We Are the Light

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It’s Monday morning, August 28, 2017, a date that will forever be branded into my heart. I am in the room that I set up for my grandchildren to sleep in when they come to visit, and I am thinking of them and wishing that I was with them. I want to wake up from what feels like a horrible nightmare, but I know that it is all too real. The true extent of what has happened to my beloved city is only beginning to hit me and everyone else. I have cried all morning long. My emotions are raw and unmoored. I feel relief that I am still safe, but there is a gnawing sense of guilt that I have been fortunate while others are suffering so. I want to rush out and help to rebuild lives, but the streets all around are still hopelessly blocked with high water. There is more rain in the forecast. Our ultimate fates have not yet been determined. This fickle storm is striking here and there and everywhere. We have no idea whether or not we will become victims of its wrath before it decides to leave us.

Even as I write I have friends and family members who have had to evacuate their flooded homes. Last night Mike and I had to coach a niece in the safest way to shut down the electric power in her home as the waters crept dangerously close to the electrical outlets on the walls. Knowing that she had to sit in the dark in the second story of her home while the first one flooded was disturbing, but even more so was the realization that there was nothing I could do to help. She might have come to the warmth of my home in other circumstances, but for now such a journey is impossible. Frustration and worry have become our constant companions.

Meanwhile my daughter and many friends are being urged to voluntarily leave their homes because of threats that levees protecting their homes will be ineffective. The water that is expected to come from rising rivers is higher than anyone ever dreamed they would be. The levees are strong but they may not be high enough. Now those along their paths must either take their chances or attempt to find someplace to go. Nobody has any good idea of where that might be or how they will get there. So they sit and wait, hoping that their fates will not be dire, knowing that the unthinkable has already happened all over the metropolitan area from the north to the south, the east to the west. Thousands of square miles larger than the state of Delaware are inundated, within those waters were the homes and the hopes and the dreams of wonderful people whose only possessions now are their lives.

Over four million souls are struggling today to understand our new reality. We watch the images and sob. Even our newscasters break down in tears. We are overwhelmed but determined. We are the face of America, and I hope that all of the world is watching for they will learn about courage and grace from us. Still, the reality is that our city and its many suburbs have been dealt a death blow. So much has been destroyed that it is difficult to process. Our recovery will take years, and during that time our stresses will increase.

Right now we are working together. Ordinary souls are saving lives. Generous people are bringing boats and supplies and hope from all over the country. We are committed. We want to live. We want to rebuild. Even those who once resided here are filled with desire to come back to help. My grandson who is a student at Purdue University in Indiana can’t seem to focus or concentrate on his classes. He wants to fly home to help in the efforts to reclaim our city. He has cried and wondered if the people around him can possibly understand the affection that he has for his Texas home. I have counseled him to stay in a place that is safe and to fulfill his dreams and those that we have for him. Nonetheless I understand how he is feeling, because my thoughts are the same as his. Nothing seems more important than standing shoulder to shoulder with my family, my friends, my neighbors, the strangers who live here. We are all one, and the road ahead will be so very hard. Each of us will have to play a role in setting things right.

For now I want to scream each time the winds increase and the rain falls to the street below. I want it to stop. I want it go away. I want my people, my Houstonians and folks from Katy, Sugarland, Pearland, Friendswood, Dickenson, Pasadena, Magnolia, Spring, Cypress, Clear Lake City, Texas City, Bellaire and all the other suburbs to finally feel a bit of peace. We can tackle the problems of rebuilding later. For now we just need a break, a feeling of hope, or we may experience a collective breakdown.

I can’t keep up with all of the events that are unfolding by the minute. I try to find out how those that I know are doing and just when I think that they are fine something changes. We do our best to keep up our spirits. We pray together. We provide encouragement. We express our sorrows. It gives us a bit of meaning in a situation that makes no sense at all. Not since Katrina and the devastation in New Orleans has there been such an horrific disaster in the United States. The scope of the tragedy is enormous. We desperately want to begin the work, but we need for the storm to go away…now!

Patience is at a premium, but we will need it in abundance, not just today but for many days to come. Faith and optimism must guide us, even when we teeter on the verge of losing hope. We must keep our energy and determination alive. Our love must be an example to all of America. Somehow at this very dark hour in my city when the skies have once again turned gray we must be the light. It is the only way.

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Urban Exploration

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I vividly recall a Sunday afternoon of long ago when I was still a child, an innocent with longings for adventure. I was exploring the neighborhood by my grandmother’s house with a few of my cousins. We had ventured a couple of blocks farther away from the area where we usually confined our play, taking advantage of the daylight and the fact that our parents were busy visiting with Grandma and didn’t notice our absence. Our intended destination was to get as close as possible to the mountains of gravel and sand that stood like exotic behemoths on the grounds of Parker Brothers’. We were hoping that we might actually be able to climb on the manmade peaks if we were clever enough to find a way inside the fence that guarded the the mounds that beckoned us. Ours was childhood excitement on a grand scale, and we set forth on our expedition feeling rather courageous and a bit guilty that we were leaving without first consulting with our parents.

