It’s just after lunch and I’ve turned my rickety-red pickup truck into my small town of Nowhere, Texas. The days have begun where in the sun, the Texas heat continues to beat down in her typical fashion—the kind of beaming that makes you feel like you’re a lizard under a heat-lamp trying to digest after a long meal. But as the sun lingers on with her usual strength, there are now moments of hope hiding in the shade—tiny hints of fall air are beginning to collect in the shadows, even at a high-noon sun. I love this time of year: warm in the light, cool in the dark.
Little Foot is singing the ABCs from his car seat for the five-thousandth time and I’m still not tired of hearing his little voice articulate the letters. In the slow drawl of his “I”s and “y”s, I can hear that he’s adopting a bit of my southern twang. I drive on, the creaking of ole’ rickety-red increasing as the roads become gravel.
I follow the long, curved road that cuts through town under heavily blooming pecan trees when suddenly, I slam on the brake and pop the truck’s shifter into neutral. Gravel crunches beneath us and dust quickly rises like a gray blanket in front of me. As it settles, I see a woman about twenty feet or so in front of me kneeling in the gravel, her hands reaching behind her head like she’s pulling her own hair and she’s sobbing. Beneath her is a golden-brown dog laying on its side, a small pool of blood drying in the dirt and rocks around its belly.
A man comes running out after her and he kneels next to the woman who turns and buries herself in his chest. Even with my windows rolled up, the A/C running, and at least twenty feet of road between us, I can hear the woman wailing in heartache. The man holds her and I see him lift a hand up to swipe a tear from his own eye, too.
“What happened?” Little Foot asks with a small voice from the back seat, his ABCs having stopped.
“I don’t know, bud,” I say, fully knowing what’s happened.
He’s quiet and so am I. The man turns to see my truck sitting there and I see his immediate inclination to get this scene out of our way. I don’t want him to feel rushed, so I back up and pull the truck to the side of the road. Do I say something?
“What you doing, mommy?” Little Foot says as I swerve the truck in reverse and into the grass.
“I’m backing up the truck, bud,” I say.
The man is saying something to the woman now and she nods, slowly stands up, and walks back toward a house to the right. Her arms are wrapped around herself and she’s still crying. The man adjusts himself over the dog that looks to be some kind of golden labrador. I decide then to open my truck door and step out.
From now twenty-five feet or so away, I call to the man, “Do you need help?”
He turns his wrinkled face to me and says, “Oh…no thank you ma’am. I’ve got it.” He smiles a sad smile and then looks back down at the dog. From the right, the woman is standing on the covered porch of a small, brown house. She’s got her hands balled up in front of lips like she’s saying a prayer.
The man slips his hands beneath the dog’s neck and behind his back legs. I hear the woman whimper from her porch as the man stands, the dog limp in his arms. A small tinkle of a collar clangs as he turns and walks toward the house.
I climb back into rickety-red and Little Foot says, “Hi mommy!”
I say, “Hi honey.”
I press the clutch, shift the truck and drive forward, swerving around the small, dark spot of bloodied rocks, and then onward toward my house.
In the driveway outside of my house, I pull Little Foot from his car seat and grab the stack of five new library books we’ve just checked out from the library in the next town over. As I shut the truck’s door, Bunny begins to bray from the pasture, then Tink, then Tee.
Inside, Little Foot takes two of his new books into his bedroom and begins to sing his ABCs again. I stand at the back window where I can see that Bunny, Tee, and Tink are all up wandering around and I’m so relieved because last week, I thought we were going to lose Bunny.
The day after I came back up north from Houston where I was helping my folks out in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I noticed Bunny acting strangely—not eating, laying down a lot, walking very slowly when she was up—and I know enough about donkeys to know that if they’re acting like anything is wrong, there’s likely something very wrong. They’re quite stoic and show pain only when it’s gotten really bad.
I’d called the emergency vet and they arrived, examined her, and determined she was likely experiencing colic which can be deadly in equines. They had to pump her stomach right then and there and then we had to keep her off of food for a while. It took her several days to recover and for those several days which are crucial after a stomach pump, I thought my sweet donkey was going to die.
I stand at the window now, watching her nip at the other donkeys, graze, and walk without issue and I’m so grateful for her health that it hurts. From this distance, I can see the little swirl of fur that’s between her eyes—the spot that I’ll rest my head on when she’s got her nose in my chest and I realize how much Bunny and my other donkeys mean to me. Thoughts begin to poke in my mind…the “what if she’d died? What if she colicks again? What if…” and I stop, and I breathe.
