Wrestling with Speed and Volume

Lessons Encountered During a Year of Transition

In June 2010 I returned to New Orleans after a year spent getting a degree at Harvard. Though the year at school was full of marvels, it was narrow too. My family and job were back in New Orleans. All I had to do in Cambridge was be a student—not a wife, not a mother, not a wage earner, not a homeowner. With the responsibilities of adult life suspended, time took on a spacious quality, juiced by the adolescent overtones of being cooped up with 1000 other people in a couple of school buildings. We even had clanky metal lockers and dances in the cafeteria.

As in high school, I experimented with new ways of being in the world. I found myself taking part in soirees, lectures, and conversations that were outside my usual habitat. Placed up against this exotic wallpaper, my chameleon skin started to turn new colors. When the year was over and I went back home, the full force of my old life poured back over this skin in transit. The result was a slow motion reckoning as exceptional as the school year itself.

The encounter made some things clear immediately:  what a relief it was to be living at home with my family again, for example, instead of being a single person on the hook to attend nightly parties. “I am so glad I don’t have to do that again!” I would shout out of the blue, startling the dog. Most of the time, however, I didn’t see clearly at all. It was too soon to integrate all that had happened during the year at school, but the responsibilities of a full life were coming at me from all sides nonetheless.

In response I behaved like a competent assembly line worker, battling through tasks at the rate they arrived. Rather than identifying what was most important and delegating tasks I didn’t have to own, I responded to demands on demand, switching gears multiple times an hour from emailer, to conference caller, to friend, to cook. The flaws in this reflexive approach are well known: superficiality both in product created and in a hepped up mindset that doesn’t tolerate slow burns. I wanted to demonstrate quick competence in the face of volume, and this desire undermined my ability to know, much less show, my new colors.

Wrestling with my outsized expectations brought a second wave of education—unofficial but rigorous. The more I tried to claim the dividends of my investment in the Ivy League, the more I found myself splashing in pools of enforced humility. It got to be funny after a while, how often I found myself acting dumb. Yet it was a fruitful kind of dumbness, one that coincided with lavish chances for learning. Whether I was struggling to describe my job or get through a silent retreat, I continued to be amazed at the way life offered me abundance even when I didn’t know what to do with it.

The Elevator Speech

“So what do you do for a living?” the person asks me, as we fill up our plates with party food.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

“What, like a journalist? Or do you write novels?”

“Neither one. I help groups of people figure out what they are trying to say, and then I write it down in easy to understand language.”

“What kind of groups?” the person asks. 

“Mainly good government and public interest stuff—agencies, scientists, non-profits—these groups have important messages but they often struggle to deliver them.”

The person still looks puzzled so I press on. “That means doing a lot of problem solving, since groups that are having a hard time expressing themselves are usually struggling with internal conflicts.”

“So what you do is like public relations?”

“Not exactly. Right now, I’m helping the State of Louisiana write a plan for saving its coast.”

“That sounds interesting,” the person murmurs. Then we pick up our food and move off in different directions.

I’ve had many occasions to experience this conversation recently, while investigating post-school job opportunities. Practice doesn’t seem to be improving my performance. The conversations feel like sessions of hide the ball, with people trying to fit me into a familiar category:  “Is this what you do?—No.” “How about this?—No.”

The word “writer” is part of the problem. It implies something rarified and artisanal, not my workaday job. To avoid misunderstandings, some have suggested I adopt a job title like “conflict resolution and outreach consultant.” But that’s confusing in the other direction. Too many syllables, not enough sense.

It’s annoying to be in the business of using words and not able to nail my own elevator speech. As any job hunting guide will tell you, the self describing verbal nugget should be stored in one’s cheek, ready to spit out on demand. My nugget tends to be half baked and soggy. Perhaps that’s why most people don’t linger when I open my mouth and let fly.

The difficulties involved in the elevator speech are acute:  revealing oneself to strangers; the need to pin down the tricky subject of vocation in a few words; and the requirement for the same speech to be used for all occasions, regardless of how interested the other person might be. It’s a hard code to crack. I’m all for standardization in the social world; perfunctory statements are invaluable when it’s not time to get personal. Yet the question, “what do you do?” is personal, and the rote response that suffices in some situations falls flat in others.

