On the day the earth-quake struck Japan, I lost a small brown envelope containing £300. The cash was meant to pay the driver collecting a friend at Heathrow, pay for 20 new rosemary plants to replace the ones killed by the arctic winter, and convert into Euros for a trip to Paris at the end of the month. I spent hours retracing my steps. I looked in the game larder, the boot room, the machinery shed. I walked the dog with my eyes fixed on the ground. I went through every drawer in the kitchen, the bedroom and my study. I excavated the pockets of every coat I own.
Although embarrassed to admit my carelessness, I called the post office to ask Hilda if I’d left the envelope on the shelf when I posted packages to America. I emptied the Daunt Books bag that’s replaced my handbag, useful because it’s large enough to carry newspapers, hopeless because everything sinks inside. Keys vanish, mobile phones disappear, pens hide.
When I wasn’t searching for the lost money, I turned on the news and watched another kind of loss. Loss on an unimaginable scale. Homes lost. Livelihoods lost. Towns lost. Lives lost. Whole families lost. I watched transfixed as ships heaved and were sucked under bridges, as thousands of cars were crushed, as houses were swept away like toy sailboats, as water as black as oil rose like a monster, destroying everything in its path.
You’d think that, by now, anyone with a television, a radio and a daily newspaper would have acquired an immunity to shock Katrina, Haiti, Deepwater Horizon, floods in Queensland and Pakistan, New Zealand but each disaster seems to surpass all that precedes it and the heartbreaking horror feels as raw and unbearable as it was unimaginable only the day before.
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As the days passed and news of aftershocks and body counts gave way to explosions in stricken nuclear plants, I tried to make myself stop looking for the money. Every time I found myself unconsciously digging in a pocket, I cursed myself for my obsessive pettiness. And I thought of the Japanese people with their dignity, their gaman, more concept than word, which means a sense of endurance, a kind of grace in the face of disaster.
Japan, smaller in land than California, but with a population four times as great, has endured earthquakes and typhoons before. Each year, on September 1, Disaster Prevention Day, Japanese schoolchildren have drills and films. This day is the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that killed 140,000, and the children are reminded that they live on an archipelago that endures 10% of the world’s seismic activity.
Few of the schoolchildren have families who recall that disaster. Indeed, few Japanese will now remember atomic attacks, although all schoolchildren know that theirs is the only nation ever to have suffered destruction from atomic bombs. In the end, there is no assurance that a Disaster Prevention Day can ever prepare us for the worst to come. We who live on this small island travel with secret papers, unwritten protection from seismic faults and the worst of natural disasters. Instead of preparing for disaster, we should practise gratitude for such a benevolent patch of Earth.
We might begin by putting less pressure on it: reduce the speed limit, turn off the lights. Last night, at midnight, shuffling papers on my desk, I spotted the small brown envelope. I opened it, stared at the notes, Queen side up. The day before, I’d made a deal with myself. If I found the money, I’d send the whole wad to Shelter Box (www.ShelterBox.org), the charity now sending boxes filled with basic everything to Japan, and I said a silent prayer of thanks. Not for finding the money, but because sometimes things converge and you remember what really matters.