dresser. I hardly know I’m doing it, but it doesn’t surprise me when I do. I have been doing this since I was a little girl.

Anger and fear, busy hands and busy mind, are all such close companions, aren’t they?

 I guess this ever-changing will is my way of keeping track of my feelings. Some might write in a diary or watch emotional movies to release their feelings. Or even to discover them, taking note of what makes them cry, or laugh, or feel despair, or elation. As for me, my coping method is the unending and sometimes all-consuming act of revising the ongoing, certainly non-binding will in which I leave my one precious item, a diamond, to one of my people on rotation.

Another truth: it’s not actually a diamond.

I guess I knew from the start it wasn’t real. But as a little girl, I believed that all diamonds were created in mythical times by the tears of creatures that no longer walk the Earth. Or maybe they do, but most people can’t see them, including, sadly, myself. It is because the gems are made of tears, the emotions of those who have wandered here before us, that they are so valuable.

I also believed that all stones were diamonds. It’s just that some of them had fewer tears in them than others. The emotions in those were buried so deep inside that not everyone could see how precious the stone was. Mine was a stone that I picked up on a beach while on a family vacation on Japan’s seaside. It didn’t look like the diamonds I’d seen before on TV, and I knew right away that it would become shinier and more precious the more of my tears I gave to it, that one day, at the cost of a likely heartbreak, it would become a true diamond and that the lucky recipient of it upon my death would have the most special part of me.

That was the last vacation I ever took. Soon after that, I started having trouble breathing, and I was tired all the time. The doctors found that I had a hole in my heart. An actual hole! They said it wasn’t serious enough for surgery, but that I needed to be careful, and not strain myself. But my mother started treating me like a doll after that, and hardly let me out of the house when I wasn’t in school. Then she took me out of school altogether.

When you have a hole in your heart, I eventually learned, it is called Atrial Septal Defect, or ASD, and it means that more blood than normal flows through the heart and lungs. This might cause damage, or might not. You might go your whole life not knowing you have this hole in your heart. Or you might, like me, learn to become terrified of your own heart, and of the torrents of blood that wash through it. Like a tsunami.

The discovery of the diamond, and of the hole in my heart happened so closely together that I’ll never know which of the two inspired me to write my first will. I do know that I have always intimately connected these two things. Sometimes, with a child’s logic, I imagined that if I could get the diamond shiny enough, I could plug my heart with it. Conversely, I always looked at the diamond, and saw suffering, and pain and a big, gaping emptiness. Certainly a harbinger of bad things to come.

I wanted so badly to watch my stone turn into the diamond it was destined to be. But I didn’t want to cry. My mother had always been an on-edge, nervous person, and the hole in my heart took things to a new level. I didn’t want to add to her worries. As a fearful girl living with an even more fearful mother, I tried to hold my feelings in. I was scared to the point of tears, though, all the time. Really, it was constant. It wasn’t just the hole that left my heart wide open to who knows what. Sometimes I imagined the hole inside of me to be so big that it could consume the entire, tiny country I live in. Our fates were always intertwined like this, in my mind.

My country, Japan, is an island country, as you know, a dot on Earth’s map. How is it we have not yet drowned, been subsumed en masse somewhere under the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean? It was so easy for me to picture Japan simply floating away, and then giving up, and sinking at any time. It still is. What anchors an island to the earth? What tethers a heart to the body, so that it does not collapse definitively, and completely?

It’s not just the fact that we are an island. We are also a country of so many mountains that we can hardly drive anywhere without winding up in the many tentacles of an elaborate tunnel system, like we have entered the belly of an eel, or an octopus, or a swarm poisonous snakes. And how have we not yet been buried under a torrent of volcanic lava, or turned to ash?

When I was growing up, I remember so many earthquake drills at school, before I stopped going. Alongside learning how to count and multiply, or learning how to write the labyrinthine slate of Kanji characters, we were given lessons in what to do should the fault lines below us slip, and the tremors and shakes get so bad that we might be swallowed up by the earth in one fell swoop. We learned to hide under desks. We learned to listen to our teachers. We learned, in the worst case scenarios when the earthquakes were followed by a tsunami – and the water is never far behind in Japan – to run for the nearest hill, in desperate hopes of being faster than the beast-like waves.

I was never a fast runner. Later, of course, I found out that running could stop me dead before a tsunami ever could.