I compensate for these difficulties by endowing my elevator speech with a double layer of filling. The first, basic layer remains a challenge—finding those few words that identify my profession and hold the conversation together. The second layer is more to my liking:  that juicy spread of words describing the point of my labors, the aims toward which I strive. Adding the second layer makes my elevator speech less stable, more prone to slip around, but it’s the source of flavor. Perhaps I’ll find a good balance of structure and taste one day, although continued fumbling seems likely. In any case, messiness by the buffet table seems preferable to the dullness of a moistureless crumb.

A Surfeit of Friends

I walked away from a friend in distress last week. Her face was crumpled by a heavy load she had no prospect of releasing. Shoulders bowed, she said goodbye and turned back to the house. Her partner, one of my oldest compadres, lay inside suffering from a serious illness. There was no certainty that things would get better. Far more likely that they would get worse. I had rushed over earlier, but the crisis had passed, and I wanted to go.

There were good reasons to leave. Waiting for me at home was a tangle of family and work needs, and there was nothing more to do for my friends—at least in the sense of quick tasks to be performed. I told myself these reasonable things, but walking away from their pain still felt wrong. My brisk, socially acceptable departure shut out other, more basic offerings of friendship:  quietly sitting by my friend’s bed while she rested, for instance. Rather than bustling about doing things for them, I could have chosen to be with them. I sensed enough of this to feel uneasy as I got into my car and drove away. 

Later that night, I had to admit that I had left my friends not because they needed me to go or because my obligations were so pressing, but because I wanted to return to familiar routines in the face of a situation that felt overwhelming. Instead of finding a creative response—either within myself or with my friends—I scuttled home to the comfort of emptying the dishwasher.

It was an unpleasant realization, and it led to others. I thought of recent friendship flubs:  forgetting essential details of my intimates’ stories or letting months lapse when discussions were called for. I thought of the phone calls I had left unanswered, the sanctimonious lectures I had given, the cards I had sent bearing platitudes and hasty scrawls. Then there was the faintheartedness that plagues me when friends want to stop talking about themselves and start talking about me.

“What going on?” they will ask. “I want to hear about your life.” My impulse then is to squirm and change the subject. This short-changes us both. Someone who keeps that door shut tight sits alone in a scanty kind of dark.

As the number of transgressions mounted, I sought to justify myself. Perhaps I was trying to be close to too many people and was spread too thin. Or maybe it was my busy life that made me callow. While true in some small ways, these defenses missed the larger point. In the end, I saw the writing on the wall:  my limitations were many and they weren’t likely to change. It was time to dispense with unrealistic standards.

I decided that there was no way to respond just right to the kaleidoscope of stories, needs, and compassionate insight that my friends offer. Believing I should achieve a consistently stellar response was a puffery that needed a genial puncture day after day—in this realm and others. Without this regular deflation, the drive to be perfect would prevent any authentic response that I, with great assistance from our love soaked world, might be able to draw forth and share with my familiars.

Friends keep reminding me of this, with different shades of humor and understanding. For their repeated calls to loosen up and connect with them I am grateful. My two friends called a few days later and thanked me for coming by. For them, that day, my inadequate response had been enough. 

The Quiet Summer

I noticed a new line among parents last year: the affirmation that they loved having their kids at home during the summer. I heard multiple people say that their children weren’t a pesky burden for three school free months. On the contrary, they said, having kids around the house was why they had become parents in the first place.

Although I liked making that speech myself, it was offputting to hear my convictions expressed by others. I heard the bragging in the speech, the implication that some parents did summer vacations correctly, and others did not. I resolved to tone down my remarks next time. What I didn’t question was my role as standard bearer for homey quietude. It wasn’t long before I learned how hard it would be to back up my ideals with action.

A few weeks later, one hot, summer afternoon, there was my nine year old daughter stretched out on the sofa reading a book. She was flipping idly through the pages, completely relaxed, the ceiling fan whirling overhead. I wasn’t pleased by this idyllic scene. Instead, seeing her lying there irritated me beyond measure.

“You have chores to do, get up.” 

