October 12, 2005

Finally, she rose by her tall orchestral harp. Freshmen rustled like aspen in the pews.

In the rushing tedium of Stanford’s Western Culture requirement, this had been a special day: we were off to Memorial Church to hear a harpist and singer perform someone’s idea of ancient Greek music, somber and eerie. Shafts of sunlight fell through clerestory windows from the hot afternoon. It was October, the month when all freshmen are immortal.

But now she was done. The freshmen’s rustle rose slowly to become dull applause. She stood. Her hawklike face assembled a reaperish smile.

Applause died back to rustle. Up popped the professor, beaming. Any questions?

Dust turned in the shafts of sun.

OK, then! We exhaled, clapped again, rose, turned to go, and froze.

The church was giggling.


But I project. It was I who heard the giggle, I who froze. Others felt other things, reacted otherwise. The prof looked startled, shouting with the sound off. The hawk woman plunged into a crouch. A matronly colleague walked sternly up the aisle, feet firm on the roiling floor, off to give the captain a piece of her mind.

Mouths were open, but all I heard was the giggle.

Later, I’d piece it together. Stanford is made of sandstone – a substance that somehow coheres into bricks but is still, to the touch and eye, unmistakably sand. This lightest of stones, what would it sound like if it rattled? If ten thousand bricks rattled together? Of course, it would be pure soprano, a tinkle, a giggle. It would sound like a heavenly event, not an earthly one. Only sensible people would run from a building at such a sound. No wonder I was the only one left, rapt, listening.

Then the bright popping sounds began. I looked: things were falling through clouds of dust. How did I finally arrive at “earthquake?” The sight of things falling? Specks of fast sand peppering my skin? A wooziness that might have been caused by the floor moving, six long feet below my floating brain?

Then I had the word — earthquake — and time came unstuck. Stand in a doorway! OK, there’s a 30-foot-high transept arch over there, so at once there I am, back to one wall, watching the great stones of the arch line-dancing above me. What’s that clatter? It’s those mosaics from the dome, now zillions of falling daggers slicing through the pews. Bright light! A dark stained-glass window has shattered, dropping a new sunshaft through the dust. The sudden bolt of light sweeps past me to anoint the topmost corner of the harp. I gaze dumbly at the harp on its swath of red carpet, now glowing like an apparition through the rain of dust and tile.

I do not think: “Cecil B. DeMille,” “fall of Rome,” “Ten Commandments,” or “cliché.” It seems I would rather die in dumbness than in irony.


For a glimpse of the Buddhist idea of enlightenment, consider the sudden cessation of sound: the barking dogs, screaming baby, partying neighbors who lull you to sleep and then wake you by falling silent. Surprise without noise: that, if you could stay there, is what enlightenment would feel like.

Perhaps death feels that way too. And indeed, in that moment, a door appeared in the clouds of dust, and (still not thinking ironically) I stepped through, out. No, not heaven, not bardo. The Quad.

Blasting heat. The prof and the matron were pallid, staring. Freshman women embraced and wept, but the young men giggled and tittered, immortally. The whiz-kid from Kansas walked up to me:

“That –” He puffed his chest out, constructed a snicker. “That was just a little one, right?”

“No, Bill, that was a big one. And for the rest of your life, there’ll be sandstone in your bones. Giggling.”

Written by Jarrett Walker of Creature of the Shade.

  1. October 13, 2005 at 3:49 am

    Maybe in the morning words will come that can express my wonder. All that’s coming now is “oh” and “wow.”

    Thank you, Jarrett.

  2. October 13, 2005 at 8:29 am

    This is exactly the way I would’ve reacted, I think: slow and dreamy. During the year and a half I spent in the Far East, back in the mid-80s, I enjoyed the frequent tremors and the one, fairly big earthquake – that feeling of being totally at the mercy of the earth. Back then in the waning years of the Cold War the threat of nuclear winter felt especially strong, and I appreciated those tangible reminders that the earth was, after all, still a great deal more powerful than humanity at our most violent.

    Thanks for this wonderfully dramatic and understated post.

  3. October 13, 2005 at 9:17 am

    The harp is the most vulnerable of sounds: what an incredible juxtaposition.

    I haven’t heard sandstone in a quake–but now I’ll know what to listen for.

