JN Fenwick | @mothjurnal14 | ©2021
JN Fenwick, author, In the Eye of the Storm | In the Aftermath of the Storm
A room without books is like a body without a soul.Cicero
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, has always been one of my favorite places to visit; especially, his library. Standing in the dim room, surrounded by Jefferson’s many books, their spines lined neatly on the shelves, the smell of old parchment and the musty scent of tomes that, at one time, rested in the hands of the man himself, is inspiring to a history lover like myself.
I can almost imagine Jefferson standing there amid the shadows, searching for a particular title, running his hands over the volumes until his fingers touched upon the one he sought; smiling as he pulled it down, certain that within its pages he’d find the passage he needed to complete a letter, or a thesis, or perhaps even a document that would one day guide and inspire a country through a war for independence.
Books are indeed timeless treasures. They inspire, convey, impart, teach, and perhaps most enjoyable of all, transport us to different times, different worlds, allowing us to become something other, for a while, then who we are.
A quote I came across the other day, “I am part of everything I have read,” brought to mind just how much reading has transformed and informed my life. Honestly, though, I think, much more than me becoming a part of the books I have read, that they have become a part of me. A part that I carry with me like a treasured friend. A friend I revisit from time to time, to discover an ever-evolving world; a world changing as I have changed; growing as I have grown; and through the years moving and becoming along with me.
Since I was a young girl, books have been an integral part of my life. Growing up in a big family, I often escaped from the chaos of so many siblings and the constant blur of motion, into a book; sometimes for hours at a time. Or at least until I’d hear my mom’s call for me to come help with something or other.
I even had my favorite hiding spots, places my siblings wouldn’t think to look for me; like the big oak tree in our back yard. I was notorious for getting stuck in high places once I’d climbed up. I’d inevitably look down and then freeze, almost every time. “Get the ladder,” my brothers would call, “Jen’s stuck in the tree again!” So, climbing up as far as I’d dare to settle comfortably on the wide branches of the sturdy oak, was a clever hiding spot! I’d grab an apple or a peanut butter sandwich and settle in for the day. I loved the classics, and Judy Bloom, and To Kill a Mockingbird was a title I must have read a hundred times. I even wanted to name my first daughter, Scout!
As a grew, my horizons expanded, as did my library. My ever-increasing love of history took shape in a myriad of biographies, historical non-fiction, and then gradually historical novels. In my early twenties, I was introduced to Anne McCaffery and her dragon-filled world of Pern. I not only quickly devoured every single book in the series, I hunted eBay and old book stores until I had an early edition hard copy of each book. They were all second-hand, but I felt that added to their beauty and charm.
Eventually the magical world of Harry Potter was introduced to the world, and like so many others, I stood in line at Books-a-Million to get my hands on the next volume as soon as it was released. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was no less compelling and deserving of the same attention and dedication! When eReaders hit the scene, I initially balked at the notion. I wanted a book in my hand; and a hardcover one at that. I loathed paperbacks! It wasn’t until my husband brought to my attention the exorbitant amount of money and the increasingly growing amount of space my book habit required, that I consented to a Kindle. I’d still rather hold an actual book, but I’m nothing if not adaptable!
As I stand in front of my own bookcases and delve into the many containers full of books stored in my spare room, I can trace the evolution of my life, from childhood to young woman; through college and graduate school; through my years as a history teacher and through my progressing physical and spiritual journeys.
My daughters’ favorite books reside there along with the many intrigue and mystery books my husband also enjoys reading. They are nestled there, along with my own hand-written journals.
Taking it all in, I can’t help but think that perhaps one day, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren read one of these books I love so much, that maybe the part of me that resides within their pages will speak to them; and that for a moment, despite the distance and time that may separate us, we will exist alongside each other, sharing a secret, speaking the same silent language. And perhaps in that moment, they will know with certainty that I lived, that I breathed; and that I once held the very same book and read the very same words. That is the magic of books, and therein lies the treasure.
