The Vacant Land


This vacant lot was the site of the home my father grew up in.

I began writing about 3.11.11 nearly four years ago exactly. It was late in the spring of 2014, and I’d just begun a three-year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing through the University of Alaska. The program there is a low-residency format, which at UAA translates to one semester of online followed by a two-week residency, then two semesters of correspondence with an assigned mentor. It was at the end of the online period, with the residency approaching that I tackled the problem of producing manuscripts for workshop during the residency.

How I decided on the tsunami as an essay project is now lost to me. I’d posted a few times about the tsunami in 2011-2012, but incompletely. More than likely, it was feedback from an Academy classmate named Brandon Lingle, who’d stumbled across the posts and recommended I pursue further writing. That in combination with the requirement to produce a couple dozen pages probably made the idea of repurposing existing material attractive.

So I wrote an essay for workshop about the tsunami. And it was an absolute mess. Eva Saulitis, whom has since passed away, gave me feedback during the actual workshop, which turned unexpectedly emotional for me. Eva wanted us to read a selection before falling silent to receive feedback, and tears came unbidden as I read, out loud for the first time, what I’d written. My vulnerability did not spare me tough feedback; I still have Eva’s handwritten notes on that draft and while they are kind, they are also clear.

In the years since, the essay has lain fallow on my computer. I’ve pulled it out from time to time to work on for short periods. But I was troubled by my inability to speak from firsthand experience about Kesennuma. When I was here in 2011, I was able to travel no further than Sendai, still a few hours south.

Over the past two years, I’ve read everything I could about the tsunami. Watched the videos. Clicked on the pictures. Set Google Alerts for breaking news stories. Pored over imagery from Google Earth, scrolling overlays from pre- to post-tsunami. But I was never able to find the exact site of my the family home I recalled visiting in 1988, 1997, and finally in 2005.

And now, I’m here. In Kesennuma. My feet touch the same places, but the land has changed. It was lowered by the quake, erased by the tsunami, then razed and raised in order to reconstruct. The places I remember, all gone.


Turn. Again.

IMG_4458Pictured here to the left is the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet (of the Pacific Ocean.) It was so-named because on his last journey, Captain Cook tried to navigate it in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, but was confounded by the tides and shallow depth. Which caused his explorers to turn, and turn, and turn yet again before finally realizing they probably weren’t getting to the Atlantic that way anytime soon. Hence the name. Turnagain.

I’ve hiked some portion of the mountains on the north side of the arm (the photo is taken looking west.) And at one point, I stopped and stood in the sunshine, three thousand feet above the arm, and imagined an 18th century mariner’s disappointment at what he saw before making one last accursed turn. It’s a useful metaphor for optimism (imagine what we’ll find!), pessimism (why bother?), or pragmatism (might as well try and see what happens), depending on your bent. I’m in the latter camp, if you wondered.

Somewhere way to the right of my photo, far beyond the frame, is Japan. And to be honest, I’m not sure what awaits. I have an idea of the stories that I’ll write as a result of the trip. But it’s a struggle for me to quantify why, exactly, it’s important enough for me to leave my family, my job, and a lot of unfinished everythings to go write about a disaster that occurred seven years ago. But I suppose the best answer I can come up with is this:

I had to.

The stories I’m going to write have burned a hole in me for months, and in one case, years. Look, I get a lot of ideas about things I think I want to write about. Thankfully, I can most of them because they’re crappy ideas. But others stick around until it feels like I might actually go to pieces if I don’t get them down on paper. Sure, I’m deeply connected to the tsunami. And while I respect that personal experience of a thing is more than enough to justify artistic engagement with it, this time I need to do something besides rely on my own memories, read books, and research online. I need to see, to touch, and most of all, to feel the effects of the tsunami in order to feel like I’m doing what happened in 2011 any justice.

And so, I will turn from what it’s in front of me to that which is behind, around, and within; I’ll turn. Again. And I’m going to look as hard as I can for answers I maybe didn’t even know existed. We’ll see what happens.

Return to the Tsunami

Passport: check. Clip-on lenses for iPhone: check. Voice recorder: check. Weather forecast: checked. Hotel and rental car reservations: kinda check. Notebook, ready pen, and open eyes/ears: yep.

If you know me at all, then you know that in 2011, the tsunami in Japan killed my Japanese grandmother, and that I subsequently deployed in support of Operation Tomodachi (friend), the U.S. military relief effort. Since then, I’ve told a highly-condensed version of my tsunami story for Anchorage’s Arctic Entries public storytelling event. I also wrote a short piece about watching Des Linden’s remarkable 2011 Boston Marathon from my hotel room in Japan.

But whether or not you know me a little or a lot, you probably don’t know that in the intervening years, the tsunami has loomed large in my imagination. That every time I run along Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, I find myself wondering what it would be like to watch the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean rear, then swell with pitiless energy. That when a recent midnight tsunami warning sat me up in bed, despite what I knew about the elevation of my home and the slim likelihood of a tsunami ever affecting Anchorage, I was seconds from bundling my family into the car in order to drive to high ground. That I set “Japan Tsunami” as a Google Alert and every morning wonder if my email will notify me that another tsunami has struck Japan.

But it’s not just about me. In the intervening years, I have discovered remarkable stories of the 2011 tsunami that deserve telling. Of survival and sadness. Of resilience and memory. About a year ago, I decided it was time to tell them. I started the process of researching, then pitching story ideas to editors at a variety of outlets. And after I landed the pitches, I applied for a Pulitzer Center grant to help defray what I knew would be a costly trip, and to my surprise, I was approved.

So. Here I go. I’ll be blogging the experience during my trip, so I hope you’ll consider following along here. If you want condensed versions, you can check out my Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Last thing before I go: a recent Google Alert made me aware of something called an edge wave. An edge wave has to do with the way that waves refract and bounce along shorelines. In the case of a tsunami, depending on how a coastal shelf looks, edge waves can extend the period of time a tsunami can effect a coastline. It seems a fitting metaphor. Eight years after 11 March 2011, I’m still speeding to and from the northeast coast of Japan in my mind, riding the tsunami’s edge waves like a piece of flotsam. But now it’s time to not just imagine it, but do it for real.


Sendai Airport, March 2011. Taken from an Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter about to drop me off for what was supposed to be an hour, but turned into two days.