Starting out with a clean slate
Last week, I sat down for a comforting dinner of baked chicken, escalloped potatoes and delicious bread pudding at a senior center over 100 miles from home.
I didn't know anybody in the room, so I made conversation by asking people where they were from, what they did, and so on.
A jolly man at my table was full of jokes and humor. When he found out where I was from, he said, "I used to teach school in your area."
I played county attorney, pelting the man with questions about what he taught and what years he was in our neighborhood.
After he shifted a bit, he said, "Well, I really don't know."
He went on to explain that he was badly hurt in an accident, which wiped out all memory of his past.
"My education?" he said without a hint of complaint. "Gone!"
I didn't know what to ask next. The utter tragedy of losing your past, of having to memorize by rote your own history as if you were studying for a test, sent me into a whirl of thought.
To think how the man not only recovered, but seemed to be incredibly well-adjusted.
We sat in silence, cleaned off our chicken bones and savored the bread pudding.
The next day, the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, wiping out entire towns and cities.
A particular video, six minutes long, made a vivid impact.
The amateur footage, shot first from street level and later from levels on a steep hillside as the cameraman sought higher ground, showed a trickle roll up a calm neighborhood street like water spilt out of a pail. Within a minute, the trickle became a torrent.
Soon, cars and trucks on the street were swept away.
The water kept rising. It broke through store windows and roared into the buildings.
Finally, the buildings themselves began to float away, power lines snapping as they departed. Some buildings crumbled into clouds of dust, others passed by intact.
It is one thing to hear about cities wiped out. It is another to actually see a neighborhood with its shops, restaurants and apartment buildings disappear in slow motion over a mere six minutes.
Aerial images of the Japan tragedy show entire cities wiped off the map. Before and after photos make it obvious that countless similar neighborhoods, home to hundreds of thousands of people, have been reduced to so many thousand acres of mud.
Somewhere back in elementary school, we read a story of a Japanese village wiped out by a tsunami. That story stuck in my head, and the word tsunami still conjures up childhood fears of obliteration, even though our nearest coast is 1,700 miles distant.
Now that I have seen a tsunami in motion, the terrifying picture is complete.
Huge natural disasters prompt a variety of responses, ranging from the unsympathetic, "You wonder why they built there knowing that could happen?" to a despairing, "How could a loving God allow such tragedy?"
This time, my thoughts were shaped by the man who had his mental landscape wiped clean by an accident. Everything he knew was gone.
In the video, villagers on a hillside in Japan watched their entire known lives disappear.
We have natural disasters in the Midwest, from fires to floods to tornadoes and windstorms.
Those disasters change the lives of those they touch, and change the look of the towns they strike for good.
But rarely is an entire area wiped utterly clean.
The deaths and injuries in Japan are tragic enough. But what strikes me is the courage that is going to be required of the survivors to rebuild an entire existence.
It is the same courage that so impressed me in the man I met last week. He started from scratch and rebuilt a life.
Most of our disasters bring communities together to fight, mourn, encourage and rebuild.
But the people in Japan may never see their neighbors again, even if they survived. There is nowhere left to meet. There is nothing left to repair.
After watching the video of the tsunami, I walked outside and was thankful for every tree. I looked across the farm and was thankful for every building, every junk pile, every sign that things are today just as they were yesterday.
That little comfort, and my ability to remember the stories attached to the place, for a moment seemed like a rare luxury to be savored like a chubby raisin in a moist spoonful of bread pudding.