Pouring Down, Rising Above

The rain just wouldn’t stop. 

When I lived in Kansas, I learned what that meant. Hard thunderstorms could make a mess. But steady, unceasing rain could be worse. When water has time to gather its strength, it transforms everything around it. Roads become rivers, concrete dividers become popcorn, lives become changed. 

I thought I knew that lesson. 

Ten years ago, I learned how little I knew. 

If you were here in September 2013, you know what I mean. If you weren’t, I’m not sure I can ever explain it properly. That handful of days belongs to another world, one where events flowed as ceaselessly as the St. Vrain and sleep was a rare and precious commodity. A world transformed. 

Longmont became a city divided. Lyons became an island chain. Missouri Avenue turned into the “Missouri river” as the water rose. Hover Street became impassible, though that didn’t stop some from sloshing their way across on foot anyway, struggling from south to north as emergency workers yelled at them to turn back. 

We held on as the water did its work. 

And even after the waters fell, we weren’t quite the same.

I don’t just mean the physical damage, though rebuilding from that became a years-long effort. Passing through the flood changes people. You don’t just let go of what happened, even if your home and family were well out of the floodway.

A few months later, when the spring rains began, I think most of us paused for just a moment. I remember watching the runoff pool and flow in a gutter near Longmont High School, unable to look away as my mind went back to higher waters and faster flows. 

Call it a reflex. A readiness. A ghost.

But we also carried away something else. We learned that we truly had neighbors. 

It’s easy to forget sometimes. Easy to ignore the lives that pass so near our own or even to clash with them. We divide, separate, watch the world with wary eyes.

But the good stuff never went away. Neighbors still exist. And when the waters rose, we found each other, reached out and helped. 

Even the St. Vrain couldn’t separate that.

It shouldn’t take a flood. Or a blizzard, or a wildfire, or any of the other traumatic moments that throw us into each other’s lives. But then, those are the moments that boil down all the choices and throw everything into stark relief. Where it’s clear that we either stand together or else we might not stand at all.

And so we reach for snow shovels. Or sandbags. Or masks.  One way or another, we reach for a neighbor’s hand and make each other stronger.

The world does its worst. And we rediscover our best.

And each time, I hope the discovery will last a little longer. It’s too important to rise and fall like a passing creek, full past bursting in a crisis and parched to the point of drought otherwise.

I said it at the beginning: sudden storms come and go, but steady effort transforms. That’s true of more than just rain. If we keep that sort of steady focus on each other, that daily commitment to our neighbors, we can reshape our world.

We just need to gather our strength. And not let up.

Long may we rain.

Laboring in Vrain

On the first day of the Big Flood, a photographer and I covered southern Longmont like a blanket. We watched Missouri Street turn into the “Missouri river”. We saw washed-out train tracks and rising streams and people dangerously trying to wade a flooded-over Hover Street.

And when it came time to return to the Times-Call newsroom, we saw one other thing. Namely, that getting back home was going to be a lot harder than we thought.

If you were there in 2013, you probably remember. The rising St. Vrain Creek had cut Longmont in two. Within town, there was exactly one north-south connection left – from Ken Pratt to Third – and that was being reserved for emergency vehicles.

And so began the Journey of Exploration.

The photographer knew the area well. He had to. As he drove east, we picked our way between small county roads  like a child’s pencil through a maze, trying to find just one clear route that would let us outflank the St. Vrain.

It took about an hour. It might have been the first time that anyone had gone from Hover Street to the downtown by way of Mead. Wings would have been great to have, or maybe sails.

But we made it.

True, it had required much more work, persistence and time than anyone had expected. Much too much.

But at journey’s end, we were just glad to be home.

**

Eight years later, it sometimes feels like we’re back in the flood.

Once again, we have a people divided by disaster. Some are trying to help. Some are already hit hard. Some are desperate enough to try anything that offers a way out. Most are simply trying to survive until it’s all over … whenever that might be.

And just like that drive home on those rain-swept roads, the journey back is turning out to be a lot longer than we thought.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. Pandemics don’t end as quickly and neatly as a Hollywood movie. Or if they do take their cue from Hollywood, it’s from all those interminable sequels where the old threat keeps getting recycled with new abilities and special effects.

We wouldn’t survive as a species if we couldn’t hope. And so we keep crossing our fingers that this time we’ve turned the corner, that this wave will be the last, that things can finally start to subside and normalize again.

And when we turn the corner and find another corner, it’s draining. Frustrating. Even crushing.

But we have to keep driving.

We need to remember the things that got us through the flood – helping neighbors, staying alert, doing what’s needed to stay safe.

It hasn’t been easy. It won’t be easy. Like outmaneuvering a river, it’s taking more time and effort than anyone thought.

But with persistence, with awareness, with careful attention to the road … we can move forward. And we will make it home.

True, home might look different than we expect. Like rivers, “normal” doesn’t stand still. Sometimes it transforms, like the St. Vrain changing its course. Sometimes it needs to transform, like the efforts to widen and deepen the river channel to make a second flood less likely.

But we still have a destination to reach. The way may be long and the vision ahead may be unclear, but we know where we want to be and it isn’t here.

So we keep on. Together. Eyes on the road.

The sign for Mead is out there. And when it comes, we’ll be ready to take the turn.

Dr. Jekyll, I Presume?

My theatre life is still in semi-hibernation at the moment.  But I suddenly feel like I’ve been drafted into a production of Jekyll & Hyde.