And then Houston appears in my mind. The flooded streets of my childhood rushing like rivers as babies cry on small boats that have pulled them from their homes. Blank faces of residents who can’t comprehend what’s happening to them. Military trucks in my town transporting families with wide eyes and wet hair. Scared and shaking dogs, cold hands, brows beaded with sweat and rain.
I stop, I exhale heavily and suddenly, I’m bawling.
I sit down on the ground and I cry. I cry into my hands, tears and snot pooling in my palms. I cry for my hometown, for the people who are still struggling. I cry for the people pushing air mattresses carrying children and pets down river-roads while the rain continues to pour. For the people who are still in shelters unsure of what comes next—the people who can’t answer their children when they ask, “what’s happening?” I cry for the fat tube that was run up Bunny’s nose to pump her stomach and for the way Tee and Tink stared at her through the fence, breathing heavily and terrified. I cry for the woman who couldn’t find her husband and for the man that I saw coming off of a military truck only two days after I ran into him at the creek not yet swelled taking pictures with his cell phone just like me. He lost everything. I didn’t. I cry for the realization that Bunny will die one day. So will Tee and Tink. I cry for the dog in the road and how much its owners must ache right now—seeing the insides of their companion on the road because someone wasn’t driving cautiously enough or at least wasn’t kind of enough to stick around. I can hear the woman’s heartbroken cries and can see the hurt on the man’s face.
I cry and I cry and I cry until nothing but heaving remains and when I lower my hands, my own dog, Tucker, is sitting in front of me with his ears laying back. His brown eyes look right into mine and he lowers his head. I pull Tucker into my lap and stroke his back over and over again.
A minute or two later, Little Foot comes running in and says, “Mommy, let’s sing ABCs.”
I wipe my face as Tucker steps out of my lap and as I stand, turning to my curly haired boy, I say, “Okay, bud.”
He grabs my hand and leads me toward his room and as we walk, Tucker following behind us, we sing the ABCs together. I squeeze his soft, little hand in mine.
I’ve just opened up my laptop for the first time in a week. I click on the open document I left unfinished from last Thursday: a drafted blog post telling a story about how I’d managed to lose a chunk of my left pinky finger while attempting to fix the mower on the same day that a thunderstorm pushed through that knocked a tree into a fence by the donkey’s shelter, forcing me to scramble in the rain to get them herded to safety. I was describing how some weeks are just “off” and how it’s important not to lose our cool even when we lose parts of our fingers, but I never finished that post because Thursday evening is when the forecasters were beginning to realize the potential damage that would be coming to my hometown in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
My parents and much of my extended family live in Houston as do many of my dearest friends and the majority of my heart, and so as we woke up Friday morning to a much more certain fate, I decided to pack some of my tools (tree trimmer, buckets, rubber boots etc) and drive down in my rickety red pickup truck to Houston to be with my parents in the event damage would occur at their home.
There weren’t many people going southbound on Friday afternoon—even the road signs were advising drivers to avoid the area—so the drive back home to Houston was an eerie one. I shared the road with fleets of tree trimmers and 18-wheelers and when I finally made it to my parent’s house, we all embraced knowing that we were in for something big.
I was raised in the gulf coast region. We know hurricanes. We know what it means to hunker down and how to respect the tropics because they certainly demand it, so as Harvey pushed ashore Friday night, we stayed up watching the live radar and sending our love to Port Lavaca, Corpus Christi, Rockport, and so many of the coastal towns that were hit with the hurricane’s most intense force. As Friday night turned Saturday, we in northwest Houston only saw rain and an increasing number of tornado warnings, so we spent our time trimming branches and moving/tying down outside objects that could fly in tornadic winds. We kept the best contact we could with our friends and family all over the gulf coast area and as Saturday turned to Sunday, we started to see Harvey’s rainfall effects pretty dramatically in our area.
The water from the nearby creek began to rush and swell out over its banks, threatening the neighborhood where my parents live and by Sunday evening, the roads were impassable, even by trucks. We moved the valuables from the first floor of my parent’s house to the second floor as we saw the water rise up over the curb and into the yard. As the evening turned to night, we just watched and waited.
To our surprise and gratitude, my parent’s house managed to stay dry on the inside that night and so as the sun came up on a rainy Monday, my dad and I took our respective pickup trucks out into the neighborhood to see if there was anything we could do to help those whose homes were now and quickly becoming underwater. I’ll not go into too much detail, but I ended up spending Monday and Tuesday out, mostly at and around the nearby volunteer fire department, doing anything and everything I could to lend a hand along side dozens of others to an area becoming increasingly more inundated with rising water.
