Since the time I last reflected on the design and creation of this course, a couple notable things have occurred.
- The class commenced; it stars eleven young men and me. In the first few days, there was one young woman, but she dropped the course last week.
- The apocalypse occurred. It had a “local habitation and a name”:
Before Harvey interrupted our learning, I assigned the seniors Book 5 of The Odyssey with this guiding question: How can a close reading of this book help us understand the concept of “apocalypse” with more nuance; how might it provide us with a wider definition of ‘apocalypse’?” I instructed them, “we are searching….”
We didn’t have to search long. The apocalypse found us before we could meet back up and discuss the reading.
In book 5 when the hurricane hits Odysseus, he exclaims, “Wretched man—what becomes of me now, at last?” As we in Houston waited out Harvey’s rain, watching the news or checking Space City Weather relentlessly for updates or watching the water rise on our street or in our house, we asked the same question: what will become of us?
Was it weird that my students were reading about Odysseus surviving a hurricane and weathering the flood (i.e. the ocean—for 21 days!)? at the same time that we ourselves were experiencing the dirty side of Hurricane Harvey and weathering a flood (storm surge, incessant rain, dramatic flooding)? Because I’m into etymology, I’ll say it is weird! Wyrd in its Anglo Saxon origins means “fate.”
Here is the first thing that a close reading of Book 5 of The Odyssey (800 BCE) clarifies about apocalypse, and it’s a thing that relates to the current situation in Houston (2017).
No material preparations will protect us from apocalypse.
When Odysseus learns that Calypso is letting him go (apocalypso-ing him), he immediately sets to crafting the raft that will sail him home to Ithaca. Lines 259-287 present a near-precise blueprint for building a seaworthy raft. Despite Odysseus’ deft and speedy building skills, despite his thorough preparation and divine Calypso’s aid—she provides him with tools, timber, cloth, fragrant clothes, a nutritious and filling meal, and even memorable sex on the evening prior to his setting off—he still is unprepared to handle the real-time waves, churning into chaos, “whipping all the gales from every quarter, / shrouding over in thunderheads the earth and sea at once” (5.322-324). Within moments of the hurricane starting, “the brawling galewinds [strike] full force, snapping the mast mid-shaft / and hurling the sail and sailyard far across the sea” (5.350-351); moments after losing his sail, “Poseidon god of the earthquake launche[s] a colossal wave, / terrible, murderous, arching over him, pounding down on him, / hard as a windstorm blasting piles of dry parched chaff, / scattering flying husks—so the long planks of his boat were scattered far and wide” (5.403-407). For all his preparations, he still loses everything, finally even the clothes divine Calypso gave him.
Likewise, in Houston before Harvey hit, many of us did our best to prepare.
Because I had freaked out in a previous hurricane season, our disaster supplies kit was well-stocked; we just needed extra water, which my husband got on his way home from work on Thursday. On the other hand,
- We did not have flood insurance, nor could we get any because the storm was literally upon us. What can I say? We live in “the Heights,” 52 feet above sea level; we didn’t think we’d need it.
- Our “family disaster plan” was to stay together—god forbid disaster should strike while we were at our respective schools/jobs; in this case, we knew Harvey was going to hit Rockport on Friday night, so we’d most likely be home together over the weekend.
- We knew that, regardless of the situation, we weren’t going to evacuate: we’d tried to evacuate at the last minute during Hurricane Rita and ended up creeping west along State Highway 1093 (Westheimer) for ten hours with our then-nine-month-old daughter, a garbage bag full of clothes and diapers, and our polydactyl cat Ginger. Before we ran out of gas on that evac attempt, we made it to a friend’s parents’ house in Jersey Village, weathering that non-event for the next three days with them. I’m in total agreement with the mayor’s decision to NOT order evacuation of Houston for Harvey, as I shudder to imagine the thousands who might have drowned while waiting for traffic to move.
As it turned out for my family during Harvey, we did not flood; we did not lose power; we did not lose property. Like so many in Houston, we breathed a deep sigh of relief, grateful for our good fortune, and then, driven by extreme survivor’s guilt, we set to figuring out how we might help those who were not as fortunate: we donated money, did flood-related laundry for others, made emergency-related phone calls for people, cooked and delivered food to first responders, showed up to volunteer at the GRB, NRG, Meals on Wheels or any number of other places that provided people with desperately needed help: shelter, diapers, food, water, towels, bedding, shoes. The lists were long and ever-shifting.
A week and a half after the flood, after the waters receded in the inner loop, but not in some areas outside the loop (i.e., Houston’s suburbs), I met a man from Meyerland, and he told me about how he thought he was so well prepared, buying a generator and a new swamp cooler, stocking up on disaster supplies and extra food. His home flooded in a matter of seconds, he said: “at first, there was only a foot of water inside, but then I opened the door to see what the flooding was like outside, and three to four feet of water rushed in. I couldn’t even close the door. All of my preparedness was underwater in moments.” He continued telling me how he and his family spent the day and night in the attic, how he built a makeshift toilet for the girls to use in privacy by cutting a hole in the seat of a lawn chair and taping plastic bags to it, how he was already searching for furniture to put in the house they rebuild. “It is what it is,” he said. “It was so traumatizing; all we can do is keep going.” I felt grateful that he was willing to share some of his story with me.
Here’s one of the first lessons we have learned from poetry (and from our personal experiences with Harvey) about how to survive the apocalypse: we can’t prepare physically or materially to avoid apocalypse, but we can prepare mentally to endure it.
How to prepare mentally for apocalypse.
Hint: it involves cultivating and transforming our awareness.