Tuesday, August 30, The Day After. Jackson’s The Clarion-Ledger said: “The eye of Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast about 9 a.m. Monday with 125-mph winds. Around the state, the storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, flooded casinos, shut down major highways and even wiped out an amusement park…Nearly half of those living in Mississippi slept in the dark Monday night…Most major highways and evacuation routes throughout south Mississippi still were impassable Monday night…Although Katrina’s winds weren’t as forceful as Camille’s, the hurricane caused waves to swell higher than Camille’s, reaching 28 feet on the Gulf Coast. As a result, some boats crashed into buildings, and others wound up on the Coast’s busiest thoroughfare, U.S. 90, which was seven feet under water.”
Mississippi got the eastern wall, the worst of the storm. I couldn’t bear to think about all the destruction. The sandy Gulf shores where my family vacationed when I was a child. The beautiful coastal highway with beaches on the water side and old historic homes and quaint diners on the other. I played in the Gulf waters, collected shells, ate seafood. As an adult, I took my babies there and let them step out in the gentle waves. The waters were always so peaceful, so beautiful, and the sand and palm trees and sea touching sky were such a cool and calming contrast to my hot Delta home of black dirt and white cotton, just a few hours away. I remembered after Camille, we couldn’t swim in the waters for a few years—bodies were still washing up. Silent sobs bubbled up from my chest.
I stopped in Walgreen’s shortly after noon to pick up a prescription for my husband and to get some moisturizer for myself. My cell phone rang. It was my son. He hemmed and hawed and blew out hard. “Mama, it’s bad. It’s really bad here. It’s absolutely unreal. In central Mississippi, 85% of us are without power…the entire cities of Brandon, Pearl, Raymond, Byram, Clinton, Richland, Ridgeland, 95% of Flowood, 90% of Jackson, and 40% of Madison. We’re not expecting to have power restored until September 10, Entergy’s official target date for Flowood/Brandon. We have no communication with the outside world. No television news. Most radio stations lost their towers. No telephones. All but three cell phone towers in the area are gone.”
I lost connection with him three times during the conversation.
“No grocery stores. No hospitals. No gas stations. The one gas station that was open on this side of town ran out of fuel and food and ice this morning. No way to get food or water or Advil, and I have a migraine today, of all days. We can’t drink the water. We’re under a boil-water notice for the foreseeable future. Every stoplight is now a 4-way stop, making driving a pain in the ass. The heat index today is 107.”
I sat down Indian-chief style in the aisle in front of the Oil of Olay and let it all sink in. Probably half the state south of Jackson was in the same boat.
“For now, we have power here at my office, but it comes and goes,” he continued. “All of our food is in the freezer here, too. We have four big water bottles from the cooler that will last us a while. After that, we will have to use boiled water from the swimming pool. I also have purification tablets—remember how everyone always made fun of me for keeping those in my hunting gear? We have four propane bottles and a handful of candles, along with four or five flashlights.”
I’d never heard notes of despair in his voice before. I took in a few ragged, shallow breaths.
“No one was expecting the storm to be this bad. All of our Entergy crews were pre-positioned in the south and only returned this afternoon. It looks like a war zone here. And the National Guard in Jackson is shorthanded. We do have an 8 p.m. – 8 a.m. curfew for the entire Metro area. The few radio stations that are operating are using the emergency broadcast system to distribute notices and alerts.”
Alas, Babylon, I thought. This is the title of a book that tells how people in a small town cope with nuclear war and its aftermath and how, though numbed by catastrophe, they are driven to go on living. I read it as a teenager, and much later, my children read the cleaned-up version as required reading for school. The title became our secret emergency code in a crisis. I got the message that this disaster was one of unprecedented proportions.
“Getting gas is going to be a problem,” my son continued. “I saw a tanker truck on Highway 80 this morning being escorted by Army Humvees and a black SWAT team truck. They stopped all traffic to let it pass. The radio stations are telling everyone to stop driving around because the tri-county area—Rankin, Hinds, and Madison—is running out of fuel for emergency and utility vehicles. It’s becoming a real crisis fuel-wise.”
