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Ashes to Ashes or How I Learned to Love the Volcano

by Lila Allen

May 9,2010

On April 15th, millions of men and women rode to work, fiddled with laptops and i-Pods and buttons and gizmos, customizing their daily lives to the indulgences of momentary whims. Simultaneously, millions of other men and women paced, fiddled with watches and cell phones and buttons and gizmos, comprehending more by the minute how uncustomizable their lives were when matched with the power of unruly elements. For nearly a week, air traffic and world commerce faced major blockage when Eyjafjallajokull—the now-legendary unpronounceable volcano on the seemingly unassuming island of Iceland—erupted, spewing millions of metric tons of volcanic ash skywards in a nine-kilometer-high river of dust that serpentined relentlessly through continental Europe.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph responding to the eruption, Icelandic president Olafur Grimsson stated, “In modern societies like Britain and Europe, there has been a disengagement between people and nature. There has been a belief that the forces of nature can't impact the functioning of technologically advanced societies. But in Iceland we learn from childhood that forces of nature are stronger than ourselves and they remind us who are the masters of the universe.” Grimsson nails it: this eruption wasn't merely a nuisance—it was a humbling reminder of our relative impotence in the face of natural disaster.

The green movement has attempted to rein in this first-world hubris, reminding its followers that they live at the mercy of the earth, and that maintaining a sustainable and environmentally-conscious lifestyle is a local decision that contributes to a global well-being. The earth is not only something to respect; it is also something to fear, as it determines day to day whether we travel, work, play, even breathe or have access to food and water.

But the public wants someone to blame: somebody, somewhere, must be accountable for the time, energy, and billions of dollars lost. Airlines and governments have defended themselves against the temporary lapses in transport and trade by claiming that the eruption and resulting impenetrable ash cloud were “acts of God,” legal jargon that excludes any and all parties from financial culpability.

I recently wrestled with a more personal act of God in learning of the unexpected death of my friend and colleague Michael Godfrey, curator of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. I had been with him just three nights prior to his death, working my late-night Friday shift in Visitor Services. He drank wine and carried on in typical vivacious Michael fashion in the museum lobby, his hair a charming messy mop atop a gray suit and crossed legs. Two days later, Michael came down with what appeared to be a bout of pneumonia, and just one day after that, Michael passed away.

The things we leave behind say volumes about our existence on earth. In Michael's case, left behind were a wide and varied group of admirers, an impeccably designed curatorial layout, and a gap in the Bechtler that will be nearly impossible to fill. More materially, what was left behind was an office entirely intact: a jacket thrown across the back of a swivel chair, a set of reading glasses, a pile of unfinished research, even a bottle of Boylan's black cherry soda only halfway gone.

Faced with the death of a loved one, it’s common to search for the signposts that something was amiss. It would be convenient, after all, to have a concrete source to blame. And maybe we need it; maybe breaking down grief into digestible, rational bits keeps us from suffocating under the heavy weight of incomprehension. But undoubtedly, the incomprehensible will resurface—maybe a month, maybe years down the line. The question I ask is: what do we learn in our suffering?

Life is not always a logical progression of complete sentences. Sometimes, acts of God will stop us mid-thought, mid-soda, mid-voyage. There will be unfinished business and unanswered questions. But in the face of these unsettling events, we can only continue to live the best that we can; there are some things to which we can only react. Ultimately, the ash cloud dissipates into the ether, and all, once again, is clear. The visibility may be temporary, but this time around, we'll appreciate the blue sky that much more.

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