12. Fireflies

December 30, 2020Roger W. Lowther

It’s just past the winter solstice. As I’m looking outside, it’s dark and cold. It’s dark when I get up, and it’s dark when I go to bed. It makes me think about how precious Christmas illumination is at this time of the year. In the dark, we need the light. In the dark, we need beauty. And I’ve never known such complete darkness as I did in those days following the 2011 tsunami here in Japan.

There was one evening that particularly stands out to me.

In the storm, the tires of the van sank in the mud newly washed up from the ocean floor, made worse by growing puddles of rainwater. Lightning lit up the wall of debris that lined the streets and closed in on us like some dark tunnel. Every streetlamp had been knocked flat by the wave. We felt like every good and beautiful thing in this world had been wiped out, like we were lone survivors at the outer reach of some alien planet and the darkness would soon consume us as well.

I squinted as I tried to peer through the wipers and streams of rain of the van’s front window. The only landmark for my final turn was a torn up pedestrian overpass that somehow still hung over the road. We would be giving a concert in the gymnasium of an elementary school in Watanoha, one of fourteen planned up and down the tsunami-stricken coast on this trip. I was leading a group of musicians, students and alumni from The Juilliard School.

Finally, I found my turn and crossed the parking lot straight to the front door. “We’re here!” I called out, and everyone hopped over the puddles to get inside.

The shelter was completely dark. There was no electricity. There was no heat. People huddled under blankets, trying to fight back fears of the storm. Flashlights dotted the room from people reading books or talking quietly.

We were guided through the gymnasium and straight to the piano, one of the few left in the region, fumbling zippers on our jackets to pull them tighter. Pianists cut fingertips off their mittens so they could play without taking them off.

The wind continued to increase in intensity, violently rattling the windows and the roof. Anxieties rose, and because of the darkness and size of the room, I couldn’t see anyone. I knew people were there. I could smell them in a pleasant way, like the intimacy of a living room in an old Japanese home.

One of the pianists began to play in the dark, and then an oboist. A violinist joined in.

A man climbed up to the second floor catwalk and shined a big flashlight straight down like a spotlight. Then other flashlights began to point in our direction as well. The light was beautiful, like dozens of fireflies flying around the room. The light, rather than the musicians, were the performers, dancing on the walls and ceilings, making our hearts dance with wonder and delight. They magically transported us out of that alien planet of darkness and back to our home…the way it should be.

Here we were in the middle of a storm not far from the coast or the destructive power of the waves…in the cold, in the dark. But in that moment, light won over fear of storm and night. Music won over the violence of the wind. The anxiety and stress that filled the room only moments before faded into some distant memory. And because of the beauty, we felt, no…we knew that everything was going to be okay.

In that moment, light won over fear of storm and night. Music won over the violence of the wind.