Conor Sweetman

Separation Atlas

Conor Sweetman
Separation Atlas


I lay in bed recently meditating on the world map tacked to my bedroom wall. I imagined the ragged pieces of seven continents drifting, as if the film of the ages were reversed, back into the vast monolith that was Pangea: South America slipping under Africa’s arm, her should in his armpit; North America and Europe joining hands; Australia and Antarctica forsaking their parallels; the archipelagos banding together and all the prodigal islands coming home to stay. The oceans would desegregate and merge into one giant emerald pool. Inland beaches would abound. Travel routes would contract like the bellows of an accordion, while people of the most variant dialects crossed land bridges to learn one another’s songs.

Or so I pictured it.


When my father moved out of our house, at first I didn’t know it. He was folding clothes into a turquoise suitcase when I, age five, came into my parents’ bedroom and asked why. He spoke gently enough. He said he was spending the night with friends, which I took to mean that even grown-ups have sleepovers. In truth my parents’ marriage was failing, and it wasn’t until my younger brother Gabe and I started visiting our dad in other peoples’ homes that I woke to that fact. I recall the strangeness of seeing his few possessions—flannel shirts, a Bible—resettled in a room all his own, like refugees displaced by natural disaster.

Divorce is a natural disaster to a five-year-old with about as much control over those who conceived him as over an earthquake. I don’t know what’s wrong with your mother, my dad said one morning while driving me to school. Their love contained a quiet tension that wouldn't slacken. A brittleness deeper than mood. When later my dad apologized for letting his anger get the better of him, for speaking ill of my mom and involving me in their dispute, I had no doubt he was sorry. I forgave him because he was my dad, and because that’s what you do when you’re a kid out to keep the peace. You forgive your father his anger. And when he storms from the house again one night after your parents argue, you find your mom on the couch and brush the dirty tears from her cheeks, your kid-solution to her grown-up grief.


When Pangea split, it broke into two enormous landmasses—Laurasia to the north and Gondwanaland to the south—before subdividing further. During a breakup, it’s the lithosphere that moves, a dozen or so plates consisting of the earth’s crust and the upper mantle. These shift and jostle, creating earthquakes, mountain ranges, ocean trenches, continents.

The first great rift occurred between what is now North America and Africa. Laurasia drifted northward, rotating clockwise, while Gondwana eventually splintered into four pieces, forming the South Indian and South Atlantic oceans. India broke with Madagascar. North America and Greenland separated from Eurasia before calling it quits themselves. Down under, Antarctica and Australia followed suit.



Once at my aunt Carol’s I saw a home movie, a grainy fragment from the mid-seventies of my parents as newlyweds, in the Ozarks, walking the 20 feet from the back of our family’s lake house to their car. They looked each other in the eyes, he with his walrus mustache, she thin as ribbon. My dad made some offhand remark; both of them grinned. They may have been holding hands. Reaching the car, they split to climb in.

I must have been twelve or thirteen when I saw the footage, and I was transfixed by the image of my parents together, faces aglow, strolling through a world that predated me. They seemed destined for happiness that bright day in the mid-seventies, destined to drive off into marital bliss. And if I’d been alone, I would have replayed that segment over and over, until the tape broke or the whirring cadence of the projection reel lulled me to sleep.



Each rift was painstakingly slow. (Tectonic drift occurs at the pace human fingernails grow.) If we were alive back then, would we have noticed the widening gaps? We don’t notice them now. The breakup of Pangea continues to this day, in the East Africa Rift and elsewhere. It is a game of inches. While we work and while we sleep, plates are pulling apart like leaves of a dining room table. Any day now, the earth could crack again.

Maybe it’s simply the way of the world. Maybe separation is inevitable and we are all following Pangea’s lead. Each newborn learns that lesson first: the severing of the umbilical cord, that isthmus of placenta. Infants are nursed for a time so they might finally be weaned. Attachment is mostly a precursor to detachment, independence, secession. Maybe this world is a centrifuge and we are all unwitting victims of its centrifugal force. Kids grow up and move away. Friends drift apart. Marriages disintegrate as once young lovers scatter to grow old with someone else, each couple a new diaspora. There are so many fault lines—so many Don’t-worry-kids-this-is-not-your-fault lines. The trouble is you often don’t see the rift until it’s too late. Even Genesis tells the story: Adam blaming Eve, Eve blaming the serpent, communion giving way to contempt. Catastrophe. The first couple banished from their first home and all creation reeling. Did Pangea begin to split then and there? If the story is true, those two must have wept for their loss. But was there really any alternative? Maybe paradise was a setup. Maybe the world was meant to break apart.


For me theodicy is just a word for I don't know what to think. I grew up in a small, charismatic church and was taught for years what my intuition still generally affirms, that God is real and attentive to every creature, not unmoved by our grief, and very resourceful, capable of anything. I still believe—am trying to believe—that divinity may one day assert itself in history as the Christian scriptures suggest: dramatically and finally wiping the tears from human faces and all reason for tears from our earth.

Lying in bed, the room's white walls become projection screens, a little home theater of the imagination, in which the flickering future looks even grainier than the past. I see beings amassed in some kind of pavilion beneath a turquoise sky, bodies facing other bodies, bowing very low then grasping forearms like a link in a chain. After a time each releases and turns to another, a silent choreography that repeats for days without ever getting old. It is conceivable that there exists a place where power will perfectly fuse with humility, where contrition will shed its disfiguring shame. A place where tears of grief will give way to tears of a fundamentally different sort. (Jesus of Nazareth: If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?)

But until then God is unpredictable, as likely to allow calamity as to work a miracle. And when it comes down to particulars, who of us knows what to expect?

I only know what I want.

I want a new-again world like I wanted a new-again family when I was a kid. Which is to say I want it more than anything else.



Slivers of the past break the surface of memory: My parents lolling in bed together on a Saturday morning with a four-year-old me between them/the three of us in our navy blue Chevy Malibu, driving in the dark one night before my brother is born. At some moment unknown to me, my dad stopped wanting this—the domesticity/my mother. Between my parents the tension grew over months/years, until in one shear motion he vacated our home. I remember my dad and me eating dinner at the kitchen table and my mom at the sink with her back turned/a thick silence broken by my dad’s quavering anger. Stop pushing your food around and eat. I see my mom weeping on the couch, her face cracked like an eggshell, despair leaking out.

I could take the atlas off the wall and cut out the land. I could trace the boundaries with my scissors, trim the fat off the continents, hoping to make each a contiguous puzzle piece. I could try forcing them to fit precisely as they once did, and it wouldn’t work. Too much has changed. Coastlands have eroded/melted into the sea. Geography has distorted beyond repair. Pangea, God bless it, is not salvageable. As with so much in this world.

Take heed, O Lord, of our natural disasters. Notice and come down.

By Isaac Anderson
Writer & Professor 

Published at Image Journal, LA Review of Books & The Atlantic