On the eleventh day of the third month in 2011, the earth shook. Seismic waves were quickly followed by huge watery ones, enveloping large areas of the East coast of Japan, shifting land, buildings, people, lives forever. Food, water, and electricity shortages; radiation warnings; constant earthquake alerts; innumerable aftershocks; immense loss and despair. Would anything ever be the same again?

My immediate response was to try and help in some way. I joined a group of dedicated people who were working online inputting data on Google People Finder from the thousands of photos of name lists being posted at evacuation centers. I joined initially as part of the effort to trace a young American woman called Taylor Anderson who was missing. She was an assistant English language teacher in Ishinomaki and had last been seen making sure that her students were okay after the earthquake.

While we searched the lists, whenever we found a non-Japanese name, we checked if there was already an entry for that person and then either updated the information or created a new entry. So many names. People searching for loved ones, people trying to contact family and friends to let them know they were safe. But it was the missing individual names that hurt the most. Finding one or two names in a family, when there should have been three or four. A brother, a sister, child, parent, or spouse wrenched apart by terrible force and the feeling of sheer pain of that separation.

A week later, we received the sad news that Taylor had not survived. We continued to go through each newly uploaded list for other names, but it soon became clear that fewer and fewer were appearing and some days there were no updates at all. In total, more than 22,000 people died in the earthquake and ensuing tsunami, and 2,500 are still missing.

I shifted to working with another online group coordinating information so that volunteers could be best allocated to where their help was needed. Then, when the opportunity came up to work as an in-house translator for a major NGO involved in recovery projects in the disaster area, I took it.

It gave me a sense of real purpose, but I still felt though that I needed to do more with my life. I took on other jobs on the side and filled all my time with either translation or study. Every day was like a competition to see how much I could cram in. I could feel myself teetering on an edge though, where with just one change, my whole schedule would begin collapsing into chaos.

That’s when the three dots began to appear.

Bullet points in biro at the base of my right thumb.

If I could get three basic things done each day to keep my life in balance, it made me feel like I was still on top of everything. Sometimes the dots acted as a shopping list.

  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Stamps

Sometimes they were a to-do list.

  • Pay bills
  • Clean bath
  • Phone mum

It brought false neatness to potential mess. The more firmly pressed into my skin they were, the more urgently they indicated my need to stay in control, to keep in balance. Some days they glowed red around the edges, while on others they faded to almost nothing. But something made me keep them visible. It is maybe no coincidence that they greatly resemble the S in Morse Code and an integral part of  ・・・ — ・・・

I ‘busied’ myself like this for nearly five years, so much so I was asked to be part of a translators’ panel to talk on time management, because apparently staying busy must mean you’re managing your time right. So I talked. About my two in-house jobs that had me racing from Yokohama to one end of Tokyo to the other and then back home again. About my freelance work that had me waking early, keeping me up late, and even working on the commute to my other jobs, using my trusty laptop and toggling wifi access with my smartphone. About my post-graduate distance learning studies crammed into any spare time in-between and my realization that when they say you read law, you really do have to read law, hundreds and hundreds of cases. Oh yeah, and raising two children under the age of ten. And as I talked, I saw my life reflected in the eyes of the audience. Stunned silence and looks of horror, some laughter (mostly from me as I came to see the absurdity of it all). I was not managing my time. Time was managing me. I came out of the talk and sat on a sofa in the lobby with a couple of other translators. We chatted and as we did, I realized I had nothing scheduled for the rest of the day. So I sat there. I did nothing. Time flowed and for a few wonderful hours, I let it. People came and went from the sofa. Conversations rose and fell, leaving us in moments of comfortable silence. It was probably the first time I had ‘stopped’ in a long time.

Several days later, I took out my older son’s calligraphy set and got the Japanese ink, jet-black, and with a needle made the three dots on my right thumb permanent.

I made changes. I cut back on work. I cut back on study. Commutes transformed into more me-time, checking messages and social media posts, reading books, time to myself. I felt physically more balanced.

Then on the first day of the sixth month of 2019, my personal world shifted with the loss of my dad, knocking me completely off-kilter and leaving a huge emotional gash.

And in rushed compassion.

Compassion for others and compassion for myself. People reached out to me, saying to be kind to myself and I understood. It wasn’t sitting down and watching my favourite TV programme, it wasn’t spending money on a beautiful item of clothing, and it wasn’t bingeing on chocolate. It was stopping in the moment and feeling whatever it was I needed to feel.

And that’s when three more dots appeared.

On my left thumb this time.

First as a reminder to try and notice being in the moment, of being aware of feeling at least three times a day. Grief is numbing. It leaves you devoid of emotion and you pass every day in autopilot. Nights are different. That is when you have to turn the music up louder, shut yourself down, and endure the mourning hours from 2-4 am, when everything suppressed during the day wells up and inundates you.

This noticing slowly evolved into being aware of feelings of happiness. It is actually a relief to know that you can still feel happy after tragedy strikes.

Now they have come to symbolize finding the magic in life at least three times a day. Some days it can be a push to find one, but the more you look and notice, the more they seem to appear.

Sparrows perched in a tree, finding a special shaped stone, the telling of a bad joke and the laughter that ensues.

An uplifting breeze, the first star in the evening sky, sunlight on moss.

A sentence in a book that speaks as if just to you, a memory in a photo, smiling eyes.

Balance is physical and emotional and I am learning to do both.

Image: Orion Head to Toes by Rogelio Bernal Andreo

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