Like many people in the greater New York area, I am preparing for Irene. I was up early cleaning and tidying up and doing laundry—the prospect of power outages lasting for days and flooding and apocalypse makes a person want to start out as clean and neat as possible. A few days from now, I might be cooking beans and smoked sausages over a fire bowl in the yard, wearing rubber boots. We just don’t know, and that’s a very interesting place to be. My daughter’s boyfriend is visiting from England—first trip to New York–and in less than a week he will have experienced an earthquake and a hurricane. We like to show our out-of-town guests a really interesting time.
We’ve been talking about solitude and community in this space, about what times or conditions allow us to feel fully alive and aware—that can even sometimes allow us to resonate with a sense of the Whole. As I was bustling around making preparations this morning, I thought of all the other people up and down the I-95 corridor who were doing something similar. I thought of those haunting reports of the animals fleeing the tsunami before it came, relying on some mysterious ability to sense or feel that we have lost or never had. Stunted as we are compared to them, however, situations like this do awaken a bit more presence. Preparing for basic survival, storing water, stacking firewood, will do that.
One thing that can be said about a hurricane isthat you know you aren’t in it alone. You feel connected to not just to the people facing this storm now, but to people in all times who have faced storms, who have faced the unknown. Times like these are really interesting opportunities to watch the mind. We think we know how to prepare as well as we can and then let go and let God as they say. But we really actually tend to think ahead and try to control outcomes–try to think our way past things–all the time. We can’t help it. We are story-spinning creatures, and we want things to turn out well. While we’re waiting and while we still have power, let me tell you a little story about this.
When my daughter Alexandra was four or five years old (she is now 21 and thinks I’m making too big a deal about the hurricane), we lived in Brooklyn, and it was the custom to put things out on the street for others to take (as it is in many places). When Alex outgrew her little bicycle with training wheels, I encouraged her to give it away. She made a sign that said “Free bike! Please enjoy” in purple crayon, and we taped it to the bike and carried the down the wide steps of the brownstone one last time and set in near the curb. It felt so freeing for both of us to leave it sitting there in all its sparkly purple glory, no lock and chain. I told her that giving things away can be as wonderful as receiving. I told her that the universe works in mysterious ways and that giving actually gives us something in return.
The next morning she clamored down the ladder of her loft bed and ran to the big living room windows that overlooked the street. “The bike is gone!” She exclaimed with a smile I associated with Christmas morning. I told her that was wonderful, and we beamed at each other. “Now when do I get something back?” she asked.
Most of us are like this. We move from hope to hope, from fear to fear. This is perfectly natural. We want to be safe and happy. Many of us are good-hearted human beings who other beings to be want to be safe and happy. But we really need to open up what we take real happiness to be. The Middle English root of the word “happiness” is “happ,” which means fortune, chance, happenstance, what happens. In virtually every Indo-European language the root is the same. It is built into the language and perhaps our genes to equate happiness with what happens to us.
Yet no matter how well you plan or how privileged you are, things happen that are outside your control. There really is no higher ground, no absolutely safe place to stand. My dear departed mother always told me to remember that no matter how rough a hurricane is (and my mother lost a house and a beach-side condo in a hurricane one year) it is always the poorest among us always suffer most: “They don’t have much to start with and then they lose that.” (When I asked my mother if she didn’t mind losing so much herself she said she could stay in my sister’s nice house while she rebuilt. “And I’m too old to cry over things.”)
And yet we are all subject to the same forces. The ground is moving under all our feet. Without denying the reality of injustice (even in this storm some will suffer far more than others–and may all be safe and well), I’m beginning to realize that the only real source of security and happiness we have is touching the earth of our common human experience. There is no escape from our common human situation; there is only healing, only helping, only grace. There is only participation.
Blessed are those who know they have no answers, who have empty hands, for they may be given something—including something practical to do to help others. There is a light inside each of us that doesn’t depend on outside circumstances. We don’t tend to notice it when things are going well. It can seem like little more than a faint glow, which may be why it is most visible in a state of inner stillness or in the midst of widespread power outages. A person wouldn’t notice a night light in full sun, would they? But a small light can illuminate the darkness (as many of us in the I-95 corridor will soon know).
Certain kinds of suffering, including waiting and uncertainty, can give you the feeling of resonating with the Whole, with other beings and with the earth itself. These situations also have a surprising intimacy about them, a kind of open solitude. They help you touch another source of understanding and intention, something deeper than our ordinary self-centered and socially conditioned minds. As tiny and undeveloped as it may sometimes seem, there is in each of us (or most of us) a deep wish to be part of life and a capacity to resonate with it, to understand. Remember what has come to life in you at times when there was an emergency, times when you had to “snap out of it.”
Smirti in Sanskrit, sati in Pali, and Drengpa in Tibetan. All these words mean to remember. They point towards a kind of understanding that isn’t thought up in the head but lived through (stood under, like standing in the rain and letting it soak in). This kind of remembering means to “re-member” or “re-collect” and it means having the head and heart and body all in alignment, all present and participating together. To have real presence means remember what it means to be fully human. It means gaining the power that comes with coming out of our isolation and joining the whole human race. This seems a pretty good way to prepare for a hurricane. Although it’s good to have batteries and drinking water and a few other things as well.
Wish us luck! I’ll let you know how it goes.