I’ve spent much of my adulthood astonished by what I was supposed to learn in school but didn’t or forgot. The earth’s mantle, stardust and the miraculous heart, which pumps two thousand gallons of blood every day. Did God make me forgetful of the body and the earth or is forgetting my sin, a feature of the fall?
Either way, it takes disaster to remember. It takes heartbreak to remind me of my heart, and sickness to remind me of my body. Last year I got sick enough to slow down for days, and in that newfound stillness I could hear the sound of an ocean in my ears. I could even feel a pulsing in my teeth, which I imagined to be the rhythm of my heart against into those old ivory roots like waves against a boat. The writer Uel Aramchek wrote, your body is a suit the ocean wears to explore the land. Like the ocean we are tidal, and deranged by the moon.
And though beauty sometimes does the trick (the sky at dusk, mist over the mountains), mostly it takes floods and earthquakes to remind us of the earth, which is not only our home but originally, entirely, a planet, sighing and churning and spinning through space.
Otherwise, it seems we live without a consciousness of the physicality of things.
If we did, we would remember that our lives take place on top of quartz and clay, the earth’s crust, a word that sounds as flimsy as it is, below which magma seethes and pumps. If we did, we might take greater pains in our affairs to get it right, and let the tiny tragedies go. A chipped tooth or lateness would be dwarfed by the radius of a star (over a billion kilometers) or the speed at which we spin through space (over ten thousand miles per hour). Even our gravest endeavors—marriage, elections, war—would settle into the vastness of time and proclaim the infancy of our most serious institutions.
If we lived with a consciousness of the physicality of things, environmental policy would get top billing and so would forgiveness. We’d be forced to reconcile the rights of rocks and trees, forced to reconcile the sameness of hearts and bones under skin.
Instead, we live at the mercy of what we created but cannot touch—the electoral college, the stock market, the Internet and Judgment Day—as we pump wastewater from fracking into wells, which drives apart the fault lines on top of which we’ve built our houses and which causes the earth to tremble.
We are driving each other away. We are causing the earth to quake.
I crave so much for us, lately, but above all I crave a remembering. Not some new secret, some machinery, or an answer to our prayers written across the sky, but a recollection of what is, of what we’ve always had: the blood that pumps beneath our skin, the blistering mantle beneath our feet, the hopelessness of certainty beyond this moment and the kindness that uncertainty demands.
To pump is just another word for drive. The instruction of the body is to live as if I’m driven by my heart. The instruction of the earth is to wake with wonder at each new morning, undead and still spinning. Maybe disaster returns us to ourselves so that we can return to one another what we’ve taken and withheld, and then take hold of all we stand to lose. All the way to heaven is heaven, wrote St. Catherine of Siena. But the only one we get to see for sure is here.
Katharine Blake has a J.D. from Stanford Law School and a B.A. in literature from Smith College. She has worked as a teacher at San Quentin prison, as counsel for the Children's Defense Fund, and for President Obama's campaign in 2008. Her work appears in Sojourners, The Portland Review, Medium, and DAME. Currently, she is writing a book about heartbreak and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband.
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