An old fish passes by and says, “How’s the water!?”
After he’s gone the younger fish turns to the other and asks, “What water?”
We humans are a lot like that young fish. We’re just hanging out in some water—mostly with similar fish, where we swim, play, eat, fight, have babies—living life. What we hardly notice is the water we are in and how it’s currents, temperatures, and salt levels affect us entirely.
I had a recent sighting-of-the-water moment while reading “The Professor and the Housekeeper.” This novel was originally written in Japanese, in Japan, by a Japanese woman named Yoko Ogawa. Why the big deal about Japan? Her story is so steeped in her particular background that, in juxtaposition to it, I could distinguish my own deeply embedded culture.
The novel is about a formerly brilliant mathematician who now, due to a car accident fifteen years before, only has eighty minutes of memory available to him. Thus the world starts over every hour and twenty minutes. A single mother from a housekeeping agency is assigned to his home after eight others were fired. She has a cheeky ten-year-old boy who connects with the troubled old man. All the makings of a great book.
But I got mad at it several times. One reason was the character of the housekeeper. Whenever conflict threatened she’d apologize, back off, and not defend herself even when wronged. After the third time this happened I put the book down to fume for a while. If I squinted I could sort of see the nobility and self-control she had. But my American pride of fairness and equality and protest, would not let me alone.
Then came the worst part. The housekeeper and her son want to give the professor a birthday present. He adores a particular pitcher that was famous before his car accident. Mother and son search for a rare baseball card of this player. Through the miracle of novels, they are given fifty pristine, priceless baseball cards. They sort through them and find the perfect one to give the professor.
Here’s what I thought would happen next: They sell the other forty-nine cards for big wads of cash. She can stop working, he goes to college, and together they tend a miniature baseball diamond in their backyard in honor of their fortune. But you know what? The baseball cards are never mentioned again. She stays a housekeeper, they all get older, the professor dies.
In my culture, making money, running with opportunity, and happy endings are the focus. I was judging these characters as wimpy and uninspired. Not until I worked at it could I see the honor of dignity, quiet love, and knowing one’s place. For I am subject to the water I swim in, to the molecules that permeate my beliefs. It’s a rare occasion when a certain slant of the light allows me to see that water.