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.