Let me say this before I start: I was lucky enough not have lost anyone or anything in the storm. By talking about its gifts, I don’t intend to minimize the real suffering it has caused so many folks. My thoughts are with them. What follows is a highly subjective account of my own experience filtered through the spirit of this blog, which tries to find the creative dimension of ordinary life.
I am writing from a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side. I live in downtown Manhattan, where the power, water, and cell phone reception have been off for four days. Though as I said, I didn’t suffer actual loss, I was still put out (to say nothing of the imposition on my friend’s generosity). What seemed at first like a big inconvenience, however, turned out to be a phenomenal experience. Hurricane Sandy blew my mind.
At first, the storm barely registered on my personal radar: another overhyped media event. Okay, I was happy to have a break in the routine, and when the wind started howling, it got a little scary, but I still didn’t think much of it. It’s when the power went out that I knew we were in new territory.
How otherworldly Manhattan seemed in the dark! Eerie red flashes from speeding emergency vehicles, dancing flashlight beams, a myriad candles lighting up high-rise buildings. The most surprising thing was how soothing the darkness felt. My eyeballs loved it. Accustomed to spending most waking hours staring at various screens, they took a palpable pleasure in it.
Everything seemed fresh and immediate, even things I’d seen a thousand times. I was more awake, my senses were sharper. I felt less compelled to snack or bite my nails. I realized my eating, physical restlessness and other “bad habits” are often an expression of low-level boredom, the chronic understimulation that underlies our modern lifestyle. Since we have virtually eliminated real physical risk, since everything is easily available and works according to schedule, we rarely use our senses, physical abilities, and problem-solving skills in practical situations with real stakes. Some people get that immediacy from extreme sports; most of us buy things, snack, or hang out online. After the storm, I was amazed to discover how little I missed those things. Alone on the street or in my candlelit apartment, I felt completely alert, relaxed, and at peace.
The next morning I set out to explore downtown. I saw streets turned into strange new parks by the leafy crowns of fallen trees; people strolling leisurely, like they were out for an old-fashioned Sunday walk; capable men in safety helmets handling large pumps and vacuum tubes; and everywhere on the ground, the white squiggly outlines of dead earthworms – a whiff of biblical apocalypse.
A big “aha” moment came when I saw the damaged stores around the South Street Seaport. All these places that had been so spiffy now looked shabby. Overpriced clothes I’d craved looked like rags. Take away the fancy lighting, knock a few things off the shelves, add water – and the spell is broken! It made me realize how artificial this whole consumerist reality is, and – more depressingly – how completely swallowed up in it I usually am.
Now I’m sitting comfortably at my friend’s place on the Upper West Side, back to my usual quota of screen-staring time. When I arrived here after an epic trek, I was shocked to find that in this part of town, there wasn’t the slightest sense of the hurricane’s aftermath. Kids were out trick-or-treating, the stores were packed, the whole neighborhood buzzed with Halloween excitement. Now, two days later, my own awareness is wearing off too.
But I was given a gift. For a short time, a door was cracked open and I got a glimpse of another way of seeing, of feeling in body and mind; another way of being. Thank you, Sandy.
P.S. I’d love to hear other people’s stories of silver linings to this dark cloud. I haven’t even touched on the sense of community that sprang up after the storm. From the time I got to spend with my host friend to the many volunteers who pitched in, the gifts keep coming.