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“Every person, all the events of your life, are there because you have drawn them there. What you choose to do with them is up to you.”
– Richard Bach

Stepped out of the house two chilly Nagano mornings ago to participate in that essential grown-up activity commonly referred to as WORK. Something white and powdery got into my eyes and clouded my vision for a second.

Snow. The first snow of the winter season. Enough to trigger the memory of a long-ago encounter that now rouses me from months of blog slumber…

It was also during the first snow several years ago when we sat next to each other in the train station’s waiting area. I had just arrived huffing, puffing and fuming after running all the way from my apartment to the station only to learn that the trains are going to be late.

Her stooped figure slowly shuffled towards the next seat. A woman I estimate to be around her mid-seventies sat down and sighed in contentment. Gnarled hands reached into her backpack, coming up with an onigiri (Japanese rice ball).

My stomach growled in recognition. In my rush, I forgot to have a proper breakfast again.

It was an emotionally precarious state I was in at the time. Hurtling fast towards a major burnout from working on a juggling-act of a project that’s draining health, energy and enthusiasm. I wasn’t getting any quality sleep and got to the point where I started doubting if I am still willing to be in software engineering for the long haul. Needless to say, it was a narrowly boxed-in state of mind that nearly stifled all semblance of perspective. To get through the day with enough grains of strength left to proceed to the next was the one and only goal.

Not for this old lady, though. She’s obviously taking unhurried delight on her onigiri, leading me to search my memory for the last time I savored a good meal instead of gobbling it up like gasoline is to an engine.

Ironically, her life is nothing like sunshine and sunflowers. This I learned after she turned, commented on the weather and started telling her tale. A story typical of the non-working elderly in work-driven Japan: Living alone for several years since her husband passed away. Both her children grown, married and with their respective families in Tokyo. She’s content to see them settling so well, but sometimes wishes that they could visit her more often. Living alone can be quite lonely sometimes, she says.

She enjoys sightseeing, but only in nearby destinations. She had recently joined a club of elderly people who do just that. It’s one of the things that keep her days occupied aside from regular trips to the doctor.

Then came the shocker. Her departed husband, God bless his soul, sometimes used to hurt her when he was still alive. He was not entirely a bad person, she says. Just tired from working too hard, she says. There had been lots of times in the past when he’s been really good to her, but admittedly, she’s happier now that she’s living on her own. Not knowing how to respond, I merely nodded.

We boarded the train and chatted some more. She asked me about my country, what I do for a living, what I think of Japan — stuff that the Japanese usually ask foreigners. As I neared my stop she admonished me in a motherly manner not to work too hard, to take it easy, try to leave the office earlier and go out more during the weekends. Strange how she guessed things without me mentioning anything about what I was going through. I must’ve been exhibiting the signs she had witnessed so many times in her life.

Two chilly mornings ago she came to mind and I wondered what became of her since that encounter. As I bowed to her by way of goodbye back then, I thought about how lonely it must’ve been for her to pour out her tale to a complete stranger.

Two chilly mornings ago, it finally dawned on me how naïve I had been. That encounter wasn’t meant for her… it was for ME. She, in a space of a few minutes, managed to coax me out of my dreary shell with subtle lessons on treating earthly existence as a gift, not as a task. Something to be tasted, fully enjoyed and not rushed into with a strict timetable of milestones, deadlines and expectations. I owe it to myself, and nobody else, to decide what kind of life would make me happy and how to achieve it.

We fall into less than ideal situations sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that we’re stuck. Yes, we have our miseries to deal with but so does everybody else. It’s not about the weight of the burden, but how we choose to carry it. It is often the ones who seem to have the lightest load that are in reality lugging around the heaviest baggage. They’re just so used to dealing with it that it hardly bothers them anymore.

Two chilly mornings ago on my way to the train station, I remembered her and deliberately slowed my pace. I heard a thud behind me and saw a dead crow. An ominous call to introspection: Do you wish to look back at your life in the end and see nothing but a blur? Or regret not seizing every chance to be happy?