I don’t know if it’s like this in other countries (how I’ve longed to live in a place like Canada, where there is so much land stretching for miles and miles, so that you can go days without even the hint of water), but I learned fear like it was another subject in school. I also learned fear at home, where there were books lying around about various natural disasters, predicting when they would next come and how many tens of thousands they would affect. I learned it on the television programs my mother had on at all times, tracking the weather for any abnormal patterns, and droning on with non-stop coverage every time there was the merest hint of a geographical or social calamity on the horizon. I learned to fear walking barefoot, because the ground itself took on monstrous, claw-like dimensions in my imagination. If it wasn’t a threat today, who knew what it would be tomorrow? And what is scarier than not knowing when the disaster is coming?

Yet, when fear morphed into anger, there I was, drafting wills as though there was a future in which my possession would be valuable. As if only I was going to die one day, while this world would carry on without me. It’s amazing, the contradictions we live with. I was sure that my country, if not the whole world, was on the verge of complete annihilation, yet I was wrapped up in the pastime of planning for a glorious future world in which my diamond, in my place, would shine.

I was never aware of this contradiction, this commingling of fear and hope, despair and optimism. It also never occurred to me, when terror over the next possible natural disaster struck, that we never know what is coming, disaster or otherwise, that not one single person among us knows when we are going to die. I guess like all young people, death was not a palpable reality. I had no framework that could hold the idea that we were going to die, even if we managed to live our whole lives without experiencing a single earthquake or extreme typhoon.  Death, to me, was something that came big and ferocious, and only once in awhile, and only to the few, not the whole. Like a punishment, and I was learning that our whole small country was guilty.

And where there is guilt, there is blame. Which is how I wound up in the game of playing God with the would-be recipients of my one treasure.

The more scared I grew, the more quickly I was prone to casting blame on anyone who had slighted me. I had no siblings, so the obvious culprits were out. My father was a salaryman and was hardly ever home. This in itself was a reason to banish him from my fortune on one or two occasions, but it was also hard to nitpick his wrongdoings when we spent so little actual time together.  The recipients of my will fluctuated like this: my mother, and her mother, my oba-chan, and my two dolls, Naomi and Naomi.

They were identical. I got the first Naomi for my birthday when I was five. By the time my sixth birthday came around, I was so attached to her that I begged my mother to get me another one just like her, in case something happened to her. She tried to talk me out of it, but I was pretty relentless, and she caved. I gave her the same name; to me, they were my same best friend, like a back-up limb. When it was convenient, though, and I needed someone to blame, I found the slightest differences among them so that when forced to choose, I would pick one Naomi over the next.

I never lost either one of them, so I’m not sure how I would have handled either of their departures. I used to take them to school with me, long past an age when little girls were prone to play with dolls. Because of this, I had no friends. Not even one girl who would tolerate me or the bullying she would get for daring to be my friend, like my next door neighbor I used to play with at the park near our houses. There was no one. It seemed I wasn’t even worth bullying, and there was a lot of that going on at my school. I was basically invisible. Mari with her two dolls with the same name and her crazy stone in her pocket.

And then I stopped going to school, and it was all I could do to open my eyes and brave a world in which a typhoon could whip through our house and obliterate the three of us, or in which the earth would crack open to swallow us, or in which I would drown, either in the Japan Sea, or the nebulous fluids of my own heart’s blood.

I took my diamond into the bath with me every night, and when it all proved too much, let silent tears come, and waited for the diamond to emerge. Then, I dried off, went to my room, and rewrote my will, poring over the day like a glossy picture book looking for who had wronged me the most, and who had been most kind.

The thing about fear is that it knows how to breed more, so that you are always waiting for something else to scare you, while you are simultaneously trying to be in control of all the things that already do. You start to feel like if you could just have a neat, ordered list of all the things that frighten you, you might be able to take even one deep breath worry-free (every time I take a deep breath, I wonder if it will be the last, if the hole in my heart will widen so much that any number of toxins or clots will pass through like rivulets of doom, spelling my end.)

Every day that nothing comes to attack and obliterate is another day closer to the source of terror drawing nearer. And then one day, something comes along, and it was not on your list, and it is invisible, and it begins its reign of terror on a cruise ship in a harbor of your country, and it causes people to wear Hazmat suits, sit home glued to the news, and sew masks, and it causes you to be as scared as you’ve ever been of catching it and not being able to breathe, and then just ceasing to be.

An earthquake, the worst thing I could imagine before, takes so many in one fell swoop. A tsunami devastates by the hundreds and thousands, leaving you bewildered and lost and grieving, leaving a hole in the very center of you so big you are sure you will get lost inside of it. Now, though, the numbers creep up, a few today, a few more tomorrow. The numbers are small enough, that you can picture each person, lungs caving in, heads splitting open, bodies lying hooked to machines that are breathing for them. Each one with a history, a hope, a regret, tears that could turn diamonds to stone.

