The Art of Sleeping

October 2006

The Art of Sleeping is a short story loosely based around the three years of my life in Hiroshima, Japan. It was published in White Fungus Issue 7.

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"You're awake.....I can't believe you're awake!”
“Emily, let me sleep!”
“The doctor said if you regained consciousness it might take a while for you to adjust”
“What?”
“You've been in a coma for four months!”
“Then I need another four...”

Emily has a beautiful mind, a beautiful smile and a bizarre sense of humour. She is an op-shop purist, plaid skirt tight t-shirt. A touch of mascara, as an invitation or a warning, for those who may fall into her deep dark eyes. On the train she listens to twentieth century russian composers on massive audiophile headphones and stares out the window at the passing world. Japan - Commuters trapped in cars, powerlines rising and falling like waves. Past ricefields shining like mirrors that you could shatter with a stone, filled with the last month's rain. She takes photos of other passengers sleeping, black and white grains of sleep in the corners of their eyes.

I first met her at a bus-stop, because as she said we were ahead of our time, because in the future everyone will use public transport and I happened to agree. She left me with a smile and phone number on the back of my hand. I decided to txt her and invite her to our flatwarming the following weekend. She turned up with a few friends. She was working in some dodgy Student Job Search job in an office without signage in Newmarket.
“I'm a spy” she said.
It was some kind of market research webwork, an ethically-hazy consumer trap just inside the privacy legislation.
“What do you do?” she asked
“Do?....i dream.....a lot.....and though no economic activity is generated directly from this activity I am dreaming
of money.”
“It's the thought that counts eh”
“eh”
I have a job but it's not who I am. Performing repetitive tasks for cash at the bottom of the food chain. The logic of the corporation. Treading water with inflation, lapping at our necks. The cost of living rising around us against the minimum wage. Around us the party, the presence of people, laughter, smiles and a few drinks; nothing raucous. I was thinking how there's something cohesive about these few degrees of separation in this city, that I really really like. Then she told me she could control ants with her mind.
"If I can see one ant, I can think and tell it to turn left, if I say turn right it will turn right. If there's a cup I can make it go around the edge of the cup"
"Wow, really?, I gotta witness this”
"There are no ants here” she said placing her hands together, fingertips to fingertips.
“Shall I call them?"
She closed her eyes and concentrated.
“Maybe we should go outside...don't wanna bring ants into the house"

The next day I went up the road and returned with croissants, coffee and a Sunday paper and lay in bed looking through her amazing underwater photos from Tuvalu.
“Oh no!” she said.
“What?”
“There are no horoscopes in this newspaper, I don't know what my future is gonna be now”.
“What do you want it to be?”
"I want to live happily ever after starting from now."
Her smile shining through her aura of curls.
"You're gorgeous" I said.
"When are you going to realise your compliments can't hurt me?"

It's strange how memory strips away all the days of work and only remembers the moments we are really alive. Nostalgia is a world without weight, the shimmer of the asphalt under the summer sun, little black pixels pouring through the cracks in the concrete. Emily once told me that when she was younger she would get so bored that she'd hold her breath till she passed out. On the lawn there would be slight bruises where she hit the ground. Her eyes would open to a sky so blue she felt she could die and float away from suburban 1991. Away from a life without fun, from the indentured labour, and the injustice of having to babysit her brother, Jack.

When you superimpose memories on the present you can still see the blue lines around their edges. Like cheap special effects. I remember reading something about how memory is largely self-created. Memories shift and change over time, it's all so long ago now. I remember standing on the beach, the pohutukawa just about to bloom, staring out to sea. Past Motutapu, past the tip of Cape Colville, was only the open ocean until Chile, where people used to disappear. Sometimes this city gets to me, and it feels like I never leave, always travelling in the same circles, home work supermarket city pubs clubs parties in the weekends. I take a friend's car and drive out to Karekare, leaving the sometimes psychic darkness of the Auckland behind the ranges. The sound of the waves smother my thoughts and cleanse my soul. A scarlet sun burning a hole in the horizon.

I get a telepathic txt:
mayb yr out of range
tings r strnge
call me
xxx M
But I'm out of credit, so I can't call. I drive back and there's an overturned car near an exit on the North-Western. Everything in slow motion. Dust caught in eddies. Shattered orange indicator plastic. Newly-scarred concrete. The slow pulsing of lights. The traffic crawling past.