As Dorian approaches, media outlets are reporting it as “an unprecedented storm in Florida,” and that Dorian “would be the strongest storm to hit Florida since 1992.”
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock
As I look around the barren landscape and notice the still clinging blue tarps, the vacant lots where homes and businesses used to stand, the stark and revealing evidence that some forgotten disaster occurred here, I have to wonder, exactly when the rest of the world decided Michael was nothing more than a blip on their radar?
For us, Category 5, Hurricane Michael changed everything. Just ten months ago we were struggling through the first days and weeks following the destruction he left behind.
Those of us who have lived in the aftermath of Michael have weathered countless storms since that day last October. Though progress is being made, the region and its people are suffering.
Now, just ten months later, the threat of another storm has brought into stark and disheartening clarity, the fact that the rest of the world has indeed forgotten.
A recent survey conducted by Rebuild 850, an initiative launched shortly after the storm to advocate on behalf of hurricane victims still trying to rebuild their lives, showed nearly half of respondents would do nothing to help people affected by the hurricane and nearly 75 percent said they would not consider donating money to help with relief efforts (FLAPOL, 26 June 2019).
For those outside the region, who mistakenly believe that all is well, the numbers don’t lie, though they are rarely, if ever reported on.
Since October 10, 2018, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and increasing uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid and insurance bureaucracies have coalesced into massive storms of their own.
Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew, tearing a path through some of the poorest parts of Florida. Insurers report nearly $7 billion in losses across nearly 150,000 claims that have been filed (The Tampa Bay Times, 26 August 2019).
In Mexico Beach, where Michael’s eye passed, virtually obliterating the tiny coastal community, the losses are staggering and rebuilding is slow.
The city’s budget depends on property taxes. But 70 percent of the storm’s 27,000 homes were damaged or completely destroyed by the storm. Before the storm about 1,1000 people lived in Mexico Beach. Now only 400 or so remain. The city doesn’t currently have a gas station or a grocery store (mypanhandle.com, 18 August 2019).
Residents throughout the entire Panhandle region continue to struggle with the after affects of Michael. The emotional trauma of living through a natural disaster of this magnitude and scope have left many in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety.
As Dorian makes his way across the Atlantic, many residents are still living in tents or ruined homes, waiting for contractors or government funds to help them rebuild. Some fear heavier rains attracting black mold, with roofs still covered by tarps that can leak, even with a typical summer’s afternoon thunderstorm. Others are wary about water damage from flooding, as state and municipalities still work to clear debris, or about weakened trees from Michael that might topple in a lesser storm (Miami Herald, 10 July 2019).
In Bay County too, progress is slow and the after effects of Michael are still readily visible. Debris and damaged buildings remain along Highway 98, the main drag, and 5,000 kids are still considered “homeless,” crashing with friends and family or living in FEMA tents and trailers. About 30 percent of the school kids never came back. More than 50 percent of the apartments still are not livable (Fox News, 31 May, 2019).
The sad truth is, that outside of the impacted areas, the rest of the country is oblivious to the continued hardships survivors of Michael face.
And nothing brings that into clarity more glaringly than listening to the media reports on Dorian. In truth, we do not wish the kind of destruction and the hardships we’ve endured since Michael on anyone. And we recognize that we are not the only region of the country to suffer from natural disasters. All we ask is please, just please don’t minimize our struggles or trivialize our survival by continuing to misreport Michael’s destruction and impact.
The forgotten coast we may be, but rest assured, not a single one of us who lived through that day, who continue to exist in the aftermath, will ever forget.
How can we? The destruction is still all around us.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, editor, contributing author, In the Eye of the Storm and the soon to be released, In the Aftermath of the Storm, coming October, 10, 2019.
When Hurricane Micheal slammed into our cities last October, he took more with him than just our trees, our businesses, our homes. He took pieces of us. Memories we’d planted long ago. The world outside has moved on. But we, we are still living in the aftermath.
