On the five year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, it was illuminating to revisit where I was at that time, and how much unexpected sweetness there was in the things I learned from it. For what it’s worth, I share it here with you, written on October 31, 2012:
I’m writing this on my slowly dying computer, to post it whenever power resumes in my house. It might be weeks. But I’m awake in the middle of the night, it’s freezing, I’m hungry, and this is what I can do right now, while eating some reheated soup Elena made yesterday (one big blessing: we have a gas stove and matches.)
Hurricane Sandy. The perfect storm. We prepared with water, batteries, firewood, non-perishable food. But it’s hard to prepare for the wind blowing so hard that the house literally moans out loud. It’s hard to prepare for wondering if your roof will still be there in the morning. This teaches you to be present like nothing else can.
On Sunday, we had brought Elena’s 87-year-old mother over to our house for the duration of the storm. This woman is going to die with her boots on in her own home, so she was incensed that she had to come over to our place. But we couldn’t risk her losing power, and falling in the dark, and us not being able to get to her. So, with bitter misgivings, she acquiesced to our tenderly proffered but non-negotiable stance.
By Monday night, Sandy clocked in for his shift and the power went out. The word “wind” doesn’t begin to describe it. Neither does “raging winds.” Any emotional or descriptive adjectives ring thin and inauthentic. This was on a scale that silenced all words, all mental activity. You could only drop your jaw and whisper “Holy shit.” We did this as the trees fell over the street lamps and power lines in our front yard. We did this as the house wailed. We did this all night.
Tuesday morning, it was all about getting our bearings, surveying damage, talking to neighbors, adjusting to life without electricity for a little while. The picture above is our front yard. Fortunately, aside from what you see in the photo, we came out relatively unscathed. But we’ve been two days without phones and power, and it’s going to be at least another five, ten, maybe fifteen. For a while, texting was possible. Now that’s gone too.
Right now it’s 2am on Wednesday morning and, without electricity buzzing through all the power lines down my street, the whole world is both more quiet and more alive. It’s come into more of its original skin. I can feel its heart beating under my feet. I feel part of it. I feel grateful.
This sound, this quiet is more appreciable right now, in the middle of the night. During the day and the evening, the neighbors’ generators drone loud and proud. There are times when I think they’re so lucky. They can take hot showers. They are warm at night. They get internet, HBO, the news. They can open their fridge doors and look in absentmindedly for however long they want. They can post photos of upturned trees to their Facebook pages, let people know what happened to them, reassure their friends and family on the phone. They can go to bed whenever they usually go to bed.
But they’re missing out, too. Here are some of the things I found, during my time without electricity.
PLAYING THE PIANO Yesterday morning, Elena had gone to walk the dogs. I went upstairs and played the piano for a while, just letting my fingers tell me whatever there was they needed to say. Without an agenda, a deadline, or an audience, it was the sweetest moment of self-expression. Granted, I could have done this at any time, even when we had electricity — but for some reason, approaching my piano in a time when there was almost nothing else to do created a space around the playing that I had never felt before.
MINDFULLY WASHING THE DISHES I thought hot water was indispensible to good cleaning, but it’s not. I did the previous night’s dishes, but did them slowly. I used to just run hot water, and rinse everything before throwing it into the dishwasher. This time I filled a bin with cold water and a little dishwashing liquid. Slowly, mindfully I experienced each spoon, each cup, watching my reactions, my aversions, my ‘needs’ rise up and pass away as the dishes moved through my hands into the dish rack.
MINDFULLY CLEANING THE FLOORS Washing floors used to be a hurried, perfectionistic event. But yesterday, I took my time. Got down on my hands and knees and worked carefully. Where I used to attack a spot with determined zeal, I just worked gently, slowly, looking at the spot, feeling the rag in my hands, the floor under my knees, hearing the sound of my scrubbing. It was an altogether different experience, so joyful, so without time constraints or pride.
MINDFULLY WATCHING MY EGO As I worked, I noticed, 1) my hopes that this work would be great, and 2) that this great work would be praised. Scrubbing, I watched myself dream up ways of embedding the information conversationally, so it wouldn’t look like I was looking for praise. Like, “Oh by the way, while I was doing the floors, Carey dropped by. Her neighbor lost their house in Long Beach…” –thereby making the floors comment very small, within a much larger story — but getting it in there, just the same. I smiled. Nice try. I made a solid commitment not to mention anything about doing any of this work. (But I’m mentioning it to all of you reading, so there goes that attempt!) In any case, I kept pointing myself back into the present moment, experiencing it for its own sake, every moment, one after the other.
WHEN DARKNESS FALLS At around 5:30pm, it grew dark. Elena and I had returned Mrs. T back to her home. Her neighborhood had power. We walked the dogs and came back to our own house. Lit a fire. Read a little bit. Had some more soup. At around 6:45 (six forty-five!), I was very sleepy. It felt like ten o’clock. What is that? But then I got it. My animal self was alive, nudging me toward my natural instincts, “It’s dark. Time to hole up and sleep.”
We keep ourselves artificially awake until 10, 11, 12 o’clock. It’s not wrong. It’s just what we do now. But without artificial light, we are gently brought back to our bodies, responding to physically, naturally to the darkness. Elena and I went to bed. We went to sleep.
If we’d had a generator, I would never have played the piano in the wide open space of my own heart — would never have known the moment-by-moment washing of the dishes and cleaning of the floors — would never have known the sweetness of a clean, direct relationship with the darkness.
So many blessings from this hurricane.
I still don’t know the full extent of what happened. Haven’t heard any news yet except by other neighbors who’d heard it from their families. I heard Long Beach burned down (hundreds of houses!). I pray for all those families. I heard lower Manhattan was underwater. My mind kind of shuts down when I think of it. I return to my breath, to these keys under my fingers, the dwindling percentage of battery in this computer. I am sated with a delicious bowl of Elena’s incomparable chicken soup and a cup of tea. It’s now 4:16am and I’m ready to go back to sleep.