Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In my dreams

Since I returned home over a week ago I have dreamt about Iwate every night.  My dreams are vivid, bordering on disturbing.  I see the houses I left behind.  The people I worked with show up and speak to me.  Is this me decompressing? 

I expected decompression to involve tears.  To date, there have been no bouts of crying, no breakdowns in public, no outbursts of emotion.  My dreams, however, wake me up at night.  My sleep is not restful.  I don't always remember the dreams in the morning but I know what they were about.

Last night's dream is still on my mind.  I was riding in a taxi down a road where we worked on multiple homes.  To the left is the M household where we tore out drywall.  I see the inside of the house through the windows.  It's dark outside but the house is lit up.  I see flags hanging in colors of rich, dark purple and scarlet.  The taxi driver slows down to look at the homes.  I see his face.  I watch him looking at the houses on both sides of the street.  I know he's about to cry but I don't know what to say to him.  I don't like where the dream is going and I wake myself up.

Clearly, Iwate is nowhere close to being out of my system.  If this is what it takes for me to process what I saw and felt then so be it.  Bring it on.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Synchronicity and the Five Yen Piece

I'm just a bit proud of myself.  After my rant yesterday about not having words to adequately express what I experienced in Japan over the past seven weeks, I have made a break through.  I have found suitable equivalents to two words that have played a key role to my time in Japan.

Synchronicity.  Call it what you will:  God's will, luck, fate, miracles, angel kisses, coincidence.  I believe in it.  It's real.  It exists.  Synchronicity is in the moments where logic defies reason.  Things happen that shouldn't.  There is beauty in this.  It's a most perfect combination of peace and fun. 

Go-en.  Or, more simply, en.  I'm allowing myself to translate this as synchronicity.  The more literal dictionary translation is luck.  It's far more complex though.  It's deeper than just plain luck.  Go-en is luck with a reason.  Go-en is fate as a gift.  It's meant to be a blessing to the receiver. 

I heard and used the words synchronicity and go-en repeatedly in Japan.  It's as if through the earthquake and tsunami and the catastrophic devastation they caused also bestowed the grace and gift of luck, fate, and coincidence to those who were willing to receive it.  Time after time things happened that shouldn't have.  Good things.  I have story after story of how this happened. 

I like the idea of being receptive to the unknown.  I like embracing the indescribable tidbits of fortune that I encountered.  I took every opportunity to use the words synchronicity and go-en.  The idea, meaning and definition behind these words make sense in both languages.  People get this.  Synchronicity and go-en make people smile.

The question inevitably comes up. 
"Do you know what go-en means?"  This is always asked with a grin, a raised eyebrow, and a sneaky look. 
"I do," I always replied and smiled.  I then dug into my backpack, pulled out my wallet and showed them the five yen piece I have stored away in a small and special compartment.
"Good," was usually their answer, content I had the proper appreciation for fate by carrying around the one coin that symbolized, literally and figuratively, go-en.

Go-en also means "five yen" in Japanese.  It's a homonym for "luck" or in my case, synchronicity.  It's a good idea to carry around the coin that symbolizes synchronicity.  That I knew this and respected the language and meaning behind go-en means I passed this test.  That I carry around a special five yen piece is even better.

Synchronicity and go-en.  Synchronicity and the five yen piece.  These are now a few of my favorite things.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The missing piece

I'm home.  I'm the safest I've been in seven weeks.  I'm sleeping in my own bed.  I've kissed my husband.  I've hugged my son.  My life is supposed to be normal again.  I'm supposed to be myself again.  All this should lead to clarity, peace of mind, relaxation and more than anything, finding my voice.  Now that I'm home the inability I struggled with--the lack of words, the vocabulary I needed to describe what I felt and saw that I could never seem to find--this was supposed to reappear.  I was supposed to be able to write and share this.  I'm safe, after all.  This is where it was all supposed to come together.  To date, none of this is happening.  Words still escape me.  I've got nothing.  Nada.  Nothing.  I'm blank.  I'm not sure I have ever been this frustrated with myself for the same reason for this long of a time.

Picture this.  You're a chef.  You love to make risotto.  You've made it over and over throughout your career.  You know exactly how to make it.  People say it's good risotto.  You're in your kitchen with all of your chef tools and the ingredients to make risotto and you suddenly can't remember how to make it anymore.  You know the recipe is somewhere in your mind.  You struggle to bring it to the surface and it stays buried.  Nothing you do can make you remember.

You're a violinist.  You take your violin and place it under your chin.  You've done this a million times.  You bring your bow up and freeze.  You've forgotten how to play. 

