Fear Factor

For a young woman beset with all manner of insecurities, the early nineties in southern California were the perfect storm. Or fire. Or fault.

During my college years at the University of California, Riverside, I often felt my center could not hold. But because I didn’t know how to deal with the center, I focused on everything outside it—the more explosive, the better: Desert Storm, the LA Riots, fires, and, of course, earthquakes.

I walked dutifully to class amidst yelling protestors and swirling ashes from one disaster to another, nerves on edge. But when the Landers quake hit one hundred miles east of campus in the summer of 1992, my anxiety went wild. For years, we’d been told the Big One was coming, and coming soon. I convinced myself Landers harbingered the coming California apocalypse.

I’d heard about liquefaction, when an earthquake turns the ground into quicksand swallowing buildings and cars. I saw myself pinned under five floors of books at my library job with no one to hear my cries. I recalled the harrowing stories of the Nimitz Freeway collapse in the San Francisco quake of 1989, how rescue workers had to saw through a dead woman to get to a living child, how the whimpers of dying people haunted the night. That summer, I panicked when traffic kept me under a bridge for more than a second, and I scanned every building I entered for ominous shelves and chandeliers. My imagination shook the floor several times a day.

Like Anne Lamott and her “butt mind,” described in Traveling Mercies as her monitoring, evaluating, and comparing other’s asses to her own at a daily, obsessive level, I had “quake mind” through and through.

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