There’s a palpable feeling of helplessness that descends when tragedy erupts in our world. Having spent my childhood in Dallas, I basically lived at the off-ramp of Tornado Alley, right in the parking spot of the swampy Gulf air. Annually, our springs and summers were peppered with torrential thunderstorms and green skies that heralded the arrival of tornadoes like incoming suitors.
As ominous as they are, there’s something mythical, romantic even, about a Texas thunderstorm. It’s in the way the clouds roll in, plumy in gradients of grey, bringing a relief pitcher of cooler air that temporarily mutes the sun’s broiler rays. As clouds topple over each other, the winds blow through you, airing out your day and giving you just enough warning to take cover before the faucets turn on. Then water—so much water—dumping like Niagara from the sky. During college summers, my friends and I would stand in the flooded waters of 7th Street and let the rain wash over us; washing away all our frustration, stress and hair gel. The only thing more calming than an afternoon thunderstorm is one that begins as you lay your head to your pillow. The timpani crescendos of thunder and steady high hat tings of rain on your rooftop are nature’s lullaby. I’ve never slept better than during a nocturnal thunderstorm, something I think I inherited from Jesus. He too enjoyed sleeping during a storm, only he happened to do so on a boat while I prefer a more stable setting of brick and mortar.
But not even brick and mortar can shield you should the winds rally enough to dollop down a tornado. The path of a tornado is one of the true wonders of the weathery world. The tornado itself is a monster, scarier than any fire-breathing dragon. It’s ruthless and doesn’t care what’s in the way. It’s the Cersei Lannister of nature. However, the eerie otherworldly calm that descends while funnel clouds play rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets to go first is a kind of magic. The skies turn green like a sunset in Oz and the winds take one last breather before the real work starts. It’s what the eye of a hurricane would feel like as seen through green-tinted hippie glasses. Peaceful and groovy. But that peace is short-lived once the funnel cloud touches down. It’d be ideal if we could all look as put together as Helen Hunt running away from a mondo-sized tornado, saved in the nick of time by a belt strap, alas, we are not Helen.
In elementary school, I and the rest of my classmates were rushed into the hallway multiple times to kneel up against the cinderblock walls with our hands over our heads as the tornado sirens wailed cylindrical wails outside. On one occasion, the storm blew open our hallway doors, sending a hundred fourth grade art projects down the hall like finger painted tumbleweeds. Teachers in long denim dresses ran to pull the doors closed while we looked on like scared Dalmatians. During my childhood, tornados waltzed down our street, took out trees by the duck pond, played pick-up-sticks with our fence posts and lifted the roof off our middle school, but apart from a few minor inconveniences, they never really found our house. We didn’t end up on the news in the cleared pathway of devastation. Other parts of town did, but we were spared time and time again. Question #573 I have for God once I get there is about the paths of tornados and why they can’t stay in the traffic lanes like the rest of us. Question #574 is why none of the cows in my neighborhood flew like in Twister.
While I was at the Bible School for Super Christians, Hurricane Katrina moved into the Gulf, turning New Orleans into a soggy shit show and coating the rest of the country in damp despair. The most important thing ever said from the pulpit in that school’s chapel was not part of a sermon, it was the announcement that the Dallas Convention Center would be taking in busloads of New Orleans refugees and help was needed getting those people settled in their temporary Texas hostel. For my two girl friends and I, this was not optional. You don’t get to cherry-pick when someone else’s need is more important your weekend plans.
Only half an hour from downtown Dallas, we left the bubble of our college life to show up and do whatever needed to be done. We’d been inundated with images of neighborhoods that were now murky fish tanks and of people wading through waist-deep water trying to make it to dry land. When you see the plight of hurting people, specifically people from your own country, it’s easy to feel both connected with compassion but detached with distance. What can I do from way over here? That was especially true before it was easy to bandage up that feeling by texting money to the Red Cross and then going about our day, resting in our ten dollar compassion. But on that day, we had no excuse of distance, and that meant it was our responsibility as human people to show up for other human people.
As the buses arrived at the convention center, the Louisiana transplants slowly made their way through a receiving line of sorts. Dallasites of all ages were there to meet them, to help carry whatever belongings they’d been able to salvage and to guide them to the two most important and holy places in the convention center: the bathrooms and the showers.
I unfolded and laid out green army cots, set blankets on each one–more if I saw children coming–and built family circles out of folding chairs. I unboxed and handed out bags of chips and bottles of water as if they were communion sacraments and the tired achy people who needed a hand and a smile partook with us. These people had lost their worlds. I knew that in a few hours, my friends and I would be going back to our dorm rooms full of amenities and these convention halls would remain full of cosmic question marks, each one hovering over someone who had to swim out their front doors to find safety.
