Last year about this time I was in Las Vegas. Not gambling–I didn’t even play the nickel slots. My husband and I had flown there from a summer in Western New York to start our hiking trip through the five national parks of Utah.
Learning our route, our children insisted we stay at least one night to take in Sin City and it’s charms, and to cement the deal, a son and daughter-in-law gave us tickets to see Cirque du Soleil’s O at the Bellagio.
So there we sat on our one and only night in Las Vegas, viewing the extraordinary O as Hurricane Irma visited Florida. The latest map had shown the eye passing directly over us, and we also knew she would be doing her damage while we were in the theater. There wasn’t a darned thing we could do about it except enjoy the show and shrug.
On the flight to Las Vegas I did spend time wondering what I would have taken with me if I’d been able to get back home to Florida first.
What would I take?
I was reminded of a story I heard when I was serving in VISTA in the Arkansas Ozarks. We had great neighbors, and some of them were fabulous storytellers. I remembered one man telling me about someone he knew whose house had burned down.
“That woman ran right into that house to save what she could, and when she hot-footed it outside, she was holding an egg. Nothing else. Just that egg. She asks herself every day why she needed it, and she still doesn’t know.”
We’re lucky. The same son who gave us the tickets has digitized all our family photos. In fact he still has them. So we knew we weren’t going to lose all those memories. I had jewelry I prized in our little cottage in New York, as well as my computer, with all our family records and my books. We’re a minister’s family who moved often, so even though I have pack rat tendencies, I was forced to get rid of things I didn’t need along the way. We had four children, so we didn’t collect valuables, and now I have four grandchildren, including two rambunctious grandsons. I don’t want to worry about breakables. I’d rather have fun with them.
But what would I have taken if I’d had the chance? More than an egg, I was sure, but I really didn’t know what. There was absolutely nothing in that house I couldn’t live without.
What would my characters take?
Every novelist works hard to know her characters. Sometimes we play little games. What’s her zodiac sign? What’s his religion? What does she eat for breakfast? What movie does he watch over and over again. I never do this to develop my characters. Some authors do, and that’s fine. If I do it at all, I do it to make sure I know them inside and out. If an answer doesn’t pop right up, then I know I probably have work to do.
My main character in the book I’m just finishing is a young woman named Ryan. I can easily answer all the above questions. More important today, what would Ryan bring with her if a hurricane was bearing down on her house? I don’t think she’d have to think hard. She’d grab her computer–she’s a journalist–jewelry her parents have given her, cell phone, every bit of snack food in her cover, bottled water and car keys. As she starts to shut the door she remembers a certain photo in the drawer beside her bed. She races back, grabs it, frame and all, and finally leaves. She has everything she really needs.
The lesson I learned.
Right now I’m listening to the sound of a drill on my lanai. After many months, our local hurricane shutter company is putting the finishing touches on our hurricane protection. The one thing I did take from my brush with Hurricane Irma–who swerved and died down, inflicting almost no damage on our house–was that being prepared is not just a Boy Scout motto. Being prepared and staying safe is who I am. I want to know I’ve done everything I need to, whether it’s successful or not. Even though I wasn’t home, that’s what I took with me.
Tomorrow Hurricane Florence is bearing down on the east coast. I pray that everyone will be ready, that everyone will take her approach seriously. At this moment people are choosing what they want to bring with them as they evacuate. The choices are agonizing, and enlightening.
What would you take if you had to evacuate? Do you know what that says about you?
For all of you in the hurricane’s path, stay safe and know many of us are thinking about you and hoping for the very best outcome.