The Quaking and Breaking of Everything
Patricia Adams Farmer
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. —Frederick Buechner
I do not believe in the up there/out there bully in the sky. I would much rather celebrate the cosmic companion who is creating a universe in which I, and the rest of creation, am invited toward cosmos, connection, justice and love.
--Rabbi Bradley Artson, Coming to Know the God We Already Love
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. —The Song of Solomon
ONCE A YEAR, during the rainy season on the wild and beautiful coast in Ecuador, everything suddenly breaks —trees and foundations and habitats and earth. It is the yearly quaking and breaking that brings about a rush of mud and timber down the rivers from the distant, mysterious, mist-covered mountains.
Where we live, on the north central coast, the Jama River flows down and out into the Pacific Ocean, lavishly spreading out, surrendering to the wide, welcoming sea, as if finally reaching nirvana. But the river's peace can be suddenly and brutally ruptured. In a single day, hundreds of rootless trees rush down the river, fall helplessly into the battering chaos of the tide, and finally succumb to their final resting place on the beach .
The volcanic sandy beach, pristine and empty one day, becomes nature's graveyard the next. This sudden appearance of massive timber makes one wonder at the brutal force of the water—how it could unearth whole, living, thriving trees from their homes on the banks of peaceful rivers and streams. Like corpses strewn about without dignity on a battlefield, the fallen, battered trees tell of something unimaginable, of a violence that makes the blood run cold.
Here is the world . . . .
The metaphor opens up like a river to the sea of all humanity, everywhere. We may not be besieged by war, but nevertheless we are besieged. We, like the trees, are products of nature. So, too, we are often ravaged by nature's force, by death and loss and illness. Here is the world: the sudden death of a loved one—one day the world is sunny, the next, all is lost. If we live long enough and deep enough, at some point in life, we will experience a quaking and breaking of everything we considered solid and sure. Simply growing up means the quaking and breaking from one stage of development to another, until we reach maturity. Growing old, with its gradual losses, feels like one felled tree after another. And in the middle, between youth and old age, the quaking and breaking continues.
When I moved to a foreign country two years ago, the world seemed to be pulled out from under me: identity, security—everything uprooted. I wrote about this in my essay, Replanting Yourself in Beauty. This very quaking and breaking defines huge chunks of our existence.
Here is the world, at least if we live deeply and vibrantly and dare to put down roots somewhere. We are meant to plant within ourselves many solid green trees that grow deep and tall and feel the shimmering of wind in their leaves. But not all of it stays put. Surging water flows and knocks us off our feet--it is inevitable.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen. . . .
So the question, then, after the quaking and breaking subsides, is this: can we ever find solid ground again—a sense of reassurance that something is solid somewhere? The bleached, smooth corpses of trees, even in their stark demise, seem to answer in the affirmative. Of course time, nature's natural remedy, comes into play. Eventually the sand will cover up the mass of dead timber, or it will be caught by a tide in the full moon and be swept away to other shores. People will come and carry it off to build houses and fences. The shore will, with time, be cleared. But time does not always clear away the debris of pain and heartbreak, not all by itself.
After sitting for a while among the dead trees, I stood and stretched and looked up at the pillowy clouds and back to the mist-covered mountains in the distance, and then toward the wide sea. A flock of pelicans flew overhead on a mission to somewhere. And it occurred to me that one way through the quaking and breaking moments of life is to simply widen our vision.
For it is only natural that when even a single tree is torn from its roots,we feel as though everything is lost; that this single brutality drowns out all other signs of life. Our eyes lock themselves firmly on the pain and injustice and waste of this beautiful tree, so that we soon identify with the pain, until finally, we are the pain.
But we can stretch out our awareness a bit—slowly at first—until, one day, something within us suddenly breaks loose and we can see it: the whole, wide spacious sky. It is still there! We turn around to see verdant hills and mountains made of solid rock. They are still standing! We look toward the endless gray-blue sea still pounding out its ancient rhythm onto a welcoming shore. It is all still there!
There is more, then, than this catastrophe, and given time, the More-ness of life can save us from petrifying pain. Perhaps the Buddhist idea of mindfulness can help us, for in meditation we learn to step back and observe the whole, to resist the urge to get caught up in the pain, and instead, care for the pain as a loving mother comforts a child. This very tender part of us is, in process terms, can be seen as the tenderness of God. No matter what religious tradition we spring from, we all have this ability, for if we are spiritually inclined at all, we have within us a reservoir of deepness and wideness out of which flows fresh possibilities for seeing the whole and being reassured by the whole.
Don't Be Afraid . . .
When living in California, my husband and I always looked forward to Yom HaShoah services at Chapman University because of a man named Leon Leyson. He passed away recently, and it felt as though a solid tree had been uprooted in our lives, for he was not only a friend, but a man who taught us about the More-ness of life. He was a Holocaust survivor, the youngest on Schindler's list, one of over 1,200 Jews Schindler saved. So when Leon lit the solemn yellow candle and told his story, it was a story that both chilled and reassured. He bore witness to great evil, yes, but he also bore witness to great courage and goodness, a stubborn root in the human spirit.
This stubborn goodness in certain people, like Oskar Schindler, reveals a stubborn goodness in the universe, a certain kind of power that process theologians would call the loving, persuasive power of God. Hitler's form of power modeled itself on an omnipotent image of God, an almighty, controlling cosmic force, what Rabbi Artson so aptly calls "the bully in the sky" image of God. Leon Leyson spoke of another sort of power, the power of compassion and goodness and courage in an unlikely hero called Oskar Schindler. Here, too, is the world: Compassion speaks of God, and of a wide tenderness that embraces our fragile, terrible, beautiful world.
So, when all the quaking and breaking is over, we can rise from our grief, stretch, and look around for signs of the More-ness of life, for hints and glimpses of that stubborn, unquenchable goodness at the heart of the world, a compassion--a tender love--so deep and wide and high, that it can never be drowned. For here is God, that "cosmic companion" who whispers to us: Don't be afraid.
Patricia Adams Farmer is an essayist and novelist in the tradition of process theology. She is the author of Embracing a Beautiful God and the Fat Soul Philosophy Novel Series (The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays). She and her husband, Ron Farmer, live and write on the central coast of Ecuador. Visit her website at patriciaadamsfarmer.com. Other JJB essays include: The Numinosity of Rocks, Replanting Yourself in Beauty, What is Fat Soul Philosophy?