I had a profound experience Sunday. My husband and I, and much of my family, were in Napa Valley for my cousin’s wedding. At 3:20 a.m., I was lying in bed awake, because the time change meant that my body considered it past my usual wake-up time of 6:00.

As I was lying there, I felt the earthquake hit. My husband woke up right away, and we lay there clutching each other. Neither one of us said a word.

By chance, I’d just had a conversation with my sister and brother-in-law about earthquakes — they live in Los Angeles so have experienced them before. My sister had told me that bed was a fairly safe place to be, and my brother-in-law had commented that the modern codes had done a lot to help buildings withstand earthquakes, and that information was reassuringly in the back of my mind as this was happening.

I could hear things falling over, glass breaking, furniture shaking, the bed moving. I sensed the moment when the power went off. (Later, when I asked my husband later how long he thought it had lasted, he said, “About two minutes”; in fact, it had lasted twenty seconds.)

The experience was so overwhelming and unfamiliar that I couldn’t think about anything except what was happening right in that room. I wasn’t even scared.

Later, when I was trying to put my finger on how I was feeling at that moment, I thought of a passage that has long haunted me, from Thomas Pynchon’s mysterious novel, Gravity’s Rainbow.

When something real is about to happen to you, you go toward it with a transparent surface parallel to your own front that hums and bisects both your ears, making eyes very alert. The light bends toward chalky blue. Your skin aches. At last: something real.

This quotation captures what I felt…it was so real, the direct experience of the tremendous powers of the earth. It was breathtaking. It was intensely real.

A few moments after the quaking stopped, I started to worry about my family (they’re all fine) and about the damage to the region, of course, but while it was happening — all I can say is that it felt so real.

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