Friday, February 28, 2014

The Earthquake Kit (and Hello!!!!!! from the Rabbit Hole)

Okay, I'll admit it...I haven't posted lately. You probably haven't been able to see me, but I'm here, although buried a bit deeply under a mass of paper. I've fallen down the veritable rabbit hole that lurks in every writing teacher's life, a rather long and dark vertical tunnel created by a classes that must be prepared and papers that must be graded. Those of us in this profession start each semester well, confidently nudging our colleagues with an "I've got this" elbow in the hallways. Sometime in the dead of night about four weeks in, a hole begins to erode beneath our feet. Before we know it...WHOOSH!...we start to fall, and our surprised faces are soon covered with layers and layers of paper.

Recently, a friend shouted down the rabbit hole asking me to join him at a fundraiser for the Corner Cupboard, a food bank in Greene County.

"Will you read?" his faint voice wafted down the many miles I'd fallen.

I was able to pull myself up from underneath the mass a bit. That's right, I thought...I used to write sometimes. Well, yes. Yes, I think I will read.

And, so I climbed out of the rabbit hole for a bit. My husband bought me a large coffee on the ride to the reading. I think he sensed I might disappear without the caffeine. Afterwards, after so many beautiful words and songs, after a moment of suspended beauty when the lilting notes of Chopin floated up and through the big-windowed church sanctuary, he took me to Eat 'N Park for a club sandwich. Nothing has ever tasted so good.

We have a tradition in the Sunday house. When we pick up our weary travelers at the airport (or sometimes when they make the long climb up and out of the rabbit hole), our children who have moved and/or traveled to parts far from home, we stop at Eat 'N Park for a bite. We go even when it's 3 a.m., even when we aren't hungry. I guess there's always room for a Smiley cookie.

Before the bacon and turkey, before the Chopin, I read a newly revised version of "The Earthquake Kit," previously published in Connotation Press. Here's the new version:

The Earthquake Kit

     When my youngest daughter Rachel was about seven, she began to worry about the weather. The worrying part she got from me, the weather-watching part from her father. We were a beach vacation family in those days, and some of her earliest memories must surely involve late-night deck sitting, where we witnessed red lightning cracking above the smudged line of dark water. One year we drove into Corolla, North Carolina on the windy heels of Hurricane Bertha, stopping once or twice to drag away splintered branches blocking the single lane blacktop which led to Atlantic Avenue, just off of Highway 12.

     A random assortment of pine needles, bark, and murky sand covered the driveway of the house we’d rented that year, a certain sign of things to come. Nature had been vigorously shaken, and we were in the midst of the fall out. On our first sunny day, trekking back from the beach, we stopped en masse at the outdoor shower.  We were a family who never used the inside showers, even the littlest ones preferring the fresh air tickling their skin, but this time, we backed out-- a formidable wall of Sundays—scurrying away from the aggressive encampment of big-headed, spindly-legged spiders that had taken refuge there from unforgiving winds. Later that week, we were treated to a gathering of tree frogs, leaf emerald in their greenness, their sticky pads sucked tight to our glass door. Coming for the insects that had been drawn to our inside lights, the frogs’ tongues spun out, darting so rapidly that the insects seemed unaware of their fate. We watched transfixed, spellbound by this little life and death drama played out before us on a vacation house storm door.

     Later, we were all awakened by our oldest boy’s shouts. We’d had rain all day; the fury that had been Bertha was long gone, but another hurricane was pushing up the coast. We’d tucked our two youngest in, whispering reassurances against the pounding rain on the cupola skylight, but now a steady torrent of water forced itself around, under, and through the skylight seal, an angry waterfall pouring into the open center of the house, pooling on the first floor where the Godzilla marathon the boys had been watching still flickered on the screen.

     Rachel learned about the ugliness of nature during this and other beach trips, slapping her hands at fat black sand flies, shielding her eyes from the piercing sting of wind-borne sand, overturning turtle shells all but scraped clean of red meat, watching the glassy green sea whip itself into an angry gray threat.  On our way south, we often drove through wild storms, once caught in a tornado on the beltway around D.C., once driving into West Palm just minutes after a tornado touched down, sideways pelting rain and van-rocking winds having unnerved us all.

     “Maybe we shouldn’t stay,” Rachel repeated in a kind of litany, rolling her worry between her fingers like beads.

     We looked at the broad palm leaves sheared in ragged segments lying around the pool. “It’s over, honey. We’ll be fine.”      

     That trip marked the beginning of Rachel’s sojourn with the Weather Channel. While the tornado was indeed over, unfortunately the remainder of our vacation week was fraught with the kind of hazy heat and pressure that were often followed by brooding afternoon thunder storms. Rachel sat rigidly in front of the television several times a day listening for the word tornado on the Weather Channel. Any mention of impending rain heightened her panic.

     “I’ve got to see the Local on the Eights,” she’d say as we rounded up our children for application of sunscreen.
     “Come on, Rach. If we don’t get to the beach soon, the clouds will start building. Let’s go get some sun.”

