It’s been a tough few weeks. Nature has been relentlessly brutal. Eight Hurricanes have made landfall in the Atlantic. Mexico shaken by two major earthquakes. Fires burn uncontrolled throughout the western US and central Africa. Thousands are dead from flooding in South Asia. In Bali, they're fleeing a volcano. In Madagascar plague is spreading.
Human action and inaction have exacerbated some of these natural disasters. But humans all by themselves are all too capable of senseless destruction. A week ago Sunday, just down the street from me, a man spent ten minutes shooting into a crowd, hitting 600 people, killing 59.
My life the last week has been full of hugs and listening. Tears that come by surprise. And laughter too. It comes unexpected and it’s welcome but tinged with guilt. We’re getting through it. Las Vegas is a smaller community than many think. The things that make Vegas famous also makes the locals look out for each other. Everyone knows everyone.
We all feel the mad need to help, but no matter what we do, we feel helpless. There’s no act of goodness any of us can do to make up for the act of evil. We do things to take the edge off. Some big, some little. A revolving group of 300 volunteers worked day and night for five days to turn a parking lot into a beautiful memorial garden. Yesterday a sky writer drew hearts in the sky. We help ourselves through helping others.
I’ve been coping by being out and about, listening to those who feel like talking. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers, if they need someone to listen. Everyone has a different story, a different way of coping, a different emotion at the forefront. One thing that everyone wants is an answer.
I don’t say much. Just listening is both the most I can do, and the least.
It’s not so different in the places hit by hurricanes and floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and disease. In all of those places, they’re asking why. Why has this happened to us? How can the earth rise up and destroy so much? How can our delicate spaceship Earth be such an efficient and indifferent killer? In Las Vegas it wasn’t the Earth that struck out at us, but ourselves.
Deep in the dark, walled off places in my mind rests a certainty: There is no answer that will serve. No explanation will ever make us whole again.
Stories are an indelible part of being human. We need to tell them, and we need to hear them. Sometimes we want an escape, to visit a time or place or people completely different from what we know. Maybe a Victorian romance, or a noir detective novel, or heroes from long ago, in galaxy far away. Just something to take our attention away from the day-to-day.
And sometimes we need the opposite. We need a story that dives into the deep end of our struggles. Something we can use for guidance or validation or hope. To find an ending that might not be happily ever after, but is, at least, a way forward.
I’ve talked about the first two of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth
books before, but the trilogy is complete now and they’ve come to mind a lot this month. The first book, The Fifth Season
begins with an act of unforgivable brutality, while the world itself cracking, passing from the four traditional seasons into a fifth where natural disasters push aside other concerns. A mother loses one child, and searches for another across a deteriorating landscape. Individuals and civilization are making grim decisions in order to survive.
In the second book, The Obelisk Gate
, even those equipped with the abilities, skills, and knowledge to deal with disaster are overwhelmed. People from all sides are tested with hard choices, unthinkable alliances, and deep sacrifice.
The final book in the trilogy just came out and, as much as the the previous two have earned their accolades, The Stone Sky
outstrips them. The history of the broken Earth is revealed, but knowing the why and the how doesn’t make it right. It makes it, in almost every way, more wrong, more unfair. Everyone has to learn to live with the consequences of other’s unforgivable decisions. Too much has happened and too many wounds have been opened for the world to go back as it was. But there is a way forward, a moment of peace is earned. Where there was once a bleeding wound, there is now just a scar.
The Broken Earth
series is darker and more brutal than I usually talk about here. At its heart, the Reader’s Room is about finding the better ways forward. I had a hard time lighting that path this week. But there are stories that give us hope even in the dark. They can’t undo the tragedy, but they can help mend the wounds. They may not tell us why, but they can give us an answer to what’s next.