When I was a young newlywed, I moved from Honolulu to Tokyo to be with my husband. He was working for a small tech industry startup that provided services to multinational firms. I went from idyllic paradise to neon metropolis. Tokyo was like a cross between the biggest, busiest anthill imaginable and the city from Blade Runner. Minus the flying cars.
Teeming does not begin to describe the sheer intensity of activity. The city seethed with life. The constant, relentless flow of other humans, regardless of what time of day or night or where you happened to be, weighed on me. An introvert by nature, I found I exerted huge amounts of energy just existing there. We’re talking about a country where a population almost half that of the United States is crammed into an area roughly the size of California.
How did people cope, I wondered? A professor of Japanese literature once explained to me, “They take their privacy on the inside.” That made sense, I supposed. Where else would you find it? They had paper doors, for Chrissakes. As a college student in Hawaii, I couldn’t get my head around it, but two months into Tokyo life, I was learning that internal space was crucial. I often found myself smashed, sardine-like, between the bodies of strangers on a subway or fighting my way upstream through a crush of pedestrians on a Shibuya street. It wasn’t unusual to share a tiny table at a restaurant with another couple. My husband and I would go on with our meal as though there weren’t another date happening millimeters from our elbows. It was go inward or go crazy.
Years later, after we’d returned to the U.S., my external space had expanded to include a relatively spacious home, the luxury of an actual car, and stranger-free booths in restaurants. My inner world, however, was shrunken and chaotic. I’d forgotten the art of living with shoji doors. I’d lost the practice of creating the invisible boundary between myself and everyone else. Anxiety and depression along with the every day responsibilities of parenting, marriage, and work had reduced me to reactive bundle of worries and resentment. I used what fuel I had to care for others and meet commitments, but I was running dry.
I couldn’t run away from home, though I fantasized about it. I didn’t dream of torrid romance or hedonistic indulgence. I just wanted a room somewhere, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Wouldn’t it be loverly? The woman who traversed the crowded Yamanote-sen twice daily and blithely wove through heaving seas of commuters did not know how to be alone with her own thoughts.
Then one day, my husband came home from work to find me sobbing and stringy-haired while our three year old played with his matchbox cars. I had spent the last few months helping my father recover from a stroke, shuttling to and from hospitals and extended nursing facilities, cooking meals, caring for a toddler and my frantic mother while my husband traveled for work. When it was over, life returned to normal, and my wall-less world collapsed.
These days, therapy and medication help tame the noise of the anxiety and break through the paralysis of depression, but still I have to navigate a world full of the demands and needs of others. I make peace with the fact that that magic room does not exist, not in the physical sense. (Disclosure: I now have a lovely office, but if you can’t turn off the head noise, no sanctuary exists.) When there is no quiet without, you must foster quiet within. So, inward I go.
With daily effort, I draw the shoji doors shut long enough to access my creativity. There are lots of ways to do this – exercise, meditation, long walks, locked bathroom doors – but my current favorite is continuous practice. I learned of it through social media, through a woman named Saundra Goldman. She wrote: “I loved the idea of showing up for myself every day, and in doing so, inspiring others to do the same.” It’s simple and effective. You pick a practice – writing, yoga, photography, juggling, whatever – and you do it for 20 minutes a day, every day. Life doesn’t stop, but you pull shut your paper doors and occupy your interior realm.
It gets easier the more you do it, and there are so many portals into this personal refuge. Say no when you mean no. Choose not to engage with negativity. Focus on gratitude. Each time I do this, I make my inner world richer. It’s quiet and lovely. I can rest there, and create, and I can observe the muted bustle through translucent screens that let in the light.
Photo credit: “Yukimi Shoji” by halfrain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.