It’s not so much the encompassing dark. Or the bitter cold that seeps into every crevice and bone. Beyond that, it is the uncertainty that steals in with every breath and drags behind with every step.
It is Thanksgiving. And nine days ago, my city, and surrounding areas, was devastated by a wind storm with hurricane force winds that would not release their grip until nearly every street and neighborhood received its fair share of destruction.
The weather forecast said high wind advisory, and at a cursory glance, which truth be told is what many of us have time for, it looked like we’d be in for a gusty and cold November day, best spent at home cozy and cuddled with family and pets.
I didn’t have time to waste, and so after leaving my classroom, I ran my errands to the grocery store and then headed to the library to look for a few books to capture my boys attention, and one for me to fall into.
I don’t know who else in the library knew the storm was growing ferocious in its hunger, I only know my first clue was when the power flicked off and then on again. But that happens around here. Or at least, the way it used to happen was that the Inland Northwest would get storms, here and there, punctuated every decade or so by a major storm, worthy of claiming a “name”.
We had a system. And it was predictable. If you were one who grew up in one place, let’s say in the decades from the 50’s to the new millennium, you experienced the environment and seasons, and through most of those formative years, you could safely assume that you were in general, an expert on your climate.
Having the picture book perfect equivalent of four seasons framing my childhood most certainly formed me, and while spending my traveling twenties with my feet on places other than this soil, spoiled forever the notion of landing permanently anywhere else but here.
Cities and geographic spots on the map give a point of reference for where and maybe, what a place may be. It is the people who dot that landscape though who write out the definition for how and why and who.
People on the east side of this state and the basically extended-by-marriage-family in the adjoining panhandle may possess many characterisitcs, but do not forget this; when “it” comes down-they are hardcore compassionate and passionate community.
We used to be able to claim that we here in the Inland Empire, as we referred to ourselves, had no natural disasters. No earthquakes, no tornados, hurricanes-please. Far enough from mountain chains and coastal reaches, we won “Mr. Predictability” hands down, for decades.
Until the earth shook and rolled that title away. In the late nineties, we had what I could recall was our first felt earthquake- and it woke me up, out of bed. A few years later we had our very own baby tornado roll through the West Plains, not far from where I grew up.
In Spokane, it is a fact that there is only two degrees of separation between aquaintnaces. In some parts of town, that narrows even further, and the longer you live here, or are from “around” here as we lovingly like to say, you learn to be careful what you say to who.
However, When it comes to comparing weather events, in an effort to make sense of what we’ve just lived through, this closeness of contacts is a shorthand to friendship and neighborliness. Ice storm was in ’96, right? We’ve confirmed with each other. And firestorm was – ?, right?. I remember we were, or I was, or they were during that ten day power outage, snowed in during that storm, evacuated during that fire.
We need to know in the midst of an unbelievably destructive event that we’ve done this before. Someone has made it through. Years have softened the sharp memories of dark, cold, fire, fear.
What I’ve been struggling with this week, has as much to do with my personal identity as my community identity-and I can see how much one is of the other. Our power went out around 6:30 Tuesday evening, by then we realized that this storm was bigger than we knew, and bigger than us. I was in bed, in blankets already, and soon after, my three boys were there with me too, which was sweet and cozy for about 10 minutes, when we needed to conserve our phones and tablets and flashlights batteries, and so tucked everyone into their own beds for a restless nights sleep.
What happened in the late afternoon that day and into the dark early evening was the worst of disasters that Spokane has seen in remembered history. It became clear in the weak late fall light of morning that all was not well, and as we searched the neighborhood, as others searched their homes and streets and roads and parks, that this storms toll was on a scale unlike any we’d ever measured on.
I went back to bed shortly after I came downstairs, dismayed and sick by the scene of our neighbors home, five trees laid across their home, fence, shed and property like a cruel game of giant pick up sticks.
I felt helpless. It took until days later, after the power was on and a warm talk with my sister by a fire lit purely for cheer to dredge out the complex emotions that had weighed me down, numbed me and accompanied me as I took our three boys and bags of food up to my parents home of refuge for two nights and two days.
I cleared the debris; the branches of powerlessness (electrical and spiritual); of countless pine needles of guilt for not knowing how or who to help, pricking every step I made; fallen trees, as heavy as my fear of the shadow of evergreens fencing my back yard, became menacing when all was dark; and the panes of glass painted with dust and ash and rain as clouded with uncertainty as my thoughts were: about when would our power return, why did this happen to my city, my people, who was suffering worse than I, how safe would my husband and our dog be in the deep dark, sleeping by a fire stoked to keep the pipes from freezing, while people sick with whatever drove them were breaking into homes down my very street.
That Tuesday night, after the storm, I looked out my window, scanning our completely darkened street. No street lights, no house lights, no windows warm with a glow from within. The only light was in the clear sky. Clouds had been pushed away by the winds, and all that was left was a twinkling landscape, a sight for eyes already sorely weary of dark.
As homes regained power, in a patchwork quilt as seemingly as random as the outages spotted our city, slowly the story began to emerge. This is the place we live now, in this time- where our dependency (and in so many ways, positive) on our technology has found a place in every meaningful part of our days. You discover this when you are cut off from the grid that powers your life. The stark and bare reality is that the sources for our power simply are exceeded by our demands.
Some families just had their power restored Tuesday evening. There are still homes, at least 5,000 by last count, without. At one point last week, nearly 300,000 homes in this area were without power. Our city’s population was literally either staying with someone who had power or hosting someone who had lost it. Information about places further than a mile from where you lived seemed irrelevant. Every neighborhood was struggling with what they could bear. Every family was doing what they could to cope or help someone else to cope.
Everyone did the best they could.
That was the grace I finally allowed myself the day after our power was restored. You see, people in this place feel much for others and not always much for themselves. Those who never lost power have some measure of guilt. But they didn’t choose to get to keep their lights on. None of us got a say in what homes would be damaged, our how long our spaces would uninhabitable. Still, the guilt persists. We still have much of our hard-working, physical-demanding, Midwest-demonitonal, settler-hero-complex-history-past mentality that dogs us.
And while that has seen us through countless storms of ages ago, we are not the same city as then. Whatever we carry and treasure as methods of coping, or traits of resiliency can be powerful tools to carry our community from this storm. Because things are not the same.
Now, I live somewhere that has natural disasters. Maybe yearly. Maybe cyclically. My four seasons aren’t predictable anymore and the climate isn’t one I can count on.
Two weekends ago, my parents took my two oldest boys to buy them new bikes for early Christmas presents. When they returned, they left my boys happily changing gears and braking around our cul d sac. While my mom and dad were sharing their adventure (and any shopping trip with my boys is just that), my mom said after I thanked them,
“Well, we figured it was as good a time as any to get their bikes so that they can ride them during the winter.” She paused and looked out the window. “We”, she glanced at my dad, “we never used to even dream we’d ride our bikes in the winter. There was always snow. Too much snow for that. Things are different now.” We all settled into the moment, in the small space between past and present and future. And while for me, and maybe them, it was sad to lose what we knew, I felt a flicker of warmth and comfort because we shared it together. In common.