Irene Lessons

In the wake of Irene, we lost power for four days.   For days, I collected sticks in the yard to burn as kindling in the wood stove, and hauled buckets of water into the house to flush the toilet and wash the dishes.   It was strange, being so cut off in one sense yet feeling so intimately connected with life and with the way much of the rest of the world lives.   Instantly, I was aware of how precious clean water is, and how much I usually waste.  Suddenly, I became aware that a house grows dark and cold at night without someone to build a fire and tend it.  I became the fire builder, the keeper of the hearth.  Anthony, my daughter Alex’s boyfriend from England, cooked food on the cast iron stove.  We all learned how long it takes to cook over a fire—hours!  And yet this was the center of the evening, the light and warmth from the fire, the promise of warm food, the common talk of how it was coming along, and then storieswe told as we ate.  We all learned what is elemental and crucial, and that these basic things can be hard work, yet there is something inherently good and right about it.  All beings deserve to eat and be warm and safe, and being mindfully engaged in this work can bring wisdom about life.  (For starters, a couple of highly educated young people here learned a little something about what it takes to build a good fire).

As the third day dawned to no hot coffee or tea (unless I got up and built a fire and waited for three hours), it began to feel like an ordeal.  Alex was sick with a bad cold, our water supply was almost exhausted–and I discovered that those little moments of good humor—that impulse to forget ourselves and help someone else are as crucial fire.   On the third night, as I was struggling to light a fire with damp kindling, the neighbors came by with big pales of fresh water:  “We wanted to give you the gift of being able to flush the toilet,” they said.

Another neighbor came by and asked from my email address so she could forward updates about the progress of repairs and availability of water to my iPhone.  I saw how technology can help in crucial and elemental ways.  I also marveled at the way this common humanity–this pulling together–just arose spontaneously.  We innately know we can’t go it alone.  We neighbors who rarely have the chance to stop and talk stood outside together laughing and talking.  We even looked up at the stars that we commented were so clear without ambient lights…and…

And we marveled together at the roar of some of our other neighbors’ gas generators!  “It sounds like a carnival!” said one woman.  And it did!  It sounded like the county fair, with all the motors that power ferris wheels and who-knows-what—and all of that sound and all of the gas that went into it to keep their refrigerators pumping and the ice cream frozen and the laptops charged.   “This whole experience would have a different quality without that din,” she said. And I’m not pretending to be Thoreau.  I took several long drives (dodging downed power lines and trees!) to charge my laptop and  iPhone at a friend’s house and take a shower.  And yet, I came away from this experience knowing body, heart, and mind that we don’t need to use as much energy  as we think.  I glimpsed how life can actually be richer and better with less.

When the power came on (bringing a blessed silence), I took a long hot shower, realizing moment by moment what a pleasure and luxury it is to have such a thing.  I wondered how long I would remember to be aware of this. I washed dishes and cleaned for hours, experiencing it as a luxury, aware that by the standards of history and the world today, I am very privileged.  Alex and her boyfriend left the house to go shopping for college (street lights! No danger of fallen trees and wires and flooding in the dark!)  And when they came home the house was bright and cheerful.   Instead of gathering around the fire, they took to their laptops, and I took to my bed for a bit of CNN and a book.  Witnessing ravaged areas here and abroad, I felt blessed.

May I remember what I learned about the preciousness of water and warmth and helping our neighbors. May I not use technology to go numb.

14 thoughts on “Irene Lessons

  1. Hi Tracy

    I’m glad you endured Irene without serious problems. I shudder at the devastation I’ve seen on television.

    Your account suggests a problem I’m trying to better understand and to eventually participate in efforts to help others become aware of it.

    The problem is “fragmentation.” You were better able to experience life as a continuum when you lost power. Once it returned you seemed to be pulled back into fragmentation where we focus on parts as we lose the whole.

    Dr. Basarab Nicolescu is doing exceptional things to help us to psychologically deal with the psychological effects of fragmentation. His Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity explains the deficiencies of binary logic for appreciating wholeness.

    You seemed to experience the “wholeness,” the more conscious continuum of the day from a perspective that had not been fragmented due to habitual behavioral patterns.

    After reading Nicolescu’s Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, it is hard to imagine how any thinking person could retreat to the old, safe, comfortable conceptual framework. Taking a series of ideas that would be extremely thought-provoking even when considered one by one, the Romanian quantum physicist Basarab Nicolescu weaves them together in a stunning vision, this manifesto of the twenty-first century, so that they emerge as a shimmering, profoundly radical whole.

