High River’s Higher Calling

Dark cloud over High River, Alberta
Dark cloud over High River, Alberta

 

High River, Alberta is still under a cloud. It may not be the same dark heavy rain cloud that dumped more water than the Highwood River could hold on that horrible day in June, but it’s a cloud. And even though there is light on the horizon, for many people living with the consequences of the first day of summer disaster, it is still dark and heavy. The children will tell you.

I stayed in Saddlebrook camp this week, caring for my grandchildren while their parents were away on business. Saddlebrook is the trailer town out in the country on the road to Okotoks built to house those whose homes are not habitable. There are many kind, encouraging, generous people there –especially in the food service areas (residents are not permitted to use the unconnected stoves). Visitors to the camp are strongly discouraged, but as a substitute parent I was permitted to stay (after paper work and getting photo I.D.) The government has generously provided housing to those still affected by the flood, but due to logistics problems there are often a lot of rules and regulations that communicate a big brother/victim disparity in such situations. (I’ve noticed that when people who already feel a loss of control are treated like incapable victims, they start to act like helpless victims –and angry victims need someone to blame. Just sayin’.)

Saddlebrook
Saddlebrook

I cannot possibly understand what it is like to suddenly lose everything but the mortgage. I don’t really know what it is like to wait, fill out forms, and wait some more and still not have answers. All I can do is listen –and pray.

I listened to where-were-you-when stories. I listened to you-think-that’s-bad stories. I listened to survivor guilt stories from folks who didn’t have much damage. I listened to a job list a mile long from an exhausted young father who sat on the front steps of his broken house, too tired to put one foot in front of the other anymore. There is so much to do in his “spare time” before winter.

The garden
The garden
Watermarks
Watermarks
The front door
The front door
The kitchen
The kitchen

I listened to a young mother who longed to correct her children in private when they misbehaved at the dinner table in the café at Saddlebrook. “Don’t misunderstand. I’m very grateful,” she said. “The food is good, but it is not what I would choose to make for my toddlers. I just want to go home and cook for my family again. It’s hard to explain.”

Someone told me, “People have been really kind and have wanted to give us things, but we have nowhere to put them. And I sound awful and l hate myself for it, but I don’t want your stuff! I want my stuff! I liked my stuff! I want my baby pictures. I want my Grandma’s teapot. I want my old music. I want to go home!”

I think my granddaughter expressed it best when she was telling me about children on the school bus arguing over who was most deserving of sympathy: the ones who lost everything, the ones who knew people who died, the ones who lost their school and still don’t have classrooms and are trying to study en masse with other traumatized kids and teachers in a single chaotic banquet hall room without an outside play area, the ones who don’t have dads to help them fix their houses, the ones living in a fenced refugee camp with security guards checking their every move….

She stomped her foot and cried, “They don’t understand! You don’t understand! Nobody understands!” then plopped on her bottom bunk bed in the tiny “kitchen” and pulled a blanket over her head because that’s as close as she can get to running to her room and slamming the door.

She’s right. Every heart has its own sorrow. And this was definitely not the time to remind her of Syrian refugees or Pakistani Christians being blown up in their churches. She can’t understand their sorrow any better than they understand hers.

Only the heart can know its own resentment; likewise no stranger can experience its joy. (Proverbs 14:10)

I admit I feel my own rage rising and want to stomp my foot and scream every time I read another heartless online comment about “the foolishness of people who build on a flood plain and then want the government to pay for their stupidity.” Our son’s house is more than two kilometers from the river in an area that is still marked on the maps as being far outside any risk for flood. They are hard-working responsible people who checked before buying. This flood was way beyond anything a prudent planner could have predicted. The history of this country is that nearly all towns and cities are built on waterways. According to the maps millions in this country are at greater risk of flood than they were. Do we blame people for building in areas where tornadoes, or forest fires, or earthquakes, or blizzards or ice storms or tsunamis occur? I guess my heart has its sorrow too and I’ve got some forgiving to do. No, these know-it-alls don’t understand –and why should they? If a person has never faced adversity or experienced feeling out of control of their circumstances it is easy to maintain the illusion of being sufficient unto oneself. They don’t know what it is like for others –not really.

I saw signs of recovery though –like a chinook arch of clear sky rising on the horizon. People were trimming hedges and mowing lawns or raking leaves in some areas of town. Businesses were re-opening. Folks were discussing the choosing of new paint colours and flooring options for re-builds. My grandson was thrilled with a patch of grass in the camp big enough for him to practise throwing his new football. There is talk of an off-leash dog park going up nearby -somewhere near the beep beep beep sounds of backing-up earth movers.

