Washing Away

Another form of water that reflects my mood on this last day of August.

This month I’ve been obsessed with water. Starting with my art grant for next year, which focuses on how water always seems to show up in my paintings, to the horrific events still unfolding in Texas. I’ve gone from lazy afternoons spent watching barges glide down the Ohio River on painting trips to recoiling from the unforgettable photos and videos of the broiling brown brew currently washing away lives and lands.

Like Katrina before it, I felt the same sinking feeling with Harvey as I tracked the swirling cloud mass on weather maps and phone apps. Growing up on the east coast I remember well the endless deluge of Agnes in 1972, when constant rain soaked through everything in my family’s spanking new saltbox colonial home, the wooden shingles, the old-fashioned plaster walls that only a very few craftsmen still knew how to apply, and the extensive fireplaces built with unglazed brick. My mother set out so many pots and pans to catch the drips, that the sparsely furnished rooms echoed like a tin symphony.

But that was nothing compared to the flooding of my beloved meadow, where the innocent creek that meandered through my youthful playdates became a wrathful river that destroyed the little driveway bridge carrying us to the outside world of groceries and grandma’s house. We waited days before my father was able to reconstruct a passage to freedom. By that time, the angry torrents had reduced to a slimy whimper, and when I managed to slip and slide my way to the meadow’s edge, I couldn’t recognize my former friend amid the scattered rocks and stinking muck from a thousand fields upstream.

The gentle bends and soft shoulders of the grassy banks I knew by heart were never the same, making it easier to say goodbye. The next year we moved away to another land with a completely different kind of water, where my brother and I played in a man-made ditch that ran straight as an arrow through soil the color of coal, reflecting a greenish hue that I would later realize was filled with something more ominous than the little leeches clinging painlessly to my legs in the old meadow.

And while Agnes’ unrelenting rain and stifling air fell heavy on my bony shoulders that June of 1972, this was nothing compared to what the population of Texas is enduring. My family didn’t watch our beautiful new house fill up with sewage, or have to leave our pets behind, we didn’t inhale the choking fumes of chemical plants and refineries relieving themselves of toxic byproducts as they shut down, and we didn’t know anyone who perished beneath a dark current.

This water, no matter how swift, will never wash away the fear and countless tragedies. As I grieve for those living beings who have been affected by this national disaster and donate what I can, I find myself wondering whether the suffering evacuees will return and the bridges be rebuilt, or if it is easier to say goodbye and start over somewhere else? Only time will tell and there is one thing I do know:

It will never be the same.



Of Hurricanes and Halloween

With Sandy barely tickling these parts where I live, most of my energy has been spent worrying about the folks back east, the ones I know and everyone else.

I’ve become acquainted with a couple of hurricanes in my time — one of them intimately. In September of 1989, my husband and I rented a quaint, shingled cottage perched precariously by the side of a slow and lazy river in Maryland. (Here’s a renter’s tip: Never agree to anything after only seeing it at night. Works for dating, too.)

As we waited for word on where a certain hurricane named Hugo would choose to party, I began to pack some belongings for a stay in town at my husband’s office, which happened to be inside a college gymnasium.

Truth be told, we didn’t particularly look forward to a night spent in what used to be a ticket office, with a sticky vinyl couch, a dog, a cat and my unfinished Master’s thesis that was due in two days. Therefore, I was thrilled when I heard that the big boy would miss us.

So we stayed put, feeling smugly prepared as we battened down the leaky storm panels, and stowed away the furniture on a deck already sliding off the riverbank from erosion, confident that an extra bag of Fritos and a flashlight or two was enough. What can I say, we were young and immortal.

It was high tide, of course. As Hugo’s outer tendrils began to wander up the Chesapeake Bay, the full ramifications of our decision to remain began to slam into the house after gaining steam across a mile of open water. Even in his weakened state, our angry visitor began to pry at our windows and pound on the doors, pushing into our psyche with his howls.

As we cowered in the living room with our pets, electricity long since snuffed out, we could hear the boulders placed to prevent more erosion being moved like pebbles along the shoreline. I still remember looking out the window (this house’s foundation was less than a yard from the sandy bank) to glimpse the once flatline river now a roiling oceanic monster, chewing away at what little was left of the earth below us.

Suddenly mortal, we spent the long periods of rising winds debating what to do: remain on the first floor until the storm surge started to rush in, or head for high ground upstairs so that the large cedar tree next to our house could crush us?

Exhausted from waiting for windows to blow in, or water to pull our house down the river like Huckleberry Finn’s version of an amusement ride, unbelievably, we fell asleep.

In the morning, we awoke like Dorothy, inside a still house, lying upon the raft of our futon. A new sun sparkled in the beautiful blue of sky scrubbed clean by nature’s fury. The birds sang their good fortune in finding themselves alive, and all along the river lay miles of debris stacked up on the shoreline. Anything you have ever thrown away could be found there.

Despite the fact that the house was all but falling into the river, with a deck now cantilevered ten feet over the beach, we considered ourselves lucky and beat a hasty retreat well inland.

In the dark of night we returned to find the cedar tree that survived Hugo’s advances had fallen for a freak cyclone late to the party, missing our upstairs bedroom by inches.

That’s it, I announced to what was left of our peace of mind.

We’re moving into town.

A month later, we were caught unprepared by the hoards of trick-or-treaters knocking at the door of our safe house in town, tucked into a quiet street well away from Neptune’s reign.

After what we’d been through, facing the angry ghouls and ghosties of dry land just wasn’t as scary.

*My heart goes out to all those who have suffered terrible loss in this hurricane. This experience was but a fraction of what the victims of Sandy have endured.