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one year ago

One year ago today, I was in my school gymnasium in my best suit and white tie. Graduation was almost over: the students had walked across stage to get their diplomas, speeches had been made, and about half of the people in the gym were teary-eyed. All that was left was the graduates’ song, and the whole school’s song, and the exit. The graduates had just taken their places on the risers at the foot of the stage, and the first- and second-year students and we teachers were standing in front of our chairs. To my left, the pianist’s hands poised over the keyboard. I felt a little wobbly. Another little earthquake like we had earlier this week, I thought, or am I just dizzy from standing too long and trying not to cry?
If you’ve never lived in an earthquake-prone area that question may sound strange to you. Earthquakes here happen a lot–my earthquake-warning app lists four in Japan today–and most of them are so small you don’t feel them at all. Even the slightly larger ones you can feel so slightly you might be imagining it, or it might be a truck going by, You look at things hanging from the ceiling, if you’re indoors, to check, or at liquids to look for the Jurassic Park T-rex ripple. The stage curtains in the gym have tassels on the bottom. They were shaking.
“Ah, an earthquake,” I thought.
I want you to understand that it was a casual thought. After the first one I felt, the first in Japan and in my life, earthquakes did not frighten me. They were a little exciting, a change in routine, a reminder of bigger things than whatever was occupying my attention before the quake started. Even the one earlier that week, one I would have called big before March 11, which sent the students under their desks behind me while I was writing on the board and trying to decide if I was lightheaded, didn’t scare me.
I must have been one of the first to notice, because it wasn’t until my eyes moved from the curtain tassels to the basketball backboard winched up above the graduates, just starting to sway, that I felt the stir of people around me. The students were probably the last to notice—already crying (or working very very hard at not crying), preparing to sing—it wasn’t until the audience started to gasp that I saw their eyes start to widen and dart around. The science teacher beside me, a little wild-eyed, quickly backed up against the wall behind us, nearly tripping over his chair on the way. The backboard was really swinging back and forth. I was standing under one too—more firmly attached to the ceiling, not the kind you can winch up out of the way—but I moved out from under it and stuck, mind swinging between the wall I knew I should stand against and the frozen graduates.
Someone had to get them to move, I knew, out from under that backboard and on top of those flimsy risers, but could I think of how to say that in Japanese well enough anyone would understand? Why weren’t any of the other teachers doing something? I thought. Didn’t they see that backboard? All I can do is wave my hands ineffectually.
Finally the students moved—on their own when they saw everyone ducking down with their hands on their heads, maybe, or in response to gestures more effective than mine. As they were coming down to huddle against the walls, a window at the back of the gym broke, and someone’s mother screamed. I walked over to the wall—walking was hard, like on a boat in a rough sea—and sat down when I couldn’t stand anymore.
Everything kept shaking. At some point the power went out, I think. It was out later.
The science teacher had his phone out. “Miyagi,” he said, and maybe some other words, but I heard “Miyagi” and thought how far away that was to still feel strong here. And everything kept shaking. For three or four minutes. For hours. Everything was shaking, and we were against the wall, and I was smiling, or trying to, to reassure the students crouched next to me, and some part of my mind was thinking, well, this is a graduation no one will ever forget, and everything kept shaking.

After—after the vice principal said something about this gym being an earthquake evacuation area anyway, and that no one here was hurt and we’d let them know about the rest of graduation some other time, and please be careful going home—things were normal. Oh, not normal normal. We had no power and so no heat, and later that day the water shut off, and the store shelves were empty of food and then the stores were closed. But only one building in the whole town fell down, and no one was killed, and if there were any injuries they weren’t bad enough to be reported. Life in my town was a little annoying for a while.
But less than a hundred miles away—two hours drive, once the roads were rebuilt–towns were gone, everything lower 40 meters (130 feet) above sea level gone. I went a couple times to Iwate and Miyagi to help clean up. I saw the cars thrown on roofs, boats speared into the second stories of buildings blocks away from the sea. I picked up photos and keepsakes from the flattened remains of houses, shoveled the seabottom muck the tsunami brought miles inland. One couple, who drove volunteers around and gave us a place to wash and eat, was living on a hill about twenty meters above the tsunami line. They’d had another house down below it. They’d had to rebuild it once before because of an earthquake. Now they had a flat plot of mud and rubble. They weren’t going to rebuild it this time. I met a lot of people, people from all over Japan who came to help, and the people they were helping. I talked to the helpers a lot—they were fascinated that foreigners were there—but not to the area residents. I didn’t try to, maybe tried not to. There were 19,000 people dead or missing (and everyone knew missing mostly meant dead), and I think didn’t want to talk too much to anyone who’d known them in case it made that too real for me to handle.
That was cowardly, probably, and weak, but even a year later I can’t quite do this. This is hard to write. I’m pausing and blinking a lot, getting up and walking for a bit, trying to get enough distance to get it down. I don’t think I’ll be able to get far enough away to edit it even though it’s getting long.
I realize now I’ve been separating my minor earthquake experience huddled together with my friends from the big Earthquake that happened nearby. That way, the big one isn’t really real, isn’t connected to my experience. That way, I don’t need to feel guilty that I was worried about whether my phone battery would hold out long enough to watch the news while people huddled in shelters worried about whether their parents and children were still alive. I’d been to some of those towns before. I’d probably seen some of those 19,000 people, talked to them briefly, bought something from them. More important people cleared the bodies out of the area before we were allowed in to help. When I was picking up photos and things (an old toy, most of a bead necklace, a gold bar) in the cleanup areas, I told myself how it would make their owners feel better to have at least that much back. I didn’t tell myself that maybe some of those owners would never feel anything again.