When I get to Emily's house she's standing on the kerb outside. I stop, she gets in and tells me to drive.
“You don't want to drive?”
“I don't feel like driving”
“What's wrong, why are you crying?”
“It's Jack”
“Is he okay?!”
Tears leaked out of her closed eyes. She shook her head. Her body shaking, sobbing. Jack is dead. I listen and though I only understand grief in the abstract, like it's some kind of tax you pay for caring, maybe just being here will help.
“Maybe it's my fault” she says.
“It's not your fault, how could it be your fault?”

Jack had been a perfectly happy healthy kid until he was about 11. One day he went to sleep and when he woke up he had gone. His parents had taken him to see child psychologists, cognitive therapists, neurologists. Jack had locked himself in his private universe and somehow lost the key. He never spoke again. Sometimes, if I visited and found him sitting at the table, we would play chess, and I swear the guy was a genius. He would avoid all eye contact, the pieces taking his full concentration but there was something there, that I'd only catch sometimes. Refracted through those bright splinters in his mind. He always won. He never smiled. I sometimes got the feeling that everything about his behaviour, was a pretense, a charade, a joke – anger at something he couldn't name or explain or a conscious decision not to participate in the modern world. Something us neurotypicals could never understand.

“Let's go,” she said.
“Where are we going?”
“Just drive”
So we drive through the screens of rain south. The city lights slip behind the Bombays until they are an amber glow in the sky behind us. Beads of water chase each other to the edge of the windscreen. State Highway 2 is a slow film, frame by frame through the wiper blades. I put on a cd, h.d.u. and we hurtle into the night, through waves of dying, crashing guitar. We are escapees, refugees from the twentieth century. Driving on through the darkness the cat`s eyes hypnotise and guide us safely south. The lights of passing cars slip past her sleeping face. Little white crosses scratch the edge of my vision and something I notice in the corner of her eye, a tear, dragging itself down her face.

When Jack switched off the world around him dimmed. Emily watched as her parents fought and finally...her Dad moved across town to his PA's house “until things got better”. They never did. Her mother, stressed and strung out, changed shifts and resorted to clairvoyants, psychics, daytime tv. After school Emily would come home from school just to be with Jack. Someone always had to be there, just in case. He was a ghost in a shell. He would sit, staring at the wall of his room for hours, days on end. Or retrieve chicken bones from the trash and painstakingly try to reassemble the chicken. She would make him food in a blue bowl and place it outside his door. He would only ever eat alone. “You should have just died!” Emily yelled at him one day, “things would have been simpler.” Though she knew, nothing ever gets simpler.

We stop somewhere on the way to Te Aroha and walk into the forest.
“It's almost a relief” she said, “but I hate myself for even thinking that”.
We sleep in the moss on the forest floor. Milk-white clouds, edge overhead burnt with the bluest sky and the sublime percussion of the leaves, the warm acoustics of the rain on our skin.
The shape of our breath in the autumn air,
before the words begin
before you tell me
you want to leave
and go someplace far away
before you ask me to come with you.

Somehow we had saved enough for our flights and moved to Hiroshima, Japan. I guess because we could earn good money teaching English – which seemed pretty easy - a sweet deal. We took the first jobs we found, and a tiny apartment at the end of the Astram line - the elevated tramway - in a suburb squeezed between the hills where the streets, houses, supermarkets, everything seemed to be smaller. I could never hear any birds, only the constant hypnotic rumble of traffic.

We meet people, it seems, for a reason. Or at least the randomness of our lives and the decisions we make, this cocktail of freewill and chaos, makes us who we are. Floods of faces fill my thoughts, names are attached and removed,
they smile in their sleep
in the sun in a park
long grass and wild flowers
a thousand faces
ten thousand faces
everyone you`ve ever met
or even glanced at.
Our similarities outweigh our differences.
Individualism is a simplification -
the cutting up of the fabric of humanity into little squares -
we wouldn't be ourselves without anyone else.

We meet Naoko and Hideaki and Yoshi in the peace park across the river from the A-Bomb dome. That skeleton
of a building. We play djembe, ukelele, shamisen and guitar, and drink chu-hi under a waxing moon. The next
week we catch a train out to Miyajima, to the full moon party on a beach on the far side of the island.
Japan slides by in a trance and our daydreams coallesce and fill this train.
“Imagine if we all dreamt the same dream together, imagine what we could achieve.”
“An eternal present” says Yoshi.
Here we feel the slow distance between the days.
This hidden Japan - the beauty of the world concentrated in the smiles of those around us.
The slowly moving, marbled clouds, floating like oil on the surface of the sky.
“Em...?”
She was lost in thought. Unearthing discarded toys, plastic robots, from the sand. I'm adrift in space and time, the
rain is divine, the trees are slow, like soft coral in the breeze.
“Emily.”
She was teleporting small distances, two seconds into the future.
The stars in the sky brushing against her eyelashes.