It’s Thursday now and I’ve come back to north Texas…to King Ranch, Little Foot, and my donkeys, and I just keep staring out the front window at the grass that needs to be cut by the mower that’s still broken. My thoughts are swirly and blurry and so sad for my hometown where I grew up and became an adult; where I graduated from college (go coogs!), had relationships, adventures, late nights, long walks, and even longer talks. I think about the freeways where I’d drive too fast to work downtown or to memorial park for a jog on the trails, or to the yoga studio where I taught my very first yoga class and how I now know what all of that looks like under water.
And it’s still unfolding down there, y’all. There are areas where the water is still rising. I just…I just can’t wrap my head around the past week and my family and me didn’t even have it bad like so many thousands of people.
Here’s what I’m desperately trying to hold onto and what I hope emerges from all of this: we are one. The two days that I spent out giving a hand, I encountered hundreds—literally hundreds—of people who left the safety of their own homes to come out in the pouring rain and uncertain circumstances to help…to do anything they could for complete strangers. People came out with hot food, supplies, tools, energy, high water vehicles, boats, canoes, kayaks, air mattresses and anything they could because that’s just who Houston is: a city of givers. I got to meet some of the Cajun Navy and I’ll tell you that none of them were afraid to risk it all to save someone in need.
By the time we were wrapping things up on Tuesday, shelters were turning away volunteers and donations because within only a couple of days there was that much of an outpouring of love for our community.
As person after person climbed down or was lifted down from those military trucks in the cold rain flying in sideways, there were no politics. There was no religion. There was no division. There wasn’t anyone trying to have the most intellectual comment or most profound opinion or any sort of snobbery. There were only hands that held each other tightly, infants passed delicately and met with dry blankets to be wrapped in, kisses on cheeks and wet pets on leashes eager to be held and told it was going to be okay. There were people searching for their loved ones and even more people trying to help them reunite. There were children, wide-eyed and brave: one child, I remember, with her pet hedgehog quivering in a plastic pitcher who still took the time to say “thank you” when someone offered her family a ride. There was no room anything but preserving life. There was safety and love and support and a coming together that proves that as humans, we are one: we are made of love.
We were all human out there and we all…I mean we ALL…had each other.
I can’t imagine what so many families have in their future as a result of this storm but I am so hopeful that this strength in community continues as strongly as it did this week—that people will continue to volunteer their time and effort and resources to help those in need because the need is enormous. I hope, so badly, that we continue to come together to lift each other up in this. To embrace each other, to clothe and feed one another, to not pass judgement and to be kind simply because we’re all human experiencing something that I’m not sure we’re equipped to truly understand and in that, at least we know we’re not alone.
If you have been turned away from a shelter in the last couple of days because they’re at capacity with volunteers and/or supplies, please go back next week and then the next because for so many, this is long term. This won’t be yesterday’s news for thousands of people for a very long time and they need all the help they can get.
Texas, and more specifically Houston, I love you. You’ll always be my home. I love the people that are still living in you—the people who are working around the clock to make you better. I love that you’ve brought out the best in people in the worst of times. I love your diversity, your creativity, your art, your music, your complexity and your heart.
And on a personal note, I want to thank the Cypress Creek Volunteer Fire Department for everything that they did for northwest Houston. I got to see first hand how hard and diligently they worked to save over 2,000 people from rising waters and I am in awe of every one of them. And to the team that I had the honor of working with: Andy, Michael, Reed, Michelle, Debbie, Erica, Ken, Robin, Otto, Tim, Jaime, Dean, Jack, Bree, Bill, Kristen, Ryan and gosh, if I forgot anyone, please know I remember your faces and your vehicles and I’m so grateful for all of you.
There’s nowhere else out in the world like Houston. We are Houston Strong.
Yesterday, I studied the date on the donkey calendar that hangs over my desk for more than a moment trying to recall why August 2nd was significant when it finally hit me: six years ago on August 2nd, I had heart surgery. It wasn’t open heart surgery with a cracked open chest but instead, a procedure where they went in through my femoral artery to travel into my heart with heated instruments whose mission was to cauterize the ends of several rouge nerves that were misfiring around my struggling heart. The real kicker of the surgery was that I had to be awake in order to have my heart behaving in her most natural way. It hurt like hell.
I’ve talked in my blog before about my heart surgery, so I won’t go into more detail about that particular day, but what I am reminded of everytime this date rolls around is just how important it is to properly care for your sweet heart and just how great the strength is of that little ticker. Dr. Seuss said that you’re “stronger than you seem” and I’m pretty sure that kind of deep-seeded strength comes from your ole beating heart. I got to know my heart pretty well that day—that day when I learned what it felt like to have your heart literally touched. I ached when she was burned over and over but you know, I’ve never met a person that didn’t have scars on their heart. It’s universal. It connects us.