There are two things I remember most vividly. One is how long it went on, how long I sat there and waited for the basketball backboard to fall, because that length of time is the only way I can even begin to feel how big this thing was.
When I saw the students ducking under the desks a few days before, I walked over to stand in the doorway, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I didn’t hurry, Because, look, these things—the earth, the ocean—these things are too large and powerful to be threatening, because we are so small beside them their true nature is incomprehensible. They’re so many orders of magnitude larger than you and almost everything you think about that they seem almost irrelevant to your existence. Irrelevant until the unexpected moment their incomprehensible size and power becomes the most relevant thing ever, until they start to behave unexpectedly. Then, it feels as though someone has rewritten the laws of the universe while you weren’t looking, so that you wouldn’t be much more surprised, really, if the trees nearby uprooted themselves and started walking around.
Maybe less; trees are small enough to understand, but the earth? Sure, the earth wiggles sometimes. But an actual earthquake? Where everything shakes so hard and fast the ground—asphalt–turns to liquid and you can see, after, cars that sank into it before it resolidified? A tsunami large enough to throw fishing ships up over a 30-foot wall and strand them halfway up a hill on the other side, to drag whole buildings out into the sea? An earthquake large enough to make a half million people homeless, kill 19,000? To move an island the size of California eight feet across the earth’s crust? That doesn’t happen. That can’t happen.
But it did happen. I was there, worrying a basketball backboard would crush my students. I was there, trying to make the candles last without knowing when power would be back and waiting in lines for water and to buy food. I was there, walking on the layer of ocean bottom the tsunami left behind in the prefecture next door, helping pick up the rubble that was all that was left in parts of Miyako and Kesenuma. I was there, but I still can’t really believe it, just like some part of me refuses, probably always will refuse, to believe my father is dead even after having scattered his ashes.

The other memory that sticks out to tell you about is buying instant ramen and energy bars from a man sitting in the doorway of a darkened store with a pocket calculator and a cash tray.
In any country other than Japan, it would have been more than 19,000 people. The building codes here are some of the strictest in the world as far as earthquakes go. And the mountainous nature of the land means that far more was above the level of tsunami damage than would be true in many places. And in areas where the stores were still standing, retail employees went to work the next day, even the same day, because they knew people needed them. I didn’t say thank you enough. Stores with no power had an employee out front with a list of stock, and another employee inside with a flashlight to get what the customer asked for. They did not charge anything beyond regular prices. In most other countries, too—certainly in the U.S.—people would have been stockpiling every food item they could find. Here, people took the amount of food they needed and left the rest for others. There was no looting. The organized crime groups drove trucks of relief supplies to damaged areas and dropped them off. The government was a paternalistic, meddling problem-causer, but the government is not the people. Almost everything about the way the Japanese people dealt with the immediate aftermath of the earthquake was a model of how dealing with adversity can elevate humanity.

Maybe this is the only way we can answer the immensity of an earthquake: my students, gathering around the kids who were most afraid, pushing down their own fear to comfort their classmates, spontaneous charity collections, food and blanket drives at hip-hop clubs, people from across the country riding through the night on buses to help clean up, doctors and emergency workers from across the world on planes within hours, old men with wheelbarrows carrying drinking water to those who can’t make it across town in the snow, people ignoring their troubles and fears to help how they can. I don’t know if it’s an answer, but it’s something.

Filed by shaun at March 11th, 2012 under indifferenthonest

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