2011 Golden Pen Award Living Poet
Anne Thomas

Anne Thomas, 62, lives in Sendai, Japan, where she works part time at Miyagi Gakuin Women's University, among other places. She was born in Frederick, Maryland, but left at age 14 and did not go back to visit until the summer of 2010. She considers age to be meaningless after age 50, and Japan to be home, so chose to remain there, despite losing her residence, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. This prose poem is an excerpt of her writings sent e-mail during a 2-month period of aftershocks (which continue as this book goes to press in September 2011). Anne is an Aries.

(Sendai, Japan--4/12-11)

Dear Family and Friends:
Last night Izumi came home and told us frogs were all over the road below her mother's house. They usually appear in the heat of summer and croak their joyous songs all night. But there they were in mid-April and on a rather cool night at that. "The world is all confused now," said Izumi. "I think another big quake will soon come. I remember seeing snakes come out of their holes when I was a child and soon after we had a big quake. Maybe animals know sooner than we do."

She also told me that tori gates, which mark the start of steps up to Shinto shrines, were originally placed at the limit of tsunami waves. People knew they should build their lives about that highly significant level. In times past folks said, "There are four things to be afraid of: earthquakes (and tsunami), lightning, fire, and grandfathers. And always remember that earthquakes come first on that list." But it is human nature to forget.

And with the advances in technology, people have progressively felt superior to the forces of nature. But this current ongoing upheaval is a poignant lesson in humility. So are damaged houses marked with big red letters "OK" that means rescue workers have checked that particular building and cleared it of any dead bodies, if any were found.

Most of us still sleep in our clothes even now. Not because we are in shelters and have no choice. Rather it is because of the ongoing daily quakes, some very strong. Better to run out of the house fully dressed than in pajamas, especially if the building falls down.

I sense that one of the hard parts when this is over will be to gracefully give up living with such constant intensity. It becomes a way of being and later it might be challenging to shed that acute, ongoing, emergency level of alertness. But maybe we are not ready for that just yet. Life everywhere has been turned upside down since this all began. And that makes it a continuing challenge to find and maintain an inner equilibrium. But in many ways I appreciate this unloosening of habit, this breaking up of well-trodden paths.

A few years ago I took several "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" classes. In them we were always encouraged to put aside the structures that our habits had created and to experience life afresh. When we drew something, the teacher would take it, turn it upside down, and say, "Look again. What do you see when you have to deal with the unexpected? How flexible can you be when you step out of familiar territory? What are you going to do with your drawing now that you see it in a different way?"

The other day I was perched on a stool in a very small real estate agent's. There was another man there talking about his new apartment. He started telling about the place he was moving out of. "That old shack is really falling down. The front door does not close. The floor is wavy like the ocean. The bathroom floor is very precarious. And the whole house tilts downward." I got an inner chuckle out of what he said because those are the exact words I had used to describe the shack-turned-hovel I am moving out of.

Then almost in the same breath, his true Japanese heart shone through. He said, "I was down by the river the other day and the sakura trees were about to burst into full bloom. They were spectacular. Really gorgeous. You should go have a look. You will forget all your worries for a while." When he was ready to go, this very tall, exceedingly thin man stood up, put on gloves with skeleton bones painted on them and glided out the door. I wondered if I had been dreaming.

In Sendai we always say, "You can't do anything bad here because everyone knows what everyone else has done, is doing, and will do." As the time approaches for me to move, I am noticing a very subtle tendency to go along familiar streets to get from here to my new place. But then I catch myself and say, "No, wait. Don't freeze up. Stay open. Try something new."

Luckily, I heed my own advice and take a long way round, down unfamiliar lanes, finding marvelous homes with lovely gardens, tree-filled parks tucked away, an unexpected shrine, and even a huge vegetable field right in the middle of this built-up neighborhood. . . I saw kids thrilled with the jagged lines in a broken pavement. "Look at this. Isn't it fun?" one girl asked her friends as she hopped her way down the cracks. And further on surrounded by rubble, I watched an old woman put her gnarled hands into the rich black earth that was hers and start to turn it in anticipation of planting.

I really hope when work starts up again and I have to keep a regular schedule, I will stay open, make time to explore new places both outer and inner, and keep my heart keen on living in uncertainty with anticipation, acceptance, and even joy. And as one of my former students, now a friend, wrote to me, things are looking up in many ways. This is what she said:

"I had good weekend.
On Saturday, I finally got gasoline on my car.
Full tank!
Then I headed to my sister's place to take a bath.
First full bath!
I washed and washed and washed from head and toe.
Then Sunday, my best friend, Yuka,
and her husband,
and one year and half old son came over.
It was surely great to have a nice conversations with them.
I laughed a lot!
Some part of our conversations
was about nuclear power plant issues
and he started telling me this and that...
I know it was not his intention
but it freaked me out a bit.
The last big jishin (earthquake) was just unexpected.
It is hard to believe that it was 'aftershock' from the initial one. . .
Some stuffs fell off but not too much.
At that night, I just put clothes on
and went to bed just in case.
Before all those small aftershocks were happening less and less,
however after this big one,
it seems that small aftershocks are happening again.
Yes, it is very hard on the nerves.
Sometimes it is too constant.
I cannot wait to see some beautiful cherry blossoms
and just feel the spring breeze on my face.
I never felt this way before
but just thinking of spring
is kind of inspiring
and cherry blossoms are symbolic for new beginning."

With love from Anne