Like the many cities destroyed before us by Andrew, Katrina, Florence, by fire, and flood, the rebuilding is slow. It will be years before our landscape looks anything like it did the day before the storm. So many are still suffering, homeless, frightened, weary. We’re doing our best, but there are days when even the most you can give is not enough.
And there are stories. So many stories. It has been my privilege to work with talented writers, poets, photographers, and artists in the first months following Michael to put together a book expressing what it’s been like to survive and then live in the aftermath of a Category 5 Hurricane. Entire towns were swept away in the violence. Entire communities joined together to offer aid and assistance where they could.
In the Eye of the Storm was released in January, 2019, just three months after the catastrophic storm destroyed our cities. All proceeds earned from book sales, both online and locally, have gone to the United Way of Northwest Florida’s Hurricane Michael Relief Fund. All money earned through this fund remains local to help those in need across the region. We are so very grateful to all who have supported our efforts and purchased a copy.
We are currently completing the sequel to our first publication, In the Aftermath of the Storm: Stories of Hope and Healing. Over the past ten months we have collected many beautiful stories, poetry, and images of survival and determination in the face of such daunting circumstances.
Like it’s predecessor, all money earned from sales will continue to assist local relief efforts through the UWNWFL. In the Aftermath of the Storm will be available online and again locally in October, 2019; the one year anniversary of the day that changed our lives, our cities, our region forever.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, author/editor, survivor
I very rarely, if ever post anything that might be construed as political in nature. I find that those thoughts and opinions are usually best kept to oneself. However, in the current climate of chaos and noise and the constant barrage of talking heads and talking over one another, I was reminded of the numerous conversations I enjoyed with my father. He instilled in me a love of history and the constant thirst for learning that has dominated much of my life.
As a teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. Of all the subjects I taught during those years, American History was by far my favorite. As a result, my position as a history teacher was one I took very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my students the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all the clutter, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still, the impact of seeking, of reading, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and necessary if we are to become informed citizens.
One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference.
A fact is simply this, something that can be proven either true or false. I might say, “the sky is green,” but just by looking up on any given day, you can plainly see that it is not. That the sky is green, therefore, is simply my opinion. If on the other hand I say’ “I have green eyes.” You can look at me and clearly see that my eyes are, in fact, green. See? Simple. If we then apply this to our research, to how we consume the news, or any media for that matter, the bigger picture becomes clearer. Or to put it more succinctly, the truth beneath the noise.
Try this, the next time you read a news article, take two different color highlighters and highlight all the opinions in one color and all the facts in the other. Then rewrite the story using only the facts.
I used to do this with my students regularly. It was amazing how much obsolete filler there was being reported and consumed as fact in our everyday news, at all levels.
Now, armed with the facts, you are in a much better position to determine what is indeed valid and to then form your own opinions about the subject rather than allowing others to do it for you. This in turn, also puts you in a much better position to develop educated opinions, something vastly different and much more powerful than the noise we are constantly subjected to.
Taking it a step further, you can apply this process to not only consumption of the news and media, but also to consumption of non-fiction, history, any offering that is presented as factually based. Again, it’s the delving into the subject, of questioning its validity and embarking on the quest that is important here.
In my own quest for historical knowledge, I have found this to be true. There’s a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded. Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country. The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The foundations that have guided us through decades of growth and progress, through wars and discord, through changing centuries, and a changing world. These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day.
Once you open yourself up to studying and truly learning our history in this manner, I can assure you from personal experience, your thirst for knowledge will continue to increase, while your acceptance of the status quo will constantly diminish. More than just a right, I think it is a responsibility that we, as Americans, as citizens, as voters, are called to do.
