Two earthquakes changed my life in different ways, several years ago. But they came roaring back to mind this past week.
December 7, 1988
This week commemorated the 27th anniversary of the Armenia earthquake. It was known as the Spitak earthquake (named for the worst-hit region), and it registered 6.8 on the Richter scale, killed 24,000 people, devastated whole villages and pommeled a nation that still hasn’t fully recovered.
A nation, Armenia, which at the time was not yet independent from the Soviet Union — and yet which is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. A country that is extremely proud of its culture and passionate about its fath and yet which has endured a history of persecution and genocide for religious and socio-political reasons.
The earthquake happened when I was a freshman in college, at Stanford. Watching the television footage of parents holding their dead children, of kids and grandparents seeing their homes leveled to the ground, their villages flattened, all the crying and despair. It was unbearable.
It was also a time when so many other emotional earthquakes were already rocking my world — so many of the things which shaped my identity were being challenged — grades, looks, friends, dating, rejection, family challenges, what to major in. But it all started looking pretty miniscule in comparison.
Because here was my homeland suddenly on the national news. Fellow students would come up to me in the hallway asking me about Armenia, where is it, what’s going on, and how sorry they were about the tragic disaster. A dear Korean friend of mine, and my youth leader, gave me checks asking me to send it to wherever it was needed most, whatever organization was handling the relief effort. I never forgot their kindness.
At a time when I was just beginning to decide to become a writer, and just took a work-study job in the community service center, I found that the Armenia earthquake helped set me toward a course of serving my community and specifically the Armenian people. In the years that followed, I would become involved with humanitarian aid for Armenia, writing plays and articles about Armenia, Christian ministry and care for Armenia’s youth, teaching English at the university in the capital of Yerevan, taking Armenian language, and becoming a mentor to younger Armenian women. It all integrated so much of who I am — my passions of faith, art, service and heritage.
Even now, 27 years later, I’ve come out of a two-year leadership experience as national chairman of an Armenian women’s organization dedicated to helping Armenian women and families in the homeland and around the world. Most of our charitable effort was directed toward Armenia. The passion still reverberates in my schedule and heart, and now our children are passionate about their people too, as they learn the language and the history that has shaped them more than they yet know.
Though the 1988 earthquake filled Armenia with horrific loss and damage that its people are still coming out from under, it also awakened my freshman soul to a life of service I may not otherwise have pursued, and for that I am truly grateful.
October 17, 1989
In my sophomore year at Stanford, another earthquake hit even closer to home: the Loma Prieta earthquake, epicentered near Santa Cruz. Life in the Bay Area came to a halt: the Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed; the World Series was postponed; electricity went out; roads were closed; and phone lines were down. My father’s customary weekly 5pm call was met with an operator coming on, saying, “I’m sorry, sir, the lines are down, there’s been an earthquake…”
I stood outside talking to a friend, in between the student center and the auditorium, both of which had glass paneled facades. In between, stood the campus’ longest line of bikes, parked and locked. When the earthquake hit, the bikes fell over like dominoes. The front facades of both buildings shook, the reflections from the sun going in all directions as the glass bent back and forth, looking like it would shatter at any moment. My legs swayed on the moving ground beneath me, a huge oak tree nearby swaying like a twig. I’ll never forget it.
Then I remembered I had friends working on fourth floor labs and libraries. Another friend was coming across the Oakland Bay Bridge for our friend’s birthday party that night — the same friend who had given me a check for aid to Armenia. Although all of them turned out to be all right, others in the region did not, and again it would take years to recover.
Everything in our dorm room (co-op that year, actually) had fallen over, everyone lived by candlelight that night, with the power out for a good part of the time. It was surreal, and I of course thought about Armenia half way around the world, just one year before.
What was going on? What was I supposed to take from all this? Live every moment like it were my last? Yes. Don’t take anything for granted? Yes. Stop forgetting that God is in control and not me? Yes.
And something else? Yes.
In that sophomore year, I was trying hard, despite my passion for writing and service, to plow through a practical major (Econ) so I could pursue a more comfortable life and have the ability to do the things I loved — eventually. But I hated it, and I wasn’t doing very well. When this earthquake happened, I remember thinking, “Why am I majoring in this? It’s not me. I don’t want to be doing this the rest of my life. This is not what I was put on this earth to do.”
So I promptly changed back to what this literature professor’s daughter thought she should do all along: major in English. Write, write, write. Read, and read and write some more. Read the great voices and minds of the world, and then I’d add my voice to the chorus, too.
Since then, I’ve continued writing, reading, learning, and serving, the best I know how. Being in vital relationships and servant-leader experiences, and then writing about them.
I can’t guarantee that another earthquake won’t come. (There have certainly been others I’ve felt but less drastically). I only hope that if and when it does, I’ll be living my best day that day, no matter what comes, and that the day after the earthquake, I’ll be doing more of what I’m meant to do than I was doing the day before — more than ever.