You're a surgeon.  You've performed open heart surgery hundreds of times throughout your career.  You know exactly what to do.  You stand in front of your patient, all of your surgical tools right next to you and your skills escape you.  You no longer remember what to do.

You're an artist.  You go to paint and suddenly the oils, brushes, and canvas in front of you mean nothing.  You can't conjure up anything.  You feel artistically mute.

Coming home was supposed to mean I would find my words again.  I would rediscover my vocabulary and everything that was in me for seven weeks was supposed to pour out.  It's not.  I don't understand this.  It is the most profoundly frustrating experience I can remember having.  It feels unreal.  I don't feel like myself.

I'm staring at puzzle pieces.  They're all in front of me.  Nothing is missing except my ability to put them together.  The missing piece is what?  My ability to form words that give justice to what I saw.  What does this mean?  Linguistic amnesia makes me feel stupid and useless.  This too shall pass?  Someone please tell me it will.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, dear Seiji

Seiji was at the same party where I committed the gaffe over the Tohoku dialect.  As one of the two youngest people there, he was in charge of the alcohol.  The pouring of it, that is.  Between the two young men, the party attendees were kept pretty happy.

I first met Seiji at the base where I stayed in Ofunato.  The building was also a drop-off point for relief supplies.  Trucks would come several times a week and the crew of young volunteers would unload the boxes of supplies and run them up the stairs to the front office.  The day I met him, the person running the office told me Seiji lost his mother in the tsunami.  She worked at the hospital in Rikuzentakata.  Since that day I would often sneak a glance at Seiji wondering how he was holding up.  What was his life like at home?  Did he have family?  Did he cry when he was alone?  Was he sleeping at night?

Back at the party, between shots of sake, shochu and bottles of beer, one of the party-goers leans over to me and said in an attempted whisper, "it's Seiji's birthday today."  Drunk men don't whisper very well.  Soon, people around the table were slapping Seiji on the back, offering him drinks, shouting "sit down, sit down!" as they made their way towards getting this young man as drunk as they were.

The party host looked at me through the commotion and said so very slyly, "you know, someone should sing him happy birthday," and next thing I knew all eyes were on me.

"Me?" I said.
"'Me?'" they mocked.  "Yes, you.  Of course you.  Do your Marilyn routine!"

Marilyn routine?!  What Marilyn routine?  Do all white women channel Marilyn Monroe?  I'm flattered and offended at the same time.

"Wait a minute," I stall.  "Do I look like Marilyn?"  They laugh.
"No, but I bet you can sing like her," one drunk man says and more people laugh.
"Oh, come on," I stall again.  Then it comes.
"Liza Minnelli!" another drunk man says and the laughter turns into howling.

Let me explain.  I most definitely do not look like Marilyn Monroe.  I do, however, look a lot like Liza Minnelli.  My short black hair, more often spiky than not, my nose (resembling Liza's more than I'm comfortable with) and my trademark eyeliner and lipstick has gotten me more comments about being a Liza Minnelli look-alike than I care to admit.  Now that the comparison is out there, what am I supposed to do?  Offer a rendition of "Happy Birthday" that sounds like "New York, New York"?  I attempt to stall some more.  Then I see Seiji looking at me.  I know right then I can't bow out of this.  I won't.

"Fine," I say, and grin.  "You want Happy Birthday?  I'll give you Happy Birthday."  Everyone claps and I silently curse.  Crap.  Crap, crap, crap.  I hate karaoke.  Singing in public for me is up there with going to the dentist.  I most definitely do not do solos.  That's the equivalent of a root canal.  To say I feel cornered doesn't begin to describe what I'm feeling.  Then I look at Seiji again.  I look at his father whom I'm introduced to for the first time tonight.  These men must be in incredible pain.  I have to do this.  I can.  I will.  I take a deep breath.  I know I'm being watched.

"Okay," I say.  "But, not Marilyn.  Okay?"
I hear some catcalls followed by several "Ooo-kaaay!"s and I begin.  It's a good thing I can sing.  It's a good thing I can carry a tune.  I sing Happy Birthday to Seiji who looks embarrassed.  I get all the way through and everyone hollers, claps, whistles, and pounds the table.  Seiji and I look at each other.  I smile.  He smiles back.  This man is young enough to be my son.  (So much nicer than saying I'm old enough to be his mother, don't you think?)  I silently hope this makes him happy and that this is a memory he'll take with him.  Tonight he was the center of attention not as the young man who lost his mother but as the man who has a future ahead of him.  Happy Birthday, Seiji.  May there be many more.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Where Iwate Meets Massachusetts

Being my harshest critic and operating with exceptional high standards for myself (sometimes ones I can't possibly live up to) I have tried not to beat myself up in asking how useful I was over the past seven weeks.  If I didn't make a difference at all, the entire trip was for naught.  I can't live with this.  In order to let myself believe I didn't waste seven weeks of my life, in my own way and using my own definitions, I let myself believe I did make a difference.  I allow myself to believe I was useful.

