Storms, Survival, and Stories

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou after  Hurricane Harvey

Matt Lanza, forecast meteorologist for Houston’s Cheniere Energy, shares responsibilities with Eric Berger for Space City Weather, a blog dedicated to providing the greater Houston area with what Matt and Eric like to call “accurate, hype-free forecasts.”

Before and during Hurricane Harvey, their blog and social media postings served as excellent sources of information, making a complex system understandable even as they refused to engage in histrionics.

Only after the hurricane’s departure did the toll of providing that information become clear. Writing for Space City Weather, Matt included these comments in a post titled “My Harvey Story”:

Weather models constantly indicated risks for 30, 40, or 50 inches of rain in high confidence fashion somewhere between Beaumont and Victoria. I couldn’t comprehend that amount of water in such a short time. How do you reconcile a patently absurd forecast with the reality that it’s probably going to verify?
We’d see messages from people wondering if they should just leave. I got emails from co-workers, worried about losing their homes on the coast near Port Aransas. What do you tell people? How do you express this?
As the event unfolded it got harder and harder to do. Seeing pictures of devastation, getting text messages from family who live nowhere near a bayou and still took water into their home, getting messages from friends who worried about water coming into their apartments, I came close to breaking down on Sunday morning, completely.
I’ve never felt so heartsick and helpless in my life. Disasters which had, for all my life to this point, been mostly impersonal, finally became real, raw, and very personal.

Matt and his wife Denise were fortunate. Their home didn’t flood, and their property losses were minimal. But for Matt, haunted by other, less tangible losses, the struggles continued:

Somewhere along the line [Hurricane] Gloria ignited a passion for meteorology… As I sit here 32 years later, I openly wonder if a rain-laden hurricane in Texas is what extinguishes it.
Do I still love weather? I guess so, but if we’re really being honest here, I don’t know right now. I honestly think I’m not going to be able to sleep now when it’s raining. There’s no rain gentle enough that will allow me to drift off to sleep in peace. Maybe that “fear” of rain will disappear with time… But I do wonder where my passion for weather goes from here.

And then, tucked into the middle of his reflective paragraphs, there is the simple statement: “I have survivor’s guilt.”

I understand Matt’s feelings. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, I produced a few blog entries, but the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words, disappeared. Ideas came to mind, but nothing seemed worth the sustained effort a coherent piece of writing requires.

Like the Lanzas, I had emerged from a terrible storm unbelievably blessed, with my home and business secure. Even the stray kitty I worried over had survived, and a camphor tree I’d planted lost hardly a leaf.

With my possessions intact, no permanent financial losses, and power restored, Hurricane Ike had left me essentially free of problems.

And that, in the end, became the problem.

Despite the sheetrock I knocked out, the supplies I furnished, and the contributions I made, every time I sat down to write, paralysis overtook me.

It seemed selfish to be sitting at a desk while only five miles away ice, water, and food were being handed out. There seemed no way to justify spending hours engrossed in reading and thought while others struggled to find showers or a job. What good could come, I wondered, from a story, an essay,  or a poem for people left with nothing but a tent, a cot and a void in their soul so deep it seemed impossible to fill?

The paralysis lingered.

In the end, it was a friend’s quite different experience that helped me untie the knots. Scheduled to be in New York City on September 11, 2001, he had remained at home because of a cancelled meeting. As he put it:

I never felt relief, or gratitude for having been unbelievably lucky.  I was consumed with guilt, feeling consigned to live forever in the shadow of those who died, unable to make amends.

As he later learned, his sense of isolation, numbness, and helplessness is common to people who escape a disaster which seriously affects others. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 are only one example. Train wrecks, building fires, robbery attempts, refinery explosions, mass murders, or natural disasters of every sort can trigger the same reaction. 

The arbitrary nature of such events makes survivors especially vulnerable to stunned disbelief and guilt. One house survives, while a neighbor’s does not.  A concertgoer survives, but his friends do not. Asking, “Why?” is natural, but there are no answers.

While survivor’s guilt isn’t identical to clinical depression, many of the same remedies are proposed by those familiar with the syndrome. They advise talking about the event, nurturing a sense of safety and stability, and returning to usual routines as soon as possible.

Challenging irrational thoughts is especially important, as is focusing on personal strengths, and taking action wherever possible.

After Ike, I heard that final piece of perfectly reasonable advice as a bit of an accusation. Having been raised to believe that actions speak louder than words, the aphorism’s truth appeared self-evident.

Words weren’t going to patch a roof, or feed a child.  Metaphors couldn’t produce ice or water, and cooking up pithy paragraphs certainly wouldn’t transform a single MRE into a gourmet meal. Similes don’t scrape sand off roads, and even the most well-written chapter rarely captures the chaos of utter destruction.

Entangled in these thoughts and exhausted by the struggle to escape their pull, I found release in the form of a quotation from the author Ingrid Bengis:

 Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.

Thinking more clearly than I had for days, I asked myself, “What can words do?” Somewhat astonished, I watched my list grow as I reminded myself that words can console and hearten; strengthen a spirit; clarify  vision, and enliven hope. When necessary, words challenge or confront, describing  realities we prefer to ignore with sharpness and clarity.

Words can sting a conscience, or soothe a heart.  Words help to create community in the midst of chaos.  Most importantly, words humanize, breaking down barriers that inevitably arise between the lucky and the unlucky, between victims and survivors.

Eventually, I heard a powerful plea on behalf of words from a true storm survivor: a man living in his truck and tent on a Galveston beach. Like others who chose that way of coping, he had his reasons. When I asked why he hadn’t gone to a shelter, he said,

“You’re never sure what you can do and what you can’t do.  And it’s depressing, being shoved into a place with a bunch of people you don’t know,  having to look at that mess all the time.”

Out here, I got the waves, and the moon and the stars are pretty, and there ain’t nobody to bother me. At night, it’s real peaceful. I just lay here, and kind of think. If I get real bored or lonesome or nervous, I tell myself stories.”

