The Latitude of Fear, The Longitude of Love


Sociologists may enjoy debating whether we’ve become “just numbers”, but it’s impossible to avoid numbers in our lives.  Everyone has numbers that are important to them.  We have social security numbers, drivers’ license numbers, telephone numbers, security gate codes and padlock combinations. We have access numbers for telephone banking and ID numbers for online purchases.

Whether we like it or not, we have to keep track of serial numbers, registration numbers and credit card numbers.  We memorize them and use software programs to track them. If we’re old-fashioned enough, we write them down on slips of paper and tuck them away into cubbyholes and drawers for days when memory fails.  If we’re particularly obsessive or forgetful, we may even keep lists of important numbers in safe deposit boxes. One of my own friends makes a trip to her bank on the first business day of every month to pull out her “number list” and check it over, just to be sure things are in order.

For people who live in certain parts of the country, another pair of numbers is equally important. In fact, they’re so important and so often used they don’t need to be written down, tucked away or loaded into a computer. They’ve been burned into our hearts and minds by life itself.  My own special numbers are 29.5444 and 95.0666, known familiarly as 29N and 95W.  They are, of course, my latitude and longitude. My place in the world not only has a name, it can be reduced to a pair of coordinates. It’s an accurate way to locate me on a map and, when the storms arrive, a quick way to predict my chances of getting wiped off that very same map.

During Hurricane Season, latitude and longitude reign supreme on the Gulf Coast.  From the time a depression forms in the Atlantic or Carribean, the numbers begin to lurk, just at the edge of consciousness. If a storm scoots through the Yucatan channel and heads across the Bay of Campeche, shoppers are talking latitude and longitude in the lines at Target. Drivers carry on cryptic conversations at the gas pumps: “Has it crossed 25 yet?”  “No, I heard it’s still hanging in at 22”.  In the cafes around the marinas, boaters’ gossip is faintly anxious: “Did Cyrean head up-island yet?” “Nope. They’re staying put below 15 until after the season.”

As storms form and re-form, wobbling or surging their way through tropical waters, latitude and longitude take on the feel of ancient incanatations, mysterious, trusted charms whose endless recitation somehow can influence  a force of nature. The response is totally irrational and completely understandable. Watching a tropical storm or hurricane creep across the Gulf toward 29N, latitude becomes more than a number. It becomes the boundary for fear itself.   Once you’ve lived through the winds and watched the water rise, when your own experience has proven your place in the world can be completely obliterated in an hour, or two, or three, the latitude called fear becomes as real as the monster spinning into life over the water, and people can live at that latitude for years.

Months after Katrina and Rita devastated the northern Gulf Coast, I spent some time in Louisiana and Mississippi. On my second trip to Bay St. Louis, I met a little girl and her mother down at the shore. The girl, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, stood barefooted at the water’s edge in a green and white checked dress.  Her hands circled her head like a ballerina’s.  “Does she dance?” I asked. “No,” her mother said, “not any more. She used to. But since the storm, she’ll only put out her arms, or hold them up above her head. She says she’s afraid to dance because she doesn’t want the water to come when she isn’t looking.”

None of us wants those waters to surprise us, and so we look: obsessively, compulsively, unable to turn our eyes from the chaos swirling just beyond the horizon.  While Gustav was on the prowl, poor Louisiana began to prepare while Florida breathed a sigh of relief and Texas began to twitch with nervousness. Today, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are experiencing the same emotions. Whether a storm arrives on your doorstep, devastating everything in its path, or goes elsewhere to wreak havoc in a stranger’s neighborhood, there’s no escaping the watching and waiting, with its attendant anxiety and fear.

In the midst of the watching and waiting, there’s no way to avoid the basic question: do we stay, or do we go?  Sometimes the decision is made purely on the basis of fear.   Some people flee because they never have experienced a storm, and they fear the unknown.  Others, more experienced, run to avoid being pummeled by another hurricane’s wrath.  Sometimes anxiety leads people to provision as best they can and hunker down, staying to protect property they fear would be lost in their absence to water, wind or looters.

But more often than we imagine, decisions in the face of a coming storm are influenced by love.   Some stay because they love the land.   Along the coastlines, communities exist whose people know their land more intimately than many of us know our children or our spouse. Attuned to its rhythms, they recognize its voice and are bound to it by ties so unspeakably strong they would willingly die in its arms rather than turn away and leave.  Some stay because they love their community, the people they’ve grown up with and a heritage they’re determined to preserve.  Others stay because their work requires them to be steadfast and present.  Their commitment, too, is a form of love.

On the other hand, there are people who decide to leave because of love.   They love their aging parents, their children or their disabled relatives too much to subject them to a storm or its aftermath.  Others respond to the loving pleas of far-off family members,  or realize in a fit of clear-eyed understanding that their love for life itself will not allow them to risk that life in a confrontation with a raging storm.

