Thursday, December 20, 2012

What Do We Do?

It was mourning weather - dreary, drizzly, gray - as Dave and I drove home from New Palz. We had not wanted to drive through Newtown. We’d planned to get off I-84 at Bethel, but the cars slowed as we neared that exit. The traffic was backed up well onto the highway. “I think there’s another exit before Newtown, right?” I said. Dave agreed so we continued on.

The exit sign came into view, white letters on a green background. “Newtown.” Silence. Dave reached for my hand, signaled right and turned the wheel.

We had stolen a quick trip to the Mohonk Mountain House, just one night at the reduced pre-holiday mid-week rate. We’d not gone last year due to my father’s illness, but Dave and I view this trip to the Victorian hotel in the mountains as our Christmas tradition, our present to each other.

So, early Sunday, we left the house. We’d avoided watching the news, reading the papers, or listening to the radio. Shields up. As is our custom, we stopped for lunch at the Main Street Bistro in New Palz. The place bustled with kids in dreadlocks, woolen caps, and bulky knitted ponchos, and the menu featured homemade soups, five veggie burger options, frittatas, and several tofu selections. We both ordered veggie burgers – the Hendrix for me, the Peacemaker for Dave.

Seated at the counter, we chatted with a young bearded guy - originally from a farm in Nebraska, now at college in DC - who was in New Palz for some vacation hiking in the Shawangunk mountains. He was intrigued by Dave’s burger, so Dave offered him a bite. He accepted…and finished off my pureed pepper soup as well. It was easy and companionable and I liked thinking of him returning to his parents on the farm with warm impressions of this encounter with the couple from Connecticut, who lived in the town next to Newtown. Most people are good. They are.

After lunch, Dave and I visited a few of the quirky shops on Main Street and picked up some stocking gifts – Christmas rings, hacky sacks, funky finger-less mittens. And then I caught myself…feeling normal, cheery even. How could I?

So I shifted gears, sobered up, and thought about Tucker and Casey at six. About Christmas presents waiting in closets. About how, if it were me, I would delve into the laundry hamper to find and hold and rock the pajamas worn the night before Friday….Thursday night. Just a regular night.

And I tried to send out loving white light to those lost and their loved ones. (Does it reach them somehow? How could this happen? Why would someone kill little kids?)

We’d left Mohonk after breakfast and wound up in Newtown center around 11:00. Rain fell on black-clad mourners waiting outside the funeral home. A man walked with a small boy, one hand firmly on the child’s shoulder. Couples stood on the sidewalk embracing or hand-in-hand. Across the street, a battalion of photographers strained for a shot, jostling and adjusting prodigious lenses for a solid zoom. Network vans lined the road in front of the general store.

But we also passed shrines of bouquets, stuffed animals, and luminaries lovingly arranged. And signs. Many hand-painted signs. Perhaps from people, like me, like any of us, whose wounded hearts yearn to give comfort even when comfort is beyond giving. So what do we do? Send white light. Pray. Write on a sheet draped between two posts our wish to enfold these grieving souls, “Newtown – we are all one family.”

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Story of Power

“Tell me a story,” I said to Dave as we huddled as close to the fire as was safe; it was the seventh day after Hurricane Sandy, and still we had no power.

When our children were tiny, it was a bedtime ritual to pick three animals - sometimes as disparate as unicorns, rats and jellyfish - for Dave to weave into some crazy tale. This night, my choices were simple: a chipmunk, weasel and panda. As has often been Dave’s method, he was quiet, and I was not sure if he’d dozed off, refused the request, or was pondering a plot.

“’Mine is bigger,’ said the chipmunk,” said Dave.

Grinning at the prospect of a story, Dave’s compliance, and the double entendre, I climbed into my husband’s lap, although I was not an easy fit. Candles flickered in watery pools of light casting shadows of leftover Halloween witches lurking in corners and on shelves. The fire was glowing its warmth, and I felt snoozy and safe as a little kid as Dave’s voice rumbled soft and low against my cheek. “The weasel was exasperated because he did not care about the chipmunk’s pile of nuts. What he did care about were the black patches on the face of the panda he had seen at the zoo. Were the patches eyes? Huge eyes open wide with delight or, as the chipmunk believed, sunken wells of sadness?”

