Earthquake

by Helen

My last speech at Shadai, and the earthquake, March 11th, 2011.

I remember a line in a book by Amanda Cross, “we sat together on the couch and the earth moved”. I feel like that about the earthquake. I was overjoyed to see my former seminar students. I didn’t know they had been invited. My speech was the keynote speech for the international symposium. I forget the title now. I forget what I said. I know I spoke for about 45 minutes or so and the next speaker was from the Philippines. And then the room shook and swayed.

It went on for a long time – whole long minutes. Everyone stopped, heads up – animals scenting danger – and waited. Nothing was falling – in that lecture room there was nothing to fall – but who knows what was happening elsewhere. Cell phone snapped to the ready, a few minutes of confused buzzing and then the general movement to the door and down the stairs. Better to be outside. It’s a solid building but there are other floors above and who knows… I didn’t feel afraid.

I felt really responsible, drawing my students together to introduce them to younger and other students, checking in with the overseas visitors. The women from the Philippines were brave but clearly distraught – knowing move, maybe, about disaster. And then the feeling of swaying and rippling of the ground under me.

I remember feeling the need to fall on all fours and hang on to the earth, but kept moving from group to group talking, touching, reassuring. And felt a sharp spear in my belly, seeing the swaying of the trees. That felt like the end of the world. If the trees cannot stand with all of their roots spread out and holding each other under the earth, what are we to do? How can we stand?

Somehow agreement came about. Little groups of people stood clinging to each other, everyone with mobile phones and and calling. Are you alright? Are you alright? A call from my brother in Sydney – Rie had just seen the news. We all thought then that it was just Tokyo. I went to the rickety Korean restaurant to eat a meal with my former students, and there the TV was on.

Slowly we began to understand – feeling bewildered, shocked, stopped eating, gathered round, to come to the edge of this reality of total destruction. Towns, whole villages wiped out, swept away – no houses, no people, boats tossed up on top of tall buildings, trees ripped out and swept along. Many bodies.

Whole governments of towns and cities engulfed and washed away. All that night, Tokyo was full of people walking. The trains had all stopped, electricity was cut. Some company offices handed out blankets and food and bedded their staff down on the floors.

Yoko and I got home because the trains started running at around 10 pm. I opened the front door of the partment, but I couldn’t open any of the other doors. Everything was on the floor – broken glass, broken bottles, smashed dishes, mixed up with food from the fridge. The computer, the TV and all the books – everything –on the floor.

We worked all night and by morning it was possible to see the floor. And then we turned on the TV. One of the few times I really appreciated NHK. The gave the microphone to people and let them tell their story. No questions asked. I felt I had to watch and honour them. After three days, I turned off the TV. It was not possible any more to be with such heartbreak.

Tokyo was dark. People took comfort in each other. The best thing about that time was that Akimi and I were home all day together, for about ten days. Everything – lectures, graduation ceremonies, parties, trips – all cancelled. All the lights were out and the country mourned. But it got worse. Radiation. Every foreigner I knew in Japan was receiving calls – “Come home now, for God’s sake”.

My mother, suffering from vascular dementia, rang at 6 am every morning learning anew about the earthquake and desperate to hear that we were alright. Kasuga and Takako in the prefecture next to Tokyo didn’t feel much shaking. All the stations were dark and there was no news but this news which was not news but a litany of the dead and missing and mountains of rubble and plains swept bare of living things, towns gone.

Odd things, like the one single pine tree left standing, the only survivor of a whole forest stretching along the coast. I felt dizzy for weeks. The shaking went on. I couldn’t tell if the earth or the building or just me was shaking. And took great comfort in holding a cup, sitting at a table, having a bath, holding hands.

The city was very quiet for ten days or so – that huge metropolis. And the volunteers moved up north in jeeps, cars, buses, trucks, to dig and move mud, collect scraps of lives left in the mountains of rubble. Now, when I think of it, I think of Inoz and Asama in Niigat and their family in Khatmandu, skyping every day, finding everyone alive but sheltering in tents. The magnitude of the loss of lives, homes, community. So much loss, so much rebuilding.