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

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Walk on The Other Side of the River

“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much importance to the things around you because your survival depends on them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you only see the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive.”

—from Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage

How can I be a traveler in my own town?
How can I see the freshness of every day?
How can I reroute myself from old habits?

Seasonal changes are built-in mirrors.
When spring brings warm weather, and I can’t remember where I stashed my sandals or how it feels to let the wind touch my skin, I become aware of my winter routine.

*            *            *

“Oh yeah, it’s just Kanazawa Castle, and this is just Kenroku-en Garden, and that’s just Oyama shrine.”
They stop and stare in awe.
I catch myself getting impatient. I’m madly crossing the sights off our list. We’ve got so much ground to cover in so little time.
“What’s that?” She points excitedly away from where I’m leading her.
 “Look at that garden! Look at that bridge!”
I shrug.
I turn my head nonchalantly.
“Oh yeah, that’s just…just…um…that’s…um…”
I’m speechless.
It’s beautiful.
It’s breathtaking.
It’s tucked away in the corner of the shrine grounds that I’ve traversed many times before, too quickly to notice the details. It’s a magical garden.

Where was it before?
Where was I before?

I’m ashamed of my blindness.
Thank you family for opening my eyes to the new in the old.
Thank you for taking me by the hand as you travel slowly.

*            *            *

Today is a perfect sunny day.
Cool breeze.
The city in bloom.
In my family’s honor, I decide to reroute myself. I decide to take a walk on the other side of the river.


There on the other side is a path I never took with a statue I never saw and a pond with koi fish that I never introduced myself to.

Where was it before?
Where was I before?

I sit on a flat rock at the edge of the pond watching koi fish come toward me. Like clockwork, they sense my presence and suck the surface of the water with ferocity. People must feed them often, I think. In a predictable pattern of classical conditioning they expect food and hover near my feet.
Their scales like paintings.
I follow the glimmer of sunlight that bounces off their wet bodies, slips onto the skin of the water, and fractures when the wind blows ripples in the pond.

*            *            *

I continue my walk about town, taking paths untaken, discovering shrines and parks I’ve never seen before. After 9 months, I thought I knew Kanazawa in and out.
I was mistaken.
It’s incredible how much discovery lies dormant in the familiar if we choose to look at it from a different angle.

I loop my way back to the koi pond, expecting the fish to swarm again at my feet, the sun to dance again, as before, on the surface of the pond.

Only ten minutes have passed, but the scene has changed.

There, standing still on a rock, four feet from the edge of the pond is a


I hold my breath, afraid to move, afraid to change the sublimity of this image. All the people passing by carry on as usual. They walk their same walk. Paying no attention. No one seems to notice the heron.
My heart beats faster. I’ve never been so close to a heron before.
I sit again at the edge of the pond trying to soak it all in before it changes. The koi fish come over. The sun reflects in the water. The heron stays motionless.
I become aware of beauty and fragility and the waves of impermanence that bring freshness to the familiar.

Suddenly, the heron turns its head and looks me in the eyes. It spreads its wings, leaps into the air, and soars above my head.
Between its wing beats I hear a message.
Wake up Brenna. Wake up.
What appears the same is different.
Travel slowly and you’ll see.