On Monday, September 11, An Open Book posted the first in a series of micro essays by participants in Inprint’s nonfiction workshop led by poet Cait Weiss. She says, “Each piece serves as a proof of our city’s resilience—you can give us rain, wind, uncertainty and days of isolation, but as soon as we can find a pen, we will turn that into art.” For her full introduction and the first essay in this series, click this link.
“Harvey” by Mike Nichols
As the wind and rains on the dirty side of Hurricane Harvey increased, I sat on the wet tiles of the front porch of our sturdy house on the south shores of Lake Livingston in San Jacinto County. All of the outdoor furniture had been moved to the safety of the basement or garage. I watched the strong waves break over the dock and over the ten-foot concrete apron across an expanse of lawn moving nearer and nearer to the porch stairs. I knew the power of these waves, punching with eight pounds of force for every cubic foot of churning water overflowing its banks and its iron bulkheads in this ninety thousand acres lake. I had seen the result of Hurricane Ike tearing the roof off our next-door neighbor’s house and destroying our dock. I was powerless against the whims of Hurricane Harvey. All I could do was watch and wait.
As my stomach churned with fear, I thought about the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot – Sukkot was a precursor of American Thanksgiving, a festival thanking God for the bounties of the fall harvest. Jewish tradition mandates that during Sukkot, families must eat their meals and sleep under an arbor. The ritual requires the arbor to be temporary, without walls, and with a lattice roof through which the family can see the night stars. The liturgy reminds Jews of our time in the wilderness living as nomads in fragile structures. I always understood Sukkot as a physical reminder for us to have compassion for everyone in the world who lives without the security of a stable home and community and as a reminder that we are responsible to help those people who live in fragile circumstances because of their economic, social, political, or immigration status.
Our home survived Hurricane Harvey. Many others did not. There was death and destruction. There was loss of entire neighborhoods and towns. Yet we also saw incredible courage—first responders and volunteers risking their lives to save people simply because it was the right thing to do. Kindness was on everyone’s lips and generosity was the rule of the day.
Houstonians responded with dedication and compassion without regard to race, nationality, age, or immigration status.
But where do we go now? In the Broadway play, Six Degrees of Separation, the protagonist argues: “But it was an experience. I will not turn him into an anecdote! How do we fit what happened to us into life without turning it into an anecdote with no teeth…”
That is the question for Houstonians. Can we keep the spirit of our Hurricane Harvey response once the water is gone, the dead are buried, the street are clean, and business is back to normal?
The answer to that question lies in our ability to keep our eyes and our hearts open. I learned from a Lion’s Roar review of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo that a bardo “refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional [Buddhist] texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditating, and even the bardo of this life—which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death. We actually experience bardos throughout our day. If you notice them, these bardos of everyday life are places of potential transformation. […] Bardos are spaces of potential creativity and innovation, because they create breaks in our familiar routines and patterns. In that momentary space of freedom, the fresh perception of something new and awake may suddenly arise.”
Hurricane Harvey was clearly a bardo for all Houstonians. Has it changed us? Have our perceptions changed? Will we react differently? If the answer is no, then this experience will simply vanish into an anecdote, another story of “do you remember when?” But perhaps Harvey is an experience from which we grow and learn. Perhaps Harvey will be the bardo that allows Houstonians to meet our greatest potential, the potential to react with ongoing kindness, more generosity, and greater compassion.