Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Joy of a Normal Day

After a particularly long-winded telephone conversation I once complained to a friend, “Why are those calls so hard to endure?”  She answered, “Because, my dear, so little of it needs to be said.”  I firmly believe that if you don’t have something to say, you should keep your mouth (or your keyboard) shut.  And that’s where I’ve been for the last couple of months.  Not much to say.
But for the past week I, along with the rest of the world, have watched, stunned, as the people of Japan face the unthinkable.  Because I am human and, therefore, shallow and self-centered, I keep thinking, “That could be me” – and I’m wondering if you’re thinking the same thing.  So I decided to say something . . .
I realize I could be that dazed woman groping through the rubble, looking for anything that’s left of my life.  Someone I loved – missing and silent.  Some small thing I have treasured – a photo of my children with their soft curly eyelashes resting on plump, dewy cheeks.  A broken tea cup.  A sodden pillow. 
I cannot imagine what the people of Japan are feeling.  Perhaps, gratefully, for awhile they will feel nothing.  But their feelings will return, and I cannot bear thinking about them. 
What will they do?  Where will they go?
This is not a third world event, not one of those things that happen to other people in some other place.  We watch those other people in other places with compassionate horror – and because we are, for the most part, good people, our hearts do break.  We muster around “their” disasters with money, and aid, and all kinds of help.  But, face it, “they” are not like us.  Their lives are lived in a different paradigm.  It’s not a pretty truth, or one that puts us in a flattering light, but it is the truth.  We see our world as different from those poverty stricken regions of the globe.
Japan is another story.  This is not a developing nation – this is the third largest economy on earth.  This is the most technically advanced and equipped population on earth.  This is a country widely recognized and praised for their disaster preparedness.  The country with the best seismic building codes in the world.  Out here on the west coast, Japan is often presented as the role model of how to get it right. 
In the first hours following what turned out to be a 9.0 earthquake, I heard a scientist praising Japan’s earthquake prediction system.  “That is an amazing system,” he said.  “It gave a full minute’s warning before the earthquake actually happened.”  One single minute.  And that’s the best system in the world.
In the hundreds of eye-witness reports and interviews I’ve seen in the past few days, I haven’t heard one person mention how happy he or she was to have had all that warning.  Nor have they shared how they put those amazing 60 seconds to use.  Sure, it’s better than nothing.  But it’s not much. 
I read that people in one city had a half hour warning to escape the tsunami.  Half an hour is a lot better than a single minute – you might be able to grab something and run to high ground – IF the path to high ground isn’t clogged with other people trying to get there, and IF you already know which path you intend to take, and IF you don’t hesitate over any single detail of your escape.  But when a 30-foot wall of water is headed toward you at 500 miles an hour, 30 minutes isn’t all that long.   Do you take the time to round up your family, make sure everyone is coming with you?  Or do you go?  Get out?  Just go?  There’s no right answer.  Either choice leads to a path strewn with regret.
Think about it.  At 2:30 that afternoon, it was a normal day.  By 3:30 the world had ended. 
 Go ahead and call me obsessive about this event – you’d be right, and you wouldn’t be alone.  But, gee whiz, this really is big.  That earthquake knocked the earth four inches off its axis.  Big, I tell you.  The 9.0 earthquake alone would have been a game changer, even without the tsunami – or the nuclear crisis, which grew more ominous by the hour.
Japan was better prepared than any other country or population.  For something.  Not for this.
Maybe I’m obsessing here because next time the earth rocks on its axis, it really could be me.  I live in a tsunami hazard zone – the warning signs are all over my neighborhood.  They’ve become collector’s items – funny white and blue outlines showing a frantic little stick figure running uphill with a huge man-eating wave chomping down behind him. 

"Doood.  You're never going to make it!"  Ironically, these charming little signs are based on a Japanese woodcut.

Our region is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone.  The fault, along which the San Juan de Fuca tectonic plate collides with the Pacific plate, runs down the west coast of North America, from just south of the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada to just off Cape Mendocino in northern California.  In this collision zone, the plates are not sliding against each other, as they are along the famous San Andreas fault.  Along our fault, one plate is diving under the other.  When they move, they do so with an enormous bump and jolt.  Canada to California – that’s a long line of bad news.
I don’t pretend to be a geologist (the above paragraph would flunk me out of Geology 101), but I do know that subduction zone earthquakes are not for sissies.  They trend toward 9.0.  That’s what happened in Japan.  And that’s what will inevitably happen here.  It’s happened before and it will happen again.   It’s not speculation; it’s a sure thing.  The only variable is when.  Could be tomorrow.  Could be three hundred years from now.  But it will happen.
And that’s why I can’t stop wondering what is in the hearts and minds of the people I’m seeing flash across the screen.  This time it was them.  Next time it could be me.
Of course, they knew it could happen.  They probably even knew, as we do, that it would happen.  But when it does happen, how can you possibly react?  You can run to high ground and then, assuming you make it, you can watch the world disappear beneath you.  You might be able to survive, but how do you keep on living?
Such random thoughts pop in and out of my consciousness as I try to absorb what I’m seeing.  I envision my beloved old house on the coast, sitting there in peace for 122 years, collapsing like a discarded tissue under the force of an unspeakable wave.  I feel my heart break as its beautiful old walls buckle.  I make a mental inventory of what’s in the trunk of my car.  Water, check.  Nutrition bars, check.  Blankets, oops, need to get some.  Extra pair of shoes and socks.  Check.  Then I take off on a strange little mind jog – I have some valuable stuff in that house.  I should protect it.  Um.  How?  When the world as we know it has ended, is anyone really going to give me a candle and a bowl of soup in exchange for a sterling silver fork from my secret stash?  I’m guessing not.
As my thoughts twist and tangle, I try to imagine what that Japanese woman is thinking as she wanders through the ruins of her life.  Maybe something just as random.  When faced with a set of circumstances so far removed from the human context, the mind often retreats to the small, the random, the mundane.  Are the people who just a few days ago watched the world evaporate before their eyes really taking in the horrifying prospect of nuclear meltdown?  Or are they just trying to get warm, hunting for clean water, looking for some way to block out the smell, struggling to protect their children?  I wonder. 
This morning, I stood in the shower a little longer than usual.  I was acutely aware – and actively grateful – for the cascade of hot water pouring over me.  For the lights that invaded my morning sleepiness at the flip of a switch.  For the smell of the coffee happily brewing on its own in the kitchen.  For the bus I knew I would have to hustle to catch (and just missed).  For the job I sometimes gripe about, but that I knew was there, waiting for me.  For the pure everyday normalcy of my life.
I haven’t had many troubled times in my life, but I’ve had a few – just enough to make me understand the longing for the dull little details of life.  The “all I want is for it to be normal again” irrationality of grief.
The people of Japan are probably still too numb to ache for “normal.”  But it will come.  And when it does there will be no consolation.  For them, “normal” has been erased forever.   They will go on.  But how?
I just read an article about a woman, now 66, who was a five-year-old in Nagasaki when the bomb fell.  She said simply, “Japanese people are strong, and good at enduring.”  I believe she is right, but I’m not sure the same could be said of me. 
Today, I give thanks that my life is simply average . . . and normal.  God bless us, every one.