He and Nicole and their three dogs slept at his office that night, along with a dozen co-workers and friends. They all cooked and ate together.
Monday, August 29, 2005, The Day Of. I had a sinking feeling Katrina would toggle east and hit the Mississippi coast. Hurricanes always seem to change course at the last minute. A Category 5 storm was barreling toward the same coastline Camille ravaged in 1969.
Early morning, I watched CNN track Katrina as she made landfall at 6:10 near Grand Isle, east of New Orleans, with sustained winds of 140 mph, a Cat 4 hurricane. Then I went to work, assured the worst was over and the storm would weaken as she moved north over land.
My older son, his wife, and three dogs live in Flowood, Mississippi, a suburb east of Jackson, about two hundred miles inland, and I knew they’d get some wind and rain. My family land is east and north of Jackson, near the Alabama line. I worried about my tall pines and hardwoods. I had just contracted to cut timber in a few months.
About eleven, my son called from his Jeep Wrangler. He occasionally calls me as he does his errands, making efficient use of idle driving time. “I’m going to get Nicole. Most of the businesses here are shutting down early and sending their employees home. It’s going to be worse than we thought. We’re supposed to get 100-mile-an-hour winds.”
They’d left Nicole’s car parked in a safe place. She has a brand new vanilla PT Cruiser with a black convertible top. He had recently spiffed up his Jeep with new big tires and a lift, and afterward, he and a few friends drove it through someone’s pond just because, so a hurricane shouldn’t be much of a challenge for it.
I went home at noon, checked my yard—I’m in the next state up—for loose items that might blow away, and decided against going to Publix to buy bottled water and candles. After all, I still had a disaster box prepared after Nine Eleven.
My son called again around one. “My office is closed, too. I’m on my way home. Nicole just called and said our doorbell is ringing nonstop—from wind pushing against it. Listen. Can you hear the wind through the phone? It’s awful. Oh, shit! Oh, no, something hit my windshield, damn, it’s cracked!”
“How far are you from home?”
“Quarter of a mile.”
“Get there. Hurry.”
I sat glued to CNN, watching the radar track Katrina as she moved up through Biloxi and Gulfport, Picayune, Laurel, then Jackson.
Mid afternoon, after the worst of the winds, my son called again from his Jeep. He’s always got to be out in the middle of things. “We lost power. I’m out looking for ice. I just bought groceries for the month—can’t lose all that. Got to have ice. I’ve driven from one side of this city to the other and haven’t seen anyone with power. And every gas station is closed.”
“Just don’t open the refrigerator door. It’ll be okay.”
“You don’t understand. It’s going to be down for a while,” he said, spitting emphasis on down and while, then his voice lowered. “I can’t believe this—in Flowood there are two police cars at every intersection. With their lights flashing. There’s definitely a police presence here.”
“They’ll deploy the National Guard. That’s the first thing that happens in a disaster. The Guard will patrol the streets and keep people from looting. They’ll hand out water and ice. You’ll be fine.” I remembered the problems my parents had during the Great Ice Storm of ’94. The entire Mississippi Delta was without power for eleven days. Every store was closed, and people ran out of water and food and flashlight batteries and candles. The Guard was there johnny-on-the-spot and eventually opened Kroger, allowing residents to go in, ten people at a time, and buy things they needed.
“You don’t understand. Much of the Mississippi Guard is in Iraq!” he snapped.
Oh God. A homeland disaster and no homeland defense ready to roll.
“There’s one city block in Flowood that has power, and my office is on it. So is the police station. I can take my groceries to the office. We have a full kitchen there, so we can cook and eat there, too.”
He was trained in survival and always kept emergency supplies on hand. I thought of all the times we’d laughed and made fun of him for doing so. I knew he’d make it.
Now, Katrina was headed up Interstate 55, toward me, fast on her way to becoming Tennessee’s first tropical storm. I went to bed and waited for her to come blowing through. At 2 a.m. the sound awoke me. Winds pushing the trees in the backyard—tall, old trees that had been there for decades. I was afraid one might fall on the house, so I moved downstairs to the couch in the front living room, and the dog settled against my leg, sensing my anxiety and nervous in her own right about the noise outside. We both kept our eyes on the front windows.