If you’re not familiar with the 1990 musical, it’s another take on the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story about a well-meaning scientist who unleashes his own dark side with an experiment that works far too well. Several of the songs reflect the same divide: that the people and the world around us can have two different natures, and you can’t always be sure which one you’re seeing.

Now, I haven’t started transforming at night into a brutish ogre of a man who’s deadly with a walking stick … well, not unless there are some really strange Pfizer side effects that I haven’t heard about yet. But as we all start to poke around the edges of this thing called “post-pandemic,” I’m noticing the same sort of split.

My household is immunized. Missy and I are starting to resume our lunch outings again. (Outside, of course.) Heather is emerging from the depths of Chez Rochat to get eyeglasses and do other long-postponed errands. Signs of change are popping up everywhere, from careful and joyful get-togethers to the re-opening of the local movie theater.

And yet.

There’s an uncertainty. Not just about the fragility of this beginning-of-normal … by now, I think we all know that we’re at a tipping point where a bit of action or inaction can make all the difference in how this pandemic is resolved. But it goes beyond that.

We’re getting caught up in our own double vision.

We’ve spent more than a year training to handle a paradox. Like any disaster, we’ve had to look to each other for help and support. But with a pandemic, we are the disaster … and so we’ve also had to look at each other as possible dangers, potential plague vectors that could become deadly with a moment’s carelessness.

From that, an odd dance evolved: the world of being “together apart,” being a neighbor while keeping our distance. The steps have changed as we’ve learned more but the basic figure has remained the same.

But now things are changing. A transition has begun. And we still have our well-honed reflexes, perfect for a 2020 world, that may suddenly be out of step.

We’re entering a world with more faces again – or at least, more places where those faces aren’t sitting in a square, looking for the Unmute button. And for many of us, the reflexes are still telling us “Careful! Danger! What are we doing here?”

The heck of it is, we can’t even say yet that we’re wrong. It looks like Henry Jekyll out there – but are we seeing the right face? Even if we are, could it still shift to Edward Hyde without warning?

We’re re-learning. And it’s not going to be comfortable.

The good news is, we’ve been there before.

In 2013, a September flood hit that split Longmont in two. In 2014, the first significant spring rainfalls began to hit … and I know many of us immediately tensed, looking to the filling creeks, mesmerized by the gushing gutters.

We had to get through those next rainfalls to really see rain again. Just rain. To re-learn that while floods can happen and we need to be prepared, not every storm will be a flood. To be ready for the dangerous and the normal.

I think we can get there again.

It’s OK to be uncertain right now. It’s OK to be cautious. And it will reach a point where it’s OK to exhale. It’ll take time and some careful practice, but we will get there. Not forgetting the lessons we’ve gained, but able to judge when and where they’re needed.

After all, you’ve got to watch out for your own Hyde.

Bigger Things

Water rising in the streets. Highways cut off. Neighborhoods turned into islands as their residents hunker down to shelter from the deluge.

We know this story.

Oh, not on the scale that Houston has seen and endured, to be sure, with its millions of people and trillions of gallons of water. But our own memories of floodwater are still raw and fresh, not quite four years old. We still recall the power of the storm.

We remember river channels moving and attacking from new directions. We remember south Longmont isolated and Lyons evacuated. We remember the rain, steady, unhurried, relentless, never seeming to leave.

And one thing more. That even as floods divided the city, they united its people. For a while, the usual controversies didn’t matter. What mattered was reaching out to the next guy, and the next, and the next.

The scale has changed but the impulse hasn’t. A storm focuses attention to an amazing degree. All at once, people line up to offer shelter, or supplies, or even a hastily assembled fleet of boats like a second Dunkirk. I can’t say all criticism or animosities were forgotten – among 300 million people, that may be an impossibility – but for a while, they were eclipsed by something bigger.

Come to think of it, that’s a timely word. After all, it hasn’t been so long since that was literally true as well.

Just a couple of weeks ago, much of the country took a break from what it was doing to watch a hole in the sky. For some, it was transformative as totality turned the midday sky into a magical darkness. Even those of us just out of the main path of the solar eclipse were transfixed by shadow, reflections, and the hint of sun still visible through darkened glasses.

Again, it didn’t lift us completely above our controversies and arguments. But it did seem to put life on pause for a few minutes, to make the contention smaller as we stood and watched together.

For a moment, the scale changed. And our perspective with it.

For a moment, our focus was captured by something larger than ourselves.

It doesn’t last. Maybe it can’t. The author Terry Pratchett once noted that “Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.” We still are different people with different views, and when that singular focus has passed, we still have to figure out how to build a life together day by day.

But we can keep that common purpose on a deeper level. We can remember why we come together in times of disaster and wonder.

Because your life matters as much as mine. Because we share a world bigger than any of us. Because it’s not just about ourselves, but about the others in this world who are just as worthy of respect and dignity and help – and that each of us is an “other” to someone, who may someday need an outstretched hand and an open heart.

We may each of us see the road differently. But if we’re striving for the same destination, to reach a place that lifts all of us up and holds none of us down, then we can travel together. It won’t always be a peaceful journey – what family road trip ever is? – but if we can agree that helping each other is more important than scoring points or revenging wrongs,  it will at least move us all down the road.

A hurricane makes it obvious. But storms move on.

It’s up to us to make sure something bigger remains behind.