So it is. Despite our slightly naive trust in the permanence of our homes, our friends, our jobs, and our health, each of us lives as a sojourner: strangers in a strange land, creatures destined to be stripped by time and fate of youth, power, and pride as surely as natural events strip communities of structures and possessions.

When that time comes, we need words. We need stories to sketch a vision of the future, and poems to hold the scattered remnants of the past. We need blankets of words to wrap around cherished memories, and baskets of seed-words to sow for hope.

There always will be people convinced words don’t matter, just as there are people who believe writing is frivolous — rather like origami, or learning to make puff pastry.

But writers and storytellers, playwrights and poets know a deeper truth. Human beings are creatures of language, and crafters of words. Words give birth to our hopes and attend the death of our dreams. Words lead us through the mazes of life, and sanctify our struggles. When the world we know is destroyed, words help us reclaim our humanity, even as we rebuild our lives.

Words are a form of action, but they are far more than a tool, capable of producing change. They are a wellspring of life.

To speak, to write, to dare to utter a word in the shimmering, moonstruck darkness is human. And when the darkness is complete; when the moon has set and the stars have gone; when there is only the silence and waves of loneliness and grief, the world needs its writers, its wordsmiths, and its ordinary speakers to tell their stories — offering them as gifts for those whose own words have been silenced by the vicissitudes of life.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

114 thoughts on “Storms, Survival, and Stories

  1. I love the way you use words to inform and encourage. They are chosen carefully to cause the most impact. It is evident that you know the power of words. As the scriptures say, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Your words are always healing, soothing, and strengthening. Thank you.

    1. Oneta, I once had a professor who would march right up to us, get eye to eye while leaning over our desks and snarl,”Your words are beautiful. Your words are elegant. But are your words true?

      I don’t think any of us ever quite recovered from those encounters, and in the end it’s been a good thing. I think he’d be pleased by this piece, and I’m glad that it pleased you, too.

    1. I hope you do, eremophila. With your sensitivity and your listening skills, you must have a multitude of stories to tell from your travels. People are people, after all, and there’s great value in hearing how others approach and deal with life — or celebrate it, for all that.

  2. A deeply moving post. There are obviously thousands who may be suffering from survivors’ guilt after the storms and after Las Vegas. This essay should be distributed to all the newspaper editorial pages in Las Vegas, Houston, and any other city affected by the tragedies.
    I have been suffering from a different kind of guilt—grieving for a dog in the face of so many tragedies—thinking, “how dare I.” I have walked my way through it knowing that we suffer our personal private griefs, as well as a collective grief that takes us beyond our little world. The long-lasting effects of the Vietnam War, 9/11, come to mind.
    It is sometimes hard to sort and to separate what is ours to grieve. Compassion overload can be exhausting.
    If we are grateful for our blessings and do what we can to help others, with words, with actions, in whatever way we are gifted, that is the best we can do. Clearly one of your gifts (there are certainly others) is with words.

    1. You may be surprised — or not — to know that you and Taz came to mind as I was writing this.

      Rating or ranking griefs by body count or economic consequence is foolishness — though we’re constantly being enticed to do so. In an event like Harvey’s flooding, it isn’t a collective called “Houston” that suffered, but thousands of individuals. Taz was an individual, too, and deserves to be mourned. If she isn’t mourned by you and Ben — who will honor her memory?

      As for compassion overload, I suspect it’s partly a result of our overstimulated, socially networked society and a media that profits, financially and otherwise, from keeping us stirred up. While it may be emotionally satisfying to rant about events we can do nothing about, there’s always the risk that our preoccupation with sideshows will keep us from the kind of creative involvement you point to: helping others in whatever way we can. During Harvey, a lot of Texans remembered just how satisfying helping — and being helped — can be.

      1. Your reply really touched me. Thank you. The sadness I have felt for the loss of Taz has been so mixed up with all the sadness of others…but I have continued to own the grief and honor her as she deserves.

  3. It is hard to think about the people that have had to endure so much. I am fine and many of my neighbors are not, but so many have come together to help. I’m glad there are writers like you that can express what we are all feeling.

    1. I think for many this is the hardest time. There’s so much waiting to be done: for debris to be picked up, for adjusters to arrive, for checks to be written, for contractors to be found. Many people without resources are continuing to live in unlivable houses, and even those with insurance and support networks are having to struggle. Little by little, things will work out, but it isn’t going to be easy.

      I remember all too well the recovery process from tropical storm Allison. That was the year I discovered the true nature of flood waters, and what it means to have to cope with them. I’ve thought about that a good bit recently, and given my own share of thanks that I escaped this time.

      1. It is a slow process to get things worked out. We had epic flooding in our community and it has been difficult to see people’s lives on their lawn. Most in my area found living arrangements and some even put campers in their driveways. So many showed up to help others, that the streets were jammed with cars. There is a lot of goodness out there. I was only 50 yards from being flooded.

  4. There’s another way to look at this, Linda. To act and behave and be as normal, is a way to give those who have been victims (of any disaster or trauma, natural or man-made) the knowledge that if and when their lives return to any degree of normality, there are people to go back to. If everyone remained in a state of surivivor’s shock and did nothing, there would be nothing for those people to return to, there simply would be no normality, no comfort.

    I come from a family some of whom perished, some of whom survived, the holocaust during WW2. Those who survived, even those who were born – as was I – in much later times, inherited a sense of survivor guilt. There’s a saying ‘never forget’ amongst my people… to hopefully avoid it happening again (which of course, it has and continues to in other nations to people of all religions) unfortunately sometimes one has to let go of the worst of the memories and hand-me-down recollections, or proper living is impossible. And there’s not much point to living if we constantly carry the burdens of our own perceived helplessness.

    You’re right. Words are strength. Carry on writing.

    1. Your first paragraph resonates, Val. One of my most cherished memories of Tropical Storm Allison is what happened when I pulled out the good china in the midst of tearing out the interior of a flooded house. It was a restoration of normality — of civility — in the midst of filth and chaos, and it worked wonders. If you’d like, you can read about it here.