“But Mom!”

“No buts, get up, you’ve been lying around all day.”

“But MOM!”

 And since you’re so sluggish, why don’t you get the vacuuming done?”

“MOM!!”

“GET UP NOW!”

A small voice in my head began clearing its throat.

“Just what are you doing?”

I disregarded the voice and stomped off to my desk to pay some bills. I was in a hurry. There was a lot to be done and limited time.

“What are you doing that’s so urgent again?” asked the small voice.

“I don’t have to justify myself to you,” I said. There’s so much to do I don’t have time to explain. And it’s all important, every single thing on my list.”

The inner voice persisted, “She’s just reading for God’s sake.”

“Hmmph” I retorted, “She has chores to do, everyone has to do chores. I had to do chores when I was her age.”

Oh yes, “when I was her age.” When I was her age I spent most of my time in a tree to avoid being interrupted by my own mother, who appreciated my handy way with household tasks. And here I was repeating the pattern. Knowing that such repetitions are unavoidable didn’t help the sting. Where were my ideals now? I noted the irony and apologized to my daughter but didn’t stop to examine why her lounging had stirred me up. I was too far gone, as was revealed days later.

I was de-cluttering the kitchen, one of my favorite jobs. Throwing things away makes me happy but it unnerves my husband. No matter what it is—scraps of cheetah fur, a half dead orange tree, a 30 foot heart of pine board—he can envision some obscure use for it all. To my irritation, he often ends up being right and we do find uses for his salvaged goods. But I was not following his creed of long-term conservation today.

Determined to get the job done on my terms, I was flinging things into the trash. Especially those plastic lids. How I hated them, cracked and sticky circles of pink plastic piled up and useless, vestiges of a Tupperware set we had received for a wedding present 17 years before. Into the trash they flew.

The small voice interjected on behalf of my spouse.

 “But he loves these lids; he’s attached to the Tupperware.”

“Who cares? This stuff is old and taking up space. Besides, he’s not here, he’ll never miss it.” I redoubled my pace. Maybe if I hurried I could whisk my discards out of the house before he got home.

I was quite pleased with the spaciousness I had created and was putting the final pieces in place when my husband came in, saw what I was doing, and immediately headed for the trashcan to see what I had tossed. My temper began to rise. I had carried out a rigorous canvassing of the cabinets, and I did not want to be second guessed. Nevertheless, as my small voice had predicted, he caught sight of a plastic lid and waggled it.

“This does not get thrown away.”

“You are wasting my time,” I hissed. “I have given up my day for this, gone through everything in this room.” I gestured around the kitchen to indicate the extent of my labors. “That lid is a piece of trash!”

Impervious to my dramatics, he continued burrowing in the trashcan. He threw the lid’s companion container on the countertop.

“There,” he said, raising the lid like a eucharist. “This is perfectly usable.”

“NOTHING in that trashcan is coming back in these cabinets!”

“But I use that container all the time.”

“Get out of here with your lid and let me finish!” I cried.

Now he was mad at the absurdity of it all and decided to respond in kind. Bringing his face close to mine he said, “Either this lid stays, or the marriage is over.”

“I wouldn’t want to be married to anyone who wanted that lid!”

We glared at each other for a few seconds, meaning every word. Then we started laughing. The lid and its container stayed.

It was a funny enough story, reflecting the jackass dynamic that overtakes our marriage at times. But the incident also gave me pause. Looking at my part in it, I had to wonder why I got so worked up. Several other scenes of recent banging and clashing came to mind. No way around it, there was definitely a link between the volume of my tasks and the volume of my voice.

One source of my problem was the anxiety induced rush to accomplish. In that rush, I pushed myself to feel safer by doing more. Such drivenness did not allow me to discern what was truly needed and what could be left undone. It was as if I had turned off an essential filter, one that could let me know if it was necessary for my daughter to bestir herself and lend a hand, or whether she had earned an afternoon on the sofa; whether it was OK to keep the Tupperware lids around for a bit longer or whether they had to go.

Articles about “ego fatigue” claim that the exhaustion that comes from making daily discernments can be cured with a quick rest or even a piece of chocolate. That argument assumes the fatigued person is aware of her tiredness and can move to take care of it. I was in so deep I didn’t know I had a problem. My condition was far beyond the reach of a snack.

