Remembering the Loma Prieta Earthquake

I was living in southern California in 1989, but many of my loved ones were in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area when the earthquake hit. So was Alice Wentworth, the female protagonist of my novel-in-progress, Schatz. On the 30th anniversary of the earthquake, I’m honored to offer the first chapter for you to read.

Santa Cruz – October 1989

Pin with image of Will Clark that says I've got a giant attitude

Closed for the Battle of the Bay.  Alice capped the black marker and admired the baseball she had sketched on a sheet of paper below the hand-lettered words. She shooed her last customer out of the Daily Grind, then grabbed the sign and the slim paperback under the counter that she had reached for a dozen times this afternoon. Her coffee house was running smoothly enough that she could finally take a few weeks off next summer, and during her lunch break she’d walked over to Bookshop Santa Cruz to buy a guidebook to the John Muir Trail. Although she was itching to pore through it, the one thing that could deter her was about to start: Game 3 of the World Series. The A’s had won the first two in Oakland, but now the San Francisco Giants were coming home to Candlestick. She planned to watch the game tonight with her cousins Will and Liana. and they were all certain the home field advantage would turn the tide. 

Alice taped her sign on the door and stepped out into a golden Indian summer afternoon. She had just enough time to walk over to Zanotto’s to pick up sausages and potato salad and still get home by game time. Liana and Will would meet her there as soon as they could. In her jeans and Giants tee shirt, trail guide tucked in the purse over her shoulder, Alice strode down the block and then slowed when she turned right onto the Pacific Garden Mall. Its flower-filled planter boxes and leafy trees made Pacific Avenue feel more like an oasis than a street, and the warm sunshine made her dreamy. The thought of Will Clark hitting a home run mingled with images of the Sierras, craggy peaks and alpine  —

A heavy truck suddenly rumbled up behind her, and Alice whirled around, but there was nothing there. She could feel the reverberation in her feet, yet all she could see was a car parked in front of Shockley’s Jewelers and a woman jogger also looking around for the noise. Then it magnified. Like tumbling boulders, thunder pounded up from the ground and threw Alice off balance. Earthquake! If she were inside, she would dive under a table or race inside a door jamb, but —

The pavement began to ripple, and panic swept through Alice. The street was actually rising and falling like ocean waves rolling towards her, the monster from the deep that haunted childhood dreams, and there was nowhere to duck and cover, nothing to hang onto. Alice froze in place, hands out to keep her balance. “It’s a big one,” a man near her yelled. Screams rose from all around and more rumbling; people came running out of buildings; the sound of breaking glass filled the air. Something caught the corner of Alice’s eye — the flagpole in front of the post office was whipping back and forth in an arc so wide it nearly touched the ground with each swoop. Was she losing her mind, or was this suddenly elastic pole for real? It almost transfixed her, but then bricks tumbled down from a nearby store. A long creak pierced the sounds of grinding stone, and a few yards away the roots of a tree began to undulate beneath the ground like a living creature. As if in slow motion the tree began to topple, and Alice backed away as it crashed into a car in front of her.

Then the shaking stopped; the ground seemed solid once more. But was it really? Alice’s heart pounded, her whole body trembling. Instinctively, she drew a deep breath, held it for a count of five, then released it, the trick her grandmother had taught her for coping with acrophobia. Maybe it worked for earthquakes too. No, not really. Her heart was still thumping like a drum in her chest. 

Rescue efforts in downtown Santa Cruz after the Loma Prieta earthquake

It seemed like forever since she had been daydreaming about Will Clark. A cloud of gray dust hung over the Pacific Garden Mall, and Alice wasn’t even sure which direction she was facing. Up and down the street littered with bricks and chunks of masonry, people stood looking as dazed as she felt. She thought she heard wind chimes, then realized it was more bricks falling off a building across the street. A man in a business suit came towards her, picking his way through the rubble. 

“Alice, is that you?” 

She peered into the dusty face and recognized Sean, the lawyer who came into the Daily Grind every morning for a depth charge. She nodded as they stepped into each other’s arms.  This morning he’d been a customer she barely knew, and now he felt like family. She hugged him tight and felt her heart rate slow just a little. In this tiny island of comfort, tears sprang to her eyes, they would flood her in a minute. Get a grip, she told herself and  pulled away. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. You?”

Alice glanced down at her shirt and jeans covered in gray dust, amazed to realize that her purse was still slung over her shoulder. Her legs were shaky, but she seemed unhurt. “I’m okay.”

