Sunday, June 12, 2011

Line of Sight: The Shock of A New Skyline

When driving through the neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa, there is a cacophony of sounds that you can hear all at once. The soft wheeze of feet pressing on the brake, the low hum of car windows lowering, and the bright, larking echo of the phrase,

"I don't even remember what used to be here."

In all the talk of how much I love my town and how my heart has grown big enough to put all of Tuscaloosa inside of it, this collective sound reminds me of a truth that is hard to swallow: I didn't always appreciate my town when it was whole. There are long stretches at the end of Hargrove Rd. where I look out over the foundations and think to myself, I don't even know what this used to look like. Why didn't I pay attention to you, Tuscaloosa? Why did I never take the time to walk every inch of you, memorizing every house, every streetlamp, ever side street? I feel like I never took the time to notice the beauty in this city, all the old buildings and back ways and train tracks and ugly signs. And now I don't remember. And now those parts are gone for good.

Everywhere we drive now, the line of sight is so drastically different. But now, with each drive down 15th St. and every turn onto 13th Ave. I forget a little more of what things used to look like. The cute little houses next to Lenny's, the apartments that used to line Hargrove, now in my memory are just ruined landscapes. Now they are spray-painted shells and piles of wood and concrete slabs. Now they are nothing but the sounds of bulldozers and jack hammers and news reports.

Can we remember better? Is there a way that all of us, with all this beautiful Tuscaloosa history inside of us, can protect the memories that we have before we lose them to this new horrific sight? Can we all collect photos we took around this place, tape them up on all 4 walls of a single room, and re-create the unharmed landscape of a college town that will never be again? Tell me we can make it real. Tell me we can all help each other remember. Tell me we can drive down the streets and hear those noises, those brakes, those windows, and whisper to our passengers, "Let me tell you what this used to look like. I remember it perfectly."

Tell me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lilapsophobia: I Used To Dream About Tornadoes

About a year ago, I started having the same recurring dream almost every night.

In one I was with my  mother and my little sister, and we were driving in a car so fast the air was screaming. In another, I was running with no shoes on toward a gigantic, empty theater to hide underneath the stage. In others I was on top of a building, on a bus, flying a plane while crying and yelling out names into a microphone. In all of them, I was running from a tornado.

The books all said this was a sign of a tumultuous life, a time of hard decisions and stress, and that the tornado dreams were my unconscious mind trying to work out fears in my waking life. In one of the dreams, I was trying to reach my sister who was having a baby in a hospital. I could see the hospital in front of me, and the overwhelming gray funnel beside me, as I raced it on foot to try and reach the doors before the raging storm demolished the place. I woke up before I found out who won.

I knew these dreams must have meant something important, as tornadoes have been my biggest fear since I was a little girl. Even the lightest of thunderstorms would send me to the space beneath our basement stairs, clutching a radio and my teddy bear. One night I asked my parents to put my most prized possessions in a safe box underneath my mother's desk to protect them from the impending storm. The box contained my first-place blue ribbon from a math competition in first grade, a collection of pennies, and a doll from my great-grandmother.

A few months back the dreams stopped, and it wasn't until I was talking to one of my friends that I remembered them. "Remember the dreams I used to have all the time?" I asked, "The ones with the tornadoes?" We both felt that they seemed weird and coincidental, now that everywhere we turned in our waking lives, tornadoes were all we saw. "What do you dream about now?" she asked.

Now I keep having this dream where I'm driving. I'm driving down my street and I take a few turns and I'm lost. I know I'm in Tuscaloosa, I was just on my street, but I've never seen this part of town before, or at least I can't recognize it because all the houses are destroyed. I keep turning, growing more and more frantic, and can't find my way back. As I drive faster and faster, I keep seeing every house has the X painted on the side, and every single one of them has the number 1 written on the bottom. No matter what street I turn onto, every single house had someone die inside. I want to get out but my doors are locked, and I don't know where I am. I have woken up crying twice.

