“So what are you going to do tomorrow, at 2:46?” My friend asks me soberly, yesterday morning.
"I don’t know yet," I say.
Probably, I think to myself, I am going to watch TV and cry. That, after all, is what I did last year at this time. And in order to do so, I will have to go back to my home in Tokyo. I can’t stay in Kesennuma for another day. I am not running any workshops on March 11 anyway. And even if I did, nobody would come.
I was invited to stay here for the remainder of the weekend, to observe the one-year-anniversary with the friends and acquaintances I have made in the disaster area since March 11 last year. And yet, despite all my self-interested curiosity, I just can’t seem to fight this overwhelming feeling that I don’t belong in Kesennuma on March 11th. Rather, I belong in Tokyo, with my husband, watching TV and crying. That is where my roots are. That is what started all of this.
I was only going to volunteer once in Tohoku, with kids in Fukushima for two weeks, but the people I met up there changed me, and I have traveled back and forth to the effected area over twenty times since. In a lot of ways, this year has felt like a lifetime. The experience has been immense.
But as a volunteer, there was one thing I could never do: cry. In fact, I have learned all sorts of new ways to suppress and fight back tears. And trust me, it really comes in handy when the kids start talking to you openly about their classmates, siblings and even parents who were washed away. Holding my breath or jumping or jogging in place really helps at those times, I find. After all, nobody up north wants volunteers to come all the way from Tokyo just to feel sorry for them. There have been enough tears already.
Maybe I knew that I would not be able to keep myself from crying today, and that is part of why I decided to return to Tokyo for the anniversary. One of the most resonant unwritten rules I have observed in all my tours through the tsunami-hit region is this: volunteers don’t cry. We travel to the effected region in order to share love and hope with the victims, not to commiserate.
Granted, volunteering is changing my life and broadening my horizons in ways I never could have imagined before. And yet, the moment the clock strikes 2:46 this afternoon as I sit in front of the TV to observe the moment of silence, it suddenly becomes very, very apparent just how fortunate I am not to have to be a volunteer today.