    Nicolescu’s raison d’être is to help develop people’s consciousness by means of showing them how to approach things in terms of what he calls “transdisciplinarity.” He seeks to address head on the problem of fragmentation that plagues contemporary life. Nicolescu maintains that binary logic, the logic underlying most all of our social, economic, and political institutions, is not sufficient to encompass or address all human situations. His thinking aids in the unification of the scientific culture and the sacred, something which increasing numbers of persons, will find to be an enormous help, among them wholistic health practitioners seeking to promote the understanding of illness as something arising from the interwoven fabric—body, plus mind, plus spirit—that constitutes the whole human being, and academics frustrated by the increasing pressure to produce only so-called “value-free” material.

    Transdisciplinarity “concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline,” and its aim is the unity of knowledge together with the unity of our being: “Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.” (44) Nicolescu points out the danger of self-destruction caused by modernism and increased technologization and offers alternative ways of approaching them, using a transdisciplinary approach that propels us beyond the either/or thinking that gave rise to the antagonisms that produced the problems in the first place. The logic of the included middle permits “this duality [to be] transgressed by the open unity that encompasses both the universe and the human being.” (56). Thus, approaching problems in a transdisciplinary way enables one to move beyond dichotomized thinking, into the space that lies beyond.
    Obviously we are not ready to culturally accept this point of view. We are too caught up in the idolatry of technology. Yet for those that experience what happens to us through fragmentation by either voluntarily or being forced to experience in a new way, it does seem to benefit anyone seriously concerned with acquiring a more human perspective. You suffered but hopefully profited from it.

    As Gurdjieff said: “A stick has two ends.”

    1. Hi Nick,

      Thanks for this. I agree, I believe I did experience how life could be a continuum at moments–that a task could involve the whole of a person if it was done mindfully. Indeed, as I showed my daughter’s boyfriend how to build a fire–how to build it up and give the wood enough oxygen, etc.–I was marveling because he is going to get a PhD in theoretical physics at Princeton, and here I was showing him about really basic elements. I came away interested in investigating those moments of wholeness that appear–even with the lights on and water running. I will read the link wth interest.

  2. Loved reading this reflection, Tracy. We had a similar experience here for days, from a lesser storm–it is such a profound teaching about our ‘way of life’ that we assume is necessary and turns out to be an impediment in many ways to real intimacy with ourselves, others, the planet. I was glad when the power returned, the downed trees removed from roads, and the chainsaws finally quieted. “Normal’ again. But that simplicity and cameraderie during our ‘abnormal’ time–‘a stick has two ends.’


    1. Hi Joyce, Thank you for your reflection. I have the same question, how can we have that intimacy with others and with the planet with the lights on. I wonder if Mother Nature is giving us more chances because we have gotten so far away…..

  3. Thanks for this Tracy. Some great insights. I’m writing a sermon for my church in Maine about lessons learned from Irene. Could I quote some of what you said, giving context and attribution?

  4. The day after Irene, my son and I took a walk through town. Our town had experienced flooding during the storm but the next day, the waters had receded. So, we walked. It was a beautiful day and the air smelled really clean like the whole earth had taken a shower. But as we were walking, we began to realize that though we had been spared, many had not. Storefronts were desperately trying to save their merchandise as power had gone out. People were standing in long lines by the train station waiting for dry ice. Heavy industrial fans were everywhere desperately trying to dry floors and basements. We had gotten lucky but others were suffering.

    Life is alot like that. Sometimes you are spared and sometimes you are not. I think for myself that is the foundation of compassion; that realization that the wheel of life is a bit like a roulette wheel and sometimes you are the happy high roller and sometimes you are crying at the bar. The realization that a portion of our lives can be quite arbitrary makes me have compassion. For as I was told as a child, there but for fortune go I. It sort of takes the big ego out of things and reminds you that if Ozymandias, the king of poems, could be buried in the sand, then so can we all. So, I offered what I could to others and was grateful for what I had. And I knew that the next storm, I might be the one waiting on that long line for dry ice and that the day after the storm might feel very different for me.

    “Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.” ~ Mason Cooley

      1. Glad you liked it. Your reflections made the piece authentic to the situation. Much appreciated!

  5. I love your blog, Tracy, as usual, and all the comments.
    As I was reading, I was struck by the thought that while I live near Chicago and didn’t experience Irene there are many “storms” in all of our lives at one time or another.
    We can all benefit from help from our neighbors, and yes, while we see the concrete benefit of arms, hands, and hearts reaching out at times of duress, I think the message is clear in Tracy’s last words as well as Elizabeth’s quote. Tracy’s…
    “May I remember what I learned about the preciousness of water and warmth and helping our neighbors. May I not use technology to go numb.”
    And Elizabeth’s ““Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.” ~ Mason Cooley
    I think the lesson to be learned is that we never know what “storm” someone is going through, so always try to be compassionate and forgiving as well.
    Peace, everyone!

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