Welcome to Abandon Ship Season

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. ~ Yogi Berra

It’s known by an assortment of names – grab bag, ditch bag, abandon-ship bag. Most sailors know they should have one, and nearly everyone understands it should contain something more than a fifth of Scotch, a Leatherman tool and a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.

When it’s time to deploy the life raft, it’s well past time to consider its furnishings. Coastal cruisers, circumnavigators,  casual visitors to Safety at Sea seminars and card-carrying members of the Offshore Racing Congress all know that flashlights, fish hooks and flares can help make a life raft a home. So can desalination tablets, signal mirrors, waterproof flashlights and a VHF, for that matter. Whether you throw in a spear gun and a spare sea anchor will depend on your budget and preferred cruising grounds, but no one quibbles over the need to preserve ships’ papers, insurance documents, passports and cell phones.

If everyone were prepared for the vicissitudes of life on the water, that’s what each bag would have – an assortment of practical necessities for sustaining life while awaiting rescue and the paperwork necessary to reassemble life back on land.  Unfortunately, not everyone prepares.  Sometimes, even the best preparation isn’t enough. Now and then the stories of what got saved, and how, become the stuff of legend. Continue reading

A Restless Goose Chase


In Starting Over, Simply, I spoke of my evacuation for Hurricane Ike and my increasing eagerness to end that evacuation, returning home to confront the realities of a post-hurricane world. As I said,

I’m even more anxious now to be home. As power is restored, communications become more reliable and people begin to make contact, the desire to SEE what has happened is almost overwhelming. Today I’ve talked with people in San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas, Little Rock and Tulsa – all waiting to come back, preparing to come back, longing to come back…. to our home. With Mom safely tucked into the heart of the family, it’s time to turn around and head back, to find out what needs doing, and do it.”

Now, it’s time to begin the story of that coming home, and my first experience of “what needs doing”….

Wednesday, September 17

Even by Kansas and Missouri standards, it was nippy this morning. Still, I couldn’t help myself. With my first cup of coffee in hand and a liquid moon shimmering in the haze of first light, I kicked off my shoes and dug my toes down into the bluegrass that hadn’t been mowed in days. There’s nothing like it in Texas – long, luxurious grass with a fragrance that doesn’t even need cutting to fill the air. Bermuda and St. Augustine are fine grasses, but they’ll never compare to a silky midwestern lawn. Standing there, I suddenly heard a sound I hadn’t heard for a year or more – the cry of a goose. Looking around, I saw it immediately. Coming straight out of the north, it was quite solitary and honking with the enthusiasm of an out-of-control trucker. Flying low and straight over the rooftops, it headed due south, never varying its speed or direction. As far as I know, it’s still going, and probably will beat me to Houston.

I’ve always loved geese, and one of my favorite childhood songs was Frankie Laine’s Cry of the Wild Goose. It came to mind this morning, as did Gordon Lightfoot’s Restless, another paean to the wandering spirit so often portrayed by images of geese. Watching the goose this morning and hearing the music in my mind, I realized I was restless in a new and utterly unexpected way. It’s the restlessness of youth, of anticipation, of eagerness for a future that’s yet to be revealed. One of the basic choices rebuilders face is whether to attempt to re-create what was, or create something fresh and unexpected from the debris left scattered about.

In the most basic sense, the question is whether those pieces of debris belong to a jigsaw puzzle or a kaleidescope. Is the task to make everything fit together seamlessly, despite damage to the pieces? Or, might it be to twist and turn the lense, letting the pieces fall into a new and more beautiful pattern as they will? It’s a question I’ll be pondering tomorrow on those final miles home.

Thursday, September 18

When I left Tyler this morning, I had no idea what to expect of the day. After stopping in Nacogdoches for the little pile of “things” I’d left there, I headed off into an amazing tangle of wires, downed trees and scattered limbs that stretched alongside the road for miles and miles. It wasn’t constant, but it was clear that Ike’s winds had barely calmed as he worked his way through East Texas. The power crews and tree trimmers were doing their work, though, and here and there a stoplight worked, or people were pumping gas.

As bad as the wind damage was, the surge was worse. Coming across the Hartman Bridge from Baytown, I couldn’t see the location of a marina I’d always enjoyed, but I knew that it was gone. Closer to the bay, the debris still left beside the road was unbelievable.Before I reached my home, I made a swing through one of the closest marinas and was completely dumbstruck. In one pile of debris, the wheel of a Lexus pulled from the water was nearly covered by planks and sheared pieces of boat hull. Two huge fuel tanks floated in the water, and the metal gangways to the docks had been pulled off, twisted like gum wrappers and thrown up onto the grass. One boat had been dismasted, and then was pierced by its own mast. The stench of diesel, rotting garbage, sewage and decomposing plant life was overwhelming.

And then I came home. I’ve never won a lottery in my life – until today. The building was standing, and without damage. The electricity was on, and the water running. The palm leaves, occasional shingle and flotsam from the water rise had been cleaned up. Even the bottom apartments didn’t receive any water damage. Neither Mom’s apartment nor mine was damaged in the least – not even by wind-driven rain. The stray kitty I grieved over so came running to meet me, and my neighbors had kept her food and water bowls full. The plumeria and cape honeysuckle I’d finally just shoved into a corner of the breezeway and abandoned were perfectly fine, and every plant on my balcony looked precisely as it did when I left, if just a bit thirsty.

It’s the most unexpected and utterly unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen, and I am grateful beyond words. There will be work to do, for sure. The power has been off, and the refrigerators will have to be emptied, cleaned and restocked, and there is some work to be done with the plants, but after a good houseclean and unpacking, life at home will be just as it was – even better, with that good housecleaning finally done!

Work will be something else. There is unbelievable damage. I’ll be meeting tomorrow with several of my customers and surveying some of the marinas. Boatyards here will have limited capacity for repair work, at least for the time being, and I may be traveling for a while. In another week, I’ll know which customers I have left, and a schedule can be developed. It’s not going to be easy, but at least the first steps can be taken as early as tomorrow, and I’m eager to get on with it.

It’s time now for some supper, a hot shower, and another call to Mom. We’re working out some plans for her return, as well, but that will be a bit later, once I’ve done the out-of-town work that I’ll need to be doing.

I am blessed beyond belief, and after getting settled can begin to find ways to put all these blessings at the disposal of others who weren’t so lucky. I simply don’t have any better words than “astonished” and “grateful” to describe my feelings. It’s going to be an interesting few days!

To be continued…



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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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