Sunday, March 20, 2011

I Have Much More to Say

After my last post on the day IT happened, I'm still speechless, really. Yet I have so much to say. This week has been a sad blur of tears, heartbreak, worry, compassion, deeper understanding of the Japanese spirit, new friends, old friends and too many more to mention.

I haven't blogged in ages. When I do write, I try to keep it concise and on point and maybe even summed up with a cute little bow at the end. This post will not be like this. In many ways, I write this not for you, but for me and then still knowing that you will read. And that's OK. I don't mind letting you in. I also don't mind if you stop reading because of it being an incoherent jumble. I promise nothing, but something is telling me to put this all in writing, whether to just get it all out or because I may look back and wonder some day. Already there is so much I've forgotten, and the days all run together.

Before we get underway, please remember that I am in Okayama Prefecture, my power has not once so much as flickered, I have felt not one shake of any of the (very many) earthquakes, there were no tsunamis here, and there are no elevated levels of radiation in my water, food or air. For your reference, it's northern Japan, up near Sendai and Fukushima, that you are seeing on the news. If you aren't sure where this all is, go look on a map to see where that is and where I am. I will wait. Here, I'll make it easy. Okayama is just above and just to the right of Ehime Prefecture in green below, on the big island (Honshu), not the little on (Shikoku).

K, here I go.

A new old friend that I "met" (might get to this later) during this past week through a mutual friend who was in peril and who he was able to help beyond sending money and wringing his hands as I was doing, said that this was the longest week of his life. Even being way down here, I have to agree. I don't even know how to start writing all of this unless I go sort of chronologically and see what falls out onto my keyboard.

March 11, 2011
Just after 2:46PM Japan time last Friday, March 11th, I was sitting in the teachers' room at my school getting ready to leave in 14 minutes. I expected to spend the weekend reflecting on my Mom's birthday and anniversary of her death. I knew it would be sort of an emotional weekend for me. Looking back, it's weird how I had no idea how much so.

I was online and saw that a huge earthquake had hit, I thought, Tokyo. I wondered if this was The Big One (the predicted Tokai Earthquake) I'd feared the entire time I lived in Shizuoka back in 1995-1998. It wasn't, by the way, the Big One, if you wonder. That's yet to come someday. Tokyo gets a lot of earthquakes, but even minutes after it struck, it sounded pretty serious. Nobody in the teachers' room seemed to be aware, so I mentioned it to one teacher, saying "hey, did you hear about the earthquake that just hit Tokyo?" to which she replied "you mean Sendai? Yah, I heard about it," and busily skittered off to wherever. Graduation would be the next week, so everyone was very busy with preparations. I already felt a little weird that I was the only one who appeared to have any reaction.

I went home, decided not to go to the gym (I've been running on the treadmill - different post for a different day - and was about to complete the Couch to 5k program) and did something I never do here. I turned on my ancient ass TV. The images were horrifying. The tsunamis had come. You've seen the images, surely, of homes and cars and people with no chance being swept away. I won't be linking any videos, but they are all over YouTube. I don't need to watch them. I can't make the images I saw on TV leave my mind. More on that later, maybe.

I'd already emailed a friend in Tokyo to make sure he was OK (he was on business in Pasco, WA and had no idea what I was talking about ) and had heard from others on Facebook (a major source of information during this past week), and I marveled at the incredible engineers who had designed Tokyo's tall buildings to sway and not fall. They'd been anticipating the Big One mentioned above. If any city was ready for the largest earthquake Japan had ever seen, it was Tokyo.

I soon realized, though, that what happened in Tokyo was very small potatoes compared to what was going on north of there, closer to the epicenter and where, more tragically, the tsunamis were hitting. At 3:41PM, I emailed my friend Patty who I just knew lived in Miyagi Prefecture with her two school aged boys. Much of the scariest footage I was seeing was coming out of there. Later, still with no reply, I would learn more specifically that they lived in Kesennuma, Miyagi, one of the hardest hit areas. As the night went on, or maybe it was already into the next day, I was hearing of an entire town not terribly far from theirs (a 20 minute train ride) basically washed away with more than half of it's population presumed dead. Those who survived seemed to have lost everything. I knew that my friend and her boys didn't live exactly there, but it was so close and still a place close to the coast. I have never been so worried for someone in my life. I cried and worried, constantly checking anywhere I could online to see if they were OK. Of course, there was the Google Missing People Finder thingy, and there was a Facebook group, too, for people in Miyagi or concerned for others who were. Or maybe that was the next morning that I found those. Either way, I got one hour of sleep (went to bed, got woken up, couldn't go back to sleep) and remained sad, worried and in disbelief.