But, let's get real.  How was I useful?  For whom?  And, how do I know I was actually helpful?  Those are questions I can't answer.  Perhaps I will never know.  Then comes synchronicity.  It hits me.  I receive a glimpse of the possibility I did actually do something.  This came one night as someone read the poem Amenimo makezu, Kazenimo makezu by Miyazawa Kenji.  The synchronicity I encountered in Japan, over and over and over again blessed me this night as well.  Hearing this poem brought it full circle.  Let me explain.

This poem by Miyazawa was found posthumously in a notebook of his.  It's beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity.  Miyazawa died young at 37.  He was one of my favorite poets/writers in my childhood.  The poem which I loosely translate "be not defeated by rain nor wind" always makes me cry.  I wish I could write like this.  When this poem by Miyazawa, some might say what he is most famous for, was read as a going-away gift I learned for the first time he was from Iwate.  I lost it.  Of course he would be from Iwate.   More synchronicity.

I have favorite lines from within the poem.  Realizing certain stanzas speak to me more than others, it brought me back to the collection of writings I have selected over the years.  I have gathered many of these tidbits into a notebook.  In this notebook is the poem Success incorrectly (evidently) attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I have favorite lines within Emerson's poem as well.  It was this juxtaposition of my favorite parts of two poems written by two men, one from Iwate and the other from Massachusetts (my two adopted homes), both of whom found the words to express their beliefs simply and yet so beautifully--this was how I could define how useful I had been in Japan.

So, with my offerings of profound respect to Miyazawa Kenji and whoever wrote Success and with sincere gratitude, please allow me to borrow from both to create a lyrical offering to myself on how I want to live my life.

Be not defeated neither by rain nor by wind
To laugh often and much
To win the affection of children
If there is a tired mother to the east
I will go there and shoulder her sheaf of rice
If there is someone near death to the south
I will go there and say 'there's no need to be afraid'
If there is a quarrel to the north
I will go and tell them to stop being petty
To know even one life has breathed easier because I have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
This is the person I want to become.

This is my new mantra, a gift I didn't expect to find in going to Japan.  This, I can do.  This, I hope I have done.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Tohoku accent

I was warned about the Tohoku accent.  "You won't understand them," some said.  "It sounds like a foreign language," said others.  Bah.  It can't be that bad, right?  Japanese is Japanese.  The cocky linguist in me poo-pooed these warnings. 

Then it hits me.  The first day in Ofunato as I listened to people in a shelter share their stories I found myself listening and then listening harder.  I don't understand a lot of what I'm hearing.  Can this be happening?  The cocky me, the me that thought I could handle a slightly different accent is humbled from day one.  The accent here is that different. 

The longer I spent in Ofunato and Rikuzentakata the more I got used to it.  I came to the point I could understand what I was hearing.  I'm still having to listen and listen hard but I get it.  The cockiness returns.  I think to myself, "See.  It's not that bad."

Then it happened.  I am knocked down off my pedestal.  In public.  In front of others.  I made a total fool out of myself. 

I'm at a make-shift party.  I've been here six weeks and I share with those around me I will be leaving soon.

"I'm going to Tokyo first," I say.  "I need some time to myself."  They all nod.  They all know I'm a city girl and that living without hot water or a bath has been tough for me.  Then I get the question that erased all cockiness in me.
"Are you going to Izu?"  I pause.  Izu?  Izu is a peninsula southwest of Tokyo.  It's a resort area.  Do they think I'm going to Izu to relax?  I just said I'm going to Tokyo.  I'm confused.
"No, I'm not," I say back.  Now it's their turn to look confused.  Everyone looks at me.  I panic.  What did I say?  Is it an insult not to go to Izu?
"But you're leaving, right?" I'm asked again.  I'm confused again.
"Yes, I'm going."
"Are you going to Izu?"  Now I'm annoyed.  No, I am most definitely not going to Izu.  Why do they keep asking this?

Then a young woman sitting across from me bursts out laughing.
"Not, Izu," she says.  "Itsu.  Not I-zu."
I turn beat red.  I get it.  The dreaded Tohoku accent I was so sure I understood just turned me into a dufus.