As countless women before me have discovered, a quiet summer couldn’t be had if I insisted on muscling through at breakneck speed. There had to be more pauses, more prayers, and more decisions to move through the day doing fewer things. Slowing down, in turn, couldn’t be done until I acknowledged my anxiety and brought it along with me in the front seat where it could be seen, heard, and calmed. I had been trying, without success, to toss my anxiety out the window and run it down in the road.

I had a long way to go, but I did improve a little. When school began in the fall, I started coming into my daughter’s room every morning to wake her. I sat on the edge of her bed and stroked her back silently. Half asleep, she would scoot up so that her head and shoulders were in my lap, arms around my waist. Her body still trusted me despite my loudmouth behavior. Not saying a word, I would smooth her hair and let her get used to being awake. To do lists may have been unspooling inside my head all the while. On good days, I was able to give those lists a nod and say, “You are important, but your time will come later.”

At the Abbey

“Ah, a young one” said the Italian nun, her milky blue eyes staring into mine as she gave me a hug. Sister Bernadette made a point of greeting all those attending the annual silent retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey. It was a formal welcome that said, “I see you and am glad you are here.” I had received it every year for the last three, but this time in particular I needed her encouragement.

Life had been pressing, and daily prayers had slipped by the wayside. Bursting into the retreat center that hot July afternoon, I felt crabby and out of step. Sister Bernadette’s welcome told me I could come as I was. She was right too about the young-ness. I was roughly the same age as many of the other people filing in, but I was to spend the next three days in a severe adolescent funk.

It began with the room. I had arrived late, and my favorite room was already occupied. Someone else had claimed its plain white bed, airy light, and secluded location in the back of the rambling one storey building. I drifted down the carpeted hallways not seeing any other quarters that would do. The remaining rooms felt too close to other people or were too dark and cramped. Finally, I chose what seemed the best of a bad lot. Our regime of silence had not yet begun and some women were chatting in a nearby doorway. I swept past them and slammed my door with more force than I had intended. I wasn’t really sorry. I hadn’t taken time off to listen to chitchat.

I fumed and fulminated in my room, chafing at my proximity to the women outside. I wasn’t like them; I wasn’t dressed up with my hair done. I didn’t wear jeweled sandals or have painted pink toenails. I wasn’t a protestant from Lake Charles or Lafayette. I was a lapsed catholic from New Orleans, a weekly churchgoer it was true, but after my own fashion. I had come to the retreat to wander alone around the abbey grounds with its live oaks and chapels and chanting monks. I happened to be sharing space with 40 other people, but I didn’t need them.

I couldn’t wait for the ban on talking to begin. Then I could drift about with no obligation to perform the social song and dance. Freed from the need to interact with others, I could look forward to tingling visions and dreams. It had happened before in this place.

At that point, a story I had heard about Thomas Merton rose uncomfortably to mind. At the Gethsemane Monastery where he had lived for many years, he had once admonished his fellow monks, “You’re aren’t contemplatives, you’re just introverts.” They hadn’t liked hearing that much, and I didn’t like the possibility that my yearning for quiet was more about people fatigue than God.

I began realizing how far my fatigue extended. I was exhausted both by too much activity and by the curt, know it all mindset engendered by the exhaustion itself. My inner life and family had been the first to feel the effects. That night I wrote in my journal:

“Dead right, dead righteous, dead. How do I regain balance when I feel that fever coming over me? And our daughter. How am I letting her down with these displays of cold and mistaken clarity? Can I be content with what is, be with my husband and daughter in their struggles, fears? Draw limits in a loving way?”

The next morning this fruitful thread had to be set aside when I left the retreat for a job related meeting. I spent eight hours of that precious day doing things that had nothing to do with silence and everything to do with dutiful service to a client. I had asked the retreat director to make this departure ahead of time. We agreed that leaving the retreat for a few hours would be a useful exercise in taking stillness with me out into the world.

