By | June 19, 2014

During the summer of 2006, I accompanied a San Diego State faculty colleague and a group of students on a study tour to Japan. The first couple of nights we stayed in a modern business hotel in Tokyo. The rooms were very compact and geared for efficiency, the norm by Japanese standards. Included among a convenient supply of amenities was a white molded plastic hairbrush with MADE IN JAPAN proudly embossed on the top surface in small, sans-serif capital letters. I continue to use this practical souvenir even though 24 of the 93 plastic bristles have broken off, one is poised to break, and another is bent to dysfunction. The brush has no sharp pieces; all edges are softly rounded, including the type. On each side of the brush seven slits about 1/8-inch wide angle upward toward the center spine, which is dotted with a row of seven circular indentations. While these dimples provide a decorative element, I assume them to be productive remnants of the manufacturing process as purpose is a hallmark of Japanese design. There are, however, two holes whose meaning eludes me. They’re located just below the last row of bristles, which are now missing from my brush. Perhaps these openings represent wabi-sabi, the Japanese notion that honors imperfection.

In spite of the smooth, shiny, seemingly slippery surface, a thumb groove and wavy finger ridge on the handle provide a strong grip. As my hand squeezes and my wrist twists, the bristles gently separate the strands and hair glides through the open-ended voids. Some hair is left behind as it’s normal to lose up to 100 strands a day. These dislodged strands wind themselves randomly around the loom of stiff plastic bristles and eventually weave an oval-shaped nest. When the nest is large enough and begins to impair the grooming process, I remove the soft clump and preserve it in a Ziplock baggie for an artist’s book about domestic rituals. It will be a companion piece to Forty Days of Lint, a one-of-a-kind book about the repetitive task of doing laundry.

When the students departed and I said goodbye to my colleague, I spent an additional week on my own in Tokyo in a ryokan, a quaint Japanese inn, the kind that has separate areas for showering and bathing, and no beds. Guests sleep on futons rolled out each night on tatami floor mats. It was in this cultural environment of tradition and efficiency that I received the call that my mother, after years of misplaced memory, was finally surrendering to the tangled filaments of Alzheimer’s. There I knelt on tatami mats behind sliding shoji doors 6000 miles away. While my younger sister held the telephone, I spoke imperfect words of love and gratitude to my unresponsive mother, whose remembrance of me had long ago been brushed aside.

Afterword: While on another study trip, this time to New York during fall 2013, I decided to allow the Japanese brush to accumulate four month’s worth of entangled strands of hair as a means to chronicle my adventure. Now this ordinary utilitarian object, once a memento of the efficiency of Tokyo, has become—with hairy mass intact—a keepsake of the gridded chaos of the great metropolis of New York.

Photo by Susan Merritt

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