     “Do you think it’s going to storm today? Maybe we shouldn’t go to the beach today. I want to go home! Can we please go home now?”

     And so it went, her tone becoming more insistent after we’d run up the beach walkway seeking shelter from the inevitable storm. I wonder if the confident young woman she is now remembers how she cried that week, her blue eyes widened with the fear of waiting for the worst to happen.

     Another summer, we hurried the short distance home from the community fair, after hearing a tornado warning broadcast over the loud speakers. “Don’t worry, kids,” I said to my four and two young friends. “Tornados don’t usually come to Pittsburgh. We are just being careful, that’s all.”
     We sat playing games in my family room until a strangely orange sky shone through the front windows. The glow was unnatural, eerie, and I was a bit undone.
     “Let’s go guys--time to play in the basement.”

     Smiling while I boosted them up into the crawl space, I joked about being a crazy worrywart, praying all the while that the walls would hold.  I held my breath while I sat guard on the cellar steps, waiting for the ghostly sound of the rushing locomotive.  When we emerged, our local news reported downed electric lines, fallen trees, and lifted rooftops just a few miles away.

     Rachel is mostly grown now, a leggy blonde with a wild sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude.  A fierce “what of it” glint rises easily in her eyes if push comes to shove. Seven months ago she moved 2,577 road miles away from home to Moraga, California. When we packed up her suitcases in August, I checked St. Mary’s “Things to Bring List.” Reading the list aloud, a part of my brain eliminated the required Earthquake Emergency Kit, perhaps pretending that she wasn’t going quite so far, that she wasn’t my youngest, that I hadn’t quite reached this stage of my life. What bag of tricks could possibly help during an earthquake, anyway? What could I possibly buy to keep my girl safe?                                                                                                                      

      Earlier this week, I noticed a link posted on Rachel’s Facebook page: “Signs of California Quake to Come.” Below was Rachel’s comment: “Just in case, I love you all.”

     I tried the explanations out in my mind…the geologist doesn’t know what he’s talking about…it’s just dead fish and a low-hanging moon…earthquakes don’t happen where you are…I promise you will be safe, but all of them felt like so much dust on my tongue.

     Everything I knew about earthquakes came from an exhibit called The Great San Francisco Earthquake Experience my parents took me to on a trip to the Bay Area the year I turned 14. While we rode cable cars, visited Alcatraz and ate cioppino that week, my memories of that trip center on the 360 degree screen that showed life-sized images of the catastrophic 1906 earthquake. On that circular screen, reliable cement and asphalt bent until split, and people fell screaming into the center of the earth.
     When I talked to Rachel, after my husband tried to distract her with humor, I asked her “Are you nervous?”

     “Promise me you will get a memorial tattoo of me if I die in the earthquake. Use the picture of me standing on the bridge with Heinz Field in the background.”

     I have a mental picture of a large, intricately-inked tattoo stretching across my 55- year-old back.

     “Promise me.”

     “Okay. Sure. I promise, but you are going to be fine. You aren’t right on the fault line, and no tsunami could reach you because you are too far away and too high up on the hill.”

     “Just in case, I’m sending a goodbye text to everyone I know tonight.”

     “Rach, you are going to be just fine.”

     The truth, though, is that things don’t always work out for the best, and, even in the sweetness of her youth, Rachel understands. In third grade, on a classroom monitor, she watched planes fly into skyscrapers. She’s seen the footage from Haiti, and wars have always been part of her evening news. She’s walked into my mother’s hospital room to find the rigid contour of a lifeless face against the pillow. She’s heard crystal splintering, angry voices bouncing off of sharp glass shards glinting on a leaf-patterned cloth. She’s picked up her phone to hear really bad news emanating from the earpiece, news that she hadn’t invited, dreamed of, or wished for at all.

   The real truth is that Rachel comes from a legacy of sadness, just a breath away from shoddily hidden grief-- from someone who knows quite well that a ringing phone can’t be trusted, from a mother who has so desperately wanted to create a pocket of safety for her children, but who is sometimes irrevocably lost to the day when her brother died from a bullet to the brain.

     Rachel made herself an earthquake survival kit, just in case. She filled her black and yellow Vera Bradley backpack with snacks, Sarris chocolate, bottled water, a flashlight, and her Tide-To-Go pen.

      I have an earthquake kit too, but Rachel probably doesn’t know that I started mine many years ago, long before she left me, perhaps on the day I stood in the funeral home, feeling the wax slug filling the ragged entrance wound near my brother’s right ear.

     Sometimes the kit does work. I wish I could share its logic with her and my other children, providing them with a checklist for survival, a nicely printed list of circles to fill in with a sharp number two pencil, but part of the process is that each of us must confront impending disaster alone, gathering chicken bones and feathers to ward off that which might harm those we love.  My kit is a ragtag collection, including, but not inclusive of, spastic hopes, lopsided prayers, and improbable deals made in the dead of night. Yesterday, I added my promise to Rachel, praying that my vow will be enough to keep her safe, that I’ll never have to lie under the buzzing tattoo needle, feeling her “I love you all” worked black drop by black drop deeply into my skin.