The following day Nao took us to see her great-aunt, Tomomi, a hibakusha who lived a couple of kilometres
away on the same far side of the island away from the shrines and the tourists. In 1945 she had been 16, and
everyone, regardless of age had had to join the war effort. She had been assigned to the Chugoku telephone
exchange to operate the switchboards.
"It was so beautiful and shining and silver..." she said, “like a shooting star in the morning sunlight.”
She had been so close to the epicentre that she saw the bomb falling before it denotated, 800 metres above the
city. Before the light and heat burnt away her left eye and half of her face and the stone walls collapsed around
her. It was more than a miracle that she had survived. When she came to, after however many hours of lying
there unconscious, she managed to crawl free. She found herself in Hell. The air was viscous with heat and
smoke, like molten honey to breathe so she covered her mouth as she ran. People, their melted husks, lay around
her and the skin peeled off her feet leaving bloody footprints in the dust. The city was almost silent, fires ate their
way through the rice-paper homes on the hillside and only occasional cries for help. When the bomb exploded the
rivers had evaporated instantly. Those that survived the first 30 seconds, mad with thirst from the radiation and
covered in burns, were driven to the rivers to douse themselves and drink the poisoned water. At Tsurumi-bashi
the bridge had gone. She met her teacher from junior high school, who helped her to swim to the other bank.
“Ganbate, Tomo-chan!...Be strong!” she told her.
When she got across she looked back and could not see her teacher.
Hundreds of bodies were floating in on the rising tide.
After that,
the ability to feel anything,
is a gift.

One morning I was standing at the crossing on Hondori, the main shopping street. An old man, well into his 90s, started yelling at me. There were about a eighty other people also waiting to cross the road. They watched and shifted uncomfortably, pretending to ignore him. Swearing at me in his thick old man's dialect, his frail body shaking with anger, he accused me of being American, of being responsible for dropping the bomb, of killing everyone he had ever loved.

Night falls and I collapse under it's weight
Distortions of the wind in the leaves
the edge of everything hovering overhead.
A night of hermetically sealed insomnia
The sound of traffic, a heavy blanket over the city, an aural anesthetic, a sedative, a palliative for your dreams. Outside bozuzoku, teenagers on motorbikes are driving up and down the street below. Beside me, Emily shifts. Synapses spark, like fireflies in the forest of her mind. She is crying in her sleep. In her dream Jack is beheaded by people in masks, in the living room of her mother's house. The blood on the walls, the carpet ruined and her heart an ocean of tears. The thing is, in the dream she was watching this live, on television. The whole world, right there, filtering in through the television and she couldn't do anything to stop it.

At 8am I still haven't slept. Outside on the street I can hear the uyoku, the right-wing nationalists, blasting martial music and xenophobic trash blaring out of the loudspeakers. A tirade against Filipino workers on temporary visas and sub-minimum wages, Koreans and foreigners in general. Emily can see how angry I am.
“Calm the fuck down!” she says
“I don't want to calm the fuck down!”
I want to throw rocks at their black trucks and get my head kicked in by jackboots, so I can spit my teeth in their faces. The blackshirts only represent a minority, a redneck lunatic fringe, the few Japanese who still eat whale. After the war the Americans essentially handed power back to the zaibatsu, the militarists who took Japan to war in the first place. Japan would be a bulwark against communism, an unsinkable aircraft carrier. American flags fly outside supermarkets. Construction company concrete mixer trucks are covered in cartoon dolphins. The weird incongruities of modern Japan. It never stops, and after a while, it begins to make sense.

We met up with Yoshi and Nao and took a frisbee up to Hijiyama. It's summer, ice-cold Kirin from the vending machine in the park, and the ear-splitting electronics of semi, the hyper-cicadas, in the trees around us. The car park is full of people in their cars, engines and air-conditioning on. We laugh and drink and relax in the shade before the sun sets and we drift into the night. We stumble, slightly drunk into a restaurant we cannot afford.
There are glances at our ripped jeans, our crude western grace.
“Don't worry” Emily said, "we have something they can't buy"
And for a second, I'm not sure why, I thought she meant our hearts. All those people, shuffling through the malls of the world. Shopping to kill time. Waiting for the transplants that for 50,000USD you can get fresh from a political prisoner in China.

We move on and process our minds in the blender of Nagarekawa, a hundred little bars and clubs jammed into a couple of blocks. We detach and drift through this floating world. At dawn, here, beside the river, only the bridges hold the city together and our minds intact. The tide is out and the crabs move like broken springs over the mud flats. We take the Astram home, gliding above pachinko parlours, apartments and parks. Arriving home, I am satiated and narcoleptic. Sleep, is in my veins like a vaccine, flooding my wordless mind.

