From In the Land of Good Living, a memoir, which was published last month by Knopf.
At my Miami Catholic school, we didn’t have snow days, naturally. We had hurricane days. A lot of them. Tropical storm days, too, and flash-flood days. Days on which the cancellation of class did not mean “where shall we sled?” but “will we have a place to sleep after this?”
Which is not to say that these days were gloomy. Oh, no. A strange glee arises throughout the peninsula on these worst days of the Mean Season. A kind of swaggering, both-hands-beckoning, devil-may-care attitude. This attitude filtered down to kids like me. I came to understand that, every year, Mother Nature would try to tee me up, knock me out—and there was honor in not flinching.
I knew little about hurricanes. For example, I did not know that the Spaniards had appropriated el huracán from the Taíno of the Caribbean. They did so because el huracán was a force with which the Spaniards had never before reckoned. The phenomenon was much more powerful than Mediterranean storms—seemingly purposeful and directed. Each acted as if it were an agent carrying out orders from on high, settling debts and relaying messages like a Mob enforcer, or the accuser who toyed with Job.
The colonists learned to identify the signs of its approach: aching bones, severe headaches, premature births, ants climbing up the walls, sawgrass blooming like crazy. Such were the results of plunging barometric pressure. I wonder now: Maybe that’s where our giddy bluster came from? The hydrostatic mass rushes out to sea, and everything in nature runs, hides—but not us. Even when the mandatory evacuation siren sounded—not us. We hunkered down, painted phrases on our plywood as if el huracán could read. We jutted our chins and pointed at them.
And we threw parties. Outside: A monster whirlwind born from a vacuum. Inside: Life! Rollicking hubris! The candles and the booze were brought out as soon as the bathtub and washing machine had been filled with water. The best part, for a kid like me, was when the eye passed over us. An eerie, jaundiced truce in the middle of the tempest. If the adults were shithoused enough to go with us (or shithoused enough not to care), we kids would tour the damage. We weren’t property owners! It was fun! Like seeing Santa’s list made manifest: who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.
I got a lot of muddled theology at my Catholic school. Some of the nuns held peculiar heterodoxies regarding limbo and the presence of aborted babies therein. As to the question of theodicy, or why God allows bad things to happen to good people, it was rarely if ever broached. So, imperfect in my understanding, I’d race around the destruction to see for myself the divine hand of Providence. Our neighbor, Arnold the barber, was spared! That made sense. The mean abuela who every Halloween pretended she wasn’t home? A tree fell on her car! The world added up. El huracán shook down wrongdoers for things owed, penances gone unsaid. It was apocalyptic, this understanding of mine. Apocalyptic in the true sense of the word: apokalypsis, from apo, meaning “un-,” and kalyptein, meaning “to cover.” I thought hurricanes uncovered what had been lying beneath all along. My brashness in the face of such storms flowed from this belief, too, I think. My family and I were fine people. What did we have to worry about?
Then came Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Peak winds: 175 miles per hour. Storm surge: 17 feet. Death toll: 51. Homes destroyed: 80,000. Total damages: $30 billion. My neighbor Arnold—wiped out. The rectory across the street from my grandfather’s house—a shambles. The farming folk of Homestead, as well as the Air Force base there—sayonara. Homes built by a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company—as good and pure an enterprise to my young eyes as Holy Mother Church—folded so fast under Andrew’s strain that the builders were sued for fraud. My own house was halved in the storm.
Before I could process this, I was bundled off to live with some relatives out of state. My parents repaired the house. When I returned to Miami, my school placed me in a kind of group therapy for kids who’d lost everything. Here, they finally taught us about theodicy, albeit in a roundabout way. We were made to understand that we were not bad people, or even half-bad. Nor was this imbecilic chance. The counselors did not want us to think of Andrew as an accident. God was here, they told us. His hand was in this. But we can’t know how till Judgment Day, since we are but humans.
Thus did a crack appear on the surface of my childish faith. This crack widened into a fissure and finally a break when I was teenaged. I refused to read into Hurricane Andrew’s wreckage. I would not divine it as if it were tea leaves. Find the small voice of God in the storm? No. What happened to us was an accident within the economy of dumb matter. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more.
I was hoping that, for all the “natural” evil wrought—the blasted homes, lost lives, swamped hopes and dreams—el huracán might clear out some overgrowth and uncover a bedrock truth. We cannot estrange ourselves from this world, no matter how hard we try. We are and always will be dependent, contingent creatures. To delude ourselves about this is destructive. Believing ourselves exempt from nature is the kind of misperception that leads to a ruthlessly utilitarian vision of the earth. Seen through this lens, Mother Nature appears distinct from us. More than that, she looks like she was made to serve. From her we take raw material and shape it into whatever we wish. We can, say, uproot mangrove swamps, fill them in, build luxury condominiums along the ersatz shoreline, pressure-cook the atmosphere by flying back and forth to those condominiums every winter—and then we can act surprised when a naturally occurring phenomenon emerges out of that warmed water to knock it all down. We can rebuild in the exact same spot, just as willfully, just as unsustainably, certain in our delusion that the storm won’t be back, at least no time soon, and anyway there’s honor in the chin-jutting.