      As a side note, I’ve always felt that the best posts in a time of chaos or uncertainty are those which stand at a little distance, and focus a little differently. For example, choosing to photograph and write about the birds during the recent flood was my way of saying, “Look — there still is life here, and there will be more life to come.”

      As for the admonition to “never forget,” there’s no question it can be tricky. On the one hand, memory implies continuity and commitment, and an honoring of the past. On the other hand, it can become burdensome when it carries implied obligations and expectations. My own experience has been that, when I’ve been able to allow the emotion to drain from my worst life memories, I’ve been able to keep them as a part of my life without experiencing them as proofs of victimhood.

  5. Well done, Linda. I can identify with how hard it’s been to write about the ‘normal stuff’ in the wake of so much tragedy going on around us. You found the words to speak for many of us.

    1. Thanks, Jean. The point, for me, is not necessarily to write only about “normal stuff,” but to find a way to write about even extraordinary events in a way that makes them more accessible.

      I’ve always loved Lawrence Durrell’s contention that “only… in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side.” I might include some of the other arts, but the longer I write, the more I realize how difficult that endeavor is for any of us.

  6. Your words reminded me of the ending of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

    Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

    1. That’s a comparison I’ll accept, and gladly. “Ulysses” is one of those poems that I’ve come to appreciate more and more through my own increasing years. I’m sure a twenty-year-old could analyze it perfectly well, but this seventy-year-old reads it, and smiles.

      1. Surely you have a photo of the First Wednesday group. You could combine the poem and the photo and make copies for everyone — or have one of your tech-savvy kids or grandkids do it for you. From what you’ve said about the group, I think they’d enjoy it.

  7. A fine piece of writing as usual Linda. Much to think about too. Those of us who have not recently been engaged in Nature’s catastrophe find it hard to identify except by memory of their own trials. In our case, the California earthquakes. But our hearts go out to those in the throes of a disaster. There have been so many grand stories of compassion and help arriving from strangers, it is truly heartwarming. There are still some very good people out there.

    1. Earthquakes, yes — but fires, too. When I read about the grass fire in Oakland recently, I wondered if you were there for the great conflagration in 1991. Sometimes, the fantasies about California-as-Eden bump up against the realities of California-as-tinderbox.

      Still, in all of these instances there are stories of compassion, and aid — and even flashes of humor. Creativity abounds here since the hurricane: sailboat races have been re-routed, hummingbird feeders have been distributed by the hundreds to make up for the loss of flowers, and fishermen at the jetties are learning how to fish for the bass that were swept out of their lakes and into the Gulf. Eventually, things will straighten out, but until then — we’ll make do. Making do is second nature to our generations, but there are a lot of young’uns who are learning some very important lessons!

  8. Didn’t C.S. Lewis say “we read to know we are not alone”.

    This quote is well worth remembering every time disaster or despair enters your writing world.

    Beautifully written, Linda. While I don’t have your gift for writing, I’ve been able to uplift and help at least 3 people when the Black Dog of Depression comes to call, so I like to think that every little word counts.

    1. I’d heard someone else quote those words recently, and discovered something interesting: C.S.Lewis both said it, and didn’t say it. In William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands, written about the relationship between Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham, Nicholson puts the words into Lewis’s dialogue. Apparently over time the line from the play has been picked up and quoted as being from Lewis himself. That being said, it’s still an eminently quotable line.

      Every word certainly does count: especially thoughtful words. I’ve always loved Mark Twain’s response when asked for some writing advice. He said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

  9. Words have great power toward healing when written, spoken, heard, or read. Thank you for yours; I’m always moved by your writing and insight and appreciate your gifts.

    1. It occurs to me that the power of words is part of the reason parents rejoice at a child’s first word, or worry when speech is delayed. That first “mama” or “dada” — or, in the case of a friend’s grandchild, “apple” (!) — is a sign of humanity, and a token of things to come.

      Sometimes these pieces work well, and sometimes they leave me unsatisfied. This one seemed just right, and I’m glad you found it worthwhile, too.

  10. You are right, and you can, as they say, “take that to the bank.” What you so often do on this blog, BTW, is bring us “inside” the place you live and the places you visit in a wholly human, person-to-person way. I was reminded of something similar to this visiting Newburgh’s open studio days last weekend. Newburgh is a town with a lot of challenges, but many, many artists have migrated there to make it their home and are creating a vibrant community in a way that nothing but the arts can do. Forgive me if I’m repeating myself, for I can’t recall to whom I’ve said what lately (!), but one of the studio exhibits we saw was that of the Newburgh Community Photo Project, which engages young people ages 15-25 in learning documentary photography “around issues to encourage empathy and understanding among people who are different from one another to break down barriers and advocate for the rights of all residents to envision a future and participate in the political and economic progress of the City of Newburgh.” I spoke with a young woman who had photos in the exhibit, and she was utterly enthralled and engaged in the project. So were we.

    1. It’s always satisfying when a project takes off and engages its audience as much as its creators. It sounds as though that happened with the photo project, and that’s clearly a reason to celebrate.

      I smiled at your reference to artists “creating a vibrant community in a way nothing but the arts can do.” There sometimes is an implication that arts communities are “better” than other communities. I certainly don’t think that’s your intent, but your comment did remind me of one of the most amusing interviews I heard during Harvey.

      A local AM station opened up its lines for listener calls several times a day, and at one point a woman who lives in the Museum District and owns a small gallery there called in. She’d been rescued by boat, and I laughed out loud when she said, “I never thought I’d be so happy to see a redneck in one of those boats they pull up and down the freeways.” If the flood did nothing else, it broke down some barriers that existed between people who differ from one another. That was pretty darned enthralling, too — although we could have done without all that water.

      1. I love your story! You are right, I was not suggesting “better” in the least, but rather was struck on witnessing the commitment of these artists to their community how often their contributions are overlooked, or at least under-recognized.

  11. Words written, words sung, words shared, words hung
    out to dry, like crisp linen clipped to a line in a breeze.

    As the South struggles to dry out, your words surely will land in the hands
    of someone who will arise out of the dark to the light and un-clip
    the laundry from the line and fold it.

