The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake and fiery flood, and hurricane…
–From “Mont Blanc,” by Percy Blythe Shelley
The Midwest has tornadoes; the eastern seaboard has its hurricanes and super storms. A large part of the country just dug out from another snow storm, while here in California, we’ve gone from an extended period of drought to swollen rivers, dams, mudslides, sinkholes and flooded interstates, all due to “The Pineapple Express, a “river of moisture” that has moved in from the Pacific and continued to drench the West coast. Ironically, the complaints about the drought have given way to complaints about the wet and stormy weather. Yet, as my husband and I plan for a return to Toronto, he has few complaints about our wet and blustery California winter, rather, he has re-voiced his reluctance to live in a place that, despite all the things he likes about it, has “real” winter, in other words, snowstorms, ice and cold.
Wherever we live, it seems to be human nature to complain about the weather. California, of course, is normally blessed with mild winters, a temperate climate and plenty of sunshine. I grew up in the northern part of the state, however, where four seasons existed along with the expectation, in the summer, that we might have to ration water or smell the scent of wildfires in the nearby mountains. We were used to it and grateful that, unlike much of the rest of the state, the earth was likely to move from time to time.
For much of California, earthquakes are a predictable occurrence, just as tornadoes or hurricanes in other parts of the country, and never far from conscious thought. It’s the risk of living along the earth’s fault lines, whether the San Andreas, Hayward, Oak Ridge or any number of smaller ones, and yet the cities continue to expand despite the occasional warnings of “the big one” likely to occur in the future. What we know is that sooner or later, the earth will heave, the ground will undulate beneath our feet and sometimes, it will result in disaster. Think of those memorable earthquakes that have demolished highways and buildings, as the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1992 Landers quakes in Northern and Southern California.
This potentially destructive movement is created by the sliding boundaries or fault lines which define the earth’s tectonic plates. California has a great many of these faults, and even though the plates move past one another a couple of inches each year due to their irregularity, we’re often unaware of their motion. But as the plates continue to push against each other, they sometimes lock and may not move for years. Then stress builds along the fault, and when the strain threshold is exceeded, energy is abruptly released, causing the plates slip several feet at once. Waves are sent out in all directions and felt as tremors, or at worst, a damaging earthquake.
Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you is the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life,
already spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for?
From: “Fault Line” by Robert Walsh, In: Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual, 1992
Early in 2007, I began teaching a course on writing for healing through the UCLA extension’s Writers’ Program, initially entitling it “Writing from the Fault Lines.” Like many writers, the metaphors I use are almost unconsciously influenced by the landscape that shaped me and in which I spent my life into early adulthood. Living along the West coast fault lines encouraged Tony Pfannensteil, a Portland poet, to found Fault Lines Poetry Journal and place the first call for submissions in the fall of 2011. Hundreds of poems were submitted by writers living along the Cascadia earthquake zone on the West coast, extending from San Francisco north to Vancouver, British Columbia. Poet Eileen Walsh Duncan described Fault Lines as poetry that “ will create upheavals. The meticulously crafted world of what a poem should be will implode, opening fissures deep within your psyche.”
When I first began writing out of my own pain and hardship, terms like “the vulnerable landscape of the psyche,” “fissures opening,” of “stress building beneath the surface of my exterior,” and of the sudden and painful “jolts” of unexpected loss and trauma were frequent descriptions that appeared on my pages, words that seemed most able to describe the sense of shock and traumatic events that exposed my raw and tumultuous emotional interior. I felt, in those periods, as if my life was being shattered or broken apart. What I experienced emotionally was, it seemed, much like the earthquakes so common in my home state.
I recall the period when I was first diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, occurring in the midst of a difficult emotional time in my life—the loss of my parents, an unhappy and stressful career, and estrangement from my siblings, all rendering me numb. A few years later, I collapsed on the pavement and was diagnosed with heart failure. I filled page after page of my journals with disbelief, unanswerable questions and even guilt, as if I was somehow at blame, and old scars began to open to painful losses I’d soldiered through and buried many years earlier. My “real” story was less about a treatable cancer or a weakened heart. The story I needed to write and understand laid beneath the surface, where old wounds were buried, building up pressure, and begging for release.
I witness similar experiences in the writing groups I lead for men and women with cancer. A diagnosis of brings you to your knees. Life as you knew it is a thing of the past. Yet beneath the surface, there are frequently other wounds, unresolved emotions, painful memories or traumatic events which have lain dormant, but, like the locked plates of the earth, building up pressure inside you. Those events and emotions can be triggered by the most benign of writing prompts, and unleashed dams of old memories and painful emotions tumble onto the page. Whether the cancer writing groups or the transformational writing course I continue to teach, writing for healing often takes us beyond the “presenting” hardship, into deeper territory and as people write, they begin to plumb the depths of their lives, bringing into the open what they were unable to do before.
Emotions can inspire you or hold you hostage. Negative emotions–anger, fear or feelings of unworthiness–accumulate, just as pressure along the earth’s plates. They weaken your ability to fend off illness, depression or disease. Writing allows you, if you let it, to translate those negative emotions into words, make the connections between what you feel and why, begin to understand or even forgive yourselves and others. It is in the act of writing and sharing your stories that you may find a way to release the pressure of old wounds and begin to heal.
This week, think about the metaphors you use that are informed by the landscape and seasons where you live. Whether fault lines or a different weather/landscape metaphor, use it to describe a difficult time in your life, whether cancer, loss, or other hardship, letting the metaphor take you deeper in your writing to explore what lingers beneath the surface.