Family, Floods, and Friends
Updated: Jun 15, 2018
I left home early Friday morning, May 18th, and flew from Burlington, Vermont to Charlotte, North Carolina, with a layover in NYC. Upon arriving in Charlotte Friday evening, I picked up a rental car and headed for Asheville, North Carolina where my mother and sister, Angie, both live. My mother had fallen and broken her shoulder and Angie had been taking care of her all week while I organized my work and home life to
be gone for my week of nursing duty. My youngest sister, Amy, busy with her four children, was following my mother’s care, Angie’s updates and my movements via our three way texting thread.
In the rental car heading into the western North Carolina mountains, Siri, acting as my guide, announced that I was driving into flood warnings. Darkness deepening and rain pouring, Siri advised detours on narrow, winding and unpopulated, unfamiliar roads. I could not see two feet in front of my car and was terrified of inadvertently driving into water running across the road. Then I noticed that trees were blowing and mud was sliding into the roads. While I felt some level of control, (declining by the moment,) about not driving into water, I realized I had no ability to prevent trees from falling or mud from sliding. Siri then announced that I had less than 10 percent left on my phone battery and I remembered with regret that when I packed that morning I had forgotten all phone car chargers for home and car.
Siri’s voice was very comforting. Just a few days before I had heard a story about the Chinese people’s adoring relationship with chatbox Xiaoice. I judged them for texting and chatting with artificial intelligence that they described as having a wicked sense of humor, excellent listening skills, and a caring persona…but now I understood. Just like me, the Chinese feel lost, alone, and scared and that calm, neutral, reassuring voice offering information that you would not otherwise have is irresistible. However, my phone was dying and police were detouring me off of the highway that would lead me to my mother.
I directed Siri to, “Call my mother.” “Who is your mother?” She asked me in return. “Call Mary Trail.” “Here are all the Trails in your contact list,” she said. “Mary Trail,” I repeated. “Would you like me to remember that your mother is Mary Trail?” “Yes, I would like you to remember that my mother is Mary Trail.” Siri did call my mother and I explained the situation to her. “You need to turn around and head back towards Charlotte,” mom instructed. I knew she was right but I thought, "If I can just figure it out, I can get there tonight."
Everywhere Siri took me was closed or a long, dark, road winding through a deluge pouring from the sky and rising from the earth all around me. And as she gave directions, she intermittently reminded me in her calm voice that she was running out of juice; she was about to die. Then she did. Part of me thought: panic now! But I didn’t. I felt a deep sense of calm, clarity and strength. I knew I needed to double back to the last place I had seen real human beings. Earlier that morning, rushing around (and forgetting my cell phone chargers,) I had stopped for 20 minutes to breathe, meditate, and flow through a sun salutation. That repeated practice of grounding and centering most every day for decades sustained me in that moment. If I hadn’t stopped to tune in to my own still voice, maybe I would have remembered my phone chargers. But that wouldn’t have changed the weather or the fact that I could not get to Asheville that night and had no alternate plan. And, in fact, if the phone hadn't died, just like the Chinese devotees of Xiaoice, I might have continued to rely on artificial intelligence that could not save me instead of turning to my fellow human beings who did care for me.
I turned around on the road leading into watery darkness and headed back towards the last town I had seen, Columbus. Never have I been so happy to see a gas station in all my life. Hundreds of cars and trucks were gathered at the two gas stations in town that had spontaneously become safe harbors in the storm. A beautiful being at the cash register who seemed genuinely concerned about the dozens of people approaching her for help. She told me a shelter was being set up and gave me directions to the local high school. Real people, who turned out to be Red Cross volunteers, welcomed me, registered me, shared their cell phones so I could call my mother, my sister, and my husband and then directed me into a school room filled with families. I asked if anyone had a phone charger and a teenaged girl immediately offered to share hers with me. We began to share our stories of how we had each ended up in the shelter that night (now 11 p.m.) as well as information and thoughts about what would happen next.
