Aftershock

When I was little, I remember being in my first big earthquake. We were living in a small rental house on the northern California coast. I crawled along the floor still lost in my own imagination as everything shook, working the movement into my own internal script of the current adventure I was off on. Around me, objects fell from shelves; some broke, others just rolled past my path. The world was moving, but I was moving with it. I had no idea what was going on, but I was able to shape that unknowing into a comfortable story, as I made my way to the rest of my family.

Since that earthquake, I’ve experienced several more, some big, and plenty small. While some understand the tides of hurricanes, and others the winds of tornados, I’ve always understood the power of an earthquake. And lately, I’ve been thinking about the aftershock.

Wikipedia has a nice synopsis of the whole aftershock scenario:

“An aftershock is a smaller earthquake that occurs after a previous large earthquake, in the same area of the main shock…Aftershocks are formed as the crust around the displaced fault plane adjusts to the effects of the main shock.”

Sometimes people get so focused on the first impact, the making sure everyone is ok, the cleaning up, the moving on, that they lose their vigilance and are taken by surprise when the aftershock hits. I believe that the human heart is filled with fault lines and behaves in a manner similar to that of our earth’s crustal plates. As we age and experience change, we feel the tremors of strain released in an attempt to readjust for normalcy.

From time to time, the major impacts hit, those massive life changes that can pull the ground right out from under you. The sudden, violent shaking of the reality that, up until now, seemed safe and pleasant. And, this is uncomfortable. It hurts. It’s a panic. It’s uncertain. So, we respond how one would during a natural disaster. We try to fix it as soon as possible, pat ourselves on the back for being strong, and then move on. But, as Wikipedia so aptly stated, aftershocks happen, “as the crust around the displaced fault plane adjusts to the effects of the main shock.” There’s a whole period after a cardioquake, I’ll call it, when the displaced heart planes have to adjust to the effects of what happened.

Mid-last month, I hit the date of my quarter-life crisis, and, by ways I don’t need to get into here, the earth shook with fury beneath me. I fell down with a thud, and then, with nascent understandings and an emergency surge of dignity, I got right back up, cleaned up, and called it a lesson learned. I felt great! I felt renewed! Life was pretty alright.

The days went on, and soon it was time for my trip home to California. I was returning home as a result of the persistent requests from my father to deal with the life I keep stored in a tower of boxes in my old room. I was finally going to go through my childhood-bedroom-turned-post-college-storage-unit and get rid of what I no longer needed. During the few months before my trip home, my dad had also been alerting me to the steady decline in health of my childhood pals—a 16-year-old cat named Pansy and a 14-year-old dog named Scooby. I thought I was prepared for all of this. Cleaning out my room—no problem. Seeing the animals in their old age—how bad could it be?

My bravery turned bravado pretty quickly upon arrival, and I spent my first few hours home sitting misty-eyed next to my hobbling hound. It was incredibly difficult to see them so tight in the joints, fighting so hard to beat their ailments, and sleepily readjusting to their limited abilities.

In addition, I began going through the boxes in my room, rustling up old dust and separating mildew from treasure. To eyes that hadn’t seen my life through each of those stages, objects appeared simply as space-fillers, junk, or prime yard sale material. But to me, the simplest object evoked a colorful, full-length feature of life lived, memories created.

I could feel the pressure building in my psyche, but I ignored it; I was fine. But, just as it should have, the aftershock hit. I spent the next days bumbling through, riding the tides of lows and highs, and trying to keep the highs around through makeshift remedies amalgamated from the ocean, chocolate, writing, and several cups of coffee.

On one of these days, I walked out to the boardwalk down by the bay to let the power of the coastal winds just blow it all away. It was low tide, and I watched contently as the seals bobbed up and down, playing with the flocks of birds that congregated in the shallow waters to search for food. While standing there, breathing in the fetid air of the tide, a man across the way entered the water standing on a floating longboard. He pushed himself forward with one long paddle, as his young dog lay down by his feet. Together, they barely fit on the board, but their unhurried drifting along on this blue-sky day seemed to be all they needed. They were on an adventure; they were soaking up some of this life.

The following day, a friend and colleague of mine shared with me an NPR piece about the millennial generation, and the ways in which, contrary to the widespread labels of entitlement, laziness, and apathy, we might just be the next greatest generation. Untitled (1)One of the broadcast’sshorts is called, “Is 30 really the new 20?” In it, a psychologist explains how the ten years that compose the twenties are, in a sense, the equivalent for adulthood that the “First 5” are for childhood.

During the twenties, you learn the hard lessons of relationships and career. You learn how to hold yourself responsible for your own actions. You get to explore that soft, vulnerable spot you try to hide. You have a chance to really, truly get to know yourself while you still have the time to focus on just that. And, if you don’t ignore the opportunity, and you put in the tough legwork, then you have a chance to become something whole and great. The broadcast gave an example of this by explaining, “The best time to work on your marriage is before you have one.”

So, ultimately, the best way to approach the initial cardioquake, and the following aftershocks, is more along the lines of how, as a little girl, I approached my first big earthquake, rather than how, at 25 years old, I decided to just fall down and then hop right back up. If you ignore it, you miss the opportunity to be whole. You must learn how to ride out the shake, how to shape it into something that keeps you moving rather than creating an acute moment of trembling knees. You have to feel the pulse of the aftershock that follows because, as my trip home brought to light, sometimes it can make an even bigger impact.

My dog and cat are old, but just as the dog I saw on the longboard is riding the excitements of today, my pets once adventured like the rest of them. They soaked it up, and now, in the tenderness and love of their old age, they’ve learned how to simply “be” with their companions. To steal a line from a New York Times opinion page favorite, “How Not to Be Alone,” it all becomes less sad when you are able to see all that they received in exchange for having to die. They are an era of beautiful life lived.

The boxes of memories I sorted through during the week I was home are the beginning of my own lessons on learning how to just “be,” and the fault lines in my heart will undoubtedly continue to shift and adjust to the effects of change. I plan to ride the turbulence with imagination, mindfulness, and love because, at the end of the day, I still believe so profoundly in the capacity of the human heart.


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