The fear grows bigger. We are scared to touch each other, to see another person smile. We cannot offer a friendly touch of sympathy and understanding. We are afraid of every single thing we can touch.

Which is the greater disaster, the one killing our bodies or the one killing the deep hearts inside of our hearts that need love and connection to go on?

I still have my two Naomis, though I don’t talk to them as much as I used to. A life has passed since my childhood. My grandmother died, at 92, peacefully in her sleep. My mother is in a nursing home, and suffers from dementia. Her fear, in the end, did not die as her mind started to fade. I see a worried look on her face every time I visit, though she can’t remember her name. I now have a husband, two cats and several colleagues among whom I surreptitiously take turns apportioning my worldly possessions. I have a few more of these than I used to, but I still secretly hold my stone-diamond as most valuable. It is still not translucent, or gleaming. A part of me believes it’s because I have not given it enough of my tears, though I also started to wonder if maybe tears of terror are not the the tears it needs to shine. The tears of heartbreak, of sadness over the suffering of others, or even – and this was a revelation – tears of joy, maybe these are the tears a stone requires for the alchemy to take place.

Sometimes I look back on the days I spent playing with Naomi and Naomi, my grandmother sewing her little purses she didn’t have enough people to give to, my mother making dinner while watching news of the latest national floodings and blackouts, and am filled with the kind of longing that makes the hole in my heart feel larger than usual. Why is it that we miss a past that has been at times so cruel to us? I want to hold the little girl I was then, much like I held my dolls, and tell her, “I can promise you from the future that you are going to make it. Why don’t you try turning the fear off and see what life might look like?”

But if had been able to do that, I would not be here now, wondering, and ruminating in a world gone positively mad with fear, as though it spiraled right out the hole in my heart, a whorl of windstorm and destiny.

I have come to see that we are all flowering in different ways, in different lives, all within one life. I imagine it like being in a room with every single will everyone has ever drafted, all in one giant room, one great pile representing all the items of the world that have belonged to and been precious to people. There is no one person who is going to find the whole pile valuable, but there is also no denying the value of any single item. It depends on whom you are asking. The perspective.

I’ve realized over time that the value in my stone is not that it will one day be a diamond, worth a lot of money, to be coveted by others. It is a relic of my own power to imagine, to invent and create, and above all, to believe. My world is still smaller than it can be, because I choose to be confined by my geography, and now by a contagion that has shown me no one in the world is immune from calamity. But I can choose. I can try to catch a breath that does not take in the virus that will kill me, and notice: the world grows bigger. The virus knows no borders. I can decide whether or not this is an expansion of fear or one of connection. I can choose people to leave things to in my will, or people with whom to live and share a life.

I can’t choose not to have a hole in my heart, but I can choose what, in my mind’s eye, I am filling it with. I see this now, that people are getting sick and dying and falling into the earth and drowning, but also smiling and having tea together, reaping harvest and seeing hope in the shape of the clouds.

After all, a DNA test can predict if I’ll get this or that disease, and of course, I can find out any time if I have the virus. But can any of these tests predict not only how my body will respond to illness and crisis, but also how it will learn to tolerate obstacles, or learn to love, or how much those things can save me? It is only I who can test myself in these ways that will change the entire course of the world.

Today, I bought a special rag and polish. Tonight, I will have stopped waiting, for the end or for magic. I will turn off the TV, take my stone, and see which gem it will become.

*

Remember Love

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Do you remember
The ten thousand thoughts
You had in a day
Between the hours of waking,
And the laying down
Of your tired self to sleep

Or do you remember
The time you stood on sand
As the ocean waves
Lapped to shore
And tickled your ankles,
And all was right with the world?

In your memory,
The not quite blue
And not quite green of dawn,
The blazing red sun turned to dusk,
The first star of the night
(star light, star bright)

A touch so deep
That skin becomes the map
Of the universe,
And there is no end
To the impulse to immerse yourself
Every contour and curve

A moment shared
Where, without words,
The longings of lifetimes
Come pounding to the surface,
Where they are held
With ancient and visceral love.

We fear that fear
Is all we have and remember.
But, really remember
The love and awe that slipped though
The cracks of thought, to find you:
This is who you really are.

