11 March 2011

I look at the world...

Those of you who know us know that the spouse is a geologist who specializes in mass movement, and that both of us are well-versed in the dialectic of disaster.

Days like today are very hard.

I have a habit, a bad one really and largely inexplicable, of waking early on disaster days. The morning of the Northridge earthquake, I was up wandering around about 15 minutes before the M6.7 event hit at 4:31 am, though in this case, my early waking was explained by the fact that I was 8.5 months pregnant.

This morning, I woke just after 5 am because I heard something, an insistent low humming rumble, like the sound of a large and heavy truck driving by, except in this case, the frequency never changed and the truck never moved on. The sound was sufficiently unnerving that I got up to check the house, while Milton danced delightedly at my feet, mewing loudly, "Yes! Yes! You got the memo! Breakfast NOW!"

"What's wrong?" the spouse murmured sleepily after I fed the cat.

"Don't you hear that?" I asked. "What is that sound?"

"Traffic," he said. "The freeway."

"Which is miles away," I objected.

"The sound of the world," he said.

Or perhaps, the sound of the earth?

The first reports we saw this morning were for the earthquake; the first footage of a town that had become a dust plume. Only later did we see the horrifying video of the tsunami.

Earthquakes are personal. I've been through so many, including the M7.3 Landers (that was an E-ticket), read about them, written about them, photographed the aftermath, but I've never become inured to them. Still, the M5 one feels independently of any of other event seems hugely traumatic while the M5 aftershock in the wake of a larger quake feels like a walk in the park. The night I lay in the hospital in labor with the son, there was an M4.5 aftershock followed by an M5 aftershock to Northridge, and we laughed.

Disaster is personal, too. I can't look at a photo of blasted building without thinking of the people who were blasted, too. I can't critique a landslide simulation without thinking of those buried under the mud. Empathy is my Achilles heel even while it's my saving grace.

And this morning, watching the waves consume fields and inundate the roads, all I could think of were the faceless masses washed out to sea, people I will never know but whose deaths diminish me just the same. People who had children or parents, terrible secrets, secret hopes, desperate desires, joy to share. Lives ended.

And perhaps it is my own terrible secret that I grieve for them. Even while my frightfully analytical brain analyzes wave movement and building damage, sees the pieces and the patterns, my heart quietly breaks.

Go listen to some good music: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from the album The Best of George Harrison by George Harrison. It happens every time, the larger and smaller disasters. Haiti, Christchurch, Loma Prieta, Gujarat, Katrina, the child whose death was preventable.

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