Let me explain.  Itsu in Japanese is "when" and Izu is "Izu"--the resort area outside Tokyo.  The man asking the question said in Japanese, "Izu ikundesuka?" which translates into "Are you going to Izu?"  In the Tohoku dialect, "itsu" (when) sounds like "izu" meaning he was asking when I was leaving and not whether or not I was going to Izu.

I laugh.  So does everyone else.  I throw away all humility and say "your Tohoku accent is so hard to understand!" which they take as a compliment and laugh with me.  No.  Not with.  I'm being laughed at but this time around the joke is on me.  Laugh at me all you will.  I deserve that one.

Clarity and Confusion

Grandmother lives in the shelter I pop in and out of.  She's a bit confused.  Sometimes she doesn't know where she is and wanders around looking for her daughter.  Then there are moments where she is incredibly clear.  This is a story about both.

I'm at the shelter, having spent the morning volunteering to clean.  There are over 70 people here and the volunteer group I'm with sends people in to help with the cleaning and cooking from time to time.  On this particular day, I raised my hand to clean.  (That this is a minor miracle will be kept for another day.  The short version is, I'm not known for my cleaning skills.)

But I digress.....

The cleaning is done for the day and the volunteer shuttle bus is waiting outside to take me back to the base in town.  Grandmother is wandering around outside, confused as to the whereabouts of her daughter who is to take her to her doctor's appointment.  She comes up to the shuttle driver and asks for a ride into town to the taxi stand.  The shuttle driver asks me if this is okay.  Of course it is.

Grandmother has short hair, some completely white mixed with strands of jet-black dyed hair.  I like it that she still wants to color her hair.  Something about it makes me smile.  She tries to climb into the bus, up two big steps.  The driver and I say together, "careful!" as she starts to topple backwards.  I catch her and push her back in all the way and seat myself behind her.

She starts chatting right away.  "My daughter is good for nothing.  She's always disappearing.  I don't know what to do with her.  She was supposed to be here."  The driver, definitely young enough to be her son chimes in saying, "I'm sure she means well, mother."

"Ha.  You clearly like women!"
"Well now, that's not what I meant."
"That's okay.  You're a good boy."
"Thank you."

And then it begins.  Grandmother is now very, very clear.

"You know, when the tsunami came I ran out of my house with nothing."
The driver turns around.  "Really?"
"Really.  All my neighbors who went back to get their bank books and cash died."
I look up.  This conversation doesn't involve me, but I'm listening, of course.  Grandmother continues.
"I don't need money.  Or my bank book, for that matter.  I just want to live.  I'll figure things out.  I've got time."
"You're lucky, mother," the shuttle driver says.
"I'm smart," she snaps back and I grin.  I love this woman.

"You're taking me to the doctor, right?"  She's confused again.  Just like that.
The driver looks at me.
"Mother," I say.  "Did you want a ride to the taxi stand?"
"Right, right," and she nods.  "Take me to the taxi stand.  I know how to get to the doctor's from there."

We pull up to the taxi stand and I get up to help her out.
"How much?" she says.
"No, no, mother," I respond.  "It's alright.  We were coming this way, too."
"Oh, you're cute," she says to me.  I blush.  I actually blush.  I'm mortified.  When's the last time I blushed?!  Then I blush again because I'm embarrassed that I'm embarrassed.
"Are you okay from here?" I ask.
"Of course!"
Of course she is.

She is clear enough to say she was the smarter one for staying alive.  In the same breath she loses track of where she is.  This flip-flopping between confusion and clarity must be exhausting.  I admire her spunk and sharp tongue.  I respect her resolve.  I also wish she were mentally present longer to tell me more stories.  She is exactly the kind of woman I would love to listen to for hours.  For this, I'm happy to have had this ten minute ride and saddened by the fact I will likely not have another.  Live on, grandmother.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How yellow is yellow?

Yellow is not one of my favorite colors.  It's partly vanity.  I can't wear it.  It doesn't match my olive skin.  It's partly that it's too yellow.  This made sense to me when I heard a story once about a man who was born sightless asked people to describe colors.  When he had surgery to restore his eyesight he is said to say, "yellow is really very yellow."  This makes sense to me.  Yellow is really very yellow.

When spring came to Ofunato and Rikuzentakata I felt I was being bombarded by yellow.  Daffodils, tulips, freesia are all yellow.  Then come the dandelions.  I don't know what it is about these flowers and the yellowness of them--it bothered me.  I recognize part of my frustration at the color yellow was the fact nature seemed to resurrect itself in the midst of chaos and devastation.  This seemed too unfair.  The other part of my frustration was how vibrant all this yellowness was.  I can't explain this.  I felt bombarded by yellow that was very yellow and very real.

