I’ve refered several times to A Paradise Built in Hell with its stories of people coming together and living meaningful and memorable experiences when the established order is thrown away (temporarily) and a more “natural” order surfaces.
While the stories from A Paradise Built in Hell are inspiring, with it comes an uncomfortable proposition: in order for things to really get better, we might need more difficult events to push us, to clear the way.
I’ve often found myself wishing for one of those dramatic events. I remember being a kid a feeling incredibly alive and happy during the big snowstorms. I also remember the pain of the icy and hard snow on the inches of my forehead that would go uncovered. I remember walking in reverse as the only way to be able to go forward. Would I have been happy without the pain and difficulty? I find it highly doubtful. I think that similarly to how behavioral science studies now show people putting the highest value on the hardest things that they successfully accomplish, we have this innate desire and need for discomfort, challenges and adventure. We love stories and there’s no story when everything is nice and easy.
When I think and wish for those difficult times, I have a renewed sense of hope and excitement. But this inevitably leads me to feeling guilty because those dreams of getting through the catastrophes alive and with renewed liveness also has the implied background of deaths and destruction that isn’t my own.
With this in mind, I offer an experiment. I’ll imagine one of those stories where death does include my own. Granted, imagining one’s own death doesn’t mean that I can pretend to earn the right to wish for the catastrophic and deadly events. But it seems worth trying.
When I wake up that morning, I hope the day is going to be different but I’m dragging my feet going upstairs knowing that it probably won’t be.
Looking outside by the window, I see a large raucous group of crows circling the trees a few yards away. It’s an unusually dry winter day in the Pacific Northwest. Or would be unusual except that it’s been the same for several days now.
The kids are outside walking the dog. They’ve been up for at least an hour already. I make myself a matcha latte this morning. I like it even though it’s more work than coffee. I wonder why I don’t have it more often. I mostly drink coffee because it prevents me from withdrawal headaches but macha has the same effect so there’s no good reason. Except that mornings, with the propect of a day spent sitting in front of a screen, are difficult and I’ll go with slightly easier if I can.
I sometimes wonder about the matcha ceremony and whether I’m just missing out on a great experience by preparing my drink mechanically. As I finish cleaning up the dishes I’ve used, I go back downstairs to my home office with my drink.
I get to my desk and do my morning 10 minutes meditation session. I then unlock my computers and start drinking my matcha while triaging emails and taking care of morning tasks.
It’s a few minutes later as I finish my matcha that I feel the ground shaking. I’ve felt this before back when living in San Francisco. At the time, I had had the “great” reflex of waking up and going to get the kids just as the shaking stopped. This time, I figure the kids are safer than I am being outside so I go under my standing desk to hide. The shaking continues way past any I’ve experienced before. I remember us talking about the correlation between earthquake magnitude and the duration. Stronger earthquakes last longer. It might be that this is the big cascadia earthquake and, playing on the speakers of my Mac is “Our life is not a movie or Maybe”.
“It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax”, sings softly Sheff Will. Man, I’ve always loved that song. But now I’m scared and there’s not much I can do when I start seeing the ceiling crumble.
My desk is just below the refrigirator upstairs. Maybe going under it wasn’t the most brilliant idea.
It would have been nice to be a hero and die saving someone but whatever. Life isn’t a movie. Or maybe it’s just a long one with no main character.
As the earthquake stops, the kids come back to the house. Their mother is shaken but alright. When the shaking started, she went outside to go find the kids and that ended up being a good move. She comes back to the house coming from the other side (the kids were walking at the other end of the block). The dog is barking and Milo is excited. He says (in French) that they thought it was a truck when the shaking started but then they saw houses moving with the shake. Bernadette holds them both. They stop talking and Flavie starts crying when she sees how the house has collapsed. At first, she thinks of her things. Her bed, her toys, her books. Then Milo asks where I am. Flavie stops crying as she turns and faces her mother with despair in her eyes.
I’ve always been the one handling the administrative things since we moved to the United States. Thankfully, that’s not going to be terribly useful now.
In movies, the family would be crying and frozen under the shock. But this is life and they can’t stand still. Neighbors gather on sidewalks as the more prepared ones ask and make sure everyone turned off their gas lines. Fortunately, nothing is on fire around. People are gathering in shock.
A few are missing. One man on the block is a construction worker with some equipment. He and a few other man try to see if they can find a path to some of the missing people. One woman is found trapped but well and the newly formed neighborhood team pull her out after careful planning. There it is. People connecting, self-organizing with a spark of life in their eyes. Back to our default mode of operation: Anarchy.
Electricity is out and gas lines have been shut off so a few neighbors with BBQs and camping equipment start preparing some food for the contractor and the fellows trying to rescue survivors.
When we moved on that block, one older woman came to introduce herself to her. Now she’s there on the sidewalk in front of her place that is completely to the ground. Bernadette recognizes her and goes to hug her.
“Are you alright?” She laughs. “I didn’t know how I’d get rid of all that stuff but it turned out I didn’t have to do anything.”
Milo is next to Bernadette and the lady sees he has a bit of blood on his forehead. Just a scratch really.
“Look at you, young man, let’s take care of your adorable face”.
She proceeds to take a tissue from her pocket as if she had known she’d need it for this very occasion and gently wipes off the blood.
Milo, usually very shy and unwilling to show gratitude thanks her.
The lazy has a tear rolling on her cheek. Milo sees it and hugs her.
“Please, join us”, says Bernadette.
