Carrying on

It was little more than a fleeting inconvenience here, the mighty storm that stole the homes and lives and livelihoods of so many others. Standing in my kitchen on Monday afternoon, the phone pressed to my ear, I watched as the wind lifted our storage shed up and away, and lodged it amidst some roadside trees. Steve and Henry and I put on boots and raincoats and headed out into the gale, but there wasn’t much at stake – a lawnmower, some flowerpots, bikes and gas cans and gardening tools. A neighbor stopped by and gave us a hand, and an hour later we had filled the basement and garage with our stuff, thrown our sopping clothes into the dryer, and settled down to listen to the wind and rain lashing the windows. We ate soup at five on that wild, windy night and by the time the power went out at six, the dishes were done. In the morning, with the lights back on and the clocks reset, we turned to the tv to see what was happening beyond our horizons.

All week, the images of devastation have burned into our collective consciousness. Having ascertained that friends and loved ones are alive and safe, we watch the news with a combination of horror and disbelief and grim fascination. How could this be happening? The heartbreaking scenes of fire, flooding, destruction, and loss are almost too much to assimilate here in the comfort of my own business-as-usual life. The coffee drips and the heat kicks on and the laptop pings the arrival of email, while not at all far from here, in homes and neighborhoods no different from this one, thousands of people wait for the basics to be restored: water, lights, gasoline, phone lines.

“Overwhelmed emotionally,” a friend typed at dawn this morning. Although she is fine, the city she called home for decades is not. How to make sense of that?

I’m not the only one who’s laid awake this week, in the grip of vague fear and nameless anxiety, safe and yet unsettled by the knowledge that while I snuggle into flannel sheets in a warm house, others go without.

“It seems almost like a betrayal,” I said to Steve at breakfast this morning as we ate cereal and read the New York Times, “to have it so easy while so many others are suffering. I’m not even sure how to feel, other than helpless and lucky and sad all at once.”

This afternoon, another email from a dear friend: “I just want to return those baby boys to their mother and the photographs to those who lost them and life to the man who was crushed by the tree. I want to do what can’t be done.”

That is surely the crux of it. Wanting to do what can’t be done, we’re reminded that all life is fleeting, security an illusion, suffering part of the human condition, the threshold of death never further than a step away.

Perhaps the only way to move beyond fear and helplessness is to cultivate a different response. Aware that we are, all of us, participants in this great ongoing dance of both living and dying, we can gently transform sorrow for all that’s lost into gratitude for all that is. Awakened to the fragility of our own existence, we do see through fresh eyes: each moment is a new thing, life itself a gift. And any act of kindness, no matter how small, brings a bit more light into the darkness.

Compassion, it turns out, is a powerful antidote to helplessness. And so I remind myself to simply stop, and look around. There is always some way to be useful, someone nearby who could use a hand, a hug, a listening ear, some kind of sustenance, be it physical or spiritual or emotional.

“Anything you do from the soulful self,” says activist and writer Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “will help lighten the burdens of the world. Anything. You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion.”

She goes on to offer an assignment particularly suited for these chaotic and confusing times, one that just may be worth ordering an entire life around: “Mend the parts of the world that are within your reach. To strive to live this way is the most dramatic gift you can ever give the world.”

Slowly then, day by day and bit by bit, what is broken will surely be healed. Each and every part of the world is within someone’s reach. Sometimes, our arms are even longer than we know. Meanwhile, with full hearts, we carry on. We do what we can, with what we have, from where we are.

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your comments

  1. Thank you. I really really really needed this. Thank you for taking the time to light a lamp.

  2. Katrina, your commentary resonated deep in my heart today. The right words at the right time. Thank you.

  3. Bonnie Walker says:

    Blessed to read your perspective. As always thoughtful and inspiring. With suggestive therapy to stretch myself.

  4. Diane Wilby says:

    Thankyou. Something to hold on to in difficult times.

  5. …”we can gently transform sorrow for all that’s lost into gratitude for all that is.”