I was walking down a sidewalk on the way to visit someone when I walked past this.  These two dandelions were growing out of the wall of a drainage pit.  One of the flowers reached up through the metal mesh grill.  Of course, being dandelions, they are yellow.  Very yellow.  Of course.  Everything that's yellow is very yellow.

This kind of yellow, this kind of "flower" (a weed, really) I like.  The ability of this dandelion plant to grow out of a concrete wall from a drainage system--this personifies the unstoppable ability of nature to come back with resolve and stubbornness.  This, I like.  This kind of yellow is good.

I'm not sure this makes a lot of sense.  Having had difficulty expressing myself over the past six weeks I'm grasping at metaphors and symbolism in ways I never have before and perhaps this is all a bit odd to you.  It does make sense to me.  I want to be like the dandelion that pops out of places nature isn't supposed to be.  If I have to wear yellow to do this, bring it on.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Unsung Heroes: Part 1

There has been a lot of talk about the Japanese sense of resolve, patience and the country's willingness to pull together for assistance. This is all true. Today I want to write about the huge number of people who work behind the scenes who might not be known to the media and thus the public. These are real people, many of whom I know personally and others whom I see only in passing. The group I will highlight today is the latter. More specifically, today I want to talk about two groups of people: cops and the SDF guys.

Simply put, the cops are everywhere. They direct traffic when the power outages kill the traffic lights, they block traffic through the roads where rubble removal is taking place, they do general patrol and they look for bodies. They're there to be of assistance however they're needed. These cops are from all over the country. I've seen cops from Hokkaido, Fukui, Tochigi, Osaka, Kyoto, and beyond. Just to be clear, these cops have come from all over Japan. They stay where they're told to stay until they're called back home. They leave families behind, too. They've been on the ground from shortly after the earthquake. They've seen some pretty horrific things.

Same with the SDF guys. SDF stands for Self Defence Force which is Japan's version of the military. It's not a military because Japan is not allowed to have a military (read World War II history) but it's similar. These guys have also been around from day one, leaving behind families and doing work that much of the public couldn't handle. They also deliver food to the shelters. We see convoys of their trucks all over and they all, every single one, says "disaster relief" which brings me to my last point. It's kind of odd looking at a Humvee that's camoflouged that says "disaster relic" on it. Anyway....

There has been some press recently about how tired these cops and SDF guys are. The same press coverage mentioned high rates of PTSD among these same men. This is not fun work. It's work that gets very little thanks. For that and more, I'm grateful for men who drop everything to come do some of the hardest work out there. In particular, the respect they have for the bodies they find is truly something to behold. My hat goes off to them with deep gratitude.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Karma and the Number 3

Please excuse me. I've taken some time off for myself and have been absent. I've given myself some time to recover and relax.  I needed this.  Feeling more like myself again, I now have more to say. More than ever, perhaps. It's with this in mind that I say today's post will be long. It's also important.

May 8th marked the anniversary of the 41st birthday of a woman I never met. It also marked the 5th anniversary, if I can call it that, of her murder. I worked with her family for years as their interpreter as they struggled through the US justice system that found and imprisoned the man that murdered their daughter, niece, cousin and friend. To date, it is still one of the most difficult assignments I've ever worked on.  To date, the family still grieves.

As May 8th neared I thought more and more about this woman. What would she be like if she were still alive? What would she be doing? All this was brought full circle as I stood and listened to a mother talk about the work she needed done on her house.

This elderly woman was at home drying her hair when her husband called out to her that he saw black water in front of their home. By then the earthquake had shaken their home but as they were both safe, she went on with her day. They live far enough inland, several kilometers from the Port of Ofunato, that they were among the many who never expected a tsunami to ever come to their neighborhood, street, yard and home.

She ran into the room where her husband lay. He no longer has use of his legs so she propped him up the best she could and ran out of the house, away from the street towards the back of their home thinking she would drive them to safety. Outside she saw two neighbors and they helped her get her husband into the car. They too jumped in. Then they saw the second wave. Their homes are 20 meters away from the river bank.  The river runs a good 10 plus meters below the bank.  The tsunami pushed up the river several kilometers inland and overflowed down the bank and onto the street.  The four people in the car now had two waves to escape from.  One wave was in front of their home, and the overflow from the other direction.   The two waves collided and all four were soon engulfed in water as they sat in the car.  Their car wouldn't start.  Other cars nearby without occupants began to float away.  The weight of the four in the elder couple's car kept their car in place.  They sat there as the car filled with water.

After 30 minutes or so, the waves started to recede.  Once the water went down from the floorboard, the elderly woman (whom I keep calling "mother") started the car and drove to high ground.  I listen to this thinking how lucky she, her husband and her two neighbors are.  Then came the real story.