Together, she and Sean took in the uprooted tree in front of them and the crushed car beneath it, the broken windows and crumbled facade of the jewelry store. As far as they could see, the mall looked the same: torn branches, collapsed storefronts, bricks everywhere. She smelled gas.

“Oh no.” Sean pointed, then headed down the street. A block away several people were digging through a pile of debris in front of a building. Alice started after him, scrambling among the bricks and crumbled concrete, then suddenly remembered Will and Liana. 

“Purple Moon!” She tapped Sean’s shoulder. “I have to go!” With a reluctant look at the panicked activity in front of them she turned back and down the first side street she came to, trying to dismiss the image of her cousins and all the children in the daycare center trapped inside a wrecked building. And what about her dad? Her aunt and uncle?

Just a block from Pacific the streets were clear, and Alice ran as fast as she could, grateful for the sneakers she wore at work. Within a minute she jogged up to the Purple Moon InfoShop. Its sign dangled by one corner, but the building itself looked intact. A scribbled note was taped to the front door: We’re in back. Watch your step. Alice slipped into the entryway and could hardly believe her ears. From a distance, through the open door with the purple sickle moon painted on it, came the chatter and laughter of children. Alice stopped to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Loose ceiling tiles swayed overhead, and the photos of Ghandi and Martin Luther King and the Maurice Sendak prints had flown from the walls, but somewhere down the hall children were playing. Alice followed the improbable sound through the playroom, where crayons and toys were scattered across the floor, and out the back door to the small playground.

Although it was starting to get dark outside, it was still brighter than indoors, and compared to the devastation on the mall, the normalcy of the scene made it look like heaven. Will, Giants cap on backwards, was pushing a toddler in one of the swings, while Liana talked to a mother cradling a child on one hip and holding the hand of another. The rest of the kids clamored around a student intern Alice didn’t recognize who was passing out sandwich quarters dripping with peanut butter and grape jelly. Well, actually it wasn’t normal to hand out snacks at the end of the day, but what could be more comforting than a PB&J? And now that she thought about it, she’d never seen Will on the daycare side of the building. Amidst the prattle of the children Alice made out words like terremoto and aventura. 

“Alice!” Liana had just noticed her and came running to hug her, Will right behind her. Quickly they filled her in: the power was out, their parents were okay, so was their sister Julie and her family, but the phone line went dead before they could reach Alice’s father. 

“I’ll go to his house,” Alice said. Jonathan was either there or at the university, and the house was closer. It made sense to start there first.

“I’ll go with you,” Will said. “Might as well walk. Traffic will be a mess.”

“Grab a flashlight from the playroom,” Liana instructed. “Let’s rendezvous at Mom and Dad’s. I’ll head over as soon as all the kids are picked up.”

Sometimes Liana’s bossy teacher mode drove Alice crazy, but at the moment she couldn’t think about anything except making sure her father was okay, and she was glad to have a plan. She started to go, then stopped, put a hand on Liana’s arm.

“What about Scott?”

“He’s on duty.” Liana’s fiancé was a paramedic. “I don’t expect …” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“He’s a tough nut,” Will said. “Don’t worry.”

Typical male, Alice thought. How could Liana not worry? She hugged Liana. “See you soon.” 

She and Will strode into the playroom and then stopped short in the near darkness. 

“We’ll never find it,” Will muttered as they crunched over legos and game pieces.

A moment later Liana followed them in, walked across the room to where a drawer had spilled its contents, and picked up something from the floor. A circle of light filled the room. “Here you go.” She handed the flashlight to Alice and disappeared back out to the playground.

Alice and Will looked at each other with a grin, and Alice led the way back out to the entrance, trying to avoid the pictures on the floor in their little pools of shattered glass. Will gestured towards the InfoShop as they passed, and Alice pointed the flashlight in that direction. The door to the radical reading room Will managed was closed, but through the windows she could see empty shelves and toppled filing cabinets.

“Every single thing is on the floor,” Will commented.

“It could be worse.” She hadn’t even told him about the mall yet. A siren spiraled through the twilight, but they hurried in the opposite direction, away from downtown and towards her father’s house.

Garden Swing

Our yet-to-be-born children would rock on this garden swing with their sweethearts one day, my ex-husband and I imagined when we bought it over twenty years ago. The jarrah wood was smooth then, polished a deep and lustrous brown. We bought a can of special oil too on the salesman’s recommendation, fully intending to recoat the swing at least once a year to protect the Australian hardwood, but that oil, like my husband and the dream of children we might have had, is long gone.

