March 10, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther
Welcome to the Art Life Faith Podcast. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.
Well, March 11, 2023 is the 12th anniversary of that devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that struck the nation of Japan, and a day that changed everything for me. During that time, I saw firsthand the power of the arts to bring hope and encouragement during really dark times. The people I worked with in the relief movement had lost everything—family members, friends, homes, jobs, entire towns. And during that time, people responded to the arts in ways I never dreamed possible. We knew people really needed food, water, and supplies. But it turns out they really needed beauty as well.
I'd like to share with you an excerpt from my book, Aroma of Beauty, which tells many stories from that time. This is taken from the audiobook version.
Food just after the tsunami was terrible. Every meal was treated like an emergency situation. Refugees and relief workers alike, we all lived off canned and instant foods. These may keep the body going for a day, but they sure lack the vitamins, nutrients, and life-giving beauty that we so desperately needed.
When we heard from survivors the kind of digestive problems they were now dealing with, our local Tokyo community was galvanized into action and began to plan our first takidashi cookout. Grocers donated rice, meat, and vegetables. Restaurants loaned equipment. My dentist even donated toothbrushes and toothpaste. A dozen people who had never been to the disaster area agreed to go as cooks and volunteers.
My wife Abi led a caravan of trucks and vans to the city of Ishinomaki. They came to a halt in a gravel lot cleared of debris, the telltale sign that people were taking shelter on the upper floors of nearby homes, stores, and buildings.
Fish and seaweed decayed in the sun. Piles of garbage lined roadsides with nowhere to go. Porta-potties and toilets overflowed. The stench was overwhelming, and every time we opened the doors of our trucks, we were overcome by the potency of it.
This must be what hell is like, Abi thought as she began to unload, trying to ignore the stench and not stare at the surrounding devastation.
Noisy generators powered the rice cookers. Industrial-sized propane burners roared underneath large pots of water. The volunteers cut meat and vegetables on plastic portable tables: pork, carrots, daikon radishes, shiitake mushrooms, and konnyaku gelatin strips—all the ingredients needed to make tonjiru soup.
As the food went into the pots, something beautiful began to happen. An aroma began to waft through the air, a pleasing smell unknown since the earthquake.
People began to line up from surrounding buildings—ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred people—and volunteers began to get worried. “What do we do? We still need more time!”
“It’s okay,” Abi said. “There hasn’t been a smell like this here for a very long time. Let’s enjoy it.”
Abi asked the musician who came with the group if he wouldn’t mind playing a bit. “I know it’s not an ideal spot,” she apologized, staring at the blocks of concrete and thick gooey mud. “And your audience isn’t exactly nicely grouped together.” The line of people went as far as they could see.
The musician pulled out his shakuhachi bamboo flute and began to play, slowly picking his way around the puddles and the mud as he walked down the line of people. The melodies of the flute and the aroma of the soup filled the air, washing away the stench, pointing to a world that cannot be overcome by decay and destruction.
The food was more than mere sustenance, and the music was more than mere entertainment, a way to pass the time while waiting in line. It was life-giving. An electrifying sense of hope, almost tangible, wafted through the air. It was the aroma of beauty.
Aroma may be temporary and only last a moment, but the more time we spent in the disaster area, the more urgently we felt its need. The aroma of beauty became a seawall against the black waves of despair that threatened us every day after that tsunami. It brought an unexpected joy with the promise that a better tomorrow would come.
That was a retelling of the story from which I got the title for the book. It really was a powerful time, and that power I witnessed can only come from God. Through the arts, God shared his aroma of beauty, the aroma of his kingdom, where every tear will be wiped away. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, and everything will be made new. God lovingly shares his goodness with us through the arts.
If you'd like to hear more of these stories, you can get them right now in the eBook version on Amazon for just $0.99 this weekend, March 10–13. Even if you already have a paper copy, I encourage you to check it out. You can also check out Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave, a children's book I wrote based on one story from that time, also on sale.
Well, today I have the privilege of sharing a conversation I had with Rachel Reese Kollmeyer, who recently received her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Rachel has a lot of experience as a missionary and as a musician, playing the violin in a number of countries. After graduating from college, she moved to the country of Peru, where she was heavily engaged in the musical life there. Among other things, she helped lead a Bach festival and a music competition. When that term ended, she moved to Japan to join our Community Arts missionary team and work in the very same area where the tsunami hit, in those early days when beauty was needed most. She also worked with us for a time in Tokyo and flew down to Kumamoto in southern Japan again to do relief work through the arts.
Now let's turn to my conversation with Rachel.
So, Rachel, it's wonderful having you on this podcast because there are things that you have experienced that I really want our listeners to be able to share in those stories as well. Can we first let's talk a little bit about that time just after 2011. Huge earthquake, huge tsunami, the fear of radiation. And you moved right into the middle of all that. What was that like?
Well, I remember I was so excited because I'm really passionate about the music and how it can bring healing and my faith and how that's all interconnected. And I remember I thought my dreams had come true. I moved there. I'm doing what I love.
