Sometimes it feels as if we live in a permanent disaster zone. Earthquake! Tsunami! Drought! Flash floods, forest fires…and now a pandemic. In Chile, we tend to live on the ragged edge, always semi-prepared for when disaster strikes.
Among the subplot threads of many of my Seaglass Books is woven the background motif of some natural disaster. For example, Destiny at Dolphin Bay features a major earthquake. Whether we in Chile live in the most seismic country in the world (Japan is another strong contender for the title), we think we do—and we certainly have a claim! Nothing registering under 7 on the Richter scale is a real earthquake in the Chilean mind. Anything under 5—barely noticed. We’re hit with a biggie every 25 years, a medium one every 5. And a small tremor happens every day…somewhere.
Storms rage in almost every book set in the Chiloé Islands. Wind and rain frame daily life there. A volcano erupts in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light—not at all unheard-of. A freak snowstorm batters a group of kids on a school trip in Swan Song. And had I resided in Coquimbo 5 years ago, I would have witnessed a tsunami powerful enough to close an important Pacific port for many months.
Over-the-top melodramatic? Not at all, not in Chile, where disaster strikes so often in the same spot twice that mere calamity sounds too calm ?.
“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily. “And freezing. However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.” –A. A. Milne
On the bright side, we haven’t had a coup lately. Or a hurricane, or El Niño. And we haven’t had an outbreak of cholera since the summer of ’92.
But dwelling with constant disaster trains us in plenty of coping strategies:
Turn It into a Social Event
…or a TV special. When disaster strikes—even if it’s just a bit of variation in the weather—the local media can squeeze out several days of talk-show fuel. Everybody gets on board with the hostess’s rainy-day advice to gather for mate (herbal tea) and sopaipillas (flat deep-fried biscuits). An option for ordering pizza, gals!
In The Quarantine Tales, Keli Peterson transforms the disaster of an indefinite surprise lockdown into a long-term story-game with her friends and family stuck in a coastal village. Told in random order, the third tale falls to Keli’s 17-year-old cousin, Fabián Ignacio Serrano.
Named for two heroic forebears, he insists on being called Nach (not Nacho!) He picks a candle as his story prompt, nothing decorative, just a plain white emergency taper as common in Chile as, well, disasters.
Nach’s true-confessions account of the “Conflagration at the Cathedral” relates his testimony of the ultimate affront to island tradition and order. An inferno, set by arsonists, climaxes months of social unrest in Castro, Chiloé, where Nach attends school, and nearly consumes most of the town square.
Obviously, this cultural tragedy doesn’t spring from an accident, even in an area where spontaneous blazes flare up so frequently that even teenagers can serve with the firemen’s squad. The conflagration of this World Heritage church is clearly a man-made disaster rather than an “act of God.”
Just like, as Nach points out, mining cave-ins due to shoddy maintenance or streets-turned-to-rivers because of poor drainage. He sums it up with the Chilean proverb: “Pueblo chico, infierno grande.” Small town, big hell.
In other words, how can such a small country attract so many huge problems?
“…to preach, pray, or die at a moment’s notice,” I was taught at Bible college. Not bad advice for life, when disaster strikes every week or so…at a moment’s notice.
One of the ways I deal with the strict ongoing quarantine in our city, as well as whatever disasters pop up, is to write them into a story. The tension of menacing disaster provides a never-ending source of fodder for spinning exciting tales. Tales entertaining to reader and writer alike.
“We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.” –Samuel Goldwyn
Now that’s a book hook! But like my Chilean friends, am I becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of permanent disaster threats? While I enjoy adventure and I admire preparing for, and even anticipating, the unexpected, I’d do better to learn the life lessons that the experience of hard times can teach.
As a wake-up call, disaster has its positive purpose. But existing from crisis to crisis is brutal on the body and mind. The long-term overexposure to stress hormones that accompanies life in a permanent disaster zone can wreak serious havoc on multiple systems. This puts us at increased risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression, headaches, and insomnia. Anybody ID?
“I should like to save the Shire, if I could, though there have been times when I…have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them.” –J. R. R. Tolkien
However, our story’s call to action doesn’t come, as some believe, through a buzz on the phone or a click-bait to BUY. And as much as we might wish, we’ll never change the world by scare tactics or a good shaking, either.
Repair the Roof Before the Rain
When disaster strikes, we need to recognize what’s wrong in our world and do our best to fix it. Then we get on our knees and go to war about the rest.
The physical disaster motif pictures a metaphor for the battle against spiritual evils. In Chile, the social strife that incited the trouble that ignited the fire in Nach’s “Conflagration at the Cathedral” underlies more chaos than natural calamities.
It’s a recipe for disaster: the conflict between the greed of the upper classes, plus the hopelessness of the lower classes, stirred together with a stressed middle class dealing endlessly with oppression from above and violence from below.
Add to the bubbling mix our obsession with media thrills and adrenaline overload and oh, maybe a craving for international notice…and you have a formula for fomenting a chronic level of fear, turmoil, and insecurity.
When disaster strikes, we all need God’s healing touch on our brokenness. But so often, instead of confessing, “Lord, you have our attention,” we continue to writhe under His finger pointing out our own pet expressions of selfishness.
We’re not unique in our failures, of course. The prophets of Israel foretold: “Disaster will come upon disaster and rumor will be added to rumor; then they will seek a vision…” (Eze. 7:26).
But… “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger…to and fro to seek the Word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (Amos 8:11-12).
“Living on the battlefield isn’t kind and gentle; it is demanding and stretching… To whose voice do I listen? And in whose voice do I speak?” –Sue Cameron
Pay Attention to God’s Voice
When disaster strikes, our response must be listening better not lamenting more. Remember the string of calamities that crashed on Job? He was assaulted on all sides–by foreign marauders, fire from heaven, and personal pestilence (disease). Ultimately, the Evil One attacked him.
And the wild phenomena that Elijah witnessed at Mt. Horeb? God did not speak in the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire, rather through a still, small voice (I Kings 19:11-12). He speaks through the gentleness of kind caring, encouragement, and a recommission to serve.
“Now, every time I witness a strong person, I want to know: What dark did you conquer in your story? Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.” –Katherine MacKenett
So much bad stuff happens that we cannot prevent, stop, or control. But we can always listen, look, and learn compassion amid the catastrophes. And we can form part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
As each disaster strikes, let’s strengthen ourselves in the Lord:
“Holy One, You are our comfort and strength in times of sudden disaster, crisis, or chaos. Surround us now with Your grace and peace through storm or earthquake, fire or flood. By Your spirit, lift up those who have fallen, sustain those who work to rescue or rebuild, and fill us with the hope of Your new creation, through Jesus Christ, our Rock and Redeemer.” –Anonymous
PTL, we haven’t had any earthquakes lately…at least a year and a half. And definitely no invasion of dragons.