She glanced at me as I sat down beside her in the train in the only available seat. Then quickly went back to her iPhone and then clicked it off. I saw out of the corner of my eye her head going forward, into the doze-off-mode, as many overworked people on Japanese trains do. But I had not read more than a page in my book before I felt her head lightly touching my shoulder. And then less lightly. And finally landing comfortably and decisively on my shoulder.
I suddenly felt the need not to move or adjust myself. Certainly, in her doze-off-mode, her head was thinking it was leaning against a soft and stable and reassuring pillow-something, that would not suddenly move and disrupt her doze. I glanced up from my book long enough to see two elderly women opposite me discretely smiling at her head on my shoulder and me trying my best not to move and disrupt her. My whole brain somehow seemed to focus on just my shoulder and the changing lightness and heaviness of her head as the train progressed, stopped, and started again and the announcer calling all the stops and connecting trainlines that were coming up.
My mind remembered many times when I had dozed off in trains and woken, to my surprise, leaning against someone or something I had not known was there (and, partially not knowing where I was). It happens often in Japan, especially because most people spend way too much time working and are sleep deprived. With the long hours of overwork, they treasure naps wherever they can find them. The young woman leaning on my shoulder needed rest and I was happy to be there for her in her time of need.
I was also aware of the women-only cars on some trains, so that women could travel without worrying about predatory, molesting men. I certainly did not want to bother the women in any way. So, holding my book with both hands was my focus. But honestly, I felt rather “motherly” by lending my shoulder to a weary child and it felt good.
After about 15 minutes of the leaning head, she popped up at a station and, without a word, exited the scene without a glance at me. Most children have no idea how much their parents have comforted, saved, and inspired them through millions of moments of care directed at well-becoming and well-being.
Or maybe I should expand that to teachers and the general community, and strangers, around all of us in which we daily benefit from their oversight. So, 10 to 15 minutes of a person’s head upon my shoulder and this anonymous woman taught me to believe in community care giving, not just for illness and need, but for creating more community (building brain hormones that stimulate good caring for all).
My Christmas and New Year’s wish for all of you is: may you be blessed with the opportunities to help others, even if it only requires a few minutes of stillness supporting a leaning head.
Tim Murphey is a part-time, semi-retired professor at the Research Institute of Learner Autonomy Education (RILAE) at Kanda University of International Studies and Wayo Women’s University Graduate School of Human Ecology. He also is an on-line collaborator at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University (Turkey) with their student mentorship program