– Tammy Stone Takahashi

The Visitor

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The Visitor

I wasn’t going to stay long,
I realized,
So instead of unpacking my bags,
I removed all the things
We don’t use when we are here
Just for awhile,
Things that came to me
Via love,
In their own place and time,
Things that have found their way
To me,
And which I can love
Inside of me at will, forever,
Because forever has nothing to do
With this kind of duration,
Of my time here.
I took all of those things,
And put them in a box
Destined for a place where
Goods that are needed
Go to those who need them.
I felt so much lighter,
But not yet light enough.
Knowing I wasn’t going to stay
Longer than awhile,
I wondered,
How much can I excavate
From my own heart,
How many emotions
Have outlasted their welcome?
How many thoughts are tired
Of circulating through me?
How many patterns
Desire their liberation
From the cage of my unwillingness
To understand I can be free?
I wondered about the life spent,
So far, collecting a history
I could no longer recognize
Myself in, and vowed,
Knowing my stay is short,
To give away all that I could,
Of myself, until all that remains
Is what I have been seeking,
Here and there, and always.

– Tammy Stone Takahashi

 

The Earth is Crying, But We are Still Here

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People are falling.
The world is burning.
Mountains are exploding
and trees are disappearing
and children are being wrested
from their parents and still,
somehow, we carry on
and forget to buy milk
and fall in and out of love,
and the ashes of a civilization
about to drown are seeping
into our art, our dreams, our poems.
Sometimes it seems as though
we have chosen to forget
what tethers us to each other,
and to this great expanse of world,
so consumed are we
by our need to protect what is ours.
But what we think we know
does not always align
with the wisdom of this universe
through which we live, breathe,
love, make mistakes,
and where it does, will we
find the courage to live
and die on an axis of this wisdom?
Can we stop for a moment,
and let what is wrong
fill our consciousness,
so that we see, and know,
and can we open our eyes,
and look for the everyday miracles
telling us that growth, and regeneration
are the legacy of Mother Nature,
of which we are a beautiful part,
can we find the buds of green
sprouting through the dried out concrete,
and vow to put the same happiness
into all the sad, miserable hiding places
until we can all sing the same sounds
from the same clean air
and from the same place of freedom?

– Tammy Takahashi

Light and Shadow

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Can you see them at once?
The light: diffuse, golden,
the sun’s gift of a lifetime,
the juice, the vitality,
the possibility of every colour
to play, in all the combinations,
and to stand in the light
is to know of your own potential
to stand, to move in truth,
and your eyes may close,
but light is still there, flickering,
fluttering, reminding, loving you.
The shadow: was it always there,
in those light-filled moments
that had you laughing until dawn,
arms around your best friend,
climbing up the hill
to be closer to the sun?
The day comes
when shadow asks to be seen,
and in your courage,
you will see it. It will see you,
and love you no less,
and it may feel like walking blind,
but this is where you, groping,
find the heart that guides you.
Between light and shadow:
the gorgeous, gigantic space
of your life, infinite, minute,
harrowing, sublime,
ablaze with the fire of your aspirations
that can never lead you astray.

– Tammy Takahashi

Peaceful Heart

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Oh, how it aches to look to the world,
with a genuine heart for discovery,
only to see myself reflected there,
to find worry etched in the furrowed
brows of clouds dense in a dark sky,
and fear playing out its dismal dance
in the cacophonous cries of wild things
fighting for their lives in the cold dawn.
To know that it takes the will of gods
to penetrate through the conditionings
etched like fine art onto my bones,
so that I can see them dissolve and go,
so that I can see more of what I know.
And then I see: a breath, an opening.
There is a freedom in this, this knowing
that it must begin here, with me,
in my desire to create the life I want
by turning my kind gaze to myself,
to find my superpower as the goddess
of a brand new world of my making,
with the power to unleash the worry
from the clouds of brightest white,
to turn screeches into melodious sounds,
to write my loving, peaceful heart
onto the walls of our shared experience.
 
– Tammy Takahashi

A Poem for Notre Dame

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In every great plumed tree
lies the coming, naked winter,
each beam of starlight
tells of a past no more.
The stately art of an era
bears out our name, rounds out
the body of our experience,
the effigies stand time still
while leaving us desperate
to climb into the world
where memories come to life.
When a great building dies
it pours madly into the world,
scattered in all the directions,
remnants of a collective dream,
of a the sacred space where
the history of emotion lived,
with all the hushed whispers
and reverential quietude,
the rapture of encountering,
face-to-face, the ripened fruit
of our grandest human hopes
and greatest earned potential.
Every single thing that exists
contains the code of its demise
and we do not know know when,
or how, or by what means
this destruction born of creation
comes to journey’s end,
only that we can bear witness
to all this life in its passing.
 
