Trembling in My…Well, Pretty Much Everything

It’s a quiet night in El Bosque. The family gathers around the dinner table as the sun disappears behind the mountains ringing the city of San Jose. How was your day? What kind of fascinating, new language-related things did you learn today? And you, Vance? What kind of new chaos did you create at school today? Together, they tuck in to whatever delicious concoction Luisa the maid cooked up for them before heading home for the evening. And then things just get spooky…

In the distance, dogs begin to bark. At first, you can barely hear them, maybe several blocks away, but quickly it becomes clear that a wave is in motion. The noise grows louder: the end of the block joins the chorus, and steadily the din moves closer, closer, closer, until it sweeps past, and the animals on the other side of the house take up the song. It moves away into the darkness as quickly as it arrived, fading, receding, dying away completely at last, as if it had all been a figment of your imagination. And the tremor hits. Gently at first, then more adamantly, the house begins to vibrate, then shake. Glass rattles, the salt and pepper shakers perform a strange dance across the tabletop, and the family gathered around the table, unused to these events, casts fearful glances at one another, ready for the end to come, for the ceiling to come down and bury them all under a pile of crazed rubble. But before any of this even really registers, like the canine chorus before it the trembling has stopped, the earth is at rest again, and the seismic wave has moved on in the wake of its predecessor.

The first time this happened, it scared us all to death. By the last time, it had become old hat. I would say that during the year we spent in Costa Rica, we probably experienced a couple dozen minor temblores, probably no more than a 2.5 or so on the Richter. Frightened glances turned over time into raised eyebrows–here we go again. And every time, the animal choir offered up an eerie prelude. They could feel it coming, always.

One such experience stands out, though. The one time we broke 4.5 and things really got all shook up.

It happened in the middle of the morning, and all of us kids were at school. Sonlight Christian School, to be exact. The MK farm. While moms and dads spent their days studying Spanish at the Language Institute, we cooled our heels on math worksheets with little Bible verses in the top right hand corner, and pretended we, too, were language students. Not that it was a bad place. The teachers were quite nice, and they had a fairly decent library. But it was a strange place, unlike any other school I’d ever attended. It even ate summers. Instead of days of freedom, playing outside, watching cartoons, or reading books by the dozen, we continued the daily round, with slight curricular changes that made it feel not unlike a three-month long trip to Bible school. We did pottery, we made candles. There was even an ill-fated attempt to dissect a pre-cleaned fish (misunderstanding at the fish market) which amounted to an impromptu cooking lesson. Thus my Costa Rican “summer.” It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that Sonlight was really a daycare, and I a free radical in need of a supervisory electron.

On the day in question, sometime between ten and noon (I say this because I really don’t remember the time, and this suits me as well as any), we were gathered for kiddie worship in the main hall of the school. Before long, the older students would be transferred to a new building back across the highway toward the language school, but for now we were still all crammed together in the original location, so the assemblies usually required a tight squeeze. About halfway through the session, the howling kicked in. Not too long after this, the neighborhood dogs started up, as well. There were a few newbies among us, but most of us recognized the signs and knew what was coming. Except this one was stronger than usual, to the point that even some of us old hands were shaken (no pun intended).

So were the teachers. One in particular: Miss Caroline. Fairly large, blonde woman. Quite friendly; also, apparently, a bit high-strung. The past is a mosaic of singular moments, images frozen in time that stay with us throughout our lives. On that day, Miss Caroline became one of mine. It very quickly became obvious that the adults in the room were far higher up the freak-out scale than were the children. As the building turned into a bouncy castle, Miss Caroline bounded into the center of the juvenile sardines, lifted both hands over her head, and began to belt out a quavering rendition of “God Is So Good.” Absolutely surreal. Rumbling, vibrating walls, clattering glass, whimpering kids, and a portly, middle-aged woman in the middle of it all, singing to beat the band.

I can hear her voice; I can see her face. Like it was all happening right now. I still can’t sing or hear that song without suddenly becoming a faintly oscillating third-grader, sitting on the floor of that hall, surrounded by missonary kids, acutely aware even then of the weirdness of the situation. The impressions left by the quake-cito have long since fallen away, lost in the shadows of past experience, but Miss Caroline is with me still. It’s like my own version of David Copperfield’s vision: “one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all.” One face, belting its song, standing like a crazed beacon in the midst of minor chaos, “pointing upward!”