Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Flood of Words

Harrisburg, PA, September 2011

The Susquehanna, already full from a year of very high level rains, threatens. Tropical Storm Lee saunters up the East Coast, adding insult to the injury of Hurricane Irene. Northern tributaries are overflowing by Thursday, September 8th, and in Harrisburg, the nutty Mayor orders all who live between Front and Third Streets to evacuate ... regardless of the fact that wide swaths of that area do not flood until the Susquehanna is at 31 feet or more.

Reason has never been one of this mayor's strong points. She does love power, though, and this natural disaster gives her an opportunity to strut.

Reports start coming in saying the river might hit 29.5 feet. Just for a point of reference for non-Harrisburgers, the Susquehanna floods in Harrisburg at 17 feet. The worst flood on record was during Hurricane Agnes in 1972, when the Susquehanna reached 32 feet. Half the city was under water.

As the new predictions arrive, and the rain keeps falling, my friend Paul, who lives in a very nice basement apartment, is told by his building manager to move everything upstairs. Everything.

We start packing.

The Mayor continues to blather in front of the cameras about closing down Restaurant Row because drunk people do obnoxious things like jump in the river. Having ordered everyone to leave, she realizes she'd better put out a second order for a curfew.

At one point she actually commandeers a rescue boat and has rescue personnel motor her through the already flooded streets of the city's most low-lying area--Shipoke. She waves her princess wave from under her bulky life jacket. That the empress is wearing no clothes via pearls and cashmere is only part of the entertainment of these few days.

On Calder Street, where I live, seasoned neighbors, including Betsy, who grew up here, tell me I have nothing to worry about. Yet worry is one of the things I do best. I laugh in the face of danger, then panic. After a stroll down to the river shows the mighty Susquehanna, always an impressive broad spectacle, spreading into the garden where my son had his prom pictures taken, I hurry back and commence cleaning my basement. Maybe I'm not going to lose my piano and furniture, but that basement has a lot of cool stuff, and I need to save it.

Hours later, cobwebs hanging from my sweaty brow, I have toted clothing to the second floor, stacked boxes of beloved children's picture books on top of high shelves, and hauled out four garbage bags of stuff that should have gone out long ago.

Nearing exhaustion and hefting containers filled with children's early photograph albums with Mickey Mouse motif covers, I uncover a nearly empty plastic storage box I haven't seen in quite a while. I open it. Inside are my master's paper on Emily Dickinson, my PhD dissertation on Iris Murdoch, and, in a plastic envelope, the manuscript of a novel that took me years to write, in between mothering three young children and working at jobs that actually paid. My family life in one crate, in photographs, and my intellectual self a tiny relic in one oversized plastic tub.

The electricity doesn't fail on my side of the street, much to my chagrin, as my neighbors are outdoors complaining about theirs being cut off, but I lose cable and Internet. I sit down to read.

The next day, I'm still reading. I fall asleep reading one section. But later, I flip pages compulsively, eager to find out how I ended it that draft around. I fall back in love with my characters.

The characters truly are like old friends. I've missed them. I forgive them. Who abandoned whom? I forgive myself. They're all nicer now than they were before, and perhaps so am I. There is no absoluteness about them anymore. Something within me has changed.

About the flood. I had not one drop of water in my basement. I'm awash in gratitude.