This is going to be a very long post. Maybe I'll make it more than one. But let me back up a minute to Patty, if I may.

Longtime readers (sounds fancy to say that) may remember this post back in July 2009 when I had just arrived in Tokyo. I had met Patty at our pre-departure orientation in Chicago, and we'd hit it off instantly because we were 2nd time JETs, which is pretty damn rare. We convinced people on the plane ride over to trade seats with us so that we could sit together, and we were joined at the hip throughout Tokyo Orientation. Having done this before and being 10+ years older than the average fresh out of school JET, we had a more clear or at least different perspective on what we wanted out of this experience. We were both coming back because we love Japan and had still more we wanted to see and do and experience here. This had always been like a second home to each of us. Patty was also coming with family. Her oldest boy had been born in Japan back in the day, and he and his brother would come to join her while her husband stayed back home. The boys would come and experience life as Japanese school children first hand, attending a regular school and making friends and being a part of the community. What an incredible experience it would be for everyone. They were headed back to Miyagi, the same prefecture where Patty had been a JET last time, and Patty was super excited. We both were.

And now here we were.

I emailed the embassy to say that her name was listed on the Google People Finder thingy as someone people were not able to contact, I emailed the Tokyo office that kind of oversees the JET Program to let them know the same thing, I got in the Miyagi group on Facebook to see if anyone knew anything about her town. And I hoped. I knew that none of these things would result really in anything, probably, but I thought it couldn't hurt and maybe would give people a place to start, one name among many to try to track down. At 3:15PM on Saturday, March 12th I got word that Patty had tracked herself down with a phone call saying that she and the boys were alive and in a shelter.

I cried and cried and cried and was so relieved. Although I worried constantly whether Patty and her boys were warm in those cold winter-like nights likely with no heat, according to the reports I was hearing, I thought that the worst was over. I thought that it would be less personal now. I thought that I'd be able to start focusing on other things. I thought that the rest of the weekend and week would be easier. I thought that a major earthquake and devastating tsunamis would be the only bad or scary news coming out of Japan.

Next, I heard that Patty's husband was on a plane on Monday, March 14th, headed to Japan when already many were doing the opposite and leaving. A Facebook group was put together by family to raise money for him to come and get them out, and stayed glued to it for updates. At some point I wound up in touch with their friend in Tokyo helping them with logistics and all manner of support, I'm sure, a guy with a last name almost the same as mine and who also had been a JET back in 1995 out of Chicago like us.  I felt immediately connected to him and know that someday we will meet and will be good friends. Instead of being able to look away and focus my attention elsewhere, I continued to wait with anticipation for the moment that Patty's husband somehow reached them (the airport is damaged and closed, as are many of the roads, and gasoline is being rationed, so it's not a simple thing), then their journey further north as a family finally united, heading in the opposite direction of the threat of possible radiation that we were now hearing about (more on this later, maybe, or in another post) and hopefully the hell out of this whole sad mess. Knowing the conversations Patty and I had had about what it meant to get to be here again, or in her case, specifically up there, again, my heart breaks at how they had to leave. All I will say further on that is that I am profoundly sad and heartbroken for them and for all that they lost and all that they left behind.

As I type this, they are either getting ready to head to Seoul or are already there. I've been unable to think of much else until they are safely back home in the arms of loved ones in the States.

Meanwhile, whenever I did shift my attention away from what was going on with my friend, I was hearing crazy talk about radiation, the death toll and numbers missing were becoming more staggering, people were still suffering in the cold without heat in winter temperatures, my students were graduating, more earthquakes were happening where other friends lived in a place I used to call home, I was putting together an emergency kit and considering possible escape plans that I doubt I'll ever have to use, people were arriving in my prefecture from Tokyo as a precaution, huge aftershocks were shaking people already very much on edge out of their sleep still (as I've been typing this, Tokyo people have twice lit up Twitter with reports of more earthquakes - they are fairly constant, still),  a shit ton of foreigners were leaving Japan entirely, people back home were asking me if I was coming home, I was giving blood (an experience in itself in a foreign language) and money for the animals and for food/supplies and notes with socks away to help while still feeling so sad and so unable to look away for fear that it meant I wasn't paying attention to the voices of those suffering.

