Saturday, August 29, 2015

Katrina, some of what lingers

Everyone's writing about Katrina on the 10-year anniversary, and something in me wants to stick my head under pillows. The radio stories with the sounds of children crying in the shelters and people running or yelling at reporters for help put me back in the Lake Charles shelter, on the cement floor in the hall where we, in our red vests, were trying to get people's (former) addresses, something to identify them, some way to connect them with the thousands of people unconnected. I was there day 6, and over the last 10 years I've been sorting what I saw and smelled and heard in the space between Katrina and Rita.

It wasn't pretty.

One man pissed into a white bucket instead of walking to the bathroom, the bathrooms that weren't safe even though we, Red Cross volunteers, cleaned them, walked through them, tried to reduce the theft. I emptied his bucket a couple of times. In the women's bathroom at the coliseum where we had 4,000 "clients," women showered in pairs, one woman guarding the other's clothes, towel, and privacy, the other showering. There was no place to do laundry, no place to hang a towel to dry (and the temperature outside was 103 degrees, 90% humidity) so people threw away the towels.

On the first day of dispatch from Houston to Baton Rouge to Lake Charles, four of us volunteers drove together, and became family. We lived in a casino hotel (later destroyed by Rita) and drove together for our 6am to 6pm shift. We signed each other up for special assignments like family processing, which meant hearing the stories and writing them down and getting the paperwork for releasing money, the only money people had access to in a week. That's why 7 police cars with lights flashing greeted us when we arrived at the little Red Cross headquarters, where 700 people lined up outside from 4am, people hungry, thirsty, desperate to fill gas tanks and prescriptions and baby bottles. Some people with guns. We didn't put on our vests until we got in the back door. Then, we sat for 12 hours as people told us what happened. We listened. We wrote. We gave out as much money as we could.
Stephanie and me, 2 of the 4 volunteers who became family in Lake Charles

That process was shut down the next day. We didn't know why.

We were dispatched to the 3 cavernous floors of the coliseum in Lake Charles where families of 12 or more or fewer tried to create privacy, especially for their girl-children, by stacking boxes around the stacked mattresses.  The mattresses were in 3 long rows, longer than the length of football fields. The 4 of us in red vests tried to look out for the most vulnerable: an elderly grandmother caring for a hyperactive toddler, an Italian mother and daughter who were tourists visiting New Orleans, a 10-year-old girl taken in by strangers who came up to me 3 days in a row to ask me to undo her combination lock (left-right-left). I don't know why.

The hardest was a young woman who had just given birth. She had family, brothers and sisters, an aunt. Everyone cooed and praised God for the miracle of her safety, the baby's safe delivery. The next week her drunk uncle killed her entire family in a car wreck a few miles from the shelter, and we tried to wrap her in support, separating her from the cavernous floor, bringing in counselors and social workers, all of us white, all of us with homes we could return to, all of us strangers. She left the room with her baby when we spoke softly the story, the accident, everyone gone. I know why.

On this anniversary, I love seeing the pictures of new "shotgun" houses on FB. What I still can't bear is the destruction inside the people I met. The people who used "baby" to punctuate their sentences, whose gold teeth filled their smiles, who slapped my back in thanks when I found them the morning paper or a cold bottle of water or a fresh towel. One woman called me "Smiley," and wrapped her arms around me whenever she saw me. What of them?

I was a witness, only, an interloper, definitely. I neither experienced the storms, nor the years of upheaval, the promises unkept and broken.

From the people who survived Katrina, I'm still learning.

Friday, March 27, 2015

5 Things I'm Bringing Back from Virginia

1) a renewed reverence for small towns...

"Everyone's safe here," a patron of a pub said, "especially here." Every small town has one haven for the people who count themselves as "other" whether by race, class, sexual orientation, whatever, and in Cape Charles, VA, that pub is the place. In small towns people take care of their own, and their own may be healthy and rich and disabled and poor and blind and drunk. Even transplants from out of town become family through humor or generosity or good deeds.

2) everyone has a story...

On the panel, "The Stories We Were Meant to Tell," at the Virginia Festival of the Book, we had an author writing an 8-part romance series she was self-publishing (at the age of 83, she had completed 4, and she was writing #5), a man writing about fertility from a man's perspective, my novel about bullying and loneliness, and a man writing about humans being a construction of God's consciousness. The room was packed.

3) every story has a reader...

See #2.

4) Virginia is for lovers...

