Earthquakes

(No FCM this week. I wanted to finish up a post I started writing several years ago instead.)

Earthquakes are similar to first kisses in many ways. There’s that moment of uncertainty that starts it all off where you think something’s going to happen. Something exciting and frightening, but you’re not quite sure what. Nervousness works its way into your toes and slithers up your legs, sapping the strength from them. You’re afraid you’re going to fall.

Sometimes you do.

I never felt my first earthquake. My wife and I were on our way to grab a quick dinner. As we walked down the dark streets of Kawaguchi in the middle of autumn, a slight breeze rattled the power lines overhead. At least, that’s what I thought, until I realized there was no breeze after all. Upon closer inspection not only were the lines swaying back and forth, but the poles were too.

“Earthquake,” my wife said. I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed when it ended so abruptly and I never felt a thing.

I’d live to regret that disappointment.

We continued our walk, all the while wondering where the earthquake had been and how bad the damage was. Life continued as normal around us, so it must not have been bad.

“There has been an earthquake. There is no chance of tsunami. Beware aftershocks.” The eerie, disembodied voice sounded like it was coming from everywhere all at once. It had a very Orwellian air about it. My wife explained that every time an earthquake hit, earthquake lady was on the horn in her staticky pre-recorded voice talking about aftershocks and tsunamis. I’m convinced the audio was recorded back in the thirties.

It was about a week from Halloween and the air was cool and crisp, but not quite coat weather yet. I had only been in Japan for a month and was still getting used to all of the strange eccentricities. Nobody seemed to notice that it was nearly Halloween. In the States there had been plastic ghosts, eerie noise-boxes, and colorful costumes on sale when I’d left back in September. Here the most I had seen was a single banner in the door of a travel agency that read “PUMPKINS SMILING – HAPPY HALLOWEEN”. It wasn’t quite like home, but I’d take it.

Another shock hit while we were eating. This one scared me. Everything shook. Signs swayed, threatening to fall. My chair jostled back and forth, carrying me with it across the restaurant floor. Our food danced across the table. There was no way to know when it was going to end. Nothing I could do to stop it. A force of nature, entirely out of my control. It doesn’t care that you’re there, doesn’t care that you’re afraid, doesn’t care that it’s about to spill your food all over the floor. Though as clean as they keep the floors in Japanese fast food joints, I probably could have eaten it even if it had fallen.

I never wanted to live through another earthquake again after that.

Thirty minutes later, however, I did. A much larger one.

When we got back to the apartment building, the elevators were shut down for safety concerns. Standard operating procedure for earthquakes. A small crowd of people had gathered in the lobby, not wanting or able to take the stairs for whatever reason. We decided to go on up, worried about what our apartment must look like after that last good shake.

The stairs weren’t inside the building. They were attached to the outside, like a glorified fire escape, or some scaffolding left behind after the last time the building was painted. Exposed, tenuous, but a way home. To the ninth floor.

I’m generally unafraid of heights. Airplanes don’t bother me. Observation decks atop tall skyscrapers are never an issue. But something about that wide open stairwell running up the side of our apartment building started to unsettle me around the fifth floor landing. I gripped the rails with a jaws-of-life level of force and steeled my gaze at the metal grating beneath my feet. Yes, metal grating, that I could see straight through, all the way down five floors. There was no hiding from the fact that I was going up higher and higher. The sound of the wind didn’t help, either.

At the seventh floor landing, I started to move faster. Almost home, soon to leave this terrifying structure behind. Then everything began to shake.

I’m certain that this is an exaggeration, that I’m not remembering it clearly, but when that tremor hit–and it was the largest one of the night–it felt as if the entire staircase was about to pop off of the building and tumble like a felled tree to the ground. My mind raced, scanning for the safest corner to huddle into, to protect us both from death by shredded steel. The rails shook, the floor shook, the staircase twisted independently of the building. And then it was over. It never came back that night.

In later months, there would be other earthquakes. Many of them would wake me up just as they were ending, and I’d wonder if it was all a dream as I watched the light chains sway overhead.

Of course, I can speak poetically about this because I survived unscathed. Many others can’t say the same. That earthquake claimed 68 lives. The deadliest in nearly a decade. The one before that claimed nearly 6,500 and leveled entire cities. But the deadliest earthquake since 2004? The 2011 Tohoku earthquake. It claimed 16,000 lives and was the costliest natural disaster in history. The entire northeastern seaboard of Japan was wiped clean by a massive tsunami that struck shortly after the quake itself. The scars were evident even a year later, flying over the region.

Chuetsu_earthquake-takidashi

Relief workers provide food to people left homeless after the 2004 Chūetsu earthquake.

Just last week one hit Mexico City. The death toll is still climbing.

I live in the pacific northwest, where we’re overdue for a massive earthquake of our own. I pray I never live to experience it.

Earthquakes are terrifying. There’s no warning, no way to predict. You can only prepare, and once the shaking starts, pray for the best.

I started this post out by comparing earthquakes to first kisses. That feels a bit silly, in some respects, when earthquakes take lives and first kisses rarely do. But there’s something poetic to me in the similarities between earthquakes and falling in love. Neither are predictable. Neither are certain until they’re well underway or even past us. Both can be destructive if we’re not prepared. Sometimes even if we are.

As I’m working on revisions for A PETAL OF CHRYSANTHEMUM (featured on FCM a few weeks back) I’m keeping that poetry in mind. Falling in love with the wrong person or in the wrong circumstances can be destructive. And earthquakes can wreak terrible destruction on whole communities. But something beautiful blossoms in the aftermath, when humanity comes together to help out their fellow travelers on this wildly unpredictable orb we call home. It’s a delicate theme to weave a tale around, especially when the event I’m writing about really happened–we know people who were affected by the earthquake. But I think it’s one worth exploring, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to share that tale of unrequited love, of being untruthful to oneself, of finding one’s way in a world that is completely out of control, with the rest of you.

By the by, if you want to help out the victims of the recent earthquake in Mexico, the New York Times has some good resources for you.

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