“What was that?” I cupped my hand to my ear. “Do you hear that?” I asked Hilda. “It’s like the scene in ‘The Princess Bride’ when the sound of Wesley’s wailing permeates The Thieves’ Forest, and leads Inigo and Fezzik to find him in the Pit of Despair.”
Hilda looked at me quizzically. Though I have read “The Princess Bride” aloud to her, she is not really a fan of the movie. She likes the part with the horses and the rodents of unusual size, but the rest lacks the excitement to hold her interest.
“Well, that collective groan you just heard—the one that reminded me of Wesley—was the entire eastern part of the state groaning after the announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the 2019 hurricane season would be busier because of the end of El Nino.”
Hilda wandered off in search of more promising snack options and I found myself contemplating how much work was still unfinished from Florence.
We are coming up on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Florence making landfall on September 14. Arguably, few events from the last year have had as dramatic an impact on ILM life as Florence. The kids had just returned back to school—and then were released as our coast braced for what was expected to be a Category 4 storm. But the level of destruction seems to belie Florence’s alleged Category 1 status upon landfall.
Driving through Pender County in the months following Florence was nothing short of heartbreaking. Piles of the interiors of people’s houses lined the roads: insulation, plywood, sheet rock, furniture, clothes, nursery items. When I really took it in, I had to pull over to the side of the road to cry. I have one friend whose home has flooded three times in Pender, just outside Atkinson. He showed us the flood lines from Floyd, Matthew and Florence. It was hard to take in. My friend purchased a piece of property he believes is on higher ground, so he is still working to move his house there. Of course, I wonder: What is high enough ground?
Then I met Carolyn Wilson. As so often happens when we are caught up in daily life, I didn’t understand at first the beauty and magnitude of the lady I was encountering.
For the last few years I have been making regular treks out to the Atkinson Library, a long, low cinderblock building tucked behind College Street in a town with no visible college. In my mind’s eye, watching the time-lapse footage of the sleepy bedroom community to Wilmington has been a lesson in itself.
When I came back from my first trip to Atkinson a little over three years ago, I was seriously depressed. The main street coming into town was lined with abandoned store fronts with broken windows and clearly unoccupied houses. It didn’t look like there was much on the horizon. During my visit I met Carolyn. What I didn’t realize then, was I had met one of the beating hearts working to build and heal the community around her.
“I have worked in Atkinson Library for about 10 years and have loved every minute of it,” Carolyn notes. “Everyone I meet is a friend; I want them to feel welcome while with me. Sometimes if it is needed, we have an encouraging conversation. I like listening to those who may need a shoulder to lean on. My work has reminded me that our lives are all intertwined together, and it is up to us to enjoy every moment we have together.”
My first trip out to Atkinson came three months after the storm. It was like winding back the clock to all the scenes of devastation and apocalypse I had feared during that awful week in September. One of the big consequences was people not buying Christmas gifts in profusion after the storm. So the season that helps business owners pay tax bills was less fruitful than usual. My bookstore in downtown ILM was quite blessed in comparison to businesses in Atkinson.
With all the struggles her community was facing, Carolyn was focused on others. I tried not to cry when she packed a bag of canned beans and two boxes of mac and cheese to hand to me. The library had been distributing nonperishable food items to people. It was a lean season for us; I had to borrow upward of $40,000 in the wake of Florence to keep everything going. Still, looking around at the houses’ water lines, it was hard to believe I needed a bag of food as much as the community Carolyn serves.
“Thank you,” I mustered.
Carolyn did confide she was disappointed Florence had forced the cancellation of her annual Communities Uniting event. Now, disappointment is not something that reads easily on her face. Few people can find a silver lining as consistently as she can. But it clearly was upsetting for her.
“Communities Uniting is about connecting all people together in one place,” Carolyn says with pride. “Our motto is ‘Standing Strong Together.’ We believe the best in each of us enriches all of us.”
Communities Uniting Fun Day
Though Florence might have had other ideas last year, Carolyn is back with renewed focus and vigor with “Communities Uniting Fun Day.” It will be held on Saturday September 7, noon to 5 p.m., at the Burgaw courthouse. Carolyn wants to see people coming together and feeling safe and loved—now more than ever before she sees the need. “Many are still displaced,” she continues. “Families are still struggling with home repairs, loss of income…” With the additional pressures of back to school, she believes relief is needed there, too.
Thanksgiving boxes for families in need will be available, as well as games, entertainment, a magician, singing groups, plus fellowship and fun. “When I look at all of the faces during our event, I can see hope rising again,” Carolyn says. “It brings me great joy. If but for a moment, we can all feel the power of community—faith in God, faith in mankind. It’s the goal for this Communities Uniting event.”
Meditating on Carolyn’s words during my drive home from Atkinson a few weeks ago, I noticed several of the houses boarded up a few years earlier had cars in the driveway and kids running around the yards. “It is probably a more affordable place to buy a starter home for a young family than Wilmington is right now,” I said to Jock.
“Oh, yeah,” he smiled wistfully. “If we had kids, we wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a house here. You know, in Atkinson you can get enough yard and room to learn to ride a bike and have a dog.”
Yes, Atkinson seems to be moving in an upward direction just judging from windows repaired and houses occupied. But I think it is more than that.
I think it is people like Carolyn. She brings to mind to the Talmudic story of the Lamed Vavaniks, or the 36 righteous people upon whom the world stands. Many trace the idea to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Torah, when God and Abraham discuss the possibility of sparing the city if enough righteous people can be found. From that the idea of 36 people in each generation who live truly righteous lives has developed. They live in obscurity with humility and care for others—their powers only manifest when the world is in the greatest need.
I sometimes wonder if, rather than 36 spread across the globe, it is more a case of our little world, our community, needing 36 righteous people in each generation. The needs seem so great and yet the answers start with each one of us. Indeed, it is part of the legend of the Lamed Vavaniks—a challenge to all of us to behave as if the fate of the world rested upon our shoulders.