We had not gone far when we encountered an abandoned home sitting seemingly in the middle of an urban industrial zone. It was easily as eery as any haunted house that we had seen in horror movies with its peeling paint, broken windows and overgrown yard. We were fascinated by the structure and agreed almost without uttering a single word that we must learn more about the strange place. We carefully waded through the weeds and inspected the structure from all sides, moving along a three hundred sixty degree path near the foundation of the once noble building.

It was a two story house that surely had been a show piece in a neighborhood of tiny bungalows. Our grandmother’s place might have fit easily inside the cavernous space. We whispered our theories of who might have lived here and why they had decided to leave, but mostly we discussed whether or not we should dare to go inside. The open door beckoned us, but our knowledge of fairytales and the trouble that envelops children who are careless gave us momentary pause. Eventually our curiosity overcame our caution, and we crept quietly and slowly past the threshold and into the unknown void.

Birds flew freely inside the rooms through holes in the roof that allowed the sun to serve as lighting. Cobwebs decorated corners and dust served as carpet on the floors. The scene was at once serene and frightening. There was something oddly disturbing about the elegance of the architecture overgrown with neglect. We surveyed our find with a kind of reverence as though we had unearthed an archeological dig, noting the features of the rooms and using clues to determine who we thought might have lived there. Then we saw the staircase leading to the rooms above us and we were overcome with desire to venture into an area that we somehow understood was taboo.

Like Ulysses of old, the siren call of those stairs overwhelmed all of our common sense, and we began our dangerous trek up the wooden construction that wobbled under our feet as though it was ready to collapse from the weight of our bodies. It was a precarious path on rotted wood that snapped now and again beneath our feet, but we were determined to overcome our fears and reach our destination, and soon we were peering into a strange world that made our hearts beat so rapidly that we felt the pulse of anxiety in our throats. There before us stood evidence that the house was still very much in use. The trappings of civilization were all around.

A mattress lay on the floor with the imprint of the person who used it still visible. A dirty pillow lay at the ready for nighttime slumber. There were changes of raggedy clothing, packages of food items, a comb missing many of its teeth, and other artifacts of human civilization strewn on the floor. It startled us to see the humble possessions of some unknown occupant and we quietly wondered who might be the inhabitant of this strange world. For the first time we felt like trespassers, and determined that we must quickly leave lest the owner of the habitat return, but first one of the more daring among us decided to get a closer look at the scene. He stepped gingerly inside the room while we watched him from the safety of the stairs. As his confidence grew he almost danced as he reported on the things that he was viewing. He threw caution to the wind which was ultimately his fatal flaw, for without warning part of the floor beneath his feet collapsed, and he listed to the right as his leg disappeared into the hole. We rushed over to pull him from danger and with fear overcoming us ran screaming back down the stairs and directly out into the yard.

Our eyes were as big as saucers and we were hardly able to catch our breaths because we had suddenly come to our senses and realized that we had overstepped our bounds in invading the property. We were overwhelmed with a desire to get back to the safety of our grandmother’s house as quickly as possible, and without uttering a single word we also took an oath to keep the details of our transgression a secret that our parents would never know. We ran as if someone was in pursuit, and only laughed at ourselves when we were standing safely on Grandma’s porch.

We never returned to the old place again. Somehow we had quenched our curiosity about that house and never again discussed it. We eventually made it to the gravel mountains on another day and were chased away by a security guard who warned us of the dangers of our explorations. As we grew older we became more circumspect and shuddered at the risks we had taken as children. Still, the memories of our urban explorations would fuel a curiosity in me that never quite went away. I continue to be fascinated by abandoned locations whether they be houses or buildings or manufacturing sites. My imagination takes flight whenever I encounter the remains of mankind’s folly. Such places might be found just about anywhere, and while I am now far more respectful of the shrines than I was as a child I still long to get a closer look and to know the stories of what happened.

In my travels I stumble upon such ruins now and again. New Orleans is a particularly good city in which to view the remains of former dreams, and I rarely fail to drive past what was once a thriving amusement park that now stands empty as a kind of homage to the devastation of hurricane Katrina. In the heart of San Antonio there is an old Catholic school that is overrun with weeds, mold and graffiti. Near Jefferson, Texas is a steel mill that is rusting to the ground. There are so many locales that once held the hopes and dreams and laughter of people whose tales I would so like to hear. Now the structures are shells of their former glory, caverns of uselessness except as keepers of a silent history long past.

I recently learned that urban exploration is a kind of hobby for a number of people. There are photographers who specialize in revealing the beauty and artistry of forgotten structures. There is something quite lovely in catching just the right angle of the remains of another day. We humans are as fascinated with the anthropology of modern man as we are of the ancients. I am one of those who searches for such things with a fascination that began long ago on a lazy afternoon when my cousins and I were daring adventurers. My curiosity lingers to this day.