What can I live without? As a resident of the Texas Gulf Coast area, I have contemplated that question more and more in recent years. Of course, part of my musing is inspired by my growing older, adjusting to an empty nest, facing—and appreciating—the fragile and transitory nature of all life. Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina, followed shortly by Hurricane Rita, set the modern standard for a coastal disaster in the United States. Strangers to me along with friends of mine lost their worldly goods. Even worse, some lost loved ones, some lost heart. Many have coped and are still coping with a mutable landscape, amid the ruined mementos of their personal histories. Preparing my home for Hurricane Ike’s recent sweep across Houston, I tried also to prepare for the possibility of losses. And that preparation brought the flood of questions: What can I do without for a few days? For a week or two? What can I give up? Live without from now on? What is worth saving?
Meteorologists and newscasters, county and city officials spread the word of Ike’s path and strength, urging and engineering evacuations. As a result, few lives were lost compared to the number lost during Katrina, though land and property of Galveston Island, Kemah, and other coastal communities have been devastated. Ike followed a course eerily similar to that of the Great Storm of 1900 (back in the days before hurricanes had given-names and categories of ferocity). During the 1900 storm, the Gulf of Mexico met Galveston Bay over Galveston Island, inundating the island city, which, at that time, was a major port and the most populous, cosmopolitan city in Texas. Over 6,000 lives were lost. Then, in the years following the Great Storm, Galveston completed a grade raising, rebuilt, and gradually re-invented itself as a small island town, welcoming beachcombers, vacationers, and history-lovers. I am one of those—a history-lover, who has enjoyed touring Galveston’s 19th century homes that withstood the Great Storm, celebrating the holidays at the island’s Dickens on the Strand festival, and watching great performances at the 1894 Opera House. The resilient spirit of 1900 is worth reviving, worth never letting go.
On the night that Ike howled through my neighborhood, bringing twisters torrents of rain, and falling trees, I shuddered—but I also took notes. The writer in me is a constant companion, even, or especially, in dire times. How can I use the experiences of my lived-life in my writing-life? Within the structure of a novel or play, how can I make the overwhelming particular and make the particular universal? In the days following the storm, I have paid attention to my own responses, knowing they are not unique but shared with neighbors and strangers and those long-ago residents of Galveston, whose lives I have researched for writing projects.
Like so many others, I have been sleepless with worry, anxious for news, weary with making adjustments. Compared to many others, my problems have been minor—stretching a dwindling food supply kept in an ice chest, reading and writing by a flickering flashlight, hoping the roots of the trees leaning into the roof hold on a little longer. And I have found renewed pleasure in the ordinary—calls from friends saying they are okay, fine weather in the week after the hurricane, a cooked meal and fresh hot coffee. While storms and upheavals shift whole landscapes, they also alter our perceptions, intensifying our life-long process of sifting through excess and confusion to find the essential. We make choices between luxuries and necessities, recognize the difference between inconvenience and danger, and discover what we can live without and what makes life worth living.
If given only a moment to save something from disaster, I would choose my imagination over my manuscripts, and I would choose my loved ones over my life. Oaks and pines that once towered above my house are cut down, tangled branches and sectioned trunks are heaped in the yard. In a changed landscape, I start the day with what matters—feeding my pets and the backyard wildlife, sharing smiles with my neighbors, rejoining them in the community that sustains us. Across the lawn and through the windows, the sunlight, no longer filtered through as many leaves, shines more brightly now.