Weathering it all
November 2, 2012
Humbling. Terrifying. Life-threatening. Life-taking. Powerless against her force. All the riches and great-toned bodies and beautiful cars and fine homes become meaningless in the moment. Mother Nature works herself up into a hissy fit of unimaginable proportions and reduces us all to a primal state of mere existence.
No doubt all our communication technologies saved lives. Our precautions and preparations. The ability for some to simply leave the danger zone. But the loss of life and property brought on by Hurricane Katrina uprooted thousands and devastated a city built on the water. Then, just as recovery was starting to take hold and signs of life were returning to coastal towns after years of rebuilding, the oil spill hit the Gulf. The very ocean, the lifeblood of those lives, took away the fruits of the sea.
In New York, when two planes hit two towers on a cloudless day, it was horribly human caused. That unnatural act took lives and buildings and jobs and neighborhoods and leveled them all without regard. The most resilient and hard-boiled of cities and peoples were flattened for weeks, then months, now years, by the effects of that single day.
And now – again – the waves of grief splash up against those fragile wooden piers and generational beach homes until they collapsed against the weight of water. Cars left in parking lots were covered as the water rose to become rivers with unnatural asphalt bottoms. With fish spilling in from the sea and swimming upstream downtown.
And, I am wondering, how many images can the human brain absorb? How many events that should never happen once in a lifetime have recent lifetimes been forced to witness? And how can we be the compassionate people who respond, as opposed to the hardened souls who become inured to it all.
Sometimes I just want to stay in bed. Not in the read-a-book, avoid-work kind of way, but in the sense of overwhelming exhaustion of trying-to-be-a-contributing-member-of-the-human-race kind of way. The desire to unplug so completely as to disappear. I want to help the children in Sudan and the people of Mali. I worry about the pirates, yes pirates, in open seas. About the erosion of the glaciers and disappearance of wildlife.
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I tried, in very simple language last week, to explain to some children how absurd/tragic/frightening it was to know that a young girl, in a country far away, could be shot in the head simply because she wanted an education. It is difficult to have such news/knowledge/information and not feel duty-bound to share that and, by so doing, shedding light on not only dark corners of the world but on dark human behaviors. It was unsettling for the children to hear but it allowed for an amazing discussion about what it means to be truly brave, to have an education, to be treated equally regardless of gender or nationality.
With the profusion of ways we receive information now – still on radios and televisions and newspapers, but also on computers and even phones – we are better informed then any group of people in the history of the world. But rather than focusing on world events, the majority of what passes for news is really low-lying gossip about faux celebrities who contribute little to the human condition except as examples of excessive consumption.
This week most of us were helpless witnesses to the effects of Hurricane Sandy. We held our collective breath for friends and loved ones on the East Coast as trees fell and power lines snapped and sharks floated onto rivers that were once public streets. Newsies among us stay glued to the television for updates on neighborhoods and boroughs that we had firsthand knowledge of. But I also was surprised to see Facebook as a more immediate source of news. Friends were posting about power outages and flying tree limbs and yard furniture that took flight. I learned, as it was happening, that the generator at the NYU hospital had failed and they were evacuating patients, from a doctor in another city, on another coast, who had been put on alert.
And yesterday, a group I have spent the past five years working closely with, based in New York offices, posted a series of photos on Facebook that showed the staff in its "new" temporary offices – a cafe in Brooklyn, a living room, inside a plane traveling, a school library. The old offices are filled with water and without power. It was heart-warming to see how resilient they are/had become.
And for just a little while, all the political chatter was forced to hush. The human condition showing thousands of Americans uprooted, yet upstanding, became The Story. It was as if Mother Nature had decided, once again, to remind us of what genuine power looks like, feels like, sounds like. And for just a few days we have been in awe of her force. In awe of her aftermath, in awe of our collective surprising survival.
I have no idea any more how to process so many emotions and so many stories. I know what matters most is to understand enough of the macro to be very grateful for micro, which I plan to set aside time to do, without any sources of news, save the immediate weather around me, this Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.