Like everyone in San Francisco, I can tell you exactly where I was in the Quake of ’89. Lying on my couch reading a college alumni newsletter, to be exact, and then bolting out the back door and shuffling my kids who were in the yard running inside to get back out. My 4-year old daughter Talia started crying and I tried to comfort her and then discovered she was most upset because I knocked her rice cake out of her hand. My wife was at the other end of the house and after some disquieting moments crouched under a doorway, came running down the hall and out the door to join us. That night, we all slept in the new room in the back, the most solid part of our house and felt many of the aftershocks. The ultimate damage was minimal, some things that fell from shelves. We were lucky.
But the biggest aftershock was to my psyche. I felt betrayed by my notion that the earth was solid ground and would always faithfully support me each step I took. What I thought was dependable and immovable was in fact a temperamental techtonic plate that could bring down my home, my city, my life. That was a rude awakening. I couldn’t play the bagpipe for six months! (Much to the relief of my neighbors). That level of sound intensity was too much for my shattered faith and all I wanted was Kenny G, glockenspiels and soothing ballads.
So last night, I was awakened by a jolt that sent my wife and I once again running to the back of the house. There we discovered that one silver ball from the Christmas tree had been shaken loose by the tremor and broke on the floor. Pretty mild. But it was 4.4 on the Richter Scale, one of the larger ones we’ve had in the past 30 years. And once again that sense of alarm that there is no dependable solid ground, not physically, not psychologically, not politically (the 2016 election should have been given a rating on the Richter scale!) We are fragile, vulnerable beings and at the mercy (as recent news shows) of fires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, not to mention the long list of disease and psychological dysfunctions.
Of course, we know this and spend most of our time avoiding thinking about it and rightfully so. But sometimes we know it and it’s always discomfiting. And as if the natural dangers and disasters aren't enough, there's all the ones we make ourselves. Besides the obvious political events, the fact that a lifetime of good work can be shattered in a single moment. I’m thinking about things like Garrison Keillor’s forty-plus years of bringing happiness via stories, poems and music to people and one what-appears-to-be-accidental-indiscretion and he’s on the witch-hunt list and declared guilty-before-being-proven-innocent, lumped together with serious offenders like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump and the whole house-of-cards of his legacy tumbled to the ground.
I had a hard time getting back to sleep, but I finally did and when I woke up, my reaction was to put my sense of disgruntlement from a recent staff meeting in perspective and vow to be yet kinder, forgiving and attentive to the precious gift of each moment we are granted breath. To be awakened by the jolt of an earthquake is both a literal and metaphorical wake-up call. To appreciate more, to give more, to love yet deeper, to soar yet higher.
And though I'm not sure my science is correct, I have the fantasy that these more minor jolts help forestall the "Big One," are part of a series of the earth's re-adjustments in much the same way we shift our postures to feel more comfortable and solid, re-arrange our thinking to be more clear, move the furniture of the heart around to leave more space for love. Maybe nonsense, but it gives me some comfort. And meanwhile, maybe I'll change the bedroom to the back of the house.