I still thought that was true when as I packed my briefcase and headed to my car that morning. In fact, I was glad to be leaving the retreat for a while. For several hours after waking I had been plagued by daydreams of being flattered and famous, celebrated by crowds for my inspiring behavior. I was dimly aware that these fantasies revealed my need to calm down into a more grounded sense of aspiration. But mainly I was irritated. The teenage force of the daydreams was unseemly, embarrassing for a woman of my years. Wasn’t I past the need for all that fawning? Apparently not, I had to admit, as the daydreams spun loudly in my head hour after hour. It was a relief to run to my car and speed away. 

Flight simply put me more squarely under the power of what I was fleeing. My wish to be a spiritual star, apart from and above the herd, came with me for the ride, assuring me as I drove that leaving was not a betrayal of my need for retreat, but proof of my superior mettle. Unlike the others who had to cling to the monastery grounds for edification, I could come and go:  say my prayers, leave to do my job in the outer world, then return in the evening with no harm done. The comeuppance was predictable:  as I drove back that night and parked on the abbey’s weedy entrance road, my smugness was in tatters.

I had returned all right, but I was a mess, straggling to my room, heels clattering. Dead tired, I longed for the rootedness I saw in the other retreat participants who had allowed themselves to sink into the day. They were moving gracefully, smiles on their faces as they walked from room to room.  I felt the cost of crossing over without care, of availing myself of worldly flexibility without consciousness.

“I didn’t take the transition seriously, didn’t take my own limitations into account, so intent was I on feeling superior. ‘I can do it all,’ just like others I’ve criticized for taking on too much. And just like them I crashed and wasted time. And my sneering at the others here, even this overt sign of arrogance didn’t raise alarm bells for me. I really am a numbskull. Hard not to see the humor in it.”

The next morning, my numbskullery rallied again with a determination to achieve peacefulness pronto.

“Hurry up!” a voice inside me said, “This is the last full day of the retreat, the last chance for your soul’s yearly refueling!”

As anyone could have told me, trying to force it just brought successive bouts of worry and preoccupation, the feeling of a brick in my head.

“Restless, I am tired and restless, longing to be taken away from myself. I walk, I move from the chapel to the library to my room, pick up books and put them down…could feeling so uncertain and out of whack help me forgive myself and others close to me who also feel like this at times? Can I bring compassion to counterbalance all my righteousness? On my own I’d never pull it off. Only with God’s help.”

The day never really got much better, though I did have a good moment standing on the bridge at the abbey’s entrance, looking at the sparkling, chocolate brown river swirling below. As the hours dragged on, I found myself warming to people as I passed them in the hallways. I was grateful for their grounding presences, their sharing of inner ballast. I sorely needed it.  

I prayed as the group of us walked the labyrinth that evening. My mind wandered, I remained distracted, but I tried to honor the time as best I could. Earlier I had come across this sentence in a book called Meditation in Motion:

“Visions are fine…but the test of their validity resides in leaving them behind, in forgetting them all and concentrating instead on how zealously one peels potatoes for supper…Any lessening of arrogance implies a gain in humility, which means, in the words of Teresa of Avila, to walk in the truth of who we are.”

The next day it was time to leave. I was still besieged by dreams of glory. But my reaction to these ego flurries was calmer than it had been earlier in the week.

“Can I greet these imaginings not with solemn intensity but with warmth and understanding? They seem so real, so urgent, but they take me away from what is going on right now. God, help me to put these thoughts in imaginary paper boats and send them downstream again and again. Help me let the drive for specialness ebb so I can just focus on being my imperfect yet particular self. Just me, walking in the truth of who I am. No need to wear the crown.”

That morning the group broke silence at a gathering in the retreat center library. The easy chairs and sofas had been pushed back, and everyone stood in a big circle. One by one, each person said a sentence or two about what they had gained at the retreat. People were not shy about revealing their experiences:

“I was held in the palm of the lord.”
“I reached a deep inner stillness.”
“I felt a oneness with all that is.”

The young, swaggering part of me rolled her eyes at these statements. After all, if she hadn’t reached sublime heights how could these people have done it? An older part of me knew better. The closer I felt to my fellow retreat goers, the more their essential mystery was revealed. I had no business judging them.

