by Brenna Kischuk
I am not afraid of the right things. Not tight spaces, spiders or being alone. Not flying, death, heights, infidelity, fidelity, snakes, public speaking, poverty, politics, the woods, the dark, close encounters of the third kind, or even water.
I look to evolution, find fear. Fight or flight in our bones. Fear as rational or irrational, explainable or obscure, changeable or forgotten. Fear as motivation, stimulus, emotion, as narrowing, paralyzing, manufactured, controlled.
I am not afraid. I have fear. Tengo miedo. A possession.
This is an exercise in fear. An attempt to exhaust it.
A fear of earthquakes – sudden, irrational, unfounded, unfolding. The fear aligned with my return to Los Angeles after eight years in Chicago. Chicago, where earthquakes were not a thing to terrify but the ground still shakes under the L. Windows rattle. When I moved into a lakefront high-rise I asked the leasing agent if the building was earthquake proof, if it had been engineered to the same standards as those in Southern California. After a few summer months I understood earthquakes did not threaten like thunderstorms, tornadoes, or the city’s violence. Fear—rational or irrational—was never there.
I’ve felt dozens of earthquakes. Most unremarkable but one made a mark. One of the big ones, but not the big one that awaits. The Northridge quake of ’94 collapsed buildings, split freeways, killed fifty-seven. That was nearly three decades ago and for decades I was not afraid.
In Chicago I wrote about earthquakes. Held by distance I relived the Northridge quake and buried myself in cautionary statistics of the California big three: earthquakes, mudslides, and brushfires. Earthquakes strike without warning, and are impossible to control. I did not feel fear as I flowed from sentences of destruction to despair with ease. But here I sit heart racing and desperate for answers. Frantic to find fear’s root, eager to reach bottom.
Fearing death in an earthquake means dying in one. Terrifying, terrified, terrible, terror. The Spanish word for earthquake is terremoto and I’m comforted by the beauty of another language. The gentleness of each te, the erre that rolls like the earth then surrenders to a whisper.
The Richter Scale measures magnitude as recorded by seismographs. A logarithm of amplitude where one number increases tenfold. But the numbers are overwhelming, even misleading – the difference between 5.0 and 6.0 can only be felt.
The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale reflects the way an earthquake feels on the surface. Not science, but observation. Roman Numerals I – X. Was the shaking felt? Were dishes broken? Did buildings fall?
Recovering from a minor head cold I take Sudafed and am comforted by cause and effect. Anxiety attributed to the tiny red pill, a meager 30mg. This anxiety reminiscent of fear but explainable, controlled, has an end. This anxiety no longer anxiety. Only new anxiety over the overdose. Do not exceed 240mg in 24 hours. Symptoms include increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, insomnia, hallucinations. Call your doctor if symptoms persist. I haven’t been counting. Keep writing.
Coming home to Los Angeles was obvious but not easy. I’d never gone more than a couple months without dipping my toes in the Pacific. My calendar stayed full of California weddings, funerals, babies, and birthdays, and I knew the flight attendants on the ORD/LAX route by name. But this return was about someone instead of someplace. A chance to give the man that broke my heart another shot and with that I feared another breaking, if not my heart then the earth.
In Fall of 2016 the state issued a warning that the likelihood of a magnitude 7.0 or higher quake hitting Southern California increased from its usual 1 in 6,000 to a mere 1 in 100. Odds shifted after over one-hundred small quakes occurred in rapid succession near Sultan City. Seismic swarms. The earthquakes—both trigger and warning—were thought capable of setting off the nearby and much larger San Andreas. Over 800 miles long. 1300 kilometers. A strike-slip faultline that splits the earth as wide as one mile. It runs along the Northern California coast, under San Francisco, southbound towards but east of Los Angeles, almost to Mexico. It moves at an average of two inches per year. A major earthquake occurs along the San Andreas approximately every 300 years and the last was in 1690.
News reports and social media warned of the threat but offered no solution. Where is the linked article that will help me prepare? Where do I go when the shaking starts? How do I fall back asleep? Are these numbers averages? Estimates? How do they measure? What’s thirty years past due in the planet’s four and a half billion years of existence? What’s one thousand?
