As I hope we all know by know, a couple of weeks ago an earthquake of Richter scale magnitude 8.9 shattered Japan and bumped the sudden black flood of a tsunami out of the ocean’s depths, sent it pouring over the country, an archipelago which all-told has about the same land-mass as the state of California. Over 11,000 people died in this series of events, in whose aftermath a broken nuclear reactor in Fukushima is burning like a blaze in tree roots, threatening to erupt into a firestorm at any moment. Radiation is seeping into water and evaporating into rain clouds carrying trace ions as far as Boston to fall generally on the world. Babies in Tokyo can’t drink the water, apples grown miles from the power plant are totally unfit for human consumption, and now the radiation is beginning to appear as dangerous levels in the sea. Hundreds of billions of dollars of damage have been done to the nation’s infrastructure, decimating the economy of a country that was already feeling the chill of the current economic climate. With grace and stoicism, the people of Japan have pulled the dead from the rubble, the cars from the second and third stories of houses and buildings they were washed into, have bandaged the wounded and staunched the nuclear wound as best they can.
It is always hard for us to imagine what effect a sudden and incomprehsible tragedy can have on a place, on the individual people who experience it. This isn’t a failure of imagination on our part, and it doesn’t make us callous or uncaring when we cannot muster a feeling of emotional identity with people who are suffering so acutely. In fact, I think even when we ourselves are suffering very acutely in the face of sudden and unbelievable tragedy, it is hard for us to feel emotional identity with our own experience. There is nothing to prepare us for the unbelievable. We have no ready response to absolute psychic devastation. To feel estranged from tragedy and suffering and loss is a way the mind has of keeping itself safe. It is why we have phrases like “unspeakable horror”. It is why we have phrases like “I am so sorry for your loss.” That last one is not a meaningless cliché, it is a way of saying “There’s just nothing I can say. But I want you to know, I care.” It is a phrase our family heard a lot of for awhile, after my partner Craig disappeared on a small island called Kuchinoerabu-shima, off the southern coast of Japan.
When he was a kid, Craig’s father John was in the air force, and for awhile they lived on the American military base at Okinawa. Craig and his brother Chris were young, but Craig had memories of the place that were vivid and immediate in the way that only childhood memories ever can be – memories of a scorpion fish hovering just below the sea’s surface, off the edge of a diving platform. Memories of lemon-green caterpillars whose tiny, venomous paws seared violent welts into whatever bare skin they inched across. Delightful memories of chasing lizards in the garden, battening the hatches in front of an oncoming monsoon, growling around the neighborhood on a bigwheel. Less fond memories of the meanness of bigger kids. Hilarious memories of a terribly offensive cockatoo, who from his perch called out through the bars, “Hi, Charlie! Hi, Charlie! Hi, Charlie”
When Craig and I first got together, I was working on a project (which I am still working on) that remixes or reimagines The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Sei Shonagon was among an elite coterie of aristocratic women writing unprecedented and profoundly influential literature during the 11th century Heian period, in the then-capital of Kyoto. Among her contemporaries (and rivals) was Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, arguably the world’s first novel. The Pillow Book is the first and best-known instance of a genre called zuihitsu, or “following the brush” which I think are described most aptly as occasional writings. They’re lists, anecdotes, and observations about love, court life, and human behavior that reveal an uncanny virtuosity of attention. As an author, Sei Shonagon is witty, intuitive, and extremely opinionated. Naturally, I adore her. An example of her writing is below:
A white coat worn over a violent waistcoat.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.
I love, in particular, two things about these pieces. Marcel Duchamp had this idea once, he wrote about it as “the infra-thin”. According to Duchamp, this notion of his could not be defined in the more conventional sense; all you could do to make it visible is provide examples of it. One example of “the infra-thin” is the moment in between a gun going off and the appearance of a bullet hole in the wall; another is the warmth left in a cushion when a person rises off their seat. In a way, Sei Shonagon’s writings work this way to refine and enlarge our understanding – of elegance, of splendor, of hate, of rarity. And it is not only by the same accumulative process of definition that Duchamp describes, but also with the same acuteness of perception that an understanding of the infra-thin seems to require. In a list of “Things That Lose By Being Painted,” for example, the first item she describes is just “Birds.” But what I also love, and which I feel is utterly Japanese, is that almost every exquisite thing in this list is, in its different way, luminously impermanent. The wisteria and plum blossoms might remind us of the cherry blossom, celebrated in Japan during its brief resplendency each spring as a symbol of the beautiful and fragile and passing. In some ways Buddhist, this way of valuing what cannot be possessed or held onto, of loving past attachment, is part of the grace of this literature and culture and tradition. And even in the darkest throes of my own grief, when Don Revell gave me a film called “Cherry Blossoms” to watch, this gentle reminder that the world is in a state of constant change, that loss is part of living, that what makes something beautiful and what makes love sing in the blood is its very delicacy in the face of a force as thunderous as water, as time.