So I leave you with one of my favorite Leonardo da Vinci quotes, “It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
Strive to be a person of accomplishment in your quest for knowledge as much as you are in other areas of your life. You live in a country that values and protects your right to do so. Embrace it and even more, seek it, for it is in this we all prevail from generation to generation.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher and author | In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle and Four Weeks: A Journey from Darkness
I love the sound of rain. However, the sound of rain on a tin or metal roof is something else altogether. It brings to mind childhood afternoons with my Nana.
My Nana, Mary Murphy Chaknis, was born in 1911 in County Cork, Ireland. Her family was poor, and by the time Nana had reached her early teens, her mother and father decided to send she and her sister, Lily to America to live with relatives, and hopefully to have a better life. Nana was only 16.
She and Lily traveled on an ocean liner and passed through Ellis Island in the latter part of the 1920’s. Her first job was in a hospital kitchen, preparing meals and helping with the laundry. It was a much different world than the one she had grown up in, and far away from home.
Early on, Nana realized that her deep faith and the strength she received from God would be the cornerstones that would sustain her throughout her life. Nana would never again visit her homeland. Instead, she would live a long and beautiful life in America, meeting and marrying my grandfather, Pete Chaknis, an immigrant from Greece, and raising six children, first in New York, and then in Florida when the family transferred here in the 1940’s. My grandfather was a chef and he moved the family to Panama City when the opportunity to run his own café presented itself. The house my mother and her three brothers and two sisters were raised in would eventually be purchased by my parents after Grandpa passed away in the early 1960’s. Nana would move across the street and I would spend many hours of my childhood in her company.
Nana taught me how to crochet. She patiently helped me create, first small granny squares and then later on, blankets and afghans. She taught me how to bake her famous carrot cake and cheesecake. I followed her around the kitchen watching as she prepared her delicious fig preserves from the tree in her backyard. She’d send me out with a basket to collect the figs when they were ready for picking. Spending the night with her was a special treat because in the morning she’d serve the best, fluffiest, lightest buttermilk pancakes in the world!
But rainy afternoons were my favorite. It was on those days that Nana would pull out her button box. To me it was much more than a box filled with buttons. To me it was a treasure chest. Nana saved buttons from just about every garment that lost one or that was past mending.
The box contained treasures from tiny pearl buttons to big ornate ones from suits and jackets. The were not the sort of buttons you’d ever find in a store. No, they were precious, and unique, and every bit the little gems they appeared to be. They had been saved over the years from the very garments Nana wore; from my grandfather’s worn clothing; from my mom’s and her sibling’s hand-me-downs. It was like sifting through history.
Nana could recall in vivid detail the garments from which they came and the occasions on which they were worn. It was like peeking through the looking glass into the past and seeing her as a young girl, crossing an ocean to begin a new life; a young wife and mother, caring for her family; a widow, who lost my grandfather when she was only in her mid-forties; to becoming Nana, the women I admired and whose warm hugs were the best in the world; whose Irish twinkle never left her eyes; and whose words of wisdom I still carry with me to this day.
When Nana passed in 2004, at the age of 93, she left me the button box and all of her yarn and crochet tools. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, when the drops are pattering softly on the metal of our roof, I take out the button box and slowly sift through the buttons, thinking of Nana and the sound of her voice as she reminisced about each one.
I’d hold up one of the little treasures, asking, “What about this one, Nana? Where’d it come from?”
“Oh, that one, Jenny-Pooh,” she’d say using the nickname she’d lovingly given me, “That one was from the dress I wore on the train when we moved here from New York. I was pregnant with your Uncle George. You mom was just five…”
The story would continue, and I’d listen intently every time. Because even then I knew that one day, my own children, her great-grandchildren, would ask me the same questions. And I wanted to be able to give them these same pieces of family history that Nana was giving me; with just as much joy and just as much love. Especially on the rainy afternoons, when I knew I’d feel her presence next to me, her warmth moving through me, and perhaps most meaningfully of all, her story, living on as I shared it with the next generation.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, author, In the Eye of the Storm and Four Weeks