If fear is the latitude that crosses the storms of life, love is its longitude, a line running as deeply through our lives as the worst of human fears.  In the face of a storm, those who leave and those who stay differ only in their final decision. They are equally courageous, their courage found at that intersection of love and fear where questions are asked and answered: what do I do, now?  What will I do, then?  Will there be something left, or will the water come when we’re not looking, and wash our lives away?

At this moment, asking the questions is sufficient.  The next moment will be time enough to begin the decision-making process anew, or cope with what has been. Just now, the air is cooling, a breeze is stirring and if you listen carefully you can hear the sound of life itself, washing onto shore.   A storm has gone; a new storm rises. And when that storm has passed, there will be another, and another, until the end of time.

But storms do end. As they pass, as the wind sighs into silence, as the water calms and debris begins to settle out along the shore, there is a moment of perfect peace, a gift from an exhausted world to its storm-battered creatures.  In that perfect moment the music of life, full of love and courage, trills like a seabird taking flight.  As the clouds part and stars shine, somewhere on the storm-scoured coast someone walks to the water’s edge with a child’s heart: newly courageous, newly determined, perfectly poised at the intersection of love and fear to encircle the world with her arms.

It is the time and place to dance.



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17 thoughts on “The Latitude of Fear, The Longitude of Love

  1. Another beautifully crafted post, Linda.

    As a California girl, I’ve experienced many an earthquake, but never, ever a storm the likes of your hurricane. Around these parts, a little rain storm is big news.

    Good morning, Tee,

    I’ve had only a taste of an earthquake – just a little roll, rather than a real shake – but have pondered the one advantage I see in them: they’re over so quickly. You have to be prepared, for sure, but there aren’t the days and days of watching and waiting.

    On the other hand, your little rain is our little snow. I can remember when the northerners first began to move into Houston. Folks from places like Michigan would crowd downtown glass-enclosed crossovers between buildings to watch Texans drive into each other with only a few flakes falling and sticking to the roads. You would have though a blizzard had arrived!

    Thanks so much for the visit, and the kind words.


  2. Hey Linda … up here at 34/78, coincidentally Cape Fear, there ‘shore’ ain’t much love for Mother Nature’s tree trimmers, shingle lifters and sand movers. Thankfully, its lookin like
    ‘hard-hearted Hanna ain’t gonna vamp Savannah or us folks
    in the Northernmost reach of the Low Country, but I’m sure
    not likin the looks of ‘Ike.’

    Morning, Matt,

    Well, just a little peek at the current track and it looks like you may get a taste of Hannah after all. Stay safe! At least it looks like the Low Country will get one on the low end of the scale. You’re right that Ike is a different sort of beast, and bears watching.

    Thanks so much for the visit – get ready for a little light hunkering!


  3. You write personal and beautiful. It must be difficult to face the emotions of risking one’s home over and over again.

    Hi, Desiree,

    It is hard, but you learn how to do it. The other phrase you hear around hurricane country quite a bit is, “Well, here we go again”. It’s a little like getting ready for Christmas – you pull what you need out of the closet, put up the plywood instead of a tree, and get ready to enjoy those special foods.
    Peanut butter, anyone? Or perhaps a nice energy bar? I suppose that the routine and the familiarity is what makes it possible to write about it at all – it’s like writing about a member of the family!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!


  4. I have too much to write about this post.

    I’ve lived through several of these storms. You captured how a community begins to self sooth and release some of the tension by chatting (often with strangers) at gas pumps and in line at Target. That’s exactly how it happens.

    I enjoyed your set-up or approach to this piece by way of using a simple and familiar thing like numbers.

    Hanna is coming our way, but will have lost most of her punch by the time she reaches our “numbers” on the map. I will think of you today as I do a few things to prepare – just in case. I enjoyed this piece very much. Thank you.

    Hi, Bella,

    Many thanks for the visit, and for the comments. I enjoyed your description of your “place” last night, but didn’t comment as I was too tired by the time I got there, but I’ll be back this weekend.

    One of the things about those Target-and-gas-station converations is how clearly they indicate one of the best aspects of the storms – there are no strangers. Facing a common fear seems to release a sense of common humanity, and I swear that’s part of the reason so many people find the less-powerful tropical systems attractive. They provide that sense of community without the risk of truly awful devastation. If only we could find ways to develop that same communal sense out of the occurances of daily life!

    Prepare well, and stay safe. Some of my own family in Virginia may get to experience their first taste of tropical trouble – and from the looks of things, there’s even a chance the rain from Hannah will truck across to a friend in England. We’ll see.


  5. Linda, of your work that I have read so far, this is the best! I have been thinking about posting on fear and love, and how they affect me as a voice hearer, I think I will link to this post if you don’t mind in the context as it is so well put!!!

    Thanks for being you!

  6. Thank you for the insight into the hearts and minds of those who choose to stay.

    Though I can now understand their motivations better I still have the following, perhaps harsh, opinion. I would never gamble my life when it wasn’t necessary. If I evacuated and returned I could be of help. If I gambled and lost I could be of no help and in fact would just be a needless gruesome burden for the living.

