“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.”
I remember waking up on that day in early March. I can see myself wiping the sleep out of my eyes, splashing some water on my face, and going for my morning run. I had a flight to Texas to give a lecture. I planned on using the day in airports to begin writing my book. I would start at the beginning, I would write it in order, I would take my thoughts for a walk and get them out and onto the page. I would finally start to lace my ideas together in a way that made them better.
I recall commenting to myself on how we were getting our first sun of the year in the Pacific Northwest. “I should use today. Tomorrow may not be like this.” And tomorrow was not like that day. I turned on the news and stopped blinking, my mouth agape. The night before there was a colossal earthquake off the coast of Japan, about 200 miles from Tokyo, and a mere 80 miles from Sendai. I think we all have an experience like this once in our lives. It binds us, but we would never wish it upon anyone else. It is very similar to dread, but not quite. This feeling has no name. It is the feeling of receiving news that is bad to the world, but particularly worse for you.
It always happens when we watch the news on those fateful days: an event of international significance is unfolding, yet it is personal in consequence. The news washes over you, then wraps its hands around your neck and yanks the breath from your lungs. Your heart sucks up to the top of your chest and you can feel your heart beat in your fingertips. All of a sudden, every moving part inside your body is able to be felt. Your heart. Your breath. Your circulation. Some parts speed up, the other parts slow down. Nothing is going at the correct speed. News comes in of some disaster, and you are maligned because you understand something that many others do not: there are real people on top of this crumbling earth, and one of them is someone important to you. You know the world is different now, but the only thing you can think is: “I hope the people I care about are alive.” You know names. You see faces.
The day before, my friend Craig had flown to Tokyo to upkeep his apartment in the city, to give a talk at a conference, and to take care of his taxes. I was worried. There was clearly no way he could have escaped this earthquake. When someone you know goes through something you’ve never experienced yourself, you always resort to the ways these disasters have been presented to you before. I see the images of movies: books falling off bookshelves, furniture toppling, dishes flying out of cupboards, family portraits losing their spot on the wall because the wall collapses under its own weight. You imagine your friends huddling under tables and counters, standing in doorways, cowering and covering their necks with their hands. You see the streets crinkling like bedsheets, cars falling into newly formed fissures in the earth. You see the underground life-supports of a city busting: water and gas leaking out from their pipes and dangerously mixing with the air into some awful blend.
The earth shook, the ocean rose up and smacked the coast. Amongst this geological gurgling, there’s only one thought with this unnamed emotion: I had friends there. Luckily, Craig survived and somehow made a flight back to the States a few days later, shaken up, but with life and limb.
In March, the disaster struck from below. On May 22nd, it came from above.
There is an endless anxiety to an unnamed fear, when one is suffering from the devastating ignorance of knowing that something is wrong, yet not understanding what it may be. That Sunday night, I received a text message from an old college friend with whom I hadn’t spoken with in a few months:
“Are your parents okay?”
What followed was a frantic 15 minutes trying to decipher what may be going on in my parents’ life. Plane crashes? No, not traveling. Weather? Hard to find updates. I finally resolved to going to the website of the local news station to see what they were reporting. It was harsh weather: the ruthless cocktail of warm and cold air mixing as it so typically does across the plains during these early summer months. Tornadoes.
I phoned home quickly. Busy signal—phone lines jammed up. Usually these times of severe weather are not of concern: friends and family on the coasts have a tendency to generalize and clump the whole area together, so if a tornado touches down 40 miles away, they still call to see if you’re okay. It’s certainly appreciated and very thoughtful, but the thing that many outside the Midwest do not understand is that the strike of a tornado is like a drunk man throwing a dart: a very specific and violent strike, with an accidental precision in its devastation. We had been lucky in all the years since our family moved from New York to Missouri, but we were not lucky this time.
I had 20 more minutes of dread and busy signals, where I wasn’t sure if my family was alive or dead, present or swept away. I was helplessly pinned on the west coast while my family was suffering in the Midwest under the weight of an impossible storm.
They say it was a mile wide, two miles tall, and three minutes long. The tornado touched down in the center of town and drug it’s funnel across the city for eight miles, before picking itself up and vanishing back into the toxic, yellow-green sky of dusk. It was an unheard of power, the largest kind of tornado man can imagine. It hit the city like a finger pinning down a bug, squashing it, and then dragging its remains along the tabletop for a few inches. Nature had no mercy; it devastated, full bore.
The city looked as if a bomb had been dropped, a desolate stretch of land where there were once buildings and roads. The grid of the city was gone. The grocery store was snapped in half like a twig, and after the storm passed and darkness fell, those that lost their home looted the store so they would have food for their children. The news cameras crowded and lit up the city with floodlights and flash bulbs. The ruins were documented mere minutes after the storm, and the privacy of the devastated citizens was infringed upon, all in the name of news. You could cry, but you could not hide, so the cameras caught everything. You could only cover your face with your hands, because there were no doors left to close for privacy. Children wandered the barren streets calling the name of their parents and hoping for a response. Some reunions happened. Others, unfortunately, did not. Everyone else was caught in limbo. People spray-painted their status on the rubble that used to be their homes. “Cheryl OK. Dave OK.”
My frantic phone calls were finally answered with a text message from the dark:
“We’re amazingly all OK. No electric, so you’re seeing more than we r. We’re OK. All of us.”
It felt like someone lifted an anvil off my chest. I cried. I could feel my blood and breath recalibrate to the appropriate speeds. Luckily, my parents live a few miles outside of the city where the majority of the damage had occurred. They had strong winds, but their homes were intact. We were spared; frazzled, but thankful. There are many in the community that are much worse off.