Instead the seasons in their turn have done the scouring and burnishing. For the last five years, in the garden I share with a new love, the swing has sheltered under the boughs of a redwood, its base moldering into the rich soil. Needles and cones and industrious spiders have joined the work of sun, wind, and rain to turn the wood rough and gray.

In the spring I brush away the cobwebs and duff and sit down on the old swing. My back nestles against a curve in its back, human spine, muscles, and sinew aligning with wood slats as if we were designed for one another. In the heat of the day the scent of feathery redwood branches mingles with childhood memories of camping in the mountains, and I push my foot against the cushion of forest floor in this little corner of my city garden to set the swing in motion. The rasp of wood in metal rings and bolts echoes the creak of my own joints. Someday I will accept my gray hair and wrinkles as graciously as I do this weather-roughened wood. Someday I will ripen into glory. But for now I glide back and forth with the whispers of those young lovers I dreamed of long ago. For now I am at ease in a moment of sun-softened stillness.

Never Again

On the day of the student walkout to protest gun violence, I was scheduled to staff the reference desk at ten a.m., a responsibility I could not reasonably forego. Early in the morning, I huddled with other staff. What could we do in the library? Lakshmi suggested we use our new intercom system to ask for a moment of silence. This might sound oxymoronic in a library, but at ten in the morning the Foothill College library is bustling with students checking out books, asking questions at the reference desk, and chatting with each other. Nevertheless, we agreed to try it.

And so, as hundreds of students, faculty, and staff streamed out of their classrooms and offices and headed to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I heard my own trembling voice echo through the library, “In memory of those who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago, please join the library staff in standing for a moment of silence.” The names of the seventeen victims stood on a list at the reference desk, remembered now by strangers here on the other side of the country from where they fell. I looked around. Some students went on about their business, but many others took a break from their books, devices, friends, and together we all stood without speaking or doing. I let two minutes pass before I switched the intercom on again, thanked everyone, and reminded them of the gathering in the plaza.

Over and done, but outside was a different story. Not two minutes, but seventeen. One minute for each life lost on February 14th. A minute is nothing compared to a life, and yet, it is something. Those holding silence were not monks or hermits, but young people bursting with energy, community college students juggling classes with jobs and families; they were professors accustomed to lecturing, for whom every minute of class time is precious, needed for the knowledge they want to impart and the experiences they want to create for their students. Friends who were there later told me that a sociology professor tolled the minutes with a Tibetan singing bowl, and each minute more people streamed into the plaza. Wind blustered, footsteps fell on pavement, bodies shuffled, but no one spoke as the bell resounded across the crowd.

This had been happening since seven a.m. when the walkouts started on the east coast, a wave of silence sweeping across the entire country. Honor and protest and hope are the gifts of those seventeen minutes, multiplied ten thousand times. May the silence bear fruit.

Gezouten Boter

cheese market in front of the Gouda City HallThe first cookies I baked when I moved to The Netherlands came out of the oven flat, not just in shape, but in taste. Part of the problem, I discovered, was the flour, which is processed differently than in the States in a way that reduces the amount of gluten, and part of the problem was the butter. At home I took it for granted that our default butter is salted. Back in the eighties and nineties an American baker had to go out of her way to find what we call sweet butter, but in Holland the default butter is unsalted. Dutch salted butterIt took several tries before I realized that all my recipes assumed the dash of salt from the butter in addition to the teaspoon explicitly stirred into the cookie dough, and I learned to seek out gezouten boter in a larger store than the corner grocery. And what about the flour? For special-occasion desserts it was worth driving to The Hague (home of the country’s embassies and hence a city  that caters to foreigners), to the import shop I’d heard about through the American grapevine, where I spent way too many guilders for a pound of Gold Medal flour from home.

Pumpkins and turkeys were also absent from Dutch grocery stores, but Americans abroad are resourceful when it comes to our holidays. Each fall a few members of the American Women’s Club of The Hague drove across the border to a farm  in Belgium that grew pumpkins and returned with a carload to resell as a fundraiser for the club. I often wondered what my neighbors in the little village of Waddinxveen thought about the jack-o-lantern gleaming from my window on October 31st.

Waddinxveen, small as it was, boasted a poultry shop, and my first November there I timidly inquired about procuring a kalkoen. The poulier’s face lit up, and it became clear he’d recognized my American accent. “It’s for your harvest celebration, isn’t it? I’ve heard of this!” He didn’t carry turkeys, but could special order one for me in time for the holiday. As he scribbled my information on an order pad, he asked what I’d be serving with it. “Aardappelen en …” Hmm, my Dutch vocabulary did not yet include words like stuffing and cranberries. Over the next years, he came to recognize me. “Ah, mevrouw Thomas, here for your oogst kalkoen, eh?”

