another kaddish for japan’s daughters and sons: on scale-slipping and tragedy

I’ve been thinking about scale-slipping.

Ever since the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 12th (our March 11th), I’ve been noticing how we seem to respond to disaster by slipping along a scale from the personal to the universal, from the universal to the personal. When something happens to us—a personal loss—we enter a personal anguish that we begin to relieve eventually by putting it into a larger, universal perspective: this happens to people all the time: many people have lost loved ones and survived: so can we. When something happens to the world—a universal loss—we enter a universal anguish that we begin to get a grip on by putting it into a smaller, personal perspective: this could have been me: this could have been my friend, my daughter.

I’m calling this “scale-slipping,” after Mira’s “time-slipping.”

When members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked Tokyo subway trains with sarin gas in 1995, they killed thirteen people, severely injured fifty, and caused temporary vision problems in a thousand. Worse, they threw a city into chaos and a nation into self-doubt with an act of domestic terrorism. At the time, I knew barely anybody in Japan and nobody in Tokyo where it took place, but I followed the news closely and felt sincerely if vaguely disturbed.

[amazon_image id=”B003XT604U” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche[/amazon_image]

In 2007, I read Haruki Murakami’s 1998 book [amazon_link id=”0375725806″ target=”_blank” ]Underground[/amazon_link], in which he writes up his scrupulous research and interviews with survivors of the attack. By this time I had ridden many lines of the Tokyo subway, especially the Marunouchi line, on which one person had died and 358 were seriously injured. I had stayed many times in the Hotel New Hankyu in the Tsukiji district, a hotel whose rooms are in the 32nd to 38th floors of the St Luke’s Residence, which is part of the St Luke’s Hospital complex, where many of the victims were treated. So reading again about this horrific event that happened on the other side of the world was completely different from reading the newspapers thirteen years earlier. Now it was an event that took place on trains I’ve ridden, to people like my dozens of friends who commute to work every day on those train lines. I could picture the serene lobby that I’ve walked through so many times filled with the chaos Murakami described. I could feel how the quiet Japanese crowds must have felt that day. I shared Murakami’s grief and searching for a way to understand how this could happen in the peaceful, orderly Japan we both love.

That was my first experience of scale-slipping in Japanese tragedy. In 1995 I felt it as a huge tragedy far, far away. In 2007 I felt it as a huge tragedy my friends endured in a place that I could imagine calling home. I slipped from the universal scale to the personal scale without even noticing it.

I noticed how we do this scale-slipping for the first time after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan because all the comments I heard that first day after the devastation in Japan were on such a minute, personal scale, I couldn’t not notice it.

I was staying at a friend’s place in Aptos at the time—Kjersten and I were on a roadtrip together so I could play kiddie concerts with the Monterey County Symphony in Salinas. That night I was sitting with my laptop working on my post about domestic violence, a kaddish for those who don’t escape, when the New York Times news alert of an 8.8 earthquake and tsunami arrived in my email. The first minutely personal-scaled reaction I observed was my own:

I looked up Fukushima prefecture in Google Maps, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that it was far, far north of where my friends and their families live, around Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Iyo—all in the southern part of Honshu, nowhere near Sendai, the city we later learned was at the epicenter of an earthquake that was reevaluated at 9.0 on the Richter scale.

I breathed a sigh of relief, even though 9.0 on the Richter scale is more than 10,000 times more powerful than the worst earthquake I’ve ever felt, a 4.3 here in Oakland, many years back, that scared the crap out of me.

I breathed a sigh of relief even though the news alert went on to report that local Japanese television was broadcasting images of cars, trucks, and buildings being swept away by a tsunami in Onahama city.

I breathed a sigh of relief even though I knew that any time cars, trucks, and buildings are being swept away by a tsunami, a heartbreaking number of lives are being swept away with them.

I breathed a sigh of relief because my Japanese people were probably okay—no doubt rattled, and probably facing a great deal of grief difficulty in coming days and months, but alive.

And then I watched myself breathing this sigh of relief, and I was appalled. This was a natural disaster of unimaginably huge proportions, and I had no business feeling anything but devastated—whether the handful of Japanese people I feel connected to were okay or not. But I was reasonably certain that unless they’d been traveling in the northern part of Honshu or had families there, they were probably okay and I would get to go out for a beer with them again someday, and this made me feel better.

I slipped from the universal-scaled tragedy to a personal-scaled relief.