Beating hearts. This world is full of them. I’ve sometimes thought that if I could have a superpower, I’d like the ability to hear other people’s heart beats from a distance. I think of how many times my heart has thudded so heavily that I could hardly hear anything over its thumping in my ears and I wonder if other people’s hearts do that too and to what extent. Like when you see something or meet someone that makes your heart leap around like hyper harlequin, wouldn’t it be comforting to know if other hearts were just as frantic in that moment? I think if our hearts could move like it, they’d respond to situations in the same way dog’s tails do: wagging when happy, hanging when sad, tucking when scared.
I also truly believe that if everyone would stop, even for a split second, and think about how everyone…everyone…has a little beating heart inside their chest that’s capable of being happy and timid and terrified and brave and every shade in between, then maybe we’d be less likely to be so cruel to each other. If we could imagine the uncharted and infinite depths of our potential kindnesses that are hungry to be explored and embraced, then maybe we would actually start to know peace.
I love hearts. I love their complexity, their strength, their sounds, and their endurance. I love that there is fortitude in their vulnerabilities. I love that they have chambers opening and closing and flowing with rich blood because that image is just the coolest scene to imagine. I love that they can be burned, literally and figuratively, and still continue to beat strongly.
Anyway…here’s to continual heart health, y’all. The heart in me honors the heart in you. Badum, badum, badum.
Above soaring, jagged rocks
The world’s weight tugging
Heavily on your bones;
Her mouth open wide and
Ready for an easy meal…
Wind whipping and howling
With voices from deep underground,
Voices that you swore were buried
Beneath stone and time,
Their smokey doubts swirling about…
Above bird songs where
Clouds roll with secrets;
Air streaming thinly through
Your rising and falling lungs
Quickening with the thump thump thump of your heart…
There, plant tightly your tired feet,
Steady your scattered soul,
Reach deep into your gut, raw and rank
And realize the horizon-reaching,
Broader and more complex view within.
Realize that you are riddled with rolling secrets, too
And with beauty beyond written words
With often old voices shaping your moves.
Realize that the universe within you
Is worth beholding, worth admiring,
Worth travelling far and taking risks
To see and feel and inhale deeply into.
Realize that and
You, my love,
You, my friend,
You, my stranger, You,
It’s hovering around 10:00PM and although the sky has seceeded into the most navy of blues, the heat and humidity of a clear, July afternoon still hovers about, sticking to our foreheads. I’m sitting on the railing of the wooden balcony that wraps around the reception hall in which two of my very best friends have just gotten hitched—my feet dangling high above the ground which, looking now, is much farther down than I initially realized. As a native Houstonian, I’m not used to structures on steep slopes like they have here in West Virginia as part of regular geography and especially not when I’m on my third glass of champagne.
Two or so dozen feet in front of me is a line of thick, dark, towering trees and twinkling endlessly in their shadows are thousands of dancing fireflies. Their sparkling song seems endless—over and over the darkness pops with glittering yellow and green flashes and as I struggle to fully exhale the smoke from a long drag I’ve just taken off of a celebratory cigar (I don’t think I even know how to properly smoke a cigar, but I had to try on this night) it dawns on me that this is one of those experiences I’ll remember for the rest of my days.
I’d gone to West Virginia three days before this—before the wedding, the cigar, the balcony and the fireflies—because one of my dearest friends (who I will henceforth refer to as Mountain Mama) asked me to be the Maid of Honor in her wedding. Having never been to West Virginia or really, any of her surrounding areas, I’d arrived with absolutely no expectations—a clean slate ready to be filled with whatever the wilderness held for us. In typical Mountain Mama fashion, we forewent a bar-crawling, explicitly decorated bachelorette party and opted to take her brother and soon-to-be sister in law on a hiking / white-water-rafting adventure in and around West Virginia’s New River Gorge.
The four of us, Mountain Mama, her brother (The Frenchman) and soon-to-be sister in law (Hannie B) set out across the state at seven in the morning to be the early birds catching the worms on the hike out to The Endless Wall and lucky for us, we caught that scenic worm with hardly another hiker in sight.
There were several small paths which veered off the main trail, each leading to jagged-rock ledges overlooking the valley and each one of those roads-less-traveled was worth exploring. Each careful step closer to the edge tugged at my gut and at my heart so hard that words, thoughts, worries, and cares about anything escaped me. In other words, the views from The Endless Wall Trail were literally breathtaking.