When it was my turn to speak I teared up and said in a squeaky voice, “I was restless and unhappy. I paced and struggled and couldn’t settle down. It was a tough three days.”

A woman whose room was next to mine said with a serious nod, “I heard your restlessness.”

I remembered the door slamming and thought, “I bet she did.”

Just before leaving my room for the last time, I was able to write down a final prayer in my journal: 

“I feel an inkling of the abundance that contains all the struggle, all the dimness. I feel it, and bless it, and need it.”

I need a good supply of paper boats as well.

On the Beach

The woman had on the navy blue uniform worn by Lake Charles Civic Center employees. She was small like me, and our similarly shaded hazel eyes looked at each other on a level plane—no head tilting necessary. She wore bold eyeliner, heavy black lines all the way around, and those Egyptian eyes held me as she spoke.

A few minutes before, I had been welcoming people to the final public hearing on Louisiana’s coastal plan. Sitting at the sign-in table, making small talk, I was feeling pretty good about the evening to come. The document was receiving accolades, and the people who came up to the table seemed light hearted—the women chatty, the men ready to laugh, pretending to be Steve McQueen or Chuck Norris when they wrote down their names on the registration sheet. I didn’t expect big problems that night.

The Egyptian eyed woman approached the table during a lull, and I offered her a copy of the plan. She tucked it under an arm but wanted to talk rather than read. A few moments later, I had come out from behind my table, and we were standing close together in the cavernous hall. She never told me her name, but she did tell me about growing up south of Lake Charles in the community of Hackberry. She and her brother had called the nearby Calcasieu Ship Channel “the river,” and she described sitting with him at the water’s edge watching the ships pass.

Neither of us mentioned the dark side of the picturesque image. Over the years of her childhood she had also watched her river’s boundaries widen as salt water from the Gulf of Mexico traveled up the channel and killed nearby marshes. These wetlands were the community’s protection against storm surge; the wider the ship channel grew, the more vulnerable everyone became. Hackberry was officially 60 miles inland, but while she was growing up, the surrounding marshes had washed away so quickly that the family’s home had, in a practical sense, become ocean front property.

She told me about floods that had swept in from the Gulf:  one during Hurricane Rita in 2005 and one during Hurricane Ike in 2008. Hackberry had been inundated each time, its buildings set askew like Dixie cups. As often happens, the disasters set off a wave of deaths. After Rita’s losses, her father died. Her mother soon followed. A few years later her brother died of cancer, then a sister did the same. Before the storms, her father had built their family cemetery marker, mixing small stones in the concrete to make it sturdy. The marker had endured and still stood where he had laid it. But the woman decided that it was too dangerous to live in Hackberry and had moved to a trailer outside of Lake Charles.

She was matter of fact as she spoke. No one interrupted us; it seemed that we would be alone until she was done. She stood there in her weathered skin and baggy uniform, talking on and on. And I began to hear what she was saying.

The months of teamwork on the plan—the interminable conference calls, the email blizzards, the inside jokes and struggles—that flurry had driven me for 18 months. In the bustle, I had lost touch with the plan’s animating current. Variations of the woman’s history could be told all over south Louisiana, of that my colleagues and I were well aware. We had heard lots of stories, even lived a few ourselves. I had  included some paragraphs in the plan about the human cost of flooding and coastal land loss, but my writing had been perfunctory. Its very familiarity had made loss an abstraction.

The woman’s words reminded me of an essential fact:  some graves and people would endure and others would not. Picking the survivors was far beyond the scope of the state’s well meaning document. Our conversation over, the woman walked back down the Civic Center hall, her sneakers squeaking on the polished floor. I sat back down behind the table and straightened my pile of brochures, wondering what to do with what I had heard.

The next morning found me in a divided mood. On one hand, a night spent in a good hotel had bolstered my sense of confidence. Colleagues and I had talked over coffee about the coast’s future, and our assessments had left a pleasantly knowing aftertaste. But as I prepared to make the three hour drive back to New Orleans, a thought disrupted my complacency. I needed to go to Hackberry. I needed to see the place with my own eyes and do honor to the story I had been told. As I started the car, I didn’t know which way to go:  south on Highway 27 or east on Interstate 10 toward home. A few minutes later I found myself going south, not sure it was a good idea.

