Tag: Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma

Seeing Clearly: A St. John Love Story

 Steve appreciated art, but was never a collector, certainly not an art connoisseur. But when he looked online at items listed for the silent auction at the Annual 31st Gifft Hill School Auction on St. John where we spend winters, he was captivated and rushed to show me.            The portrait of who we guessed was a young adolescent West Indian girl was small yet compelling. Her eyes were turned to her right where she stared with pursed lips and slightly flared nares. She held her head high. I saw vigilance in her gaze. I wanted to protect her. The painting was titled, “Seeing Clearly.”            Steve returned to the portrait several times before the auction, which was to benefit a private school on St. John we had witnessed during the past thirty years grow from tiny seeds to a full campus for children of all ages on island.    The school and its students are as generous to the community as the community is to it. A real love story about children, community, learning, and a tiny island.            The painting was the work of Kimberly Boulon, who donated it and several other larger paintings. “Kim” is an impressive artist whose own love for St. John can be seen in the strokes and light in her work. All of the proceeds, not just a percentage, which is fairly common practice, from Kim’s works were to go to Gifft Hill School. More love.            We arrived at the auction, greeting the Digiacomos, who had generously included us at their table with other island friends. Steve and I rushed to the Silent Auction and found “Seeing Clearly,” who was more captivating in person. Those eyes. What was she looking at? What had she seen? Why was she so alert? What had happened in her young life?            We made a small bid and tried to leave “Seeing Clearly” behind, but we could not abandon her. We were both drawn to this picture, which had now touched us like no other piece of art. We began our own vigil, stalking with our eyes the few other bidders who seemed to want what we were now calling, “our girl.” In a last minute stealth maneuver, I dashed from the dinner table where we were now seated and returned to the silent auction room. I concealed myself behind a nearby pillar and when the last main competitor finished her final offer, I darted to the painting and upped the bid by twenty-five dollars just before the announcement that the silent auction had ended.            At home in our tiny cottage, we giggled about where we should hang our new fine “aht,” inserting our Boston accents into the silliness, the magic of the night. After several attempts, we found a spot for our girl, where she could be seen easily. I can’t ever remember a painting drawing my eyes to it so often before. We were clearly smitten with the addition to our family.            When it came time to return home to Cape Cod, we agonized. Should we leave her behind where life was familiar? Or did we bring her home with us to spend the summer on the Cape? How would she fare on the flight? Would she be okay alone while we were gone?            Steve decided she belonged on St. John and could watch over our home until we returned in November, a plan that made sense to me. Until an unthinkable category five hurricane named Irma terrorized our island, only to be followed closely by another category five hurricane called Maria, Coral Bay, our island village, had felt the brunt of the storms.            Once we were assured neighbors and friends were safe, we wondered how was our girl? Why had we left her behind? In the weeks that followed, we learned the island had been splintered and looked as if a bomb had exploded. Shock, sadness, and a little self-pity set in. Why when we had just figured out how to spend the final chapter of our lives had this happened? And why, oh why, did we leave our girl behind?            An email string connected me to Kathy, a neighbor, who had moved into the cottage above us after we had left for the summer. She offered to have her husband, who had stayed on island through it all, check our cottage. I told her there was only one thing we really cared about and that was our girl and that Kathy was the best neighbor I had never met. I had been having nightmares about St. John in which “Seeing Clearly” was floating upside down in a few feet of filthy water. When the photo of her sitting on our table looking in decent shape arrived by email, I choked up. When I learned Mike Lachance was coming up to see his wife, Kathy, in New Hampshire for a week and was bringing our girl with him, I cried. When we met Kathy and Mike last week, Steve and I felt like we were being reunited with family. Because we were. St. John is affectionately known as “Love City.” An island where a community of people have chosen to live together in isolation and harmony where differences are embraced and where “One Love” is more than a song. Where “Love Thy Neighbor” is a practice, not a slogan. Where generosity is inherent. The Gifft Hill School, where we first found our girl, opened its doors to all island children just days after the storm when it was evident the public schools were damaged. A real circle of love.Love. That’s the thing about St. John that is difficult to convey in words. But maybe you can in a painting. Has a piece of art ever touched your life and become a part of your story?     

