The grim death toll from the continuing temblors impacting Turkey and Syria has surpassed 47,000, and by all accounts it will continue to rise. Those of us living atop a hundred, intersecting earthquake faults in SoCal continue to shudder, pray for our sisters and brothers seven-thousand miles away, send money for relief efforts, check our disaster preparedness kits, and religiously arrange flashlights and tennis shoes near our beds each night before succumbing to sleep.
From the first televised moments of the catastrophe, I’ve marveled anew at those exceptional humans who rush toward disaster, rather than away from it, sacrificing their own safety and comfort to help: heroes like the volunteer White Helmets of Syria and the dust-covered, orange-vested teams in Turkey who dig through the rubble, sometimes with bare hands, to save lives of our human family with unfamiliar names. Like many, I cried over the emergence from Collapsed Building Hell of five-year-old Emira in Kocaeli, ten-year-old Cudi and baby Hamza in Hatay, and Mustafa Sarigül, who called out to his Romanian rescuers, “Get me out of here quickly. I’ve got claustrophobia!” Me, too, Mustafa. Me, too.
Like most of us, I contemplate with dread what awaits these survivors. How will they manage to endure the whiplike tail of disaster that will continue to wreck and threaten lives with lack of food and water and shelter, the total disruption of community and infrastructure, the politicization of relief efforts, opportunistic diseases, and emotional trauma? Will the miracle babies, eased from their dead mothers’ protective grips nearly a week after the quake, find lives of pleasure and meaning one day?
Our beautiful Earth subjects us from time to time with these major natural disasters. Alas, we humans are all too capable of behaving just as destructively—threatening biodiversity, contaminating our food and water and air, continuing our over-reliance on fossil fuels that contribute mightily to climate change, with its record-breaking high and low temperatures, floods, drought, and fires. Big oil and the political and corporate sociopaths who enable the degradation of our home planet for greed and power embody the worst of our species, threatening man-made disasters and dislocation that would make this last spate of devastating earthquakes pale in comparison. Which is where the ones that Mr. Rogers’ mother called “the helpers” come in.
Our environmental helpers, the heroes undeterred by the understandable collective vacillation between denial and overwhelm, work with profound devotion and grace to protect the future of my grandchildren’s generation and generations to come. They demonstrate such beauty of spirit that they take my breath away. Which is undoubtedly one of the reasons why I can’t seem to part with writing about my protagonist Fleur and her pals. In my latest novel The Mysterious Composition of Tears, Fleur finds herself stranded (as I tell Mary Woodbury in an interview on her marvelous eco-fiction website Dragonfly.com) with “the disembodied but nonetheless colorfully boisterous spirits of Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and Richard Feynman, seeking wisdom to bring back to a species seemingly hell-bent on destruction.”
In fact, the wisdom of the ancestors plays a significant role in this novel. I said a bit about this at my launch of the book at the C.G. Institute of Los Angeles:
Because Fleur is, well, Fleur, this novel about a post-Covid world facing environmental disaster at every turn has plenty of humor to balance the gravitas. As I put it here:
In her kind words about the novel, Carolyn Raffensperger, Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) had this to say: “(This is) a playful, a joyous book in the midst of all the crises. Joanna Macy said that we needed new sacred texts. There are places where (Sharon Heath’s) descriptions of the tragedies, the beauty, the ineffable, rise to that level. Sacred words.” (And if you’d care to find Carolyn’s discussion of the book in the context of what she calls “the upheaval we are facing,” you can find it in her fascinating essay, “Anchoring Ourselves in Storied History” in the September 22nd issue of Science and Environmental Health Networker.)
How do we hold the fate of our whole species, the fate of our Earth, in our contemplation? It’s too huge. And to be honest, the loss of 47,000 thousand humans and counting in Turkey and Syria is too many to process. But when we behold the rescues of Emira from Cocaeli, Cudi and Hamza from Hatay, the man Mustafa who—like us—abhors tight spaces, don’t we recognize that the life of each one of us is a miracle to be protected, to be lifted up from impossible suffering, to be saved? The Mysterious Composition of Tears is the product of my own sense of the sacredness of life, the sacredness of all lives. Whether through the lens of physics or the vantage point of depth psychology, we all matter. Like the book’s characters—young and old; animal, vegetable, mineral, and even as incorporeal as a Shimmer—we each have our part to play.
And speaking of Shimmers, here’s my reading from the first chapter of the book, when those visitations from what feels like another realm lift the characters into a new world: