At 10:47 a.m. on February 3, 1931, Napier, New Zealand, was decimated by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. The earthquake, located approximately nine miles north of the city, lasted 2.5 minutes, killed 256 people and injured thousands. Nearly all the buildings in the central areas of Napier were leveled, and “The Dominion Post,” a daily newspaper published in Wellington, NZ, reported that “Napier as a town has been wiped off the map.”
During the first 24 hours after the earthquake, 151 aftershocks were recorded including a magnitude of 5.5. In the days to follow, other top-magnitude aftershocks included a 6.4 on Feb. 8, and a 7.3 on Feb. 13. Altogether, 597 aftershocks were recorded in the Napier area by the end of February and more than 900 by the end of 1931. Until a presentation called “Writing Through the Earthquake: When Your Place Shifts” by author Hannah Anderson at the HopeWord’s Writer’s Conference in early March, I’d never heard of the Napier earthquake; now I can’t forget it. As Anderson weaved the quake into her presentation on the topic of place, I felt an instant connection. I didn’t expect to get emotional at a writing conference, but after the last five years, I wasn’t necessarily surprised.
At the time, I probably would have said a family crisis during the summer of 2016 was the primary shaker, but looking back, I think it best fits the definition of a foreshock: “earthquakes that precede larger earthquakes in the same location. An earthquake cannot be identified as a foreshock until after a larger earthquake in the same area occurs.” (usgs.gov)
The “larger earthquake in the same area” occurred a little over a year later during the early fall of 2017. From that time on, aftershocks — defined as “smaller earthquakes that occur in the same general area during the days to years following a larger event or ‘mainshock’” — have steadily rolled. In researching, I found that typically these aftershocks occur within one to two fault lengths away from the epicenter of the main earthquake until the background seismicity level returns to normal and “ represent minor readjustments along the portion of a fault that slipped at the time of the mainshock.” While the frequency of aftershocks decrease with time, they can continue for days, weeks, months or even years following an intense mainshock. (usgs.gov)
Perhaps you’re finding resonance here as well. Maybe like me, your mainshock was years ago and yet, you continue to feel rumbles under your feet. Perhaps you’re only beginning to feel the shifts and jars.
Perhaps you’ve been through the destruction, the aftershocks, and are at a place of rebuilding, but you still remember what it felt like to have your steadiness challenged.
If so, Anderson’s points about seismic shifts apply to writers and non-writers alike. Here are a few:
You can’t rebuild when the ground continues to shake. I suppose this sounds like a no-brainer, but it was an “ah-ha” moment for me. Despite the external shifts, I’ve expected myself to keep my footing, to go on as if everything were normal. Part of this comes from myself, but some of it comes from the external pressure I’ve felt from others to pretend things are fine. I needed this reminder that rebuilding while the ground is shifting isn’t prudent.
Place isn’t necessarily permanent and stable. In making this statement, Anderson pushed against the common notion that we have control over place. Rather, she said, place can change rapidly and without warning. The pandemic seems to be an obvious example of this, and from what I’ve observed, it’s left many of us feeling shell-shocked. With any jarring circumstance, healing will take time.
Moving forward after a shaking requires telling the truth. Since 2016, this freedom to share “the complexity, the tension, the hidden faultlines and the earthquakes” has been missing for me. As a writer, this lack has been difficult. Few people know the unguarded extent of my experience. It doesn’t help that when I’ve given glimpses for public consumption, I’ve been met with backlash, avoidance, impatience, brush-offs, even gossip (slander/libel?) behind my back. All of these things have hurt me and I won’t pretend otherwise. At least I can tell the truth in that way. It’s a start.
And finally, we can recognize opportunities that can come from shifts of place and write (live) toward hope.
One might ask what opportunity can come from such destruction. As an example, we can return to the Napier earthquake. In addition to the loss of life and collapse of Napier’s building infrastructure, the local landscape dramatically changed. Previously stunted for growth because of its location by the water, the earthquake rose the coastal region over two meters, uplifting over 40 square kilometers of seabed to dry land, including Ahuriri Lagoon. The earthquake expanded the city, and the “new” ground is currently home to an airport, industry and residential housing.
Not only did the city grow, but the citizens rebuilt with vision: buildings were constructed in the Art Deco style that was popular in the 1920s and 30s, and Napier is now known as the “Art Deco Capital of the World.” Locals continue to celebrate (yes, celebrate!) the 1931 earthquake.
Admittedly, I’ve struggled to celebrate my earthquakes, but I’m fighting to get to that point. Maybe you’re right there with me in this battle.
There have been many times I’ve longed for a new place, because starting over in an all-new place often seems less complicated than figuring out how to both leave and stay at the same time; less complicated than realizing that generally speaking, I’m an outlier. Often I’ve prayed: “God, you love this place, you’ve put me here, help me live here well. Help me love my place again.” It’s a daily faithfulness in an eternal direction. In the times I stumble, I realize yet again that God’s mercies are new in the morning, He is strong in my weakness, and at the close of each day, I’m one day closer to seeing Jesus face-to-face.
And in this daily perseverance, just as there are moments of distress following the aftershocks, I’ve also had moments of finding contentment and hope. If nothing else, I’ve learned that joy and sorrow can co-exist; that grief and hope don’t have to be isolated from each other.
It’s this taste of goodness that, like the people of Napier, makes me want to rebuild with vision. I’m not entirely sure what this will look like, and since the ground still shook as recently as last week, I probably should keep waiting to build, but it feels good to write and live toward hope.
Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com, or find her on social media @MalindaDJust.