When I first moved to California it seemed like no matter where I went or with whom I spoke, the same three-word phrase kept finding its way to my ears. Down on the Santa Cruz coast, beside glinting silver waves: The Big One. Up in Napa Valley, red wine on the tongue: The Big One. Even at the breakfast table in my new home, a friend’s apartment in San Francisco: The Big One.
“It could happen at any moment.”
“We’re long overdue.”
“It’s just a matter of time.”
This was San Andreas Fault country, the violent, grinding edge of the continent; this was a scrimmage line, the North American Plate on one side, the Continental Plate on the other, neither team wearing helmets or pads. At the library downtown I found books of black-and-white photographs taken after the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake—3,000 people dead, 80 percent of the city burned, skeletal skyscrapers rising against a backdrop of smoke and ash and mayhem. Having grown up in seismically stable New England, the threat of earthquakes was completely new to me.
“Any day now.”
“If the bridges and freeways collapse we’ll all be trapped.”
“Do you have an earthquake survival kit—bottled water, canned food?”
Maybe it was just polite banter, local chitchat that only sounded catastrophic to new arrivals such as me. Whatever the case, within weeks of settling in to my friend’s guest bedroom, fantasies of the wintery “natural disasters” of my youth—so snowy, so skiable in retrospect—had disappeared beneath heaps of freshly imagined urban rubble. My daydreams were busy with falling concrete, exploding cars, and a heroic version of myself sprinting through the chaos, pulling kids and helpless grandmas from chasms in the pavement. Which is to say I bought some tins of sardines, filled used milk jugs with tap water, put a jackknife and a headlamp in a small backpack, and stuck the lot beneath my desk.
But I wasn’t only adjusting to the possibility of earthquakes. I was also discovering, with each wailing ambulance siren and sad-eyed homeless person on the street, that the city was a noisy, erratic, and emotionally intense place, and that a 40-minute meditation was the perfect means to smooth my crinkled thoughts at the end of a long day.
Swimming in the darkness of my less-than-empty mind, rising to the surface of consciousness, there it was again, the unbridled power and raw, terrible, destructive force of The Biggest One, the one that catches a couple million Bay Area residents off guard, swallowing us in a single, fast gulp, with no hope of regurgitation, no burp, no nothing.
I didn’t actually worry about the floor crumbling and the ceiling caving and the walls coming down. And yet I had to realize—and realize in my bones, in my marrow, in every wakeful cell of my upright body—that it could happen. That the floor could crumble and the ceiling could cave and those walls could lean in to give me a lethal kiss on the noggin. That it could end just like that, a snap of the fingers, a blink of the eye: 9.9 on the Richter scale.
As Pema Chödrön tells Bill Moyers in a 2006 television interview: “I see that a lot of us are just running around in circles pretending that there’s ground where there actually isn’t any ground.”
Bedrock can vanish into empty space. Solid dirt can roll and heave. Your house and job and family? Obliterated. All your accomplishments and ambitions and memories and fantasies and plans? Gone in an instant, sucked back into the earth’s glowing molten core.
In her gentle, firm way, Chödrön goes on to explain that our problems—violence, addiction, you name it—will persist at both individual and global levels as long as we “keep trying to scramble to get ground under our feet and avoid this uneasy feeling of groundlessness and insecurity and uncertainty and ambiguity and paradox.” But on the other hand, she says, “If we could learn to not be afraid of groundlessness, not be afraid of insecurity and uncertainty, it would be calling on an inner strength that would allow us to be open and free and loving and compassionate in any situation.”
As my first weeks in San Francisco became months and seasons, I came to accept and even embrace the Golden State’s geophysical character, one breath at a time. Deep down, I knew that all hell would someday break loose. I knew that there would come a point when I’d never again hear a wailing siren or look into a homeless man’s eyes. Most importantly, perhaps, I knew that I didn’t know, and could never know, exactly when this end might arrive—or how. There was just no telling which breath would be my last.
And so I breathed. And breathed again. And each breath was better than the one before because it was a gift, an unexpected bonus.
Sitting on the floor of my room, emergency water jugs within reach, I felt some hint of that inner strength, that openness and freedom and compassion of which Pema Chödrön and so many others have spoken. I felt my lungs working inside the wild animal body I call home. I felt an easy peace, the rise and fall of gentle waves, the heartbreaking and heart-renewing love for the world that I was soon to leave, that was not mine to keep, that had been my privilege to experience for a while.
I saw the eyes. I heard the sirens. Long day after long day, evening after evening, I focused on this practice, this breathing at the edge of disaster, this breathing into and through the perfect calm center of The Big One.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” writes Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart.
It could happen any day now.
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