As the weasel and chipmunk devised a plan to visit the zoo and question the panda, outside our house teams of utility workers labored to restore power and clear roads along the coast, in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Matted pine boughs, snapped stalks of once towering trees, sinuous cable snakes, looped and snarled, some live, some not, spilled into streets, impeding repairs.

Earlier in the evening, we’d brought soup and coffee warmed on a propane burner to the crew working our road. While I did this self-consciously, hoping to make karmic points and maybe earn power sooner, Dave’s motives were pure: he just wanted to cheer those guys.

In the dark, we dished out Progresso lentil soup to burly men in work boots, vests, and helmets. They’d driven up from Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri before the storm – leaving families and safe, well-lighted, homes - to ride it out and be here, ready for the aftermath. One guy pulled out his phone and, compliments of Google Earth, showed us his house, a single story ranch far away in the woods of Alabama.

Having heard tales of frustrated, power-less customers egging workers, I asked how people had treated them. These men were southerners, mind you, gentlemen for all the scruffy beards and rough hands, and they assured me that everyone had been very nice, thank you.

I hope so.

Days ago, before Sandy’s arrival, I had placed my hands on the big o’er-hanging silver maple in our yard and praised her endurance, urging her to stand strong in the winds. Still, we had moved wall-hangings, photographs, and precious mementoes from the rooms within her reach, just in case. During the storm, as winds lashed and buffeted the trees, Dave and I hunkered down near the fireplace at the center of our house. I was exhilarated by the storm – too many thrilled viewings of The Wizard of Oz and not enough healthy fear perhaps – but I worried about the trees and woodland creatures: where would the deer and chickadees hide?

It was not until after the storm, in driving roads still dangerous with dangling limbs and lines, that I reflected on the courage of those who’d rushed out to help when the wind was roaring and snapping those trees, while we cowered inside.

Every morning when Dave heads out for his commute, I say, “Be careful, Hon.” I imagine Russ Neary’s wife said much the same thing when he ventured out into the winds and thrashing trees in response to a call. Russ, a twelve-year veteran of the Easton Volunteer Fire Department, was killed when one of those flailing trees fell and crushed his truck. Over a thousand of his fellow firefighters and hundreds of members of his community attended the funeral. Most did not know him, as he had not known them. Yet for them, he had braved the storm.

“Do you have power?” initiates most conversations. Power on, power off: the reminder of our powerless-ness when Nature’s indignation ramps to full steam. But actually, the storm has also unleashed loving kindness, the greatest power humans hold.

Outside Town Hall, youthful volunteers have distributed stacked cases of water. Robo-calls have alerted citizens to locations offering food, warmth, beds and showers. Churches, synagogues and bars –centers of fellowship all– have hosted free meals. Two weeks after the storm, when three women organized a beach-clean up in Fairfield, spreading the word through fliers, Facebook, and those churches and synagogues (maybe the bars too…), love answered a thousand-fold, with rakes, shovels, work gloves, and heart.

Last fall during Hurricane Irene, Dave and I never lost power when so many did. In our blithe life-as-usual world, we didn’t think to offer showers or meals to the power-less. I cringe to confess it, and oh, have I learned my lesson, for we have been warmed, fed, showered and illuminated by friends and family. We’ve had cozy evenings of conversation and laughter at my in-laws, and our tiny grand-niece, after three nights of singing many rounds of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the “Eensy Weensy Spider” has lost her shyness with us. I’ve been grateful for a reprieve from screens and email and relished their replacements: time together, eye contact, songs, and stories.

Stories in memories… and stories of three creatures, for Dave’s tale unfolded as the hurricane wailed on. Once the weasel and chipmunk wormed their way past tourists and guards to reach the cage of the panda, they saw that the patches were not eyes, but black fur. Still, the weasel told the bear about his theory and asked about the message in those eyes. “Sometimes they are wells of sadness,” said the panda. “But often they are wide with love…for that is life.”