I saw people laughing.

I saw kids showing off donated clothes and backpacks.

I saw a group of loving people whose church building was not damaged. They moved their own service to less-than-convenient early hours on Sunday to make room for others to use their building for the rest of the day.

I saw grateful tears in the eyes of an older woman as she clutched a handmade quilt my friend sent. (Rose gave a dozen of her gorgeous handcrafted quilts to the folks in High River).

Quilts
Quilts

“I waited until the families took what they needed,” she said. “But I’m so glad this one is still here. It’s so beautiful. You don’t know what it’s like to lose everything and have to start again at my age. It means so much to have something this nice!”

No, sweet lady, I don’t know what it’s like. But I see joy in your face and you give me hope.

I dare to believe that most of the people of High River will not only survive, but that this beautiful windy mountain-edged prairie town will thrive and remember the sorrow of this tough season without bitterness. They will also remember the joy. My prayer is that they will know what it is to need help and how to give help in a way that preserves dignity. They will use this opportunity to develop the skills that untangle red tape; they will know from experience how to plow through unwieldy bureaucracy, how to organize volunteers, how to establish a grass-roots just-folks-helping-folks attitude that can stand firm when disaster hits another Canadian town. They will know how to be grateful, thoughtful, helpful and compassionate because, unlike the nasty commentators on the sidelines, they get it. Right now they are hurting and need more time to heal, but they will rise up again.

They will rise up.

It’s people like these beautiful folks, the ones trained by adversity, who build up this country. They are the wise ones. They are the strong ones.

I believe when the dark cloud blows away, the town will see it has a purpose and a higher calling in the grand scheme of things.

Higher Calling
Higher Calling

High River will be a city of refuge, of peace, of caring –and of love.

He consoles us as we endure the pain and hardship of life so that we may draw from His comfort and share it with others in their own struggles. (2 Corinthians 2:4)

21 thoughts on “High River’s Higher Calling

  1. vicki

    Thank you for sharing YOUR experience with us. And I thank you for your understanding and compassion. I love how you identified High River people as people who are trained by adversity that will help build up this country. I believe that to be very true. Yes…this journey has not been easy, in fact at times insurmountable, but I believe we will survive this and become the town that moves forward.

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    1. Oh Vicki, there are a lot of supporters out here who are ready to celebrate High River’s victory with you. Your perseverance and drive to overcome the insurmountable even when exhausted and frustrated is admirable. Our prayers are with you.

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  2. Shannon

    Thank you for the eloquent words that brought me to tears. A dear friend of mine lives there and I will never forget that day and how it has changed life for her and her sons. The emotions will remain raw for a long time for those who were there and are there. It’s easy for people with no connection to forget, and we can’t let that happen. Thanks again for sharing.

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    1. Your friend is blessed to have you in her life, Shannon. Yes, it is too easy for people without connections to forget when a story falls out of the news headlines. I think this experience has given me a greater appreciation for those people and organizations who quietly make commitments to hang in there for the long healing and restoration period. God bless them.

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  3. Nancy

    This is such a well written article that absolutely encompasses the people and the community of High River. I agree with all the prior comments and I truly believe that this town will thrive again. My heart breaks for so many and yet cheers for so many more. Thank you for your insight, your passion and your strength.

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  4. Charis (C.C.) Hervey

    Hi. I want to say that your story was well written and really touched me. I am a Saddlebrook resident. I agree, I think the people of High River are very strong people and they will get through this stronger than ever! Also it’s awesome to see someone else with our name. I don’t meet very many Charis’s around.

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    1. Hi Charis! Thank you for letting me be a part of your community for a few days. It is quite a unique place. The meal we had Sunday evening for Italian night was phenomenal. Wow. Great chef.
      There is a lady working in the cafe who has a gift of encouragement. You can identify her easily because she’s the one who gives out more hugs than fries I think. She notices. What a gift.
      The chef there also understood our various food allergies and made sure we all had safe non-cross-contaminated meals. Great guy.
      There was also a guy working on installing plug-ins in the parking lot. When my granddaughter had a screw embedded in her shoe (similar to the ones embedded in a lot of tires out there, I suspect) he grabbed a screwdriver and fixed it for her. So many good people.
      Charis means grace. Did you know that?

