The Hurricane Symphony
Living through a hurricane has nothing to do with writing. I am very good at always thinking about writing but I did not think about it much during the last four days. Instead I thought about my friends and my community and my dog and finding a way to get in touch with people because my wireless service no longer worked. I thought about how long I should stay in New Orleans, how bad things might get, and where I could go when I left. Though my house protected me from the storm, it could not protect me from what came after. Though I loved this city more than any other, I did not feel safe there. I felt like I would be someone who would end up needing help rather than being able to provide it.
The morning after the storm I woke up fully energized with adrenaline. I got on my bike and rode all over the place and saw all the damage and I ran into a neighbor and then another and we all assessed our personal damage to each other. It was hot and the sun was strong. People were kind to each other, but it was hard not to be riled up. I kept saying, “I’m rattled.” Finally I ran into another neighbor who had internet service and through him I was able to ask for help from incredibly generous friends outside of the state who secured me housing. I am lucky and privileged to have had a car with a full tank of gas and the freedom to go. Many others are not.
When I came home in the late afternoon, there were police surrounding my house, looking for someone who had broken into a nearby clothing store. They searched my backyard, and then I thought they were leaving, but they stayed on the street for hours apparently. I went in my house and poured myself an enormous glass of wine. While I drank it, I looked out the window occasionally to see if they were still there, and they were, so I got my dog and I left. I went to a friend’s house where they were barbecuing meat that had been left by those who who had already evacuated. All things considered, it was a lovely meal.
A few hours later, I returned home. The police were gone by then. I packed up the rest of my house by candlelight. I tried to stay calm. I would leave in the morning. I just had to make it through the night. I went to bed early. I would rise before dawn, this was my plan. At the foot of my bed, my dog was panting from the heat. I heard a knock at my front door. I walked to the window, and saw it was a neighbor. It was pitch black outside. I opened it to see if he needed anything. He said, “You know, you don’t have to be alone in there if you don’t want to be.” I told him I was leaving in the morning and he tried to convince me again that he should come in and stay with me. I said no. I closed the door.
I left early in the morning after a sleepless night, in the darkness, in the heat, I packed up my car and drove through a city in blackout, no streetlights, no traffic lights, no nothing, except for my car, and I can’t even describe to you what it looked like because it was just dark and darker, and I held my breath until I hit the highway and it was still dark for a good long while after that, in the sky and in the sprawling city and beyond. I did not think: How will I write about this someday? I did not think: How will I structure this into three acts? I did not think: What lessons can be taken from this moment? I only thought: How do I get out of town and to the next place safely?
I did not think: Pay attention, because this will be important someday, which I sometimes say to myself when something new or big or weird or dramatic or scary or sad is happening. I did not have to say any of that to myself because I already knew I wouldn’t forget. I am so good at making everything about writing but this only had to do with living.
But there was this one thing I can share with you, the readers of this newsletter about writing.
Lately I have become fascinated with deep listening. I have a character I’ve been developing who works with music and sounds, and so sometimes I try to think like her, and I sit somewhere and take note of all the different noises around me, and try to imagine what it would be like to hear things distinctly like that all the time, to not have to pay attention to it so specifically like I do; to have it come naturally. It is a good and interesting exercise.
And I found once the power went out during the hurricane and as I sat in the darkness all I could think about was the sounds. That was what was left for me. I sat in my living room with one candle flickering and I listened. The wind was ceaseless for hours, whining and aggressive, and there was rain, too, no thundering, just pounding rain against the doors and walls and windows. And I could hear glass breaking in surrounding houses, shatters here and there, and also siding and roof tiles blowing off and occasionally banging against my house. Also there was this popping noise –I had thought at first it was a transformer blowing, it was that kind of sound, like a sudden explosion of electricity – but it happened over and over again all night long and I thought: Maybe when I go out in the morning it will still be happening so I will know it was. But I never found out.
Then the security alarm went off at the house next door and stayed on through the night and I slept with a pillow over my head and it nearly drowned out the sound but not quite. And there was more rain, too, that stayed after the wind left, just violent and ceaseless. For a while it felt like it would rain forever, that all I would ever know again was the sound of that rain.
All the sounds were separate for me, but of course they were all together, too, part of a grand composition. A hurricane symphony.
There was one more noise I was fascinated with the next day, after everything had quieted down. It came just at dark, when the streets were cleared, before I headed home for the night from the barbecue, and it was just me standing alone outside my car with the keys in my hands. It was the sound of a generator in the neighborhood. It must have been a big one because it was loud and growling and it felt sort of hellish, if that makes sense, like it was burning some sort of evil fire. And I thought, in the future, when the climate gets (even) worse, and when these kinds of things happen all the time, there will be more and more of these generators – for those who can afford it, of course – and that’s all we’ll be able to hear.
Anyway: Deep listening. There’s an exercise for you today.
There was more that I heard besides that. A lot more. But that’s just what I choose to write about right now. I didn’t forget any of the other noises. I can’t – trust me. But not everything exists to be written about. Some things are just meant to be survived.
This week’s donation went to World Central Kitchen. Any other funds that come in will go directly to mutual aid groups. There is a great list here if you’re interested, and I would also recommend Culture Aid NOLA.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere).
I have been thinking so much of you and Sid. Reading these words made me scared for you and also so relieved you're in a safe place now. Always sending my love to you!
I'm glad you are safe, first and foremost. Your description of the night of sounds resonated with me. The world never sounded more alive to me than when we went without power for a day and a half. I realize that a day and a half is nothing compared to what the people of New Orleans are facing and you were facing. Still, that you were able to plumb the experience under that duress is both amazing and, yet, unsurprising. The writer in you never rests even when you are focusing on living.