His own curiosity piqued, Craig one day picked up one of my anthologies of Japanese literature and found himself reminded how much he admired the great pilgrim-poet, Matsuo Basho. Writing in the seventeenth century, Basho’s Japan was very different from Sei Shonagon’s. The rule of the imperial families had given way to the new shogun government, who with their samurai retainers shifted the new capital to Edo (present-day Tokyo). In 1639, the ruling military clan effectively closed Japan to the rest of the world, isolating the country absolutely for approximately 150 years. Foreigners were not allowed in; citizen-subjects were not allowed out, on pain of death if they dared return. A domestic merchant class began to arise, mostly based in the port city of Osaka, and with them, commercial art came into some ascendancy. Basho earned a living writing and “correcting” poetry, near Edo, where he was not from. As wily as he was magically talented, he acquired and cultivated a persona as a lonely wayfaring poet and took his pen name (Basho means “banana”) from the out-of-place, wind-battered banana tree he clearly empathizes with in the haiku below:
Banana tree in autumn winds:
a night passed hearing
raindrops in a basin.
He dressed himself as an austere Zen monk, and wandered out into the wilderness, occasionally returning to his small ruin of a cottage, all the while writing a long travel narrative inset with verse, a form known as hai-bun. Basho’s lyric diary is entitled The Narrow Road of the Interior. It was this text Craig took as the model for his own project, “The Volcano Pilgrim”, which he envisioned as one section of a longer work, begun in Italy in 2006. And it was on the strength of this project that Craig was awarded a U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist’s Exchange Fellowship, which took him to Japan and ultimately to the island where he vanished, presumed dead, but never to be found. The writing Craig was doing, even up to the very last “Digression Upon Angelica”, is a candid, clear-eyed record of his wanderings through contemporary, but pre-earthquake, Japan. You can find it here:
Without revisiting all of the details, Craig’s disappearance on the tiny island of Kuchinoerabu-shima occasioned a massive effort to find him that began with the innkeeper in the island’s only village, who noticed when Craig, who’d taken off for a solo hike leaving all of his belongings behind, had not returned after dark. The people of that island, the search-and-rescue police from neighboring Yukushima, and the good people of the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission and their counterparts at the International House in Tokyo were tireless. The people of Kuchinoerabu-shima felt a profound sense of responsibility, and despite the fact that it was Golden Week in Japan (Christmas, New Year’s, Fourth of July, all rolled into one, the big national holiday during which everyone goes home to their families) the Japanese police responded to our family’s desperate pleas for help by extending the search for Craig from the three days allotted by usual protocol to well over nine days, until we could send a series of independent search teams to help. Those search teams unanimously reported how impressed they were with the local support, who had searched and graphed that island down to the square inch, recovering cigarette butts and broken eyeglasses and deer’s blood, though – bafflingly, mysteriously – not so much as a trace of our Craig.
I suppose I could feel an abstract sort of resentment towards Japan, just for being the place where my beloved partner disappeared. But instead, I think, I feel a strange affinity for this place, whose people went so earnestly above and beyond the call of duty to try to help Craig, to help our family; for this place where, I suppose, Craig must still be. The first thing I thought of when I learned of the earthquake was, weirdly, “I hope Craig is okay.” I don’t even know what that means. But almost simultaneously, I thought: I hope all the amazing people who were so helpful to our family are okay.
I wrote to Christopher Blasdel, a writer and a great friend who lives in Tokyo and works at the International House, and who has acted as a translator for our family from the time Craig’s brother Chris touched down in Tokyo in hopes of finding Craig alive to the legal documents necessary to petition for a declaration of death for a person who has vanished. I was immensely relieved to hear back that he and everyone else we know in Tokyo are okay. He has, himself, been keeping up a kind of blog about Tokyo in the aftermath of all these events, including personal responses to this tragedy, photographs, and anecdotes. You can find his writing about his experience in Japan at the moment here:
I remember Craig telling me, over Skype one night when he was in a hostel in Tokyo and I was at home in our apartment, preparing for my doctoral exams, that one of the origins of what we Westerners might imagine as an iconic Japanese house, with its spare wooden frames and its light-diffusing rice-paper walls, is the fact that there were so often earthquakes and subsequent fires that people grew weary of constantly rebuilding. So they began constructing simpler and simpler houses, gathering belongings into a few remarkable pieces of furniture that might be carried off if need be, so that after each disaster, they would have all of their stuff, and very little cause to mourn the ruined structures, so simple and thus easily rebuilt. This notion, that everything might come down around one’s ears and yet one might be okay, and still have the essentials, and just remake the rest, seems to me related to the understanding of impermanence I remarked on above. With some help, homes can be rebuilt, people slowly, slowly consoled. The cherry blossoms will come back in the spring.
Japan has been through a lot, even just in the 20th century – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, now the nuclear threat at Fukushima; earthquakes, tsunamis, economic decimations. So many dead, so much lost. These are unspeakable horrors. There is hardly anything to say, but there are ways to show we care. To help those who are trying to rescue and rebuild Japan, please click on the link below and feel welcome and encouraged to make a donation of any small amount. I can say from personal experience, every single last thin cent counts.