ON RESCUING A BOOK FROM A TSUNAMI
Of all the things that can jolt a person awake in the dim early hours of the morning, a tsunami warning has to be one of the least pleasant. But several months after moving to the seaside town of Ichinomiya, I had the distinct displeasure of experiencing that for myself.
As the sirens blared, I rubbed my eyes and hit my alarm clock, only to realize that the ungodly noise was coming from outside. My phone beside my bed began to buzz with an alert. The message was in Japanese, and I couldn’t read it all, but I knew enough kanji to understand:
Big earthquake off the coast.
Get to safety at once.
For a few seconds I hesitated, uncertain. Surely this couldn’t be real? It had to be a drill. But then a voice came on the loudspeaker from the city hall, blaring the same message over the awakening town: Big earthquake. High tsunami waves coming. Get to high ground.
Looking at my alarm clock, I realized with a sinking feeling that it was only 5 am. There are no public drills at 5 am. If the sirens were going off now, while it was still dark and most of the town was still sleeping—it had to be real.
My house was two miles from the coast, but tsunamis can and do travel that far inland. Images flashed in my mind of the vast destruction I’d seen in videos of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, and I threw off my covers and quickly put on some clothes. The high rooftop of the city hall was the nearest safe spot in the case of a tsunami, and thankfully it was just across the street from my apartment. Still, I had no idea how soon disaster might hit. Every second counted.
I snatched my wallet and my flashdrive (where I had my novel saved), then bolted down the steps and out of my apartment. But just as I was out the door, I halted.
In the worst case scenario, I thought, if a killer wave destroys this town, I’m going to want one more thing with me. That thing was a certain book—specifically, an English translation of Meditations by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: a diary on life, philosophy, fate, and adversity. Written nearly 2,000 years ago, its pages are full of reflections on weathering life’s storms, facing loss and hardship with grace, and going through life with gratitude. That book had helped me through some very dark times, and I knew that if I survived this, then I was going to want its wisdom with me. Besides, in Japan, it wasn’t as if I could quickly get my hands on another English copy. If a wave really did destroy my town, then I would want that book with me now.
In the distance—was it my imagination, or could it really be?— I thought I heard the roar of the sea.
Thinking quickly, not knowing how much time I had, I decided that going back for that book was worth the risk. I hurried back up the stairs to my apartment, grabbed the book from my shelf, and then ran back outside. To anyone else’s eyes, I’d just done something reckless and stupid. But I could already feel a certain peace of mind come over me as, Meditations in hand, I made for the city hall.
Now, anyone who had been to Ichinomiya in the past couple years can tell you definitively that no, the town most certainly was not destroyed in a tsunami. And this is where my tale takes a humorous turn: apparently there are such things in the world as public disaster drills at 5 am, and I’d have known that if only I hadn’t misread the kanji on my phone and understood just one more word of Japanese vocabulary—“kunren,” meaning “drill.” Ah, okay. Lesson learned.
I always recall this story with a laugh, but the truth is that it taught me something valuable about myself—namely, how I might react in the face of a disaster. People can and will argue the actual wisdom of running back into a house to grab a precious belonging if a real disaster is approaching, but I was relieved at least to find that I remained collected, deliberate, and in control throughout what I thought was a life-threatening situation.
All of this I suppose is really a book recommendation disguised as a story. We all get those recommendations from friends: “Oh, you have to read this book, it’s so exciting!” or “You need to check this out, this book changed my life.” Well, Meditations is a book that I actually meant to risk my life in order to rescue from a tsunami because I thought it would be that valuable to have with me in the aftermath. As far as recommendations go, I don’t think they come much stronger than this.