(Featured Image: Free Firely Wallpaper via Google Play)
Technically, today isn’t the tenth anniversary of hope. That came a few weeks later. But it’s what I choose to celebrate today, August 29, 2015.
Ten years ago, I was writing in a leather journal by candlelight. We had lost power and, despite the sweltering heat and the ever-hungry mosquitoes, it was far more pleasant outside than in.
I was filled with regret, I think, that one thing left undone before Katrina hit.
We didn’t take it seriously; we on the Mississippi Gulf Coast had weathered storms before. We knew what supplies to gather, what actions to take, what food to store up.
I was on crutches, a foot surgery that had me off of work and unable to carry my last box up the stairs. It was a box of writing: EverQuest fanfiction (ha!), some half-way decent short stories I had dabbled with, and some really bad poetry I shouldn’t have, and journals. Pages and pages of journals. I had been stuck in a stasis for the past two years, post-divorce and having no clue of who I was.
So I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
Of my love for the fishcamp, of my annoyance at my cats, of my first relationship after my marriage, in all its beautiful tumultuousness, and all the guilt and shame of years of silence.
I was tired and annoyed when my mother came to help me load my stuff up. Cats in carriers, important things, work clothes. I was not as gracious as I could have been.
But that last box remained as I said, “Fuck it,” and threw my stuff and myself in the car and headed to my parents’ house. The box remained at the bottom of the stairs; I refused even my mother’s offer of carrying it up for me.
I was definitely not as gracious as I could have been.
As I wrote by candlelight, my father told me that I should stop. My mother told me I should stop. “You’re just going to rehash everything.” They were right, of course, at least half-right: I did rehash everything. But writing is how I think. It’s how I process and refine my thoughts and beliefs. I realize now that, at least on some level, it’s how I breathe.
I didn’t really have much of a choice.
My mother had also told me to “Cut the Polly Anna bullshit out.”
Before the night I was writing, I was okay, in that okay-sort-of-way that meant I didn’t understand a damn thing. “We lost…” someone would say, and I would counter with something positive. “The damage!” someone would exclaim, and say something uplifting and no doubt cliche.
Over and over and over again.
Now, in the present, I recognize it as shock, something so terrible and encompassing that my mind couldn’t process it. I saw a silver lining everywhere. All I could see were silver linings.
Until I broke, and then I didn’t anymore. Not a single silver lining.
That one thing left undone, and no way to see the consequences. Roads were flooded, blocked by debris. There was no way to get to the fishcamp, although my dad valiantly tried until the water was too high, even for his high-sitting truck, and we had to turn back.
All I could see was darkness, All I could hear were stories of death and destruction through the radio. The occasional “I’m okay,” text from friends when they’d go through wasn’t enough to keep my head above the proverbial water.
I was most definitely not okay.
They tried to comfort me, my parents, but I was inconsolable. I needed to be left alone with my darkness and my realization that I was not the strong person I thought I was: I was not able to maintain my okay-ness through the storm.
And I cried. Tears, fat and wet making the ink run against the page before I gave up trying to write. There was a great paradox: everything in me was exhausted, empty, and yet I was filled to the brim with fear. My cup overrunneth, and no amount of crying would stop it.
I hadn’t prayed in a very long time. At this point, I was lost in the woods, God and faith and the core of who I was had escaped me, bounding like a rabbit just beyond the next tree.
And then I prayed.
Silently, feeling foolish and guilty that I only prayed when I needed something, I prayed. I apologized for my transgressions, for not being the person I knew I should be and humbly (one of the few times I’ve been truly humble, I think) asking for a sign that everything was going to be okay.
I cried and prayed until I fell asleep, my head resting on my crossed arms on the table.
When I awoke, it was still dark. I was still fearful. Nothing had changed. Now I was dark and fearful AND bitter.
As I stood and turned to go inside, to try to sleep in a bed, I turned and saw a single firefly very close to the house. It was under a pecan tree that was still standing, despite having lost several major limbs.The moon must have been bright because I remember seeing the tree and knowing their proximity, and we still had no electricity.
I had often seen them down by the woods, a good distance away, during the summer when I was a child, but had never seen them this close to the house. As I watched, its light blinking off and appearing somewhere else, another appeared.
And another and another.
They looked like dolphins of the night sky, full of graceful moments of descension and ascension, diving deep only to come up high to breathe.