After a dozen or so busloads had arrived, I spent a few minutes surveying the convention center scene. Between directing people to the nearest restrooms and payphones, I saw a large woman with skin as silky and dark as artisan chocolate wandering catatonic through the rows of cots. With three small sons in tow, each looking equally expressionless and hollowed out, she searched through the haze of loss for a place she and her chicks could temporarily nest. It wasn’t difficult to become lost in the endless grid of cots and people and shiny black trash bags which held everything that remained of their lives.
I walked down to two empty cots next to each other and began to wave my arms to get her attention. She shook off her daze when she saw me and in the time it took to walk over to where I stood, not only had her eyes found their focus but her tear ducts unclenched. She sent the boys ahead of her to claim the cots and by the time she slowly approached, her face was wet with tears. All she said to me was “thank you baby,” and she wrapped her large, warm arms around my neck. Tear duct unclenching is as contagious as a disease or laughter, and I caught it. We stood together, her leaning on me, and we quietly cried and took breaths together.
I helped her get settled and brought over extra blankets for her sons, each of which sat stoic like little Egyptian statues, sturdy-postured and perfect-mannered. She wiped off her arms with a wet napkin and I offered to stay here with the boys if she wanted to go take a proper shower. With tired eyes that glistened with gratitude and fatigue, she walked over to wash off the filmy residue of trauma, while my friends and I sat with her children and helped them rebuild their day with Legos and Little Debbies.
I couldn’t ignore the ache in my stomach; that awful feeling of knowing there wasn’t more I could do. I had chips and snack cakes but beyond that, what could I do? Sitting with them, I asked the boys what part of New Orleans they were from even though I was only familiar with the French Quarter. Truth is, all I’d ever associated New Orleans with was Mardi Gras and that association had morphed over time.
When I was young, Mardi Gras was creole for “Sodom and Gomorrah,” a cesspool of immorality and shirtless women. I knew nothing of the shiny celebratory aspects of Mardi Gras, only of seas of sinners having one last debaucherously wild weekend before they smudged ash on their foreheads and went back to being Kennedy-caliber Catholics in time for Easter. But, the year before I went to the Bible School, I actually attended Mardi Gras and spent Fat Tuesday watching the city erupt in beaded happiness while corner jazz bands provided an utterly hypnotic soundtrack. Wide-eyed, I swam in the rapids of people on Bourbon Street and witnessed fortune tellers and psychics dispensing a few dollars’ worth of foresight to tipsy tourists. I saw upscale masquerade rooftop parties, families gathered around colorful carnival games and a small contingent of nuns clapping along with a ragtime band in Jackson Square. It was magnificent.
The French Quarter is one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever seen. It’s as much a melting pot as Manhattan—except their ‘pot’ has clams and shrimp boiling in it—and walking around town on Fat Tuesday was like being a part of a day-long parade full of costumes and confetti and vodka. Everywhere I looked, the architecture and decorations made me feel like I was walking the streets of a technicolor Anne Rice novel.
The three boys I sat next to on the convention center floor slowly crawled out of their shocked states of mind. Little Debbies will do that for a person. They told me where in New Orleans they were from and of course I didn’t know where that was, but I played along. They then asked if I’d ever been to New Orleans and I told them I had. That excited them and they wanted to know where. I said I’d been to Mardi Gras and they, with all the little boy exuberance their tired bodies could muster, exclaimed how much they loved Mardi Gras and how delicious King cake was. At that point, I’d never had King cake before so I asked them to describe it to me. They told me all about the icing and the sugar and the little baby hidden inside and I listened intently. What can I say? I love a good cake. By the time their mother came back to our little enclave, they had lots to talk about.
When the buses had all arrived and everyone was settled, we were thanked for volunteering and told we could leave. Standing near the exits, I felt a gnawing pang of sadness in my belly. I surveyed the full-to-capacity convention hall, thinking of all that room had been used for. For auto shows and fundraisers, gun shows and comic conventions. Now it was a wall-to-wall shelter for people who had none. Most were hopeful but realistic about what awaited them if and when they returned to Louisiana and while some had family coming to get them and provide them some relief, some had no one at all. Even with that day’s help provided, the air hung heavy with helplessness.
The drive back to campus was a quiet one, no one really knowing what to say to each other. Honestly, I didn’t leave the convention center feeling good or patting myself on the back for doing the right thing. Laying on my dorm room bunkbed that night, I couldn’t get the faces of those three young boys out of my mind. What happens next for them? Where do they go? How do they get there? I prayed those questions and hoped the answer would be in the form of another chain of people who could show up for them in a way I couldn’t.
And that’s how I learned the importance of showing up. Show up when your fellow humans need you. We use the term “fellow man” for a reason. We’re in this life thing together. So show up. Show up when you don’t know what to do, only that you need to do something. Show up when you don’t know how to help, only that help is needed. Show up for those who can’t show up for themselves in that moment. Just be there. Be present. Imagine what our world could look like if everyone who tweeted or posted about disasters or atrocities or injustices actually showed up? There’d be no storm strong enough to take us down.
Join me in donating to the Hurricane Harvey relief at https://ghcf.org/hurricane-relief/