Rain swept in sheets across the yard and the street beyond. It shimmered white under the glow of the streetlamp. The Japanese maple slammed and scratched against the window. The river birch banged against the chimney on the side of the house. The power flickered, the UPS on my computer screeched, and I dashed upstairs and shut the system down. I flipped on the TV to get a quick weather update and heard breaking news that a levee had broken on Lake Pontchartrain and water was pouring into the streets, a death knell for the city of New Orleans. A doomsday scenario. Oh God.
My cheeks stung and my eyes burned wet as I played flashbacks in my mind of trips to New Orleans, that hot, humid old city of character. Strong coffee, beignets, eggs Benedict, old bricks, iron fences, cemeteries above ground, artsy-craftsy people on Jackson Square, music in dark dives. I thought of the picture we shot of my dad on Bourbon Street in front of one of those dives, standing beside a poster of a mostly naked woman with a bottle in a brown bag under his arm. We threatened to show it to the deacons at church. I remembered my youth group’s trip down there, riding slowly through the French Quarter in our long green bus with First Baptist Church written on the side, before disembarking and walking though the streets of sin. I bought a little gold crucifix there and was told that Baptists don’t wear necklaces with Jesus hanging on the cross; we wear empty crosses. All the memories, the laughs, the fun, all the history, everything, now in water, under water. Gone.
The worst of the storm passed, and I went back to sleep.
I didn’t bake oatmeal cookies like I told you I did in a previous post. I described mixing up the flour, eggs, and pure vanilla, then blending in the steel-cut oats. I spoke of brown sugar dissolved in melted creamery butter. I had you almost tasting them, didn’t I? You were ready to bite in, weren’t you?
I even told you I picked the raisins out of the dough and poured in chocolate chips. I’ve never done that. Never in my life. I lied. I made the whole thing up.
How do you feel that I lied to you? Was that right of me? Was that ethical?
I’m a pretty good liar, I think. I included enough sensory detail to make it seem real, and I actually have baked a similar recipe of oatmeal cookies. I know how to do it. But I didn’t do it.
Slap my hand. Kick me in the shin. I deserve it.
Creative nonfiction writers have a contract with their readers — to tell the truth, to stick with the facts. “You can certainly re-remember the scene as best as you can. You can certainly research and pull from that research. You can use old photos — and the details in them — to create a scene for the reader. You can even imagine what might have happened at a certain time and place as long as you tell the reader that is what you’re doing,” Neil White says.
I didn’t do that. I just flat out lied. I did it because there’s a lot of talk about how creative nonfiction writers can make up scenes and add details to their true stories to make them more compelling and I wanted to show what it feels like to get that socked-in-the-gut feeling when you find out it’s all a lie, that that story, while compelling and mouth-watering, is not real, not true.
So I’m telling you I did it, I’m telling you why I did it, and I’m telling you I won’t do it again because I don’t believe in doing it. I’m of the school that will tell you to stick to the truth. Because that’s what nonfiction is.
“Any agent, editor, publisher with any decent reputation will tell you to call your work fiction if you fabricate anything,” White concludes.
Today I was told by a friend that my writing is powerful when I’m mad. I noticed that, too, when I was in the middle of it and digging so deep that my fingernails were scratching against and cutting into raw internal tissue.
We all do need to put emotion in our writing — give it depth, give it meaning, give it power. You’ve heard that old thing about “cut a vein.”
I read recently from Nonfiction Editor Chidelia Edochie of Sycamore Review:
“I like a little blood on the page. I want essays that manage to delve into the emotional depths of an experience, as well as to access a certain wisdom about the circumstances of the experience. Intellectual observations about human nature are all well and good, but what I want most to know is how the writer fits, emotionally, into the world s/he is recording.”
Blood on the page. Remember that.
