Two weeks ago I was in Berkeley visiting a friend when I saw news coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It’s amazing, the change that takes place in the two seconds which transfer you from ignorance to knowledge—or to try and say this more clearly: when I woke up that Friday morning, Japan was already experiencing the aftershocks that follow catastrophic natural disaster. Had I turned on the news on the car radio, or checked BBC news online before leaving my friend’s house, I would have known what was happening sooner. But instead, I went about my day in the usual way, thinking how beautiful it was, how good it felt to be away from work, away from the chill of Massachusetts. And then, standing in someone else’s living room, listening to CNN’s correspondents speak with the level urgency characteristic of newscasters reporting really bad news, my understanding of the state of the world–our world—on that particular morning, changed.
There’s something about momentous occasions, awful or magnificent, that seems to heighten my awareness of the world around me. My senses experience an adrenaline rush, a massive increase in the intensity of their perceptions. I remember so many details of that living room…its furnishings, the way light entered from its windows and glass doors, the photographs on the walls, how the floor felt beneath my feet.
One of the questions I was asked most often when I was traveling outside the United States was where I was on September 11. I talked about it while wandering around the Royal Crescent in Bath, England, walking beside the Danube in Vienna, in the back of a taxi cab in Paris, from the lower bunk of a sleeper car somewhere in Portugal, a coffee shop in Bruges, and probably at least a dozen other places.
Those conversations always made me think about all the places I’ve been when I heard world-changing news for the first time. It’s an odd assortment, really. The things which stick with you are funny; they aren’t always what you’d expect.
I remember watching Bush declare the war on Afghanistan from a bar in Honduras, almost a decade ago now, when I had just turned 15.
I was flying out of Darwin, Australia when the men attempted to smuggle liquid explosives onto US-bound planes in London in the summer of 2006, and later that day I spent hours in the Sydney airport while every passenger on my flight to Los Angeles was patted down, each bag searched, everything scrutinized in a way that then was startlingly in its invasiveness, and that now is just the way things are.
I was in bed in Connecticut, listening to the radio, when I heard about Princess Diana’s death.
I was in Paris when Congress passed Obama’s healthcare bill. I remember the part of that same city I was in when I read about the first eruption of the Icelandic volcano, the death of the Polish president in a plane crash,
I was at work in my book store when I read that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, an alumna of my college and my class’s commencement speaker had been shot outside a pharmacy in Arizona.
These places are woven firmly into my memory. Not only do I remember being called out of geometry to be told that the first plane had hit the tower, and then watching, from the floor of my English classroom, arms wrapped around my knees, as the second plane hit and the towers fell—I also remember every conversation I’ve had about those moments.
I think I care about all these places–usually places so far away from wherever the events reported were actually happening–in a way that helps me to care more about places I’ve never been.
Some of the news coverage of earthquake and tsunami upset me a lot, particularly the stories concerning the number of Americans possibly living and traveling through affected parts of Japan, or the footage of men in Santa Cruz attempting to secure yachts more firmly against the powerful waves. Watching video coverage of the swells along the California coast—mere ripples next to the giant walls of water that crashed onto the Japanese coastline mere hours earlier—I was struck by the tangential way other people’s tragedies can effect our own lives.
There are so many things that separate us—time zones, oceans, mountains and deserts, thousands of miles of boundaries and borders, innumerable differences of language and culture. But there are also important things about all human beings that are the same: we are all fragile; the bodies we live in, like the homes, cities and societies we build, are breakable. And all of us only live once.
So I will remember the details of the high-ceilinged living room I stood in California where I first saw the shaky video footage of collapsed buildings, broken streets and buildings on fire in the northeastern Japanese cities near the epicenter of the earthquake. I’ll remember the way my thoughts went instantly to my uncle Nobu, and my friend Hitomi, and their family and friends. Maybe this is an related to the news stories about Americans possibly abroad in Japan: we are most affected by what is closest to us, by whatever or whoever we feel most connected to, and I think it’s the idea of connection that stays with me, that burns the details of these places into my mind.
For every place I feel forever connected to, I feel more connected to everyplace. And this is one of the things I love about traveling, the opportunity to form memories in more and more places, to feel more directly connected to the world around me.