Wednesday, February 27, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: How Civilization is Made by Lin Jensen

How Civilization is Made
Lin Jensen
PHOTO: Jim Epler

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Hiroshima today
PHOTO: Fernando Nunes
It was 1946 and I was fourteen when I opened a thin little book that began with the following description of a moment in the life of a young Japanese woman:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning of August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.


John Hersey’s Hiroshima altered for good the direction of my life. Toshiko Sasaki was just about to say something to the girl at the next desk, perhaps a simple morning greeting or a comment on the pretty dress she was wearing or a curiosity about a date she’d gone on the night before–but whatever it was she meant to say, it was never said because before she could speak, the world in which such things might be said was incinerated in a flash of immense heat and blinding light. I became an advocate for peace and for the abolition of war because I was never able to put out of mind all the little ordinary things people were doing in Hiroshima the instant the bomb ended a hundred thousand lives. 

PHOTO: Hiroshima Museum, provided by Fernando Nunes

I’d known about the bomb for over a year at the time, ever since it had been dropped. And I knew that something terrible had taken place, but it wasn’t until I read John Hersey’s book that I understood that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was something that should never have happened to anyone, anywhere on the earth. I also somehow knew that the Toshiko Sasaki’s of Hiroshima, the clerks and factory workers, housewives and schoolteachers, the nameless “inconsequential” inhabitants of that doomed city, lived lives that counted for everything that constitutes the best of what builds and sustains a genuine, human civilization.

The conventional view of history postulates a civilization that advances on a colossal scale with grand events: the coming to power of great leaders, wars won and lost, the framing of constitutions, the ratification of treaties, the overthrow of governments, the rise and fall of sovereign nations. It’s mostly a history of the accumulation of power and the use of force, a chronicle of things built up only to be torn down again, things joined only to be divided once more. There’s no question but that these broad historical events exert great influence on human matters. They are the forces that wrench, twist, and dislocate the lives of humans everywhere, but they are not the factors that shape genuine civilization.

Civilization is made by households, its economy carried out on the scale of family and friend, its currency an exchange on the level of person to person. It’s a quality of kindness in human affairs that sustains what little civilization we can manage. I believe the factors that actually shape civilization are acts so random and ordinary that their significance goes unmarked.

PHOTO: Corey Leopold

In the Southern California farm country where I was raised the women put up food for the winter months in the manner they’d learned from their mothers and grandmothers. In my family of five—my mother and father, my brother Rowland, my sister Evelyn, and me—we began the process of canning and storing away food from the moment the garden began to yield in spring until we’d exhausted the last remnants of it in the late fall. All the farm families had a garden and orchard, and not much cash. They either planted and harvested and preserved or they couldn’t expect to eat very well when the days shortened and darkened toward winter.

The mornings my mother took the canning pot with its bottle rack from a pantry shelf and hauled it into the kitchen, she would never have thought she was doing anything for anybody but herself and her family. And when she scrubbed the pot clean and filled it with water to boil and went to the garden to pick a basket of string beans, she didn’t know such common actions joined with others to sustain whatever sense and decency the world is capable of. She would never have presumed that the rows of jars, neatly labeled and dated, lining the pantry shelves of a winter afternoon, were the orderly makings of a civilization. Yet it is these numberless little acts, this uncalculated responsiveness to the needs of the moment, more than all the dictates of empires and presidencies, that draws us into common community.

We do it best when we don’t know we’re doing it at all. Wiping a kid’s runny nose or sticking a thermometer under a sick child’s tongue are actions taken without self-consciousness of any sort. When I see my townspeople hanging out the wash or raking fall leaves or setting the table for the evening meal or jogging behind a child snuggled up in an infant carrier in the town park, I know that I am witnessing exactly those forces that counteract the divisive ambitions of military and corporate aims.

Civilization only asks of us that we live kindly and now. We are wise beyond our knowing when we do so. It’s not policy or ideology that makes us neighbors; it’s not the defense of state sovereignty or “national interest” that sustains communities. It’s much more a kitchen and yard thing, an elementary school and town park thing, in which we are watchful of one another.


When the Jensen family had need of more farm acreage and leased a farm further out of town, the contents of the kitchen pantry with all its canned goods moved with us. But in the moving, we inadvertently loosened the seal on a jar of string beans. And when Mother, failing to notice this, served them for Sunday afternoon dinner, we were made desperately sick as a consequence. We we’re all of us so dazed and debilitated by the sudden effects of food poisoning that we were unable to help each other—except my baby sister, Evelyn, who was only a year old at the time and hadn’t eaten any of the beans. Neither Mother nor Father could even make it to the phone to call for help. We crawled into the bathroom and lay on the floor with the ceiling and walls swimming about us, and when one of us had to retch we dragged ourselves onto the rim of the toilet to throw up, and mother, lying where she was, could just reach the toilet chain to flush.

Gradually night came on and the house grew dark. I think it was Mother who took my hand in hers first. I was able to reach my brother with the free hand, and he took Father’s, and Father reached back to Mother. And Evelyn crawled around and over us, supposing, I guess, that it was some sort of game. My mind hovers now above that old farmhouse where it lay surrounded by dusty fields. I see the four of us there on the bathroom floor, a sprawl of stricken flesh, legs and arms askew, joined hand to hand, on a background of faded linoleum.

Struggles of ambition and fear characterize the grand enterprises that populate the pages of what passes for the history of civilization. They are the forces that threaten to strike down everything that is good about us. They may kill us some day. But a single family that remembers to join hands will by small effects sustain kindness and generosity until the very end.

Eventually Mother recovered enough to reach the phone and call Dr. Robbins from his bed to come to our aid. He came, yawning, in the middle of the night, bearing the instruments of diagnosis and treatment he’d been given by his predecessor. He managed to get each of us into bed, and he found something in the kitchen to feed Evelyn and left her asleep in her crib. He said with a twinkle that he could positively assure us we wouldn’t die but that we’d be a few days recovering, and would Mother like him to call our neighbor, Mrs. Reeder, to come by in the morning and give a hand.

Later Mother cried at having to dispose of the jars of string beans she’d worked so hard to put away for the winter, her heart responding to a small error that might have cost her children and husband their lives. She would have cried equally for any family whose economy and lives were threatened by such a mistake. We were in the midst of World War II and Mother would sometimes cry over the radio news. She was never an activist, nor was she one with a conscious mission of any sort. She was too busy making life happen to notice that civilization was flowering in her own kitchen. I followed her one morning to the garden, which lay fallow now, and watched her unscrew the lids of the bean jars and dump the contents onto the compost heap. And when she saw me there, she mopped her eyes dry on her apron and put me to work helping her.


PHOTO: takomabibelot
Mr. Mujaku and his wife had an agreement to meet at a certain fountain in a square in Hiroshima in the event that their house was destroyed in an air raid. Mr. Mujaku was at work on the outskirts of Hiroshima when the bomb exploded and Mrs. Mujaku was at home. They both survived the initial blast, but their house was left leaning precariously and the whole neighborhood was being consumed in sudden flames. Mr. Mujaku, realizing how extensive the destruction of the city had been, left work in search of his wife. Finding their house and neighborhood in flames and not knowing if his wife was even alive, he went to the fountain where they’d agreed to meet. He found her waiting for him there.

She’d rescued a few biscuits and some tea from the house before it caught fire. And while Hiroshima lay in waste about them and their very bodies hummed with the lethal radiation that would one day take their lives from them, Mr. and Mrs. Mujaku, in a saving gesture beyond the power of any bomb, sat on a bench by the fountain and drank their tea and ate their biscuits as they’d always done.

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