And I laughed, one of those laughs that seemed endless, and rocked my entire body, sending my post-surgery foot a-throbbing with the sheer depth of the laughter.
For the briefest time, all my fear and darkness fell away as I was transfixed by this school of fireflies.
I had found hope again.
The days after were grueling, but I began to see things through lightning-bug colored sunglasses. The fear was still there, the uncertainty, but it was in the background, muted, rather than parading up front like a jazz funeral, commanding respect and demanding attention.
We had blessing after blessing, and I saw people who didn’t like each other work together. People were more polite as we stood in line for water despite the long wait and the ever-present armed forces. I heard more stories of roof-top rescues, of lost animals and relatives found.
Some of my father’s family appeared as superheroes with a camper (with the oh-so-blessed air conditioner) and generators.
I had an offer from an Everquest friend to move to another country; I had an offer from another to move to where it was “safer.”
We had people from all over the country donate things to replace things that were lost, to help us get on our feet again. Many, many church missions, including some Amish, that helped people gut and rebuild their houses. Electric company employees–some from as far away as Canada–came and worked on the powerlines–so many of them that had been downed or broken.
And there’s a girl named Sue who, when she heard I had lost almost all of my clothes brought a bag of new ones that “were in my closet” that just so happened to have tags on them. Also, they weren’t in her size. Just mine.
There were friends in Florida that took my cats in, a man and wife who opened their home to me so that I could get out of the chaos and regroup so that I could make decisions that needed to be made. I am grateful, and especially to the woman whose warmth I’ve never forgotten, along with her aversion to frosted glass.
I attended a mass by Father Louis (Loo-eee) Lohan that was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever witnessed. Everyone had lost something or someone or both,and yet everyone was able to sift through the shock to come together.
To find hope.
It was weeks, I think, before we could make it back to the fishcamp to see that yes, in fact, the writing had all been swept away. Along with the furniture, along with so many, many things.
There is a difference between hope and denial, and I think that denial often gets mistaken for hope or positivity.
Hope bursts forth in moments and reverberates through your whole being. Hope is seeing the destruction around you, acknowledging it and accepting it, and knowing it can, it will get better. Hope is fuel that sparks the fires of change, it is the acceptance of loss and the looking forward to gain. Hope does not deal in pithy cliches, in one-liners that do nothing but make the speaker feel that she or he has “done something.” It is not defensive. It just is.
Denial is a willful ignorance of the depth of the destruction, the dismissal of it in sound bytes, cliches that minimize it and disappear it and ignore it. Denial is defensive, rebutting destruction with, “Yeah, but…” It’s a dismissal of the “yeah” part and a focus on the “but.”
Destruction comes, be it a hurricane or a fire, a divorce or a diagnosis, and hope can shine through if denial is set aside.
While I wouldn’t wish a hurricane (or any sort of destruction) on anyone, I can say, without a doubt, that it was a turning point for me, one for which I am and will always be grateful. It was a catalyst that drove me back to school, that made me take stock of my life and made me begin the awkward process of being in my own driver’s seat.
Ten years later: My life has not taken the path that I wish it had. There were and are many turns that I would much rather do without. I’m not exactly where I wanted to be, just so. But I am standing, like the old pecan tree that lost its limbs and yet weathered the storm, like the oak tree in Bay St. Louis under which I was married, like the people of the Gulf Coast who returned home after evacuation, who started businesses and supported their communities.
I still stand.
I have no interest in seeing the remembrances of Katrina that are planned this year, although I’m so glad Robin Roberts returned to Pass Christian. I have no interest in seeing “how far we’ve come” when our crime rate is insane, our economy is balanced on the backs of minimum-wage workers and our insurance rates have skyrocketed despite no other devastating hurricanes (79% increase in my premium, bee-tee-double-u, since I bought my house in 2009).
I have no interest in seeing the devastation; now that’s an unnecessary rehashing.
I am, however, interested in the hope that has never left. In the trading rose-colored glasses for those lit by firefly light, I have discovered that hope is never lost.
Misplaced, maybe, but never lost.
Not a bad thing to have realized over the past decade.
As I was searching for pictures of fireflies, I came across Radim Shrieber’s beautiful work. http://www.fireflyexperience.org/. I highly recommend that you check him out.
I will hang one of his prints some day. Probably this one, entitled “The Signaling Female.” It is simply exquisite, but the more I look, the more I choose another one.