Last night I went to a toga party, anticipating a silly but otherwise simple celebration of a friend’s 29th birthday. I didn’t realize the night would also mark likely the last time this particular group of friends was together. A dear friend is leaving for two months in Spain, and she doesn’t know what awaits her after that. Another friend is departing for Atlanta. A couple at the party is moving to Zambia. Another friend recently found out he’s a year from a move to Utah.
People seem to leave Birmingham in their early 30s, especially if they’re single. As I said to a friend during last night’s celebration, Birmingham offers so much to do–but most people do it in pairs. It’s been hard to watch friends leave, and in the past few months, it’s also challenged my relationship with my city. I’ve spent many days feeling adrift and wondering about my place here.
I don’t have all the answers, and I guess even those answers could shift throughout life.
But I know this: On April 27, I boarded a plane to New Orleans hours before storms were set to hit Birmingham. We had already been pummeled by an intense thunderstorm that morning, and meteorologists were predicting a much worse afternoon. But as many of my fellow Alabamians have written in the days since, we’re accustomed to tornado weather. We know where the “safe places” are in our homes, and we prepare accordingly. It’s rare to get really worked up over a storm, though; I can only think of two times a tornado has touched down near me in the last eight years.
April 27 was different. My boss sent me a text message that night and told me to turn on the news. Entire neighborhoods and cities were demolished by tornadoes. Tuscaloosa, Cullman and Birmingham–the Alabama cities I’ve called home–were all hit hard. The death toll rose rapidly. I listened to Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox on national news, and later Birmingham Mayor William Bell. I nearly cried when I heard Mayor Bell’s voice.
And I was a week from returning home.
The tornadoes didn’t come close to my house; the morning storms wreaked havoc eight miles away on the neighborhood where my favorite coffee roaster is located, and the evening storms demolished neighborhoods on the west and north ends of town. Still, it felt wrong to be away. I wanted so badly to be back in Alabama, to see that my friends and coworkers were OK. I knew I would have been sitting at work, checking the news obsessively, instead of sitting in New Orleans, checking the news obsessively. But I yearned to be with my people. Alabama is where I belonged.
If you’re going to be away when your home city is struck by a natural disaster, though, New Orleans is perhaps the best place you could be. People were incredibly gracious and understanding. The next night, I attended a private dinner at the New Orleans Presbytere. The exhibit “Katrina & Beyond” depicted both the science of hurricanes and the stories of New Orleans and its people during and after Hurricane Katrina. After dinner, we were invited to write messages to either New Orleans or the world on our hands, to be photographed for Robert X. Fogarty’s “Dear World” project.
I knew almost immediately what I wanted to write. “Here we rest” was Alabama’s original state motto, and is the title of Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s newest album (which I’ve listened to obsessively since I got it, and which I fell asleep listening to the night of the tornadoes). Alabama has been my place of rest since I returned on Feb. 28, 2003. And when I returned from my week-long trip, I had never been so happy to see my home.