It was the rarest of things; a coincidence of word choice and unforeseen natural disaster. In wanting to forcefully express a thought and add some dynamic word usage to last week’s column in this newspaper, I deployed the word “tsunami” in my opening sentence. Of course there was no way I could know that the world would be in shock after a real tsunami at the moment the piece reached the streets, but the coincidence left me feeling small and silly at a moment of soul-shaking calamity on a scale few of us have witnessed in our lifetimes.
To anyone who thought that my use of that word was anything other than a strange case of submitted observation meeting news fact in time and space, I deeply apologize. The events were so large I never had a thought of any connection to the copy I had sent to the Mirror until I picked up last week’s edition. I was humbled by my blunder, but then we were all feeling vulnerable last week as the first of the images started coming out of Japan.
Like many of you, our household cautiously observed the Santa Monica beach at 8:31 a.m. last Friday morning to see if there would be an impact to our own community. We saw the waves increase in size here, but Santa Monica was spared in comparison to seaside towns on the California/Oregon border. In those moments of waiting the harder and more fantastic facts of the Japan disaster began to sink in, and I felt a vulnerability that I won’t soon forget. The stairs I was sitting on… would they suddenly start shaking, then break free of the house? Should we even be inside a building at a time like this? What if, standing outdoors, the electrical lines began tumbling down on us?
The last time I felt that troubled about things collapsing around me was, oddly enough, in the middle of a Broadway musical. It was 1993 or 94 and we were watching Glenn Close in the musical “Sunset Boulevard” at the Shubert Theater in Century City. Ironically, the production had received a lot of attention for a huge and costly set that lifted two giant scene elements up and down like an elevator: A theatrical special effect of the earth moving. We were listening to the dialogue… when an earthquake shook the entire theater. The wave of panic moved slowly, because the audience was under the spell of the show and needed a moment to realize what was happening. My heart started racing: We were sitting in a crowded theater under a huge balcony filled with people and the entire building was moving.
There was only a seconds-long break in the performance. A few people got up to leave their seats, but as quickly as it had come the quake was over. Last week, first person accounts from Japan reiterated how terrifying it was to experience the length of the quake: the movement just kept going and going. It wouldn’t stop.
It is at this point with most of my columns that I would normally find some way to turn a news event into proof or support of some larger idea I wanted to discuss. But with the disaster in Japan, there is no larger idea. The event itself is the largest idea we can conceptualize: possibly thousands dead, immeasurable damage and loss, and nothing we can do will prevent another similar event. We are stuck on a planet that has these shifts in its crust, and with the heartbreak they cause. And, we are powerless. We are vulnerable on an epic and inescapable scale. The dot of mud we stand on in the universe revolts, and we have no voice in the timing or severity of those moments.
There was a statement from Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan that I first heard as “Japan’s biggest crisis since World War II.” Later, I found that his words had actually been “since the end of World War II.” I wondered if he was taking the world’s attention back to the destruction leveled on his country by the United States with atomic bombs at the end of the war. The horror that rained down on men, women, and children was caused by man. The nightmare in Japan last week was a cruel gift of the cosmos.
And this was the grim center of the vulnerability I was feeling last week. Writers question and wonder aloud, since that is in large part what is expected of them. In several of my pieces for theater, I have characters who confront God or the idea of God with questions. Why this? Why didn’t you intervene here or there? Why so much suffering from natural events?
One newspaper account last week pointed out that the destruction in Japan had so much fury and scope that it made a kind of joke of the exertions of man as it swept away cars and buildings and all that was erected there. None of us desire to be the target of a joke, but in our realization that Santa Monica might be as vulnerable as Japan we are forced to reconcile that reality with the limitations on anything that we can do to prepare for something of that magnitude. The joke in that is, alas, a cruel one. If one goes looking for something hopeful in these dark reflections, it might be that each day has priceless value and that when the earth revolts leaving us feeling small and vulnerable… we can focus our humility into exertions that matter. And the first of these should be to help the people of Japan.