I have a craving for some old-fashioned oatmeal cookies. You know, the kind with thick steel-cut oats and loads of brown sugar and pure vanilla, like your grandmother used to mix up in her farmhouse kitchen. I dig around and find a recipe which is not my Grandma Hardy’s because she just made hers up and threw in a cup of this and a pinch of that. I don’t think she even had a cookbook. I never saw one mixed in with the white enameled pans, ripe tomatoes, black skillets, pink Lux detergent, and worn doughboard that filled her countertop.
I mix all the ingredients up in a blue pottery bowl—flour, eggs, butter, sugar, white and brown, salt and soda, vanilla, then three cups of oats. I want to run my finger through it and taste it because there’s nothing I love better than brown sugar melted into creamery butter and eggs, but I have to worry now about raw eggs and salmonella, so I pull past memories from my mind of what that sugary wet taste was like on my tongue.
The dough is uneventful. All one color, no depth except for the occasional oat flake sticking out. I can spoon the dough onto the cookie sheet, and they will all come out of the oven the same size, the same shape, all the same—no colorful morsels scattered about, no sweet coating, no thumbprint on top with red jam in it. Boring. I know I’d eat a few warm ones, then leave the rest on the plate until they get hard as a brick bat and stale and my only recourse is to throw them away.
Following the recipe, I add a cup of raisins and fold them into the boring beige dough. Then it comes to me that I don’t like raisins in cookies. Raisins, shriveled up little fruity bits reminiscent of the body of a very old naked woman, dried up, wrinkled from toe to top. I pick the raisins out of the dough, one by one. I don’t care what the recipe calls for, I don’t want these things in my cookies.
I scratch through the pantry for something better and dig out a yellow bag with Toll House written on it. I cut it open and pour all these rich chocolatey chips with tiny swirls at the tops into the bowl and begin working them in to embellish my dough. Chocolate works well with brown sugar. And there’s nothing more compelling than chocolate. I always look at the top and bottom of a baked-brown cookie and take my first bite where the most chips are. My cookies will have depth and rich detail and when I bite in, the chocolate will melt in my mouth, and I will want more, and more. And I will eat until the plate is gone.
And then I wonder, Will these still be Grandma’s Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies? I have embellished with an ingredient that doesn’t belong. I have not remained true to the recipe.
What have I done?
Thanks to the Southern Literary Review for its heads-up on the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, Nov. 11-14, in Oxford, Mississippi.
The slate is full of pre-conference workshops with some of the best teachers and speakers in the field in all the world. The conference will feature Lee Gutkind, who taught the first ever university course in the genre in 1973 at the University of Pittsburgh … and who also indirectly came up with the name “creative nonfiction” … and who also is known as the “godfather” of the genre (there’s a story behind that!). So I definitely believe he is one to hear if a writer is interested in this genre and wants the scoop directly from the top!
Dinty W. Moore will be there. I plan to take his all-day Friday manuscript critiquing workshop. He is one of my favorites. I think he’s one of the best teachers in the field, and I look forward to a day spent in his tutelage … with Sherry Walker from Colorado Springs — we were together in Dinty’s class at the 2008 Oxford conference. Our friend Sarah Einstein, also there in 2008, won a Pushcart for her story we critiqued in that class.
The 4-day schedule is packed full of classes and panels and receptions. And in between, I know there will be networking, talking about writing, about life, about what we’re gonna do next, dinners in darkened restaurants over glasses of wine, and lunches in quaint downtown Oxford.
To sign up for this conference, go to the Creative Nonfiction Conference website.
There’s usually one, the yellow one in the middle, who lives with me and sits at my table and cries for my food and sleeps in my bed and claims my living room as hers, the watchpost from where she does her “job” of keeping me alerted to any potential dangers…or actually anyone walking down the sidewalk.
Here, there are three little ones. I visit with the grandtwins, feed them their apple-cinnamon snack, sing to them while they eat, even entertain them with the “Go Meat!” commercial, and the yellow one puts herself right in the middle of it all. She is entitled, she thinks. She is mine and if I have something available, it should be hers, too. She is important, she counts, she is not dog, she is human. She knows it. The little humans know it, too, and they share.