Sandy Hits New York

It’s the morning after Hurricane Sandy hit New York and its surrounding areas.  The Jersey shore, Long Island and all city coastal areas have been badly affected.  All city mass transit is shut down and is in shambles.  The subways flooded causing long-term damage.  Only the Lincoln Tunnel is open, so with virtually no access into or out of Manhattan, it’s a surreal scene of empty streets.  A giant crane seventy-five stories up at a construction site on 57th Street snapped with a large portion dangerously dangling above the street, necessitating the evacuation of a few fancy hotels. More severely, NYU Medical Center lost power and had to move many very ill patients to other city hospitals. Miraculously everyone survived.  The Hebrew Home in Riverdale immediately took over two hundred patients.  Hundreds of tourists are on the streets wondering what to do or where to find an open restaurant.

I am unaffected in a hotel on 31st Street.  No Internet but that’s a very minor problem compared to thousands of others.  What we’re seeing here gives me pause thinking about what happened in Japan a year and a half ago.  Despite local tragedies here, there is no comparison.

Too often we indulge in self-inflicted negative thinking.  This or that is wrong with our lives; we’re in pain; we’re feeling victimized, unwanted and unloved. We believe we have no hope for a future filled with security and happiness.  I’ve been in this place.

W. G. Sebald wrote in a poem:

If you knew every cranny

of my heart

you would yet be ignorant

of the pain my happy

memories bring.

Then, we see true hardship inflicted on thousands and our own problems naturally pale.  These are moments in our lives.  The challenge is maintaining perspective.

Where do we find solace?  The perceived wisdom is to stay in the present.  Focus on today; do not regret or dwell in the past; don’t project future outcomes outside of our control.  For most of us this demands constant discipline.  Even those who practice meditation find such focus difficult.  I have a close friend who’s now in his third year at Tassajara, the Zen Buddhist monastery in the mountains beyond Carmel Valley. He says when thoughts come flying into your consciousness, think of them as tennis balls and gently lob them out of your head.  It’s a helpful metaphor.

Memory is a double-edged sword.  We choose to remember selectively from our mental libraries.  As much as we may try, we can never not remember.  Losing one’s memory is a tragic illness.  “What would we be without memory,” wrote the Marquis de Chateaubriand in his memoires.  He wrote this while remembering great unhappiness in his life.  I think we tend to remember painful times more than happy times.  Again, we may call this an act of will.  To regret the past is an addiction to misery.  I’ve suffered from this addition.  And I have realized that like all addictions, with commitment and the support of friends and family, this addiction, too, can be overcome.  Another act of action and will.

I’ve been thinking of times when I’ve been completely, absolutely happy.  Too often these times have been projected against a bittersweet background, but true and happy in themselves nevertheless.

My four years at Bowdoin were happy years.  I have happy memories of Ireland.  The birth of my three sons.  Seeing my sons prosper and grow.  Watching my son David become a father, the joy he experienced.  Falling in love for the first time, late though that came.  The pleasure literature has always given me.  Swimming.  The joys of travel.

I wrote before of a pilgrimage I made to Roncesvalles in Spain.  It was a romantic idea, akin to visiting the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.  It was a very happy journey. I set out from Barcelona alone having enough time to stray from a direct route.  I stopped for a night in Zaragoza, the regional capital of Aragon; I visited the monastery of San Salvador de Leyre in northern Navarre, one of the most important religious sites in Spain, from 842.

I arrived in Roncesvalles in late afternoon.  The light was beginning to fade as I approached the ancient battlefield, now green and empty.  The low mountains beyond were already dark and misted.  I imagined the great battle there.  Charlemagne defeated in 778.  I had brought along a copy of La Chanson de Roland and read the scene in French when Roland was killed.  This all stood before me as an imagined memory—and seems silly now.

I stayed the night at a small local inn, where I was the only guest.  The proprietress eyed me suspiciously.  I ate alone in the dining room, which for some reason was cold and dark. There was no menu but course after course of wonderful local food was set down on the table.  I remember the waiter slicing thick cuts of jamon de serrano directly from the cured thigh. I had wild quail. It’s curious that I remember this.  It wasn’t an auspicious event.

It wasn’t an auspicious event but I’m a lucky man to have had it.  Many happy memories have no meaning at all beyond that they happened.  Some memories of time and place are heighted when we share them with someone we love.  I’ve had that experience with my sons, with a few friends and with the woman I loved:  Japan, London at night, Tassajara, Russian Hill. The deep regret Chateaubriand wrote of was born from memories of love lost.  Those happy memories are also lost, transformed to a different experience.  To paraphrase Heraclitus, the memory we remember is not the event we experienced.  It changes. It can change many times until it bears no resemblance to that original time.

The memory of this hurricane in New York will change soon enough.  Some memories stay with us forever. My memory of standing in the middle of 23rd Street on 9/11 watching the World Trade Center burn and collapse will never ever fade.  I remember being in a 5th grade math class when the announcement Kennedy had been assassinated was broadcast over the school’s PA system.  I can see the space shuttle Challenger exploding high in the sky on my TV.  Life events.

My grandfather fought in the trenches at Verdun and on rare occasions he was willing to talk about that experience.  He said he remembered it as though it happened yesterday.  He hated the memory.  His wife, my grandmother, remembered looking out at the black and unwelcoming sea when she crossed the Atlantic from Germany as a child to begin a new life with her family in America.

Maybe because they are far back in our pasts, early memories, though few, stand out more in significance.  I wonder what new memories I’ll collect in the years ahead.  How many more years will there be?  I joke with my boys that a bus could hit me at any time, though really it’s not about a bus.  It’s about the future.

It’s late afternoon here in New York and looking over to the West Side from my hotel there are no lights and almost no traffic.  Eerie.  The Korean restaurants on 32nd Street are packed being the only ones open. I wonder why they’re open and no others are?  Last night, when all of lower Manhattan was in darkness, and NYU Hospital was frantically evacuating patients to hospitals with power, the lights in the Goldman Sachs building were shining.  Should they ever know—which they won’t—I wonder if the 47% segment of the Republicans, which irrationally makes up the party’s base, sees any irony in this?  Or in the fact that Mitt Romney has said he will eliminate FEMA, when FEMA is needed so desperately.  Even Republican Governor Christie of storm ravaged New Jersey praised the President for eliminating FEMA”s red tape to provide aid quickly.  Aid he might never get if Romney becomes president.

New York will survive; the Jersey shore will be rebuilt.  There will be some who will remember what they lost in the storm, but most will forget.  It’s always the way.

October 30, 2012

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