Shaking

August 24, 2011 § 16 Comments

Holding up the sky

What happens when you move every 2 years, as we do, is that you begin to make bucket lists of things to do before you move again. We made one this summer with the boys. It’s on a piece of red construction paper and most of the items are crossed off: “camping” on the foldout bed on the back porch area, taking a tour of DC in a double-decker bus, going to the beach. Yesterday, we were going to cross another one from the list: going to the top of the Washington Monument.

As we ate a late lunch yesterday, the boys and I talked about what it was going to be like to see the city spread out before us. What I love about the Washington Monument is not what it looks like, but what it does for the Mall. The Monument unfurls the sky, as if the Mall were a big circus tent with the most beautiful ceiling. I wanted to be inside that place and look out into all that blue air.

After Gus finished his lunch, he slid down from his chair and went into the living room to color by the window seat. Oliver and I kept talking until the floor began to shake and rumble. After spending 15 years in California, I have been through enough earthquakes to recognize one when it came. But still, my brain said no. I held onto the table as my mind told me, “This is Virginia. There are no earthquakes here.”

But the earth was saying, yes.

The floor began to roll and the heavy oak table splayed out from under me as if it were a young colt. I heard the kitchen cabinets bang open and the glasses fall out. “Let’s get Gus,” I told Oliver and we ran to the living room as the floor heaved beneath us. Gus began to cry and raised his arms to me. “The funder is hurting my ears,” he said. I picked him up and spun around, not sure what to do. I knew you are supposed to stand in a doorway, but I heard glass breaking and watched the light fixtures swing, so that didn’t seem like the greatest idea. Instead, I do what I do best. I ran. I took the boys out the front door and into our yard.

As we stepped into the grass, the earth became still again. It was silent. I could feel Gus shaking in my arms, or maybe that was me. I told myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, but there was an eerie sense of deja vu to the whole experience, as if I had done this before. As if this were not the first time I stood in my front yard after the earth shook itself off like a wet dog.

Down the block some kids had come out of their homes. Across the street, I saw my neighbor Paul huddled by his front door with his tiny little dog. Every neighborhood has a bright, happy person, the one in the old convertible who loans you his lawn mower and always gives you a big wave. Paul’s that guy. He’s not someone who hides out with a chihuahua.

I waved to him and he came out of his house. “What was that?” he asked.

Seriously, Dude? said the voice inside my head. “It was an earthquake,” I said out loud.

“Are you sure?” he asked, stepping forward and down his steps.

I could feel Gus shaking against me and I put my hand on Oliver’s head. “Yes,” I said. “Are you okay?”

“Oh,” he said, looking relieved. He walked out to the edge of his yard. “When the plane hit the Pentagon on nine eleven,” he told me, “It felt like a truck hit our house.”

Ah, I thought. There it is. We each have our own unique epicenters of fear.

After a few minutes of  dusting ourselves off, we all went back inside. The boys were excited and kept telling me they weren’t scared. “I not stared of earthquakes Mommy,” Gus kept saying, so I told them that earthquakes hardly ever happened in Virginia. That it was over and we were all just fine. Oliver wanted to know what caused an earthquake and I told him that sometimes the planet settles a little and then goes back to normal. I had no idea what I could say that would bring comfort. I couldn’t tell them it would never happen again because what if it did?

I went back into the kitchen to clean up the glass on the floor, but really, it was an excuse to take a breath and stop shaking. It didn’t work. For the rest of the day, I felt as if I were choking back sobs that had nothing to do with the earthquake. It took me until evening to figure out that maybe the strange sense of deja vu I felt had something to do with moving every two years. I am someone who wants to put roots down more than anything, but I guess what I am supposed to learn is this lifetime is how to deal with being transplanted, how to be shaken up a little.

It’s really so silly that I am afraid every time we move. We are given professional movers. We are given enough money to rent a new house and to move our cars and replace the food we always have to give away or toss out. But it’s the little things that throw me for a loop, like having to use a GPS the first few times I go to the grocery store. Going to the park for the first time and sitting by the sand box alone. Knowing that it will be months until someone in my new area code will call me on the phone. I have a Philadelphia cell phone number, a California driver’s license, an Oregon license plate, and a Virginia address. Last year, when we moved to Alexandria, the soundtrack of our first summer was, “Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-turn.”

All day yesterday, I kept telling myself how unfounded these fears were. That what I was afraid of had already happened to me: the earthquake, the difficult moves, the loneliness. Right now I am fine, I kept telling myself. We’re all just fine. We would move again and we would be fine there too. We always found a doctor when we needed one, a school, and enough friends.

I like to think that moving so often has made me into a certain kind of person. As Dominique Browning so eloquently put it, moving puts me on the other side of the desk. As I get lost in an attempt to buy milk or as my heart breaks as my son tells me that he misses his friends, that he is so scared of starting a new school that it feels like lions are chasing him, I become everyone who has ever been scared or lonely or lost. I become the woman who holds up the line in the grocery store because the cashier doesn’t know how to take food stamps. I become the elderly man who keeps asking you to repeat yourself. I become the child who is having a tantrum because he can’t tie his shoe. I tell myself that moving so often has made me compassionate. It has made me strong, good in a crisis. It has made me into someone who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, will grab the laptop and the diaper bag, the extra bottle of water.

Yesterday, as the boys and I stood in our front yard after the ground stopped moving, I looked down at the chipped polish on my bare toes. Oliver was in his socks and Gus had a dirty diaper. Apparently I am not the person I thought I was. It turns out, I am the person, who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, doesn’t even remember her shoes. It turns out that maybe the only thing fear has taught me is how to be afraid.

At three o’clock yesterday, an hour after the earthquake, they closed the Washington Monument. Today, all the buildings on the Mall were closed.  The earth is still now, but they are checking for damages. They are looking for cracks and picking up rubble from the Cathedral floor.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment. It is clear that there is so much more work for me to do here, on this ground level. I am not ready yet to climb into a tall, slim obelisk and look out over the world. What I still need to learn is how to be comfortable with the earth shifting under my feet.

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