Wednesday, March 16, 2011

3/11 - Earthquake in Japan

There have been numerous blogs and posts out there about the quake. So many people giving an account of their own personal experience. An event that will likely change most people's lives in some way, even if it's just a slight shift in perspective. For me, there is no doubt something has changed.

Four days ago I was sitting in an end-of-year meeting thinking of all the people that would be leaving, slowly letting myself sink into depression as I remembered all the people I've had to say goodbye to in my life, and of those with whom I didn't have the chance.

It was an average day. Kind of grey, kind of cold, kind of nothing special. A coffee with co-workers helped cheer me up a little. We talked about iPads and smart phones (all the geeky things that turn even the oldest of men into boys) then there was work.

I spend most of my days teaching English and Drama to children. It's a fun job. You play with kids, create, sing songs, make up dances, and in the end the kids put on a show for their parents. Well Friday was show day. By 2:30 the kids had started to arrive with their mums and dads. They took off their coats and scarves, kicked off their shoes, hung up their hats, slipped on their little room shoes and sat down to play. The mums made themselves busy putting down bags, fussing with hair, wiping noses, tucking in shirts and and attempting to contain the smaller children in their wake.

For my part I wandered around talking to mums and dads while holding little hands and listening to the stories of excited five-year-olds who always seem to have so much amazing news they just need to tell you right now. One little girl wandered in by herself as her mum ducked across the street to buy her a drink before class. She kicked off her shoes and took off her hat, ran across the room to put her homework on the desk before putting her bag away like a good girl - then the shaking started.

Everyone stood up and froze in place. Mums and dads looked around the room not really knowing what to do. Children stood holding toys, scared because we were scared but not sure why. Was it going to get bigger? Was it going to keep shaking? Then the screaming started. One of the mothers outside started crying - Momoka! Momoka! All I could think to do was cry out an answer - She's here. She's safe. We've got her.

What should we do? Stay in the basement studio? What if the building collapses and we're trapped? But the street... So many buildings, glass and power lines, nearby construction machinery...

The decision was made for us in mad panic as the screaming mother burst into the classroom and dragged her little girl out onto the street. I don't know if it was the right thing to do or not but we followed. We each grabbed a child and ran up the stairs out into the street just as the shaking truly started.

Even now, looking back, it doesn't seem like a real memory. More of a distorted dream where the land becomes the ocean and the buildings all become masts on giant ships that rock and roll as the storm hits. What's worse, you know this is a falling dream - the kind of dream where you have to hold on or you'll go over board and be swept away and you know, somehow, you just know that if you fall in this dream you'll never wake up.

Everything shook: the buildings the power lines, the sign posts, the giant crane towering over head... Everything. And the ground bucked and rolled beneath our feet like some crazy amusement park ride that had stopped being fun the moment you got on. And it went forever.

For five minutes we stood wrapping arms around children, gathering them in like sheep that would run away and get lost if only we let them go. The screaming mother threw a towel over her daughter's head, as if stopping her from seeing it all would somehow protect her from disaster.

We stood frozen, waiting for our world to collapse, how could we believe that it wouldn't? Our shocked silence was only broken by the voice of a two year old. He looked up at the buildings towering so high above, shaking and bending - mummy, the sky is shaking!

In his world it just wasn't possible that so much of the world around was shaking, it had to be the sky.

Finally the shaking stopped but it took the longest time for us to move. We didn't know what to do so we just went back on with our lives. Kids sat down and cleaned up the toys, mums and dads went back to fussing with stray hairs, snotty noses and untucked shirts... The world in which the earth could buck and shake like a bouncy castle didn't seem to exist. For my part I started the class. I handed out little duckling headbands for the kids to wear (we were performing the Ugly Duckling), the kids tucked themselves up into little balls like eggs waiting to hatch... Then the next quake came. Not as strong as the first but just as frightening. Once again we were out on the street wondering if our world would collapse, this time with children dressed as ducks. At least they would be able to swim if the earth suddenly turned to liquid.

Then, like the first, it subsided.

I went on with the rest of my day as planned. The kids performed their play, the mums and dads watched and videoed and photographed, then everyone went home.

Nothing seemed all that different. People walked their dogs and went to the convenience store, people on the street handed out flyers and announced cheap deals for karaoke... Then things started to change. Trains stopped, taxis became impossible to catch, lines for the bus stretched for hundreds of meters and the thousands of people stranded in Tokyo began the walk home, many walking as long as six or seven hours. All across the city refuges were set up for others whose homes were simply too far away.

That night we suffered quake after quake. Every 20 minutes another aftershock would have me looking toward the door wondering if it was time to run. I slept in my clothes that night just in case and have done so every night since.

The next day we went to work. Who knows why. Some students even showed up but the whole day felt off. It was like that moment when a whole room suddenly falls silent and becomes uncomfortable for the few seconds it takes for conversation to once again fill the void, but imagine those seconds stretched across an entire day.

I've felt a little bit like that ever since. Even now the tremors keep coming, some small and some frighteningly large. I'm in a constant state of vertigo so even when the earth isn't shaking I can swear that it is.

I've taken to keeping a half empty bottle of water on my coffee table just so I can tell if the room is really shaking or not. If the water isn't moving I know it's in my head.

The people up north and along the coast have it bad and my heart goes out to them. I know my own fears and concerns are nothing in comparison but... I'm afraid.

In fact yesterday, if I'm to be brutally honest, I cried. It was after another tremor. I was sitting in a small park by my house just wondering what to do when the enormity of everything that had happened and was continuing to happen just hit me and I cried. The tears welled up and I couldn't stop them.

They say Tokyo is safe. I hope it is. I don't want to leave, I really don't. I have made this place my home and I'm really not ready to say goodbye but... Maybe it's time. I don't know.


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