Posted by: roamingolivia | May 24, 2011

Floods


Two weeks ago, I went to see Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth at The Print Room (in London). I chose it because I like fringe theatre and because it got good reviews, but also because I am a sucker for Tennessee Williams after I saw several short plays in North London with a friend a few years ago.

The production was very good and the theatre (which is new) is clearly making a good start. But Kingdom of Earth is an extraordinarily dark play, and it is impossible to like any of the characters (I can’t think of a single Williams character I like). And yet – or because of this – the imagery of waiting for the floods while the rest of your life falls apart (or ends)  haunted me.

It did not haunt me in the sharp but temporary and ultimately irrelevant way that Black Swan did; this was not a horrifying play. In fact, “haunt” is the wrong word. It has echoed.

It is partly because the play is bleak, but it is not bleak because of the flood. The bleakness of the characters’ lives happens despite the flood, or unconnected with the flood. The flood in the play is not the focal point, as natural disasters are often not the focal point at their onset. They can become a focal point later, but when they happen, you’re in the middle of an extraordinarily complicated life. In fact, in this play, it was almost as if the flood became a very real intrusion, interrupting my engagement with these characters and my very real desire to know what happened to them. That interruption has stuck in my mind, echoing, for weeks.

This echo has been facilitated by real-life events; the floods and tornadoes battering that same region of the US (the South, which I also call my original home) – and the pictures and friends’ and family’s Facebook statuses that come with them – have brought some of these most desperate scenes back to me repeatedly. I have spent hours reading and thinking about the devastation, including most recently in Joplin, Missouri, but in so many other places. I frequently deny the idea of a “home”, but there is something different about the way you hear all the stories in the world, and the way you hear those from the places you experienced childhood and formative years. This is not to say you cannot be empathetic or understsanding or loving or anything else when you see people from other places; in fact, it should be the opposite. But in any case, I experience the play as a “story from home”, and it was a powerful feeling that has echoed throughout weeks of disaster coverage of new, realer stories from home.*

Pieces of my past have floated back to me in scraps, where the real and imagined threats are combined. I remember actual events – huddling in the bathtub or hallway or closet, away from windows, with my mother as a child; family fables of immense personal loss in serious storms; driving through West Texas highways, hoping and betting with your life that you will be safe if you observe what the truckers do (they will have a radio to tell them to jump in a ditch before the real danger strikes). These ideas were so terrifying and exhilarating to me as a child, but ultimately they have hung in the back of my life, as they did in the back of the play, waiting to interrupt everything else.

I remember imagined and mediated events, like being fixated on news of Katrina in the UK, during a break from a crazed world trip. I remember discussions of natural and man-made disasters and the difficulty of distinguishing between them, and all at once I want to read a book recommended by my friend Ellie, Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. I once had a summer job at an oral history collection in my home city, mostly entering abstracts about the 1970 Lubbock tornado. The abstracts were short outlines, so I repeatedly typed random words – places I knew in Lubbock, names of streets – and my brain worked in the background imagining the horrors each word alluded to. (That online archive of abstracts appears to be entirely unusable, at least for me right now, so that was a waste of time.)

My mind is wandering through these and other images and experiences, and it is making me slightly homesick. Tonight, sitting on my couch, talking with a friend who is staying at our apartment, I could not stop glancing out the window opposite me. From this seat, I could only see clouds, and they were moving in straight, parallel lines. To me, they looked like a swollen river, or like something I wanted to see as a swelling river, the fixation of my metaphorical and visual life at the moment.

My friend, who is going to New Zealand this weekend, thought the clouds looked like sand.

*By the way, I’m not sure I totally believe all the “home” stuff in this paragraph, but I feel it right now, so might as well write as if I do.

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