My trip to Tohoku this month was exhausting, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I can scarcely even write about it without the gray fatigue setting in. But volunteering is still important to do and to share, and as I haven’t written about the last several trips, here is a reflection on a few of them for you. Please keep Ishinomaki in your thoughts and prayers.
On Jenny’s birthday in March, we headed up to Ishinomaki for what I thought would be the last time. Volunteer opportunities had been slow throughout the winter. The quietness of the city seemed more natural during the long, cold nights, and drifts of snow filled up the empty spaces. There were still one or two houses to gut every week, but those only took a day or two each. In fact, when I brought some high school students up in January, I pretty much just watched while they entertained a group of local kids. What my students did was important – Ishinomaki’s youth went through a lot of trauma and are in desperate need of upbeat company – but their rapport wasn’t something I could really contribute much to, given my age, natural reticence, and limited Japanese language skills. So I thought I’d soon be saying goodbye to Tohoku. And honestly, the prospect delighted me! After a year of visiting every other month, my work was nearly over. The leaders of Be One (our volunteer organization) had told me they were preparing to switch missions from manual labor to “kokoro care” – care of the heart. I thought I’d make the trip once more for the sake of closure, and then be done.
Instead, we arrived in March with the thaw and found the town full of a renewed sense of urgency. People who had waited out the snows in temporary housing were streaming back into their neighborhoods for the first time. They were just beginning to assess the damage and restore their properties. In some cases, landlords were finally able to confirm that their tenants were not going to return, and thus needed help hauling away the stuffs of vanished families. Suddenly everything was back to square one, and volunteers were tearing up floorboards and knocking down walls in two or three locations everyday. Be One had to delay its shift to kokoro care because there were once again so many more immediate, physical needs to be met.
So I went north in May as well, and it was more of the same. In fact the coast has barely recovered at all, though some businesses have opened and some residents are trying to get on with their lives. But the roads are still warped and buckled, large buildings are still in shambles, and makeshift garbage dumps still dominate the skyline. My cat Jeoffry once had his fur gashed open by a raccoon – and when I found him he was sitting calmly and cleaning his paws, as if he couldn’t be bothered to notice the horrible, gaping slit across his side. Ishinomaki feels like that these days. One neighbor has rebuilt the patio and planted tulips in neat rows; on either side of him families have vanished, their houses bulldozed, a few scraps of old clothes and sundries littering the bare foundations.
There are even still blocks and neighborhoods where the waterlogged doors have yet to be pried open. There are houses and apartments where things have been left exactly as they were that first week after the tsunami waters receded. The horror and tragedy of March 11th may no longer be fresh for most of us, but in such bitter places it’s been preserved, pickled. Wade into them and you will find rooms still covered in toppled bookshelves, filthy brown sand, drifts of disintegrated particle board, festers of potato bugs, sodden knit sweaters, tangled VHS tapes, shreds of wood, bits of windows smashed to teeth and claws. . . . Over a year later, we’re still finding dead fish. There’s still mud, wet mud, trapped inside refrigerators and washing machines.
I try not to dwell on these things. . . it is easy to think too much about them. I hate seeing ruined collections – of photographs, of Kobito dolls; I hate uncovering evidence that the vanished people’s lives were filled with romance, or hope. It’s hard to bear the loss, even by proxy, when the walls around you sag under weight of all those shattered families. Of course the entire point of volunteering is to lift some of that burden from the town, to bring people renewed hope, to shine a light into dark places. . . . But it can get exhausting, even when you’re only volunteering for a few days every other month – and demolition is the easy part. You can unpickle a house if you have a team, a weekend, a crowbar and a shovel. It takes much finer tools and much steadier hands to conduct kokoro care. Hearts must be coaxed, not pried. Emotional debris has to be sorted too, but then it has to be validated and kept; it can’t be sent to the landfill. That kind of work is beyond me, but it is so necessary, and there are some with Be One who can do it – and the more we keep volunteering, the sooner they will get a chance to start. So I will probably go back again, and again, despite the fact that I am getting tired. If you’re interested in helping out too, you can sign up at http://www.b-1.jp/tohoku/en/. Trips still leave from Osaka most weeks.