    This transformation is nothing less than the task of my life. Thank you for being such a wise, steady, and bright guide on this path. xox

  6. Thank you, Katrina. “Carrying on…” truly speaks of what my family is going through right now. Being on uenmployment since June, my husband being on disability and not getting the resources available to us in our own community to survive drives my persistence to carry on.

  7. Thank you for expressing so eloquently the feelings I’m too overwhelmed to put into words…

  8. Simple, but beautiful, words, Katrina. Living way out West, the storm feels more removed from my everyday experience, and your words bring it closer to home. What you say here — “wanting to do what can’t be done, we’re reminded that all life is fleeting, security an illusion, suffering part of the human condition, the threshold of death never further than a step away” — is so true. And about that dance between life and death? Absolutely. I feel it keenly this time of year, November being the month that my mom passed on. It’ll be 10 years this Thanksgiving since she suddenly died. Abra and I are marching in a Dia de los Muertos parade on Sunday. Our float’s theme? Honoring the Dead, Loving the Living. That’s what the dance is all about. Loving what it hear while simultaneously grieving what is gone, what can never be undone.

  9. Mary Lynne Johnson says:

    I appreciate your heartfelt words, Katrina. Elizabeth was stranded in NYC after attending a wedding last weekend. She has been with friends and is safe. Finally heading home tomorrow by bus. Looking forward to seeing her. We have so much to be thankful for. My best to you and your family.

  10. Beautifully put and perfectly timed, as always. Thank you!

  11. Beautiful and thoughtful! Sharing!

  12. Nancy Kreitner says:

    Beautifully saying what we all feel!

    Bravo.

  13. Susan Hickey says:

    Thank you for finding the words to express the conflicting feelings of this past week, as well as reminding us that amidst the helplessness we can reach out and offer kindness wherever we are.

  14. Your words are always perfect! Thanks!

  15. It was difficult for us to watch from so far away. I worried for the people who bought our NY house this time last year, because I know those big oak trees in the front yard are not stable. I diligently watched the facebook posts of all of our NY friends and NH family. It was a kind of odd ‘survivors guilt’ that I walked around with all day. I felt bad going grocery shopping, pumping gas, on a bright sunny day here in CO, knowing so many people I care about were hunkering down. This is a lovely piece. I’m so glad your family is safe, despite the wayward shed. :)

    Judy
    justonefoot.com

  16. I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast where hurricanes are annual fact of life. I’ve prepared for and lived through the worst of them. I will never forget Hurricane Katrina and many, many others. Fortunately, none of my family nor friends has ever lost their homes or a loved one to a storm; however, people in the immediate surrounding areas have lost everything at one time or another. Your statement that “it seems almost like a betrayal” rings so true in my heart. I recall several years ago after one storm, returning to my condo, not having lost electricity, water, or cable, and sitting in my air-conditioned living room watching the news on TV. I felt so “guilty” having these “luxuries” while others were literally picking through pieces of their lives. Katrina, I know from your writings how much you give back and from someone who has been through so many devastating acts of nature, the best cure for the feelings you’ve had since the storm is just as you describe, “mend the parts of the world that are within your reach”. Now, after storms, I go out into the surrounding communities and just find ways to help others. I’ve driven to other states and counties and helped the military distribute MREs, organized emergency drives for clothing, personal items, and houshold goods, and walked up to the back of 18-wheelers that have come into the area from out of state and offered to help them distribute the ice and water they’ve so generously brought with them. The best way to help is to simply give back, in any way possible. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those in the affected areas…the sun will shine again, I promise.

  17. I’ve read your writings for many years now, since my daughters were young. In our town near Chicago, we have recently experienced a horrible tragedy wrought by a mother’s hands. While I know you wrote this about Hurricane Sandy, the words apply to how we have been feeling as we’ve needed to explain to our children the horrible sadness of these recent events. You’ve captured the helplessness, the awe and beauty in each beautiful moment of life and the hope that life and love will continue. I will continue to feel the gratitude of each day we are granted. I am looking forward to your next book for more inspiration.

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