    1. What an apt and evocative metaphor. Coincidentally, a post that nearly was written still is languishing in my files. Its title? “Laundry and Life.” At this point, it may stay there until the next flood, but I think it’s interesting that in different ways we both thought of laundry. It’s probably a generational thing. I don’t know many thirty or even forty year olds who hanker for a clothesline, or who understand the pleasure of sun-dried life.

    1. Thank you, Sheryl. We all have gifts to share with others. Sometimes words come easily to me, and sometimes they don’t, but I’m glad you appreciate them, whatever form they take.

  12. Survivor’s Guilt, Yep, I’ve felt it. Over and over thru the years here on the Texas Coast. Hurricanes, floods, tornados, epic freezes… They have all affected me over the last 60+ years. And every time we manage to have little or no damage as the news tells of all of the heartbreak around the area, I feel that little bit of guilt.

    But I say a prayer of thanks and carry on… Thinking… Not my turn this time… Hopefully… Not next time either!

    1. It’s a strange phenomenon, isn’t it? And every event is different, evoking a different response. I still laugh when I remember Alicia. That was my first experience with a hurricane, and I wasn’t smart enough to be concerned. Since then, I’ve been more tolerant of people who are new to the area and don’t have a clue what these storms can bring. As for freezes — I certainly remember 1983. I was living near Kirby and Westheimer; the pipes burst, a courtyard flooded, and I went ice skating.

      “My turn” personally was Allison; businesswise, it was Ike. Both events taught me a lot about what you can and can’t do to prepare, and how to carry on after the fact. Beyond that, the story telling of people who went through storms like Carla were part of my education, too. We aren’t the only ones who’ve faced some bad ones.

  13. Linda, this is a truly remarkable piece. I forwarded it to some friends who are struggling to rebuild lives of children and families, but who were not impacted physically by the storm.

    Do you mind if I copy some of this for a newsletter I was considering sending out about why write? I will give you credit, of course, and link your blog post. From the depths of your heart, this rings loud and true. I hope the words I put around it will resonate as well.

    If you’d rather I not use any of the below, please know that’s fine too.

    Janet

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Janet, and thanks for passing on the piece. I hope your friends find something of value in it.

      I’ve thought it over, and decided that while I’d be happy for you to link to the piece, I’d rather you not excerpt from it — at least, not right now. A bit later, I may feel differently, and if I do, I’ll let you know. Since it’s not time-sensitive, letting a little time pass won’t hurt. Thanks for your understanding.

  14. Beautiful writing and you are proof that writing speaks to a deeper truth and that we are indeed creatures of language. If it weren’t for language, there would be no way to express feelings and emotions

    1. Language does open up opportunities, doesn’t it? Children certainly can express frustration, anger, or fear before the development of language, but once they begin to speak, experience becomes richer.

      I’ve always thought color was a perfect example. We begin with “blue,” for example, but then we learn that “blue” comes in turquoise, robin’s egg, navy, and so on. It’s the same with emotions. To say I’m angry is one thing — but I might also be miffed, irritated, incensed, or enraged. The richer our language, the richer our lives.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for such a lovely comment. I appreciate it.

  15. what a beautiful and well written post. This was an interesting topic too-I always feel so bad when others have tragedy. I feel a bit guilty when I am writing about birds and flowers when others are suffering-but truly words are powerful and healing-and it is what we both have to offer, at least one of the things.

    1. Thank you, Michelle. I understand your feelings about continuing reports from the Rabbit Patch in the midst of so much upheaval. But as Val said, up above, it’s important to remember the good in the midst of the bad. It not only offers comfort in the present, it gives us something to strive for. You certainly understand the power of even the simplest things, like a sunset, or the rise of Orion, and those things help us heal, too.

  16. Very well thought out and written, Linda. I think that, when crafted well, words hold great power both to those who hear or read them and to those who write them.

    1. Thank you, Terry. In a way, it’s like your experience with that rainbow you just posted. Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to stop and take a look behind, just to see what might be there.

  17. Hieroglyphics on a tomb wall; scratches on paper; marks on a screen. These symbols are the marks of our passage. You have wrapped your words around the heart of what it is to be human.

    1. I like the way you’ve enlarged the context, Sally. I only hope emoticons aren’t the next stage!
      Being human is a great gift, as is sharing our humanity. Words do help us to do that.

      1. Emojis/emoticons. Whatever. So limited in what they can express. No thought required. Just tap a button. Ah, well. Here’s to Word Lovers wherever they may be. :-)

        1. I suspect there never will be an emoji for “vicissitudes.” Or, for “susurration.” Or any of the other riches of language we possess. No matter. We can keep those big words alive.

    1. Thank you, Brig. To the degree that any of us can add beauty to the world, we ought to do so — or at least try.

      I hope all of your people are well, and not in any danger from the fires. It’s been a hard day for your state, and it’s not over yet.

  18. We are the only species on this planet that has words. They set us apart. Words are what make us Human. Words are the foundation on which all our other accomplishments stand.

    1. I think Dixie Rose is trying to take issue with you, but I explained to her that yowling for treats, while effective, doesn’t qualify as “speech.”

      I’ve had a sense for some time that our language is being systematically diminished and warped. I’m not sure what to do about that, since I don’t have a magic wand I could wave to make the changes I’d like to see. All I can do is use words to the best of my ability — for a whole variety of purposes, including really awful puns and occasional limericks.

  19. This is a beautiful, poignant piece, Linda. Like you, I went through a period where words left me. I started my blog to help me find them again after the earthquakes. Words may not dig ditches, or shift sand, but they are powerful tools to build/restore our well being, and being as well as possible is one of the best gifts we can give to our communities. I can no longer remember whether it was after the Sept 2010 quake or the Feb 2011 quake, but I do remember my amazement and relief that the newspaper was published and was delivered despite the disaster. The word! How good, how important, how reassuring that was.

    1. Your mention of the publication and delivery of the newspaper reminded me of an event that happened here after Hurricane Ike.