I had also scale-slipped quite literally, from that record-setting 8.8 (now 9.0) on the Richter scale to my own personal record-setting 4.3 on the Richter scale, to get a sense of just how the shaking felt.

Keeping it personal, rather than loading some news sites, I immediately checked Facebook. My friend Masako was first to report that she was fine, that where she lives outside Osaka is far south of the epicenter and high enough up in the mountains to be safe from the tsunami. A few days later, she reposted from her friend’s page the image above of the bandage over northern Honshu.

Akio was next:

Big earthquake attacked Japan. But I’m OK. Just information.
March 10 at 10:46pm

I walked for 4.5 hours. So tough! I’m at home now.
All of subways and trains in Tokyo area has still stopped. There is traffic jam all of roads. Taxis go so slowly….
March 11 at 6:12am

The next morning, I stopped for coffee on the way out of town to my concert in Salinas, and as I was getting back into my car with my Nissan bottle full, a woman whose car was parked next to mine rolled down her window and asked, “Did you hear about Japan?”

I nodded.

“It’s horrible; 8.9 they’re saying. Tens of thousands of people dead. It’s so terrible…”

She kept going for a while. She needed to tell someone, I guess; to make a personal connection in the face of this universe-scaled disaster. But I had to get to my gig on time, so after a few more sentences I gave her what I hoped was a somber enough reply and then excused myself.

As I drove, I listened to a local NPR affiliate station barely mentioning what was known about conditions in Japan but reporting at length about local coastal conditions. They warned repeatedly that six-foot waves were expected, and that local authorities had issued an order to evacuate any buildings within a few blocks of the shoreline. What they meant by that was “walk a few blocks inland to higher ground.” While I was thinking about how wrong it felt that so much airtime was going to minor local conditions and so little to the place of great devastation, I again scale-slipped to the personal, realizing that minutes ago I had been sleeping a block and a half from that very coast. Not to worry, though—it was also above a cliff, some eighty feet above sea level.

I went on scale-slipping like this from the universal to the personal all day, and at the concert hall, I heard my colleagues doing the same thing.

This seems to be a natural reaction. We do it all the time, scale-slipping to the personal when we can’t handle the universal, and vice versa.

I wrote about it over a year ago in my consultancy’s blog. My post “Putting disasters in perspective, or Our crappy economy isn’t so bad” used a few simple graphs to make the point that we far overestimated the impact of 9/11 and Katrina relative to the recent earthquakes in Haiti and China and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. That one was caused by an earthquake estimated at 9.1–9.3 on the Richter scale that I am so unable to slip along.

Benoit Mandelbrot discovered fractal mathematics after observing that the length of the English coastline depended on how closely you looked. If you look at a world map, it’s a measurably short path. If you look at a county map, that path is more complex, full of curves. If you zoom in on a satellite image, the curves are made up of smaller curves. If you walk along the coast, those curves are made up of still smaller curves. If you look at it with a microscope, the boundary between the water and the land is as minutely detailed as the power of your microscope. So, he determined, the length of the coastline was a matter of perspective—it was on a continuum that varied with the magnitude of the scale.

My thinking about how musical cognition lies on a similar fractal scale that varies with the listener’s perspective informed my conception of the musical part of this “kaddish in two-part harmony” project.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me now to realize that we measure loss and devastation on a fractal scale, also, and we use scale-slipping to cope. I’m seeing it here: Mira and I have joined together in a project where we reach for the universal in our particular experiences, and it’s healing us. Our listeners and readers have been responding to the universal themes with their personal experiences, and they confide that making these connections is helping them heal, too. Less than five months into our yearlong project, I already feel what a life-changing personal privilege it has become for me to take Mira’s hand in this collaboration. That you, our readers and listeners, have also joined us here is moving in a way I can’t measure on my personal scale and can’t understand on a universal scale. That my friend Akio recently subscribed to the “kaddish in two-part harmony” podcast and left a generous compliment about it on my Facebook wall brought the first tears for Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami to my eyes.

A kaddish for all the sons and daughters Japan has lost and will continue losing in the aftermath of this devastation, whose enormous universal scale I cannot comprehend, whose personal scale is also enormous in its minute detail.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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9 Responses to another kaddish for japan’s daughters and sons: on scale-slipping and tragedy

  1. pfvang says:

    Yes, disasters that happen in places you don’t know or to people you don’t know don’t have the same impact as when it happens in places you do know and to people you know.

