Splashville’s Quiet Desperation

Epic floods engulf my hometown, with me none the wiser, and I realize: when the waters rise, we only see our own little island

I awoke Monday morning to silvery coils of steam rising eerily from the waterlogged ground in my backyard garden. Strange, I wondered, crossing the patio to my office, ready to fire up the computer for the first time since the rains began late Friday night.

Beyond the miniscule inconvenience of losing power, the weekend’s deluge had left my husband Hal and me entirely, embarrassingly unscathed. We’d marveled via Hal’s iPhone at the massive, vivid yellow-and-red radar scythe scraping across the region and had spent a few hours picking our way through streets blocked by swollen streams and downed trees, hoping to find an eatery open somewhere.

By Monday morning, we were ready to resume business as usual. But news of what was happening outside of our ten-block island of relative normalcy began trickling in via local news and Facebook: worried queries from friends in England and Austria, stories of near-misses and personal loss, images of familiar places I had ceased to recognize.

It was many hours before I began to grasp the magnitude of what our friends and neighbors had lost and were still losing in other parts of the city, as the river crested late Monday beneath an impossibly crisp, clear sky. I suddenly felt rather sheepish about my good fortune: the untouched lushness of my garden refuge, not even a pesky damp basement to wet-vac, and my blithe cluelessness as the disaster had unfolded all around me.

But then, catastrophe is often like that, from the inside looking out. It smites randomly and carelessly, raining bedlam and tragedy upon some, inconveniencing others, and leaving the rest virtually untouched. For each, the view is different; but the unifying characteristic is smallness: we get the porthole rather than the aerial view.

Thinking about this, a seemingly unrelated image from nearly twenty years ago comes to me: amid a sea of polished cobblestones, a small mass of people roiled and tumbled, jostling to meet the suited men and women and occasional shiny black car emitted, one at a time, by a gate in the Kremlin’s east wall.

It was early September, 1991, the first day of my semester in Moscow, and I struggled into the throng, eager to find out what all the fuss was about. The crowd engulfed me completely. The Kremlin Wall, St. Basil’s candied domes, the vastness of Red Square itself, all of it disappeared, giving way to elbows, shoulders, hats, and shouted questions.

Armed with three years of university Russian, I strained to understand the harried exchanges. But I could make out little or nothing of what was said or what the tumult of enthusiasm and anger was all about.

That image – a small island of angry people in a corner of Red Square’s implacable enormity – captures my Moscow winter perfectly. There I was in the middle of history unfolding, insensate witness to a great tectonic shift happening right before my eyes, and I understood nothing.

Less than two weeks before, tanks had stood in this very place, power had changed hands, and the Soviet empire had become a dying flame. But that winter, in thick of it all, my grasp of those events was limited to a few scattered personal observations: how lines to buy potatoes and bread had grown longer as the days grew shorter; how elderly Russian women would pull me aside in the street to express their fear and rage at the cascading changes; how we Americans could buy almost anything we wanted for a few dollars; how it hardly mattered, because there was nothing to buy anyway; and how, of ten students in our group, four were victims of violence that winter, including me.

In my little bubble of a student’s world, all I could see was the chaos of elbows and hats; the big picture escaped me entirely, like a lifeboat in high seas. Like that day in the crowd on Red Square.

Tragedy is by nature an individual, personal experience. Although in most ways, the fall of the Soviet Union bore no resemblance to a natural disaster, the chaos that ensued selected its victims as arbitrarily as any tornado, flood, or earthquake. A few well-connected apparatchiks became billionaires while old women realized their pensions wouldn’t buy bread anymore, families lost their life savings in the ruble devaluations, and journalists took a bullet in some dark stairwell.

In my case, the USSR’s final days will be ever intertwined with the memory of being assaulted and held captive, a crime wholly unrelated to geopolitics or the fall of empires, but encompassing my whole world for that terrible night and the troubled years that followed. 

Here in my sunny garden, the sirens that have wailed by every hour or so since this weekend (and the mournful dog-howling that always, tragic-comically, accompanies them), continue to remind me that since Saturday, more than a few Nashville residents must have found themselves caught, similarly, in that dimly -lit place at the edge of life, fighting hard. Most of them, like me, passed through that borderland, and now have a story to tell. My heart constricts when I think about those who did not.

We don’t know what the ramifications of those moments will be while we’re in their midst; and we can’t see the satellite map, can’t offer a pundit’s wide-angle view based on our experiences. But after a few days steeping in acute survivor’s guilt, I realize, I’ve pretty much been on both ends of the smiting. This time, through no fault or merit of my own, I happened to find myself on dry land. There is no why to it, no karma, no divine punishment meted out, only flood plains and high ground. The waters do not care.

The flood has receded now, and our little islands are reconnecting into a mainland, a friendly, big-little Southern city that’s tallying its losses as a community, pulling on the work gloves, and pitching in to help the neighbors. Let the benefit concert season begin. Nobody does that better than Nashville.

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