One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Survival Story

There has been so much sad news in the past few weeks from Vermont and Texas; many in our close-knit writing community have suffered damages and losses from flooding and fires. But like Tam’s post last week, the stories I keep hearing are not just heart-breaking, they are also filled with heartening accounts of courage, strength, and a kind of generosity that rekindles faith in the goodness of people.

With these thoughts and images swirling around in my head, I struck out last evening for a walk through North Beach and up to Coit Tower—that nozzle-shaped citadel perched on top of Telegraph Hill, built in 1933 per the posthumous instructions of Lillie Coit, (1842—1929) a dedicated volunteer firefighter who smoked cigars, often dressed like a man so she could gamble in the male-only establishments in North Beach and shaved her head so her wigs would stay put! Although Coit Tower was erected to commemorate the brave firefighters of San Francisco, it has served over the years as a focus of honoring many heroes; this past week, it has been illuminated by red, white and blue floodlights in memory of the brave souls who lost their lives in 9/11.

From the base of Coit Tower, you can see for a long, long way; west out through the Golden Gate, northwest over Marin County with Mt. Tamalpias resting serenely on the horizon, north up into the delta, east over to the Berkley Hills, and south through the skyscrapers of our densely populated city. I remembered coming up here and looking out after the earthquake in 1989, watching the black smoke curl up from the fires in the Marina and trying to imagine the utter devastation of the 1906 earthquake whose survivors have continued to meet every year after on April 18th at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street. Last year only three were still living at 105, 108 and 109 years old.

It is, of course, always the survivors who are left to grieve and to try and put their lives back together.  It seems that one of the ways to do this is to tell the stories. In fact, survivors are the storytellers. All good stories are survival stories, narrated by those who are left behind to tell them. I have just finished reading Julie Orringer’s incredibly moving and compelling The Invisible Bridge. Based on the experiences of her family in France and Hungary during WW11, it’s filled with heartbreak and tragedy, but is at it’s core, the story of survival. I don’t mean in any way to reduce tragedy to an opportunity for a good story, to an inspiration for a great plot; it’s just that I’ve come to not only realize that all good stories must play out through conflict and tension, but that all narrators are survivors. Even Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones, telling her story from her own Heaven. Even Death, in The Book Thief; I suppose you could say he is the ultimate survivor.

We’re all survivors in one sense or another. If you’re still here and have a story to tell, then that’s exactly what you need to do.

Sharry Wright

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