It has been a span of weeks in which we’ve had earthquakes almost daily. Some of greater magnitude than others, but all minor in the end. At the first rumble, though, you can’t tell what you’re in for. Some quakes barely announce themselves: Is that a truck passing by? Is this dizziness emanating from my inner ear, or is the floor actually swaying under my feet? Others arrive with a sudden bang, a jerk that disturbs your balance or makes the floor drop like a theme park ride. The rumbling swells into a horrible friction, stone on stone. Then, the crunching of house joints, forced at angles. In unison the family’s gaze turns to the pendant lights, for they are our household’s telltale sign. When those little white lampshades are swinging every which way, we’re being visited by tremors.
At that juncture, there are very few things one can do apart from this: hold one’s breath and pray for it to cease. Sure, I order the kids under the table and maybe open a door or window. If the movement continues, there are other safety precautions to take. But I am powerless to stop the quake before it has run its course. Once the quaking recedes, there are possibilities of further threats in the form of tsunamis and accidents. Talk about a ripple effect. It is not a phenomenon one gets accustomed to or stops fearing, and any Japanese will echo this sentiment.
The quakes this month have done no more damage in our home than knocking over a Christmas decoration here and there. We’ve been out, and later in the day I discover the wooden gingerbread boy and girl toppled over on a shelf. An intruder has not been here; the earth has shifted, yet again, in our absence. Is this a natural part of life along any of earth’s fault lines? Yes, but acknowledging this fact does not make the experience feel any less malevolent. Reality is a harsh teacher, they say, and the reality that we are utterly vulnerable to the caprice of the planet’s shifting plates is pretty tough to swallow. No amount of education, skill, talent, willpower, or physical prowess I wield will aid me in the face of it.
Vulnerability is equal parts humbling and frightening. It turns out that sometimes circumstances are beyond my control. At times I have moments of visceral panic, like on a day I remember from the summer. Dad had gotten Phillies tickets for Jo and our two boys, an early birthday present for them. It was to be Rei’s first time at Citizens Bank Park, so he was especially excited. Late that afternoon they all piled into the Camry and got buckled in for the ride. As Mom and I waved goodbye, there was an unpleasant twinge in my gut. It took a fair amount of restraint in those few seconds to not shout, “Dad! Please drive safely! You’ve got all my precious cargo on board!” Why had such a thought entered my mind when they were heading out to a night of fun? The book of Proverbs’ famed wife of noble character “has no fear for her household, for all of them are clothed in scarlet.” I wonder what this could mean in our times–what is the metaphor?
Accidents do happen. And we are vulnerable to so much more. Storms brew in the skies and seas. Bacteria move ever more swiftly, morphing too fast for science to keep up. Individuals with a double arsenal of delusions and weapons can introduce violence and death into any haven. Neither disaster nor disease nor derangement is a respecter of persons. As long as this world turns, havoc will be wreaked. The Christ of Christmas said as much. But then he added, “Take heart! I have overcome the world.” Words on their own are cold comfort, perhaps, while we are still suspended here, longing for shelter from what besieges us. But somehow people find a way to take courage in the face of the terrifying, including the man and woman chosen to bear, to raise, and, finally, to let go of the Messiah.
Learning to accept my fragility is a process, and maybe it is one of those things I am meant to wrestle with over a lifetime. But I seem to need too many reminders, and all of them are uncomfortable at best, searingly painful at worst. I suppose they prod me on to belief, the leap of faith I take not once, but with every upset, tectonic or otherwise.