A letter to the universe

​​Four months since you left us. My sister dreamt of you but you know that already. She heard your voice; you spoke to her. I look for you everywhere but I have not felt you, seen you, heard you. My sleep is dreamless, though sometimes I wake with my face wet with tears. Maybe I’m not looking in the right place, I think, though my sister says what I’m looking for is already there. I believe her, but I am still too desolate with sadness to stop looking.

I visited Alaska, a place so wild it is easy to feel separate from it, as though it is an enemy that wants to constantly kill you (river currents! bears! moose!) when in fact we live in perfect sympatheia with such a place, and the potential for nature’s deathblow at nearly every turn is a ballet we must dance. That dancing ballet requires the most constant and grueling yet joy-bringing preparation, building you up even as it breaks you down, is what makes this such an apt metaphor.

Not a lot of people live in Alaska for a reason – you must rely on your own devices to survive, and lots of people are bad at devices which is why they liked MacGyver, a show you once loved. So we live in cities, where a few who are good at devices make it possible for the rest of us to live in appreciative and more or less thoughtless benefit. 

But man erects edifices that provide a comfort and safety that are as illusory as their tradeoffs. In cities we are laughably safe from mountain lions and grizzlies, but the very modernities that make this so kill us in other ways – lack of sunlight, lack of vegetables, lack of fresh air to breathe, lack of space to thrive. 

“I like civilization,” my daughter remarked, as the jagged peaks of the Chugach receded in our rearview mirror and the lights of Anchorage hove into view.  I know exactly what she meant, without us having to talk about hot showers and tap water and the miracle of plumbing and being able to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without boots, a rain jacket and remembering to take the toilet paper and bear spray. 

A redwood bent to the will of the Loma Prieta earthquake, photo credit Liz Celeste/SFGATE

Say the word earthquake and most people think immediately of California – a word whose letters rise and fall in a shaky line like a temblor readout. We experienced the 6.9 1984 Loma Prieta earthquake safely on television from our bastion in St. Louis, built on another major faultline, the New Madrid. At the time we thought people were crazy for living in San Francisco, not predicting we’d move there in 2001.

Actually the strongest earthquake recorded in North America happened where I just was – Valdez Alaska, where on Good Friday 1964, a 9.2 struck in the Prince William Sound, registering in all but three states of the lower 48, and causing the Seattle’s Space Needle to sway back and forth some 1,200 miles away. Scientists reported seismic waves caused the earth to “ring like a bell.” The coastline dipped and rose more than 46 feet, parts of it even moving 50 feet towards the ocean. Seventy five homes dropped into the sea. It was the longest four minutes of a lot of people’s lives…and then the 200 foot tsunami hit (and landslides and fires) mostly leveling what was left of the town.

They rebuilt Valdez on higher ground, but not entirely. According to History.com, luxury homes were rebuilt on areas that earthquake experts say are most likely to experience future earthquake damage. If you brought that up to developers, they would likely cite their building codes as exemplary and able to withstand another quake. That sounds like faulty thinking to me, though, if the first premise of building a home is to keep safe the lives residing within it. That is, undoubtedly, what the home buyer thinks. Confronted with the evidence that many developers put profits first, and aren’t above cutting a few corners to achieve them, and we have a paradox – a house we buy for safety from brutal nature but cannot withstand nature’s blow. Maybe that’s why Alaska is not very populated. People feel the risks, the risks of the risks, more acutely, not least because it is a place with faults – in the case of Valdez, the Hanning Bay fault – whose destructiveness is so well known they have actual names.  

But that risk is actually the same everywhere you go.  People think earthquakes create fault lines but the opposite is true; faults do not open up during an earthquake – if they did, there’d be no friction and therefore no quake. In other words, faults are good, and necessary. Or at least, neither good nor bad, just a neutral, needed part of a peaceful life.

I recently read a book “Why Fish Don’t Exist” and as crazy as it sounds it is true, fish don’t exist, not because they’re not physically “real” but rather, ‘fish’ is the name of a group of creatures we erroneously thought were less like us than they in fact are. The book even takes a hack at cancel culture, but in a sideways manner that will catch you totally unaware, even if you are on guard for it. People are complex, the author seems to be thinking, as she wends her way through a story with many surprising twists and turns, not the least of which is the fact she is doing it in a place – the taxonomy of fish – where many could not imagine anything interesting happening at all. 

We tend to treat people as though they are simple when they are not. Just like we think and act like nature is separate from us, less ‘real’ when it is not – it was here and real before humans got here, and will indifferently roll over us like a steamroller whenever and wherever, the end. There is no protection from it, only a collaboration with it, and any concessions to be made are made by us, whether before or after disaster strikes, it cares not.

We talk about reaching solid ground and solid ground does not exist. The ground itself is faulted. Balance is an illusion. We must live our lives with the painful knowledge that we will outlive the ones we love, and the ones who love us will live on after we are gone – this is the natural and necessary fault of living, and makes the pain and beauty of life worthwhile. If this fault has a name in the geography of our hearts, it can only be love – perhaps the one thing that is real in our lives. That and music – I still listen to yours, and even though it makes me cry that I can’t share new songs with you the way that we used to – I just know you’d love Julien Baker – I listen and listen and listen, because it’s the only time I can still feel and hear you. It’s not as good as hearing your voice but it will have to do. In a world where even the dirt beneath my feet is unstable, and energy cannot be created or destroyed but only be changed from one form to another, and time itself is not real, then you are, right now, energy somewhere out there, or right here, or everywhere and I take comfort and I rejoice. I rejoice.

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