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Anne Thomas: Learning to cope with the unpredictable April 16, 2011

Posted by chezanni in Uncategorized.

Last night Izumi came home and told us frogs were all over the road below her mother’s house. They usually appear in the heat of summer and croak they joyous songs all night. But there they were in mid-April and on a rather cool night at that. “The world is all confused now,” said Izumi. “I think another big quake will soon come. I remember seeing snakes come out of their holes when I was a child and soon after we had a big quake. Maybe the animals know sooner than we do.”

She also told me that tori gates, which mark the start of steps up to Shinto shrines, were originally placed at the limit of tsunami waves. People knew that they should build their lives about that highly significant level. In times past folks said, “There are four things to be afraid of: earthquakes (and tsunami), lightning, fire, and grandfathers. And always remember that earthquakes come first on that list.” But it is human nature to forget. And with the advances in technology, people have progressively felt superior to the forces of nature. But this current ongoing upheaval is a poignant lesson in humility. So are the damaged houses marked with big red letters “OK.” That means rescue workers have checked that particular building and cleared it of any dead bodies, if any were found.

Most of us still sleep in our clothes even now. Not because we are in shelters and have no choice. Rather it is because of the ongoing daily quakes, some very strong. Better to run out of the house fully dressed than in pajamas, especially if the building falls down. I sense that one of the hard parts when this is over will be to gracefully give up living with such constant intensity. It becomes a way of being and later it might be challenging to shed that acute, ongoing, emergency level of alertness.

But maybe we are not ready for that just yet. Life everywhere has been turned upside down since this all began. And that makes it a continuing challenge to find and maintain an inner equilibrium. But in many ways I appreciate this unloosening of habit, this breaking up of well-trodden paths. A few years ago I took several “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” classes. In them we were always encouraged to put aside the structures that our habits had created and to experience life afresh. When we drew something, the teacher would take it, turn it upside down, and say, “Look again. What do you see when you have to deal with the unexpected? How flexible can you be when you step out of familiar territory? What are you going to do with your drawing now that you see it in a different way?”

That attitude and those questions keep coming back to me these days of great change and uncertainty. And fortunately I am able to use them as a basis for how to deal with my unpredictable life these days. And also thanks to that way of being in the world, I find I see things through a filter of humor, too.

The other day, for example, I was perched on a stool in the very small real estate agent’s. There was another man there talking about his new apartment. He started telling about the place he was moving out of. “That old shack is really falling down. The front door does not close. The floor is wavy like the ocean. The bathroom floor is very precarious. And the whole house tilts downward.” I got an inner chuckle out of what he said because those are the exact words I had used to describe the shack-turned-hovel I am moving out of. Then almost in the same breath, his true Japanese heart shone through. He turned to me and said, “I was down by the river the other day and the sakura trees were about to burst into full bloom. They were spectacular. Really gorgeous. You should go have a look. You will forget all your worries for a while.” When he was ready to go, this very tall, exceedingly thin man stood up, put on gloves with skeleton bones painted on them and glided out the door. I wondered if I had been dreaming.

Later that day the postman came to deliver a package that a concerned relative had sent from the USA. It was the first piece of mail I had received in a month. He came to the door, knocked, looked around the yard full of mud and broken concrete and then into this hovel full of boxes ready to move, shook his head and only said, “Hidoi!” (“Hidoi” means something like, “This really is an incredible mess, isn’t it?”)

I burst out laughing and said, “Hai, hidoi desu.” (“You hit the nail on the head.”) Then he laughed, too, and said, “You are moving to 6-chome, aren’t you?” “How do you know?” I asked in astonishment. “I saw you up there the other day,” he replied.

In Sendai we always say, “You can’t do anything bad here because everyone knows what everyone else has done, is doing, and will do.” And on many other occasions besides this one I have found that to be very true.

As the time approaches for me to move, I am noticing a very subtle tendency to go along familiar streets to get from here to my new place. But then I catch myself and say, “No, wait. Don’t freeze up. Stay open. Try something new.” Luckily, I heed my own advice and take a long way round, down unfamiliar lanes, finding marvelous homes with lovely gardens, tree-filled parks tucked away, an unexpected shrine, and even a huge vegetable field right in the middle of this built-up neighborhood. Later I saw kids thrilled with the jagged lines in a broken pavement. “Look at this. Isn’t it fun?” one girl asked her friends as she hopped her way down the cracks. And further on surrounded by rubble, I watched an old woman put her gnarled hands into the rich black earth that was hers and start to turn it in anticipation of planting.

I really hope that when work starts up again and I have to keep a regular schedule, I will stay open, make time to explore new places both outer and inner, and keep my heart keen on living in uncertainty with anticipation, acceptance, and even joy.

And as one of my former students, now a friend, wrote to me, things are looking up in many ways. This is what she said:

“I had good weekend. On Saturday, I finally got gasoline on my car. Full tank!

“Then I headed to my sister’s place to take a bath. First full bath! I washed and washed and washed from head and toe. Then Sunday, my best friend, Yuka, and her husband, and one year and half old son came over. It was surely great to have a nice conversations with them. I laughed alot! Some part of our conversations was about nuclear power plant issues and he started telling me this and that… I know it was not his intention but it freaked me out a bit.

“The last big jishin (earthquake) was just unexpected. It is hard to believe that it was ‘aftershock’ from the initial one…wow. Some stuffs fell off but not too much. At that night, I just put clothes on and went to bed just in case. Before all those small aftershocks were happening less and less, however after this big one, it seems that small aftershocks are happening again. Yes, it is very hard on the nerves. Sometimes it is too constant.

“I cannot wait to see some beautiful cherry blossoms and just feel the spring breeze on my face. I never felt this way before but just thinking of spring is kind of inspiring and cherry blossoms are symbolic for new beginning.”


P.S. Just to let you know, after I move I will have neither phone nor Internet access for a month. I am due to get connected on the phone line on May 11, 2011 and Internet sometime after that. There are so many people in transition these days and my request has to wait its turn. Will seem strange not to be online daily, but maybe that, too, is a good opportunity to reassess what is most essential and what can be left behind.

Wondering how you can help? Aid relief efforts by clicking here to donate to the Japanese Red Cross, or text redcross to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Photo by Tomoya Nozaki via Flickr.



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