Soft and Heavy

Oh, Japan.

My head is spinning, horrible images swirling. I will not say “like water.” There is no poetry to be made from this tragedy, not by me.  Inescapable. Except I didn’t have to escape anything. Not really. Not like hundreds of thousands who did or did not. I can’t imagine it.

I have had to turn away from the images over the last day. Knowing myself as someone exceedingly susceptible to visual imagery, I should have stopped myself from clicking on the countless video links that have popped up on Facebook. But I didn’t. Like most of us, I just could not understand the magnitude of destruction. Now I do and the images will stay.

I sometimes wish I could turn off my empathy. Or dial it down. This sounds odd, maybe. Boastful? “Look at all my empathy!” But I don’t mean it that way. I mean that I can paralyze myself–and I have–with my well-honed ability to relate the tragedy of others to my own life. To imagine myself inside of it.

When I was a kid, I did this morbid (but probably not so unusual) thing of actively imagining the death of my parents. I would lie in my bed at night and imagine myself into hyperventilating sobs. Why would I do this? I guess to prepare myself for inevitability? But when the day came, all of my imagining had, of course,  not prepared me for the loss of my dad. Seems silly in retrospect. Seems ridiculous.

I found out last week that I’ve had an essay accepted for publication at one of my favorite places, Brevity. It’s a lyric piece that grew out of a news story from a few years ago which affected me much the way the news of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are affecting me now. It’s about, among other things, what I feel to be one of my biggest failings as a parent: my fragility in the face of hardship. Of real tragedy. Children overcome by fire. Children ripped from parents by dark, violent water. Children in peril anywhere and everywhere. I think to myself, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t possibly survive it. And then a tsunami happens and I am cowed by my own cowardice. I think of the countless parents who do, who must, and I feel ashamed and privileged that all I have to survive are my own fears. Which is what all parents have to do every day.

Japan. I started this post not knowing what I would say–is this blog for reflections of this sort?–but with a sense that I needed to mark it in some way. I don’t want to trivialize, but while part of me believes that the very act of attempting to describe such unthinkable suffering with language is itself a kind of violence, another part of me–the part that writes memoir–believes that writing should bear witness and remember.  That it can be a salve and a sustenance of spirit.

So I will end with an anecdote, a small prayer for the people of Japan. I ate my first pieces of sushi with my father when I was in college and it changed my life. I have shared platters with many people over the years since, including  my friend Marc, who, stirring wasabi into soy, insisted, “It’s not sushi unless you’re crying,” and my own kids. Josephine eats her roll by poking the salmon and avocado out with her index finger and eating it first, then unrolling and eating the rice and seaweed. Rudy won’t eat plain spaghetti or chicken noodle soup, but give him an eel roll and watch him swoon.

But my favorite sushi moment of my life to date was with my niece, Lauren, when she was 9 or 10 years old. She came to visit me here in State College, before Paul and I were married and I was still living downtown, just around the corner from a sushi place where I spent way too much money during grad school. She had never had it before, but even then fancied herself a gourmand and insisted she wanted to try. Lauren was born the year after my father died. Before I told my kids stories about their grandfather, about his adventurous palate and odd affinities, I told her. I told her too how much he would have loved her, his first grandchild.

At lunch that day, I explained the menu to her. I asked her what she would like to try and she said, “Salmon.” I reminded her that this was raw fish we were talking about, and suggested that she might like one of the tempura rolls better. But she insisted, and when the roll appeared on the blue and white ceramic platter in front of her, she did not hesitate. I watched, awed by her surety and bravery. Her sense of adventure. Would I have eaten raw salmon at the age of 10? I don’t know, but it was clear to me that she was not just eating it to please her aunt or her grandfather. She was really enjoying it.

When I asked her what she thought, she offered what I still think of as the best description of salmon sushi I’ve ever heard: “It’s soft and heavy,” she said, smiling, and reached for another piece.

Soft and heavy. Perfect. Yes.

Tonight, my heart: soft with memory.

Tonight, my heart: heavy with prayer.

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