"We just spent two million yen on this house," she says.
"Oh, really?  What did you have done?" I ask, thinking the question is innocent enough to be safe as well as respectfully curious.
"We used to have two stories," mother replies.  My gut tells me I have just made a huge error in asking for details.
"We had a fire last August," she continues and chokes up.  I curse to myself.
"Our daughter committed suicide and the upstairs caught fire."  She's openly crying now.  I am silently verbally berating myself every way I know how.
"I'm so sorry," I whisper.
"We spent another one million yen on her funeral."  Of course they did.
"I was so looking forward to spring," she says.  Of course she was.  Her daughter's suicide, the long winter and the spring that follows.  Who woulnd't look forward to new buds and rebirth?
"And then this.  I just don't believe it."  She cries again.

It's at this point I'm reminded of two things simultaneously.  One is a Japanese saying "What happens twice, happens three time."  I equate it to the saying I've heard in the US, "things happen in threes."  There's also another Japanese saying which literally translated goes "the third time makes you honest" which I equate to "third time's a charm."

I'm standing in front of mother looking for the right words.  The idea of good and bad happening in threes is tempting to say but one misstep and I could end up implying there's another hardship yet to come.

While I'm trying to think of what to say I'm reminded of something this woman's father (the one who was murdered) said to me once.  One night when he had enjoyed his beer, he told me his life story.  The short version is, it wasn't pretty.  That life dealt him a continual series of blows and nasty surprises is simply insulting in how it understates the facts.  As I listen to mother tell me about her life over the past 50 days, moving from shelter to shelter, cleaning things on her own, her aching back, I hear the voice of the father who buried his daughter over and over in my head.

"My ancestors must have done something pretty awful for me to have this kind of a life," he said to me. That night as he drank he repeated those words over and over, sometimes blaming his ancestors, sometimes hoping his life's difficulties were atonement enough.  Does mother, this woman here telling me about the two waves colliding into her car, who also buried her daughter, who rebuilt her home only to have it damaged again seven months later, does she believe she's atoning for her ancestors' sins, too?

This day, hearing this story from mother, I cried with her.  Enough with keeping up my professional facade.  I cried for mother standing in front of me.  I cried for her daughter who took her own life.  I cried for the woman I never met who was murdered.   I cried for her father.  I cried for those who are trapped by karma.  I cried over stupid Japanese and English sayings about the "power of three", none of which were helpful in alleviating mother's pain.  I cried for the fact I simply can no longer seem to find the right words when they are most needed.  I can only sincerely hope my tears with mother that day were enough to convey how very, very, very  sorry I am for what she had to endure.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Your husband is a brave man."

Last night I was invited to the city council official's home for a cookout.  I was the token gaijin (foreigner) invited because I can represent the volunteer group here in Ofunato and Rikuzentakata and because I speak Japanese.  People kept coming and going all evening and between the food and liquor, everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves in true Japanese style.  I was asked questions about the group, my life back home, my company and family.  When I pulled out my phone and showed photos of my husband and son, people gathered around practically gawking.  Then the questions started.

"How does your husband feel about you being here?"
"Your son has long hair!"
Young women asked if my son was seeing anyone saying, "he's so handsome!"  I smiled and said I'm proud to be his mother.

The questions inevitably reverted back to my husband's comfort level with "letting you go" and in general, his comfort level knowing I was away for such a long time and in a volatile earthquake/tsunami/nuclear zone.  I said things like "he's very supportive" and "he's used to me being away" and "he's a good man" and "I'm really lucky" and yet the questions didn't stop.  The general consensus seemed to be a lack of understanding of how a man would let his wife "disappear" for such a long time especially into a potentially dangerous area.  Finally, one man, slightly drunk blurted out "how does he really feel about you being here?  I'd never let my wife do that."  I paused.  I have to answer appropriately.  At the risk of stating a gross generalization there's a significant amount of truth to the fact Japanese men would not let their wives take off for two months into an area that has known dangers.  I had to give my husband credit without making him sound like a demigod. 

"He's a good man," I said.  "He said he would let me go to Japan on one condition.  I had to go home."  With no breaks or pauses, everyone around the table started to talk at once.

"I thought so."
"I knew it."
"That makes sense."
"He put his foot down."
"Of course he'd say 'you have to come home'."

After this collective talking-over-each-other had died down, one man with a beer in his hand piped up and said what seemed to be on everyone's mind. "Your husband is a brave man." 

"Yes, he is," I said.  "I'm lucky to have such a man for a husband."  People nodded, sipped their drinks and we moved on to the next subject content to know I have the proper appreciation for my husband.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"I knew this would happen."