I never could have predicted that in my dreams about real tornadoes, there would be no tornadoes in them at all.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Aftermath & Alberta: No One Lives Here Anymore

I want to start off by saying, I wanted to make Alberta my town. I was slowly starting to seep away from the campus life I had been living for the four years I was in school and two years of working on campus. I started doing my grocery shopping in Alberta City, took Lola to the vet in Alberta City, ordered my Chinese Takeout and got gas in Alberta City. My drive home took me right over the bridge to the comforting sight of Alberta Baptist, Alberta Carwash, and the pretty old-world street lanterns along the road. I wanted to make Alberta my town.

The drive home now is still jarring. There are no lights save the tall, spindly security lights set up far in the distance at the police station and disaster relief set-up at the Save-A-Lot. Drive through the neighborhood at night and you can't see where you're going at all. I've missed the turn to my house twice since I moved back home. You think you're looking at a tree by the side of the road, but it's the front steps of a house. There is an overturned car on top of a couch with that frightening yellow X painted on it. Your headlights pass over what looks like piles of dirt in the total darkness of nighttime, and when the sunrises you realize it's a house, a church, a crushed pickup truck.

Ghosts don't live in haunted houses and they aren't translucent silver and moaning through hallways and lonely campsites. Ghosts are in spray-painted X's on every house in your neighborhood, which only mean that no bodies were found there, it doesn't mean no one died. Ghosts are looters you hear picking up wood and metal and breaking glass. Ghosts are the empty frames of houses that held families that held hearts that held memories. Ghosts are two teenage kids spray painting "We love you MawMaw and PawPaw" on the only piece left of their grandparent's house, the front door. That house is a few blocks from me, MawMaw and PawPaw died there. Even though that god damn X says zero. Those god damn X's are liars. They're the worst ghosts I've seen.

I know I should be happy to be back in my home, but every way I turn or drive I have to see it. My whole back yard is nothing but mud now since the tree got pulled up so everything inside is covered in red Alabama clay- including Lola, who looks faintly orange all the time. Every road between me and the outside world drives through destitution and loss. There's no way out, but through.

So even though I'm home, I'm disappointed. I'm weighed-down. Going to work every day is harder, running out the door and seeing that line of sight so drastically different than it was when I moved here last August. I know the storm didn't take my house, but it definitely took my home. This place feels different to me now, darker. Almost all of my neighborhood is gone, and that fat knowledge of death is on every street for the 2.4 miles between me and my job.

I know that we're all still here on Kicker Rd, happy to have our houses. But the truth is, no one lives here anymore.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Nameless Storms: Stages of Grief in Alabama

I find it increasingly frustrating that we don't name tornadoes like we name hurricanes. I understand the logic of it, tornadoes are so quick, they are too unpredictable and too numerous to name each dirty funnel that touches the ground. It would be messy and confusing. You can't see a tornado coming for days, scooping up the ocean on its way, as the radio blares evacuation hours before Joseph or Terence or Louise crashes to shore. You name hurricanes because you can watch them for weeks.

You think we won't watch this thing? You think this sinful little storm just whispered to the ground for 30 seconds and now it's gone? Tornadoes don't last for seconds or minutes, they last for years. I can already feel the years in this one deep in my bones. I see myself growing old with this storm.

Stage one, Denial, has come and has gone. The times I was away from the wreckage, blocked by closed roads and kind men in army uniforms, helped me to keep forgetting what had happened and the body count and the bare bones of wood that remained of homes and buildings. But now those wounded ways are open again, and the traffic lights are changing colors and the cars are moving through and I can't not look at it anymore. It seems now to have sunk in, so much so that it is hard to visit untouched places. I visited Cullman to see my grandmother and found the torn apart parts of the city familiar and predictable, where the buildings still held together and undamaged looked foreign and mocking.

