So it went. Wave after wave coursed through the land, sending power lines swinging and roofs crashing and the ocean surging. The trains stopped. The emergency announcement system blared that the power had gone out due to the quake.
As darkness descended and still the power stayed out, people lit candles in their homes. I moved around the city to see how it coped with the situation, even as the tremors continued. Traffic lights didn’t work, so cars edged their way cautiously into big intersections until the police showed up later to direct. Islands of light betrayed where emergency power had kicked in: the hospital standing tall and staying busy, a home for the elderly that was a type of hospital itself, vending machines that apparently contain batteries to keep selling drinks through any crisis.
A few convenience stores had power, but quickly no food except the dried, instant variety, and then even that was gone. People bought magazines, which I thought odd until I saw by the looks on their faces that what they sought was a part of normal life that had seemed so banal half a day earlier. In a snap, anything that symbolized that placid pace through a typical day became valuable, so off the shelves it flew.
Darkness fell, really fell when no man-made glows pushed against it in a million domes of modernity. The stars came out. I noticed them with joy because they were much brighter in the purer darkness. They made me think of soldier stories where men noticed something beautiful in nature as they fought, like a flower on the edge of a foxhole or a red-winged bird singing on a branch shot through with holes. I observed the world through no such dire circumstance, but the post-quake landscape gave me enough of a nudge in that direction to better understand my fellow man under duress.
I climbed a hill at the edge of town to look down on the sea of darkness. It was creepy. Where usually an endless field of lights extends to Tokyo, only a few areas of light appeared. Directly below the hill, eerie pools of headlights moved slowly around, many looking for missing family members who were unable to take the trains home. There were no city lights around the cars, just the headlight pools drifting along invisible grids like ghosts shaken from their graves.
With most people early in bed, the shaking continued. Isolated reports from community leaders holding radios on the streets informed me on the way home that northern Japan lay in ruin. The voices came leaden, delivering facts so directly that their effort to suppress emotion was in a way more emotional than if they’d cried out their sadness at each collapsed school or deluged farmhouse.
The chain of facts overwhelmed me. There was no break, no “In other news” transition to a different grim event, much less a weekend human interest sideshow. One statistic after another emanated from the radios in a legato of misfortune.
Eventually I reached a saturation point. There’s a limit to how much disaster I’m capable of processing. The adjectives peter out somewhere beyond tragic and catastrophic and devastating, and then those once horrible emotionless facts become welcome as a way to make sense of the event and form a plan for moving ahead. Let’s reduce that number of missing people. Let’s get the lights back on. Let’s make toilets flush again. How about some real food on shelves? The disaster list turns into a checklist. That’s the human spirit, alright. Let’s crawl up out of this hole!