The following essay began when Hurricane Isaac blew through the Gulf Coast on the anniversary of Katrina this summer. I have been mulling these thoughts as I have read and watched and prayed for those in the eastern half of our country in the preparation for and on-going aftermath of super-storm Sandy.
During Hurricane Isaac, I felt out of sorts because our family had recently left the Gulf Coast for middle America and it felt strange that we weren't stocking up on batteries for the radio, moving all the patio furniture inside, filling our bathtub with water to use in the days after the storm, and strategically placing candles throughout the house for an anticipated power outage. Overall, it seemed that those same preparations echoed again all over the Gulf, but one thing was different. A thousand miles away, I knew about it. Through Facebook and Twitter I felt like I knew more about what many of the people and congregations I know and love were doing than when we lived there. Amazing. Although the storms haven't changed, how we talk about them to each other has changed dramatically.
Four years ago during Hurricane Gustav I owned a snazzy flip phone and although I knew that I had texting capability I had never used the phone for that sole purpose. Hitting the "2" button three times to get to a "c" for example made texting an unwieldy choice for communication. But after the storm, with cell phone towers flooded with high frequency voice calls, texting became the only reliable way that friends, church members and the medical professionals on our local hospice team had to talk with one another. We learned fast. Four years later, everyone on our hospice team would be provided a Blackberry outfitted with software to track time, mileage and even allow for basic check-list chart documentation -- a reality that would have been hard to imagine during Hurricane Gustav and inconceivable during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. When those storms hit seven years ago, many of us had never heard of Facebook.
Once again with Sandy, I have been amazed to watch how the use of smart phones, and specifically the use of social media, changes the tenor of a community preparing for a massive natural disaster. Through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram I see and hear what all my friends and loved ones are doing. I can hear their stress and can affirm how they are coping. I can send love and prayers and they can see that other people see them in their time of distress.
Grief can be very isolating. Six months after Hurricane Katrina our Gulf Coast community of Baton Rouge was still reeling with a population explosion of distressed and displaced people seeking a temporary home while seeking ways to return home. At this time I made my first trip away from the region to Chicago for a meeting and was shocked to realize that other places in the world were not dealing with the aftermath of Katrina every day. When I returned I sat in our hospice break room for lunch and one of the nurses, Linda, asked, "So, how was your trip?"
I paused and then replied with a question, "Did you know that in other parts of the country people don't talk about Katrina all the time?
There was silence around the table. Finally Linda asked, "What do they talk about?"
Knowing that others existed outside of our day to day challenges was both mysterious and yet somewhat hopeful. Normalcy would come to us again, someday. In the meantime, we remained in disaster response mode which for us was defined by serving the person in front of you and then working the lists we had made in times of calm to help guide and focus us during times of distress. Those lists of calls to make, procedures to follow, protocols to enact became sacred touchstones that kept you moving forward and held at bay the tide of overwhelming need.
There were so many stories though. We carried them with us every day. Stories of those we served. Stories of friends with households filled to brimming with displaced relatives. Stories of co-workers escaping from flood waters through holes in their roofs. The mementos. The bulldozers. We sat. We listened. But we were stressed too. Those avatars, status updates, pictures and links would not have offered any practical help in day to day life with traffic or mucking out homes or raising money for rebuilding but they would have provided a witness. Loving witnesses who proclaim, I see you, I care about you. How I would have loved an outlet like Facebook where I and so many others could have reached out to communities of wholeness, who offer fresh ears and in-tact hearts and minds.
The status update not only lets others know what is going on and that you are OK, but it allows you to tell your story. A year after Katrina, fellow pastor colleagues put together a book, "Voices of Faith in the Midst of the Storm," that collected all the e-mails, newsletter articles, letters and sermons that New Orleans and Baton Rouge-area pastors offered in the first year of recovery. The sermon I preached the Sunday after the storm is included, which I really don't remember outside of having our 2-week-old daughter in a front-pack carrier over my alb. If blogs had existed on a mass level at the time, the book would have been a blog. A testament to life lived on the edge of trauma. Real and uncensored, like Chris Rose's "1 Dead in Attic" that collects his columns from the Times-Picayune in the year after Katrina.
Although telling one's story holds tremendous power to connect us to supportive communities on our own terms, I also find that telling our story also empowers us to ponder the content of the stories we tell. In framing our experience into words and grammar we may think about what kind of story we are telling and what kind we want to tell. Our words can become a roadmap for how to live into a better version of ourselves.
This past summer I swam in the delicious stories of Rebecca Wells' central Louisiana plantations and bayous inhabited by the Ya-Ya sisters and their grown families. "Little Altars Everywhere" and "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" basically comprise love songs to the unique and often mystical culture of Louisiana where flying across the country with crawfish etoufee in your carry-on or ordering Community Coffee with and without chicory to be home-delivered every 30 days to your Midwest abode (yes, I did it-and you should too!) makes utter sense; a place where even transplants such as myself feel native. Wells explores the south through the lens of the Walker family, specifically the strained history of mother and daughter. Late in the book, the daughter, Siddalee, ponders her penchant for talking and writing as she fumbles her way toward reconciliation, and surmises on page 311:
"Words lead to deeds. They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness."
When used wisely, our words should both reflect the reality we experience with honesty but also shape the reality to come with hope. Words hold the power to both describe and prescribe. When we write or speak our words can be blessed harbingers of truth that allow our lives and existence to be affirmed as real. But our words can also challenge us to live in clearer expressions of truth with grace, where the realities around us cannot crush the realities we create from within. I saw this power last week as small missives of reality and hope came to concerned communities all over the world wearing the humble and unobtrusive form of status updates.
I close with the simple but powerful words of a prayer for one who suffers, written by Rev. Howard Thurman:
"I know I can't enter all you feel, nor bear with you the burden of your pain. I can but offer what my love does give -- the strength of caring, the warmth of one who seeks to understand, this I do in quiet ways -- that on your lonely path you may not walk alone."