This love letter begins, as every good love letter should, while I’m naked in bed…
No. Stop. Sorry. Not like this. First, this:
But do we tell it, really? Our kids are collecting flood stories from the ‘hood to turn into an archive and into an anniversary performance piece. I tell mine… and it is not until I come back home that I realize that of all the stories I could have told, I chose the least important, least personal.
“Makes sense,” my neighbour-the-poet says. “Of course it makes sense.”
“What story did you tell?” I ask him, and he tells me. And I am shocked. “That one? Really? You could tell… you could share… that one? That part of you?”
He could, he did. Me? My eyes swell with tears. My most intimate story swims within me. I can tell, spin so many other stories. That one? I’m not even sure I want to hear it.
But there’s one part of my story that’s everyone’s story. It belongs to you, as much, more, as it does to me. Ready?
I’m naked in bed, languorous, lazy, loved, and the psychic-who-lives next door delivers a hot breakfast to me and my love.
This is the magic of the place where I live, this place that I love so ardently that life elsewhere, life without it is hard to imagine.
This act of kindness-nourishment-knowing—it is not extra-ordinary. Not here. On this piece of flood plain where I live, this sort of thing just happens.
All the time.
This happens too: a book placed into my hand. “I just read it. You will love it.”
Always, an embrace when you need. Always, someone to help you move a couch.
Always, someone from whom I can borrow eggs, sugar, salt, a bottle of wine.
And this: emergency, panic. I need to leave my tiniest, who has never, ever been detached from my arms and my breast. And I leave him—with you, without thinking twice about it, I know you will love my precious and keep him safe for me.
“Potluck tonight?” “Gah, I have nothing to bring.” “Don’t worry. We have plenty.”
New Year’s. Summer Solstice (even last year’s one). Halloween. Impromptu sleep-overs all over; in the morning, a kid head-count. Six kids traipse down my stairs. There are five clambering up yours. “Does your mother know you’re here?” “I think so… oh, isn’t that her, at your door?” It is. “Coffee delivery!” Oh, yes.
Someone else’s mother sneaks into my house while I have a doctor’s appointment and washes my kitchen floor. Because.
This place where I live binds people, builds people.
The idea of losing it is unbearable. Unacceptable.
We were never in real danger of losing it. Our streets were not ripped to shreds. The water was out of our houses in a few days—it did not linger for weeks. We are rebuilt. But. In those first days, when the water came—before it receded—before we got back home—we did not know. And we were not rational. And I was terrified.
I could not, would not lose you.
I must have loved you before, of course I must have. But this is when I really fall in love with you: when you are at your ugliest. When there is still knee-deep (wait, over here it’s higher, people are wearing hip-waders and getting soaked) water in Sunnyhill Lane. When there are army trucks rolling down Seventh Avenue. When the air smells of diesel and the vibrations of pumps and generators drown out voices. You are covered with mud and silt and fuck-is-that-sewage? and your streets are lined with the debris of a hundred, thousand lives and you look destroyed and ugly and I love you so desperately nothing but saving you matters.
“Christ. It looks like Kandahar,” you say. I look at you, unseeing. I would say, stupid exaggeration, get some perspective, come on, except I’m covered foot-to-toe in mud and so is everyone around me, and there are mountains and mountains of walls-doors-furniture-it’s-not-garbage-it’s-our-lives piled up between the apple trees, and the Red Cross has just delivered a stack of disaster relief kits. We tear through them scavenging for facemasks. Hoping for crowbars. Ha. A mop and a bucket? What the fuck?
You have been, to me, a sanctuary that consisted of a lane, a garden, a Common. A handful of neighbours. You become my everything. As I struggle to save you and you come to save me, you grow. You transcend what you were. You become…
You become a million beating hearts. An army of citizens covered in mud. I love you as I have never loved anything before. And I love them, desperately, passionately, fully, because they are saving you. You are them, they are you.
There are no boundaries.
Then, we all go home.
We come back to our gutted homes; you go back to your unscarred ones. Or go on to help other communities. To High River (which still rends my insides).
We go/come home. But we are all changed.
See, we all love you now in a way we could not even imagine before. You are not just our homes and our communities. You are not just our paths and our riverbanks and our parks and our buildings, our bridges, our streets, our landmarks. You are, of course you are, all of those things. But most of all, you are us. We are you. And we know you—ourselves—so fully and so intimately. There is no theory-to-be-tested, no promises-to-be-fulfilled. There is no uncertainty over what we will-can-could do when asked: we have done it. Everything that had to be done? We did it.
We saved you. You saved us.
We are changed. But not all of us know this as fully-intimately-undeniably as those of us who lost and saved know this.
“I lost nothing. I did not help. I was unaffected.”
I walk with him on the river paths—because I hardly ever walk anywhere else—and he claims to be unaffected. And thus… unchanged. And I see, suddenly, how damaged he is. He had no personal loss, he says. He was not covered with mud. Your tears.
I cover him with mine.
He claims to be unaffected… but as he watches me cry into the river… unaffected?
No such thing.
We are all affected.
This place where I live, this place that I love beyond the pall of all reason, this place that builds and binds, this place of jerrybuilt-during-a-past-boom townhouses, this place where dandelions bloom and little children grow up and old people grow older, this place is mine, and it is me.
This place is precious because it is loved, so loved, all the more so because it was threatened, almost-lost, saved. And as I love it, caress it, press it into me—each walk on its streets, each rediscovery of each of its crevices, curvatures, indentations an act of gratitude, acceptance, surrender—it grows. It becomes your place, our place, you, us.
This place is us, a million beating hearts.
“If it floods again, will we leave? Will we move?”
“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t even think that.”
I have loved and was loved and have eaten and felt loved again, and now I must get out of bed, find clothes, do things. But for the moment, for one more moment, I remain naked, languorous, wrapped up in you. And I need to tell you: I have loved you before this, for so long. But I did not really know how much until you were wrecked, destroyed, broken. And I did not truly value you, see the truth of you until you saved me/I saved you.
My most beloved: thank you.
So. I tell the part of my flood story that’s our flood story, I write it as an imperfect love letter to my imperfect piece of flood plain, which I love, passionately, in all its faults, with all its warts, frustrations.
I am so very, very grateful. Love, gratitude, vulnerability, appreciation, surrender swim inside me, fill me, leak out through my tears.
And my own, innermost flood story, the one that I’m not sure even I want to hear? It is so very simple, really. And it is this: a year ago, I could not feel like this. I would not write like this.
I would not cry like this.
I could not love like this.