Stage two is the stage that needs the name. Stage two, Anger, is coming on with full force. I want to scream at this storm. I want to take my fists fitted with brass knuckles to the face of that tornado and I want to know its name. I want to blame this all on it. I want to take all this pain and anguish and absolute fury and throw it at a name, a thing. I don't want to call it a tornado anymore. I don't want to call it a storm anymore. I want to name the thing that barrels through my dreams every night ripping everything away in its path.

God I am just so angry. Every conversation I am in or overhear, every sentence on every website, every text message and every call and every person I pass is talking about it, reminiscing in this memory I want to disappear. It's in my dreams, it's in my television, it's in my fingertips on this blog and it's in these crying spells that come on for no reason. I drive through my neighborhood and I just want to find the thing that did this, that hurt and ruined so much and so many. I want to rip out its insides and set them on fire.

This is a hurt I've never known. Three years ago I ruined a relationship, lost a job, dropped out of school, and nearly gave my last breath because of heartbreak. And when I came out of it I kept thinking, "That's the worst it will ever get. That was my nightmare, and I survived it. I survived it and I came out so much better and if I can handle that, I can handle anything." I was confident that nothing in the world could stop me. I was invincible and I wore that survivable heartbreak like armor to the world.

And a 200 mile-an-hour wind just blew it away.

There is ache harder than relationships, than drug addicted boyfriends, than car accidents, than failing math class, than losing friends, than losing everything. There is this bigger, different hurt, of overwhelming disaster and death right down your street. There is a house a few blocks from my own with one of those wretched X's on the door. The last number is 1. That nameless storm killed someone in my neighborhood, it orphaned a dog, it destroyed a family. And dear God I am just so furious.

I just wish we named tornadoes. I want to scream out a name when I wake up from these nightmares. I want to write a letter every day to a thing that I can blame. I want to have a word I can say that means more than tornado, that means more than storm. Something I can look at and say, "You won't win you selfish, cruel bastard. You won't take anything else from us.

I hate you. I hate you. I hate you."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sewn Together: The Thread Between The Ones Who Left

There is an integral thread in the stories from Tuscaloosa that is important to remember. There is a piece in this puzzle, a word in these sentences that has been on my mind. These are the ones who left.

Something we need to remember about Tuscaloosa while we talk of its rich communities and beautiful, powerful people is that Tuscaloosa is a transient town. It is a city that revolves in orbit around a student population that breathes into the town like a cold, and they disappear every year leaving barely a symptom or a scar. But they called this place home, they worked here and made friends here and met their best friends and spouses here. Maybe they still get their mail forwarded.

And these people have this place in their blood and bones like the rest of us, the ones that stayed behind. They have scattered across the country and the earth and now they have been torn back into the town they left. A trail of breadcrumbs has turned into a taut and pulling rope. And now they are flying, floating, bursting back into Tuscaloosa at breakneck speed as they find themselves touching television screens with their index fingers, tracing the paths they used to walk, the homes they used to own. They are watching us, all of us, and wishing they could come home. Some of them will.

I have friends in Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Ireland, China, Florida, New York, all of whom are now left feeling like a piece of them has been torn asunder. Maybe they aren't in the middle of this mess of a place, screeching in the streets for their lost homes and scuttled trees, but in their dreams they are on 15th Street, looking down an endless block with no buildings and no signs and nothing left. When they fall asleep, even when they're awake, listening to our tearful phone calls and reading our frantic emails, they reach down to clutch their turning stomachs and feel the Tuscaloosa inside them rip apart. How hard it must be to lose a town that's all around you, and yet be so far away.

We know you are there, friends. We know this town is as much yours as it is ours. We know that these streets that we've lost, these homes and buildings that have crumbled, and this place that we will be re-mapping and re-writing for so long belongs to us all. We have not forgotten you, just like we know you have not forgotten us. We miss you so much. We think of you often.

For my dear friends who have tossed into the wind and blown so far from Tuscaloosa, I know that these pieces of you are still here. I see them in your old windows, in the photos you took, in the places we had together. No matter how far away you are now, we hold your hands now in these streets. We hear you cry into your pillow just like we do. And we hope to hold your faces in our hands soon.

