- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How do you begin again? Where do you start? When faced with a gazillion broken pieces — physically or psychologically — how do you determine which one to pick up first?

Surely, I don’t have a clue today. For the moment, all I can do is pull out a pad and make lists. Soon, I promise to rise out of my stupor.

Given that my soggy summer saga continues with floods and felled trees, I now have a smidgen of empathy with Hurricane Katrina evacuees and their losses of lifelong property and possessions.

First you weep, then you worry, then you have to muster the strength, the stamina and the guts to get busy. Inevitably, the recovery process requires you to fight — not only others, but mostly your frustration, your impatience and your sense of despair.

The knowledge that all is not lost sustains you. The whisper that all will be well propels you forward. You repeat to yourself like a mantra, it could have been worse; after all, we are still standing. Trinkets and treasures can be replaced.

Praise the Lord. “You must be living right,” said a prayerful neighbor.

“You’ll see, it’s really not as bad as it looks,” said another in encouragement.

After spending a few anxious nights in emergency rooms last month — first with my mother (who broke a knee in a fall), then my aunt (who suddenly fainted on me) — my daughter and I went wading into the water filling our basement after the downpours. My street resembled the Red River after a flash flood.

Be careful what you ask for: I always wanted to live on waterfront property. We mopped for days, then threw in the mop.

While I was away attending a writing workshop across the Atlantic Ocean in a sweltering Italian villa, a beautiful and beloved 100-year-old oak tree toppled across my back yard after tornado-force winds ripped a path through my Alexandria neighborhood. I grew horribly homesick instantly.

Thankfully, the humongous tree did not fall onto my house or my daughter sleeping inside. But the tree uprooted a transformer, which apparently took several days to replace. I, however, will never be able to replace the buffer and tranquility the tree provided from an apartment building.

My “Secret Garden of Eden,” as my cousin Maurice named it, the one I spent several years carefully cultivating into a plant-filled paradise, now looks like a war-torn military zone.

Now half of the tree’s trunk lies in a discombobulated array of wood chunks; the other half rests, rotting across what remains of the wood and chain-link fences.

A utility truck left huge tire tracks as it smashed the sea-grass bushes. The fence looks as if some heavenly hosts were playing a game of pick-up sticks. Miraculously, some of the roses and petunias were spared.

My lush garden, borne out of the recovery of another life, grew into a neighborhood treasure where all were welcome to sit a spell and sip iced tea or wine coolers.

Funny how easily you can get so attached to even inanimate objects. I love trees, especially that old oak. Those branches, those leaves, those roots represented a lot more to me than the shade, shelter and stability they visibly provided. That tree was an anchor and a touchstone to my ancestors whose blood, sweat and tears bought the land its roots ran so deep within.

Forget the price of oil breaking your budget. Weather alone is wreaking such havoc on our wallets that cleaning up the storm debris has to be providing a big boost to our local economy.

I’ll concede that I have a very personal interest in hoping that Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s plea for federal emergency assistance to help Northern Virginia’s hard-hit homeowners does not fall on deaf presidential ears.

When my basement, like so many others, flooded, a redheaded caricature straight out of a “Dukes of Hazzard” movie made an appearance at my door, ostensibly to repair a temperamental sump pump. He plugged it in, poked it a few times and pronounced it barely functional. Then he matter-of-factly gave me a $3,500 estimate to install a new one. I wrote him a $40 check for his trouble.

Calling me in Italy, my daughter informed me that our regular yard man estimated that $4,000 would be enough to cut up and remove the tree. My insurance company had a much different figure in mind to handle the tree and the fence: $1,800 total.

Never mind that I lost a refrigerator full of food, twice; along with a few pieces of outdoor furniture, twice. Never mind that I pay more than $350 a month for homeowner’s insurance.

A disaster caused by “an act of God,” my neighbor was told by his insurance company as he tried to recover funds to fix his broken fence, simply means you’re out of luck.

Here is where the getting-the-strength-to-fight part — whether or not you’ve gotten the strength for the get-over-your-grief part — comes into play.

My summer saga has been wet, wicked and wild, and the hits keep on coming. The important test is how well we can weather the storms and still see the blessings in the blues.

Borrowing from an Earth, Wind and Fire song: “If there ain’t no beauty, you got to make some beauty.” I know I can because I know I have.

You begin to rebuild a life, or a relationship or house or a garden yet again and again because as humans we are compelled to do so, one small step at a time.

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