The problem with valleys

What do people buy before a storm? Water. Batteries. A box of wine – fine, two, and I’m not sorry. We fill our carts with comfort, collect retail horcruxes, seek the magic combination that will hold back the flood.

In San José, Costa Rica, on November 23rd, 2016, I buy a rechargeable lantern just in case.

I’m watching two storms. One’s a bright puff whirling toward our coast on the weather map. The other is a man who wears that same shape on his head, disturbing, blond. A man whose ringtone by now, I assume, is “Hail to the Chief.” The hurricane is named Otto, just like the Costa Rican congressman who said this week that the blond-haired man is an inspiration. A cold wind blew through my heart when I read it: no place is immune.

I buy tuna. Lots of tuna.

I’m watching two storms today. I’m not the one they’ll hit hardest. I am protected, high. I’m surrounded by mountains, ensconced in a deep valley. I get to sip hot coffee as a woman bobs across the front page of my crisp newspaper, a woman with a son exactly my daughter’s age, a woman in a skiff on chocolate-brown river. Evacuees. They can’t be sure they’ll see their home and possessions again. I have electricity. I have Netflix. I have power.

I buy toilet paper and chocolate and write a poem in my head about the hurricane. Meanwhile, that woman. Meanwhile, that child. At funerals, those who cry the loudest are sometimes peripheral. They have the luxury of public emotion. They have tears to spend. But the wife, the son, the mother: the front row is sometimes numb, quiet, all their energy going into simply trying to stay upright, trying to stay alive. That’s my native country. Our streets are filled with black-clad sobbing mourners, and others in street clothes who’ve no time to weep. Simply trying to stay upright, trying to stay alive.

I buy avocados. Delicious.

What do people buy before a storm? Where I come from, we are good at buying. We buy T-shirts, hats, cute safety pin necklaces. More usefully, we buy newspaper subscriptions because the press needs our help; we buy books about racism; we fill our carts with donations – all essential, but still just purchases. We spend our words in the comment section and wipe the sweat from our brows. We buy and buy, afraid to stop. We joke about horcruxes, think about good and evil. If we are better, we call and do and build and work, but there are so many shiny objects to mislead us, currencies of excuses, economies of distraction. We are so good at diversion. We are better at that than at anything else, perhaps.

I buy tortillas and cheese and send donations downstream to the river mouth. I go home and check the weather. I look out the window at the barest shimmer of drizzle and think of the woman in the skiff.

I think about my president-elect and the people of my country and the problem with valleys.

Sure, they’re safer at first. Sure, it’s worse, worse than I can imagine, to be quaking in the lowlands on the coast. But what if a flood is years long, decades long, epic, Noah-worthy? Am I on the outside, watching the waters rise, moving, scheming, reacting? Or am I safe in my valley, blocking any exit, walling over any weakness so that when the seas finally do breach the mountains, they rush in all at once – inescapable, voracious, ruthless, just?

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