    The daughter of friends from our church had been teaching English in Sendai, the center of the worst destruction from the quake and the tsunami. She’s now home, as her contract was about up and with the growing dangers from the nuclear plant, was anxious to go home.

    Still, she’s scarred. Her mother said yesterday, “She’s in seclusion,” trying to come to grips with the whole experience. She’s promised to make a presentation at church (and hopefully at my Kiwanis club.

    Still, it’s yet another example of how our world is interconnected. We can think that an earthquake off the NE coast of Japan is none of our concern, until we learn that among the survivors is a young woman we saw grow up in this small city in western Montana.

    • erin says:

      Right—it’s one thing to contemplate some stranger’s doom and quite another to look into someone’s face.

      And who can deny the global interconnection when an earthquake in Japan on our Thursday night brings six-foot waves to our own shores Friday morning? My understanding is that there wasn’t a whole lot of damage here in California, but a six-foot wall of water that traveled 12,000 miles overnight commands respect.

  2. zoe says:

    What is it about earthquakes?

    Is it wrong for me to be so in love with these things that have consequences so horrific on the human scale?

    I love their simultaneous unpredictability and inevitability.

    I love the way they remind me of my small place in history – the history of the planet, with continents splitting, drifting, colliding, uplifting and subducting, all on a time scale that makes my lifetime a speck – the history of civilizations, punctuated occasionally with catastrophic temblors that unexpectedly knock the moving train of human history onto an entirely different track in just a few harrowing moments.

    I love the reminder that geological time includes the present.

    I love the logarithmic scale used to measure earthquakes – from the tremors so tiny they go unnoticed to the minutes-long, city-shattering calamities that cannot be missed.

    I love the immensity of the energy released in a quake. Earthquakes give me, an atheist, the same sense of the numinous that I suspect many people of faith find in their gods. I once knew a twelve-stepper atheist who chose “The Ocean” as his higher power. I think I would choose “Plate Tectonics” as mine.

    I love the landscapes created by seismic activity – that beautiful, long Crystal Springs Reservoir that I commute along every day is really the San Andreas fault: beauty and danger all at once, yin and yang, each impossible without the other.

    I love the concept of liquefaction: the old, reliable, solid earth suddenly transforming itself into a fluid. Waves rippling through solid rock, rifts opening up where there was once solid ground, buildings sinking into the earth that once supported them, land shifting past land – displacing roads, fence lines, aqueducts, or any other linear object constructed by humans with the intent of permanence. Nothing is as sturdy or immovable as it seems.

    Humans become like ants, smashed in their fragile shelters, swept away by water, dead numbering in the tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands – all in a blink of the eye. And then, like ants, we repopulate, rebuild, swarm into the wreckage and continue on. We rebuild, futile as it may be in the face of the inevitable next catastrophe, but valuable none-the-less on the tiny scale of our lives. It’s the only thing we can do, really.

    Every quake is a memento mori – interrupting my mundane existence and knocking the reality of the tenuousness of my life, city, and civilization into stark focus.

    I’m a native San Franciscan. As a child, I had an elderly neighbor who was another native San Franciscan. She remembered being a child in 1906. After the quake she and her family walked to the top of the hill that we lived on, and from that vantage point they watched the city burn. She made that history real for me, and when my family walked to the top of that same hill in 1989 to attempt to survey the damage, I felt history coming full circle. Earthquakes are part of this place, and this place is part of me, and I became more ‘of this place’ when I lived through one of its significant earthquakes.

    As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time at the old California Academy of Sciences. They had two generations of earthquake simulators over the course of my childhood, and every single time I walked past one of those simulators, I would get on it and go for a ride. It never got old. I loved those earthquake machines. I’m sure I experienced the simulated 1906 quake hundreds of times.

    In preparation for the 1906 centennial, I spent the last few months of 2005 and the first few months of 2006 reading every book about that earthquake that I could get my hands on. I visited Lotta’s fountain, the golden fire hydrant, that dividing line where old and new construction demarcate where the fire was stopped, and some of the surviving earthquake shacks (proto-FEMA trailers, still in use). I walked the street that used to mark the bay waterfront, where everything now to the east is built on landfill: rubble from one big quake shoveled into the bay, supporting skyscrapers, and ready to liquefact in the next big one.

