Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, March 28, 2011

On Watching Japan

An astonishingly short piece. Written, as usual to save own life, but in this instance I have help.

On the way to visiting my family in Thailand, I often travel on Japan Airlines and stop at Narita airport. Thus Japan is a part of going home for me. In studying Asian culture and modern development, I have read much about life in Japan so felt a kinship with her people. I had respect for their education system, public healthcare system (the best in the world) and the high quality of public transportation was enviable. So to watch such organization and well thought out systems turn to piles of splinters filled me with compassion. Astonishing really to see such an exemplary example of modern living so easily destroyed. Yet how familiar it was to the precariousness of my home in earthquake country here in the Bay Area.

Natural disasters will strike. We know that. We also know that the human population is such that we are densely packed everywhere especially in coastal regions. We know that these densely packed regions are built to resist nature not flow with it, but there is only so much resistance we can build into concrete structures. When natural forces overcome them, the washing away of entire cities has the haunting inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Add to that the even greater hubris of nuclear power plants sitting on unstable fault lines and it is all too clear what a folly our manmade systems are. Thus I felt that Japan was bearing such suffering for all of us really.

When the shelter in place orders were given for those within 20 miles of the broken nuclear power plant, I felt trapped. Looking around the house I wondered if we would have enough food for the length of time it was going to take for the Japanese people to weather this ordeal. Would they have clean water? Clean food? Not likely. What was this karma Japan had with radiation? I felt this power plant disaster would render the country a closed nation. We would want nothing to do with Japan if that would keep the disaster from affecting our lives. These thoughts haunted me for days.

I searched the faces of others in my day to day travels looking for the shell shocked gravity I felt at this folding up of a country. I couldn't quite trust myself not to break into a rant at the slightest opening, with clients, with other Asian faces. I tried to hold the story lightly, but it only made me feel more isolated. At home my partner and brother-in-law, tuned into CNN kept me updated with breaking news. I joined them sparingly subjecting myself to the fever of impending nuclear meltdown. Where was the transformation in this story? Would this just be another terror of the week and then we go back to what we were doing?

Nearly a week after the tsunami, a contact passed along a letter from an American woman in Sendai describing how the people were coping. It was such a beautiful picture of cooperation and neighborly kindness that I took to heart this little bit of humanity in the face of such overwhelming devastation. The writer reported all the things people were doing to make sure everyone had food and water; how she found food left on her doorstep when she came home; how men in green caps walked around checking that everyone was safe; how people said this was just like the old days when everyone helped each other.

That Japan was still able to remember its humanity and the old way of doing things comforted me greatly. In a BBC account of old people sheltering in a school where there were inadequate supplies, an elderly man said "We're okay. We sit together and talk or read. Everyone has the same as everyone else now. Nothing." I was very moved by those sentiments.

The American woman's letter soon popped up elsewhere, on Facebook, passed along in e-mails and now Ode magazine hosts her ongoing letters on their blog, so much do her accounts help to heal the overwhelm. (Look for her name in the byline: Anne Thomas.) She spoke so directly and so articulately to my search for transformation that I offer her words, from the closing paragraph of her first letter, rather than paraphrase her:

"Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that is much larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent."

How amazing that she spoke of a Cosmic shift, a worldwide birthing. I knew nothing about this woman, why she was living in Japan, what her life was about, yet she seemed to have tapped into exactly the same vein of thought that I had just discovered using almost the same words. And she was describing her days with such a vulnerability and simple power, that I found not only her words to be a balm and a comfort, but the very idea of words themselves to be a comfort. Here just one woman offering her own experience and observation was enough to bring comfort to so many; it poured into me an intense appreciation for the power of words.

I went about my day looking for places where I could work similar magic with words—to comfort a friend who was having a hard time, or to further a message of compassion, humor or mutual experience. This woman who had become an accidental writer for so many, filling in a needed void, had made my own meandering writer's life meaningful, had reminded me that the observations of one person could be just exactly the medicine the world was looking for. And, that what we did mattered, whether in the simple kindnesses of the events she described or the witnessing and reporting of it.

I took comfort in this cosmic evolution of one corner of the world. When I woke from sleeping, even if just a nap, I felt such a sweetness at still being alive and safe that every day became a gift.

Then I went out to buy cans of food to stock our emergency supplies box.

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