How do we communicate loss? What remains after catastrophe, whether the broad reach of the natural disaster or the deep one of a broken relationship? This week I’ve reflected on two somewhat related experiences: a couple of visits to the Museum of Broken Relationships and the online responses to Cascadia’s predicted “Big One.”
The New Yorker’s “deathquakenami” article this week did not bring much new to the table: most people living in the Pacific Northwest have heard the science, and, as The Stranger’s description of Coll Thrush and Ruth Ludwin’s work attests, the region’s cycles of natural disaster were indigenous knowledge long before. But the article told a story that those who don’t have access to or don’t connect with either of these sources paid attention to. Its evocative imagery made catastrophe tangible through descriptions like the following, in the future tense, with no conditional added:
When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. . . . The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable.
This concrete conjuring of future disaster is not simply based in the imagination, however, but also in the stories of such calamities past told both by elders and by geological formations.
In contrast to the massive scale of destruction represented in the article, more individual ways of evoking loss are on display at the Museum of Broken Relationships, where I spent some time this past week. Having started as a traveling exhibit based on its two creators’ breakup, the museum’s collection is now located in Zagreb’s historic old town alongside the Croatian History Museum and the Zagreb City Museum. The museum was well enough attended that I often had to wait in line to read the narratives that accompany the artifacts, all of which are written by the people who donated them. A collection of personal memorabilia contributed by those who wish part of their personal stories of loss to be exhibited, the museum houses a small percentage of the otherwise large archive of some 2400 objects donated by people from around the world. The exhibit therefore provides a thematically organized but also less overwhelming taste of the many kinds of “broken relationships” attested to in its collection as a whole, with a range of objects representing one-day flirtations, thirty-year marriages, deceased parents, alienated children, relationships begun on vacation and relationships begun during war, heart-rending descriptions of abuse, and light descriptions of creative and playful expressions of loves that were. The three-dimensionality of the objects produces part of their effects: one could reach out and touch the child pedal-car one ex-love gave to another or the high-heel a dominatrix prostitute gave to a client she’d previously known as a child, although the signs on the wall say that touching is prohibited. This dimentionality is important, as the current museum projects that use 3D printing to render and enable interaction acknowledge. It is part of what makes visiting a museum different than reading a coffee-table book or visiting a website. But it was the first-person narratives that I found most compelling. Within the room titled “Coming of Age,” for example, there were both the story of a 12-year old escaping Sarajevo under fire in 1992 that accompanied a letter he’d written to his crush but not been able to give to her and the story of a 40-year old’s romantic “coming of age” only happening later in life with a woman who gave him the child’s pedal car he’d always wanted as a child. These stories enable the “brokenness” of the relationships to figuratively extend to other kinds of experiences, whether the breaking up of a country or the temporary fulfillment of desires never realized.
As a whole, the collection also reminds of the transience within life, and of life. This is part of why the New Yorker article has produced such a widespread response, I would venture. The end of a relationships is also its death, regardless of how it may continue haunting those who’d lived it. And we’ll all die, whether in a dramatic full-margin rupture that takes out Cascadia or in a less apocalyptic way. As Lynne Elkins’ recent post at The Toast reminds us:
Everything on Earth is always moving: air currents move across the surface and up and down and in spinning eddies; water flows in the oceans and across the surfaces of continents; lava trickles through the crust and erupts; the rocks in the crust deform and grind against each other and break; thousands of miles of solid rock flow like slow, crushing silly putty in the mantle; the outer core of molten metal spins and eddies; and the solid metal inner core spins in place. It is all in motion, and it is happening on a spinning ball, in a system full of huge rocks hurtling through space around a enormous, unpredictable fusion reactor, all within a moving, spinning galaxy.