Sunday, March 11, 2012

On one year (after after the quake)

One year has passed since an 9.0 earthquake hit Japan and caused the biggest disaster in the country since World War Two. One year since I was sitting under my desk, wondering if this would be my last hour; grateful that if it was, at least none of my family members would be killed or injured; mostly worried in the moment about the seasickness that threatened to overpower me. My Japanese colleague opened the door and the window. My Norwegian colleague frantically tried to get hold of her husband and their kids. People ran around in the hallways - contrary to all earthquake safety advises - trying to get out of the building. The building, croaking and screeching as its seams were working to hold tight against the powers from underneath. The waves in the pool, a gloomy forewarning of what we were about to see from the Tohoku region with live coverage of the tsunami waves flushing in over rice fields, buildings, cars, people.

When it finally stopped shaking, after what felt like much longer than what it actually must have been, we crawled out from under our desks and doorways, and gathered outside. The mood was that of uncertainty and worry, but also relief - the worst was over, or so we thought. It was as though an "all clear" signal had been issued. We were all still there, alive, intact. The building was standing. Nervous smiles, shaky legs, adrenalin and shoulders still tensely raised above normal levels.

The mobile system quickly fell out, but the iPhone earthquake apps didn't. I think the estimates started with 6 something. Quickly updated to 7 something. Someone got 8 something. When it reached 8.9 we realized that either the apps were wrong, or - what strangely enough hadn't occurred to me before someone voiced it: we might not be that close to the epicenter.

In Tokyo the 3/11 earthquake felt enormous. Huge. I am (or at least was) no expert on earthquakes, but the intensity of the shaking alone, plus the worried expressions on my Japanese coworkers' faces, equaled to me that this was big. The idea, though, that we only got the tail of a movement that had been rolling for miles and miles, was more terrifying than the actual quake. If we had felt it so strong this far away... How was it closer to the actual beast? More terrifying still was the confirmation of this beast, when we got back inside and turned the TV on.

The images went across the world like wildfire. Live coverage of a natural disaster. Awful and fascinating all at once. Personally I felt the effect of the images quite modestly compared to other, closer effects. Coworkers not able to get in touch with their families. The urgency in notifying my own family and friends. The discomfort - physical and otherwise - from the aftershocks and never knowing whether one of them might be another big quake.

One image did stick, though. One of the very first I saw. A helicopter was flying over the affected areas, filming the tsunami as it advanced over a defenseless battlefield. The black, lava-like water, moving in what from air looked like a sluggish tempo, but in reality it was overwhelmingly fast. It swallowed everything in its way - people, houses, cars. One car was driving away from the wave. The car had a head start, but the wave attacked from two fronts. As the two flanks closed in on it, the car attempted a last, desperate maneuver: it abandoned the road and tried to run across a field. Useless. The wave had no mercy or respect for the brave. It gaped over its prey and swallowed this car along with all the others. The fate of those within the car we can only imagine.

I remember "the bringer of doom". A gold statue at the top of a nearby church. Its elevated position made it pick up the movements of aftershocks faster than those of us on ground. The sound of a dancing statue became the messenger of new scares. We had many that afternoon and evening. They kept coming all through the next day. At one point I could hardly distinguish between actual shakes, and my own stress and weariness causing me to shake.

All reports said that Tokyo was okay, but I still dreaded to go home. The house I was living in was an old wooden structure, with paper-thin walls and a tendency to jump even from the movement caused by passing cars on the nearby road. I imagined that there was an actual chance the whole building might have collapsed. Or perhaps the gas tank would have sprung leak, causing a fire. Who knew what mess we would find inside, assuming the house did still stand.

It did. And the mess was not worthy of a 9.0. Interestingly the damages in my room showed the movements of the earthquake very clearly. I had a bookcase where nothing had even fallen out, since the quake had moved in a parallel direction to it. My desk, though, was in a mess. Granted, it was usually a mess, but now the mess was less deliberate than my normal mix of breakfast remnants, make-up products, papers and pens. Things from atop of the otherwise untouched bookcase had fallen down. My laptop - thank Digressions in one piece - covered in cereals.

Apart from that, though, there was nothing other than my own fear of new quakes coming to finish off what it had started that kept me from sleeping in the building. Still, since I had an offer to stay in the embassy, I didn't care to stay. "I have to get back to work," I told my housemates, since the truth "I am too scared to sleep here" seemed unlikely to be of benefit to anyone. There was hardly any need to cause a panic.

I slept at the embassy for the rest of the week. Or "slept". Every time I drifted off, an aftershock of the real or imaginary kind pulled me back. A soft bed on the fourth floor picked up every movement of the earth; and every movement of the person in the bed became magnified. My first real sleep was when I sat down in my seat in the plane on my way home.

I remember everything and nothing. The terror I felt - I know I did, because I can read it in and between the lines of the blog posts I wrote during those days - it's gone. I thought it would stick for life, but life moved on. What has stuck, though, is the feeling of the quakes. One friend voiced it this way: an earthquake enters your body, but it never leaves. The 9.0 and the following aftershocks haven't left me. If I'm stressed or tired, I can still feel them. The brief moment of insecurity as to why I am shaking, before I remember that I'm in Norway and we don't have earthquakes here, is frightful every time. But it is not so very often anymore.

Details from those days will occasionally pop up in my head. Some are emotional, like most of those described above. Some are funny, surprisingly enough. I remember a lunch with some of my coworkers, a couple of days after the quake. We were all worn out from too little sleep, too much work, too much stress - too too. Somehow, this lead to a very entertaining conversation. I cannot remember at all what it was about, but I remember that it made me laugh at a time when I wondered if I'd ever laugh again. And it made me remember that I value such moments - hanging out with friends, simply - incredibly much. These were people I missed immensely when I got back home, and I still do.

One year. It feels longer. A lot has happened, and a lot of it happened because of the earthquake, directly or indirectly. These events changed me. Having felt life's fragility (even if I don't claim it was a near-death-experience) does something to you. To your perception of life, and what it should and should not include. I don't pretend that I've become aware in everything I do, or that I always live by these new insights I've acquired, but I understand more now. The idea of carpe diem makes sense in ways it didn't before, even if I then too knew life was short and you never know what will happen. I'm less scared, I think. Less concerned with consequences. More in favour of following my heart, and deal with the costs later.

It hasn't made my life easier. But I think perhaps it has made it richer. And it is for this that my thoughts about the events one year ago are not exclusively directed towards the tragedy of it all. It's terrible what happened, but since it did happen, I'm more and more starting to appreciate that I was there. That is not to say that I wish for bad things to happen, or that I wish to be near them when they do happen. But it means I have come to terms with my own minuscule part in it, and the anything-but-minuscule part it has played in my life.


Jemi Fraser said...

Good for you. It must be incredibly difficult to assimilate and deal with all the emotions you felt during those terrifying days. I'm glad you're feeling stronger. Take care.

Mary Aalgaard, Play off the Page said...

Beautiful, reflective post. You were in a post-traumatic state, now you can see how you grew from that experience. Thanks for sharing it.

Kelly said...

I always enjoy your writing, but this was exceptional.

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