And in my own very insignificant way that I hesitate to say because I don't want it to be misunderstood as if I've suffered anything at all compared to those who truly have, all the way over here, far from harm's way, it was destroying me on the inside. Compared to the plight of others, it is nothing, but I am just still not right, right now. I will be. And I've learned so much about myself and about the Japanese spirit that I want to share with you maybe later, but I am not quite right after this week. It has changed me. Things are on my radar that I never thought would be.

It's surreal.

I want to tell you more. I want to say some more to get it out. This is enough for now, though. This is enough for this post. Maybe later. You know I never promise to write stuff here anymore, but maybe I will. If not, I leave you with this to keep in mind about what you may be hearing in your media and why I am not freaked out as much as you might be. I love Japan. This is my home right now. I believe in these people. I believe in Japan's spirit. If anywhere can put on a brave face in spite of tragedy and rebuild and restore themselves, it's Japan. That said, yes, please do know that I am paying attention. I know or am doing my best to always know as much as I can aobut what is going on in Fukushima. I never thought the day would come that I would know the word nuclear reactor in Japanese and that it would roll off my tongue, even.

One more thing, then really I'll get to wrapping this up. Not to make light, at all, but for a lighthearted approach to explaining the nuclear power plant situation in Japan, there is this by, of course, the Japanese, the only people I know who would think to use anime about farts and poop to explain it all in a way that is better and more understandable than any media source I have seen. It's in Japanese, but it is subtitled. Enjoy seems the wrong thing to tell you to do, but, well, I guess, enjoy. (?)

Did it make things a little more clear?

One more last thing related to all of this radiation talk. While I am staying put, I do not judge anyone for fleeing, no matter where in Japan they may be or whether they are headed just down here where I am (reassuring, that) or out of the country entirely (less reassuring, that). Foreigners are taking some shit, tongue in cheek shit, I hope, it sounds like, for fleeing in droves, even from places like relatively safe Tokyo (though I have seen first hand people appearing to have something along the lines of PTSD even from there) or where there has been little effect, like Osaka where some US study abroad programs have chosen to evacuate students. To any criticism of those headed elsewhere, I say that nobody knows what the future holds, and it's none of anybody's damn business, anyway, what people choose to do for their own peace of mind.

For now, please remember the people in the northern part of Japan who are struggling. If you are so inclined, please click on the links above to give blood or money or socks along with your good thoughts. There are lots of other great charities, too, but those are the ones closest to my heart.

OK. That's all for now, for real. Thank you for your messages of love and concern. Imagine me giving you a big group hug while we all wrap our arms around Japan, too and think some get well soon type of thoughts. Thank you for reading this. Whoever you are, if you've made it to here, I love you. Please go spread some extra special love to someone today, too, OK?


  1. I am so glad you posted more information. I was worried about you. It's good your friend Patty and her sons are well and hopefully headed back to the States and their family. Keep safe.

  2. I'm glad you posted more about your situation. I'm glad that your friend and her family are safe and heading home.

    Thank you so much for updating us!

  3. Oh, my heart goes out to your friend, to you, to all the people of Japan. I can't believe the devestation. I'll keep you all in my prayers but, especially you, Maggie, You are a phenomenal person and a great friend to Patty.

    Stay safe.

  4. I am so relieved you are okay but saddened that you have had to face such a tragedy and having to go through the pain of not knowing if friends are okay. I can't even begin to imagine the horror many are facing but I do know one thing. The Japanese people seem to have such resilient spirits and I pray for your continued safety and the safety of all the Japanese people. Thanks again for posting.

  5. Thank you, so glad you are well. Sending much love to you and the people of Japan

  6. I love the optimism of Nuclear Boy :-)

  7. Maggie - thanks for the update! (And the video about the nuclear reactor taking a poo...) So glad you and your friends are OK. {hugs!}

  8. Thank you SO MUCH for posting this! Beautifully written and necessary for your own self to have down I am sure, for I'm sure that it has changed you to your core. Stay safe Maggie, I'm glad your friends are safe and you and Japan are in my constant thoughts and prayers. Love to you.

  9. Ah, sweet Maggie...I had a feeing your spirit had gone numb. Imagine you are feeling things on many, many levels, and I thank you for sharing. Hope you will continue...give us a taste of what the culture is experiencing.

  10. came over by way of Colleen...thanks for sharing your first-hand thoughts and feelings. I've been wondering how the situation is over other areas of the country. And thank you so much for the video...very cute and very informative! Take care.


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