– Tammy Takahashi

Love Stories Everywhere

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There are love stories everywhere,
in the butterflies of first caresses,
in the clouds shaped like hearts.
Love can be found in the flowers
opening each morning to feed the bees,
in a mother’s warm, soothing embrace.
There is love in interlocking treetops,
in their roots intertwined underground
to help each other, and feed the world.
Love builds a mama bird’s nest
for her babies’ fledgling first days,
and makes a rainbow from rain.
Love arches the sun up toward the moon,
and the moon across the breadth of sky,
and love makes all the oceans swell.
Love lets us forgive our gravest mistakes,
and come to believe in new beginnings,
And love lets me reach deep inside,
where I sometimes forget love resides,
and turn all of the darkest places to light,
until I know: love stays, love abides.
 
– Tammy Takahashi

I am Human

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I am the wind, storming through,
I am the tree, badly shaken.
I am the sky, clear and hopeful,
I am the clouds, grey and obtuse.
But the tree, it doesn’t break,
And the clouds, they dissipate.
I am the background, I am listening,
I am the foreground, I am acting.
I am the mountain, I am brooding,
I am the forest bed, I am inviting.
I am the wild animals, I am starving,
I am the Earth’s wild green, I am providing.
I am trying hard to be everything,
As I harbor the fear that I am nothing.
I am the world, and I am broken,
I am the world, and I am healing.
I am the cosmos, running on love,
I am a person, and I am learning.

– Tammy Takahashi

No Infertility Story is Created Equal

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As the taboo against talking about infertility slowly begins to lift, I sincerely want to honor every woman who has shared her struggle with this disease that has such a profound impact on every level of the self. While we can thankfully draw on each other’s experiences for support and comfort, it’s important to remember that no two stories can be exactly alike. We might not understand the decisions someone else makes, but we know the struggle, the fears, and the pain behind them. We know the importance of empathy and kindness over judgment, every time.

I believe remembering this is especially important because infertility is still such a new area for open – and raw, and frank and honest – discussion, and we want to have safe spaces where we can feel free and unafraid to share our story, in hopes of adding diversity to the discussion about infertility and childlessness in its many forms.

This is the first time I’m writing about this part of my life, and it’s scary, but here we go, and thank you for hearing me.

The plain and simple, honest truth is that my body doesn’t want to make babies on its own, and I’ve never quite gotten to the point of going to any lengths to have them.

I also struggle with wondering why I want them, but won’t do anything it takes to have them, and with why I’m still sitting on this fence at my decidedly un-tender age of 44.

On the one hand, I’ve grown very used to life without children after four and a half decades on Earth. I also feel that I could be a great mom, and that it would be almost unimaginably rewarding to bring up a little being in this scary, yes, but crazy beautiful world.

I love kids. I’ve always gotten along with them. I love how they know exactly where all the great hidden portals are, to the wild, natural, unfettered, pure and genius side of our universe, and how readily they invite us along for the ride, if we’re willing to follow them. There is a boundless quality of energy involved in everything related to children that I connect with, adore and cherish.

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I look at children and I see hope, innocence and a purity I want to protect forever. I want to learn from kids about believing in things, having passion, and thriving in the world of imagination, and I want to introduce them to this world that badly needs the wisdom of children, with their kindness and openness to discovery. I want to help facilitate their brightening and healing of our world. I want to feed and care for them, and really listen to their questions. I want to see the future through their eyes. I want to break down the walls of my mind and heart and dance with them in the rain and splash with them in the mud, as I work the best I can to nurture, protect and teach them so that they can grow up to be the kind of adults that can turn the mess we’ve made of the world around.

I truly love kids. I feel like I have to say this over and over because one perception people have of people who don’t have children is that they don’t really care for them, or think about them all that much. And the judgment behind this perception is that there is something wrong with people who don’t love and want kids. It makes me sad that not being a mom automatically puts me in a defensive position, that I’m some form of less than, and that I’m complicit in these judgmental attitudes by feeling the need to advertise how much I truly love kids.

One interesting thing I’ve observed about my ambivalence surrounding having them is that my ambivalence does not rule out my desire for kids, and my desire for kids does not rule out my ambivalence.

This is just how it is, the reality of my situation. My head knows it, but my heart is trying really hard to accept that humans can be full of contradictions and mixed emotions coupled with an endless array of unforeseen circumstances, and that this is not a failing. That it does not make me a failure.

As I swim in this sea of conflicting desires and emotions, I become acutely aware, of course, of time passing by. There are people my age welcoming grandchildren into the world. I could be a grandmother. I could also just be an over-40 mother, but this vision seems somehow harder to imagine than the one of me being a grandmother. This is how it’s always been for me, leaning toward the impossible instead of the quite viable possibilities when it comes to having kids.