Did you have any fear of moving into that area that meant you couldn't protect yourself from all of the destruction? It wasn't like you were somewhere then coming in for a short time, but to be in the midst of it, living, sleeping every night there, I mean.
It was hard because it was dark there. There was a lot of pain and suffering. But I think growing up as a Christian, pain and suffering is part of what we're promised in this world that's broken, and we have hope because God became flesh and he experienced that suffering. So I knew I wasn't going into it alone. I had the Holy Spirit's presence with me, and I worked with a group of people there. But yeah, there was definitely some fear.
What was your living situation like? Were you in one of those homes that were kind of being repaired or you in something like a prefab thing?
Yeah. When I think back on that, I sometimes wonder, like, how you live through it. I stayed in a home that was partially repaired from the tsunami. For example, the bathroom door was made of plywood. Right. There was no central heating or electricity. So in the winter, I remember it was like October and people had my roommates had left and it was getting really cold. I was like, I don't know how to keep warm in this place. And I raided the closets and found some huge it looked like a heating device, but I didn't know how to use it. And I kind of missionary was like, okay, I'll take you in my truck to buy some kerosene to put in there. And he taught me how to use it. But it was tough at first, I'm sure.
Yeah. And you mentioned darkness too. I mean, physically it's a dark place because it's so far northright, isn't like dark. Most of it quite the day hard too.
The sun sets at like 330 or four in the winter, and then you come home to a freezing cold house because there's no central heat.
And I know you like sunlight. I love sunlight. I'm sure that could not have been easy. So and here you are. You're moving into this and you're moving in as a musician, as an artist. Was there really a role for music in that situation? Or was it more like this? Need people to rebuild homes and, you know, help make sure that getting food where it needed to go and things like that?
At this point, people had learned they were living in temporary housing. A lot of people had food. I think there was fear that they would be forgotten. They themselves didn't really know what the next step was. So going in as a musician was so powerful because, especially for Japanese, the value placed on beauty is so high. And to live in these places that were only supposed to last for one year, the houses weren't very nice. It was plastic. And of course, the people had lost everything, so they didn't have their own maybe memories or photos or things that brought them joy.
Right. And they were basically like living in parking lot looking things, right. These things are just lined up in rows and let's park our house here, sort of thing.
Oh, yeah. And so when you go in, music just takes you to another realm. It takes the listener there. It takes you there. So it kind of transported us. I would go there with a friend, maybe, or at the local pastor. We'd set up our keyboard and I'd get out my violin and suddenly those little rooms would be changed in some way. It was like we weren't sitting in this place of destruction and pain anymore. There was suddenly hope.
That's beautiful. So the music you played in these rooms, it was like a different you said transport people in a different world, almost. How did the room change when music was played?
At the time, I was still getting to know Japanese culture, so I couldn't read body language very well, and I was just starting to learn the language. But you saw smiles and laughs and people were happy to be there. At this concert, I remember playing with a friend, Julianne, a violinist, and we were just full of joy playing together. And I think that transmits to the audience too. Oh, we're playing music we love. We both grew up playing the Suzuki method, and then we met in this area and played together the things that we grew up playing.
Yeah, I bet that brought energy into that situation. Because there were often common rooms, right, that people in the temporary homes, they could leave and kind of meet and there was nothing else going on. These people had no jobs because everything was gone. And so to have music was one way to bring life into that situation, for sure.
And a lot of these people were retired, so they didn't have a job to go to, or maybe a lot of their community was gone. I remember talking to some people, and they may have lived in a certain neighborhood with those neighbors. And then once the tsunami came, maybe half of people weren't living anymore. And then they were displaced. They were just put in this government assigned housing with a totally different group of people they didn't know. So trying to have these community events to help people get to know each other was also so important.
Yeah, that's good. What specific stories do you have of how music helped you personally connect with people there?
Well, in Japan, the culture that is so private, I was really struck after concerts that people were willing to talk to me and tell me some of their stories. Some people, of course, were very quiet, and they seemed still traumatized, like they didn't want to talk, but they were there, and I think that was powerful. But then other people, it was like when they retold their story, in a way, that person was still alive in their memory and the memory of someone else. For example, one person I talked to, and I made a mistake. Honestly, I asked her. I was trying to connect with her. I was like, do you have any children? And she was like, Well, I had a daughter, and she was pregnant, but she was washed away in the tsunami.
Wow. Yeah, that'd be hard. Yeah, I remember. Fortunately, this story ended better, but after one of my concerts, a man was telling me about how he was upstairs when the wave hit, but didn't realize that his wife was downstairs. Like, she was able to make it home just as the wave hit, and it was filling the downstairs, and there was nothing she could do but climb on top of the refrigerator. And when he came down in the morning, he found her up there, extremely cold, because it was like snowing outside, and she was soaking wet, and she was injured, but she was alive. And he's, like, just telling me that story. Wow. Stories of survival like that are just hard to believe, to imagine.
I know that you were teaching a young lady. Can you tell me about that?
