No Japan is an Island

On Friday, March 11, I was staying in a Santa Monica beach hotel. The phone rang at 6:00 a.m., a friend calling from down the hall to say we had to evacuate; his fiancé had phoned from another time zone to say a tidal wave was going to hit at 8:34, and we had to leave now. It sounded half-dreamt. But then I turned on the TV and saw Japan.

In our car by 6:10, we drove in a dazed, aimless way. We had to go east, inland, to escape danger. "Do you want to go to Mount Baldy?" I asked, as if we were on an excursion. The moment felt surreal in its semi-normalcy: the sun rising, the air warming, Arnold Schwarzenegger riding his bike along Ocean Avenue.

People drove to work, and we got stuck in traffic. We turned on the radio, wanting hard, on-site reporting but instead got morning jocks. Who knew the tsunami could be so hilarious? The sky was cerulean, heart-achingly blue. We stopped at the Chateau Marmont for breakfast, and I felt weirdly ashamed.

I sat in the decadent plush lobby, sure I was in the wrong place, feeling a primal pull back to the Pacific. At 8:35 we returned to Santa Monica. The beachfront appeared to be intact; the hotel hadn't washed away.

But still: the ocean looked different. It seemed more full, and when waves rose, never too high, the break seemed gentle, with a long carpet of white sea foam that never quite receded but just kept coming in a constant hiss. It seemed like a Stephen King ocean.

All day long, news reports came in. Six hundred dead, seven hundred: early times. Reporters interviewed Los Angeles residents unable to get through to family in Japan. More footage, and we watched the tsunami devastate Sendai again and again, from different angles, a flat screen of misery.

I grew up in an East Coast beach family that never heeded hurricane warnings; when they came, we stayed put and saw the storm through. Once we watched twenty-foot waves break over a cottage built on the sand, then carry it out to sea. We watched in shocked wonder as the waves bore the house away, aching for the family and all that was already lost.

The tsunami surged along the California coast. Not pounding and thrashing like East Coast hurricanes, but with deceptive power. The sea didn't "act" in a violent way. But while the surface seemed calm, deep-down currents spun into whirlpools and eddies, causing boats in marinas to drift and twirl, destroying docks and each other.

We can't take our eyes off Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and a second maybe leaking radiation. I think of Connecticut's Millstone nuclear plant, within sight of our family's house. It has always loomed across the bay, its tall red and white stack reminding us of ever-present danger. One year the town passed out packets of iodine pills, to counteract radiation in case of a meltdown.

Small measures, whistling in the dark, when it comes to the hugeness of disaster. For a short while I felt comforted having the pills in my drawer. Fantasy protection handed out by the town, with an expiration date stamped in silver foil.

Earth, our beautiful, fragile home. One tectonic plate slid under another, and the tsunami roared out. Susan Robertson, a psychologist, said, "The earth is wild in Japan--well, everywhere. We are lucky to be spared, temporarily. For the moment, we are the repositories of life being okay. This is how I see it."

The edge is blurred. We send rescue workers and donate via text to the Red Cross. Scientists say that radiation from Tokyo's reactor is likely to enter the food chain, which begins with cells in the sea. The food chain is global. So is hope. We send ours, and in turn are inspired by theirs. Or maybe there is no "ours" and "theirs."

That first day I stood with my feet in the Pacific Ocean, on its easternmost edge, and felt the surge and tug from an earthquake across the world. The Pacific plate, the one that shifted and sent the earth into turmoil, was directly beneath the sand under my feet. The Japanese are suffering greatly, and all I know to do is understand we're connected by grace and salt water.

Luanne Rice is the author of the novel The Silver Boat, coming out from Pamela Dorman Books in April.