      Not far from me, there’s a house with a large lot and several trees. Every October, the people who lived there would hang dozens of plastic jack-o-lanterns from the trees. After Ike came ashore in mid-September, life was pretty much of a mess. But when October arrived, the jack-o-lanterns magically appeared, hanging from the battered trees.

      It’s impossible to overstate the effect on the community. Those hanging pumpkins were a profound symbol: a testament to survival and hope. In that sense, they were like your newspaper. It wasn’t only the words in your newspaper that counted. It also was the newspaper as object: tangible proof that the ordinary realities of life still could be had.

      Sometimes, words are good, but sometimes, as a certain book suggests, a word of hope can become incarnate and dwell among us: even as a newspaper, or a plastic pumpkin.

  20. Beautifully written, Linda. And important. Words are a valuable part of the healing process, maybe the most important, although a quiet hug and good cry are up there as well. Your piece made me think of the children, like the kids at Sandy Hook, and how we help them cope. I know that I turn to my journal when the need arises. Simply working things through with words for myself is a powerful tool. –Curt

    1. When things become confused or chaotic and events are difficult to sort out, all of us can fall into the trap of responding to our thoughts about what’s happening, rather than to reality. That’s when challenging irrational thoughts becomes critical, and your journal’s a good way to do that.

      As for the children, they need the same things big people need: establishment of some familiar routines, someone to listen, and honesty about what’s happened. If we have that, we’re already recovering.

  21. Lovely and comforting. Do you think the survivor’s guilt is a form of PTSD? I’ll have to look it up, but I think it’s related… hugs and love.

    1. I think they can be related, but aren’t necessarily identical.

      There’s no question that guilt for having survived can be a part of PTS. We have a well-regarded place here called Camp Hope that provides assistance to veterans who are having such difficulties. It’s residential, and includes peer-to-peer counseling. The director does plenty of interviews and a weekly radio program, so there’s a chance to learn about what is involved. It seems that many who survived while others around them did not do suffer a sense of guilt, especially if they bore some responsibility for those who died.

      On the other hand, other symptoms don’t necessarily involve guilt. Flashbacks are a good example. The first time I saw someone experience a flashback was in San Francisco, in the late 70s. A group of us had gone to Chinatown for dinner. It was the Chinese New Year, and when masses of little firecrackers started going off right outside our restaurant, one of the group — a Viet Nam vet — dove under the table and huddled there, weeping. It was quite an experience.

  22. As my late father used to say, There’s enough pain and misery in this old world for all of us.In the midst of the pain, there’s incredible beauty, like the post you’ve written here.

    We might all have been created equal, but we certainly don’t share the same gifts in the same measure. It takes a sensitive, thoughtful person to be able to make sense of the senseless, to sift the wheat from the chaff.

    Any kind of disaster — whether man-made or nature-made — has the power to disrupt our lives. The ability to find comfort through another outlet and to pass that solace on to others is a true gift — thank you, Linda, for sharing this today!

    1. Separating the wheat from the chaff is one issue. Being able to recognize which is wheat and which is chaff is something else. When you have people trying to pass off chaff as wheat, things get even more complicated. There seems to be a lot of that going around these days.

      But your father was right, Debbie. There will be disruptions enough in life for any of us. They may be as personal as a broken leg, or as widespread as a California wildfire, but they will be there. Despite what some young people seem to believe (or at least want to believe), there are no safe spaces in life, and they can’t be cosseted children forever. Growing up, taking responsibiilty, and learning to cope with what life has to offer can be quite satisfying — uncomfortable though the process may be.

      In the end, of course, we have the stories of that learning process as a kind of side benefit. There’s a reason survivors of every sort love to tell their tales. It’s a way of affirming, “If we got through that, we can get through anything.”

  23. Linda, the writing skills that you possess are embedded in profound meaning and I am always amazed at how you put those words to paper/screen. I feel lighter and lifted up after reading a piece such as this one. I have never had to deal with the losses that you describe but I feel heart sick for the people who lost so much including the lives of folks that were killed. I often think of the victims of tragedies and I am very grateful because I feel blessed to live where there is little chance of flooding. However, I have a healthy fear of the other kinds of storms that form in Texas and else where.

    Without a doubt there are many individuals suffering post traumatic stress disorder which in turn contributes to various health issues. Some folks can carry on and return to normalcy while others will have depression anxiety, heart problems and the list goes on.

    1. Sometimes I amaze myself, Yvonne. Words do seem to be my medium. On the other hand, put a drawing pencil or paintbrush in my hand, and I’m lost. I can create a recognizable tree, or a house, but that’s about the limit of my artistic ability. The good news is that we’re all gifted in many ways, so lack in one area doesn’t mean a lack in all. If words ever desert me, I’ll make dessert. I can whip out pies with terrific crusts like nobody’s business, and who doesn’t like pie? Eating pie always is better than having to eat our words!

      I’m with you when it comes to having a healthy fear of those “other” storms. Since it’s part of their nature to be unpredictable, they can be more difficult to deal with. But a bad experience with any kind of weather — even drought — can leave some lasting effects. Learning how to cope with them is the trick.

      1. I will stress again that I believe you have a God given taent for an incredible usage of words. Why you are not doing more with your ability to write continues to baffle me. Yes, I know, I know, what you have already said, that you are content with your blogs. I wish I knew the answer. And I am not joking.

    1. Dana, I enjoyed that poem even more today than I did then, and I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly when you wrote it. It’s too bad we can’t get vaccinated for vicissitudes; I’d be first in line.

      Still, it’s worked out pretty well for you and Dr. M. For one thing, you won’t have to travel so far for Thanksgiving dinner this year, and that walk to the table or walk around the block will be a lot easier. The good news is that the craziness really isn’t universal. There’s plenty, to be sure — but a lot of it can be avoided. Sometimes, avoidance is good.

  24. Sure, it is important to help, to volunteer, to lend a hand in times of need but with everything in life, from housework to careers, if we just do what we do, honestly and well, good comes from it and radiates into the world.

