The Aroma of the New
I am grateful to be given this honor: an honor that is symbolic of the commitment to the arts that Belhaven University, Dr. Roger Parrot, and your Board of Trustees have made. You are making a statement; that the arts are fundamental to the core of higher education. The arts are not a luxury for the few but rather a necessity—how a civilization is to be defined, and how our humanity is to be restored. The arts, like the spring flowers all about Belhaven this day, bring the aroma of the New.
I have just returned from Japan, where I saw firsthand the enormous devastation from 3/11—the massive earthquake, the tsunami, and the ongoing nuclear disaster. I visited the small fishing village of Ishinomaki in northern Japan, a beautiful coastal town swept away by a series of tsunamis, one of which reached 30 meters high. My friend Emiko, who grew up in Ishinomaki, now finds her home and her parents' business gone, though they themselves were spared, having been in Tokyo at the time. The aroma—the stench—of death filled the air as I walked about the region. I saw rice fields inundated with salt water, fishing vessels in the middle of streets, trucks still fioating in the river. A month after the disaster, volunteers with masks and orange overalls were still helping residents salvage what they could, one house at a time.
One 17-year-old, whose parents and grandparents were swept away by the tsunami, returned home to find nothing worth salvaging. She came to the House of Prayer while I was visiting. A team of missionaries had been giving out basic necessities, and they had just set up shower stalls. This met a supreme need for the tsunami-stricken Japanese, whose culture celebrates, and demands, cleanliness. I could not imagine what she felt as the hot water washed over her for the first time in a month.
But even though the aftershocks still continue and everyone, whether up north or in Tokyo, is traumatized, the Japanese have been stoically clearing their beloved villages and towns of debris and rubble. Wherever outward cleanliness can be had, they work for it. One major street had many restaurants whose interiors were damaged and will have to be gutted. Still, workers had cleaned up the outside and turned on the neon signs. For a short while, even if the restaurants are not safe to open, what people see is perfection.
As I was driven back to Tokyo, we went through Fukushima prefecture, staying far west, away from the dark shadow of the nuclear power plant as much as the road would allow. The Zao mountain range appeared beyond the clouds, with cherry blossoms in full bloom, enchanting the villages tucked away in the crevices between the mountains. It was hard to see scenes of such beauty—the trunks of the trees, with their wet-darkened bark—when the disaster was freshly etched in my mind. Thousands were still unaccounted for. My heart felt numb, and the beauty I saw seemed cruel.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
So begins T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922. April is indeed cruel with the lilacs or the cherry blossoms at the peak of their beauty, invading the "memory and desire" of our ravaged hearts. We are awakened to horrors and terrors, but nature does not wait until we stop grieving. It moves on, as does the world, without empathy or knowledge of what really happened. My visit to Japan echoed Eliot's lament: beauty and trauma are forced to dwell together.
Today, you begin a new journey, and for you it is a bright April, full of hope. But we must also remember that for many April has been the "cruellest month." We must learn to engage with such intractable realities—to engage our creativity within the harsh confines of our broken world and the wide spaces of creating the "World That Ought to Be."
It occurred to me as we were driving back that the stark contrast between the beauty of nature and the tragic nature of our lives was nothing new to the Japanese. Poets in Japan anticipated Eliot's lament as early as the 10th century, when Saigyo expressed the beauty of death in the falling cherry blossoms. Japan is an island subject to hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Terrifyingly unpredictable, they are nevertheless as constant as the cherry blossoms. Seeing devastation on one hand and the beauty of nature on the other is fundamental to the Japanese experience. Japanese aesthetics grew out of this uneasy dance between the destructiveness of nature and her beauty.
After 9/11, I had pondered Eliot's words, looking over our "backyard" of Ground Zero in New York, where smoke still rose like incense over mounds of twisted metal, and stadium lights were set up to find the bodies. This, I thought, must be the ultimate Waste Land of our time. But that proved to be wrong. Ground Zero has since then continued to expand, moving from one place to another—from New Orleans to Christchurch, and beyond. I've come to realize that, theologically, we are born into the Ground Zero of the Fall, whether we live in New York or Fukushima, Darfur or Indonesia. Despair hangs over them all.