    Hi, LowerCal,

    I take your point, and have no real disagreement. The only thing I’ve noticed is that there can be worlds and worlds of difference between someone who’s just purchased a beach condo and thinks it would be, like, WAY cool to throw a hurricane party, and someone who’s been raised in an area, weathered storms his or her whole life and knows generally how to survive in extreme circumstances.
    You’d never confuse most residents of Lafourche or Terrebonne Parishes in Louisiana with the folks driving their Audis and BMWs into flooded Houston freeway underpasses because (absolutely accurate quotation): “Oh, Dude! MAN! That’s WATER!”

    As always, a pleasure. Hope I don’t have any Ike stories for you!


  7. Hi Linda,

    This was a great read on what goes on in the minds and hearts of those experiencing a hurricane. Having never been through one, I’d have to say at this point in my life, I would concur with LowerCal. I’d just get out. My life would be far more important than anything material – but that’s coming from a person who has never experienced one and never wants too!! LOL

    But I would imagine folks say that about me living here in earthquake country. “It’s perfect, except for the earthquakes,” I’ve heard a few comment.

    Like you mentioned, we don’t have the anticipation of knowing it’s coming, but we do all the same kind of talking afterward. Where were you when it hit, did you feel it, what did you do, did you have damage?

    I will always remember a morning in 1987 (Whittier earthquake?) when a rather large one hit right after I put my kindergarten daughter on the school bus. My older daughter, who was in middle school and hadn’t left for school yet, and I ran out side. When the shaking stopped, I ventured inside and called to school to make sure that my K daughter had arrived OK. She had, and it ends up that they never even felt it on the bus.

    I walked my ‘more mature’ middle school daughter to the bus that day, at her request, and all the kids were busily chatting about the earthquake. I noticed that a few of the kids that were home alone, because their parents had already left for work, most especially wanted to talk to me.

    I’m sure they were releasing their fears, and I was so glad I was there.

    So, while you know a hurricane is coming, you do your talking before hand, after an earthquake is when all our conversations start!!

    Good read.

  8. Where to begin? Every part of the blog resonated, from the hurricanes (been through two of them, up close and too personal), to the latitude and longitude ID (love that) to the part about love and leaving and staying. Sigh.

    Glad you weathered the storms!
    Just back from a Florida getaway that we nearly postponed but as luck would have it, we had four days of absolute blissfully blue skies. And easy beach. And wonderful people.

    Hi, oh,

    Well, we weathered Gustav, but I don’t believe we’ve done so well with Ike. As I noted to Gentledove, we’re evacuated, and its going to take a while to sort this all out. I’ve been looking at the piles of boats stacked on top of one another, thinking. “Hmmmm… Don’t believe varnish is their first priority!”
    And of course we have no idea what our homes are like, and I can’t take Mom back into an area with no power for air conditioning. So, it’s up to Missouri for us! Then, I’ll return home and see what I can do to start putting life back together.

    Thanks for your comments. Reponding to them is a first, tiny step toward letting go of the fixation on the disaster, and moving back toward life. We have today to get through first ( just lost our power for the first time from Ike, who is approaching from the south) and then we can begin again.


  9. Linda,

    I am praying with you through the storm. Please, please stay safe and let us know you’re okay when you are able to.


  10. Mighty America, and yet as vulnerable and helpless in the hands of providence as any developing nation.And yet the nation was born and reached her majority amidst struggle and hard toil.Whether Europeans like it or not our destiny is all bound up with yours, it makes good sense to always wish you well.

    Oh, Gentledove,

    How wonderful to hear from you. I’ve been needing to tend to my WordPress home, but simply no time amidst the realities of evacuation. I’m in East Texas now, in Tyler, and Ike is about to arrive here. I’ll keep up with my emails and such until we lose power. If you see any pics of Clear Lake, Nasa Rd I, Kemah or Seabrook, that is my home – now, pretty much devastated.

    I did receive a phone call from a friend in Wales this a.m. Her soon lives only a little distance from me, and when he’s able to get out and about he’ll go over and see how badly damaged my home is. I think I’ll take my Mum to her sisters in Kansas City, and then return home to deal with whatever awaits.

    Again, thank you so much. Another day or so, and then we’ll start the rebuilding process.


  11. Linda! I just picked up your message on my blog, then went to Becca’s to read what happened to you. We are thinking of you, hoping you and your Mom are OK and absolutely safe.

  12. I am hoping that as you wrote this before the storm hit, that your own beautiful words about renewal will fortify you through this difficult time. Best wishes to you and your family in the recovery process.

  13. Linda,

    My thoughts are with you and your Mom. Do stay safe. With the perseverance you’ve shown in your writing, I trust that you’ll ride this through.

    Eagerly awaiting the dance to resume…

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