    1. That’s true enough, and good guidance for ordinary days. But when extraordinary challenges arise, it sometimes takes extraordinary effort to meet those challenges: effort that phrases like “lend a hand” don’t quite capture. The beauty of those times is that people who have been doing what they do, honestly and well, discover they’re capable of things they never would have imagined possible. That’s the positive side of the disaster coin, I suppose. The same events that bring disaster also can be transformative for those who are involved in meeting and overcoming them.

  25. We followed Matt and Eric throughout the Harvey days; it was such a relief to get the hurricane news without the hyperbole. I read his post-mortem as well, and I could easily imagine the stress he felt.

    On the other hand, I struggle to fully understand the concept of survivor’s guilt. My husband, many of our friends who did not suffer badly, and some outsiders expressed this vague feeling to me. Some, like my husband, threw himself into the physical labor of helping others for days and weeks afterward. Others just talked (endlessly at times) about how guilty they felt without doing a whole lot about it, from what I could tell. Of course, I felt compassion and sorrow for those affected, and I did “my part” (another concept I don’t like the sound of) to help. Some of us got lucky; others didn’t. It was horrible for them. Many of us tried to help. Sometimes we did, all in our own way. They felt depressed and we felt depressed for them. But guilt …? I just didn’t feel it as a survivor.

    I guess for most people, the fact that guilt can be both real and imagined is what spawns this feeling. We imagine that we caused others’ misfortune, or that our getting through something unscathed means there was some equal and opposite force at work causing others to get hurt. I just can’t get there, though, no matter how sad I feel for others.

    I do believe that both words and deeds can heal, no matter which side of Lady Luck we are on!

    1. I thought your comments about imagining that we cause others’ misfortune, or believing that our good luck necessarily means bad luck for others, were so interesting. I was going to say that I’ve never known anyone who thought in that way, but then I remembered a few sports fans I’ve known who always wear the same shirt or cap, and who believe that not doing so will bring about their team’s loss. That’s magical thinking at its finest, even if it’s just the sports gods they’re seeking to propitiate.

      Survivor’s guilt is real, but I do think the term is used to cover some very different realities.

      In some cases, the reasons for a feeling of guilt are obvious, as with rescuers during a flood who can’t hold on to a person, and have to watch them wash away to their death. Forecasters like Matt, who try their best to get our attention, sometimes fail to do so, and ask their guilt-tinged questions: what could I have done better? could I have been clearer? why didn’t some people listen?

      I never felt guilt for surviving Ike essentially unscathed, or for being almost completely untouched during Harvey. After Ike, particularly, the experience was more akin to hitting my thumb squarely with a hammer: first numbness, then pain, then relief that no real damage had been done, and finally getting back to work. It was then that the questions arose, and had to be dealt with: was it right for me to go on with my life, while others had been so damaged? I felt guilty for doing so, but eventually recognized that for what it was — inappropriate guilt — and life went on.

      I think that one of the most important tasks after an event like Harvey is figuring out what we are experiencing. Guilt, grief, numbness, relief, and shock can be so mixed up that we can’t begin to recover personally until we figure out which reality we’re dealing with.

  26. This is a fine piece, beautifully written.
    It’s good to pitch in, shoulder-to-shoulder, doing some of the dirty work, not thinking yourself too fancy to pick up a shovel and a broom. Apart from simply getting the cleanup done, it reinforces a feeling of comraderie, community spirit and solidarity.
    It’s also good to recognize the talents you possess, and the skills you’ve learned and practiced, and employ them for the greater good. Partly because our community has made an investment in us, and we want to repay all the folks who trusted we were paying attention and learning something in the schools and institutions they’ve supported all their lives.
    Most of us are capable of operating a shovel, and some of us may actually enjoy being handed a crowbar and allowed to blow off a little steam, channeling your inner Attila the Hun, in a good cause. But to be able to write well, is a rare thing, so writers, carpenters, brain surgeons, whatever, we’re all in the same boat, oh yeah, shipbuilders, too – the same rules apply – – do your best, and share the results.

    1. Your comment about using the talents and skills we possess reminded me that everyone can do that: even the youngest. One of my enduring memories from tropical storm Allison involves the first day of cleanup. The house had taken four feet of water, and that roiling water picked up the refrigerator, carried it toward the living room, and dumped it face down, where it proceeded to thaw everything in the freezer and mix milk, fruit juices, blood, and limp veggies with the water and mud.

      I was dealing with that when I heard a knock at the front door. When I turned around, there were three junior high girls from the local Baptist church. They were bringing bottled water, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and apples to every house in their neighborhood.

      As my old friend Varnish John liked to say, “You start where you can start, and do what you can do.” Those girls had learned that lesson, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better meal than the one they brought.

      I laughed at your reference to an inner Attila the Hun. It’s true — once you come to terms with the fact that further destruction is necessary before rebuilding can begin, there’s something pretty satisfying about swinging those hammers and crowbars.

  27. You have a real gift with words, Linda, and this is a fine example. I sometimes think that TV coverage of disasters has numbed us to the reality of the events. We sit in our comfortable chairs and listen to the unemotional commentary, we see the images from which we are detached. The broadcast feels as if it is on a permanent loop, with the same story re-told every fifteen minutes. It is only when you have been in the teeth of it personally, have some attachment to it, that you start to comprehend what it means to be caught up in a Hurricane, or the Las Vegas shooting.
    Writing like all creative Arts requires a quiet mind at peace with itself. Some might say that in the heat of the moment, passion can produce remarkable work, but I think it is when we are reflective that our creativity flourishes.

    1. What you say about the media feeding a sense of detachment is quite true. Another problem is that we’re constantly being fed information about events in every part of the world with no way to prioritize them. It’s hard to know what’s truly important, and what’s only filling up a bit of space in the 24/7 news cycle. It’s exhausting, to say the least.

      Even worse are the social media news feeds and the algorithms they use to determine what their subscribers might be interested in. From where I sit, that’s giving entirely too much power to people who don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart. I prefer to follow my own interests, which is just one more reason to stay off social media.