I spotted one other single woman who, just like me, had ended up here alone with no family or partner. Lanie was a Texan who had recently bought a home in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina. Within minutes, we were discussing the appalling political situation, the frightening increase of global warming events, and the latest school shooting which had happened that morning. Lanie was a retired flight attendant and so, just like me, had been a world traveler. Now she was using her free time to study psychology and “hit the streets.” She had been marching in every protest and demonstration that she could get to. We seemed to have everything in common! Just like me, Lanie has two daughters. And just like me, Lanie has one daughter who lives in Brooklyn and one daughter who is in the wine business. She had been through a divorce and, just like me, is now happily remarried. Her husband is a pilot and was, at that very moment, flying a plane in South America. “Just like you!” and “Just like me!” we laughed many times throughout the night. Lanie was wondering about a friend she had spent the evening with. They had parted as the friend was going to bed early and getting up early for a food vending gig at a festival in a near by town the next day. Lanie had encountered washed out roads and couldn’t get home or anywhere else so ended up at the shelter. She hadn’t been able to reach her friend and assumed she had gone to bed early as planned.
One of the Red Cross volunteers was also a teacher at the school. He linked his state of the art computer to a big screen. Our newly bonded group of refugees studied the satellite pictures and weather reports. As we discussed our options, given the latest news we were hearing, it became clear that we were going to be spending the night at Polk County High School. The initial anxiety and even excitement about our predicament began to descend into exhaustion and resignation, even a little depression. More shelter seekers trickled in, including a group of students who had just won a competition at a school near Charlotte and were trying to get to the same town Lanie’s friend was planning to go to in the morning.
The Red Cross volunteers first brought in stacks of bottled water and boxes of doughnuts, then huge bags filled with snacks, and finally cots and blankets. Each person was given two scratchy, stiff, white blankets. Usually needing a tempurpedic mattress, two pillows, and organic sheets and comforters, I was delighted to receive a piece of tarp stretched across a metal frame and two Red Cross blankets.
Lanie pulled her cot close to mine and joked about the fact that she was spending the night in a school, a place that has become strangely dangerous for our students these days. I lay down on my cot and organized my blankets with a heart full of gratitude. I was so grateful to be sleeping in a room in a school in a town I had never heard of with people I had never met and most of whom I would never see again. I was grateful for humans who care and are organized. I was grateful for the police and the first responders, who directed us all away from danger. I was grateful for the local citizens who directed us to the Red Cross…the Red Cross who is mostly volunteers, following their protocols, carrying out their well planned and practiced responses to crises. And then there was luck and listening to my intuition. Others were rescued from the tops of their vehicles or roofs or died in a mudslide…
When I left in the morning, the friendly and good natured volunteers who had provided shelter and care wished me well and brushed off my emotional thanks. "You will never want to return to Polk County again," one of them joked with me. Lanie and I exchanged contact information and shared a long hug. As I drove to Asheville on the now opened and cleared highway, I saw the debris and wreckage from the night before. And I realized how close I had been to my destination. So close! But I will be forever grateful for the experience of being helpless and alone in Columbus, North Carolina. When we need our fellow human beings and they are there for us, in both organized and spontaneous ways, we are reminded that faith, love, and beauty are still very much alive and well…and always needed. When I reconnected with my mother, sisters, husband, other family, and friends, it was with greater appreciation and awareness of how much I love and care about each one.
P.S. Once I got to Asheville the next day, Lanie texted me that her friend was traumatized. She had never made it home the night of the floods but was rescued by the fire department from the top of her van as rising water swirled all around her. She did not make it to the festival as the town indeed had been devastated but she donated all of her food to the first responders of Columbus. I asked for the friend’s name so that I could send her love and healing energy. I did and my last day in Asheville, I overheard a woman telling a cashier about her near death experience in the flooding last Friday night. “Are you Carol Lynn Jackson?” I asked her. Wide eyed and little confused, she repled, “Yes?” I explained who I was, Lanie's "shelter friend." We shared our flood stories with one another and the resulting experience of deeper and stronger connection with others.
Lanie and our shelter friends to the left/meeting Carol Lynn below