Mary and table set for Thanksgiving dinner

I began my married life in Holland, and those years were my first attempts at cooking a Thanksgiving dinner myself. At first, it was just my husband and me, but each year we found more American friends to celebrate our holiday with in a country where the fourth Thursday in November is an ordinary workday like any other. With our homesickness like salt in the dough, friends became family around a table, a turkey, and blessing: a little island of home in the Dutch sea.

 

 

News of the World

It is ironic that a librarian, whose business it is to provide access to information, suffers from the soul sickness of TMI (too much information). This addiction can be as intoxicating as caffeine and edge-softening as alcohol, but it does not feel like an indulgence. Rather, it is the obligation of a responsible citizen and a thoughtful friend, the satisfaction of healthy intellectual curiosity, even an aid to spiritual seeking and nourishment for the poet.

But there are only 1440 minutes in a day, so how can I choose between the New York Times and the Santa Cruz Sentinel, email and Facebook and all the blog posts, articles, and websites my friends refer me to? Should I give up Jane Hirschfield’s essays on poetry, Sue Monk Kidd’s memoir of searching for the sacred feminine, or Cynthia Bourgeault’s thoughts on the meaning of Mary Magdalene? And don’t even get me started on all the tantalizing sources in their endnotes, not to mention the professional reading I should keep up with! iPhone, iPad, laptop, Nook, books, and magazines fill my rooms and days, and if they’re not enough, the library, internet, and Amazon offer ready access to more.

Now, here I am on a writing retreat outside Pescadero, in a sunny clearing among the trees, my body still tingling from a swim. The redwood over there hasn’t read the latest appalling tweet from him who shall not be named, and Spider is writing her own poem in a web strung between two branches that sway on the breath of God. It’s true that here too is more information than I can take in or understand, but it does not insist on my attention in the way newspapers and social media do because it was not created for my consumption. Everyone is going about their own business here, ten thousand leaves drinking up sunlight while the butterfly finds nirvana in a dahlia and the laughter of naked ladies drowns out the sound of jet engines overhead.

Belladonna lilies

I take off my sandals to put my feet directly on the earth. My soles read warm ground and soft green grass, an engrossing piece that invites a great deal of attention. A breeze lifts my sun-dried hair off my neck, and the redwood across from me nods companionably – she knows just what this feels like. “In the name of the bee – and of the butterfly – and of the breeze,” this is all the news of the world my soul needs.

(With appreciation to Paulette Jiles for my title, Emily Dickinson for the invocation in the last line, and my friend Ursi Barshi for the photo.)

Summer Solstice 2017

IMG_3820

After the long winter of seed-soaking rains
when the driest taproots drank their fill,
the privet and the bougainvillea
revel in inebriation,
besotted roses plaster their vines with blooms,
and even the stately redwood indulges
in tipsy explosions of baby green at every needle tip.
Now comes a feast of light
for the leafy exuberant ones.
Deep in their cells they remember
the way they thirsted in the drought,
but this memory is just a gilt edge
on the solstice invitation to summer.

The prodigal stretched-out days ask,
how big is your we?
Does it include
this velvet yellow petal,
an extraterrestrial guava blossom,
the courtly redwood?
Oh come, my darling,
it’s the summer solstice –
lift your glass to the light,
and dance with the whole shimmering forest!

Prayer for the Water

I wrote this prayer after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but thinking of the Standing Rock water protectors and remembering the importance Pope Francis placed on water in his encyclical Laudato Si, I offer this again today on behalf of the earth, our common home, wherever there is water pollution.

tuolomne river

O holy, mighty One,

open our hearts to compassion.

O Light of the world,

show us the way.

Mother of sorrows,

mingle your tears with ours.

Mother of mercy,

we are sorry.

Our Life, our Sweetness,

sweeten the poisoned waters.

Star of the Sea,

shine your brightness there.

You fishermen, Peter, James, and Andrew,

join our prayer:

may the waters give life once more.

St. Brendan the navigator,

guide the energy of our prayers

to the water that wants healing.

O sacred energy that hallows

the Ganges and Brigid’s well,

permeate the wounded water with your pure love.

All you whales and creatures of the sea,

forgive us,

pray with us.

Thanks be to the water,

our life, our sweetness,

hear our prayer.