The Gathering Waters

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These past few days I cannot seem to shake this dis-ease—this disease of anxiety. It’s the feeling of the earth shifting under the feet; of doubt in all that I’ve known to be true. Our neighbors are hurting. We’ve given and donated and offered ourselves as available, but for those who’ve lost so much it can never be enough.

So I do what I always do when I feel helpless, I bury my nose in a book. A couple days ago I picked up Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, a novel I’ve always wanted to read but just never have until now. Summer is for reading, and what’s more, for reading fiction, in my book; so I finally took the plunge. I’ve savored every word of Berry’s economical writing, loving his storytelling voice, which—and this came as no surprise for one well-familiar with his poetry—is warm and rich and lovely.

Last night Jeff had a late meeting and Jeffrey had plans with friends, so after I fed the one remaining boy at home (grilled chicken and vegie kabobs, outside dining on the deck), it was with a thrill that I spread an old blanket out under the shade of the lilac bush. The ground is almost dry now from the heat of the summer sun, the sky dripped blue over me, and I could hear the grasses in the meadows shushing. I carried a stack of books with me like I was going on retreat and read with the songs of Robins as a backdrop.

Turned out I only needed the one book, Jayber Crow. I settled deeper and deeper into the story of orphan boy turned man and it was just the distraction I needed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned the page and came upon a chapter titled, “The Gathering Waters.”

In this chapter, Jayber is trying to get back home to Squire’s Landing, Kentucky after taking a roundabout way through Louisville. He is on foot and Berry soon has him walking through one of history’s greatest flood stories, The Great Flood of 1937. In Jayber’s story, he safely crosses a bridge in peril, only to find himself with nowhere to go. A policeman directs him to the capitol building, where he finds warmth, shelter, a hot meal, and a place to sleep for the night among other refugees.

I was thoroughly tired, and I didn’t exactly lie awake, but I didn’t exactly sleep either. As soon as I shut my eyes I could see the river again, only now I seemed to see it up and down its whole length. Where just a little while before people had been breathing and eating and going about their old, every day lives, now I could see the currents come riding in, at first picking up straws and dead leaves and little sticks, and then boards and pieces of firewood and whole logs, and then maybe the henhouse or the barn or the house itself. As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea, the water rose and filled all the airy spaces of rooms and stalls and fields and woods, carrying away everything that would float, casting up the people and scattering them, scattering or drowning their animals and poultry flocks. The whole world, it seemed, was cast adrift, riding the currents, whirled about in eddies, the old life submerged and gone, the new not yet come.”

As I read Jayber’s story, I knew I was reading the story of so many West Virginians. My heart was in my throat as I poured over each line, each detailed description of Jayber’s encounters. The scenes were so real, so fresh to me, and images flashed through my mind of mud-filled school buildings, cars atop trees, houses spilled out into the streets. Everything I’ve seen and heard on the news these past few days came to the forefront of my mind and my heart was stilled. Berry places his hero in the Great Flood of 1937, a flood—Wikipedia tells me—that seeped from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, left one million people homeless, took 385 lives, and caused millions (billions by today’s standards) in property damage. This, during the Great Depression when resources for aid were scarce.

It feels like our little state has dipped back in time. We keep shaking our heads and wondering how such devastation can occur during this day and age. But this is what comes of a living scratched out in the shadow of these ancient mountains, a living born in the rich soil of river valleys. It is, as Berry wrote, “… as if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea.”

Cleanup will take a long time here. It will cost much, in more than dollars.

If you want to see more of what is going on here, here’s a little taste from the Weather Channel.

If you’d like to help with the recovery, check out these organizations.

The Red Cross
The United Way of Central West Virginia
Volunteer West Virginia
The Salvation Army

And please keep praying for our neighbors.

After the Rain

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Last Tuesday I drove home from work in a hailstorm. The rain lashed my ten-year-old minivan and I watched sheets of water shed down hillsides and form streams in the low places. Lines of cars and trucks and vans pulled over onto the side of the road, but I held steady, plowing through fast-running water on the road. I worried about my tomato plants—their new, tender growth vulnerable to breaking. I hadn’t even staked them yet, waiting to see where they might need it most. When I arrived home, the rain was too heavy to check. I stood in front of the bay window and watched the stalks bend under the weight of all that wet.

Finally, in the evening, the sun came out, but it was only a short reprieve. It would rain on and off in sudden, violent bursts for three more days.

I worried about my tomato plants and my beans but the news told stories of nursing homes being evacuated, of children swept away in fast-rising water, of power outages, and burning homes floating down a swollen river. It felt surreal. Then, Friday night we went to a blues festival along the Kanawha River and I was stunned at how high the water was. We were on the University of Charleston lawn, directly across from the capitol building. From where I stood I could see the capitol steps had been swallowed up by the river. Bits of debris and chunks of unidentified objects flowed through the fast-moving waters as I stood on the bank with a lump in my throat.

Yesterday gave us our first day without rain in a while. I slipped on my orange rubber clogs and splashed out to check my little garden. The beans were fine, vining up their trellises happily. But I worried over the tomatoes. They were bent and twisted, leaning precariously in awkward positions—but not broken. I rummaged around in the crawl space under the house until I found my old tomato cages and wooden stakes. I worked for hours, until my fingertips turned green and smelled of tomato leaves. I pinched off low hanging leaflets and suckers, I cut an old pair of panty hose into strips and tied up errant limbs. I worked until my back hurt and my nose was running, my feet soaked from wet grass and soggy earth.

In the paper this morning, there is a long list of things we can do if we want to assist the flood victims and/or with clean up efforts. Local churches and grocery stores are collecting drinking water and cleaning supplies, the Red Cross has set up shelters for people, and a shelter has been set up for pets by the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association, but if you want to donate to the efforts, here are a couple ways:

  1. Volunteer or donate to the Red Cross. Visit org/local/west-virginia or www.volunteerwv.org
  2. Volunteer or donate to the United Way of Central West Virginia: htt://unitedwaycwv.org/
  3. Talk to your church about making a donation to either of the above, or do what the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston are doing.

There are so many things we can’t control when disasters strike, but there are always ways to help. And I can always pray.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in her audiobook Seeing in the Dark: Myths and Stories to Reclaim the Buried Knowing Woman, says it is a miracle to be born into this life. ” … given all the things that can occur between conception and birth and beyond,” she says, ” it’s a miracle not only to be born but to remain alive in this this world. There’s a reason … for us to be doing what we do, thinking what we think, feeling what we feel, seeing what we see, and bringing it into a world that literally is starving to death.”

Today I celebrate the lives of those we lost this past week, and all the gifts they brought into this world. I pray with my heart heavy, lift my neighbors up before the One who can bring light to the darkness. I pray as I stake and tie up a tomato plant, bringing order to the mess, pruning to make room for new fruit.