When the warning came I was north of San Francisco, alone on the northernmost stretch of Drake’s Beach and atop the very same faultline they warned about. The fear of another heartbreak pushed me towards control. It wasn’t as much about knowing where he was but knowing where we were, a fear of being left behind. Or simply left. I crossed state lines and oceans to minimize the distance between us even though I knew doing so often created more.
Three hours earlier I’d walked the Earthquake Trail in Point Reyes, a half-mile loop on top of the San Andreas. Signs along the way offer faultline as attraction. Up next: the earthquake fence, split by over twenty feet in the 1906 San Francisco quake.
The five-hundred miles between me and those seismic swarms should have brought comfort but I was short of breath and dizzy at the thought of returning to Los Angeles. I was afraid of the earthquake, afraid to be alone, afraid of going home to a place that no longer felt like my own.
I ignored signs warning of dangerous rip currents, undertows, and waded into the waves breaking in front of me. Seven days later the warning expired. The ground stood unshaken.
Earthquake weather: unseasonably warm, dry heat, Santa Anas blowing in. The need to find fault when weather is too perfect, even for Los Angeles. A lead in to the evening news.
To talk about earthquake weather is to talk about fear but I do not remember the weather before the Northridge earthquake, nor the fear. I remember the after: canceled schooldays meant more time to play outside in January’s warmth. Bicycle rides and super soakers in the quiet streets, a trip to Zuma Beach. Without power we cooked pancakes on a camping stove while my father flew to Tennessee just hours after the quake, having no fear.
I began seeking motion in effort to keep the earth still. A coping mechanism that still serves – move, walk, run, rise, fall, fly, escape, release. Motion as progress, whatever the reason. Never leaving, always going. Keep going.
For the past decade the United States Geological Survey has been developing an Earthquake Early Warning system called ShakeAlert. Depending on a tremor’s size and location the system could provide as much as a minute of warning, and as little as none.
What does warning provide? More fear? Where attention goes, energy flows. My fear alone could move the earth. How much notice is enough? Armed with only a warning, where do we go?
We live on the fourth floor of a thirteen story high-rise, thirteenth floor not 13 but PENTHOUSE. The superstitions of a building built in the 1950s. When we move in I am careful not to ask if the building has been retrofitted to withstand quakes, if it’s prepared for the big one. I do not ask questions when I fear the answer.
For months I wake up in panic, my body electric as fear takes hold. My body knows this fear is not of earthquakes but the man next to me, the difficulties that come with connection. And like fear of earthquakes in Southern California these fears are not unfounded. We’d spent over three years together before hurt stacked higher than hope and our intertwined lives became less so. Two years apart meant emotional and physical distance, a falling out of love that allowed hope to creep back in.
Back together, I stay in motion. Decrease the distance and control the fear. Fear of making the same mistake twice, of falling for a genuine but misguided love. I craved a solid foundation and instead got faultlines, evidence of past and future.
The correlation between an earthquake’s duration and magnitude registers deep in my body. Time slows. Wait for the shaking to stop. When it doesn’t stop, take cover under a sturdy table or mattress. Listen for the sound of things falling. Not the high pitched crash of dishes and barware but the deep rumble of buildings or the crack of trees.
The ground shakes: a 3.1 jolt located deep in nearby Santa Monica Bay. A 5.2 in Borrego Springs at 1:04am. Not the big one, not even a big one, and its epicenter 130 miles away. I woke to gentle motion and sounds of our building creaking as it swayed.
Then Ridgecrest. The High Desert in the heat of July brought a massive 7.1 magnitude quake just five miles below the surface. The most powerful to hit the state in twenty years. But damage was minimal in terms of lives lost and structures compromised. At home and 120 miles away, the sway of our building lasted too long. Our popcorn ceiling loosened around the edges, fell to the floor. My body rattled off the equation – it was strong, far away, and shallow. I’d later learn the quake occurred only 6.6 miles deep.
The Borrego Springs quake was 12.3 kilometers under the earth’s surface. Just over seven and a half miles. Northridge was over eleven miles underground, same as San Francisco’s 1989 quake and in 1971, Sylmar, eight miles.
I try and make sense of the distance. Each quake occurred less than the distance between where I live now and my childhood home. Less than half a marathon but somewhere between 116 and 216 football fields. Numbers don’t add up. I find other points of reference.
