July 16, 2013
The paradoxical power of water: how it heals, blesses, baptizes; how it threatens, drowns, floods.
I am writing this from the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, where I grew up and where I return once or twice a year from my home in Indiana. Days before our arrival, the Valley experienced the worst flooding it has seen in modern history.
The rains came hard for hours upon hours; the Mohawk River and Barge Canal ran high, but more importantly, the dozens of creeks and streams at the foothills of the Adirondacks overflowed and poured out into streets and homes and businesses.
Some family and friends lost their homes; some lost their cars, while others lost only some old stuff from their basements. This kind of adversity brings out heroes, men and women who didn’t sleep or eat for days to rescue people and animals and provide clean drinking water and food and shelter. It also brings out great reserves of simple decency:
the neighbor who lends a hand shoveling mud, the friend who brings ice to a family whose power still hasn’t been restored. But disaster has a shadow side, too.
Today alone, I heard two conversations that troubled me deeply, stirring me into a funk from which I’m having a hard time getting out. During lunch, my brother-in-law answered a phone call from a man aggressively pushing a scheme connected to flood clean-up. There have been reports in the area of people posing as volunteers, contractors, city and village clean-up crews, and employees of the energy companies. These con artists often prey on the elderly who are alone, need immediate help, and have no way of checking credentials online. Lord, have mercy.
Recovery efforts have also been marred by looting.
Flood victims have emptied their ruined possessions onto the curbs outside their homes for collection. These piles are quite clearly junk: soiled furniture and various crumbling items carrying the stench of standing water and sometimes sewage. The items are heaped haphazardly near the street to be thrown into dumpsters and garbage trucks. Other residents were able to save some possessions.
These folks have been airing out their things, often working in the front yard wiping down their family’s items with soapy water or bleach. They leave these objects, clean and orderly, to dry while they get rid of residual standing water in the basement or walk down the street to check in on others.
In line at the store a few minutes ago, two young women with children spoke of having had items—a vacuum cleaner, a picnic table, a child’s bicycle—stolen while things were drying out on their property. The look on their faces betrayed a feeling we’ve all had at some point: not a trace of fresh indignation, only a dull, weary knowledge of our fallen world.
There’s a part of us that wakes up in the moments of suffering, remembering that no matter how bad things get, there remains a threat of further evil to yank you back a step for the two forward ones you just accomplished at great pains. When we’re down, some people will lend us a hand and others will try to kick us. In this life, the threat will not be eradicated.
It will persist alongside us as wheat and tares grow together. It will be there even as the names and faces change, even when our children grow up and go out into the world without us.
The sun is out today and the waters have receded. I read and think and play with my kids in the yard. And as I acknowledge evil, I pray as I often do for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. And I turn to poetry, as one on the fringes is prone, sooner or later, to turn and face the center.
I don’t turn lightly but with faith forged in my experience of God and people and love. Even in the shadow of the valley of death.
I think of Auden’s famous definition of poetry: “…the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Poetry is an art of paradox.
Mary Oliver is an “after the flood” poet. She won’t provide vapid cheer but rather wisdom and companionship. Her work brings to mind another poem, this one by Jack Gilbert, which I am fond of quoting and which contains the lines: “We must have/ the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/ furnace of this world. To make injustice the only/ measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
In Oliver’s “At Great Pond,” the speaker—observing nothing less fraught and complex than water—gives the measure of her attention to life in spite of, or because of, death
, accepting her gladness and encouraging me to do the same, even here, even now:
…all around me the lilies
are breaking open again
from the black cave
What poems do you turn to after the flood? Where have you seen the lilies break open?
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