Saturday, March 5, 2011

Total Eclipse of the Sun

In ancient days an eclipse of the sun was a dramatic, frightening experience. Many cultures worshiped the sun, others had stories of the hard days before the sun made its daily track across the sky. The sudden waning of the sun was thus not only terrifying during the two hour shadowing, the event also seemed an evil omen, the sun might fail and life would cease. The Greek word ékleipsis conveys this terror of “the abandonment.” These celestial portents were the earliest targets of intellectual endeavor. Not because they were easy questions, rather they were questions essential to human survival. Today we look forward to these solar phenomena with interest. However, there are still aspects of our world that cause the same trauma and lasting fear.

After a day in town I came home and clicked on the radio for the 4 o'clock news. The leader was the just occurring earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, the home of our daughter Erin and her husband Stephen. Only last fall they went through the large earthquake that rattled Christchurch during the first notes of dawn. The 7.1 scale quake was deep and 40 km from the city. Water and sewer lines in Christchurch ruptured, electricity supplies were quickly reestablished and except for a number of the older brick buildings downtown most structures needed only relatively minor repairs.

I quickly went up stairs and put up our internet ears – skype, email and facebook – waiting for a note from the kids. Last fall Erin called within an hour, she'd had to ride her bike to some friends across town as their phone and power were out. In the following days there had been a solid community camaraderie as people shared their stories and helped each other. However as the time of limited water supplies and ongoing aftershocks continued, dozens every day, the excitement wore off and everyone just got crabby with the privations. However by Christmas everything was pretty much back to normal. Even the cat, Smoag, began to relax as the aftershocks diminished.

Last week was different. The internet ears heard nothing. I checked Erin's facebook page, not feeling well this morning so relaxing on the couch at home, maybe going to uni for lunch. Time: 2 hours before the quake. I sent a note to our son, then opened the New Zealand Herald. My throat choked and my eyes teared as I saw the first photos and started to read the minute by minute blogging by journalists. The quake, though only a half of last fall's was near the surface and right under Christchurch. It occurred just at the end of lunch, downtown was crowded, buses full of people had been crushed by falling debris, the steeple of the large stone cathedral downtown had collapsed, two large office buildings were utterly destroyed. There were people being killed.


The phone rang! but only with solicitous calls from friends. Facebook started to buzz with queries. We watched the evening news, a TV screen of collapsing buildings, and wrecked cars and bloodied people was too much. I started to think of dead children.

After a restless night we decided to go to work. Anything out of the ordinary would have been an admission of the not possible. There were encouraging notes from Erin's friends in Christchurch, hadn't seen her but sure she's all right. At work Joy got a call, a friend's daughter in Christchurch had twittered home within an hour of the quake. Two hours later, twenty four hours in the shadow, another twitter, Erin and Stephen were okay. Relief, but no relaxation.

Like an eclipse, the sun shines again. What has not returned however are casual assumptions of life. The unthinkable abandonment remains uneasily present.

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