Tuesday, March 29, 2011


It was almost midnight. The boys came running into the kitchen and grabbed my hands, and led me outside to the darkness. A soft breeze was blowing. The sky was full of stars. They didn’t say anything. What is it? I asked.

Their father, David, was standing in the doorway behind us. “They want you to see the stars,” he said. The boys nodded enthusiastically, staring up at the sky.

The boys, Joshua and Jonathan, had spent their entire three and four years, respectively, inside the skein of perpetual manmade light that envelopes Tokyo.
That skein was recently invaded by radioactivity, which is how the boys and their parents ended up at Holly Grove, my home in rural Mississippi. I knew David from back when he lived in Jackson. We'd emailed back and forth after the earthquake in Japan, and once they were evacuated they needed a place to stay, for an indeterminate time.

Considering that the family had been uprooted for reasons that the boys could not fully grasp, and that they live in a city with a greater population of almost 30 million, it’s not surprising that Mississippi was an alien world to them. For starters, it was very dark when they arrived. Then: Magic. The stars.

Their mother, Ryoko, had cried when she got out of the car and saw the stars. It was such a relief to be away from the turmoil of Japan, and it had been so long since she’d seen a clear night sky. Plus they’d been traveling for more than 24 hours, after days of uncertainty and gas masks in Tokyo.

When I asked about the quake Ryoko did a little slo-mo dance, illustrating what she felt in her office in a Tokyo high rise. It began with up-and-down motion, after which came the violent lurching from side to side. She acted it out without even realizing it, as if her body were recalling muscle memory. The boys followed suit, dropping to the floor the way they’d dropped to their hands and knees on the playground when the earth began to move. The quake went on for so long that many of Ryoko’s coworkers began to cry out, thinking they were about to die. By then everyone was under their desks and tall furniture was tipping over, everything making grinding and slamming noises. Through the windows she could see the other buildings swaying.

After the worst ended, Ryoko and her coworkers crawled out from under their desks and watched on TV as the tsunami engulfed towns along Japan’s northeast coast. There wasn’t a lot of damage in Tokyo but communications quickly broke down and she didn’t know how David and the boys were. There was no cell phone service and she and her coworkers were not allowed to leave the building. Finally David called from a pay phone and told her they were OK, and when the workers were allowed to go outside she walked five hours across Tokyo to get home. David had skate-boarded to the daycare center where the boys were. The family was safe. Then came the disaster at the nuclear plant.

Now, on the lawn of Holly Grove, the boys crouched to feel for stones in the gravel drive, momentarily trading the visual spectacle of the night sky for tactile sensation. Each of them picked out two stones to keep, which they later carried with them to bed.

Once the boys were tucked in, we returned to the porch. It was a balmy night, with the scent of jasmine from the flowering vines nearby. Soft air. Ryoko walked through it, arms outstretched to feel it caress her skin. “The air,” she said. “I never want to leave this air.”

It was the air of Tokyo that had ultimately driven them away. There had been little structural damage because the city was designed to flex. The effectiveness of its structural engineering, as well as the taciturn social order, which prevented looting, was almost as remarkable as the disaster itself. Tokyo was also spared the direct effects of the tsunami. It would have been OK to stay were it not for the partial meltdown of the three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant, about 120 miles to the north, and the dispersal of radioactivity in the direction of Tokyo, which held the potential for both incremental and sweeping perils. Because David is a U.S. citizen, the U.S. government assisted in his and his family's evacuation.

The next day, we gingerly indoctrinated the boys about the tiny new perils of Holly Grove in spring: Wasps, fire ants, poison ivy, snakes.
All unknowns, piled atop unknowns. We tried to break it to them gently while on a walk to a spreading live oak whose limbs arch down to the ground. The boys were thrilled with the openness around them, and by the stones, and the acorns along the trail, but they were chastened by our admonitions to not step there, to not touch that plant, and by the insects, large and small, that crowded the airspace on their various missions. Then we came upon three horses on the edge of the woods and the world became tantalizing again.

Clearly, anything could happen. Anything at all.

Each time Ryoko, David and I talked about the quake, or Tokyo, or the future, in adult words, the boys turned gloomy very quickly and began to cry. The crying didn’t last long – soon a bug
was tapping at the glass of the window, attracting their attention, but while it lasted the crying was intense and deep.

They were picking up the scary vibe. Then there were the stars, or the stones, or the horses, or the dogs, or the golf cart, and everything changed again.

It put the unpredictability of our lives in perspective. As we stood outside again the following night, I saw all those stars, each part of its own universe, full of orbiting planets that are cracking open, rumbling, tilting, and thought about how much we take for granted, and perhaps necessarily so. Our planet is a whirling mass of soil and water floating atop molten rock, sheathed in a thin membrane that keeps us alive. It all seems very tentative, and risky. Our vantage points seem narrow, brief and focused. The stars excite us. The quake makes us feel grateful and wary.

Later that next night Jonathan, the oldest, made origami, of a tree, and taught me how to write my name in English and Japanese, as he sat on the floor of the kitchen in his Batman suit, the legs of which were a foot too long.

Nearby Joshua wore his own Batman suit; he beamed each time I glanced in his direction.

Meanwhile, radiation spread through the Tokyo water system.


  1. Neat story...I never thought about not being able to see stars in the city.


  2. i am glad david's family could "make a beeline" to such a magical place--fleeing in terror from one of man's most insane technologies, nuclear energy, and landing sqaurely and solidly in the lap of mother nature in all her serenity. What a leap from one end of the spectrum to the other. i hope that they find a balance from which to process and heal. Holly Grove is the ultimate hostess in all her glory...and alan, it goes without saying that you are a delight. Well wishes to you all in your newfound community.