Read an Excerpt
The Ten Gifts
By Robin Landew Silverman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Robin L. Silverman
All rights reserved.
MY RIGHT HAND moved instinctively to the center console of my Mazda, reaching for the coffee cup that wasn't there. I needed something hot and full of acid to burn a hole through this bad dream and wake me up.
"Boy, what I wouldn't give for a cup of really strong coffee right now," I said through gritted teeth.
Erica, my fourteen-year-old, stared vacantly out the window at the black, lifeless fields. "Everything's closed, Mom. The flood. Remember?"
I nodded. I wish I could forget! We were headed south on County Road 18, refugees from the worst flood in modern American history. The Red River of the North had claimed our town, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and its sister city, East Grand Forks, Minnesota, just two days before. We escaped with our lives, our cars, a few items of clothing, and the family photo albums, which was more than most people from what we gleaned from the television and newspaper reports. I had also grabbed two boxes of Passover matzoh from my kitchen counter as I ran out the door, ironically thinking I would be celebrating the Exodus, not living it.
Despite community sandbagging efforts that went on twenty-four hours a day for weeks on end, the river won, cresting a full five feet above predicted levels. Now more than 60,000 of us were off to strange and distant places for the foreseeable future, since the mayors of both cities said it would be weeks before we could even return home to survey the damage.
The two-lane road was pockmarked with scars from the brutal winter that had caused this tragedy. More than 110 inches of snow had fallen on our region in eight blizzards that had already caused enough suffering for a lifetime. We were still recovering from Blizzard Hannah, whose ice and winds knocked out power up and down the Red River Valley for the first few weeks of April, when the flood hit with full force. We had been struggling to stay ahead of Mother Nature for almost a month, and now she not only caught up with us, she forced us out.
I could barely see my husband's teal-green Jimmy up ahead, which was leading our five-car caravan. My Mazda, heavily burdened by the merchandise and materials we managed to scavenge from our family's menswear store, scraped the crumbling asphalt with each bump and bounce. Thankfully, our retail store was dry when we last saw it, although we knew our downtown warehouse probably was destroyed. We filled my car, Steve's, and that of our seventeen-year-old daughter, Amanda, both inside and out, tying box after box of merchandise onto the roofs and shoving merchandise, tape measures, pins, and financial records into trunks, cargo areas, and spaces between and under the seats.
Amanda was plugging along behind Steve in her aging red Tempo. The other minivan and car in our little parade, also packed with goods from the store, belonged to the Haugen family, who had given us refuge over the weekend when the dikes were topped and the lift stations, which kept the city's water flowing normally through the sewer system, failed. We'd left our collie, Lady, on their farm twenty miles west of town as we moved what we could to Fargo, where we had a small, as-yet unprofitable satellite store. We had reservations at the Holiday Inn Express for just five nights, all we could get. After that, we were on our own, since every hotel, motel, bed-and-breakfast, and truck stop was filled to overflowing with evacuees and incoming rescue workers.
I looked in my rearview mirror and could see a line of cars stretching all the way back to the Forks. Ahead of me the picture was the same. Dust- and mud-covered vehicles snaked their way south, filled with grim-faced drivers and passengers. Some were carrying household goods, but most were not. Although the mayor had given those of us living in low-lying areas three days' warning of a possible evacuation, most townspeople thought they were safe from the river, as their homes were well out of the hundred-year flood plain. When the water came bubbling up out of sewers and began pouring down the streets, most escaped with only the clothes on their backs. The road heading north was eerily empty, almost as if what was once there had ceased to exist.
In spite of my lack of caffeine, my hands shook. I gripped the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles turned white. What will happen to all of us? How are we going to live?
It wasn't just the raging waters we were fleeing. A monstrous fire was engulfing the downtown area of Grand Forks. As we watched it on television from the home of friends, it seemed almost surreal. One of our business districts was burning up, even though it was filled with water. No one knew how the fire had started; the media's best guess was that something electrical had shorted out before power was cut to the city.
The fire had already devoured one city block, and its sparks were quickly igniting buildings up to two blocks away. The town's major newspaper, the Grand Forks Herald, had already burned to the ground, and our bank was on fire as we left town. Our house was less than five blocks from the fire's last location. The firefighters had no way of battling it, as there was no water pressure from the hydrants due to the failure of the lift stations. They tried dumping chemicals from the air, which didn't work. Last we saw, they were attempting to airlift the floodwater itself and release it on the fire, their only hope of getting the blaze under control.