I couldn’t write for weeks after the storm. My plan was to start on the last few chapters of the book, but after that night, my mind was in no place to do so. I froze. The scope of these storms was much too large, and it brought to light just how little this book of mine was in comparison. The idea of writing a book about design seemed pointless, and the feeling of futility lingered for weeks.
Now, with a bit of perspective, I can look at writing the book with a less heavy heart. My words may not be of consequence in the grand scheme of survival, but I can speak to the importance of creating. This is a book about making things that help us to live well. In life, the first challenge is to survive. The second is to do so in a way that allows us to live better. Happiness, cheer, and good living are exponential, so one movement in that direction is of great consequence. I needed to keep writing, simply because it made me happy, and had the potential to do the same for others.
Yes, the book I’m writing is about design, but above all, it is a book simply about making things. This is a noble distinction, because everything is made. Our work, ourselves, our relationships, our future. Sometimes, things get to be remade. I feel that we are all living through one of these times, navigating a storm of change where we are forced to question what was made before. We are put in a position of responsibility where we are granted the chance to remake things for the better, then extend them into our future. This is the opportunity of the storm that racked the lives of my family and so many friends. They’re left with a blank slate. A storm swept through the city and gave them a clean break from what came before. A line was drawn, and life is now split between what was before the storm, and what will come after. They get to rebuild their city, to rethink how they go about their days, and to remake their lives. We cannot change what is on one side of that line, but we get to make the other, our future.
Whether you live in Japan, Missouri, or elsewhere, there is another storm. You recognize it, you feel it, you read about it each day. It is the old world crumbling around us, and things breaking sooner than we know what replaces them. It is the old, seemingly immovable institutions gasping for air. It is the feeling of fear that happens when we realize that everything did not always exist, which means that it must end at some point as well. People invented everything, which puts the earnest on us to reinvent them as well. There is the past and what was made, and now there is the future and what we will make that replaces what was made before. We can choose to draw the line that separates the two any where we wish, but I am choosing to draw it right here for myself.
The French have an expression: “changer les idées,” which means to do something different to clear one’s head. It is to take a break, to have a rest, but most importantly, it’s also often said to mean an interruption of routine. The phrase literally translates “to change one’s ideas.” Sometimes the things that change our ideas are inflicted on us, like the storm my family has lived through, but other times we may choose to do it for ourselves. If the world can be reinvented, we should reassess our presumptions and ideas, especially when we find ourselves in situations that shake us to the core.
It is this rethinking that persuaded me to keep writing. The writing of my book was bookended with painful events, and similarly so life. Life is a bit of a palindrome that way: we cry when we are born and cry when we die. There’s a joke by Woody Allen in his film Annie Hall that I bring up frequently:
“There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah I know, and such small portions.”
Allen goes on to say that the joke is essentially an analogy for life. Life is full of loneliness and suffering, but also is entirely too short. While there are disasters, misfortunes, and chaos, there are also innumerable beauties. Whether it is the feeling of relief from making contact my family after the storm, or maybe standing before a painting by Matisse, or watching someone dance in a way where it seems they are the only one able to do so, these are all what we thirst for. There are earthquakes, tornadoes, plagues, and famine, but there are also picnics, good company, literature, beautiful ideas, looking out into the distance, campfires, conversation, literature, and love. In spite of all the bad, these are the things that leave us wanting more of life. If we’ve drawn a line, and if we are allowed to remake and to rethink our lives on the other side of it, our movement should be towards these things that make life better.
There’s a bit in Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist where the narrator corrects a translation, so that we may better understand how we should approach our days on the other side of the drawn line:
“Carpe diem” doesn’t mean seize the day—it means something gentler and more sensible. “Carpe diem” means pluck the day.
“What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things—so that the day’s stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand.”
When I think about the times I connect with the work of others, it is a bit like this. A moment has been plucked from the day-to-day and made special, and I have been snagged, put under increasing tension, and drawn to a thinness. I snap softly at my weakest points, drawn away from my typical numbness, and sometimes I will even let out a barely audible sigh, overflow with a bit of laughter, or leak out a tear. From this, I hope. I hope I can do these things with what I make, and wish that the people around me can do so as well. We want to be pulled tight. We want to pluck the day. The times that the work of others or their presence makes us feel this way are surely the fruits of life. This is why we make things. To make ourselves feel this way. This is why we share it with others. To make them feel that way, too.
My mother texted me again the night of the storm, once the clouds had passed:
“Can’t send a photo, but two rainbows. I think we’re going to be OK.”
I think we’re going to be OK, too. Writing this book isn’t pointless, because everything we do, everything we make, is not about the beginning or the end of things. We may draw a line, but we are in the thick of life. We make for these middle parts. Every time we sit down to write, draw, design, paint, dance, we do so because we believe there will be a tomorrow. Every movement and each creation says, “The world is not done yet.” To make is to be optimistic. We get to make tomorrow for ourselves and one another, and we are lucky, because we are allowed to be engaged with the world and one another in this way.
We create to ease pain, to increase pleasure, and to get happy, believing that the goodness can be sustained. We make in the hope that what we produce can carry us somewhere better, to a place more satisfactory. If we can do this for ourselves, we are lucky. When we are able to do so for others, we are tending towards glory. My book is about all of us attempting to capture that glory. The premise of it is that the fruits of our labor that allow us to live better must be shared. They are gifts.
So, I give these thoughts to you. I hope they find you well, and that they may steer you towards the true purpose of making: to help us to live better, to be better, to see the potential of these middle parts, and to get as much of the goodness from life as we may. I had originally saved that thought for the end of the book, but I suppose the beginning is just as good. The end may be the beginning, it just depends on where one draws the line.