Most people who live near the Gulf of Mexico, or in Florida, or along the coast of the Southeastern US understand they’re at risk for hurricanes. When one finally appears that’s big enough or damaging enough, it imprints itself on the collective memory for generations. I’ve listened to people talk about Carla, Camille, Alicia and Hugo as though they rolled through yesterday, and I’ve heard young people who weren’t alive for some of those storms tell stories as though they were the ones boarding up the house. Years from now, Ivan, Katrina, Rita, and Ike will continue to be remembered and rehearsed as living events by people who experienced them, or heard the tales so many times they slowly became their own.
One mark of these powerful storms is how quickly they turn the “haves” of the world into “have-nots”. It doesn’t matter whether your home is a two-room beach shack or an expensive bayfront beauty. It doesn’t matter whether the vehicle parked out front is a gorgeous Mercedes, a trusty old truck or a rusted-out Chevy. The storm doesn’t care. The storm is a magician, with cheap tricks up his sleeve: “Now you have it – and now you don’t.” The storm can dump a car into a marina or bury it in the sand as easily as it can wash away an entire community. The storm can make your second story disappear and leave your neighbor’s pearl necklace hanging on a tree. The storm doesn’t care.
People do care. No matter how little or how much we might have had before the storm, it isn’t easy to see it ripped away. After the shock and grief have ebbed, the anger begins to flow. “I’ve got a mitre saw”, the fellow says, before grimacing, “At least, I used to have one.” Once, he had, and now he has not. It’s a difficult transition.
The irony is that we live in a world of “haves” and “have-nots” every day of our lives. Sometimes, it takes a storm to wash that fact back to our doorstep, and make us remember. Decades ago, I lived for a year in Oakland, California. I lived in the Flats - a collection of neighborhoods known primarily for not being the Hills. In Oakland, one easy way to roughly distinguish haves and have-nots was that single question: Flats, or Hills?
It mattered then, and it matters now. This past summer, Place Matters, a national initiative of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ Health Policy Institute, met in Oakland to consider strategies for improving social conditions. In the process of evaulating progress in economic development, education, housing, land use, transportation and incarceration, the Alameda County Team continued to focus on closing the ten-year life expectancy gap between residents of the Oakland Flats and Oakland Hills.
“There are hot spots of death where life expectancy is literally on the order of a decade shorter than other parts of the county,” said Alameda County Health Director Dr. Anthony Iton. “That’s pretty astounding. That’s 10 years of life lost due to social conditions.”
In Houston’s 5th ward, in North Camden, New Jersey, in the mountains of Appalachia, in East St. Louis, in the colonias of deep South Texas, the small towns of the plains and the barrios of East LA, the same divisions run deep. Occasionally those divisions, threading through our society and world like hidden fault lines, crop up in unexpected places. When I began reading Becca’s fine Write on Wednesday prompt this week, I didn’t expect to be thinking about social and economic issues. But I did, when I came to this:
In the high school where I worked, we had a period of time each day known as “Silent Reading.” It happened about 10:30 a.m., right after morning announcements. Just after we heard results of the volleyball game, meeting time for National Honor Society, and were reminded to wear red and black for spirit day, the announcer says, “Now it’s time for Silent Reading.” The entire student body -all 2100 of them- including teachers, stops class and reads for 20 minutes.
When I read those words, it was as though I’d just received a message written in Urdu, or been transported into the middle of a Maori initiation rite. I was speechless, confronted by a world I barely recognized, a world only dimly remembered from my past. As I read and re-read the paragraph, questions came to mind: “Are you sure red and black aren’t gang colors?” “How do you get them to be quiet?” “An entire student body doing the same thing? The Warden can’t accomplish that at Huntsville.”
I wasn’t intending to be a smart-aleck. I was truly astonished, and puzzled by my reaction. Eventually, I concluded my astonishment was grounded in having discovered a group equivalent to literary “haves” – students and teachers working in a system where so much is taken for granted a Silent Reading period not only makes sense, but can be made to happen.
In fact, at the most basic level, we who “have” words at our disposal are surrounded by “have-nots”. The issue is literacy, and the inability of many people to participate fully in society because they are functionally illiterate. Reading the instructions on a bottle of medication, writing a grocery list, being able to send a note to a teacher, the act of voting – these are beyond the reach of far too many in our society. In the world at large, the problem is even greater, and scrolling through the list of nations’s literacy rates can be instructive.
Beyond literacy itself – the ability to read and write – there are attitudes toward language which are not universally shared. Every child isn’t taught from early years to use words to express needs, thoughts and emotions. And when a child - or an adult, for that matter – figures out that no matter how hard she tries, or which words he chooses, nothing is going to happen when words are spoken, it is the first step toward withdrawal, cynicism and free-floating anger toward a society that seems distant and cold. As Julia Cameron says, “Writing…brings clarity and passion to the art of living”, but the willingness and ability to communicate – to speak one’s word and have it heard – is necessary for survival.
Like all of you, I enjoy reading and I love to write. But there is a time to enter worlds made of words, and there is a time to set aside book or pen in order to take a clear-eyed look at the world in which we live. Those of us who are literary “haves”, those of us who live our lives awash in words and the worlds they convey, also are called to consider the plight of the “have-nots” – those unable to interpret the strange markings that surround them.
Writing on behalf of those who cannot read, speaking for those still fearful of letting their voice be heard and listening to those who express their hopes and aspirations in ways barely decipherable to the world around them - we may find this, too, is good for the soul.