There’s a solid chance, if I’m not dipping too seriously into science here, that I might have something like 1 egg left, swimming around haphazardly in a treacherous, weakened ecosystem, and I still can’t determine if I am absolutely sure I want to turn this maybe-one egg into a baby.

Sometimes I want it this baby more than anything, but then I start to panic.

As I mentioned, I’m 44. I can’t help mentioning it, repeatedly, because … I’m 44! I feel shame that this one-ish lonesome egg is sitting around, restless, bored and probably highly annoyed with me, bags packed for its next adventure, having given up on the ever-waffling self that has been harboring it. I feel embarrassed for feeling shame in an era that has women rallying the cries of empowerment and breaking down barriers I didn’t even know were boxing me in growing up. I feel embarrassed that I can’t own my uncertainty when I laud other women who choose to remain childfree, or who are uncertain themselves.

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Their uncertainty feels understandable for me. My own fills me with shame. And that’s on top of the shame I feel over not really fitting in to the infertility community because of the myriad reasons that have prevented me from seeing a doctor even once about it, as though years of failing to conceive month after month don’t already qualify me as infertile.

I find myself obsessively reading about women who don’t have children, who are childless or childfree, by choice or by circumstance. I read about a theory that those of us who don’t have a zinger of a mothering instinct may be the result of a genetic mutation that has survived as long as it has because until recently, women were all but forced – and sometimes actually forced, by convention or rape – to bear children. Now that women in some parts of the world who don’t want children aren’t having them, our breed will die out, and the “normal” state of affairs, in which all women desire to bear fruit, will resume.

So according to this theory, women who do not want kids, or who don’t know if they want them, are by definition mutants.

Even though the world is over-populated. Even though we are eating and consuming the planet into a state of … well, not a good state and sometimes I feel that bringing another being into the world now is downright socially irresponsible.

I can relate to this mutant theory, though.

Obviously I only have a lineage because people in my family were bearing little ones, but I’m lucky enough to have a large enough extended family to include several women who never had children. I remember them as the ancient spinsters of my childhood, and I don’t know why they didn’t have kids, just that they didn’t. I have always felt an affinity with them, despite hardly knowing them, and despite having no solid evidence as a young adult that having children might not be possible for me.

Our image of spinsters is largely fed to us by the media: they are homely, less than conventionally attractive, gaunt (because of course more voluptuous women are not only fertile, but of a jolly enough disposition to attract men), and can be either shy and plain, or eccentric and/or ferociously intelligent (too intelligent, of course, to attract a man who could remain un-threatened enough by her intelligence to stick around and plant his seed).

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These images, horrifyingly misguided as they are, also serve to entirely swipe out portrayals of so-called “average” (cringe) women who do not have the distinction of being exceptional in a homely, brainy or eccentric way, and who are without child by early-to-late middle-age for reasons that are already so excavated as to be well-trodden tropes: we have been career-focused; we have had spotty relationship histories; we are daring to try to first work through our crap in a world that is telling us women can have it all without offering support for the emotional fallout of over-extending, or providing an environment that encourages us to figure out how to both live and parent (or not) in a conscious, mindful way.

It makes me sad that there are no mirrors for women like us. Without this mirror, we are made to feel that we either have to have children, or be seriously productive in other areas to compensate for the fact that we haven’t. A child or … a masterful artwork. A Nobel Prize. A life-saving medical breakthrough. An Eat Pray Love (the book everyone who hears a summary of my life compares it to). Then it’s okay. At least we’ve made something of ourselves.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t carry the weight of this perceived expectation with me every day. It could be that most people don’t know this. I might appear to be relatively carefree. Some people in the social circles I’ve had over the years admire what they see as my freedom or sense of abandon, and for living such an unconventional lifestyle. But this view does not match how I feel. At all! I was in school, more or less, from nursery school until I had trouble finishing my Master’s degree, at which point I deviated from what was “supposed to do” for the first time in my life (unless you count the time my dad stopped speaking to me for awhile when I chose creative writing over physics in high school).

I called a time out, more out of desperation than an enlightened sense that I needed change. My boyfriend at the time and I latched onto the idea of teaching English abroad. We contemplated Whitehorse and Brazil (!?) before a friend mentioned that Thailand might be fun and they always needed teachers there. Somehow that one stuck, and we ended up there for year. I fell in love with Asia; he didn’t. We came home, and eventually, very amicably, parted ways. I finished my Masters’ degree after my year away inspired the discovery that the weight of the world did not rest on my thesis. I started to work in the film industry and began my Phd part-time, and … was still trying to figure out if growing up was actually a thing while also feeling ancient. I was now in my early thirties.

