This is a song I’ve been playing for over three years now, and for most of that time I introduced it by saying “This is the story of Hiromitsu Shinkawa and his wife Yuko and what happened to them when the tsunami hit their village near Fukushima, Japan.”
And it is.
Except it’s also about something else. The other story I kept a secret for years, but I finally realized this Spring that it was time to talk about it.
In the fall of 2010 my then-fiancé, Pooneh, lost her best friend to suicide. Lisa was an inspiring human, a fierce advocate for women, and a devoted friend, daughter, and mother. Her death was a wrenching blow and left all of us devastated and in shock. But though Lisa was a friend to me and her loss cut me deeply, my pain was nothing like that of her family, partner, and closest friends. In the first weeks after Lisa’s death, watching her survivors cope, I wrote these few lines:
"I don’t know anything of any use in this madness. All I have to offer you is questions and patience. And I wish I could say, ‘at least there’s a song for you in all of this,’ but then I’d have to leave you crying, and go away and write it."
And the song didn’t go any further than that for many months. I was dumbstruck by the depth of this tragedy, there was nothing else I could say, and I knew of no way to build a framework from which to tell about the story we were living.
On March 11th 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the ocean floor off the coast of Japan, causing a Tsunami that unleashed massive destruction and a staggering death toll on coastal communities.
Among those swept away by the waters were a man named Hiromitsu Shinkawa and his wife Yuko from Minamisoma. Hiromitsu survived by clinging to the roof of their house as it was swept away. Yuko was lost. After three days in the open ocean afloat on the wreckage of their home, Hiromitsu was rescued.
When I first read about Hiromitsu’s ordeal in a short news article, it struck a spark in my mind and illuminated all these feelings that had been waiting to be told. As I read more about his ordeal and imagined this old man with his partner, his home, and his town all washed away, suddenly alone and devastated in an alien world that could only proceed with its unalterable spinning— I found the images filling in a vacant space that had an emotional vocabulary already in place. I found that I could talk about what we were going through by telling Hiromitsu’s story. And so, the rest of the song was written.
But as I began to workshop and perform this song, I realized that the original narrative layer could be fully masked by the second. It happened naturally in the rehearsal process— working with bands, even when they’re close friends, one doesn’t take the time to sit and unwrap the onion layers of the poetry in a song when there are harmonies to hash out and modulations to formulate. But before the song’s first performance I thought about it and cemented the decision in my mind. Lisa’s and our part of this story was to be a private tribute; the song, a locked reliquary whose innermost contents the public would not be permitted to see.
Why did I keep this a secret? To separate some inner sanctuary where my audience was not allowed entry, where the wounds and rawest feelings of myself those closest to me wouldn’t be subject to an outsiders’ gaze? To hedge against the performer’s gnawing suspicion that he is a fool to mount a stage and approach a microphone open-hearted, that turning a light on in that inner room will reveal something ridiculous, pitiful, or worse? Yes. And also for more universal and darker reasons— that I, like all of us, live in a culture that pathologizes both difference and weakness, and that in spite of myself I am still subject to the downward pull of this world we walk around upon.
Which is why I’m telling you now about the other part of this song’s story, Lisa’s story, and why I dedicate this song to her whenever I play it now.
I don’t feel that it’s up to me to rehash Lisa’s final months, but I this is what I see when I reflect on that time—
I see the psychological terrorism of domestic violence. I see the too-often-hidden corrosive power of depression. I see the suffocating effects of our culture’s homophobia.
All three of these enemies gain their power from stigma, from fear, and from secrecy. They are also enemies that Lisa dedicated her professional life to fighting on behalf of others. Because of this, I know that it is appropriate and necessary that I dedicate this song to her memory. Lisa knew, and I have again and again been reminded, that we have to talk about these things. We have to talk about them as long as they continue to rob from us beautiful and powerful souls like Lisa’s. We have to shine light into those dark corners of fear and pain, or what lurks there will rule us.
We have to talk about the fact that women are not property. We have to talk about the fact that it is okay and necessary to lean on each other when we feel overwhelmed, weakened, and desperate. We have to talk about the fact that we must accept each other’s differences, and allow each other to live in this world as our true selves. And when tragedy robs the very air from our lungs, we have to find ways to give voice to our pain, to affirm its reality, and to become more human and more alive because of the scars with which it marks us.
This is a song about Hiromitsu and Yuko.
And it is a song about Lisa Diener.
And it is for all of the survivors.
with love and gratitude,
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