Northern Italy has had a couple of serious earthquakes recently. I don’t bring it up because this is necessarily new or surprising, but only because I felt them—and that is new and surprising. I grew up practically on top of the famous San Andreas Fault in California, but I never felt an earthquake the whole time I lived there. It’s true that there weren’t any big, devastating quakes while I lived there, but the earth shook from time to time. Others noticed it and commented on it, but I noticed nothing. I think the reason I didn’t notice the earth shifting and shaking is because, being a kid, I was always in motion, myself: riding my bike, climbing trees, tumbling, dancing, having adventures in the Hoover Hills (the wooded area behind Herbert Hoover Elementary School in Burlingame).
My family moved back to Texas in 1971, but I often dreamed of returning to the Bay Area. My first opportunity to return came in 1989. I made plans to travel from New York, where I was living at the time, but finances and the logistics of finding care for my children (the youngest was just a year old) canceled that trip. It wasn’t until days later that I realized that the date I was planning to go, October 17, was when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, and my flight would have been landing just about that time. I suspect that I would have felt that one.
A year later, I was finally able to return to California. That was when I felt my first earthquake. I was in bed watching the news on TV in my hotel room on the 8th floor. What it felt like was a wave, as if I were on a raft on a lake—kind of a rolling, rather than shaking, motion.
On May 20 at about 3:45AM I was awake and it felt like the bed was dancing. It seemed to have lasted a long time, though it was probably only 20-30 seconds. I looked up at the shelf of books over my head and wondered if I should get out from under it. In the morning I was shocked to learn of the devastation in San Felice sul Panaro, about 140 miles away.
Since then there have been many aftershocks, and I’ve become aware of even the subtlest motion in the earth. There’s nothing like finally feeling a real and devastating earthquake to make you hyper-aware of any sensation of movement.
It may seem like in writing about my personal experiences of these earthquakes, I am taking them lightly. I intend no such thing. I am aware of the very real toll on people’s lives. Last summer I took a daytrip to L’Aquila with a missionary friend. We prayer walked through the city, which may never recover from the damage of the 2009 earthquake. There was graffiti all around the city center, saying things like: L’Aquila è morta, (L’Aquila is dead). I tried to take pictures of the devastation there, but there was simply too much. Around every corner was a new sign of destruction, until finally it was just overwhelming.
One of the saddest things we saw in L’Aquila was a barrier fence with hundreds of keys—keys to houses that are now just piles of rubble. Another thing that gave me pause was seeing a church in the city center that had a bas relief of skeleton over the door. It made me wonder how many of the city’s people had gone through that “death door” who were now dead because of the earthquake. It made me want to somehow erase that sculpture or to put a big X across it to cancel death’s grip on the city. In fact I did exactly that through prayer.
In discussing earthquakes with a friend who recently moved to California, she told me that she often says, “The Earth shakes because she feels like a cat with fleas.” Where can we find a flea collar big enough for the Earth?