It felt as if our whole world were coming to an end. Don't look back, I said to Steve that morning as we hit the highway. But even though my car was facing south, I couldn't help but look in the rearview mirror every few seconds. Anxiety strangled my desire to make simple conversation with my daughter; fear clouded my vision of what might lie ahead. I just want to go home ....
Our Fargo store couldn't support our family; it was barely paying its bills. And with our Grand Forks store closed for the foreseeable future, our main source of income was cut off. The winter had already knocked the wind out of our profits, as we were closed or business had been minimal for almost three months. Now it would be weeks, maybe months more before the main store would be open again. I tried to remember how much we had left in our checking and money market accounts. I started to sweat, in spite of the fact that there was still snow on the fields.
"What's wrong, Mom?" Erica asked.
I didn't want to scare her with my fears. I couldn't bring myself to tell my baby that not only were we now homeless, but her father and I were basically jobless as well. Even though I was a writer and public speaker, my income from those activities had come to a halt as the river rose. I hadn't written a word in weeks, and all my regional speaking engagements had been canceled as sandbagging efforts escalated.
"Nothing, sweetheart," I said. "I was just thinking."
Her enormous brown eyes looked sad. "About what?"
My best and only defense was to answer her question with another question. "What are you thinking about?"
"My friends. I wonder where they are right now."
"Probably doing the same thing we're doing—trying to find a place to live."
She bit her lower lip.
"Hey," I said as cheerfully as I could, "I'll bet Emily and her family went to their lake cabin. You can try calling when we get to Fargo, okay?"
"And this isn't so bad—we've already had two days of home-cooked meals, and now we'll be eating in restaurants in Fargo. No more Salvation Army truck food," I offered.
"I like Salvation Army truck food," Erica replied. "I don't care that you can't tell what it is; it tastes good. Besides, I haven't had to do dishes in a while."
I tried to laugh. "Yep, I guess that's true. I'm kind of fond of their hamburger hotdish myself."
For the weeks we worked to shore up and patrol the dikes, the Salvation Army and Red Cross had provided all our meals and snacks. You could always count on their trucks to pull up just when your longing for a sandwich or a cup of coffee was greatest. I looked in the rearview mirror now, just to see if there might be one behind us. Even watery coffee was better than none. No luck.
"What are we going to do when we get to Fargo, Mom?"
Finally: a question I could answer. "Unpack the cars and get something to eat. Dad is going over to the store to try to get the Grand Forks computers up and running. I'll take you girls to the hotel so you can rest."
Initially, on our escape, we were euphoric that we survived the disaster. We were grateful to be safe, happy to be with friends, and relieved to be in a peaceful place where the air was not cut every few minutes with the sound of emergency sirens or the relentless buzz of patrolling helicopters. We were physically and emotionally exhausted but upbeat, feeling lucky.
But now reality was starting to set in. There will be no rest for you, dear. You'd better start making some calls, fast. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. You're making yourself sick with worry. Stop it! As one who taught the creative power of thoughts and emotions in my workshops, I knew I wasn't doing myself any good. So I tried some positive thinking: You've been working night and day for weeks, and now you'll get a much-needed vacation! You won't have to go grocery shopping for a few days, and all the cleaning will be done for you. There will be lots of Grand Forks people down in Fargo—you could have a great reunion at the store!
But the more I tried to find the silver lining, the worse I felt. As my brain tried to conjure up pretty pictures, my gut instincts were screaming Liar! Fool! You're a mess, and you know it! This is the worst trouble you've ever been in, so get ready to suffer, babe! No place to live, no job, no money—it's your worst nightmare come true! The fact was, I didn't need a vacation. I had been barely working for weeks. What I wanted was to go back to my work. I would have loved a reason to buy fresh groceries, as I was sick of eating high-fat, high-salt processed stuff. And what kind of reunion would it be with people who were as upset and disoriented as we?
I knew I didn't want to feel the way I did, so I tried a different approach to shake my fear: distracting myself, looking around for things in my immediate environment that brought me pleasure or peace. Usually just being with Erica could do that, as she is one of the most calm and contented people I know. But today even she was holding back a combination of fearful tears and rage. School had been canceled for the rest of the year, which meant that she and her sister had lost six weeks of coursework. On top of that, there was little chance they would see most of their friends for weeks, and such reunions would occur only if they managed to both escape and return safely.