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The Day After

     I hope you will understand why I am writing about Hurricane Irma two days in a row.  St. John in the U.S. Virgins Islands, an island I know and love, was smacked hard yesterday by a hurricane considered to be the most powerful in history. The calamity known as Irma didn’t spare other islands. The tiny nearby island of Barbuda barely exists in the aftermath. St. Martin and nearby sister island, St. Thomas, is suffering badly.            Photos of the damage in St. John are trickling in and not pretty. So far, there has been no report of serious injury or death. There are audible sighs of relief on Facebook as people report in on persons they have learned are safe.             But there is also a thundering silence. No word from anyone who lives in Coral Bay, where the cottage we spend winters in is located. Fish Bay, on the other side of St. John where I vacationed for decades and set my two mysteries, has yet to report in. With power out, trees and lines down, and roads impassable, this is understandable, yet torturing for those waiting to hear from loved ones.            The human response to a natural tragedy is both heartening and fascinating. The off-island rescuers are ready to hop on a plane, although none are flying into the Caribbean at the moment, and dig in. I’m assuming those on-island are too busy to post. The devoted are sharing prayers and inspiration. The fundraisers are creating websites. Others have launched lists where people can search for loved ones or report to them from the island.            Once again, I am struck by how indomitable and indestructible the human spirit is. I am reminded of Weebles, the roly-poly toys my children played with. “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,” went the jingle. My definition of success has always been “getting up once more than you’re knocked down.”            I am moved by the love and generosity directed at St. John by those who have been captured by her beauty and spirit. I’m not naïve. I know there will be the inevitable ugliness and conflict that follows disaster when fatigue and discouragement set in.            But for today, I’m celebrating the spirit of the community of St. John, both on and off-island, and joining in the prayers for those we have yet to hear from.           

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A Love Letter to St. John While Waiting for Irma

   Everyone knows the Caribbean and then Florida are bracing for the beast now known as Irma to hit. This Category five hurricane is arriving on the heels of Harvey demolishing Houston. Even acknowledging how the media hypes storms, no one is denying Irma is one of the largest storms ever with 185 mph winds. You don’t need to be a meteorologist when looking at the eye of the storm to predict massive destruction to property and to fear the toll on human lives.            Long before I began writing the Sabrina Salter series, I fell in love with an island. Lush with tree-covered hills, abundant with endless beaches, I happened onto St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands when I was on a cruise more than thirty years ago. Riding under a shady tree canopy over roads with perpendicular hills and switchbacks more terrifying than a rollercoaster, I arrived at Trunk Bay where the beach with warm silky turquoise water and talcum powder sand enchanted me. My husband and I vowed to return. Within six months, we did. Again and again, as often as three times a year over the next three decades. Now we spend half of the year on island.              My love affair with St. John began with the rush of a crush. My senses were overloaded. I was sure my eyes were deceiving me. There could be no shade of green or blue as vibrant the sea. The sensation of a soft tickle on my skin was a gift from the local Tradewinds. My ears were treated to the songs of birds and the whispers of wind through palm trees.            But like with any love affair, the sizzle was bound to fizzle. When I was no longer gushing at the dramatic beauty I’d found in St. John, although I still appreciated it, I became aware of more subtle treasures. The people of St. John are remarkable in spirit and generosity. Often considered a curious crew, St. John draws people who are strong individuals, many opinionated, most creative and many artistic. They are rugged, yet sensitive, and ferociously loyal. In St. John, if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got a friend.            I learned as much about myself as I did about my beloved island, two thirds of which is part of the National Park Service.  As I hiked the trails of Reef Bay and Ram Head in silence, I discovered a Michele I had yet to meet. One who appreciated words were not always necessary and the power of the Universe not always found in churches. That you don’t need “stuff” to live well and that the one commodity needed by all human beings is kindness.               This morning, I’m perched safely on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, far away from St. John as Irma skulks toward its shores. Poised to hear news, praying that everyone is safe, and that damage is minimal, I am reminded of another lesson learned on an island where Mother Nature reigns as queen. All of this is beyond my control and I am at peace with that. I have faith in the people on St. John. They have rebuilt before and will again. Resilience is something no hurricane can destroy on St. John.            I’ve been working on my third Sabrina Salter novel, which coincidentally is set during a hurricane on St. John where the courage and humanity of my characters is challenged by the forces of nature. I know where to find the inspiration to finish my story.

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