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I was a late bloomer in almost every sense you can think of, and now, I was finally starting to come into my own, as a woman and as a person. I was really enjoying the social and creative aspects of my work, and learning more about myself through my intimate encounters with men. I was learning, for the first time in my life, what I liked, wanted and needed. I was starting to see myself as something other than someone’s daughter, a good student, that bright person full of potential – doesn’t that word, “potential” sound like more of a cage the older we get? I was starting to wrest free from all of this, and like many others floating in the waters of freedom, I found myself adrift, and not necessarily always doing what was best for me.

By the time I was 35, I managed to pull off one of my goals, to publish a photography book, and also to alienate my new boss and fall in love with an unavailable man – definitely not two of my goals. They ended up being blessings in disguise, as many aspects of my life were unraveling in that sure but subtle way that I almost certainly would have ignored if I wasn’t forced off the proverbial cliff. Getting fired (technically, my position was made “redundant”, but let’s be real) and heartbroken gave me that boost.

I got rid of and donated a lot of my stuff, brought the rest of it to my parents’ basement (it’s still there – thank you!), and went back to Thailand; I also traveled through Indonesia and Laos. I melted in hammocks, found a staggering book about how to integrate our many aspects of self by Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, and spent 3 months inspired by it, writing journal entries dissecting every facet of my personality. It was grueling, exhausting, and immensely valuable.

I turned 36 while on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand close to the Burmese border. This was my first experience with meditation. I projected every last one of my insecurities onto the meditation hall, even becoming convinced that the teacher – who was not present, but teaching via video and audio recordings – hated me, and that basically, I was a completely unworthy meditator and human. This was just some of the stuff that came up for me during this incredibly difficult experience. But it was a beginning, a really good beginning that taught me how much we tend to stand in the way of our own happiness.

Then I left there, and met my now-husband, from Japan, about three weeks later.

 

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Our love story is best left for another time, but to bring it back to babies … I was 36 when we met, and he was 32. We knew pretty quickly that this was going to be a long-haul sort of relationship, and that we wanted to roam the Eastern part of the Earth for awhile. We married in a private commitment ceremony a year later, on a deserted Thai island.

Again, this all sounds very carefree, if not downright hippy-ish. And in some ways, it was. But neither of us are hippies. Seekers, yes. Avid, curious citizens of the world, yes. But laissez faire? No. Certainly not the “me” part of “we”.

A superficial glance at us frolicking across Asia glosses over moments like me, at 37, collapsing in a heap of tears and anxiety on a rickety bed in Udaipur, Rajasthan, in a half-complete, still-under-construction guesthouse (anything for a discount!), sobbing that I was as ancient as the ruins in our midst, and that I would never be able to have kids even if we wanted them. Half of this panic attack was my genuine distress at the years passing me by, and the other half morbid terror that my new husband didn’t realize he’d married an extremely aging womb.

He was amazing, and said that if and when we wanted them, we’d try. If we couldn’t and still wanted them, we’d adopt. It was basically the perfect answer, and I was mollified.

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Maybe too much so. We eventually moved to Japan – I was now 39 – and we decided to stop trying not to have kids. I’d also decided that I didn’t want medical intervention, that I’d rather adopt if I couldn’t conceive naturally. This just felt right to me. The only lingering fear in my mind was that our lives were not settled – we didn’t yet know where, or how we would live, making adoption seem like a far-fetched fantasy.

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And here we are, over five years later. Still in the East, about to move to Canada, and we still don’t know where we’ll settle, or exactly what we’ll be doing. I’m 44 (as you know), and adoption still feels like something adults do, people who have been living in one home for years with one stable job, and everything you picture a good candidate for adoption to be.

I think we are good candidates – really good candidates, even. But … is the life I’ve really, truly been gearing myself up for? What are the parameters of “the kind of life” that leads to adoption and/or child-rearing? Why am I finding it so hard to access my innermost, deepest desires when it comes to having children?

I remember, and my closest friend growing up also remembers, believing from an early age that I wouldn’t be able to have kids. My sister remembers telling her that I wanted to marry a Japanese man and have half-Japanese children, believe it or not. I don’t remember why I came to have this instinct that there would be no kids in my future, or how this “knowledge” made me feel, which disturbs me quite a bit. I don’t remember feeling traumatized by this notion I had. It just seemed like a fact.