That love is thick. It runs between families and strangers who have grown into family. In Cape Charles, I met a group of people who have become chosen family, and their love is fresh and deep. They have each other's backs. They care for each other in the biggest sense--by bringing groceries or calling the minister or turning type into large print. Whatever it takes.

5) memory is fickle...

One of my sisters and I remember our past in completely different ways. Over the weekend, she and I kept recounting the same event with different endings or beginnings. She remembers our childhood caretaker dying on the operating table, and I remember her dying alone in her apartment. Both are awful, and it's clear that our memories are shaped by our own interference. Our childhood friend and host in Cape Charles told us stories we hadn't heard, that we couldn't remember because we weren't old enough. To have a witness who is willing to help fill in the pieces is to feel the smooth fit of a completed puzzle, the soft, hilly texture, even though the pieces are not pretty. Still, I am so grateful because memory can be a dark glass.

Traveling helps me see the inside from the outside. I'm so grateful that I can travel and meet generous, gentle people. Thanks, Virginia.

Monday, February 23, 2015

poem for a biker on I-84

To the Man Riding a Bike on the Highway at Night


Side-to-side your body rocks, each pedal-stroke
a hyphen faintly red—feather-steps in dark—
I barely see you ride beside the cars.

The only lights—headlights and starlight and
houselights from the Washington side—you shoulder
night on your ride out the Columbia Gorge.

Without bike lights, between each pulse of cars and
semi-trucks and trains, the darkness presses you—
like growing up in towns too dry to grow.


Once a friend at daybreak rode this way. The sky—
a blue lid to cliff and river—she sped toward blue-green
distance, testing the body that tested her from birth.

Her laugh—the size of Beacon Rock—she lived a man most
of her life and a woman at her end. When a pickup struck,
her body turned to sack and bone, from flesh and force.

For her funeral the whole Gorge town turned out, forgave
the brother who tried to beat her into a boy—his apology
too late—and floated flowers down the Columbia.


Rider, what perches in your soul and drives you
into dark, under dark, beside the water-silent dark?
Can my song guide you through the strangest Sea?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dear Stranger: Quandary

Here is a letter that I wrote for the Oregon Humanities "Dear Stranger" effort. I missed the deadline, and I'm glad I did because this letter feels unformed. The theme of the series is "quandary," and the quandary was more than I could handle. Can you help me understand?

                                                                                    January 8, 2015
Dear Stranger, 
In the western sky this morning, the moon hung oblong and papery like an empty bee’s nest. A star, higher and brighter, hung close to the moon, connected in a line that wasn’t there. The moon and star opened the night, the night turning paler as dawn rose on the other side of the horizon. The beauty of that opening spread in me like a swan dive into blue, blue water.

And the evening before yesterday the sunset turned the sky into a pink beach, the tide out, ripples of sand turning pink to purple. The wash of golden light over that beach made the world both fire and water.
I want to know how you bear such beauty?
Between that sunset and this moonset, three young men stormed a Parisian journal, gunned down cartoonists and writers, satirists who pushed readers to pry open the lid of belief and acceptance. A camera caught one of them walking up to a wounded policeman and shooting him point-blank, dead. Twelve people died altogether, and the three men walked away praising God.
I want to know how you bear such brutality?
In a Buddhist sense the sunset fades, the moon sets, and the terrorists are caught or not. Impermanence is the only order. Sometimes I wish I could be Buddhist and detach from hope and fear, but something cellular in me clings to permanence, to the ability to matter longer than a moment.
On a similar note, I can’t quite swallow that just as that moon was setting, the sun was rising, and beauty and brutality are a grand balancing act. A student in a class I was teaching on infectious diseases in Africa once suggested that plagues were a good thing because they helped control populations, and since humans were destroying the earth, plagues helped the earth survive. Conservation of energy or life, it seems to me, is too ruthless and offers little comfort. 

And what of God? I’m not asking God to be only benevolent or bestow justice on one people. I’m not asking God to speak in one language or walk in one body or control humans or act rationally. It is magic, after all, that is so moving, so transcendent and divine, like moonsets.  
What I’m asking is how can a body hold so much? How can one body hold the destruction of beauty, of free thinking as the Parisian terrorists want, the end of creativity, and at the same time, the inspiration of nature, of benevolence, and of kindness? How do you walk this duality? Is the answer always plurality, always paradox? 
What I know is that I love you, Stranger, because you embody beauty and destruction, because you are both perfect and imperfect, which I believe is the essence of what I envision as God. What I cannot love is ruthlessness. I cannot get my arms around that.
With hope and fear,