      I agree with what you say about creativity and productivity. And whether I’m telling a travel story or dealing with an event of some sort — like a hurricane — that period of reflection is critical. I’ve always said that writing is the easy part; it’s the thinking that’s difficult. As for the artist as raving lunatic, I’ve always liked this, from Annie Dillard:

      “Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let it rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.”

  28. Lovely essay Linda. I’ve never felt survivor’s guilt. Compassion for those who suffered loss, sure, but mostly relief and thankfulness that the fickle finger of fate passed me by. didn’t quite pass me by this time but the damage was much less than many but even so what I lost was none of the things I truly cared about.

    1. Your reference to the fickle finger of fate made me smile, Ellen. In the beginning of every storm, Floridians are hoping it will go to Texas, Texans want it to go to Mexico, or Florida, or at least the King Ranch, and everyone hopes for a “fish storm.” Ike was supposed to land at Corpus, so we headed to Tyler. Then, when the storm came to Houston, it rolled right over us. What was there to do but laugh?

      You were lucky — no doubt about that. Besides, look at the side benefits: a cleaned out studio and all of your names back! In the end, if we can keep the things we care about, we’re blessed, indeed. The rest will work itself out.

  29. What a beautifully written post, Linda. I relate, especially, to “but the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words, disappeared”. For me, any time there is an overload of information or negativity – too much chaos going on all around me, everything becomes muddled and murky. I have not been able to write or gather coherent thoughts in a long time.

    I always look forward to reading your prose, Linda. Your words open my mind to a bigger world of vast perceptions. I can think about these situations or thoughts for hours while working in the orchard. I love that you challenge me this way.

    1. It may sound a litle strange, but the old programmer’s saying — “garbage in, garbage out” — has been of great value to me. There are other ways of saying it, of course. Annie Dillard says, “[The author] is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.” We have choices in life, and choosing wisely that which we give our attention to is so important.

      There are ways to reduce the overload of information and negativity you mention. Do I know that Harvey Weinstein behaved badly? Yes, of course. Do I spend hours every day hanging on the latest reports, eager for every detail? No. I understand that both broadcast and social media have a lot to offer, and some perfectly reasonable uses, but for the most part, I ignore them. Many of my friends and acquaintances admit to spending hours every day on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I’d rather be taking photos, or writing, or reading, or just thinking.

      That’s one gift both of us have: days that allow a fruitful combination of work and solitude. Your pecan orchard and my dock aren’t so different, after all. They give us the space to let the unimportant fall away, and what we truly value to become apparent.

  30. I know exactly what you mean. You are grateful to have made it through, but over time you turn the corner and see the piles of lives lining the streets, the look in so many eyes, and the constant overload.

    Beautifully said and wise words. Much appreciated and centering.

    1. I was in the area of Santa Fe last weekend. Along the county roads, the debris piles remain untouched. I suspect it’s hard to deal quickly with those more isolated areas, but to see the people in their yards, surrounded by such chaos and loss, is heart-wrenching.

      Still, progress is being made, and heroes still are emerging. Some, like the Texas Navy and Cajun Navy, made the evening news. The workers rebuilding roads, collecting debris, and working to restore the refuges probably won’t make the news, but we’d not make a lick of progress without them. We owe them a debt of gratitude, too.

      1. Like the bikers who showed up to assist the quiet Asian community that grows all the special vegetables for restaurants south of us. Many elderly had roofs fallen in yet are staying put. (FEMA sniffed and left we understand…language issues and “safety” cited…)
        Bless those who simply do the work looking for no reward.

          1. I’ll try to find the article about the community – may take a bit. It’s the one that had to get special permission from the state/AG. dept to grow a very invasive Asian veggie that is used in many Vietnamese dishes. There had to be safeguards to keep the plant controlled and within limited area. Hmmm. Will have to go through may saved links and clippings 9 and yes I still have a file of print once in a while…habits hard to break

            1. No need if it’s not easily found. I just was curious (per ususal). Right now, I’ve overcome by what I found when I opened the door. AC off, coffee perking, and exaltation all around. The weather dudes didn’t lie — we have fall!

    1. Jeanie, thank you. You’ve done your own quite eloquent writing in the past, and I know you understand how these things happen: over time, and when the time is right. Someone asked me the other day how I measure success in writing. It occurs to me that one of my standards is that set forth by Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize speech. Remember this?

      “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

      “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

      That’s a pretty darned high standard, but who wouldn’t want to try to live up to it?

  31. Amen. “Well spring of life” nails it. Words matter in dark times. Accounts of the Holocaust invariably include the role of those who narrate bravery, and chronicle abuses, and sing hope into the hopelessness. Weaving words, for some, is the way we live out our imago Dei and that is no small thing when others are living theirs out in ways that are foreign to writers. Every effort matters. Light that candle.

    1. And not just any words, but words that are true. One of the most remarkable pieces I’ve kept in my files for some years is an essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn titled “Live Not By Lies.” The Washington Post published it in February, 1974, just days after Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the secret police. One of these days I’ll do something with it, because what he has to say is as relevant today as it was then, in his circumstances. When you boil it down, his point is the same as yours: every effort, every word — every lie or truth-telling — matters.

  32. I don’t think I commented on this yet but I have been thinking about what you wrote ever since you wrote it and published it here! I feel like a lot of social media make us feel this guilt and news about the world in general. Words DO matter and books and essays and blog posts can give such HOPE and comfort!

    1. There’s no question that social media and the broadcast media work to keep us roiled up. After all, the more we click on links out of fear, or anger, or a desire to “win” arguments, the more someone is profiting financially or otherwise.

      Of course during events like hurricanes or fires we need information, and these new sources can be immensely helpful. It’s good to have them to keep in touch with family and friends, too. But we also need those books and essays, blog posts and poetry. That’s where we’re nurtured and strengthened for all of the ordinary challenges of life.

  33. You eloquently examine how we often feel following such disasters as we’re experiencing — as I think now about the fires ravishing California. Words form the language that mediates our thought and action — what we tell ourselves — so powerful.