We did this for several hours, the four of us, hiking through the wooded paths high above the river. Rhododendron bushes were in full bloom pouring over from the edges of the trail and even sometimes hanging down from above our heads—their light pink and white flowers delicately sprinkling our path…nature’s flowergirl.
After our souls were fully saturated in the views from way up high, we ventured down low to see the gorge from a much quicker moving perspective—that of the raft.
Of the four of us, only the Frenchman had been white-water rafting so as we geared up and rode down to the take-off point, our nerves and the weight of what we were about to do started to settle in our stomachs. Neither Mountain Mama or I could think of what to say so until we were successfully out on the water, we just giggled nervously.
Lucky for us, we had two other adventurerers ride in our raft: the Miller’s out of Ohio, who, first time or no, did an amazing job rowing on down the river—better than the rest of us most of the time. And we also had the most excellent of tour guides who was completely responsible (and successful!) for keeping the six of us alive on that river. (If you’re ever looking to raft the New River Gorge, might I suggest booking with Adventures on the Gorge. You’ll be especially lucky with Chris as your guide. We sure were.)
This three hour ride down the river was thrilling for two…well….actually three reasons:
When approaching the rapids, no matter how many you’ve gone through, there’s that moment seconds before you steer into the crashing, whitecapping waves surrounded by jagged rocks that you think, “there’s no way I’m getting out of this right now,” and so you clutch your paddle, wedge your feet, and row like your life depends on it—because it does.
The banks and the scenery lining this river in which we rafted were stunning—there were massive rocks (which, according to Chris, are often named based on their shapes) that you could swear have been around since dinosaurs have. Wild flowers peeked from the trees and weeds and birds soared about between the mountains. Not to mention, when you come around the curve and see the New River Gorge Bridge, you can’t help but be humbled by the skill and hands of the humans who built it.
You make friends with your raft-mates. That’s the thing about adrenaline junkies—you commune in potentially life-threatening situations and, I’m not sure if everyone does this, but I look around the raft (or plane, or boat, or rockwall, or whatever the particular setting is) and think, “well, these could be the last people with whom I share breath” and suddenly, you kind of love them. It’s a connection like no other.
That night, after the rafting and a few drinks with our newly acquainted friends, Mountain Mama, The Frenchman, Hannie B and I drove down into the woods to set up camp. The sun had gone down by the time we made it to our site, and so, using the headlights of our vehicle to light our way and keep clear of stepping on slugs, we quickly set up our tent and settled in for bed. I’ll cut this part short, but, due to a few unforeseen circumstances, we had to pack up our tent in the middle of the night and rush back across the state instead of being able to complete our night of camping. I will say that, thankfully, everyone was fine and really, driving across West Virginia and through the mountains at 2:00AM was quite an adventure in and of itself. So many stars. So many deer. So many odd car conversations.
The following day, we hiked more—this time on the other side of the gorge, down the Long Point Trail. This hike made for much better viewing of the bridge and even more of an opportunity to be stunned and humbled by nature’s beauty.
From there, we traveled even farther east to Mountain Mama’s tiny hometown where we romped in hidden waterfalls and forgot what it felt like to move so quickly all the time.
This led into Sunday which was the wedding day and all I can say is that it was perfect. I’ll not go into further detail, for it’s not my story to tell but, spoiler alert: I suspect the couple will live happily ever after. They are a couple who redefine what it means to love someone and I am so honored to have been a part of it.
Which brings me back to this railing that I’m perched upon among the chorus of well-wishing fireflies…where I’m choking up because I leave first thing in the morning. I try to take another drag off of the cigar, but I cough lamely and decide to focus my breath on the air that, realistically, I’m not sure when I’ll have the chance to breathe again. I imagine this West Virginia air swirling into my lungs and around my spine in a glittering, white light. It illuminates all the darknesses lurking in my anxious body and as I exhale into the now black night, I’m left cleansed.
I imagine in this moment that a glowing piece of my heart breaks off with my breath and floats on into the wild and wonderful air—that a little piece of my glowing heart floats away leaving a dim, glittering trail tangled with fireflies and settles itself upon the banks of the New River Gorge where it’ll wait for me to come back to retrieve it. It’ll glow, even when the water and the rocks cover it up with the rising tides. It’ll be there, pulsing dimly in the dirt, that piece of my heart that never wants to leave ole’ West Virginia. That little piece of my heart that fell in love and would be damned to leave. It’ll wait there with the ghosts that linger in the mountain mist, waiting for me to return…and I will…someday.
Until then, stay wild and wonderful, West Virginia. Take care of my Mountain Mama and her betrothed…and of that little piece of my heart that’s stuck there. I’ll be back to get it.