Yes. Cynatron was a piece of light. Every week when she came for her lesson, her family lost everything in the tsunami. They lived on the beach, and they couldn't afford to buy an instrument after they had lost everything they were trying to replace, like even school clothes or books. So we gave her violin and she started lessons, and she was extremely shy at first, and I took it as my personal goal to try to make her laugh and smile and I wanted her to enjoy violin. So eventually I taught her a Miyazaki theme and also a beloved Japanese song called Fudosato, which is very nostalgic, like a coming home song. And she played that a lot. It's really sweet.
Yeah. I remember you introduced me to her once to accompany both of you. And I remember she was very shy.
So how did she get the violin and then what did she do with that?
Well, we had an arts program for kids there. We also went and taught gospel choir at the middle school. So we had a few instruments. Some people, some supporting churches sent me their kids old instruments that they weren't using anymore. And I brought them to Japan with me. And she started playing. And I think she inspired some other kids in the area. They also started to take violin. So I had like, maybe eight students after a while.
And why was that important during that time?
Well, it's important for a lot of reasons. It's important because music connects people like that. I couldn't learn violin unless I was teaching her, and then because then I played and told her friends about it, they were excited. So it created this little community of I think it was mostly girls, and they could talk about it and play together. And also important because music uses both parts of the brain, and it can be really powerful. When you experience trauma and depression, you have trouble focusing. And when you play music, you can't think about that. It requires you to focus deeply, and in that way it helps you move on or forget some of those harmful things.
Interesting, I hadn't thought about it that way. So it's like almost reprogramming your brain to think about positive things, light and beauty. Yeah, that's cool. I know those relationships, too, because they didn't really have a lot of afterschool activities at that time. So to have something because then you told me before we started talking that John went on to become a doctor. Is that right?
Yes, she went to a special boarding school for kids who wanted to become doctors. I guess it was like a specialized program to get you on the fast track.
I wonder if the tsunami kind of inspired you to do that, just seeing so many hurt people and wanting to help.
Yeah, I really wonder about that.
That's cool, though. Some music kind of gave her, though, helped her drive and hope for the future and create a new future.
That's really cool. So you worked in Peru as a missionary using the arts. Then you worked in Japan using the arts as a missionary, and now you're here in Baton Rouge. And what have you been thinking about during this time of COVID and the role of the arts during that?
Well, one of the things that's been hurtful to me about this pandemic is the division and just the harsh judgment that I feel we as a people kind of pass on people who make different decisions than us. And I've thought a lot about it and want to give other people the freedom to make their own decisions and to believe that people are really thinking and praying about what they're doing. And I think as artists, we have something powerful. There's not really places that I've seen for people to mourn the things that they lost in the pandemic. And as artists, I think we can provide spaces for that. We can talk about the loss we've experienced or those parties we couldn't go to, or those funerals. That was a huge deal. So many people couldn't go to funerals of their loved ones. And to think about that and provide a space. Music also provides a space to just be and to breathe and to sit still and to do nothing. In a world where I know as a student, being on the computer all the time, I would just get in such a frenzy because this world is kind of fake and it always feels like you have so many things and you're going to forget all your deadlines.
And so for me, playing music, being away from a screen, calm down and was very special. I needed it so much more during this pandemic.
Yeah, it's well put. I know. We had a you hosted a house party on Saturday night here, and that was so much fun. Two of us played together some things, but there was a man who played guitar and sang for a while. It was so beautiful. It just felt like the community being built through that time was something special and worth embracing.
Well, and it was a fulfillment of a dream of mine. My husband and I bought this house. It has a big open living room and dining room, and we want to do house concerts. I even wrote a paper on how I would design the concerts and I wanted them to be like a monthly basis and how I was going to treat the musicians who came. Musicians often I find that maybe they overwork and don't take care of themselves well, they don't eat meals on time. And so trying to be a space that also gives musicians a healthy space to be like, we don't have to rehearse without taking breaks or without eating, just so we can get this music the way we want it.
Yeah, I've certainly been guilty of that too. It's hard because you are so driven to get a certain quality and it takes everything to do that.
It's very hard. And I actually reinjured a little bit this fall. I did a new music thing and we didn't take breaks. And it's curious to me also how musicians don't talk about it. We don't talk about how we care for our bodies or if anyone has a twinge or is in pain. It's just like you don't talk about it.
Yeah, just buck up, practice harder, push through.
Right. But I actually found out when I mentioned I was like, let's finish this rehearsal, I said, I'm in so much pain. We still have a performance that the other violinist opened up. I was like, yeah, actually, I'm not doing so well either. And then the clarinetist was telling me, oh, yeah, these are all these strategies you can do for this is what I do after. This is what my boyfriend does. And I was so moved that just by sharing that I was struggling, it provided this whole other platform for us to connect and to help each other.
That's really cool. Thank you, Rachel. It's really good talking with you.
Thank you, Roger. This has been a pleasure.
This is Roger Lowther, and you’ve been listening to the Art, Life, Faith Podcast. Check out my website, www.rogerwlowther.com, for a transcription of this podcast and various links. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time!”
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