Living after Japan’s disaster

Banana Yoshimoto

Tokyo was unbelievably cold, even though it was March.

It looked as if it might snow. Even inside, my breath was white.

We had hardly been using our heater, and we’d turned off the lights, assuming there would be another power cut. Burning candles wasn’t an option since there could be more earthquakes. We had a small flashlight turned on, and we were wearing our coats, and the house was dark even though it was daytime.

My thoughts returned again and again to all the people who had lost their homes in regions much, much colder than here — though somehow it felt wrong to focus too much on total strangers. It’s always seemed to me that you have to care all you can for the people you really can care for. I feel like each of us has been given a certain, fixed amount of caring. As if each of us has certain connections that just matter more. If you feel that connection, you have to act immediately, without hesitating; if you don’t, you shouldn’t worry.

But the sudden loss of so many lives had left me stunned. I was so shocked my heart settled into an unexpected calm. I found myself praying for the repose of their souls, looking up at the window and the cold scenery outside like someone lying motionless underwater, eying the surface. There was a flowerpot on the windowsill, and in it a small, dazzlingly red rose. Just one, uncannily red, glowing against the background of an unusually clear sky on this day when none of the factories were running.

The air could be heavy with pollen, the rose’s petals could be covered in the yellow dust that blows over from China in the spring or exposed to radiation; when the time came for the flower to bloom, it would bloom. As long as we’re alive, we go on living.

I thought about our dog that had died the month before. Maybe it was fortunate that he was no longer alive because he couldn’t stand earthquakes.

We only die once. Why is it then that there are so many ways of dying, and that we’re made in different ways and feel so many different things?

I hardly shed a tear when our dog died, and yet I couldn’t stop crying when this boy in some movie I saw decided to take his dead dog on a trip, and he came out cradling the body in his arms.

“It’s no good,” the boy said. “He isn’t coming back, he just gets harder.”

He was so totally right.

And I was still alive, and I could feel the warmth of my loved ones.

Late in the afternoon, the people in our neighborhood, who had all been feeling ill at ease, gathered in the dimness of our house to share a meal. We ate sautéed lamb and buttered bread. When I told them I didn’t have any butter because people had bought up all there was in the stores, one of our friends confessed, looking a little abashed, that she had six packs at home. She loved butter, she said. She brought some. Grateful that she had thought to stock up, we used as much as we wanted. The supermarkets had nothing to sell anymore, so I put out some wine, prosciutto, and senbei that I had gotten earlier.

As we ate, it felt sort of like we were all holding hands in the dark.

Ever since that day, I’ve grown a little bit afraid of connecting with the people I love — with my heart, my hands, even my eyes.

It scares me, just a little, to send them off to work or school, to say goodbye and wave, to hug.

But it’s okay: I don’t care if I recover from this. I wouldn’t go back to my old life if I could. I’m happy being the person I am now, having had this experience. Being afraid.

Staring at the rose, I found myself singing a song called “The Rose.”

We’re relaxed now, let’s take a trip . . . we’ll laugh and cry as hard as we can . . .

The lyrics were totally inappropriate, but as I kept singing, I began to feel better, as if a tiny hole had opened in my heart, letting in a breath of freedom. My prayers changed into a song, dispersed through the sky. And that was good enough. Useless enough.

Living our lives so we can have bread with butter again sometime together.

Editor’s note: Banana Yoshimoto wrote this piece in April 2011. The essay was the first to be published on Fukko Shoten: Revival & Survival, launched by novelist Masahiko Shimada with stories, poetry and books to raise money for disaster relief. The following, courtesy of Yoshimoto, her agent Zipango, S.L., and the Staley Agency, was translated by Michael Emmerich for CNN.

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