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From earthquake to bomb cyclone, interruptions can be sacred

Wednesday night in the Bay Area, where I live, ...

Posted: Jan 5, 2018 12:09 AM
Updated: Jan 5, 2018 12:09 AM

Wednesday night in the Bay Area, where I live, there was an earthquake. It roused me from a deep uneasy dream about a sea leviathan, and as I woke, I realized we were riding bareback on the skin of the earth.

The ground heaved and rolled. Our books and lamps rattled, then shuddered into silence. The air rang slightly as objects resettled in darkness. And then, it was time to go to back to sleep.

We could already feel that it wasn't that extraordinary an event as earthquakes go, only, as it turned out, a little old 4.5. It was our local fault line having a midnight grumble, letting off some steam, as opposed to "the big one" we all know is coming.

Still, I had trouble getting back to sleep, and I found myself, as I woke later than usual this morning (still slightly groggy, still seeing the odd dream leviathan in my mind) thinking wistfully of snow days.

Here in California, we don't get them. We got days off for toxic levels of fire smoke in the autumn; and we, of course, would grind to a halt if something really apocalyptic happened, which, indeed, it always might.

But what about snow days, where cities and states surrender to nature for a bit, most people are fine, if inconvenienced, and everyone has slightly more time to take a nap and make soup? What about the nice thing where you get a day off without the full-on apocalypse coming?

As I write, it's hard to know how bad this East Coast storm will be. From all accounts it will be grim in places.

People are still waiting, not knowing, making plans, taking stock. My sister in Boston is hunkered down with friends who arrived early to weather the storm together. They're eating casseroles after a brisk tromp. An editor friend living in Manhattan grumbles that he saw worse most winters growing up in Wisconsin; Wisconsin and Chicago, by contrast, are getting the full scary brunt of the beast.

I've lived in Boston and Manhattan and Wisconsin, and I've had my share of shut downs and afternoons spent digging out in balaclava hats. Sometimes the snowday warning was a misfire: There are forecasts when everyone rushes and hunkers for an apocalypse that never comes; and then people grumble that the city's gone soft. There are flights that get canceled for what seem to be invisible blizzards and people get angry to be stranded for no reason.

Then again, there are also dark hours, where people are so grateful for extra batteries and candles and cans of soup, where we each need to reach out to take care of every living person around us. There have been remarkable storms where neighbors came together and shared meals. And afterwards, as the silence came, there have been storms where I got to see my bustling Brooklyn street transformed into a silent pedestrian lane, its intersection filled by a snowman.

The philosopher Georges Bataille once said that interruption is the site of the sacred; that the alternate reality when the ordinary is stripped away is actually a profound space for glimpsing the potential in the world.

Our instinct is to fight it, but interruption of this kind is actually a profound opportunity at once to make the world new, and to surrender. I have always thought about this on big snow days, when, by odd angles, a community is transformed, and we become just the small narrow path we can pick to the corner store. Nothing says interruption like marveling at a snowman in a deserted intersection.

The other meaning of apocalypse, is of course, revelation and the apocalypse of snow (even as it hides everything) reminds us that we're earthbound, fragile, at the mercy of the weather, and of the earth itself.

Ideally, for us now, this revelation lasts only a short while, and doesn't cause too much damage. Yet what I remember, from the privilege of distance, is the pleasantness of this group surrender; of a region or city collectively saying: we give in, we can go no further today, the weather, for now, has bested us.

After all, under it all, we're all only riding bareback on the skin of the earth. Hopefully we will work with those nearby to take care of each other. And maybe, at the other side, there's time for a book, some good homemade soup, and to build that strange, otherworldly snowman.

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