By Janet B. Villa
Last year, when we were yaya-less for what seemed like forever, my husband and I took turns tackling chores and caring for Anna—she was four—while we scrambled after work deadlines and appeased clients. The household and work to-do’s were eroding the joy out of our home. Anna demanded my attention in the daytime, and I could work on my many projects only at night and well into the dawn. We were sleep- and life-deprived. Once, as my husband washed the dishes and I stared morosely at a pile of laundry, I shared with him a Zen truth that I needed to learn: “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” The chores were there regardless of the state of the world or the state of my heart.
One hot afternoon was particularly busy. It was a day that Henry David Thoreau would describe as “a day frittered away by detail.” I opened the rice box to find a horde of bukbok having a fiesta.
Anna shrieked. “What’s that?!”
I wanted to cry. Smothered in different roles of mother, daughter, wife, friend, writer, worker was me—the Janet that I felt I was losing fast. The bukbok had no right to thrust themselves between rushing an annual report and unclogging the bathroom sink.
The swarm of bukbok spread steadily. I tore off a swathe of wide adhesive tape and captured the bukbok in the stickiness, a mass at a time. Soon I had strips of tape beside me, and still the bukbok surged. They were the Borg: resistance was futile.
The phone rang, and I let the call go. What would I have said if it were a client who would begin with “Hi, Janet. Are you busy?” I could answer, “Oh, we’re just catching bukbok. And you, how are you?”
“What’s a bukbok, Mom?” Anna asked. Her eyes were alive with curiosity.
I had no clue. I felt like making things up. Anna sometimes asked questions to which I could not form a response: “Why is Hello Kitty’s face so big?” or “‘And the dish ran away with the spoon.’ What kind of a game is that, Mom?”
Alas, I was homeschooling; an “I don’t know” is fatal. So with the bukbok fast decorating our floor, I hit Google. “A bukbok might be a weevil,” I said. “It rhymes with evil.”
She shouted and stamped her feet at the bukbok. “Shoo! Shoo, weevil!”
I told her, “We can’t solve problems by shouting.” (Let’s pretend that I follow my own advice.)
She didn’t listen. She preferred drama, and she wrung her hands. “We’re gonna broke our hands, our feet, our everything!” she said. “There will be fire! Thunder!” In the Anna-verse, this was the form of the apocalypse.
When the apocalypse didn’t come, she sat on her haunches and watched them. “They’re so slow, Mommy.”
“Yes,” I said. I kept pulling out strip after strip of tape to catch the bukbok.
“But you’re fast. Fight them, Mom, fight them!” Anna cheered me on. She pumped her fists. Some of the bukbok were crawling up my forearm. I was losing the war.
“Why do they keep climbing?” she asked. “You stickered them and catched them and throw them and they die. But they keep climbing.”
What is it about a child? Anna rewires me; she makes me rethink the world. Jim Thompson wrote, “There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.” He was talking about the craft of writing, but I thought of his truth in terms of how Anna saw beyond the obvious and over to the joyful flipside of the same event. She danced on the silver lining.
“Anna,” I said, setting aside the tape. “Someday you have to be like the bukbok. You have to keep on climbing. No matter what.”
“Ewww,” she said. The sunlight bounced off the windows and haloed her head. This is the thing with mothering: we end up being mothered. What we teach, we learn.
We had been praying for a yaya for months. Waiting was a question of trust. It was also a question of living.
Our mistake had been to treat this period of waiting as “Life, Interrupted.” Living was postponed, and we endured most days until the answer would arrive. We’d say, “Oh, when our yaya would arrive, we could finally do this or that.” We had been waiting for life to begin again.
I had forgotten one crucial thing: the interruption is the life. This daily routine, this waiting—it was my life. I should live it, not endure it.
“We have to keep on climbing, Anna,” I told her again.
All the law degrees and post-graduate degrees in the world, and in the here and now, life was just all about the bukbok.