A decade ago, on March 11, 2011, Japan experienced the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, followed by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. On the same day, one year ago, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Today, the day I write this, is the first anniversary of the murder of Breonna Taylor.
To commemorate these significant anniversaries in our shared history on this planet, I’m sharing an essay I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the cataclysmic events in Japan.
All week, I’ve been haunted by a particular line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,” and by my friend Sara, who died in November of 2006. I’ll save my story of Sara for another time.
The line from Kunitz captures the question that seems to be at the center of everything that’s happened this past week: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”
Change and loss. Every minute, somewhere on this planet, someone is hurting, suffering, letting go, or holding on for dear life, running for the hills looking for safety.
(At the end of one of the many articles in today’s newspaper on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the potential for tsunami off the Oregon coast, there was the line: “In Bandon (Oregon), for example…45 percent of the people in the hazard zone are older than 65 and ‘telling them to run for the hills might not be fair.’” What does “fair” look like when a tsunami is coming?)
The events of last week—large and small, local and global—hit me particularly hard because I went through the week sober. By which I don’t mean to imply that I usually go through the week drunk. It’s just that right now there is work I need to do, work I want to do—must do—that requires that I have my wits about me, that my edges are sharp and unsoftened by a nice glass of wine (or two) at the end of the day, that my capacities for awareness and lucidity are as expansive as possible.
So, the events of last week.
One of my students asked for help so she could plan her spring term schedule of courses around her chemotherapy schedule. Another student wanted to let me know that they may miss a couple of sessions in some of their courses next term because they will be flying home to take care of their partner, who has just been diagnosed with stage-four terminal lung cancer. Another couple of students have missed a lot of work this term because they have older adult parents who have dementia or other serious, life-altering circumstances to manage. I just met a new student who is a single parent of two special needs children. And just last weekend, there was a memorial service—the second one this term—for a student who died an untimely, sad death. My colleagues and I talk about the delicate balance of our adult students’ lives (and our own lives, as well!)—work, family, education, service, self-care—but how do we help them, help each other, create and maintain their delicate life-balance when we are facing the immediate, cataclysmic matter of our or our loved one’s very existence?
You asked the right question, Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses”?
This past week, I was reminded at all levels of reality—from the cellular to the geophysical—what I already know but so often forget unless I make it a devotion to remember it: I am a little creature living on an ever-shifting and changing planet in an emerging universe; sometimes the ground I stand on seems solid and stable, and sometimes it shakes and threatens to swallow me whole.
I tell stories of the past, I cast my mind into and plan for a future I may not actually experience, but I can only ever triumph in the present by courageously embracing whatever happens as best I can (which sometimes means being sober and lucid, sometimes means having an extra glass of wine, sometimes means skipping in the park, sometimes means writing until my eyeballs fall out of my head, and sometimes it means taking to my bed for the day.).
This morning the newspaper told me that because of the strong earthquake in Japan, the Earth’s axis may have shifted by about 3.937 inches: “earthquakes can involve shifting hundreds of kilometers of rock by several meters, changing the distribution of mass on the planet. This affects the Earth’s rotation.”
In addition to the axis-shifting, it seems that time shifts as well, as a result of the Earth’s rotation speed increasing in the aftermath of the quake. The newspaper tells me I won’t really notice it, because it is only a difference of 1.6 microseconds. But if you think about all of the major, massive earthquakes that have transpired throughout the Earth’s lifespan, those microseconds add up!
What does all of this mean? We may not notice these changes, whatever “notice” means here, in our conscious minds as we may not have developed (or remembered) the sensitivities required to do so, but how can these changes not affect us and all other living creatures on this planet?
Disasters—whether “natural” or “human caused” (is this a meaningful distinction?)—have the potential to arrest our attention away from the local and personal and onto the global and transpersonal.  Catastrophes on a grand scale, crises on a personal and interpersonal scale, have in common that they can close us down or open us up (sometimes both!). They jar us, shake us up, and remind us of the deeper reality in which we live—which is temporal, provisional, changeable, impermanent—and invite us to live our lives as fully, richly, and audaciously as we can, committed to all that is most important to us, rejoicing in our great good fortune that at least for the time being the ground beneath our feet is solid, stable.
