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.