Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Three Stories from Sendai

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

—Mohandas Gandhi

Her house will be demolished, yet we are shoveling out the mud.
She is tossing what look like important, official documents, yet keeping little key-chains and bookmarks. I just spent hours pulling paper off of dead trees while she pulled weeds from a desolate landscape.
We’re sweeping the dirt from the sidewalks.
We’re cleaning the rubble.
What’s the use?
Her house is going to be demolished.
Nothing really makes sense.

Her house is going to be demolished because a tsunami stimulated by a massive earthquake destroyed it.
Nothing really makes sense.
She squints under her hat. The sun is bright and intense. A dark, cloudy sky would be better suited to this scene. Debris scattered everywhere. Her old neighborhood is an apocalyptic wasteland.

We are helping her pick up the pieces and hold on to a few memories from the past.

*            *            *

No one is there, only rubble. The laundry rack is still hanging in the window, the clothes dried with mud. Trees, furniture, dead fish, old food, mud and dirt jammed into the apartment building. Junk.

But as we pick away at the layers of this waste, we begin to see the scattered remnants of people's lives.

A phone off the hook.
Kids’ backpacks still stuffed with notebooks and pencil cases.
Wedding certificates.
Old pictures of little boys eating noodles at the table we just chucked onto the garbage pile.

“They’re still alive. Everyone from this apartment building escaped. They’re all living in evacuation centers. I’m sure this family wants their memorabilia back.”
We put those irreplaceable items in a separate pile.
I slide my goggles off my eyes, onto my head and scan the scene with unobstructed vision. I keep doing this every hour. I can’t grasp the reality of it.

Closets full of closet things.
Flip-flops in the bathroom.
Torn teddybears.
A DS Nintendo player.
A busted bag of rice.
Cabinets with dishes.
Baskets with toys.
A full refrigerator.

Life frozen in an instant of terror.

A teapot precariously propped on the stove. I empty its liquid contents from the spout and turn my head away as the overpowering scent of old water and dead fish contaminates the air.
“There’s that tsunami smell,” he laughs. He’s been doing this for a month.
I only came yesterday. 
It’s hard to smile. 
I’m in shock.

As the weekend unfolds and we go from house to house shoveling mud, scraping oil, picking up the pieces, the same smell haunts us. It lingers on our clothes. I can even still smell it in my hair after showering in the evenings.

*            *            *

We walk the path to a doorway, stepping on shells and bones from the bottom of the ocean that now lay caked into the yard.
Oil marks deface the outside of their relatively undamaged home. In our old clothes, rubber boots, gloves, and goggles, we set to work scrubbing, wiping away traces of the tsunami.
The job is mostly a cosmetic one, but it would have been difficult for this elderly couple to do alone.
Her eyes are soft and smiling. She works diligently beside us, bending as low as her frail body will allow.
He continually circles the perimeter of the house, refilling our buckets and replacing our sponges.
She brings us tea and coffee and fruits as we work.
He helps us take down the screens and lengthen the rope of the hose.

They only returned home from the evacuation center yesterday. She explains her situation in Japanese. I can’t understand all the words she uses to tell her story, but I imagine it’s a frightful one. 
I can see that the house next door is unsalvageable.
They were lucky.
She pauses abruptly, perhaps to recount a painful memory.
I don’t understand her words, but the only story written on her face is one of perseverance, kindness, and appreciation.

*            *            *

This blog is dedicated to all of the earthquake and tsunami victims as well as to the incredible supporters and volunteers who are continuously offering their help to Japan. Thank you!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

—Margaret Mead

*     *     *

Photographs taken by Audrey Boivin


  1. Always fresh in insightful. Thanks for publishing your thoughts for us to read.

  2. It's hard to imagine that degree of loss. Good work over there. And thanks for documenting it in your thoughtful way for us over here.

  3. This is so touching Brenna. Thank you for sharing such an intimate portrait of how life is continuing on in Japan after the disaster with small gestures of kindness like these. It's a very moving piece.

  4. As always, this is beautifully written. Sending lots of good thoughts to you and everyone affected by or working in those devastated areas.

  5. I'd love to finally grow up and lead a similar life. You're such an inspiration! I'm not sure about what I'm going to do when I grow up, but I know that I want to travel, and I'm very interested in Japan. I'd like to live there, visit and/or live in much of Eastern Asia as well as other places. I love the modern and traditional culture, architecture, language, philosophy, music, food, and so much more! Though it seems to be a tougher route than the norm, I'd like to teach English in Japan, like you. A teacher has never been my path of choice, let alone an English teacher, but the most likely career I'd be able to get in a foreign country. Who knows though, maybe I'll get things sorted out when it comes to be; I'm but fifteen at the moment.
    You're a beautiful writer, and a very caring person. I know it's what's supposed to be done, more like an obligation than a favor, but not everyone does… I'm really impressed and respect what you're doing. It must be very difficult for you to watch other peoples' lives in ruin, but it also must be worth it…
    Uhhm…Also, I read on your profile that you like to listen to music that sounds like both classical and rock. Do you listen to Break of Reality? I like them, and if you haven't already heard of them, maybe you would too…

    I'm looking forward to your future posts!