Or self-fulfilling prophecy? Month after month, we go about doing what couples do to make a baby. But I’m not going to lie: despite buying ovulation kits and pregnancy tests, I never used any of them. Not once. I haven’t used any apps to track my ovulation, though I did briefly consider using one. I have been extremely casual about my efforts to conceive. I don’t know if this is telling me something about what I really want, or if I’m really just okay with any outcome.

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What should my factors in deciding be? What my gut tells me (it tells me different things on different days, so far)? If I’m satisfied with my life or not (can’t I be satisfied with my life, and still want a baby)? What I feel I have to offer a child (I might have a lot to offer a child, but does this mean I should have one)? The environmental impact of over-population? (Will one more child really hurt if governments aren’t doing anything to solve our problems?) Future regrets I might have if I don’t have them (how can I possibly know)?

Which of these counts the most?

Does it count that not long ago, for the first time, I burst into tears passing by the baby clothes section of H&M on a trip to the mall in Nagoya?

Does it count that one month my period was late and I went into complete panic at the thought that there might be an actual baby at the end of this, refused to take a pregnancy test, and lived on pins and needles until my period finally came, at which point I was equally relieved and devastated?

From what I hear, many people have these kinds of fears and doubts, but as soon as the baby comes, it all disappears and they can no longer imagine life without a baby.

What if that’s how I would feel? Then all my fears and ambivalence are irrelevant, the signs of an immature, pre-motherhood “phase”? Can 25 odd years of my life be considered a phase?

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My friends very rarely ask me about my plans regarding kids. My parents don’t ask. Most assume, I think, that I don’t want them, or that I can’t have them and have “moved on.” All I know is that we’ve been trying, and have been talking about adoption or fostering more and more, but life has also been getting lived, and feelings about kids haven’t become all that more clear. I don’t know if this means my childless life is half a life or not allowing myself to really understand or process how full of a life I’ve been living.

Why is “childless” the first label we are given, that we give ourselves, as women in our forties who are so many other things? Not just “other things”, implying that childless is one of them. Why am I childless, as though being a mother is a given, and this is something I lack? Am I similarly considered boatless, mansionless or timeshareless (all three words, by the way, trigger spell check, whereas childless is a bona fide word). Why am I childless, as though this is something I have done or failed to do, when all I’ve done is live my life up to now, filling it with myriad other positive experiences?

The hard truth is that there might be some of us who will never know for sure if we want kids or not, and before long, the choice will be made for us. Ideally, we want to make that choice for ourselves. I know we do, but it’s not laziness that prevents us from making it. It’s probably many things, not least of which is the incredibly confusing social system in which we have no real place to be heard, understood, supported and embraced.

Sometimes I feel like the world is not my playground to play in (because I don’t have a child to bring me there), that there’s still something monumental I have to accomplish before I’m ready to assume my place in the world. I know I’ve felt this way as long as I can remember – there was always another degree, a better job that stood between me and “full maturity” – and not having children of my own, against whom to cast myself as the adult, has no doubt played a role, and continues to play one.

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I think what confuses and saddens me the most is that we are still living with a very rigidly structured set of rules as to what it means to be a mother. We are either without child, or with child. Why haven’t we moved on to consider alternative ways of living in which the roles of mothering and nurturing become more fluid? In which we live in community (read: not commune, but community), so that we are all mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons? A place where everyone has a role to play as a vital member of the community, so that we can all find our place, and feel useful, and feel fulfilled in whatever way suits everyone best?

There are a thousand ways to be a woman. There are also a thousand different ways to be human. We have arrived here, and I believe we are at a juncture. Systems are failing. The environment is failing. We are failing each other, and our careers are failing us, and there is a lot of failing going on. We are in crisis mode. Women are finally finding a space in which to come forward against the oppression of the patriarchy, and I would love to think that we are on the brink of a whole new world.

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I would love to think that we are not merely looking for a patched-up version of the old world, but rather, a place where we radically reconsider what the norms are and should be, what it means to have partnerships, intimate relationships, what it means to identify as a man or a woman, mother or father, and what kind of world we want children to be raised in.

I beg – let’s find a real, authentic place for all of us, with acceptance and love. Let us honor people’s decisions and also honor the undecided, the confused, the ones still wondering but not wanting to be left behind. Let’s offer people the space to be and to find out who they are, so we can form real, healthy decisions about identity and the needs of self and society. Let judgments become tolerance, so that people feel safe to find and make the most honest, best decisions as the truest versions of themselves, along with those they love and trust the most, for the betterment of every last one of us sharing this planet.

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