Walking to an older woman's house today to schedule a date on when to begin working on her home (no land line, no cell phone) I was on one of my three cell phones and not really paying attention to my surroundings.  I'm walking and talking and next thing I know a car pulls up beside me and a man gets out.  I don't pay much attention except to notice soon after, I'm being followed.  I keep walking, stopping here and there a few minutes at a time, and then continuing on my way hoping this signals to him I know he's there.  He pulls back and then follows me again.  I'm a bit annoyed, find this all a bit creepy but figure it's day time and I'm safe.  I continue talking, and stop in the middle of a side walk.  At this point he walks across the street, stops and faces me.  Something in me snapped.  I don't like this.

"Yes?" I say to him.  He responds in English and starts repeating what it is I've been saying.  Now I'm really annoyed.  I ask the person on the phone to call me back and I decide to hash it out with this man.  The guy on the phone laughs, asks if I'm alright and we agree to talk later tonight.

"I'm sorry," the mystery man says.  "You were talking about ******" and to this, I say "yes, I was" back to him in English.  The only way I describe what came next is to use the word "serious outpouring of guilt."  I don't think this man wasn't mentally ill or had any issues that would affect my safety.  He saw me, a foreigner in his town which he no longer lives in and must have felt I was the one safe person to tell.  This is what I tell myself, at least.

He continues to tell me he knew this tsunami was coming, he knew it would be big, and stops just shy of saying he thinks he may have caused it.  I listen, still a bit bothered by all this violation of my privacy but nod which he takes as encouragement to go on.

"I watch CNN.  I read TIME.  I saw what happened in Sumatra.  I knew it was a matter of time," he says.  He then says again, "I knew this would happen here."  He goes on about how he thought the previous warnings were "people crying wolf" which made them ill-prepared, and discusses in great detail what could have been done better.  He makes some good points but the barrage of information coming out of this man's mouth makes me think he has had literally no one to talk to for the past 50 days.

Bottom line, it is a bit creepy.  I'm not sure what to make of any of this.  We weave in and out between English and Japanese and he thanks me for what I'm doing here.  I deflect and tell him I'm only doing what I can.  He tells me he's sorry to bother me but thought it would be okay for me to tell me all this.  There it is.  What I thought earlier has just been confirmed.  Somehow being foreign makes me okay to tell all this to.  That much I'm okay with.  I'm a sounding board that people will stop their cars and come after me for.  Weird and odd.  It's also very real.  At least today it was real.

A most strange encounter.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The dreaded white phone

There is this cell phone that has been passed from interpreter to interpreter here in Iwate.  It's used to take calls of local residents wanting help, people calling with complaints and in general, anyone who speaks only Japanese who wants to reach the volunteer group here.  I had my turn with it for about two weeks before I went to Tokyo.  I handed it off to another bilingual volunteer when I went to Tokyo and then since my return, my illness has kept it from it coming back to me.

It's called "the dreaded white phone" for several reasons.  First, it never stops ringing.  This is generally a good thing as it means people are calling asking for help.  It also means the person answering it is in charge of taking down the information (correctly), relaying it to the necessary parties and then doing all the go-between work. 

Second, not everything runs smoothly.  The person answering the white phone must speak Japanese as this is the number that's called by the Japanese public.  This means the person taking the calls handles not only the language but also the cultural nuances.  Anytime one person is put in the middle of a bilingual and bi-cultural situation there is always the probability there is a misunderstanding.  It's the white-phone-handler's responsibility to keep all the potential mishaps at bay.  This is pressure.  It's actually a lot of pressure.

So, now that my voice is back and all I'm really doing is coughing and hacking here and there, the phone has made its way back to me.  For a few days at least.  This will kick up my stress level several notches.  It's what I'm here to do but that doesn't make it easier or enjoyable.  I know how to alleviate potential problems.  This is what I do.  This doesn't make it easy, though.

All this to say if I'm cranky in a few days and this pops up in my posting you'll all know why.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Waiting for Sister

It was a small job.  They hadn't gone into their home yet since the tsunami partly out of fear, partly out of dread.  They wanted some help in looking through their things--not valuables necessarily.  My take on this was they wanted company.  They didn't want to be alone when they went back home for the first time.

I stood in the doorway trying to stay out of the way of the younger ones hauling things down the steep and cluttered staircase.  I glance at the floor of the genkan (the front entry way) totally covered with muck and gunk except for one pair of shoes.  I take a photo just because they seem so out of place.  They're polished, clean and placed neatly in the corner as if they're waiting to be worn.

