I’ve always struggled with the question “where are you from?”. For as long as I can remember I’ve never felt I had a home town in the sense that most people do. I never felt a strong sense of rootedness in any one particular place. I was born in Westchester, New York and lived there until I was 13, and I still feel in some ways like a Northeasterner, if not a New Yorker. I have family ties there, and probably the most important tie, childhood memories. I spent my next 17 years in Boulder, Colorado, and they were formative years. Still, I always knew I would leave Boulder, and though my family is there and it’s a wonderful, unique place, it’s not really where I feel I’m from, either.
Last weekend, my adopted home of 22 years, Nashville, Tennessee, endured a flood of biblical proportions. Fifteen inches of rain fell in two days. At first we made light of the situation; we even went to a party in the midst of the torrential storm that raged that Saturday night. We kept an eye on the weather report, but flash flood warnings around here are as common as biscuits and gravy. The rain kept falling on Sunday, in sheets. The word started to trickle out that the flooding would be bad. Still, we thought that would only mean a few flooded basements, maybe a couple of road closures. We’d seen it all before.
Except we hadn’t. There’s no way to describe the surreality of waking up on a Monday morning to a perfect, blue-sky spring day, and utter devastation. Water was everywhere. We took a walk in our neighborhood, and saw crazy, impossible things – traffic lights hanging just a few feet above water, entire cars submerged to their roofs. Rivers where our neighborhood streets used to be. People boating across soccer fields. By Monday morning we knew that the river was still rising, and according to the cruel physics of flooding, would continue to rise until late that night, when it crested at 12 feet above flood stage.
As the waters ravaged the downtown area, Opryland, and countless outlying suburbs and surrounding towns, we realized that almost no one from the outside world knew. And it did feel like the world was somewhere far outside this sphere of death and destruction – there was a strange sense of isolation, even though cell phones were working (sporadically) and a few of the lucky ones (us included) never lost power or internet. No one seemed to have noticed that Nashville was drowning. Normally when a natural disaster happens, the media coverage is obsessive, and if you’re in the vicinity the telephone calls start coming in almost immediately. On that Monday, the only calls we got were from friends in Nashville, checking to see how we made it and letting us know they were OK. Other news stories, deemed more important, took precedence, and we were left to our own devices (fortunately, the reaction from the White House was not slow and FEMA was here almost immediately – it was the media that was absent).
This is where it began to dawn on me how much I love this city. I can’t explain exactly why, or how, but seeing the Opry stage door, which I’ve been privileged to walk through several times, up to its doorknobs in water – knowing the beautiful pipe organ at the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall, which I heard played magnificently at a concert last year, was severely damaged – all of this terrible destruction bestowed an epiphany on me. This is my home town. These people, who put on their waders and work clothes and face masks and got to work Monday, because things needed doing and people needed help, are my fellow Nashvillians. All of us cried at the sight of the Opry under six feet of water. All of us felt outrage that the media wasn’t paying attention to this, our worst crisis since the Civil War. All of us beamed when the local telethon, star-studded and led by Vince Gill (who else would step up to lead yet another benefit, this time maybe the most important one he’s ever done?) raised $1.7 million in a few hours. I’ve never been so proud of my city, from the micro-local level (on Monday night, at least half of my neighborhood was out sandbagging at a nearby waste treatment plant) to city-wide (there was virtually no looting or other opportunistic crime – just neighbors, asking what they could do). I felt a sudden and deep stab of love for this city and all its familiar and now endangered landmarks, the beautiful ones, the historic ones and the cheesy ones alike. This city, which has by turns frustrated and charmed and ignored and loved me – just like a spouse – for better or worse, was mine, too. I have history here. I have roots here.
Nashville will recover. It’s a great city, and great cities draw creative, talented and energetic people. We have those in abundance, and they will rebuild Nashville, and in some ways it will be even better. Nashville would recover with or without me. But I’m here, and one week after the flood, I know the answer to the question. I’m from Nashville.