    Thanks Jarrett.

  4. jane
    October 13, 2005 at 6:26 pm

    Jarrett: you have caught the contrasting sensation of space, time, noise, and feeling. lovely work. this is an “en-courage-ment.” j

  5. October 13, 2005 at 9:44 pm

    Wow. I’ve never been in an earthquake, but you brought me as close, I think, as one could without being there.

  6. October 15, 2005 at 6:13 am

    What they all said, plus. Thank you Jarret for capturing this drama so vividly, with such poetry and lucidity. I think I would have been too frightened to notice anything but the nearest exit.

  7. Bill Knight
    October 15, 2005 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for being there, Jarret, rapt attentive, alive to mystery of the Penetralium. So well described and “understood”. Clear-sighted.
    “It seems I would rather die in dumbness than in irony”. Direct experience in the funnel of your eye unmeasured, gifted. How great it is when one’s paragraphs can feature, overhead, the dance-floor scrape of feet of arch stones! The golden harp in its sudden light. Raining mosaics! Outside the heat. All senses alive.

  8. October 15, 2005 at 1:45 pm

    A wonderful essay, beautifully observed and written in a totally creative way. Thanks so much for this contribution, Jarrett! I can’t get over the raining mosaics, accompanied by that tinkling sound.

  9. October 15, 2005 at 9:07 pm

    Thanks for the kind comments, all.

    Dave, “understated” is an especially touching comment. I’m so rarely accused of that!

    Pica, I hadn’t thought about the harp as a source of fragile sound, and as an image of fragility. That adds a dimension that I like. In my early processing after the quake, I was preoccupied by what a cliche it seemed to be, glowing amid the rubble.

    Bill, yes, “all-senses” is what I strive for. I could have mentioned the taste of sandstone dust — since I did have my mouth open part of the time — but some of you might have been eating while you read.

    Bill, I had a fun hour with “Penetralium” on Google, thanks!

    Beth, be assured that I won’t get over it either.

    Thanks everyone.

  10. Bill
    October 16, 2005 at 7:59 pm

    Jarret you’re a good sport. It wasn’t polite of me not to footnote Penetralium but I had just discovered Keat’s phrase and had googled around without coming across a definition. Following the example of your muscular googling I came up with this site:

  11. October 17, 2005 at 12:17 pm

    It’s all been said, so I just second the praises, Jarrett. It reads like some fantasy, yet such a real life experience, which I dread living here in an earthquake zone. The few tremors I’ve felt can’t prepare for the real thing. I must remember your tale then.

    What a pleasant surprise to find Bill Knight here, with his wonderful, quirky, and mind challenging observations. I keep saying you need to start a blog, Bill!

  12. October 18, 2005 at 7:23 am

    But if Bill starts a blog, will we still be able to look forward to such discursive and interesting comments from him in our own blogs? I love comment strings that add extra dimensions to the posts they’re attached to, becoming more than mere appendices, but extra chapters in their own right. But I know that I myself rarely take the time away from my own blogging to practice what I preach.

  13. October 18, 2005 at 1:28 pm

    Oh Jarrett…what I remember of that day and that story is that you were the last of my friends in the Bay Area that I finally got on the phone to verify that you were safe, I also remember you telling me how the “30-foot-high transept arch” wasn’t all that comforting even though it was the correct choice. Beautifully written, as always.

  14. Bill
    October 19, 2005 at 6:15 am

    I do have a blog. But it’s secret!


    Under their great hats the women walk
    To Sunday service, all along the street
    Among the secretive suburban houses
    An amazament of hats, towering, askew,
    Supported upon frames or cantilevered,
    Held on by spikes or flying buttresses,
    Hats bundled, hats bolstered, tea cozy hats
    And hats huge that could cozy chamber pots,
    Parades under the porches of the churches.

    Hats must be pleasing in the sight of God.
    As though they could have had no human maker
    They rise in splendor, sway in independence,
    Bobble and nod in glory above the heads
    As manifestations from the mind itself,
    Expressing the erection of pure thought
    In velvet, pelt and feather. O high hats!
    As secret of significance as those
    Dormers there at the peaks of private houses
    Along these quiet streets, where people keep
    Hidden in filth a broken relative.

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