Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
For those who missed it, this is the piece I read at the Saturday, March 29 issue of The Paper Machete, in response to the horrific mudslide in northwest Washington state.
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I’ll have a moment with my coffee most mornings that lasts both a few eye-blinks and a few eons. A clump of non-dairy creamer drops on the surface of the brew, and then it’s a mountain, an island, an archipelago, a disaster area, an extinction level event, a legend, a loss. All this observed from outer space over the course of an epoch, civilizations too small to witness with their laws and conflicts and art and architecture, some who insisted the world was permanent and others who always knew it would end. Some who never stop screaming and others who walk placidly into the cataclysm, some in their last moments wondering why their ancestors ever chose to establish society in this fragile white sand amidst the boiling black sea.
Then there is a tablespoon and a vortex; obliteration in the scarlet cells of my own uncertain bloodstream. This is how I start my day, most days: with a miniature apocalypse of my own devising. A few eye-blinks, a few eons. This is the world and now it’s over. I honestly think it does more to awaken me than does the caffeine.
Peculiar, yes. Peculiar and bleak and as heavy as regret. You have to remember that these are the thoughts of a man who hasn’t yet had his first cup of coffee; a man who in those first blurry minutes exists in the illusion of standstill.
Which of course he is not, I am not, you are not, none of you, at standstill. Nobody is. You sit where you are and within seconds you are not where you were, but we tell ourselves we are stationary for the peace it briefly grants us. We trust the Earth to be present, to be in fact the definition of presence. We trust it to be stable. It’s why we named it—of the four classical elements—it’s why we named it Mother. But the Earth is not earth, is not ground, is not the solid object upon which one is rooted. The Earth is a whirling sphere, the barbed end of a morningstar fixing to descend on flesh; it is in constant and terrifying velocity through the emptiness of a galaxy. You clutch desperately without ever perceiving it to the back of a roaring, bucking beast and if you have ever been on an airliner then you know: Items stored aboard the vessel are likely to have shifted in flight.
Eight days ago there was a community of 180 people living in the northeastern corner of Washington State and seven days ago it became a square mile of corpses and survivors. Two dozen confirmed dead and the number gradually to rise as the erosion reveals its atrocities, many more unlikely to ever be found again, entombed by the hills in whose shadows they once existed. A mudslide approaches speeds of 50 miles per hour, the ravenous ferocity of a lioness at the end of a long hunt, spreading wide and swallowing whole. There’s no time to consider the absurdity of it, the realization that the planet has changed its mind about what it’s wearing today and you’re now in the path of that fickle opinion. You’re lost in your panic and you’re cradling the infant and you’re praying to gods who have put you on hold. Catastrophe has a tendency to ignore property lines and structural integrity, it has received its assignment from gravity and is keen to overachieve. The last of your air is pushed from your body and the death takes an eye-blink. The death takes an eon.
In the days since, in an aftermath that has been more math and less after, authorities and bereaved alike have been quoted in various iterations of There Was No Warning and the bone-cold parts of us, the parts one retreats to because the despair is like white-hot wires in the webs of one’s hands, those parts of us clear their throats and don their tweed jackets and reply in the comments sections of tragedies, Excuse Me. Excuse Me What? No Warning?
You lived in the environmental crossfire between a cobra of a river and a mongoose of a mountainside, constantly dancing and biting back and forth at each other. Five times in the last 65 years the slope lost its balance and tumbled towards the valley, most recently just eight years ago, and the science told you, the Army Corps of Engineers told you, you were lucky this time. Yet you stayed. You compounded the risk of your surroundings with the more painful risks of love and children. The world is small and relentlessly documented and you, reckless villagers of Oso and Darrington, you put us in the position of having to one day watch you perish and the gall, the absolute gall, we seethe. This disaster could have been nothing, could have been of casual, conversational interest to geomorphologists and nobody else. The victims could have been people whose names we’d never know and now we wouldn’t have to deal with the 30 heartbreaking images of distraught volunteers next to our quiz that tells us who our Game of Thrones girlfriend is.
But this is awful. This is a train of thought that we bury under the cave-in of our conscience. If we are the best of ourselves we recognize the qualities of each other that would lead us to settle in a land so unsettled. We cannot ultimately blame the missing and the dead. The intangible, intoxicating quality of scenic majesty often makes one forget that mountains, like other monarchs, may go one day go mad and pronounce sentence of death on every fifth of its subjects.
For half of an outraged utterance we may entertain the notion that the culprit is climate change; we may be sober enough to remember that mudslides are caused by unusual circumstances of rainfall and snowmelt, and that this winter, with its droughts and polar winds, has been nothing if not unusual. The maybe will be met with indignation, with accusation that the tragedy is being politicized, even though the only reason discussion of the environment has been politicized is because certain politicians don’t wish to discuss it. We will avoid the iotas of truth to be found at the bottom of our crucibles because the solutions do not speak to expectations. We are unready to accept how often the Earth betrays us. It makes it harder for us to ignore how often we have betrayed it.
But this is also awful, in its own way, this sick foreboding that realizations have arrived far too late and the only hope that remains is that you don’t live to see the inevitable. The momentum of our cowardice has perhaps grown unwieldy and the last of the beauty we have left to offer is the ability to let the clock run out. You don’t want to believe that this will keep happening. Happenings do not care what you believe.
I’ll have a moment with my son most mornings that lasts my entire life. He watches as I pour the water into the press and when the timer beeps he exclaims brightly that it’s time for coffee. This is not something he did a year ago. This may not be something he does a year from now. We take for granted our routines because they are routine and forget that to have routines in a world like ours, a world that arranges chaos so precisely that it often resembles order, that routines are the most precious of luxuries we enjoy. It is not just the people we have lost that is tragic, it is their uniqueness we have lost, the uniqueness that was molded in the grace of their routines. We cannot choose our chances and we cannot stop the Earth from moving, so we build smaller worlds around ourselves and will ourselves to forget how easily they’re taken away.
That’s our secret. That’s how we survive. Eye-blink upon eye-blink. Eon upon eon.