Disasters and catastrophes that happen to others, that we witness from some distance as onlookers, by-standers, can be opportunities for enlarging our sensitivities, our capacities for empathy and compassion. I think of Salman Rushdie’s essay, “Step Across this Line,” in which he entreats the reader to examine how the lines that we draw, the boundaries and borders we create and erect to keep some people in and some people out, are delusional inventions: made by humans during particular times, in particular places, in response to particular forces. And, thus—good news!—can be unmade and remade, as well. “Step across this line,” he invites me, he challenges me—disrupt closing down, resist separation and isolation, reconnect across differences, embrace complexity, behold reality face-on, even when reality really sucks.
Catastrophes, tragedies that happen to others can also give us moments of temporary amnesia—the good kind—in which we forget what the fight was about that caused us to not see or talk to each other for a while, and in forgetting, we remember that we are actually all kin, all of us traveling through the life course together on this magnificent planet with its shifting axis and capricious speed.
In addition to wondering how it is that we can withstand so much loss, I also wonder what happens next. What happens when we have these feelings of kinship, when we forget to separate ourselves from others and in forgetting start remembering really important stuff? What happens? Do we witness? Do we stand-by? Or do we step across the line and reach out?
Before I went to campus yesterday, after I dropped my daughter Isobel at school, and after I finished writing a report for work that I’d procrastinated on all week, and after waking up to the news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the reverberations across the Pacific Ocean, Happy-the-dog and I took a walk around our park. As we approached the north-east bend of the pond I saw sitting upon the shore a pair of grebes. Grebes aren’t ducks, so don’t make the mistake I made for years of mixing them up.
Ducks, geese, and swans belong to the same family: Anatidae. But grebes are their own family entirely, the podicipedidae, and there are seven species and four genera of grebes. Nonetheless, it is important to note that ducks, geese, swans and grebes all belong to the same class: Aves, e.g. Birds. I’ve always found the grebes to be more formal and fancy, all dressed up for their time at the pond—splendid head plumes, solid patches of saturated colors marking their heads, lovely curved necks, and short, delicately pointed bills. I always look for them (and I wonder sometimes if they ever look for me?), because spotting them causes butterflies in my chest, which I enjoy feeling. So, I stood on the path, Happy at the end of the leash, and watched the grebe-couple for a bit.
(May I take a moment to commend Happy-the-dog, who seems to have grown so accustomed to my habit of stopping to watch the waterfowl that he doesn’t even pull the leash, but waits patiently until I’m finished?)
As I watched the two handsome grebes, male and female, my attention was suddenly pulled away toward a commotion at an upward angle to the grebes, great splashing and squawking and carrying-on in that part of the pond. It took me a few beats before I realized what was actually happening—five or six male mallard ducks were holding one female mallard duck under the water. She kept trying to fight her way up for air, but each time she did so, a couple of the male ducks would grab her by the neck with their bills and push her head back under the water’s surface. She was fighting so hard, she was ferocious, but she was outnumbered.
Let me admit that I am no innocent bystander. I don’t—actually can’t—stand by. Since the time I was a little girl, I’ve been unable to just bear witness and stay out of it when there’s what seems to me to be something aggressive, even violent, going on, whether between humans, between humans and other creatures, or between other creatures. This uncontrollable impulse has gotten me into a lot of trouble, but it has also gotten a few others out of a lot of trouble. Anyway, quite possibly the mallards were engaged in some sort of mating ritual, or perhaps a disciplinary procedure of some sort. Maybe what the males were doing to the female was part of some intra-species agreement that evolved over time which my non-Aves consciousness (and untrained ornithologist mind) has no capacity to understand. All I could do was observe and react. And wonder what the hell to do. I wanted to exercise cross-creature cultural competence, I didn’t want to throw my human weight around, but standing there, watching this thrashing, screeching tornado of ducks, I couldn’t innocently stand-by—I had to step across the line.
First, I tried reasoning with the mallards. I stood on the shore and yelled, “Hey, you ducks, stop that!” They ignored me.
Then, I tried taking a long stick and poking the ducks when they spun closer to the shore. This was an ill-conceived strategy, as they never got close enough and I didn’t feel quite right about poking them, so I threw the stick in the water and made a big splash. They ignored me.
Then I turned to Happy, and I asked him for help. Literally, I yelled, “Happy, you gotta do something!” Fortunately, he was already a bit worked up, since I was so worked up, stumbling along the shore of the pond, waving a stick, trying to talk reason with the ducks. So, I let him have as much leash as I could without letting him go, and he ran a bit into the water, barking, which spooked the gang of mallards enough that they disbanded temporarily, and the she-duck was able to escape. But, alas, she didn’t get far, she experienced but a momentary respite, as the guys followed her, and this confusing drama began anew.