It was an unnerving drive. The road was no nonsense:  two lanes heading straight for the gulf. The low lying land on either side was sparsely developed, mainly cattle farms and roadside stores, including a drive through ice cream shop in the shape of a giant red barn. I thought about pulling in but found myself unable to stop. My motion through the landscape was what mattered, and the landscape had me pinned to the road.

Without elevation to distract, the sky dominated. Huge clouds blanketed the horizon and seemed to press the land even closer to the earth. I couldn’t see the horizon ahead where the land ended and the ocean began, but it seemed that if I were to present myself there, further immensities would be revealed. I drove on, wanting to see the unveiling, the final redefined perspective. I was uneasy too. Whatever I was driving toward was much bigger than me.

I didn’t stop when Hackberry came into view. The scattered settlement was a hodge podge of ruined homes and rebuilt civic buildings—a Head Start center eight feet off the ground, a post office sitting on a double set of 15 foot high stairs. I did a desultory search for the cemetery that contained the woman’s family plot, but my destination had shifted. I had to get to the ocean. 

I entered the Sabine Wildlife Sanctuary and my isolation increased. Save for the occasional oilfield service truck, I was alone on the road with marsh grass stretching on either side of me. Miles went by, no homes, no farms, no stores. Just me and a sky that seemed at once vertical in its amplitude and horizontal in its flattening effect. I had blown any chance of getting home on time but was riveted by the journey and what I would see at the furthest point south.

After 45 minutes, I spied the Holly Beach water tower a few miles ahead. Holly Beach was the end of the line, the point where the road reached the sea and made an abrupt swerve to the east. The place was still listed on maps, but it had been all but washed away by the last decade’s storms. A few minutes later, and I was there. I drove past a few gaily painted houses that had been raised what looked like 50 feet high, past abandoned shacks and empty home foundations. A hand lettered wooden sign welcomed me to the Cajun Riviera. I parked on the beach and got out of the car, shading my eyes from the glare.

Water from the high tide was trickling under my car wheels, and sea birds were flying in place, their beating wings unable to gain any purchase in the headwind. Scanning the water, I saw the dim outline of a distant oil rig and nothing else. I turned toward the land, but there were no people anywhere, no sign of a heartbeat. Most of the houses swaying up in the air had for sale signs on them. The sky continued to press and spread as it had on the road, but now it encircled me completely.

I turned back to the ocean and almost turned tail and ran. The wind had kicked up the surf, making a wall of whitecaps that seemed much higher than the beach I was standing on. At any moment, it seemed, the waves would sweep over me, effortlessly reclaiming the land they had covered a few years before. The evidence of destruction was behind me, the capacity for more was in front, and I would be so much flotsam caught in the middle. My forebodings had been correct. This was a bright, breezy, cloud filled nightmare.

I wanted to escape, rush to my car and drive away. I might be puny, but at least I had an internal combustion engine at the ready.  Then I saw the sign to my right. A battered, blue, state issued sign entitled, “Beach Rules.” There were several standard prohibitions: no glass, no hunting, no littering. But the next rule made my jaw drop. “No displays of power,” it said. And then a clarifying parenthesis:  “donuts, wheelies, etc.” A final rule offered a summation: “Respect the beach, wildlife, and others.”

I gaped at the words and laughed in relief. Like a beacon whose signal simultaneously alerts travelers to peril and offers them practical help for surviving, the sign’s prescriptions both validated my fear and told me how to handle it. No displays of human power indeed, none permitted and none needed in a place where power was inexorably held by other forces. Nothing was out to get me. I wasn’t singled out for punishment. I felt tiny here because I was tiny, just like every other person who had stood in this place. Together, the sign assured me, we comprised a solidarity of the appropriately dwarfed.

I didn’t need to drive any further. This scene was the backdrop for the woman’s story, this awareness underlay the part of her life she had allowed me to see.  Taking it all in—the sun beating on my head, the flailing birds, the whitecaps—I felt the true context of my work, the coda to months of striving. After a while, I drove north toward the interstate, glad of the car’s comfort. I was light hearted too at having been restored to my proper size.