Sunday was my last day in Japan. I was up early to make another try at Narita Airport. I was happy to find that the highway had reopened and traffic was light. We made it in just 45 minutes, quicker than I have ever done it before. There were plenty of people sleeping on the floor of the terminal, but everything was calm, orderly, and oddly normal.

About an hour before my flight was scheduled to leave, a significant aftershock rumbled through the building. The wall of windows in the departure hall looking out on the runways shook violently. Some people gingerly backed away from the vibrating glass, but most people were just transfixed. I recall a sharp (but fleeting) moment of dread that this latest tremor might shut down the airport and delay my departure even further. I didn’t need to worry: Japanese construction held firm again and my flight took off only slightly behind schedule. To my surprise, the plane was far from full.

The trip back, through Chicago to Dallas, was completely uneventful. My feelings were mixed, though, when I finally set foot back in Texas. I was relieved to be home, eager to see my wife (and cat), and ready to get back to my real job as an educator, scholar, and administrator. But I also felt a certain guilt that I could just pack up, hop on a plane, and sleep in a safe, unshaking bed when so many in Japan had no option but to endure ongoing aftershocks, rising deprivation, and the threat of a nuclear catastrophe. The feelings of helplessness and frustration seem particularly acute in a digital age, when you can see so much and yet do so little. Like many people, I felt the same way on 9/11 and again during Hurricane Katrina.

It is hard to imagine, at least at this point, how the crisis in Japan is going to develop over the coming hours and days. We would all like to see the happiest possible ending, where the radiation levels fall, more survivors are found, and the process of recovery can begin. One can’t help but worry, however, that the disaster has not played itself out and that what lies ahead might be even more catastrophic than what has occurred so far. I have been thinking a great deal about my relatives and friends in Japan, as well as the many people I met on my recent trip. I have also been wondering about the nation and the culture I have known and studied and loved through so much of my life. Will that Japan, the Japan before 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, come through this crisis intact?

It can be difficult to see silver linings at a time like this, or to find even the slightest hints of hope in a landscape of destruction, suffering, and uncertainty. In a discussion board on an obscure website, however, I found a story that reminded me that there can be unexpected flashes of beauty even in the world’s darkest moments. The story was from a man who lives in a cabin, deep in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. When the earthquake struck on Friday, he ran out his front door. Rather than seeing skyscrapers swaying, as I did in the city, he saw the stands of mature cedars all around him heaving and rocking as the hillsides moved. The violence of the motion, he reported, shook the bright yellow pollen from the trees, creating vast golden clouds that drifted through the forest and up into the clear spring sky. He was reminded of traditional Japanese screen-paintings, where stylized clouds of gold leaf float over lush landscapes and bustling street scenes.

Today, when watching yet again all the terrible, engrossing footage of tsunami waves and shattered communities, explosions in Fukushima and somber press conferences in Tokyo, I have sometimes closed my eyes and tried to imagine those golden clouds of pollen floating on the mountain air. For just an instant, at least, the hurt and worry and horror subside, and I can revel in the Japan that was and will, I hope and pray, continue to be.