Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker

It’s time for the annual If All Rochester Read the Same Book event. The 2015 choice turns out to be a book that I’ve already read; — in fact, I wrote about it here on this blog in December 2012.  I’m not going to post about it in detail again. But I’ve just done a quick re-read of it, so as to have it fresh in mind when I go to the library lecture later this week. And this time around, the book is mixed in my thoughts with other books I’ve read more recently.

Over at LibriVox, I’ve recently worked on a project about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and another about the Deepwater Horizon Oil SpillAmong my recent library books has been the novel Station Eleven, set in a world devastated by a pandemic, and Curse of the Narrows, a history of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. So many disasters rattling around in my head.

Reading through Age Of Miracles, this time what struck me most were a few brief passing remarks about disasters, and the usual methods of preparing for them and responding to them.

We were Californians and thus accustomed to the motions of the earth. We understood the ground could shift and shudder. We kept batteries in our flashlights and gallons of water in our closets.  … We were well practiced at crawling beneath tabletops, and we knew to beware of flying glass. … But we Californians were no more prepared for this particular calamity than those who had built their homes on more stable ground.

I remember watching Mr. Valencia next door fill up his garage with stacks of canned food and bottled water, as if preparing, it now seems to me, for a disaster much more minor.

The disasters we read about, or see in movies, have a short and finite arc. This thing happens. When it’s over — which is within thus much time — it’s over. Then we get on with cleaning up and starting afresh. Or, in apocalyptic stories, everything is lost, and that’s that, story over. But one way or the other, the outcome is known soon. Hurricane, tsunami, tornado. Earthquake, explosion, massacre. Pandemic, social collapse, end of the world.

But in Age of Miracles, that quick arc of disaster is frustratingly absent. Flashlight batteries and bottled water aren’t needed. There isn’t a day when we wake to find that it’s all over, and we can start rebuilding — or a day when everything comes to a sudden and crashing end. Disconcertingly, in this book, the downward spiral begins imperceptibly and continues indefinitely. If this is a natural disaster, how do we know when it’s finished, when we can return to the stability of “normal”?  If this is the end of the world, it’s not going to finish playing out for a few more generations.  In the meantime, we can’t hurry anxiously to the closing page. What can we do but just keep on living, as enthusiastically and creatively as we ever did before, in the midst of an endlessly drawn-out end.

The end of the world doesn’t let us see it coming. It looks like ordinary daily life, as the years pass, as the decades pass, as the generations pass. But people have to live, somehow, in the meantime. And living well still matters. What is “living well”, though? Maybe it’s simply realizing that the end is never really the end, that each ordinary day since we first began is still going on as it always did, one breath at a time.

Near the end of the book is one paragraph that seems to say it as well as anything. —

We carried on. We persisted even as most of the experts gave us only a few more years to live. We told stories and we fell in love. We fought and we forgave. Some still hoped the world might right itself. Babies continued to be born.

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