    1. Once we’d gotten past our varous hurricanes, and the other traumas we’ve experienced as a nation, I’d hoped that there would be a bit of a respite. But it wasn’t to be, and now we have those fires to contend with. I haven’t yet heard any definitive word about causes; it would be too awful if arson were involved.

      You make such an important point when you mention what we tell ourselves. We not only need to examine others’ words, we need to examine our own thoughts from time to time. My mother taught me the importance of that through the power of negative example. She was a great “what-iffer,” and there were occasions where she could what-if herself right into a corner and begin reacting to her fearful imaginings as though they were reality. I think there’s some of that going around these days.

  34. I’ve seen the resonance light up faces of those suffering when they hear someone articulate what they haven’t been able to. There is something relieving to know that another understands even a little bit. And you never quite know when those blog posts or articles or books or poems will be a balm to those in need. A very thoughtful post, Linda.

    1. For some reason, your comment reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s book Surprised By Joy. It’s true that we never know where comfort will come from, any more than we know where or when life’s next challenges will emerge. You’ve also reminded me of the the basic meaning of the word “compassion”; to suffer with. There’s an implication there that compassion is a commitment as well as a feeling.

      Thanks for your appreciative words. I’m glad things have settled down a bit around you, and that the fire containment is increasing.

  35. I so agree with your conclusion; words are important. They convey knowledge, comfort and wisdom. Just being able to set words on bad experiences can help overcome the traumas and help others as well. Nevertheless, it’s quite understandable to be numbed by major catastrophes, particularly when others close to oneself are hurt while oneself isn’t.

    1. Whether it’s a car accident, a death, a divorce, or any of the traumatic natural events roaming the world just now, it’s clear that people need to tell their story over and over, and sometimes more often than the people around them think appropriate. But you’re exactly right: it’s how we incorporate events into our lives — how we come to terms with them, and begin to heal.

      What you say about numbness is true, too. That’s one reason people who work with survivors need a good bit of patience. It’s not always possible for trauma survivors to know what they need, let alone be able to articulate it.

  36. The human psyche is a very fragile ‘organism’ – and each is precisely calibrated according to the sum of a lifetime of experiences. It’s amazing how different we all are at times, and at other times so equal. Emerging from unexpected catastrophes bind us, and yes, there’s that survivor’s guilt. Sometimes we need that period of mourning before we can reach down and share via words/images.

    I find if there’s no smile in my heart, there well is dry – no words, no happy colors, yet my drawing becomes even more sensitive. at least there’s an outlet.

    Today I returned to Jama just at dark, so it will be interesting to see what’s changed since my last time here. If I go silent again, it means I’ve driven back to the new home base with a load from Casa Loca. last time here an excavator/machine had broken down while digging a canal, and i couldn’t drive to the house!

    For now it’s bed time, but I wanted to peek in to say hi before going to sleep.
    g’night! zzzzzzzzz

    1. I suspect you’ll be glad for an end to your back-and-forthing. That’s energy draining too, even if it includes visiting with friends and so on. Of course, that may be routine-favoring me talking. While I’m free of certain regular routines — like a nine-to-five job — I still find I work better with some structure in my life. I like Annie Dillard’s assertion that “a schedule is a net for catching days.”

      I laughed at your excavator. What a perfect metaphor for so much of modern life. The very tools meant to improve our circumstances too often end up being the roadblocks themselves. And then? We find a way around them!

      1. i did not realize til last night that yesterday was friday the 13th, and it seemed that everything moved backwards yesterday.. and would you believe that today i made absolutely zero progress at the riverhouse? long story, one with details i don’t mention on the blog, but suffice to say that the devil’s been having fun testing me for a part in the new chapters or books of job! the excavator and pipe were still there today, and the farm crew was harvesting a pond and – and – and — i turned around and drove to the little beach community, talked with my friend nelly, taught her how to make funnel cakes – how healthy!

        you are so right – i am very ready to get in one place and stay there… lots of things to do before that happens – another is going to guayaquil and getting a new passport – mine expires in almost six months….. then the transfer of visa from old to new… but, when looking at those who are facing the fires, and the hurricanes… and landslides, flooding, etc etc, this is absolutely nothing….

        1. Still, those are your frustrations and difficulties. They’re no less important than anyone else’s, although it’s true that in the long terms they won’t be as consequential. The good news is that you’re smart and experienced enough to know when it’s time to withdraw and wait for another day. Besides: funnel cakes!

          I spent the better part of the afternoon cursing the mowers. At some point last week, they took down an entire easement that was filled with wonderful grasses, goldenrod, and flowers. When I went back with my camera this afternoon, ready to record it all, it was kaput. I understand that utility easements need to be accessible, but I certainly wish they’d held off a bit. Of course, the lesson is that I shouldn’t dawdle — ever. I’ve never been so aware of how much mowing goes on in this world! But I did find a little treasure they missed — and I’m going back tomorrow for more photos in better light.

          1. how great there were a few ‘survivors’ left for admiring..yes, often that happens – one day something’s there and the next day gone…\

            the funnel cake idea was b/c of so little business here, they are struggling.. and every single little food/cervesa place sells the same type of food.. i said, ‘what is something you can prepare that others don’t cook? something they can walk back out to the beach with, and others ask, ‘where did you get that?’ — it was a funny cooking session -she wanted to dump more eggs in the mix, and i feared they’d turn out real rubbery with too much egg… anyway, she can experiment and come up with something unique!

            enjoy your time with the survivor flowers! i’ll be driving back to poza honda in the afternoon and offline til later in the week.

  37. The power of words is what you have just demonstrated. Not to mention the photo, which is also terrific. I’m traveling so I don’t have time to comment in detail but wanted you to know I saw this and was moved by it.

    1. I saw that you were heading to New York — safe travels, wherever you may be at this point, and thanks so much for taking the time to stop by. I hope you’re doing some street photography, too — just for fun. I’ll look forward to seeing what you bring home as souvenirs.

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