22 March 2011

How 20,000 tragedies are single tragedies 20,000 times over

As the news about this earthquake seems to seep into the background behind the allies lobing $500,000 tomahawk missiles into Libya, it's been harder to be obsessed, or as obsessed as I was last week, with the earthquake coverage. I have been watching NHK World and the news magazine shows. What seems to be incredible about this whole thing is that all these communities were prepared for tsunamis, just not one (or several ones) as big as the ones that came. A professor from a university in Gunma who had helped a town prepare for tsunamis was on, discussing everything done to prepare, all the safe places they had identified and maps, etc. The safe houses throughout the city were all washed away and the people that survived were the ones that kept going past the safe houses. He was talking about the need for flexibility in times of crisis, but it was clear that it wore heavily on him: he was responsible for the safety of the town and he had failed.

Another story showed a woman looking for her husband in the shelters. She had received an e-mail from him right after the earthquake: he had gone to pick up their son at school and was gone now. At the shelters, she was looking through lists of names, but his name wasn't on any of the lists.

Another story: a man looking for his adult daughter, Miho. Because of the violence of the tsunami, many bodies recovered can't be easily identified. The man looked through descriptions of the bodies and found one that matched his daughter. The police brought him in to show him the body: it wasn't her and he kept searching.

And so it goes again and again, 20,000 times over.

As always, I was impressed by the austerity and courage, but I wondered what else they could do. Perhaps the context demands courage: you can't be anything but courageous. You can only cry so much, one man said: I can't cry any more.

There was also coverage of the financial situation, which in light of the human tragedy seems trivial, but is unfortunately not: the finances of the country were in bad enough shape already and the cost of rebuilding could have a serious negative effect. The good news is that every analyst they interviewed said the impact should be short term with recovery starting by the second half of 2011.

The day before the earthquake, I made a post about cellular memory and Japan. I meant by it my body experiencing something that reminded me of Japan, rather than a conscious thought--something embodied: a smell or a feeling. This morning, I sensed it again, as I rode my bike for the first time without gloves because it is warm enough now to ride without gloves. And that feeling, the freshness of March and my bare hands on the bike handlebars, felt the same as they did in March 2006.

That year, I had gotten two tickets while driving my tiny Nissan Alto and my scooter, both for very trivial offences that resulted from me doing the wrong thing at the absolute wrong time with a police officer watching. In Japan, after a third ticket of this same type, I would have had my license suspended for a time and needed to drive clean for a year to get back my record. So I stopped driving for a while and rode my bicycle instead. This was not that much of a sacrifice for me, except of time, especially as the weather was getting warm. I would ride my bike from Matsuhama where I lived to my school, about 10 kilometers away, but the ride was on the top of the Agano riverbank, a beautiful, mostly quiet road that passed the park where Yoko and I had kissed for the first time.

That feeling of my hands on the handlebars brought all this back in a rush, and I felt the desire to turn around, go back to the house and tell Yoko that we have to go home now: I don't know what I was thinking, what I'm trying to do here. Why wasn't I content with that. Here I am, trying so hard to be something else, something better than a guy riding his bike to a simple job, but why.

Of course, nothing goes back in the box once you take it out. Of course, you just have to keep going forward. Thinking about the past, what you could have done, is perhaps inevitable, but it isn't ultimately very useful except for helping you know better what it is you want. So, of course, I didn't turn back, rode my bike through the woods to school, the British spring now the memory I am building: my wife at the doorway wishing me a good day. Mei kissing me goodbye.

Perhaps I can't tie these two threads of thought together today: the woman searching for her husband and my bike ride on the river. Maybe they balance each other: intense joy and intense pain. Maybe they just are, as I keep saying. Our minds scramble to assemble meaning from all the bits of memory and experience that come up in the course of a day and maybe we're successful sometimes. Not today, though. Sometime in the future, when things settle down...