    In the course of all that reading I stumbled upon another earthquake that I now feel deeply connected to: the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. I was born on its anniversary – not just any anniversary, but a numerologically round and elegant anniversary. And this was not just any earthquake. It was a huge, important quake. Tens of thousands of deaths. Numerous cathedrals collapsed upon congregations celebrating All Saints Day. An enormous tsunami that pulled back, revealing shipwrecks on the harbor floor, and then gushed onto land, leaving rubble in its wake. Its occurrence on a religious holiday called into question the existence and/or motivations of God for the people who survived it. I love that earthquake, in particular, for having occurred on that date.

    I haven’t experienced the personal loss of someone I cared about in an earthquake, nor have I spent days or weeks worrying that someone I know might have been killed or harmed in one. I haven’t experienced that zoomed-in, personal scale of fear and grief related to an earthquake. I know it’s there. I see the photos, and I hear the personal stories – friends of friends – acquaintances of family members of friends – colleagues of colleagues. I send charitable contributions. I shake my head in sorrow at the scale of the many personal tragedies all playing out at once. But still, I remain in love.

    I know that having a close personal connection to someone in harms way in a tragedy like this one would change my perspective, but I doubt I would fall out of love with earthquakes. In spite of the possibility of days of suffering trapped in rubble, or terror of being swept up in a tsunami, I think I would prefer that death over many others. It would be a death as part of something bigger and beautiful – a big moment in human history, and simultaneously only a tick of the geological clock. I can think of many worse, more trivial and senseless ways to go out than that.

  3. erin says:

    Wow. And how are mere mortals to compete in the love and dating department?!

    And I’m struck by how much your thoughts tie together these essays of ours about Japan with Mira’s latest on the disappearing islands. Respect and awe are the only responses that are clearly correct.

  4. Reb Deb says:

    Zoe — This is why there’s a brachah, a blessing, to be recited upon seeing, hearing, or experiencing great wonders of nature. In fact, two different brachot — one for things which already exist (in a way) — lightning, shooting star, high mountain, great desert — and another for “occurrences” — thunder, hurricane, earthquake, or obviously tsunami would come in this category. (There’s a separate one for rainbows and another for seeing the ocean after not having seen it for a month. Also about 15 others.) Anyway, in Jewish tradition, saying a blessing is an acknowledgment of that awareness of the “numinous” you mentioned. There are lots of ways to acknowledge it — this happens to be the traditional Jewish one. I’d say that the existence of a blessing suggests that in Jewish tradition, at least, you’re not wrong at all to be in love with earthquakes, for all the cool reasons you mentioned. After all, a blessing begins by acknowledging an abundance/overflow of blessing. If one is directed to say that upon experiencing an earthquake, then obviously terror or sorrow is not the only accepted response.

    • mira says:

      Deb, I would very much like a copy of these brachot — it seems that they may well be of increasing service to us in the days and years to come.

    • erin says:

      Now, how am I supposed to do anything but want to convert and join your shul from afar when you write stuff like that, Deb?

  5. Reb Deb says:

    Mira — I’ll provide a copy. I’m quite fond of them. There’s a stardard list, but I found a list in a 1928 prayer book that has a couple more and different brachot than I’ve found anywhere else.

    Erin — why do you think my shul’s so successful . No, it’s not all me. But there are reasons our membership is holding steady, and we’re attracting 20- and 30-somethings, at a time that many synagogues are losing members. *Meaning* is what it’s all about.

    I can’t be your converting rabbi, sorry. *That* would cross professional boundaries. I’ve thought for years that Judaism would suit you. But I think you’re too fond of Lutheran community to actively join another one. I also think that so far you do your spiritual seeking intellectually, without a prayer or celebration community, and that seems to be enough.

    • erin says:

      I knew your shul’s successful?

      OK, well yeah, I figured.

      We’ll get someone else to do the converting, and while we’re at it, how about you move the mispacha west?

      Yes, I think you’re right that Judaism would suit me. While I acknowledge my Lutheran identity as something that has undeniably soaked in through my pores—an involuntary reflex like breathing—it’s not like I’m an active participant or would lose anything by converting. Jews are allowed to make tuna noodle hotdish and listen to the St Olaf Choir, too, aren’t they?

      But you’re right—my spiritual seeking, if such you could call it, seems to find plenty of release in intellectual pursuits and my work as an itinerant mercenary musician. No religious community need take my cantankerous self on. Rabbis everywhere may breathe easier this shabbes.

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