(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1987)
It's grey and overcast outside as I write this, but for a little while the pavement is dry and the puddles on the lawn are shrinking. In the three weeks since a deluge of battering rain triggered the worst flooding in Michigan history, the rain has seemed to be a permanent part of the landscape; such brief respites remind us that it's possible we'll spend a day in the sun again.
In such a month as this, after the devastation of swirling floodwaters, after days and weeks of virtually unrelieved gloom and damp, we struggle to figure out how to respond. We need distance from events to give us perspective, but the unchanging weather refuses us space to retreat to. Our collective spirits are being tested and we feel an end-of-winter gloom in the middle of autumn.
The physical damage of the flooding has been so widespread that everyone knows a host of horror stories—collapsed basements, ruined carpeting and furniture, lost books and papers and photographs. In my town the Pine River surrounded a local supermarket and department store, swept across downtown streets, closed every bridge connecting the two sides of town. What on the first day was a curiosity of raging water and limited inundation became on the second day a creeping threat and on the third a relentlessly spreading terror. From dry ground on impassable streets we stared uncomprehendingly at houses made uninhabitable by the floodwater. While I watched, playful canoeists out sightseeing paddled down the middle of Downie Street past a despondent couple in a rowboat—the men in the canoe trailed a mallard decoy, the couple transported luggage away from their apartment building.
Even those whose homes were safe on high ground had connections to the damage. A couple who had recently moved to a new home found five feet of water in their old one and pondered the impact on the unfinalized sale; an older house down by the river that we had thought of buying three years before, its exterior totally renovated by its new owners, was completely surrounded by water several feet deep. Friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers—everywhere you turned you found someone damaged or ruined. One day when the water had receded, we helped a couple empty their home, lugging waterlogged bedding to the street, disinfecting furniture, ripping up ruined carpeting and pulling up the spongy linoleum under it and watching the wooden floors begin to buckle as they dried. The smell of muck and mold and disinfectant stayed in our lungs for hours after we had returned to dry ground, a shower, and clean clothes.
The spiritual battering of the flood's aftermath has been even more widespread. As the rains continued and the waters rose again, we watched the weather with numbed disbelief, the initial shock and eagerness to rebuild replaced by a sodden weariness and persistent wariness—no time to ponder cause and effect, only dazed acceptance of a permanently waterlogged lifestyle.
If any good comes from the weeks of relentlessly rainy gloom, it lies in the constant reminder to those unaffected by the flood of the plight of those devastated by it. Those of us on high ground have a tendency to get on with our daily lives once our curiosities and conversations are sated with flood information; those still waiting for the waters to recede, still struggling to count and compensate their losses, still listening nervously to the rain at night and waking with alarmed alertness before dawn, know that the fabric of their lives has been altered and their sense of security perhaps permanently shaken. We highlanders need to stay aware of the lowlanders' situation: there but for the grace of topography go we.
If anything, these days in deep water ought to remind us that much of what we occupy ourselves with daily is of transitory importance, that ultimately what matters is the quality of life where we live. Moreover, the quality of our lives is inextricably bound to the quality of our neighbors' lives. In an age when our society continually invites us to isolate ourselves from one another, to value our individual desires above our communal needs, the lesson of catastrophe is that we can't survive in isolation. The flood's effect is paradoxical: at the same time the rising waters cut us off from one another, they remind us that no man is an island.
If we haven't learned that lesson these last few weeks, we are in far deeper waters than we can handle.
Note: "In Deep Water" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 42-44.