It is raining this morning and I cannot stop thinking about Houston and southeast Texas. I turn on the news at 7 a.m. and I cry as people walk their families through waist-high waters carrying a bag or two or less. My heart hurts for the people still waiting for rescue, and for those who are spending all their energy and more rescuing, saving, helping. The police chief crying for his lost colleague was almost too much for me to bear.
I am 1500 miles away and all I can do is watch and pray and give a little money to organizations on the ground, equipped to do this work. The rain reminds me that all the miles in the world aren’t a barrier for compassion. Even if it feels like doing nothing, keeping a tender heart is important work.
Because one day, it could be us.
I remember the day the waters rose here. A storm stalled off the coast of New Jersey and dumped buckets of rain on southeastern Pennsylvania. We lived in a rental house at the time, and our landlords, who lived next door, kept the sump pump in our basement running. We would be fine, we thought.
Then the water rushed down the hill behind our house and into the basement where we stored some of our belongings. The water came and the pump pushed it out and all was fine until 2 a.m. when government leaders turned off the power to the town when flood waters threatened the main source of electricity.
The power went out at our house and our kids, who were just babies at the time, woke up and we could do nothing as the water in the basement kept rising. Friends across town thought they would have to evacuate their house. We wondered if we would have to do the same and where would we go?
I think about these things as I watch from afar as families decide whether to stay or go, what to take or not, and where to go. When the sun rose the next morning, we had 30 inches of water in the basement, our belongings floating like toys in a pool and we were clueless.
We felt shame. Our landlords had stayed up through the night bailing water from their basement, and we sensed that perhaps they thought we should have done the same. We spent part of a morning with friends who still had power, and the church down the street had a gas stove and offered a hot meal. I will never forget these simple acts of kindness. How sharing a living space for a few hours and eating hot food pushed away some of the despair.
At 8 o’clock the next night, when we had decided to go to bed because it was dark and we had no power and what else was there to do, the fire department showed up to pump out our basement. These men had worked all day and night and were still going strong. It was humbling to be served in such a way.
Then the real work began. The washing and drying of clothes. Here, too, friends and neighbors stepped in to help. We hung everything we could out on the line to dry, and we amassed bags and bags of garbage. We mourned the loss of books and yearbooks and all sorts of possessions that we could not save and maybe never should have had.
The cleanup took days and we had small children and my husband was still in school and our souls were weary from other battles were fighting. It seemed too much to bear.
We had plans the following weekend to fly to Colorado for my cousin’s wedding and the kids were staying behind with grandparents. It seemed an inappropriate time to leave, but what were we supposed to do? I have no regrets. It was the last time I saw my uncle alive, and it was the kind of reprieve we needed. Still, we were aware of how it looked, to abandon our rental for a long weekend while it was still in need of cleaning.
The mold on the basement posts never did go away completely, and our relationship with the landlord/neighbors did not quite fully recover. Two years later we would move to another town, another rental. We left the house behind but the memories remain. I used to remember every time it rained. The anxious feelings would rise and I would send my husband to the farmhouse basement to check for water.
Enough years have passed that I am calmer during a storm now.
But today, I feel a fraction of what the city of Houston and its surrounding communities feel.
This, too is important work.
Remembering keeps us connected to each other in times of suffering. Of course, I first must have experienced suffering or at least be able to imagine what it would be like if it were me. “I can’t imagine” is a phrase I’m trying to strip from my vocabulary because too often what it really means is “I don’t want to imagine” or “I refuse to think about what it could be like.” (Sometimes, it is true that we cannot imagine, but the phrase itself is not terribly helpful.)
It is hell to suffer and no one wants to have to suffer. The silver lining, though, is that suffering softens us to others when they experience it.
Twelve years ago, I was working for a newspaper when Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana. I don’t remember what I felt because I was working and my fiancé was deployed or preparing to deploy to Iraq. I didn’t know anyone in Louisiana, and I had very little life experience to connect me to that event. (Although I did grow up in a house near a creek that flooded our basement more than once. I was young and only remember the things we lost, not the hours of work my parents put in cleaning up those messes.)
Seventeen years ago (or so) I found myself in North Carolina tearing walls out of a house that had been under water in another hurricane. The team of college students I was with worked hard for 8-10 hours a day helping with flood relief and meeting the family who was living in a FEMA trailer near their house. I knew I was doing something good but I still lacked empathy. I was there to work and to help, but I never really thought about what it might feel like to lose everything.
I have no answers or wisdom or grand plans. All I know is I don’t want to look away or forget. We are not yet a week into this disaster and already the news reports are changing and shifting. Our attention span as Americans, especially, wanes easily and we’ll soon move on to other worries and concerns.
But in Houston, the worst is far from over. When the waters recede, the hardest work will just be starting. And they will need us just as much then as they do now.
I don’t know what it will look to show up for Houston and Texas and the other areas affected by Harvey but I want to be ready, in heart, mind, body and soul.
I’m generally unprepared for crisis or tragedy, on a personal or global level. It doesn’t matter what it is: kids get sick or an appliance breaks or a loved one dies … there often is no room in my schedule, plans or finances to respond the way I want to.
Maybe you can relate.
I tend to live in a bubble of thinking whatever trouble someone else is experiencing will somehow skirt my life. But the truth is trouble finds us all eventually, and we will need each other.
So, what can I do today living in the light of that truth?
I only have the question. Answers will take more time.
But the asking is part of the work, too.