For those who have left, for those who have moved forward, for those who are out in the world beyond this now impassable, inescapable town: We know you are home. We know you are here. We know you never left.

And for those of you making the trip here, we look forward to having our arms around you. We feel the thread growing tight between us and we tug, we tug, we tug.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Lost In My Own Town: Day 6 In AfterTuscaloosa

When I first moved into very first, very own house, I looked forward to my very new, very short, 6-minute commute to my job. 
Today, it took my an hour to get to my house.
Every major road between my office and my home was now closed off, stacked with National Guard trucks and blue flashing lights. I was turned around at every intersection, forced to make U-turns and 3-point turns and early turns and start over again at the beginning. I drove in circles. I marveled at how as I drove through a town I knew so well, a town I took pride in knowing all the short cuts within, I was lost. I no longer know where any of those roads lead, if any of those roads are open, or ever will be again. I have to re-map my town, my Tuscaloosa. It’s not Tuscaloosa anymore, it’s AfterTuscaloosa.
The newspapers and websites have started having these aerial maps where you can move a slider back and forth and see the “Before” and the “After.” I see so many things in BeforeTuscaloosa. I see Tiffany’s birthday party at our(old) favorite Japanese place; I see the back roads where it is(was) safe to ride your bike; I see (where)the consignment shop(used to be) where my father bought me my first lamp for my very first very own house. 
I can move the tiny blue slider, my very own hand-controlled tornado, and see AfterTusclaoosa: A dirty, bright yellow vein through my town that looks like an infection. AfterTuscaloosa is barren and broken, the streets lead to nowhere and they have no names. 
Tuscaloosa was my newest love. It was the town where I wanted to put down roots, become a teacher, raise my kids. I was in love with Tuscaloosa, I held its hand in the nighttime, I stayed within its arms as my friends moved on to what they felt were bigger and brighter places. But Tuscaloosa was my own.
Now I feel like a girl whose fiance has been in a motorcycle accident. There are limbs missing, cuts and bruises that make the person I loved look different and frightening. There are wounds that won’t heal, no matter what happens. It will never me the same. And now the world is asking me the most terrible question: Will you stay with the thing that you love the most even if the injury seems irreparable?
My answer is yes my beautiful, war-torn, yellow-wounded Tuscaloosa. Before or After, the slider doesn’t mean I don’t love you. When it moves to the right it shows me the glorious place you were, and when it moves to the left it shows me the miraculous place you will become. They will tell stories about us, how we made it through the fire with scars the shape of wings, and we will tell our children of the heroes who protected their families in bathtubs and pulled babies out from under the rubble. 
Each of us now have our own sliders that we can move side to side, we can see all of our lives and our paths and our goals before this and after this. We have all been changed to AfterPeople in AfterTuscaloosa with AfterDreams. But these AfterDreams in this AfterWorld are not less than our BeforeDreams, they’re just different. Now they’re not about ourselves, they’re about each other. They’re not about what we want, now it’s about what Tuscaloosa needs. It’s about helping each other. Now our town is not a mirror, it is a door. And we are all rushing in to save each other.
The lights are slowly growing in this place.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