Looking around, I just got gloomier. The fields, which burst with the promise of new life every summer as the crops hit their peak, were nothing more than hard lumps of black mud at the moment. The trees were bare of both snow and leaves, and looked dead. Alongside the road, there were still some toppled power lines remaining from Blizzard Hannah. The sight of the downed lines deepened the sense of isolation I was beginning to feel. I cracked my window for some fresh air, but only the frigid wind spoke; it was too early for the snow geese to return.
The sight of all this emptiness reflected my feelings that my world, indeed, had come to an end. The 115-year-old home we had painstakingly restored for almost eighteen years was unreachable for the foreseeable future, or might be gone altogether, swept off its aging foundation by the rage of the turbulent water. My marketing job with our store was suspended, not only because our Grand Forks customers were gone but because it was obvious that we would need a separate source of income, and I would have to provide it while Steve tended to the family business. The synagogue over whose board of directors I presided was in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods. Our children would have to be sent to my parents until we could reestablish ourselves. Overnight, everything I owned and all the roles I played were gone. Beneath my worry, strangely, there was something appealing about that. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go but to be where I was, doing what I was doing at the moment.
I craved life, music, joy—anything to shake off the gloom I was fighting. I instinctively reached for my CD player. Whitney Houston's "The Preacher's Wife" burst forth from six speakers. I started to hum, and as I did, I could feel a warm buzz of energy return to my brain. I started to make a mental list of all the tasks I'd have to do to help Steve, take care of the kids, find writing work and more, but it soon became far more than I could remember. As restlessness crept back in, I knew I was going to need more than simple faith to face what lay ahead. What I desperately wanted was what some call "the peace of God," that absolutely sure, comforting certainty that this, too, would pass and all would be well again. Without that peace, I doubted I would have the emotional, spiritual or even physical stamina to rebuild or replace my home, help restore the synagogue and double my income.
THE SEARCH FOR PEACE
How do I find peace, God? I took that question to bed with me that night, and slept more soundly than I expected to. In the morning, nothing had changed in our situation, but I felt different: lighter, as if my body was half its weight. I pulled on my sweats, went down to the hotel lobby to get a cup of coffee, and felt almost invisible. Although it was before seven, the seating area around the breakfast buffet was packed. Every table was filled with people talking, mostly, it seemed, about their escape from the flood or what they planned to do next. As I slowly stirred cream and sugar in my coffee, I stood by the counter, listening. No one seemed to notice I was there.
Everyone has a story, I thought. Some were full of faith, including the woman whose character would not permit her to abandon the family cat. She stayed behind on a tiny island of dry land until a helicopter could rescue them both. Others spoke of unity, where hundreds of volunteers worked through a day or night to sandbag a home in an attempt to save it from destruction. Still more shone with the purity of trust, as they laid their personal comfort and lives in the hands of total strangers who took them in after National Guardsmen evacuated them.
I quietly retreated back to our room, thinking about what I'd just seen and heard. Character, unity, trust ... I'd seen them all before, in the hundreds of real-life stories I gathered for my writings, workshops, and lectures. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that there might be something more inspiring than the stories themselves. It wasn't just a matter of saving a cat or sandbagging a house. Instead, I had the feeling that the peace I craved lay in the discovery of some divine force that motivated these people to their life-enhancing actions while keeping their fear at bay.
I thought, too, of all the lessons I'd learned in the hundreds of books I'd read on motivation, creativity, spirituality, and metaphysics. Everything starts as a thought.... Your feelings determine what kind of experiences you will have, as energy is attracted to that which is like itself. ... Your life experiences are a result of your attentions, intentions, and beliefs. ... Somehow the people I was observing were able to sustain a peace of mind and heart that was making things go their way. How did they do that under these conditions?
As the weeks went by, I heard more and more stories. The people who seemed to be the most comfortable and unconcerned—in other words, the most peaceful—were those who used a combination of spiritual qualities to frame their thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
"I worked so hard, I slept right through the sirens and bullhorns!" one man roared, totally unconcerned with the danger he faced. It was obvious that his peace came from somewhere deep in his character. He had poured all his physical and mental energy into being a tireless sandbagger, which kept him from fear.
"Our house is a goner," another woman said, "but there were so many people who tried to help us save it, right up to the last minute. I wish I could thank them and tell them that even though we'll have to move, we'll be okay." Rather than dwelling on her loss, her attention was on blessing others with her gratitude and love.
Excerpted from The Ten Gifts by Robin Landew Silverman. Copyright © 2000 Robin L. Silverman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.