Most quakes occur below the deepest hole ever drilled. Beyond the deepest part of the ocean. How do we trust knowledge of a place we cannot touch, cannot see?
If this is not a fear of earthquakes it is a fear of pain. An obsession in self-protection.
There are 15,000 fault lines in California, categorized into four types. These faults move slowly over time or rapidly in the form of earthquakes. The San Andreas is a strike-slip, two blocks of earth moving past each other horizontally. Not the blocks of childhood or building. Not your ABCs. Enormous blocks of the earth’s crust where the faults will swallow you whole.
The faults are responsible for more than 10,000 earthquakes that occur in California every year. Most are too small to feel, too deep to register in the human body, but a subtle response to the constant shifting of plates. North American vs. Pacific, one displacing the other. Most of the time the response is creep – a slow, continuous movement within the earth. The small quakes release waves of energy over time, energy as fuel for destruction, and render their faults incapable of larger quakes.
Fear unacceptable. Fearlessness coveted. Fix yourself. Fight fear with knowledge, with strategy. Look at statistics. Visualize. Meditate. Medicate. Breathe. Fight fear with exposure.
I ride the tram at Universal Studios. Go through backlots where every building is a façade. Travel from Hollywood to 34th Street to Hill Valley in seconds. See the courthouse from Back to the Future. The house from Psycho. The beach at Amity Island. Survive a flash flood, a falling bridge, King Kong, and finally, an earthquake – 8.3 on the Richter scale. Ceilings collapse, water mains burst, subway cars jackknife. The tram operator sticks to their script as the cars shake: Keep an eye on your personal belongings folks. This one’s the big one.
From Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles is on its best behavior. Hollywood sign to my right and in front of me downtown sprawls into the ocean. Inside, the city is projected through a camera obscura. A Tesla coil sparks at twenty past the hour. I find out how much I weigh on Jupiter. I lurk around the seismometer. Tourists assume it registers earthquake activity in the area, but it registers their own effect on the earth below. Every movement recorded. I jump up and down to create my own earthquake. Terremoto. Shrug off awkward glances. The ground shakes. The shaking is measured. I am in control. I am not afraid.
Faultlines, an offering:
Strike-Slip, /strīk-slip/ noun, 1. two blocks of earth shifting past one another, left or right lateral. 2. San Francisco (1906). 3. the San Andreas. 4. an affair unfolding.
Dip-Slip, /dip-slip/ noun 1. a vertical fracture, normal or thrust. 2. love, with the passing of time. 3. Sylmar (1971). See also: blind thrust, noun, no visible evidence on the earth’s surface; Northridge (1994); synonyms: asphyxiation, dynamite, fear.
Fight fear with information. I search the internet for updates to California building codes, note seismic activity in the area. I come across a Seismic Hazard Zone Report for my neighborhood and learn about liquefaction. I read on for more information but struggle to find meaning. This report not meant for residents but for commercial property owners. Information relevant to risk and reward, profits and gains.
The report focuses on many things that contribute to a building’s damage or devastation. The sandy soil this beachside community was built upon poses extra risk. Despite how seismically fit a structure is, the earth beneath can go into suspension and liquefy.
My earth turns liquid. Information not against but in service of fear.
I fall asleep to hour-long crime dramas, find comfort in fear contained, neatly packaged into sixty minutes. The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event. Others’ stories are not our own.
Fictionalized fear easier to swallow and not mine so bring on the salacious, the seedy. Sensationalize violence and rationalize fear. We want to be described as fearless. Confuse fearless with daring. Fearless on top of a building ready to jump but shaking with both feet on the ground. Being alone comes easy and love a labor. My fear is inconsistent. Sweat gathers on the nape of my neck.
Shift from fiction to reality, docuseries’ with unhappy endings. Dissect every detail, every moment. Exhaust every theory – no matter how absurd – while proving none. The comfort is not in the answers, but the simple fact that one’s life either goes on or does not.
Exhaust the fear to get it gone. Exhaust a place. Exhaust a person. Learn everything you can. Be prepared. Be unprepared. Fearless not flightless. Let go. Let go and let God. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. I cannot change. Tengo mieda.
The DSM-V defines specific phobia as “marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence (or anticipation) of a specific object or situation.” It further categorizes specific phobias into five types: animal, natural environment, blood/injection/injury, situational, and other. There are hundreds of websites dedicated to an endless number of phobias. To naming it, sharing it, coping with it, finding the cause, finding a cure. There is even a phobia of fear. Phobophobia.
