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.