Spirit Week

by Joanie Butman

How apropos following last week’s blog, to witness the true meaning of Spirit Week. Watching the victims and responders after Hurricane Sandy’s earth-shattering visit has been yet another testimony to the strength and resiliency of the human spirit.

“I love a good storm!” Those were the last words I said to my anxious friend before we went off the grid last week. You can imagine my overwhelming remorse when I woke the next morning to behold the devastation Hurricane Sandy left in its wake. My guilt was amplified by the fact that we survived relatively unscathed.

Still, I can’t deny the truth of my statement. There is something that appeals to me about being tucked in by the fire wearing my ‘lazy pants’ with a stack of wood and good books while the storm rages outside. There is also a certain mesmerizing awe that the sheer power and majesty of nature evokes.

Then there is the dawn of a new day that holds its own kind of beauty. Rushing out at first light to assess the damage and meeting neighbors I barely see and some I’ve never met, despite the fact that I have lived here for fifteen years now. Being engulfed by gratitude that despite incredible damage to properties all over town, it could have been so much worse as seen in New Jersey, Long Island, Staten Island and Manhattan. We were the lucky ones. The sun was shining through the still magnificent fall foliage, and there was an elegant blue heron standing regal and peaceful in the pond in front of our house – the epitome of grace and stillness amongst the wreckage.

The positive aspect of any kind of storm is that it brings out the best of humanity. The universal command "Love Thy Neighbor" comes alive as it is put into action. For a moment in time, our suffering unites us as neighbors, near and far, reach out in love to offer comfort and relief in a myriad of ways – people generously opening their hands, their hearts, their homes and their wallets to provide much needed assistance. It’s a beautiful sight to behold and restores your faith in mankind.

Though there was enormous property damage in our town, I have not heard of any injuries or deaths caused by the storm. Because we are not by the water, loss of power, phone, internet, cell service, and tree damage seemed to be the extent of our troubles. Then again, being off the grid brings its own blessings. We were spared the barrage of obnoxious, political phone calls that surely would have been relentless the week before the election. Trees large enough to crush a house and anyone in it, fell everywhere bringing down wires and falling within inches of homes or even brushing them; but for the most part, our town was spared the catastrophic wreckage that you see on the news. 

Without power, phone or internet, and a majority of roads impassable, the pace of life comes to a screeching halt. It is a return to a simpler existence without the distractions of electronics and busy schedules. I actually spotted my 16-yr-old son and his friend playing Boggle, which they rediscovered under a layer of dust in the long-neglected game cupboard. Forgotten pastimes were resurrected; even overdue household chores were tended to without any available excuses to procrastinate. We enjoyed an impromptu dinner with neighbors who did not have the luxury of a generator, sharing stories and laughter at a relaxed pace that normally would have taken weeks if not months to schedule. 

Aside from our coffee machine, our generator has got to be our most prized possession. We installed it shortly after moving here from the city when we realized even a strong sneeze precipitated a loss of power in this area. And it usually happened with a house full of guests. For those of you not on well water, that translates to no water - including toilets. Showers you can do without; lack of toilets is another challenge altogether.

The decision to install a generator (considered extravagant by stoic New Englanders) turned out to be one of the wisest investments we ever made. Nevertheless, the generator is only good as long as it has propane, and getting fuel delivered during an emergency would take an act of God. I don’t even bother trying to call anymore, as I discovered that chasing the truck and offering the driver $50 is faster and more effective. As an interesting aside, last year my friend shared what she claims is a well-known fact but was news to me. She explained that women of a certain age need not worry so much about their appearance because in our society, middle-aged women are invisible. HA! Not when you’re waving a $50 bill out the car window with a crazed look in your eye!!

That reminds me of another lesson I learned years ago during a particularly challenging year as the homeowner of an old house (definitely a love-hate relationship). It was during what I not-so-fondly remember as our Whack-a-Mole season. We would just about finish fixing one major house issue when another would pop up that needed immediate attention. I was complaining to a friend how I wanted to get rid of this money pit and move back to an apartment in the city when she interrupted my boring tirade. “If you have a problem that money can fix and you have the funds to do it, you don’t have a problem; you have an inconvenience.” I have never forgotten her gentle reprimand. It made me stop, reevaluate and choose to view my inconveniences with appreciation that we were blessed not only to have a house to fix but also to have the means to do it. Shame on me.

In light of this storm when the losses of so many are unfixable and many more that though replaceable, lack the means to do so, it would be impossible to feel anything other than enormous gratitude for being spared such tragedy.

On the other hand, the longer the situation goes on, the more people’s characters are revealed. The initial shock wears off as the harsh reality begins to set in. Tempers flare, road rage ensues, fights erupt as people scramble for necessities in short supply and deal with challenges like lack of fuel, food, water, shelter or transportation. In addition, there will always be those who try to capitalize on someone else’s misery. Just as storms bring out the best in most people, there is a small percentage where the opposite holds true. Looting or price gouging for products and services in high demand is not the norm, but it happens. Those that choose to operate that kind of business will profit temporarily because they have a captive audience without much alternative. However, people don’t forget or forgive that kind of behavior. It will hurt them in the long run as bad choices tend to do.

As for me, I’d like to thank and applaud the men and women who chose to work night and day (and continue to do so) on behalf of the victims of Hurricane Sandy to restore power and provide emergency relief. One of the truck crews working on our street came up from Georgia to help out, and I heard about others from as far away as Kentucky, Missouri and Texas.

A good storm is probably an oxymoron, but a good recovery is an example of humanity at its finest. The themes of this kind of Spirit Week are ones we can all embrace: love, patience, kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, courage, strength, endurance and resiliency, just to name a few. Far better to clone these…than Dolly the sheep.

As I write this on Wednesday, I just learned another storm is heading our way tonight. Better stack some wood and go track down my propane buddy.

I will leave you with this thought. I think the answer to the age-old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was answered definitively last week with a resounding “YES!”

Amen to that.