Diagnosis requires a person meet further criteria: symptoms not better attributed to another cause. Symptoms like increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, insomnia, hallucinations.
Unreasonable. Irrational. Is a fear of earthquakes while living in California irrational or does living in California with a fear of earthquakes make it so?
The third Thursday of October is the Great California ShakeOut, a statewide drill encouraging businesses, schools, and individuals to better prepare for large scale earthquakes. Similarly, the month of April is dedicated to earthquake preparedness. Signs on La Cienega streetlamps ask Angelenos, When it rocks are you ready to roll?
I don’t have gallons of water in the trunk of my car or a pantry full of canned food but I know not to put the bed near the window. I know to drop, cover, and hold on. Prepared or not, fear persists. I’m not ready.
A Northern California PBS station invites residents to “Get to know your local fault lines.” Casual, the way we would new neighbors. Does the San Andreas prefer coffee to tea? Does she become more active leading up to summer, hoping her lines smooth out for swim season?
I find ways to release pressure and direct energy towards fear I can control. Stay in motion, whatever the reason. I enjoy broken-down carnival rides at the county fair. In Toronto I take a glass-walled elevator 1,168 feet into the sky and attached only by rope walk the building’s edge. I hike 1,700 feet into Tijuca National Forest only to run, jump, and fly. With aluminum bones and synthetic wings I glide through the rounded peaks of Rio in spite of gravity, between skyscrapers, catch an updraft and the stomach drops, over water, and onto the sand of São Conrado. The sensation is suspension over falling, floating rather than flight. A controlled descent. I am not afraid.
I wake, again, not short of breath but rolling in thought, thoughts that tumble over each other, legless. Thoughts turn to earthquakes in fear of anything else, stray from earthquakes to love, to the man next to me, whether we will make it, to what make it means. To have or not have children. To write more, work less, feel less, love more, live in the moment, remember the past, do better, be better.
The earth moves beneath me. I grab the sheets then grab my phone, check ABC7, CNN, Caltrans, the LA Quakebot. There’s nothing. Save for my fear the night is quiet and still.
We seek connection to eliminate fear. Get to know the darker parts of ourselves in light of each other. Travel to new places, try new things, new people. Things get worse and better and worse and better and he sleeps next to me without fear. No tenga mieda.
We consider getting a dog. Our own early warning system. It is often said animals feel an earthquake first, that they behave strangely in the moments before shaking starts. Science does not support this theory, not fully. While many animals can hear frequencies higher than the normal human range, the rumble of earthquakes registers much lower.
Still awake, the excavation unfolding. I draw a medicine card and today I am a wolf. Wolves mate for life, are loyal, intuitive. I attach to the primal. Ruled by the moon I look for fullness and find a dark sky. I howl.
In late 2018 the ShakeAlert system is officially released, a phase one rollout for California, Oregon, Washington. It moves through the news cycle faster than I expect and when I learn of its release I know better than to download the app for fear of more fear. I don’t need a jarring alarm for a minor quake or worse – what they call a false event.
Off the coast of Mexico an 8.1 erupts under the Pacific. The quake is felt hundreds of miles away in Mexico City. In Guatemala. The faultline buried forty-three miles into the earth but referred to as “particularly shallow” by the USGS.
Not two weeks later a magnitude 7.1 devastates the heart of Mexico City. A dip-slip faultline. Hours before they’d performed a citywide drill to help prepare for earthquakes and other disasters, but preparation can only do so much. Well over three hundred dead. A city broken and unbound.
California doesn’t talk about how to help Mexico but about our own risk, the long-overdue and familiar big one. Headlines appear in the paper, stock lead-ins to evening news. Not to exhaust fear but incite it. Explore it. Capitalize it and move on.
This after Houston underwater, Puerto Rico and St. Thomas and St. John. Cuba. Barbuda, St. Martin, and Dominica. This after California burning but before flames swept through Australia and annihilated the Amazon. This before pandemic. Something else is at work. The birds crow. The wolves howl. We do not sleep.
