On May 22, 2019, the Class of 2033 had their kindergarten orientation. I drove past Signal Hill and saw the swell of improbably small and cute four and five year olds spilling out of the school, peeking in their welcome packets – 60 families on the cusp of a big transition. I distinctly remember sitting in that tiny-chaired room this time last year, knees under my chin, heart in my throat, with more questions than certainty, wondering what to expect, what I needed to know, how this chapter was going to unfold.
I didn’t know how to prepare my 5 year old for kindergarten. I had memories of my own first days of school – anxious memories. And I felt anxiety now about releasing my Small Person into the world. I did not want him to contract this worry from me, so in the handful of days leading up to the start of kindergarten, we would have dance parties.
We jumped around to a song called Watermelon as the singer, Tom Rosenthal, donned a human watermelon suit and grooved absurdly across the north Welsh countryside. For an encore, we’d cue up Rosenthal’s Don’t Die Curious. And then we’d get on with our day.
I was turning all my anxious energy into a dance, and it began to feel okay.
The first day of school was just a two hour session of kids being observed and assigned to their classes. Cue up the worry-monsters: Would he get put in the right class? Would he get the best teacher? What did he need to do to get in the right class? Would he make friends? Should I have engineered a social circle for him already? What did these questions even mean? Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon. We danced it out to our songs, then got in the car, and held tight hands down the corridor where I delivered him to his unknown adventure.
The kids were sorted into their classes, and we, and all the other anxious parents, scattered away, drifting off to coffee shops, bakeries, trails, to worry and wonder what we should be wishing for, how noisy we should be advocating for our children, whether it’s okay to just it all unfold. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.
The next morning, we danced. The morning before his first bus ride, we danced. Then we moved on. A more prosaic, watermelon-free, morning routine took over. But I still feel exuberant delight when I hear those songs. We dared to go out into a brave scary place, with a little spring in our step.
Watermelon was the word I used to shut up my worry-mind, and in that juicy space I substituted a motto, with a killer beat, the Don’t Die Curious song: “You can’t count every single grain of sand. You can’t save a heart by holding a hand. You can’t make everyone understand. But don’t die curious.”
On 11 March 2011, an earthquake took place off the coast of Japan. It triggered a massive tsunami that decimated the north-eastern coastline, the region known as Tohoku, destroying 250,000 homes and taking 16,000 lives. Two photographers living in Tokyo – Yuko Yoshikawa and her American-born business partner Brian Scott Peterson were motivated to do something to help. So, they boarded a train and headed north, into the heart of the devastation, with the intent of offering to take family portraits with instant Polaroid-type film, for the survivors – the people living in temporary housing camps, who had lost everything, including their personal histories and photographs, when the giant black wave rolled in and swamped everything in its path.
“We went six months after the tsunami, to the day,” recalls Peterson. It was somber. People were coping, but the loss was still visceral, confronting, and Peterson suddenly felt unsure of himself. “We realized in that moment how ill-equipped we were, how much we didn’t know.”
Peterson is an exuberant character, a camera-wielding minstrel, whose friendliness transcends language barriers and disarms people quickly. But he began to second-guess himself. “What was I about to say? ‘Hey, we’re here from Tokyo to do a photo project for you. Were you in the tsunami? Did you lose anybody?’”
It was highly probable the person might respond: Yes, I lost my entire family. And then what? Peterson was not a counselor. The whole mission could be derailed by one ignorant question.
They’d travelled through the night, and now his team was standing on top of an overlook, where many of the survivors had fled to escape the tsunami, watching the sunrise, waiting for the day to begin. The light was beautiful, he set up his camera and someone wandered up, curious.
“What’s going on over here?” the man asked them.
“Do you live here?” probed Peterson, trying to ascertain if he was meeting a volunteer contributing to the ongoing clean-up and recovery efforts, or a local.
The man was a local who taught English in the school.
“Were you in the tsunami?” asked Peterson.
“Yeah, I was in the tsunami.”
A confession exploded out of Peterson. “I’m about to ask you if your life was totally destroyed by the tsunami. But I’m scared to ask you that question, because I’m scared of what that answer might be and maybe I’m not prepared to hear it, so before I ask you that question, I’m thinking I’d be better to ask: What should I ask you, if I’m coming here?”
And the stranger offered: “You could ask me where I lived before I came to live in the temporary housing here.”
Peterson and his team had their point of entry. Not “Are you okay? Is your family okay?” But, “What was life like before it was like this?”
Outfitted with their intention to help, a camera, some instant film, and that question, they headed into the village. By the end of the day, they had given away 100 family portraits, and a handful of photo albums – symbols of hope, of life ongoing and worth holding onto.
Their project, Photohoku, (a hybrid word combing Photo and Tohoku for the tsunami-affected region) is now 7 years strong, and has provided over 10,000 instant portraits to local families, celebrating them as they rebuild, grow, even welcome new babies. They’ve expanded their offering into other countries after devastating events, including the Moore tornado in Oklahoma and Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillippines.
And it all was powered by this heartfelt and curious approach: what question should I be asking?
“We started out not knowing anything,” says Peterson.
Don’t we all. Which makes curiosity the perfect place to start.