I realized then that I couldn’t actually do anything. I also wondered if I even should have been trying to do something, if it even made any sense to intervene in the affairs of other creatures, if I even had a right to do so. There I was, imagining I could do something to help the mallards. But at the time, in the moment, I wasn’t really thinking, I was feeling—feeling for the female, because from my viewpoint she was being victimized, and for the males, because I wanted those guys to behave better! My actions were probably very misguided, prideful in the way only we humans can be, but there you go. This is exactly how I felt, exactly what I did.
In the aftermath, as Happy and I left the scene and headed home, I reflected upon the few times in my life when a non-human creature had intervened on my behalf, when I was in danger, real danger or the appearance of danger. I remembered various family dogs having helped me, Marlowe most of all, and remembering this made me feel better about my decision to try to come to the aid of the she-mallard. Now, as I write this, I also recall the first essay in Kingsolver’s collection, Small wonder, in which she recounts the verified story of a mama bear who took care of a little human toddler who was separated from his family. I also think of a passage from Skolimowski, and am somewhat comforted: “Men can be arrogant creatures, but so can lions. However, among all creatures it is we, human beings, that can understand fully and completely the meaning of compassion and can act on it; can take the responsibility for all, can defend the rights of species different from our own.” I’m not sure if we humans are the only creatures who can do so, but I do know that we humans are creatures who, indeed, do do so.
Reflecting further on my experience with the ducks, which happened to happen on the morning after the earthquake in Japan, and which took place before my encounter with one of my students who had such monumental and tragic news to share with me about her partner who is dying—and the poignancy of their geographic distance and emotional closeness—I realize that all of these stories I’m telling are pointing to the same few strong ideas: interconnection and creaturely-kinship; deep participation in each other’s lives and in the weird world that we live in; the instability, alterability, and fluxness of everything, and by “everything,” I mean from the micro-cosmic chaotic duck pond, to the macro-cosmic axis-shifting Earth, and everything in between.
In an instant, the ground beneath our feet shakes and shifts, waves swell and crash, buildings sway and topple. Some lives end and some are spared but forever altered.
Citizens of the world watch what happens: earthquake, tsunami, revolution, famine, hurricane, genocide, war, corruption, violence, environmental devastation, pandemic. Many cry and yearn to help, desire to not only bear witness and stand-by, but to step across the lines that separate us from each other, to support their Earth-kin to re-establish a sense of safety and stability on an ever-changing planet, in an ever-emerging universe.
I have a small wonderment: Can we keep these rekindled feelings of kinship with other humans, other creatures, and willingness to boundary-cross as needed at the center of our hearts and the front of our minds once the current catastrophe has passed?
 To hear an NPR interview with Stanley Kunitz and see the poem in its entirety, go to: http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2001/mar/010330.kunitz.html
 “Daily Developments,” The Oregonian, March 12, 2011, page A7.
 We could have quite a discussion about whether there is any such thing at this point in Earth’s history that is beyond the influence of humans and thus pure, pristine, and “natural.”
 “Step Across This Line, from the book Step across this line: Collected nonfiction, 1992-2002 (2002), by Salman Rushdie.
 (I wonder if grebes would mind being mixed up with ducks. If I were a grebe, I think I might not like to be mistaken for a duck! But why, is the question.)
 All classification information comes from The Sibley guide to birds, by David Allen Sibley (2000). By the way—and I know you’ll be extremely impressed—in middle school science I won “most likely to succeed in science” because I could recite from memory scientific taxonomy: “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”
 I wonder what the ducks would say to me if we spoke a shared language? “Hey, human, what makes you think we want your help? Stay out of our duck business, it has nothing to do with you!” What do you think the ducks might say?
 “Small Wonder” by Barbara Kingsolver, from the book Small wonder (2002).
 The participatory mind (1994), by Henryk Skolimowski, page 26.
Enjoyed your essay Jenny. It’s a connection to you that I still feel across the miles and years since I was your student back in 2006. I carry the benefits of the MAIS program with me to this day. Wishing you happiness and success in life always. Kate Kelly
I’ll never forget Oscar the wiener dog who jumped on a hornets nest to save me when I was about 7 years old.
It is so good to hear your voice again my friend. Oh how I have missed the complexity of your mind and heart. My hope is we all learn to lean in a little further to this magical moment called life.