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  5. Great post. Thank you. This needs to be on the front page of the Herald and National Post so people don’t forget. It saddens me to see that so many Canadians have become cold-hearted. The only reason a lot of people survived on the prairies was by helping their neighbour, but a lot of Albertans have forgotten that. They had better pray that their families never need help.

    My niece and her family have a home in High River. They are fortunate to have gotten back in the house last week … I think it was 100 days post-flood. I want so much to give them what they want, which is their home and lives pre-flood, but instead I’m full of rhetoric and some cash. If it feels helpless to people like me, I cannot fathom how it feels for those who are in the middle of the chaos.

    I’ll continue to keep the good people of High River (and Canmore, and Bragg Creek, and everywhere else that was hit) in my prayers. And I thank God for those who are there helping and just feeding them love.

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    1. Wow, Janine. I don’t know what to say….but I’ll probably say something anyway. Do you think there is something about the harshness of the Canadian prairie, especially in winter, that has helped Canadians develop a different sense of community than other places? I do believe we have as part of our inheritance a sense of mutual responsibility for our neighbours that has been passed down from pioneers. Like you, it breaks my heart when I see this value start to be eroded by a survival of the fittest mentality.

      Your niece and her family are blessed to have you.

      I don’t mean to overlook other Albertans who were also affected by the flood. The truth is my first encounter with the flood was an email from a friend in Eastern B.C. whose basement was flooding. A few minutes later I found out my brother, who lives on Cougar Creek in Canmore was stranded in his neighbourhood. His wife, working at the hospital, and our elderly father, a resident of a seniors’ home near the Bow River, were cut off by washed-out roads and bridges in the now inaccessible part of town. I spent the day making calls, trying to make sure Dad was in a safe place. Then I received news about Black Diamond where another family member was working and then High River. I know many other places downstream, and particularly on the Reserves are also still trying to recover. Like you, I am still praying for them.

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      1. Charis, I do think those on the prairies are a different breed. My mom grew up on a farm in eastern Alberta … she told stories of neighbours helping neighbours because there was no one else there. You could wait days from someone from Ottawa to show up to “assess” the situation, or you could all pitch in and help each other. This is a broad generalisation, but I see people where we live now (the southeastern US) and people in big cities, expecting that the “government” (whatever that may be) will come to rescue them.

        I also think that faith plays a huge part in survival. If you know in your heart of hearts that you will be cared for, it’s easier to get through the day-to-day work. It doesn’t take away the pain or make the physical labour any easier, but for me, it is a constant oasis of calm in my mind.

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  6. Deborah

    Charis, your post so tremendously and eloquently sums up the situation in High River and Saddlebrook. Your comments regarding the “heartless online comments” of those not impacted by the flood particularly resonated with me. Like your son, my husband and I also did our due diligence before we chose to build a home in High River. We too live far from the river in an area that to this day is not considered floodway or flood fringe. And what of those whose homes are located in a floodway or flood fringe? Towns and cities have historically been built around water sources. We can’t just pick up the whole town and move it anymore than the City of Calgary can pick up and move its downtown. Do these individuals who have no qualms about blasting High Riverites also think that everyone who owns a condo or has office space in downtown Calgary deserves what they got? Their ire seems to be directed at people in High River who only want to be treated with dignity and fairness so they can get on with their lives. Keeping the story alive in the media is an effective way to do that. As you say, this was an “act of God” like a fire, earthquake, tsunami or tornado. It is unfortuate that it has taken the greatest catastrophe in Alberta’s history for government to finally get serious about flood prevention infrastructure. However, if they follow through, that will be one positive to come out of this tragedy. I pray that your son’s family will soon be able to return to their home. Thank you for taking the time to enlighten others about what life is like in the aftermath of the flood.

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    1. I hear your frustration and pain, Deborah. You are one of the people who understands the importance of treating others fairly and with dignity -and perhaps now more than ever High Riverites will be there to offer it to others when disaster strikes somewhere else, because they know from personal experience how important it is. Perhaps the pain caused by the insensitivity of others will, in future, be transformed into the opposite -fairness, dignity and maybe even love. I’m learning that I can’t change other people’s hearts; I am responsible only for my own. I pray that you will also soon be able to return to a fully restored home and that the wisdom of hindsight will motivate those in power to take steps to protect the town -and others in similar situations- from any more floods.

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  7. Pingback: Tightrope – Charis: Subject to Change

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