ART has the ability to give expression to the things in life that are the most complex. - Jason Hedden
There are many reasons people love living along the Florida panhandle: the soft, white beaches, the spanish moss in the old trees, and the vibrant arts scene among the small towns that dot the coast, among many others. Jason Hedden was also going home when he and his family moved back to the area in 2008 to take a job in the Visual & Performing Arts Division at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Florida. In the decade since, he grew his family, dedicated time to the college, arts community, and students, and grew deep roots in the community. Hurricanes are a part of life in Florida, so no one was especially concerned about the developing system in early October 2018. It wasn’t until the early morning hours of October 10th that Jason Hedden realized this storm wasn’t going to be like all the others.
PHOTO: PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE
The Hedden residence is separated from the nearest hospital by a bridge, so Jason, his wife, and ten-year-old son left on October 9th to ride out the storm at a family member’s house on the other side of the bridge. Jason remembers being truly scared only a few times during the whole ordeal, one of which was at 4 am on October 10th when he received an emergency alert indicating that the storm was rapidly intensifying. With no time left to evacuate further out of the storm’s path, he, his wife, son, and four other family members spent the storm sheltered under the stairs of his sister’s home as Michael’s 160 mph sustained winds toppled thousands of established trees and the devastating storm surge and waves destroyed the second floor rooms in houses along the beach.
Once the winds died down, Jason’s family stepped outside into a new world. The street was unrecognizable. Cell service was down, making communication with family outside the area nearly impossible. The next few days were marked with 6 hour lines at the gas station and trying to identify the status of family members. It was a couple of days before Jason found out his other sister was ok, thanks to 10 miles of impassable roads. Although the storm was initially labeled as a Category 4, later investigations would identify what many in the community already knew; Hurricane Michael was a Category 5 storm that changed the way of life for everyone living along the Florida Panhandle.
Eventually, life began to move towards a “new normal,” but recovery is slow. With most businesses closed around the area, including the college, Jason found himself with spare time on his hands and began writing in an effort to process what was going on. When he shared those words on Facebook, the response was immediate; hundreds of readers reacted, commented, and shared Jason’s posts. Through his writing, people found the words to ascribe to their intense, confusing emotions. In mid-October, Jason wrote to the cast & crew of a show that had been in rehearsal before the storm hit that “ART has the ability to give expression to the things in life that are the most complex.” Other artists in the community also began expressing their pain and loss through songs, poetry, and photography. While construction workers rebuilt the infrastructure of the city, local artists began to rebuild the heart of the community.
In the year since Hurricane Michael, the arts community has experienced vast challenges. Most established performing arts venues are still unusable. Local, prominent artists have left the area due to increasing rent costs. Some artists have not been able to create at all, feeling overwhelmed by the ongoing stressors of living in a recovery zone. But many of those artists who can create have chosen to use their art for good. One example is In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle, a compilation of essays, poetry, and photography from artists looking to find meaning in their Hurricane Michael experiences. All proceeds from the book go to the United Way of Northwest Florida, whose Hurricane Michael Fund is dedicated to supporting local recovery. This grassroots effort is not only promoting healing throughout the community, but giving back financially as well.
The Florida Panhandle is not alone in finding meaning and truth through art after disaster. Artists have banded together after Hurricane Sandy, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, and many other locations that have experienced traumatic events. Whether the organic result of individual artistic expression or fostered by established organizations in the community, art brings people together, gives context to suffering, and promotes healing.
Interested in promoting the arts following an event in your community? Consider the following tips:
it’s just stuff. they are just things
by Jason Hedden on October 19, 2018
Shared with permission.
“It’s just stuff. They are just things.”
For many, the loss of the physical is not what is being mourned. It is the loss of what that stuff and those things represent, the powerful symbolic and deep emotional meaning held within those items.
For many, a house is more than wood and brick.
It is a safety
It is independence
It is privacy
It is sanctuary
It is memory
These three robbed more than items. They stole more than stuff. Those items were oft endowed with deep and profound personal meaning.
We go to museums to see artifacts and relics of the past. To learn of lives lived.
What would be placed in the museum of your life?
What pieces tell the story of you?
A small black and white photo of your father’s father’s father?
The stuffed toy you were given by a friend in the hospital when you battled an illness that you feared would take you from those you love?
The flag that draped the coffin of your son? It was handed to you by crisp white gloves with such care it had to be made of fragile glass.
The table that you gather at for one special meal late in November each year? The same table you sat as a child. The same table your mother sat as a child. The table you now seat your own child.
The old vhs cassettes of family trips that you always wanted to covert to DVD?
Your old car? It was old, but it got you to work. A job you loved. A job that is gone.
These are things. This is stuff, but they are also so much more.
With time, the structures will be rebuilt. The items will be bought again.
The loss of that which we can’t see is so much greater than what we can see.
Tread with care. There is more than trash at the side of the road.
There are broken dreams and shattered hopes under those heavy limbs.
With great loss we also find great love.
The smallest act of kindness now has more power than it did a week ago.
The new stuff is being endowed with a new meaning.
The meaning of....
The wind changed the landscape. It also has the power to change us. I hope it changed me.
Tragedy and loss have the power to remind us of what we already know to be true.
Today is a new day. A day in which you have an opportunity to change a life and have your life changed.
Be well and walk with care. I hope to see you soon.
Interested in more about this story?
The following links include more information on Jason Hedden’s writing, In the Eye of the Storm, and the United Way of Northwest Florida.
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