In the morning he wakes rested, unaware of my sleepless nights. He says we are wildly unprepared for disaster and I agree. He is talking about North Korea and I am thinking of the San Andreas. We should have been thinking about ourselves, how to navigate the ways we continue to hurt each other, my contraction versus his expansion. My propensity towards motion while he digs his heals in. I don’t know if this fear is temporary or taking hold.
We do nothing. I need to get out.
Fight fear with distraction. Create lists, fill the day with tasks, exhaust myself. Without time fear subsides. Take a pill. Lorazepam, diazepam, hot baths, downward dog, clonazepam, run five miles, whiskey, clean the closet, forward fold, more hot water, alprazolam. 0.5 mg. Wide awake. Take another. And another. Feel nothing. Fear not gone, only my response.
Sleepless, 3 a.m. A headline catches my eye: The LA Times reporting that California experienced ten times more earthquakes in the past ten years than previously thought, skyrocketing the count to a staggering 1.8 million tremors up from 180,000.
The new technology shows us that earthquakes radiate out to form new faultlines altogether, and I doubt the ability to ever find a beginning. The small quakes both a map of what came before and a hint at what’s ahead.
The news comes when I am 6,773 miles west of Los Angeles in a Taipei hotel room. He sleeps next to me. I still follow him across oceans, though my faith in us is often stronger than the fear. My need for motion started long before him, born of my Los Angeles roots. A common affliction among Californians looking for solid ground.
I find brief relief in distance before realizing Taiwan’s susceptibility for earthquakes is as obvious as California’s. Days before I arrive the country was hit by its tenth earthquake that year registering over 5.0 on the Richter Scale. It’s only April. I have to get out. Exhaust the fear to get it gone.
I hike Elephant Mountain, take in a skyline of skyscrapers. Imagine them all swaying in unison. I take an elevator to the top of another building, eighty-nine stories high and a 360° view from the observation deck. I am not afraid but aware of others’ fear. Acrophobia, claustrophobia. What if something were to happen? Will there be a warning?
The view is impressive even in the haze of late afternoon. Lush mountains wind through and around the city with personality and ease. I take two laps for good measure and make my way to a small exhibit showcasing the building’s structure, how it was built to withstand the earthquakes that so frequently rock the country. Exit through the gift shop, all Jade and Coral. Sculptures of the country’s ancient past inside its most impressive modern accomplishment. I purchase a modest Tiger’s Eye bracelet – the gemstone noted for an ability to release anxiety and fear – and head toward the elevators.
An alarm chorus sounds, from the building and cell phones of visitors. I hold my place in line as a herd of people rush my direction. Language a barrier so I wait five minutes before an announcement in English. A 4.9 earthquake struck Yilan county, southeast of Taipei. We must shelter in place while the building’s structure is tested, and wait for further instructions.
My fear out of and about control. Fear of being trapped on the eighty-ninth floor, my cell phone running out of battery, fear of hunger, thirst, losing my place in line over a trip to the bathroom. Afraid that no one would know I was here.
Watch your back. Walk on eggshells. Sleep with one eye open. Wait for the other shoe to drop. Fear released means freedom and with freedom comes a cage of fear. With freedom comes loss. Eventually. Let it in to let it go. Stay in motion, keep moving, find a way to be free of the faultlines.
No freedom, only fear. I’m afraid of people discovering something in me I haven’t discovered yet myself. Afraid of getting hurt by people I love. Afraid of being the one doing the hurting. Afraid of being misunderstood. Afraid when one story ends the next won’t come. Afraid my love will leave me for another, or others. Afraid words on the page make their meaning true. And failure, though how to define it?
Fearing death in an earthquake means dying in one. On the fourth floor, just like I thought. These words someday found in digital rubble and posthumously I might be regarded, or disregarded, one and the same.
Afraid if I write it all down it will be true.
Earthquake. Terremoto. This is an exercise in fear, an attempt to exhaust it. When the fear goes, what comes next? If not earthquakes, then what?
Tengo miedo. The way we have hunger and thirst and need. It is a temporary condition. The green in leaves. A faultline.
Still awake at 3am and I’ve written it all down.
Is any of it true?
Brenna Kischuk is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and the founder of pioneertown literary journal. Her work has appeared in STORY magazine, MUSE/A Journal, HTMLGIANT, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. Read more of her work at www.brennakischuk.com.
Image source: Andrew Buchanan/Unsplash