Reflections on Sandy and Life’s Disasters

A while ago a friend reviewed my book proposal and made some pointed, helpful observations and suggestions. I incorporated almost all of them. But there was one that sent me into a deeper place of thinking.

In the proposal I make note of the fact that the memoir begins two weeks before 9/11 and that that day had a profound impact on the entire trajectory of my life (and hence the book) from there. My friend felt it crossed a line to “use” 9/11 to “sell” my book.

I am so glad she went there, as it was a legitimate question that needed raising. And I wound up coming to this – I am not using a catastrophic world event to sell anything. I am telling a true story and to skip over the very moment that sent me spiraling and then careening into action would serve no one. Not me, not my readers.

I would not want to be the person who didn’t heed a wakeup call that shook the globe. And I would not want to be the person who says she’s writing her truth but isn’t. I like living at full attention. And I don’t see 9/11 as some mystical image we should enshrine in a bubble and not touch out of respect. We lived it. Man, did we ever live it. And we still are in a lot of ways.

This brings me to Hurricane Sandy, that bitch who came to our shores one year ago and left those of us in its path wrung out and dazed. My next book will likely have its beginnings in 2012 and will pivot on that monstrous storm. This is what artists do. We chronicle. For me and many others that’s also about extracting meaning.

Because, here’s the thing — we should be affected. I want to be affected. That means I’m engaged in life. If I didn’t change in some way because of these disasters, then am I even living right? That’s how I feel and I don’t see any reason to keep it to a whisper. Maybe my voice expresses for other voices, gives them clarity, jars them, helps them remember in a way that makes them feel. Maybe it is part of my purpose to bear witness and then some.

We are all one. We are all affected. No one has the market cornered on sorrow or grief or transformation. How I’m affected may not be how you’re affected, but if I make you think about how you were affected I’ve done something important.

Last year we were warned an epic storm was coming. We had heard it before, but these warnings had a more alarming tone. Sandy was scheduled to hit the New York area (and hence our little town of Hoboken, N.J.) in the evening. We had a 6 p.m. curfew. Concerned friends called to see if I wanted to stay with them, but I saw no reason not to weather it myself. I’d been through storms before (Irene just the year before, in fact).

Around 5:30 or so it began to get dark and the winds started howling. The power in my building went out within minutes. I felt my fear rising up into my throat. It was after 6 p.m. and I was supposed to stay put. But I panicked, sent a text to my friend Kathi a block away saying that I was coming and started throwing items into a plastic bag in the darkness. When I reached my front step, my fear escalated. The wind was dangerously strong and to complicate matters I was heading toward the always gusty Hudson River to get to Kathi’s.

A young woman coming from that direction shook her head when I asked her about going that way. I was scared but determined. It was just a block. Then I saw a man across the street and I yelled to him, asked if he was going that way. He crossed the street, let me put my arm through his and he walked me to Kathi’s door before disappearing into the night. I realized he’d never answered me, that in fact he wasn’t going my way and it was a random act of kindness. He’s been an angel in my mind ever since.

Kathi’s 10th floor apartment proved to be a haven. I had wine and snacks, but most importantly I had friendship and support even when her power eventually gave out. Her husband was in the city dealing with emergency management issues at his employer, NYU. In the ensuing days we walked around a town with almost no power, with remnants of raging floods, with hardly any businesses open, with the National Guard roaming our streets.

We couldn’t watch it, but on television the nation was seeing images of our town and our devastated mayor asking for help. I was blessed. I live on high ground. I lost only what was in my refrigerator because of the outage, but my home remained intact.

It’s worth asking: How do we watch people all around us deal with horror, loss, jarring and sudden pain and experience some of it ourselves with no fallout? No call to change? Some people think I have a deep ‘secret’ to living. Well, if so, this is the key – learn to feel. I spent thousands on seriously good therapy to learn how to do that.

So if I emerged from Hurricane Sandy with my home intact in this town, how could I not be on my knees in gratitude? Weeks later, still seeing water-logged belongings lined up along curbs – a stark reminder. A friend whose brand new car was a goner – another stark reminder.

I live across the street from a Catholic church. I haven’t been Catholic or even Christian since 2002. I hadn’t been in that church since September 12, 2001 when I left in exasperation at a preachy sermon. But the day after Sandy, Kathi and I noticed its doors open and we went in to say a prayer. On our way out we realized the church had power and we asked the priest if they had a generator.

“No, we never lost power,” he said. He then told us we were welcome to use the outlets to plug in our devices.

The next day around noon we returned with our phones and iPads; many others were there for the same reason. Unbeknownst to us there is a daily mass at 12:10. Father announced we were all welcome to stay, but to please shut down the volume on our devices. We stayed. Something changed in me that day, that mass.

Every week since, I have gone to a weekday mass there. Sometimes right from the gym or on a writing break. I’m still not identifying as Catholic or even Christian, but the words said at mass are familiar to me and they soothe me. They are one way to God. My spirituality derives from these and other disciplines, a belief system formed from a decade of escalated learning.

While for others the act of going to church is about community, for me these days it is the exact opposite. At weekday mass I am typically in a pew by myself. There are maybe 15-20 people there. I like to arrive early and sit quietly. In those moments I feel like God is looking into my face and I am looking into his. I am reminded of grace and love, priorities and perspective, beauty and pain. I emerge refreshed and go about my day.

A year later and my overriding message is this – be affected. Live affected. That’s what you want to strive for. Emote, for goodness sake. Be jarred into something or out of something.

And then, if you’re so inclined, share it. With your spouse, your neighbor, your co-worker. Or maybe countless readers. Use your common experiences to connect. It’s all part of it.

No selling or using required.

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