The Worst Hard Time is Timothy Egan’s riveting story of the dust storms that terrorized the High Plains during the darkest years of the Depression. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is, as Walter Cronkite described it, “can’t-put-it-down history.” As one reviewer noted, Egan catches the voices of the survivors and the grit, pathos, and courage of their stories. And he catches too the way that these people themselves and their world were changed forever.
When I first opened Egan’s book, I halted for a long time in the introduction. I was mesmerized by the map Egan had labeled simply, “The Dustbowl.” Eventually, hesitantly, I put my finger on the spot where my family lived and I grew to adulthood. My sister was not yet a year old on April 14, 1935, the day of the worst dust storm of all. I remember clearly my frightened mother tacking damp sheets to the window in an effort to keep the dust out of the room where she napped in her crib.
Egan gives a frightening context to that day. He writes:
The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig. The storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day.But seventy-five years later, I could only read a chapter or two at a time of Egan’s account of that massive upheaval of the very earth itself. For me it was more than a story—it was my story, and, reading, I could see again in my mind the eerie light fleeing ahead of the darkness of the storm, and hear my father’s voice saying, “Let the dog in. Keep him in here with us. God help the cattle—I don’t think even God can keep them alive through this.”
Last week a young friend gave me the gift of an afternoon of her energy to de-clutter and clean my kitchen cabinets. She was so efficient that we had time (and her energy) to tackle the pantry cabinet in the garage where I store basic foodstuffs and extra supplies.
She was singing to herself as she worked, but after a while she turned and said, “Forgive me if I am being rude, but why do you have three three-pound cans of coffee in here? I know you drink a lot of coffee, but this much?”
I laughed with her, and made some silly joke about my hidden identity as a closet caffeine hoarder. Had I wished to be factually concrete, I might have added (accurately) “And because I lived through April 14, 1935.” That is, of course, not all my story, and from other contexts, likely not the most important event. Nevertheless, seventy-five years later, that long-passed April day, its eerie light and the terrible afternoon darkness that followed, lives on in a caffeine shadow in my storage space. Would it have changed my relationship with my young friend if I had shared that long-ago event?
When we consider relational skills, we are confronted with the necessity to manage those things that remain when the experience itself has ended. And we are confronted as well with the ways in which we have woven these remaining things into our sense of the world and the relational goals we set for ourselves and others.
It is not an easy task to know ourselves at this level, and still more difficult to identify consciously the ways in which our past is present in relationships, our expectations, our joys and our frustrations. And managing these remainders in relationships is a lifelong responsibility that no one else can carry for us.
In that Dustbowl Depression world I learned two things: terrible things happen; and, two, people do survive. How do you suppose that learning affects my “rule book” for relationships?
What do you identify as the two most definitive life experiences that have shaped your relational rule book?
See you next week.