March 22, 2011
After the earthquake and tsunami on Friday, March 11, from the middle to the north of the main island, Honshu, life in Japan has changed for everyone. Nearly 500,000 people are living in evacuation facilities and the count of the dead and missing has just gone over 20,000. Those figures are estimates, since it is too difficult to get near many places because of the damage from the tsunami. Many foreigners have already fled the country.
Fears of radiation from the damaged nuclear plant and some 200 nerve-rattling aftershocks keep everyone edgy and uncomfortable. In Tokyo, shortages of rice, milk, toilet paper and batteries have started here and there and rotating electrical stoppages have reduced consumption. Those who are relatively OK have seen horrifying images on television: bodies pulled from the wreckage, villages turned to rubble, hospitals operating in the dark, hundreds of people huddled on blankets in evacuation shelters.
As the initial shock eases, people are re-thinking life and death, and what it means to live well and live meaningfully. I’m wondering, where does jazz fit? Jazz, and music, is one of the central pillars in my life. I sock in hours a day listening, an hour playing if I can find it. Since the quake, though, I have hardly listened to anything at all! Why is that?
Television takes a lot of time. We moved our dining table to better see the screen. Seeing the situation, figuring out how to help, and being sure radiation is not worsening all mix together in grisly detail. When the TV gets turned off, the silence becomes profound. Music hardly crossed my mind for over a week.
But when our turn arrived for the neighborhood’s first electrical outage at night, I carried my guitar, an electric hollow body, down to the only warm room in the house. In the solar lights, I played until my hand cramped, mostly old songs that I’ve known for a long time, but haven’t even thought of in years.
I usually stumble over chord changes and rhythms, but that night, I stumbled over the feelings. Choking up on certain verses and sniffling back tears at the choruses, I felt such strange feelings, old and new, all deep, all confusing. Music brought those feelings out and gave them voice and direction to search out their meanings and find hidden parts of myself.
As conditions improve in Tokyo, the need and the desire for music has started to return. But electricity has not. Stores in Tokyo turn off half their lights. Tokyo must have the greatest concentration of escalators in the world, but most have now been switched off. Even baseball teams canceled games to save electricity. Batteries are sold out in most stores.
So, to turn on the stereo involves a bit of guilt. Music is not a luxury, but it feels that way now. To indulge makes me think of others in worse situations. But to suppress the joy in life that music expresses does not help anyone either. And so, little by little, I’ve come back to music. Or maybe, it has come back to me.
I feel a deepening of the need for music now. I am less patient with trivial and superficial music, and crave depth and genuine feeling more than ever before. When one’s life can be ripped away in an instant, as happened to hundreds of thousands in Japan, there seems so little time to waste. Music deepens the capacity for feeling. It offers comfort and opens the mind. It connects us, across time and across distance. People need those things all the time, and even more so, when tragedy strikes.
Tokyo is returning to normal and evacuees are arriving by the busload. Musicians are organizing benefits and most clubs are operating again. Music cannot be subtracted from life’s equation. It can only be added.
For those who care and can afford to, below are a number of choices to send a contribution to the aid effort. If you can, please contribute. Turn your thoughts to those who have lost so much, in hopes that the world might change to lessen the blows of natural forces and to stop the human mistakes, like nuclear power, that make life harder than it needs to be.