On our last day at a writers' conference on Maui, where I'd been teaching and speaking, we came across one of my fellow instructors gingerly navigating the rocks at the ocean's edge. She looked like one of the egrets we'd watched on the fringes of the resort lawn, sinuous white hunters whose long necks uncoil like a striking cobra when they spot prey-a flash, a gobble, and the unwary insect or lizard is lunch. But our friend fell perhaps a bit short of egret-like grace, and seemed at any moment likely to tumble onto the rough black volcanic rock or into the surf. And her prey was even more elusive: the ever-shifting sea itself.
When we hollered hello, she straightened to show us her catch, a pint plastic water bottle she'd filled with a sampling of the Pacific. She explained that her mother, who'd accompanied her to Maui as she had to several other writing events where we'd come to know them both, wanted to touch the ocean one last time before leaving. But her mother was too frail to gambol across the rocks to the water's edge, so the water bottle would have to suffice.
Though our friend was smiling as she related this, we'd learned earlier in the week that her mother had been diagnosed with a particularly unforgiving type of cancer. This was almost certainly her mother's last visit to Maui, her last chance to touch the ocean here. Both daughter and mother bore this burden with their customary grace, laughing and mingling with the other instructors and their families as if her days were as unbounded as the ocean stretching to meet another Hawaiian sunset. For the rest of us, though, who'd grown as fond of the mother as of her daughter, the news tinged our stay on Maui with a faint but inescapable sadness, like dark "floaters" on the periphery of vision-barely glimpsed, impossible to ignore.
Even as our friend was scrambling to capture a bit of the ocean, the news on CNN back in our hotel room was filled with the tragic experiences of people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, suffering from far too much ocean. I had a student in my writing workshop who claimed to be able to influence the weather-her book project was an effort to teach others to exert their own innate "natural supernatural powers"-and for a day or two it seemed as though she'd done the trick on Hurricane Katrina. She missed turning in her writing "homework" one morning, in fact, in order to update it with the latest on the hurricane's path; the next day, satisfied that Katrina had veered away from New Orleans, she turned in a full report.
Perhaps levees are someone else's supernatural department-much as the federal government apparently decided that protecting the people of New Orleans is not Uncle Sam's job, though separating warring factions in Iraq is. In any case, the glimmer of hope on the TV news soon turned into a ghastly parade of horrors unmatched since the invention of TV news. A major American city, famed for its "let the good times roll" attitude, was simply swept away as we watched. The bad times rolled on and on, like the implacable storm and the sea.
We know the routine by now in these disasters-natural or, like 9/11, otherwise. The storm passes and people begin to pick up the pieces. Americans respond with an outpouring of generosity that makes us feel, however bad the temporary trauma, pretty darned good about our country. Life goes on. Things slowly get back to normal.
But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina failed to follow the script, compounding the original disaster. The floodwaters stubbornly refused to recede. Looters and deserting cops displayed the dark side of the American soul. Many desperately needed helicopters and much of Louisiana's National Guard were half a world away in Iraq. Stranded survivors of the devastation went days without help, as the administrators in charge of disaster relief apparently were among the last to know of their plight. (Couldn't the top brass at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security at least have turned on CNN to learn what was happening?)
Instead of enjoying the satisfying feeling of a nation rallying, the "can-do" spirit that put a man on the moon, Americans watched a hurricane of incompetence. Third-world countries came to our aid-Sri Lanka and even Cuba, for heaven's sakes-and some couldn't resist a bit of gloating at how America had been brought low: A Mexican newspaper headlined, "It's Just Like Haiti!"
The helplessness frightens the most, seeing the "what ifs" played out on television and imagining yourself in the place of the victims and evacuees: What would you do if a hurricane forced you to leave almost everything behind? What would you save? What if you couldn't take your pets? What if the floodwaters didn't recede? What if the government you count on to come to your rescue let you down?
Such small, personal tragedies are easier to grasp than those that flicker across CNN, and commensurately more frightening. These are people you know, after all, and one of them will likely not be back next year.
There's a selfish side to this, I admit. As sad as you feel for your friends when sorrow visits, you can't help playing the "what if" game, just as when a hurricane strikes multitudes of strangers: What if it were me, or one of my loved ones?
You hope that you'd be equally brave, that you'd bear up under the worst. If that were you on the roof, the rest of your house and all that you once thought important submerged, you like to think you'd be a model of courage until the rescuing helicopters belatedly appear. You'd be the one who, when you're interviewed on CNN, viewers would marvel at: "Isn't he taking this well?" Or, if the news were bad about you or a loved one, you want to envision yourself smiling through the tears.
The other face of helplessness is the realization of the fragility of all you take for granted every day, from your possessions to your next breath. When you see a hurricane swamp a city-or a diagnosis sweep away the rest of a life-it shoves the hard truth right in your face: Everything you hold dear could be taken away in a heartbeat. The random violence of nature or armed looters, the scientific certainty of an X-ray, the slow-motion regret of an auto accident-it can happen tomorrow. As easily as the waves wipe the beach clean of your footprints, forces beyond your control or ken can make it seem as though you'd never walked the sand at all.
The Boeing 757 bearing me homeward to New Mexico could suddenly have dropped out of the sky-don't think I didn't think it (I've seen that TV show, "Lost"). Somebody could have jumped the median and hit us head-on on the highway home from the airport in Tucson. As we made the turn off Ridge Road toward our house, we could have spotted a smear of smoking rubble instead of the home, belongings and two cats we'd left behind.
And just because none of that happened doesn't mean disaster couldn't strike the next trip we take-or, heck, the next time I drive to Albertson's for milk. Even though I'm buying low-fat milk and loading the grocery cart with fruits and vegetables and eschewing a stop at Sonic for French fries on the way home, I could still come down with something horrible, a disease or condition all the broccoli in the world can't deter.
So what do you do? You can live in fear, I guess, knowing any minute something awful just might happen. You can live in denial, fooling yourself into thinking it can't happen here, it can't happen to you. (At least in New Mexico, the hurricane risk is pretty low until global warming gives us a coastline.) You can live every moment as though it might be your last, treasuring every sunrise and each cricket chirp-but, frankly, I don't have the energy for that. It's a lovely thought to be fully alive in every instant, yet sometimes I just have to kick back, pour a nice glass of wine and zone out over football on TV.
All I can think to do is to try to smile more, even when the worst does happen. Like our friend at the sea's edge in Maui, smile and try to catch the ocean in a bottle. It's all you can do. Maybe it's the best you can do.
Here comes another wave. Reach out for it. Try not to get your feet wet.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.