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Threading the Needle

by Rachel Rhoden 10 months ago in humanity · updated 10 months ago
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Keeping the Home Fires Burning

A hand embroidered photo transfer of my grandmother, Georgia Lou

I have lived a happy life. I grew up in the rural outskirts of a small city on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. I was surrounded by a loving family in a beautiful home that my father built with his own hands. Both of my parents are creators and instilled in me the confidence to make anything I want. Always an artist, I spent many an afternoon after school digging up clay from the yard to create small sculptures left to dry on the porch rail in the sun (much to my mother’s dismay). I have often felt guilty when friends or coworkers talk about their troubled childhoods or strained relationships with parents who don’t support their creative endeavors. Though my family didn’t have much money, I never doubted their love or support. Indeed, a sense of home, a safe place to retreat, has never been something I questioned. You see, my familial ties to Louisiana go back many generations. Southern roots run deep and the only thing that has pulled me away from the security of a loving family is my desire to travel and explore. I left my home in Lake Charles over ten years ago never imagining that anywhere else would feel as much like home or that there would come a time that it would not be there when I needed it.

I met a man, also from Louisiana, whom I have followed all over the country. Although, our relationship itself has had its ups and downs, I have never regretted the travel and other experiences gained from it. About six years ago, we moved to Gardiner, Montana, a small town at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Like the other places we’ve lived, we viewed this move as an adventure, a small stop over before we moved on to the next place. Little did we know that we would make some of the best friendships we have had in our lives here. In this tiny town, there exists a community of kindred spirits the likes of which I have never experienced before. Environmentalists, biologists, artists, photographers, wildlife guides, and raft guides all co mingle. You meet grizzled park rangers and 18-year-old college girls spending their first summers away from home in the same bar. People are drawn to this place. Some are escaping their past, some are looking for their future, and some simply want to hike amongst wildflowers until their pain is a distant memory. But we all have one thing in common: a love of nature and her many healing gifts. For the first time, I felt the love of a new home. Not one to replace the old, but a sperate one. One made up of family not by blood, but by choice.

When Covid-19 made it to the U.S. and the world was shutting down, Gardiner followed suit. Although, for us in a secluded town in rural Montana, it felt a bit like we were living in a fairy tale. Covid felt like some vague and distant monster that wasn’t really going to affect us. If we just stayed in our sleepy little town and kept the tourists out for a few months, we would all be fine. We took peaceful walks in the snow with our friends and snuggled in bed with our partners until late morning while casually sipping coffee. The most difficult part of our day was planning whether we were going to bake, watch movies all day, read one of the new books in our ever-growing library, or some sort of combination of all three. I myself felt an artistic motivation that I had not felt since college. I would wake up and immediately start creating. This included my new love of embroidery and watercolors. Sometimes I would create mixed media projects that included both. For the first time since earning my art degree I was spending my days creating art and making money from it. It felt amazing. While embroidering, I would enter a sort of Zen like trance that I would wake up from hours later, fingers aching, only to grab a bite and then start all over again.

In summertime, when the world began to wake from its sleepy Covid trance, Gardiner also came back to life. Tourists were itching to be out and about, and Yellowstone was a popular place to be. As someone who works in the service industry, I had to go back to work. Tourists needed to be fed and we had to feed them. The days were long and tiring and although I had less time on my hands, embroidery was still a type of art therapy that I was able to retreat to when I got home in the evening. It felt creative. It was productive and beautiful, but I did not have to think about each stitch. It was effortless. I could slip into a meditative flow that would relax my mind and help me to forget the cares of the day.

Then, on July 14, 2020, something unimaginable happened. Our beautiful, sweet, little town caught fire. This fire began at one of our beloved watering holes. A run-down cowboy saloon with an historic old wooden bar that was our central gathering place. We would end up there not only at the end of long summer nights working at the local tourist hot spots, but in the winter after a day filled with cross country skiing. This fire spread. It spread faster than it could be contained and took with it homes, businesses, and restaurants. We watched in horror with tears in our eyes as the fire blazed into the evening. In less than 12 hours our town was changed forever. We were exhausted and emotionally spent and still faced with the task of keeping the Yellowstone tourists happy. Each day felt like a struggle. My home away from home was badly wounded and in my heart I knew it would never be the same.

My head still spinning from one tragedy, on August 27, 2020, I was faced with another. My hometown of Lake Charles took a direct hit from a massive Category 4 hurricane called Laura. My mother evacuated and stayed with family in the nearby city of Lafayette, but part of my father’s job as head of planning at McNeese State University is to stay behind and make sure things are secure and taken care of on campus. Here in Montana, I watched live footage of my home being torn apart before my eyes. On a family group chat in the middle of the night, my dad was able to let us know that the roof had just been ripped from the building he was in and that he and a few others were headed downstairs for safety. Shortly after, cell phone towers were damaged, and we lost contact with him. As you can imagine, the following morning was stressful waiting to hear that he was ok all the while watching more and more footage roll in of our demolished town. I was heartbroken. In a matter of weeks both of my homes had faced great tragedies and were shadows of their former selves. I felt lost and rootless and like part of my identity had been taken away from me. I started having nightmares in which I would replay watching the hurricane rip apart Lake Charles. I was grieving and not handling it well. Ultimately, I decided that in order to work through the pain, I had to handle it in person rather than watch it from afar. So, in September I went down to Louisiana.

The damage was unfathomable. Entire buildings were torn to shreds, roofs blown from homes allowing rain to pour in, and oak trees hundreds of years old uprooted and lost forever. My parents’ home was miraculously fine and only needed to have new shingles put on the roof. But my dad’s beloved campus had millions of dollars in damage. When I arrived, there was still no power anywhere and streets were dangerous to drive on. Shingles and debris were everywhere as well as downed power lines.

Though the environment around me was tragic, my time spent there was helpful. I was able to be with my family, help clean up, and feel productive. In the evenings because there was no television, I found myself once again relying on embroidery to both entertain and soothe. I would spend hours each night catching up with my parents while at the same time diligently stitching. I rediscovered how the repetition of creating stitch after stitch could calm my mind while at the same time creating something beautiful. I was struggling with the loss of home while practicing a traditional homemaking art and it felt in a way that my grieving had come full circle. That creating something beautiful while mourning the loss of the city around me, gave me new hope for the future.

Both Gardiner and Lake Charles are vastly different versions of their previous selves. All my closest friends have left Gardiner because of the changes, and much of my family have either left Lake Charles or have plans to do so. I am still grieving for both and still struggling with what home means to me, but I have learned that perhaps home is more a sense of family, of belonging, and of memories, than it is a physical place. Meditating on the creation of something, stitch by stitch, can bring you back into the light when your heart and mind are in a dark place. Recovery happens one stitch at a time and that is a beautiful thing.


About the author

Rachel Rhoden

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