More youngsters go up and down the stairs.  More stuff gets taken outside into the road for the family to sort through.  I continue to stand in the doorway just sort of watching, making sure I'm not needed, fielding calls on the dreaded "white phone."  (More on the white phone in another posting.)

There are three women who are from this house.  A youngish woman and her teenage daughter and the mother.  Three generations of women.  I talk to the young woman making sure we're doing what she wants, who suggests we talk to "mother" and together we talk to the matron of the family to get her input. 

Mother sees me, bows, thanks me profusely and we exchange gratitude, compliments and general goodwill.  Out of the blue she changes the subject.  "See these shoes?" she says.  I nod.  "They belong to my oldest daughter."  She chokes up.  I get it now.  They're missing a family member. 

The younger daughter, the one I'd been speaking to earlier says, "Mother said to put these shoes out for sister.  We're waiting for her.  These shoes are so she'll know to come home."

What do I say to this?  Seriously.  What do I say to this?  I just looked down, fought back tears (and failed) and then when I finally looked back up, nodded to mother.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Tempest, Aftershocks and the House on Stilts

It's really, technically not a tempest, per se.  There's no rain or snow.  There are however, intense and amazing wind gusts.  Continual bands of wind have been blowing all day today.  I just wanted to use the word "tempest" because, well, I just did.

I've written about aftershocks and phantom aftershocks, right?  Aftershocks we experience daily.  Some are big enough to shake whatever we're in, others we barely feel.  Phantom aftershocks are a real phenomenon where our body gets so used to shaking we trick our equilibrium into thinking/feeling there's another quake.  Evidently it has something to do with our ears--the whole equilibrium thing, that is.  So, over the past month I've been experiencing real aftershocks and phantom aftershocks and today, a tempest (minus the rain and snow) with real aftershocks.  That, last one, my dear people, is a pretty hefty combination.

Why?  Let me be specific.  The building we're in, where we eat, sleep and call "base" is built on stilts.  Now, the "stilts" are steel beams, of course, but there is no "first floor" and quite literally, we're perched on top of a parking lot.  All this to say, when real aftershocks hit, the whole building shakes. It's a sound building (or so I'm told) but good grief--this thing really shakes.  Add to this the gales of wind today which shakes the building all the more (and all day).  With all this movement today, phantom aftershocks are the last thing I'm thinking about today.  It's a pretty strange feeling to have the building in an almost perpetual state of movement either from an aftershock or the wind. 

And then there it was.  There was an aftershock that we all felt while the wind was whipping through.  A double-whammy like that means extra and longer swaying of the house-on-stilts.  It's unpleasant.  Walking around in the perpetually swaying building makes me feel just the slightest bit weak in the knees.  Not the whole I-see-my-husband-and-he-kisses-me weak in the knees bit.  I mean walking-on-solid-ground-after-being-out-at-sea-forever weak in the knees.  I'll take the former any day.  The latter, this particular feeling I can honestly do without.

I feel this all the more stronger perhaps because I'm laying down trying to recover from this now-a-full-blown-cold-and-flu thing.  Whatever the reasons, this has turned into a day like nothing else.  Not complaining, mind you.  It's just interesting to feel how much a building can sway when it's not on solid ground, when the wind is blowing every which direction and the aftershocks continue to rumble.  Note, the choice to use the word "interesting" is reminiscent of how my father used it when I was a child.  If someone was "interesting" or something tasted "interesting" it was generally okay to assume this was code for "not all that good."  As such, when I say it's "interesting" to be in a building that sways as much as this, you're welcome to assume and interpret this is not my favorite place to be right now.  This too shall pass.

Before and After

I want to give you a tangible example of something we've done here.  Myself included, of course.  This is a photo (taken by an All Hands staff member) of a home we cleaned out before we started.

This is after.  The same house.

This is a bunch of us outside the home having a strategy meeting.

The owner if this building is the man in red.  On a different note, the city has come through with heavy machinery and cleared up all of the piles of rubble in front of the houses on both sides of the street.  It's slow-going.  They go about 10 meters per day.  There's that much to remove.

See the house on the right side of the road three down from us?  The tannish/brownish house?  This is another house that the group worked on.  The son of the family, a man in his 30s was in the house when the first wave hit.  He ran upstairs and waited for the water to recede and when it did, he ran down and fled to safety, higher ground to the far right of the photo (out of the picture).  Imagine being in your home when the wave hit.  The man in red, the owner of the home in this photo did the same thing.  He waited out the tsunami on the second floor.  What must go through someone's mind when faced with a real-life life or death situation like that?  For that, I'll muck out houses and interpret stories that make me cry.  Bring it on.