The following week after Emily's shift in the English Language Factory we walked up the hill toward the temple at Bishamondai. The air was heavy with humidity and my shirt stuck to my skin in the heat. Into the trees it was
cooler, and I filled my lungs in long deep breaths.
"The trees are telling me to be calm", she said.
We stopped a moment, and in the stillness it did feel that they were trying to communicate something to us. A dragonfly swam by, a silver blue line through this pool of silence. We continued up the path, past the hundred stone jizō, baby stone buddha clad in red-woolen caps and bibs. Inside the temple, with tigers and dragons carved around the eaves, a monk was chanting sutras in a deliberate, hypnotic rhythm. A patch of blue bled through a rip in the grey paper sky. I saw a helicopter, strangely silent, blades beating, appear and disappear into the clouds. I cleansed my hands with water, pulled on the rope and swung the hammer slowly, once, twice, and with one final pull, into the bell. The leaves shimmered in the sound, a breath of wind through the valley. And everything was magically transformed, ever so slightly.
Imagine.
It's that easy.
Take a deep breath and relax.
The Tao is limitless and eternal.
The ultra-present ever-unfolding origami of now.
The snap, crackle and pop of sub-atomic physics.
Rain starts to fall.
Pools of light form on the road.
Oil unfurls in psychedelic spirals on the surface, gently spun by the rotation of the earth.

Emily whispers something in my ear. A word brittle like cartilage or the fine ghosts of leaves - silent veins burnt into the lids of my unopened eyes. Language is incomplete. The imminent reality is however things appear to be. “What you see is what you get,” she says, and in the silver spaces between the traffic strings of smoke tangle in the summer heat. We speak japanese in our sleep and dream of throwing ourselves into the future. Clouds in gold leaf cirrus high above the setting sun. Hawks glide between the buildings. When the sea rises we will live in the upper levels of the mall, each building an island and grow vegetables on the roof. We can generate power, sealing floors at high tide and emptying them when it falls - a small turbine charging our batteries. We have a light and a microwave oven and a playstation. We have everything we need. I stretch badminton nets, stolen from the sports store, between the lampposts to catch fish above the street. I dive down to salvage useful things, before the tide turns and sucks me out to sea. We make a sign that maybe someone on Google Earth might see if somewhere the satellites are still taking pictures. In summer, on the roof, we practise the art of sleeping under the stars.

But still we have to work, 2 jobs, 6 days a week, student loans sitting in our subconscious, house prices back home well beyond our reach. Emily sleeps much better now, without the news filtering into the lounge, without knowing that poverty is far from history, that climate change and the coming crises will create millions of environmental refugees, famine and war to dwarf the last century's and that the oceans are rapidly passing the point of no return. The future is expensive and maybe we can't afford to live there, at least not in the manner to which we are accustomed. I pretend to be immune, not to try to make sense of the modern world but to let it wash over me, through me. To try to prepare myself psychologically. I'm not afraid of the future.

I want a slower and more eloquent mode of life -
people who shine in the summertime
and a bottle of wine.
I want to breathe the sky and lie on the earth
music flooding every vein
of every leaf
of every tree
and
me
and you,
what can we do-
"I can think of a few things" she says with a smile.
Outside the rain beads on the glass,
a million wide-angle parallel universes,
jets in slow ballet on the tarmac.
We become a small constellation, moving independently against the backdrop of stars.
A plane passing overhead on the long haul home.
Brace yourself for a massive dose of deja vu,
finding yourself where you're meant to be,
in the right place, at the right time,
all the time
in the right state of mind.
In Wellington
the harbour is glassy,
thousands of frequencies jostling on the surface.
A silent silver symphony.
I am floating on my back
like a photo in a tank
slowly gaining clarity.
The world turns and the clouds stay still. Life seems to be a succession of moments, without logic, agency or
urgency. There is no conflict, just the warmth of the sun, a special kind of peace that belongs to late summer. I
hear birdsong and the invisible mesh of cellphone signals, connecting everyone to every place. I can't see the
satellites, behind the sky, but somehow I sense their presence.
We don't know how lucky we are.
Anticipation and realisation,
are seeds within each other,
layers ad infinitum,
stories within stories.
Street maps, Escher-like
etched in to our minds.
The land beneath the city,
all the things we don't see
but can only apprehend -
the map of human history
like music
a karakia
woven in circles around the sun.

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©Hamish Low 2006 - All rights reserved