I've Never Seen My Town This Dark: I Believe In Our Story

Driving through my town last night in the dark, trying to make it before a newly-instated 10pm curfew, I felt like a visitor in my own city. I still do. I feel like I don’t know these streets I’m on. I feel lost in a place I know as well as my own insides. Like I’m lost in my own body.
My house is still standing, which is more than most people can say. There are trees across my neighbors’ homes, there is a garden in my front yard from down the block, and shingles and pieces of my roof litter the ground like leaves. But I still have my home, my possessions are still just in the place I left them. I am one of the few astonishingly lucky.
So why do I feel homeless? Why do I feel like this isn’t my home, this isn’t my town? Every morning I wake up in a different place than I lived on Wednesday. I see my president walk through the park where I walked my dog. I see the body count rise and rise and rise and I don’t believe it’s where I live. That isn’t Tuscaloosa. That isn’t my home. That must be somewhere different.
But it is my town. I drove to my house today to get some more clothing, my dog’s crate, clean out the fridge and salvage what I could. I got past the national guard and poked slowly into the heart of Alberta, bracing myself against what I was bound to see. No amount of bracing, as my knuckles whitened on the steering wheel and my mouth toppled open in retching sobs, could have prepared me for what my town was turned into.
There was no town. There were no buildings, no landmarks, barely a thing to call land at all. As I turned by the carwash that replaced my hubcaps, it was a pile of planks and half of a soda machine. I passed the church on the corner where people stood in the parking lot praying, the church barely a house of cards swaying dangerously in a breezeless air. The steel office building was metal crumpled like confetti, the consignment shop where I bought my lamps and my tea set was nothing more than a door standing in a frame with no building around it.
I crossed the train tracks and saw overturned cars with trees wrapped inside of them, and started to see the spray-painted X’s I remember seeing on TV when Katrina hit. Giant crosses on doors and windows that were still standing, with a “T” on the left, then the date at the top, then the number of people inside, and the number of people dead. I was relieved when house after house was T, 4/28, 0, 0, T, 4/28, 0, 0, T, 4/28, 0, 0. I prayed and prayed as I drove past that I would never see a final number other than zero.
I pulled up to my own house, T, 4/28, 0, 0. I hadn’t been home Wednesday night. I was inside a closet with my best friend and 4 dogs holding hands and listening to the radio, crying and praying out loud. People drove past me on the street offering water, toilet paper, a ride. “Where do you need to go?” they would call out of their windows. The people across the street were cooking everything they had on a fire in the front yard. A national guardsman put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I needed help. I didn’t realize until then I was crying so loud.
I have made Tuscaloosa my home. I have built this town into my bones and so now I feel like those bones are broken. And though I know that bones heal, it is hard to see the possibility of healing when so, so many are in splinters. 
Among what I can only describe as unfathomable damage and debilitating horror, there have been sights of hope. There have been so many who want to volunteer to help they are coming faster than we can put them to work. People with trucks and food are driving around, tossing water and trash bags out of their windows. The radio stations are devoting to constant coverage, finding missing people, sending out word for how to help, donate, work. The traffic jams are calm, kind, systematic, because everyone knows what we are going through. There is a great, collective empathy that is falling on this town like snow. 
I don’t know how we will recover from this. Right now I still feel shock when I see the photos, and today driving through Alberta City I shook so hard I could barely drive. It is destruction like I have never seen, not even in movies. In movies the rubble is so carefully arranged, shot from the best angles. Here, it is jagged and messy and scary. There is no grace or intention in this rubble, only the fear and knowledge of death.
But I know we will recover. Because there is something about this town, about the South, about the air that we breathe and the blood that we all seem to share in this collective history that none of us really own but none of us will ever give up. We have a past life of suffering in us- maybe the War of Northern Aggression we can’t ever shake, maybe all the God-fearing Bible-thumpers and their crucifixion, maybe tornadoes and floods and the fires of past- whatever it is we know what it means to suffer and more than that we know what it means to heal. And we will heal. We will heal each other, together, hand in hand.
There is a story Jonathan Safran Foer once wrote about a town of artists, and the totalitatiran ruler sends in thugs to break their arms so they can’t make art. They all have their arms in splints straight in front of them, and they can’t even feed themselves. The boy hearing this story asks, “Did they starve?” And the man telling the story to the boy says, “No! They fed each other! That’s the difference between heaven and hell. In hell you starve, in heaven you feed each other.”
The boy says, “I don’t believe in the afterlife.” And the man says finally, “Neither do I, but I believe in the story.”
In Tuscaloosa tonight, though it may be dark beyond imagining, we are feeding each other. And I believe in our story.
Good night, my home. I love you with my deepest heart.