Thursday, February 16, 2017
The Golden State embraced me while I waited for the rental car bus. With palm trees and abundant sunshine and February’s crisp air, it was always a ruby-red-slippers moment when landing at LAX. The forecast showed rain during my four-day, solo writing retreat in Malibu, but I was more than fine to spend a few rainy days on a cozy loveseat while writing, drinking coffee, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
As a native Houstonian, I never got used to March snowfalls in New York City. My cure became an annual escape to L.A. and Santa Barbara, via the Pacific Coast Highway, and always stopping for a bite in Malibu. Friends urged me to take Highway 101 to avoid the PCH traffic. “Are you kidding? And miss seeing the ocean and mountains in one view? You do know my daily commute is underground?”
The first time I drove on I-10 to its westernmost edge and emerged from the tunnel onto the PCH, the view hit me as if I’d turned to Auntie Em in the passenger seat shouting there’s no place like home! I planned to move to California after living in NYC for a decade, but my red slipper clicking took me to Houston instead where I began my ever-doubting question–is this my home?
I rekindled my love for Malibu on a few trips from Houston with a significant other. It was now time to take my significant self to the west coast, searching Airbnb and finding Malibu by the Sea, a place I could easily call home if the lottery were in my future. The owner, Connie, gave me a tour when I arrived–a cozy, first-floor beachfront apartment, a box of fresh pastries on the counter with chocolates and a bottle of red. We talked about the next day’s storm.
“Don’t be scared, the wall will hold everything. The surf may spray up the deck, but I promise you’ll be fine.”
Through a full wall of sliding glass doors, I had a panoramic front-row seat of the Pacific Ocean. “We have hurricanes in Houston,” I assured her. “I’m not scared at all. This is fantastic.”
Tropical Storm Claudette hit. My family and I lived in Friendswood, a suburb of Houston. We were picked up by boat at our front door and taken to a local church until the waters receded. I clearly remember the tetanus shot in the ass.
Hurricane Allen hit. We evacuated beforehand. I clearly remember sitting stuck in traffic on I-45 North.
Hurricane Alicia hit. We sheltered-in-place, hunkered down in the hallway covered by a mattress, hearing the “freight train.” We lost power for a week, took ten-second cold showers, and rationed food. Beyond hot indoors, I clearly remember eating canned tuna sitting at card tables with our neighbors on the front lawn.
2001, 2005, 2008, 2012
Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricanes Rita and Ike hit as I watched the Weather Channel’s round-the-clock storm porn from my couches in Philadelphia and NYC. From my couch in Houston, I sat watching in absolute disbelief as Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and turned my Jersey town of Hoboken into a lake.
Friday, February 17, 2017
A xylophone ding woke me, a text from my best friend who was at an acting audition–“How crappy is weather there in Malibu? I’m so sorry a monsoon comes to L.A. for your trip.” I responded with a quick text about how magnificent this was going to be, a writing prompt gift with all its storm metaphors and turned off my phone as I had made a no-electronics rule. I sat at my table for one, proud of the hotel-worthy breakfast I’d made, which one should always do on a trip with their significant self, and listened to the twenty-four-hour soundtrack of breaking waves and rolling surf. Like soul medicine. It was high tide, no beach, my only separation from the ocean was a fourteen-foot seawall attached to the beach house, right off my deck, bearing the brunt of each wave. Connie and her husband lived in the beach cottage’s floor above me. I didn’t feel alone, but we never spoke that day. It was just me, pen and paper.
And then began what became Southern California’s strongest storm since 1995. Flash floods, mud slides, high winds, and sinkholes. Five lives were lost.
Connie said I might see dolphins. I doubt it today. I’m sure they’re in the deep, the calm. As a little girl, my body broke the waves, water rushing past my hips in Galveston Beach. I stood grounded until a larger wave pushed me off balance, pulling me under, giving me a choking mouthful of salt water. I always recovered, laughing, facing again the little waves. Turned my back to the bigger ones and braced.
Just lost power. Do they say “hunker down” in Southern CA?
The waves swell and roll and crash against the seawall. My throat swells and tears roll from my eyes. This is the most gorgeous and perfect fury I’ve ever seen. The salty ocean is a healer.
Shit! I lean back from the glass door as the spray shoots up the deck. High.
Power back on. I see a dolphin fin. Effortlessly swimming. I can smell the salt. I’ve stood at the door’s edge, open wide for the last two hours, mesmerized by this storm. Five seagulls fly along a wave and surf it before it crashes. Fearlessly flying.
A siren. I have no idea what’s happening on the PCH. Please no mud slides. I have to close the door. It’s freezing. Okay, just open the weather app this one time–“49 degrees. Special marine warning. Possibility of waterspouts with wind gusts over 50 mph. Seek safe harbor immediately. Flash flood warning, rain falling an inch an hour.” I sit down and a flash of heat spreads through me. I have no safe harbor.
It’s dark. I hear Connie’s bulldog above pacing on the hardwood floor. I haven’t eaten since breakfast.
I’m going out to peer over the deck, see how much seawall I can still see. My chest is tight. The storm’s magnificence wanes in the darkness. Jesus, pour some red and calm down.
The lights flicker again. Twenty yards from me the waves crest, hurl towards the shore and crash into the seawall, shaking the whole house with a big thud.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
My stomach is in knots. I’ve never seen water this angry. I’m angry. What is the lesson, God? To be afraid? Then I’m afraid. Full on fear. Can I pray for a steel wall? Could this house float away? Will this foundation hold? I don’t know. If I feel the beach shift underneath me, what will I do? What is my plan?
Connie and her contractor husband must know something I don’t. Or maybe they’re really afraid, too. I have to turn away from the glass doors. The more I watch it, the more terrified I am. Like a rolling, swirling madness out there.
I have to lay down. I have to be still. I have to give up knowing what will happen.
I stood on the deck at 10:00 am, the sun peering through the clouds’ breaks, holding a second cup of coffee after another hotel-worthy breakfast I made for my significant self. The weather app that morning told me what I saw with my own eyes. The rain had stopped but the water still raged–“High surf advisory. Waves will build 10-14 feet today. Strong rip currents. Risk of ocean drowning for swimmers and surfers.” Something was different though. No fury and no anger in the Pacific. I simply asked, “What is this water, this storm telling me?”
The answer came as soon as I’d asked. Every five seconds a crashing wave grinded forward. All I felt through my tears was its power. The lesson wasn’t to be afraid. It was to give in to my powerlessness. This storm was a power higher than me. I had always believed in God, but the “higher” part, the surrender, I had never lived. I am here says the ocean, the roar. Listen to me. Do you see me? Do you hear me? I am here. For you. This storm is for you.
I have no idea the lesson of Hurricane Harvey. It is just too soon for me to understand. We talk of rebuilding and recovery because we have to. But there is immense grief buried underneath the resilience that it takes to begin again. So much loss. Of homes. Of people. Of hope. Of patience. Of power. In life, in nature, we just keep weathering storms. We lose power in our homes and in our lives and we just keep hunkering down–such a bulky word with a beautiful meaning: to hold resolutely when confronted by unfavorable circumstances.
My refrigerator full of perishable food, I throw it all away. The city takes its belongings to the curb and starts over.
For more Table For One.
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