Flicked aside by the universe

9/11, the tsunami and Katrina have permanently altered our sense of scale.

By Stacey D'Erasmo
Published September 11, 2005 7:47PM (EDT)

Cataclysm, we now understand, is a very slow thing. The tall buildings, the houses, the trees, the levees, may collapse in a matter of minutes, but we discover the deepest part of the impact months or years or decades later.

One day after Sept. 11, 2001, I was throwing the ball for the dog in a park in Brooklyn. There was nothing else to do, since the world had ended. There was nowhere to go, and no way to get there. One month after, I was standing by the site at night, breathing in the dead. One year after, I don't remember what I was doing: washing dishes? writing? seeing friends? I have no idea. Four years after, though, the world feels as if it has shifted on its axis, not only because of the giant events of Sept. 11, but because of the giant events that have followed it in a thunderous cortege: the war in Iraq, the vast 2003 blackout, the last presidential election, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina. (In fact, following the tsunami, scientists reported that the earth had shifted on its axis slightly and that a week after the water had crested, the earth was still ringing like a bell from the force of it.)

I don't have an emergency plan, no one I know has an emergency plan, but we all have the idea in the back of our minds that we need to be prepared to walk: walk across the bridge, walk the neighborhoods to get the vote out, walk out of the demolished city. Take the dog, or leave the dog behind. Two days after Sept. 11, the midtown office building I was working in was evacuated, and I joined the crowds walking down Seventh Avenue. Only now does it seem odd that no one was running.

It's so basic, walking. So mundane a movement and, at the same time, so indicative of the epic moment we find ourselves in. Odysseus walked. The Trojans walked. The Israelites walked. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have become accustomed to images of people in ragged groups walking through destroyed landscapes infinitely bigger than themselves, to images of people dragging what they can carry out of the ruins. We have also become accustomed to images of people falling from unimaginable heights and people clinging to trees or rooftops as water covers the world. To the dead floating, arms and legs spread, through the streets. They look so small. So mortal. Forked creatures, clinging to tree branches and chimneys, or stumbling out of the blast, faces white with ash.

A cousin of mine who was traveling in Indonesia when the tsunami hit e-mailed that after he had been stripped bare by the force of the water, he tied found rags to his feet to begin walking toward the hospital. Imagine that: one young man walking across the surface of a planet that was still ringing miles beneath him because of the impact of the wave.

In New Orleans and Mississippi, gigantic military tanks dwarf stop signs and stores; they hulk along beaches. Huge oceangoing tankers are beached on highways. These days, enormous things regularly fall down, explode, fill up with water, go dark. The night of the blackout, I walked around my neighborhood. The pitch dark was punctuated by clusters of people who would suddenly appear, partially illuminated by flashlights, headlights, or battery-operated televisions, and then just as suddenly disappear. Because of the utter darkness, they seemed as if they were miles away from one another. A city block had become an immensity. Walking in the blackness, it was no longer possible to tell for sure how long it might take to get anywhere: a minute? a year? never?

In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a cascade of consequences, and one of the largest, but also, perhaps, the subtlest, has been a pervasive, fundamental shift in our sense of scale. The mythic order has smashed through the mortal one, breaking the frame. You can argue, if you like, about who "our" refers to, and whether the frame was ever whole to begin with, and whose fault it all is. But that's not the mystery. In terms of the mortal order, we know what the story is: The cruel and the stupid are running the world. They would happily allow most of us, especially the poor, to drown or burn. It's the mythic order, the continual intervention of the gigantic into daily life, that's confounding. Even if the intelligent and the compassionate were to take over tomorrow, we would still be subject to its raw force. There's been a breach.

One of the many reasons that George Bush is detestable is his stiff-necked refusal during major crises to admit that he doesn't know what to do. That it's bigger than he is; that he is small, afraid, and no match for what he's up against. The bigger he insists that he is, the tinier and more pernicious he seems. (Ditto the tinny religious sideshow with its hateful corn syrup Jesus.) It is a kind of evil, this strangely passive hubris in the face of events of overwhelming magnitude and complexity. It seems very dangerous. Two weeks after the disastrous 2004 election, a friend and I were talking about the creeping sense that something else, something we couldn't quite articulate, was larger and even more wrong than the immediate political situation. "I just keep worrying," she said, "about the aquifer."

By which I think she meant not only the literal aquifer, but some force or element that subtends the very ground we walk on. I don't mean God, or even gods. I'm not sure what I mean yet, honestly, as a writer or just as a person, that the customary frame of reality has broken, broken open, over the past four years, that it continues to break. I don't know yet how it will change my work or what other people write or draw or make, this shift in our consciousness of scale. I just know that suddenly, or what seems like suddenly -- now, anyway, since 2001, since water swallowed a good part of the Pacific Rim, since the lights went out all the way to Canada, since New Orleans has become a toxic ghost town, one is more likely to imagine that: the aquifer. Oneself, so much smaller, standing above it, washing dishes, reading, walking. That the aquifer has a life that may or may not include you.

Five weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, my lover and I were walking through the ruins of the Roman Forum. It looked so much like the World Trade Center site we had walked to by night just a week before. Why were we surprised? What empire hasn't fallen? The aquifer, after all, was always there.

Five days after Sept. 11, I was with a group of people in upstate New York and none of us knew what to do anymore, so we got stoned and went to a bad movie in the town over the bridge. On the way back, the bridge was closed. Police lights were everywhere. We thought the bridge must have blown up, something like that or worse, but when we asked a policeman, he said, No, a man had jumped. In our peculiar state of mind, none of us could really understand how that could be, what it could mean, one man jumping off a bridge, who knew why, at that particular moment. We didn't know how to see it anymore: one man, falling from a very large steel structure. How could it not be connected to the massive events in the city less than a hundred miles away? It seemed as if it must be, in some way we didn't comprehend yet. Already, one man falling had something to do with the bridge, the river, the city, the ruin, the airplanes, the world, with people falling everywhere. Four years later, it only seems more true that this is, in fact, the case.

Stacey D'Erasmo

Stacey D'Erasmo's second novel, "A Seahorse Year," will have its paperback release from Mariner in October.

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9/11 Earthquakes Natural Disasters