Only hours after the passage of Hurricane Ike, every survivor left standing in the rubble understood that far more than houses had been leveled by the storm. The body of belief about what Ike would or would not do had been dismembered. Spirits scoured clean of emotion lay empty and desolate as Bolivar beaches. With possessions ravaged and dreams laid waste, incomprehension was rampant. Victims stared toward the horizon with thoughts as scattered and broken as the plywood debris fields that seemed to stretch into infinity.
Even at the time, there were victims willing to acknowledge that human factors played a role in the devastation. Pride kept boats at unsound moorings and families in homes that were certain to be inundated. Unfounded trust in a last-minute turn of the storm’s path led some to reject advice from wiser and more experienced folk to pack their cars and leave. Occasionally, simple recklessness chose to gamble on the final outcome, continuing to count cards of wind and surge as though pushing back from the table would be an option if the game seemed to be getting out of hand.
But in the end, as entire communities stood looking out across the stunning collage of broken boards, shattered lives and shards of memory, I heard not a word of anger or recrimination directed toward another human being. There was astonishment, stunned silence, wounded grief and despair at the depth and the breadth of loss. There was frustration and anxiety that could surge into panic at the slightest provocation. From time to time there were flashes of rage against the unfairness of life, the arbitrary nature of institutional decisions and the glacial slowness of response. But although it probably happened, I never saw one person rage directly against another. Viewing the carnage, everyone appeared to be in agreement: there may have been wrong decisions, inadequate preparation and less than helpful responses, but in the end it was nature which had done the damage. Before that overwhelming power, everyone was equal.
As days passed and the recovery process began, the same sense of equality seemed to permeate the air. In a country where race, class, gender and age, ethnicity and a certain geographic tribalism are only a few of the divisional icebergs floating through our societal sea, watching great chunks of prejudice melt and fall away is a riveting sight. At the Yacht Club where I spent my working days after the storm, the melting began early.
The first task people faced was undoing the unbelievable tangle of boats, docks, piers and debris that had been piled up by the water’s surge. Boat owners, club administrators, staff and workers were first on the scene, followed almost immediately by insurance adjusters, fiberglass specialists, divers, engineers, chain-saw wielding laborers, photographers and one German videographer for Deutsche Welle. When the barge captains and crane operators arrived, the work began in earnest. Boats were cut free from pilings, repaired at docks, raised from the bottom, pulled apart from one another and lifted onto trucks to be taken to boneyards or repair yards as needed.
As the crane operators and their crews went about their work, we watched what was becoming the equivalent to a weeks-long train wreck with utter fascination. As I said at the time, “I hope never to see anything like this again. On the other hand, since it’s happening, I’m going to look.” It was like watching microsurgery done with enormous machinery. The combination of delicacy and brute force was so compelling that when the hours of preparation were over and the cranes began to lift this boat or that, everything stopped. Black truck drivers from Dallas, white businessmen from Houston, Hispanic yard workers, carpenters, accountants, fashion designing girlfriends, aging sea captains and teenaged computer geeks – everyone stopped in their tracks to watch. As they did, all of the normal distinctions of life – class, education, race, role – simply disappeared. People chatted with another, laughed, poured another drink, held their breath and covered their eyes, gasping and sighing and hugging one another as the boats swung down onto truckbeds or water.
It took some time to realize what we had witnessed in those weeks was a liminal moment. Introduced by Van Gennep, and expanded upon by anthropologist Victor Turner, the concept of liminality refers to moments in time when old structures have broken down and new structures have yet to be built: a condition perfectly analogous to post-hurricane life. Sherry Turkle, author of Life on the Screen and one of the foremost apologists for cyber-life as indeterminate liminality, says that “historically, these times of change are the time of greatest cultural creativity; everything is infused with new meanings.” Exploring Turkle and her work for Wired Online, Pamela McCorduck adds that “liminal moments are times of tension, extreme reactions and great opportunity….(they) shimmer with new possibilities. They are painful, tough, full of hard choices – and they provoke anxiety. But they can be exhilarating.”
Hurricane recovery, of course, is as much about pain as possibility, and it certainly is marked by excruciatingly hard choices more often than thrills of exhilaration. Still, there are moments. Watching piles of debris disappear, hearing the call of a returning osprey, tasting a first hot, home-cooked meal or seeing wind-stripped trees begin to replenish their leaves – these are tokens of restoration and recovery. They bring relief, reassurance and peace. And then, if we are lucky, simple survival is transformed into creativity, and the exhilaration of building a new life.
It seems altogether reasonable to be thinking of post-hurricane life, Victor Turner and liminality as we move into the Season of Epiphany. When the Magi accepted Herod’s charge to seek out and bring word of the Christ Child, those three very wise men began a pilgrimage of astonishment, anxiety and deep uncertainty. Traveling unknown roads, they experienced the accepted verities of life slipping away, their comfortable assumptions and reasonable expectations disappearing into a darkness lit solely by the radiance of an unfamiliar star. Stepping at last across the threshold of history, they offered their gifts, held their breath, sighed and murmured among themselves and then turned toward home, traveling by yet another unfamiliar way.
Imagining their visit in the light of tradition, I can’t help but wonder: Were the nights so empty, the visitors so few? Or did our wise men discover the shepherds already chatting like old friends with Mary and Joseph? Surely the innskeepers and neighbors were gathered near the stable, gossiping and toasting the star which led new tourists to their town. No doubt a goatherd or two edged up to the crowd, flirting with the kitchen maids in hopes of a free meal. Children being children, they must have been hanging at the windows, just as the women would have edged toward the Magi, coveting their sumptuous silks.
Today the crowd has grown, humanity pressing in like watchers on a dock, fascinated to see the effects of divine power surging through human history, sweeping away every outworn certainty, every tired assumption about how life must be. Shepherds, kings and goatherds have been joined by teachers and doctors, rappers and refugees, CEOs, media critics, grocery store clerks, waitresses, construction workers, lawyers, farmers, poets, addicts and prisoners. Above the crowds laughing and sighing in the stable darkness, the unfamiliar star still shimmers its exhilarating light and unutterable joy floods across the plain. Touched by that light and washed by that joy, every unhappy reality of life becomes a little epiphany: a revelation that no matter how hard the season, no matter how destructive the storm, the equalities of sorrow always will be overcome by an equality of joy.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T.S.Eliot, The Journey of the Magi