“Thank you, I’d love company”.
They all go back to what’s left of the house but it’s not because it’s a good place to be. That’s where the “other” house is: The Van.
After all this, the Van is still intact. No debris, no scratch. And Bernadette still had her key with her. The irony is that she still doesn’t drive. Not that having or not having a license is a big deal now but safety is still important and she definitely lacks the practice.
“Do you drive?”
“I would but I wasn’t so lucky with my car either”. She points to the electric pole that fell on her car parked on the street.
“Do you like VWs?”
After collecting a few things, they wave the neighbors, to now be remembered as dear friends. It feels a little bit like running away cowardly but with no jobs or things getting in the way, now seems a good time for them to act and follow their intuition.
And so Beatrix becomes the family driver. It turns out that she knows VWs quite well. And she also knows about wild plants, ways to spot safe resting locations and she instantly becomes good friends and sort of a grandma to the kids. It seems as if my absence and the recollection of my rewinding ambitions have triggered an openness (or even excitement) from the kids to what’s happening and the possibilities in front of them that I had never seen during my living. I guess it’s not so surprising and follows a common pattern of recognition after death.
A few weeks and countless stories of generosity, crying, grief, laughter and even moments of boredom, they all make it to British-Columbia, Canada. It’s Spring and it’s beautiful. Other earthquakes along the fault hit there too but by the time they get to West Kootenay, people are cheerful and active. The area was always small and inhabited by people who would be close to the land, being able to sustain themselves without the convenience of civilization to rely on (even if they could and did, most of the time).
There’s no way to tell for sure that this time, the aftermath is going to be different but a few things changed. The Snake River damns didn’t survive the earthquake and the controversy associated with them means that it’s unlikely they’ll get rebuilt. Same with some of the damns and reservoir along the kootenay, slocan and Columbia rivers. The damanage wasn’t as bad but families still feels the scars and the grief that was felt when the Columbia River treaty was signed and ripped them from their place. Someone’s going to try and get them back up but the people who live here won’t let it happen this time. The roaring of the river now running wild and free is simply too amazing to try and tame again. And after the loss of salmon along with all of the life that it was supporting, most now agree that it was a terrible mistake. The children who grew up with stories of salmon coming back here to spawn are now saying that they’ll be back soon. And who would argue? There’s no guarantee but already, the music and energy of the river along with the fresh cool air brings a sense of life renewal. Why couldn’t salmon find their way back again?
Of course, it’s not all clear wins. We can skim over my death but the destruction along the Columbia river in Washington and Oregon still has the affected families crying and grieving. When they were driving North and spoke to people they encountered, devastated people would bring up material losses. Their homes and livelihood.
But then, several of them had a smile and a sense of possibilities. Maybe that for those people met along the way, it the inspiration of seeing this family and their new grandma going on this journey to British-Columbia without a clear plan but it seemed as if there was a collective relief and sense of hope. And that seemed like something they couldn’t take credit for.
And so, they go on living a life that is more alive. Not that it’s perfect, safe and comfortable but it’s fulfilling and meaningful. Humans have always been drawn to stories and now it feels like they’re creating their own stories that would be worthwhile to share. But maybe more importantly, stories painting them as full of life and hope.
Milo and Flavie take a bag from the small freezer in the Van. To some, it would look like a morbid scene but no one is there to judge. Except for the kids, there’s no one but Beatrix and Bernadette. They take the bag and empty it in the shallow waters of the Kootenay River just a few miles away from where they all first camped in the Kootenays a few years back. In the bag is what’s left of myself. Before they left Portland, Flavie insisted that we grant my “weird” wish of feeding life instead of being filled with chemicals and put in a box when I’d die. After a lot of work that day, they found my head and Beatrix, with the care and respect of a good hunter, cut my hears to bring with us in the freezer. The kids would have been disgusted had I done that to an animal and it would have been unthinkable to do that to another person. And maybe it was because they knew I would have approved or because Beatrix showed she understood. Or both. But there they were. Crying but looking and satisfied and honored that their request was taken seriously.
After spending a year on the road having a difficult time deciding where to go and what to do next (and doing that every single day), I’ve had the opportunity of taking a step back and see the patterns that have us make leaps forward, situations that enable us to get past fears and “level up”. And often, those great moments are often a combination of two things: a difficult situation or event and our willingness to embrace it and the discomfort. The best of times are often enabled by the worst of times. This isn’t a new idea. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. We forget this because we’re instinctively trying to protect our survival and security but when we have no choice, we are free to experience what can easily become highlights of our life. Everyone loves a good story but we also inherently want to live stories as well.
I think life isn’t meant to be comfortable or boring. It’s not meant to be safe and predictable. That doesn’t mean going to do dangerous things but maybe welcome challenging situations and realize that what often appears as “the worst” can easily become “the best”.
What am I so hung up on this idea? I don’t want anyone to die and I don’t even want to die myself but I also realize that sometimes we need help to embrace that uncertainty and discomfort. We need help to embrace real living. And maybe at a macro-level, catastrophes can be the help we so desperately need. They could be great enablers for communities to do great things and truly come alive. There would be pain and suffering but as we live through this, we also have the opportunity to reconnect with wonderful “natural” instincts that we had never realized could make us feel this great.
In order for someone (and I include all living beings) to live, someone has to die. Maybe that also applies to groups as well. In order for humanity to live, cities have to crumble. In order for our selves to live, our civilized selves have to die.
But then, what do I know?