13. A Party One Evening

January 6, 2021Roger W. Lowther

Happy New Year everyone! We did it! We made it through 2020. It’s been quite a year!

Over the winter break, my family and I went into the mountains of Japan near Nagano City, which many of you know was the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. They’ve been getting a lot of snow there this year. Last week, there were a few days in a row when I think we got about two feet a day. That’s a lot of snow! The snow built up almost all the way to the roof of our front door, and my kids had a good time digging a tunnel from our door so that we could get out.

I’m also quite proud of the igloo that I dug out of the snow. I worked on it a little bit each day, and by the time we left it could fit about five people. It even had a side room and little cubby holes where my kids and I stored some tools and other knick-knacks. There was even a small pile of snowballs ready to keep away any invaders. I particularly loved how the sun shined through the walls and ceiling almost like stained glass.

Anyway, we’re back in Tokyo now and ready to get to work. Over the next few months, I plan to share some stories from that time immediately following 2011 earthquake and tsunami here in Japan. The 10th anniversary is coming up in March, and now is as good a time as any to try to verbalize some of these stories. I usually do a fair bit of travel in January and February to share at churches in missions conferences, but I can’t do that this year! So I’m thankful for this podcast which at least gives me a way to share some of these stories remotely.

I would like to tell you about a party we had one evening.

The parking lot of the old Buddhist temple was packed full of trucks and vans. It sat on a hilltop, on the outskirts of the city of Higashi Matsushima, the only structure still standing that was big enough to hold a large group of people. One of the relief workers we met that day invited us to come here for a party.

We entered the side door and walked through the darkness of a narrow hallway. I glanced inside one of the fusuma sliding doors as I walked past. Shuttered windows which kept out the cold also prevented any light from entering. But by the dull red glow of electric heaters and the glimmer of flashlights, I could tell that people covered the floor, reading or talking quietly with one another.

As we continued down the hallway, we entered a large room full of laughing and talking. The noise was a bit of a shock. It was the first time I saw a room of people actually enjoying themselves in the disaster area. I pushed some backpacks aside and sat against the wall so I could slowly take in the atmosphere of the room. Everyone sat on the floor, gathered around little tables about a foot off the ground full of food and cans of Japanese beer. They wore work clothes with different emblems, identifying the relief organizations they belonged to.

A man came over to me and offered some food and a can of beer. He also told me he heard I was a musician and asked, “Would you be willing to play something tonight?”

Before I had a chance to answer, a man in the front began to speak through a microphone. “Good evening everybody,” he said. “I’m so glad we can gather tonight.” He went on to introduce someone from that area, who had been singing in shelters along the coast. As he spoke, a man, who appeared to be blind, was carefully led through the crowd to the front of the room. “I will let his singing say the rest,” the announcer finished.

The blind man stood alone without accompaniment and released a voice full of vibrato. The singing was beautiful but a style completely unknown to me. I figured it must be a traditional folk style and was grateful for the chance to hear it. After a few songs, the blind man finished, and two young men stood up to sing. One of them played the guitar.

Then it was my turn. There wasn’t enough room to set up my portable organ which sat outside in the truck, so they provided me with a keyboard instead. “We can’t seem to find the keyboard stand,” they apologized, but two men volunteered to hold the keyboard while I played.

My memory shot back to a similar situation I had the year before in Memphis, Tennessee, when I arrived at a woman’s prison to give a concert but my keyboard was confiscated at security.

“Can’t let in anything that can be used as a weapon,” the guard explained.

I wasn’t sure what his words meant. My keyboard . . . a weapon?

I was led down narrow hallways in the prison and through high security doors, until we arrived at a large room packed with prisoners.

“Wait here,” the guard said and left. Everyone stared at me until the guard returned with a plastic bag. I opened it to find a small electric keyboard and nothing else.

“Um, are there any other parts?” I asked. Where was the keyboard stand, or the music stand, or the sustain pedal?

“That’s all we got,” the guard said.

I placed the keyboard on a table and plugged it into the wall but nothing happened.

“Try another outlet,” the guard suggested. I quickly tried two more without any success, keenly aware that everyone in the room was still staring at me. The guard told me the voltage was reduced in some places to prevent “accidents.”

“Turn that fan this way!” a voice yelled, breaking the silence. There was no air-conditioning, and that room was pretty hot. One solitary fan blew across the room.

“No, turn it this way!” a second voice yelled from the other side of the room.

Suddenly, a large woman under the fan stood up. “I’m not going to effing touch it!” she swore in a strong Southern accent. “You think I’m your effing mother?”

I was sure a fight was going to break out right there in front of me.

“Ah, thank you for your patience,” I practically shouted into the chaos with all the confidence I could muster, but nobody heard me. Not knowing what else to do, I dove right into my arrangement of Cherry Blossoms, a Japanese folk song. I didn’t know if it was a good choice or not, but being a quiet piece, I hoped it would calm everyone down, similar to how I whisper to my children when I’m trying to quiet the room. My gamble paid off and pretty soon there was not a single sound but the spinning of that one fan.

A woman, the one under the fan who had a gift profanity, raised her hand.

Oh no, I thought. What’s she going to say? “Yes?” I said, timidly pointing in her direction.

“Could you play that again?” she said. “That was beautiful.”

With this memory firmly in mind, I decided to try the same piece. First, though, I wanted to have a little fun. A man stood on either side of me, holding the ends of the keyboard. The tables in that room were too low to use as a keyboard stand! I played a fast descending chromatic scale with my right hand, then stopped and shook my head. No, I motioned with a frown. Too high!

The two men lowered the keyboard. This time I started at the bottom of the keyboard and using both hands played a C scale quickly up the keyboard. But again I shook my head. No, I motioned with a smirk. Too low! A few people laughed.

The two men moved the keyboard again, this time to somewhere in between. I played a short cadence of chords and motioned with a large nod and hands outstretched. Yes, perfect! More people laughed.

I looked to the man on the left and gave a quizzical expression. All ready? He nodded.

I looked to the man on the right and repeated. He nodded as well. We were ready to go.

I began to play but with way too much flourish and the keyboard immediately sank. Gomenasai, I mouthed, “Sorry!” and quickly lightened my touch. I’ve had a lot of strange experiences while performing, but this was definitely a first for me! After improvising for a minute or so, I launched into the piece.

Every eye was on me. Not a voice was heard. The music carried us to a place where dirt and fear and broken buildings were a distant memory.

When the song came to an end, the room roared with applause and I took a bow. Each of the men holding the keyboard also tried to bow, but that didn’t work out very well. It’s pretty hard to bow while holding a keyboard. We were all happy and laughing and content. I’d forgotten such moments could exist and wished that evening could go on forever.

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