Tag Archives: gratefulness

The Human Side of Sandy

I lived in Hoboken, NJ, for 15 years during my late ’20s and 30s. It’s a mile-square city, a so-called bedroom community to Manhattan, and the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. It was also one of the most close-knit communities I’ve ever called home, full of people who still occupy a special place in my heart.

The last time I visited Hoboken was October 2001, when I returned to empty the apartment that I’d been subletting and pull up my roots for good. I’d been away for two years, and out of the country during the attacks on the World Trade Center. As I walked around Hoboken that week, I saw dozens and dozens of “Have you seen…?” fliers with desperate, handwritten appeals and the haunting faces of those who were likely buried in the rubble of the Twin Towers. The city felt bruised, sad…and surreal.

On October 30, 2012, my heart went out to Hoboken again as I saw arresting images of flooded streets, destroyed property and stranded residents in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. When I heard Mayor Dawn Zimmer crying out for help on CNN, I started to follow the situation on TV and Facebook.

Hoboken residents share their power with those needing a place to recharge

Hoboken residents share their power

What I saw next was a different kind of surge, as the beleaguered people of this small city began sharing their precious power and resources, opening their homes to moms with kids for extended play dates and movies with snacks. People in neighboring Weehawken offered their showers, couches, spare bedrooms, kitchens and vacant apartments to complete strangers who were suddenly homeless.

The Hoboken Facebook page became a place where people posted all kinds of urgent appeals and generous offers. Kids and adults came out to clean up homes, parks, streets and businesses. There were block parties with free food and activities for kids who couldn’t go to school. People were dropping in on isolated senior citizens while making trips to donate furniture, diapers and flashlights.

And help arrived from beyond the Garden State, too, as revealed in a post that said,  “Super amazing. Heritage Academy from Monterey, TN, sent up a bus of 59 students and teachers to assist in our efforts at the High School. They were a huuuge help! Thank you!”

Across the river, New York City was grappling with its own devastation and loss. Again. Just as they did on 9/11, so many resilient New Yorkers rebounded as quickly as they could and rose to the occasion. “When something like this happens, it’s as if  you’re suddenly in a small town,” said a friend of mine in upper Manhattan. “A lot of people here are housing friends and relatives and colleagues who lost their homes. There was so much worse destruction in some places that my friends downtown say they felt lucky that they only lost power. One of them joked, ‘It’s like I’m camping, except there are no trees.'”

Making the best of tragedy is what a lot of Americans are really good at. And compassion often comes biggest from the smallest of us. In Bullitt County, Kentucky, three hundred elementary school kids mailed their Halloween candy to the children of Hoboken last week. Their teacher reported that many of these children, who themselves receive public assistance, donated all of the candy they had. “One student told me that he’d only donated ‘the good stuff,'” she added.

That candy was distributed at yesterday’s Ragamuffin Parade, Hoboken’s annual Halloween event for kids and kids-at-heart that was delayed, but not destroyed, by Sandy.

Two weeks after this massive storm, too many people in New York and New Jersey are still without power. Thousands have lost everything they owned, and more than a hundred people lost their lives. I have officially closed down my personal complaint department for 2012, as I’m reminded every day to feel grateful my home, heat, electricity, running water and abundant food and clothing. For those of us who were unscathed by Sandy, Thanksgiving is a month-long celebration this year, and a chance to remember and help those who were not so lucky.

 

Gratitude is Not Just a Nice Attitude

About fifteen years ago I was driving solo along the highways of New Mexico with some books on tape to keep me company. The most memorable of these was Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, a self-help classic by Susan Jeffers. Among other good recommendations, Jeffers suggested that I take time every night to write down 50 things for which I was grateful.

“Did she say 50?!” I exclaimed, rewinding the cassette. Yup, she said 50. Because it’s not really about the list.

In order to create a 50-item gratitude list each night, you have to spend your days looking for things to write down. Today my items will include: the surprise of a monarch butterfly in my garden, finding Ben and Jerry’s on sale at Whole Foods, the shy smile of a toddler in the checkout line, my favorite Joni Mitchell song on the radio and that email from a soul friend full of just the right words. That’s 5 down, 45 to go. And so I’ll mentally note more to appreciate as the day goes on.

Sometimes the things that make my list reflect what did not happen that day, like a near miss on the expressway, the car repair that wasn’t needed after all, or the fact that my air conditioner worked on a 98-degree day when residents elsewhere were suffering a blackout and losing their cool. When I turn on the tap water, I’m grateful that I don’t live in a town plagued by drought. When my wheelchair-bound neighbor calls me for help with small tasks, I’m reminded to appreciate my legs. And because Thich Nhat Hanh once said something like “Be grateful for the non-toothache,” I try to remember to give thanks when a pain or illness has disappeared. It’s easy to be miserable when I’m suffering and forgetful when I’m well.

What Jeffers is up to with this list thing is getting us to flip our internal scripts from a running monologue of criticism and complaining (and their close friends “poor me” and “life sucks”) to one of appreciation and even wonder for the what we have and what is given to us. Research shows that gratitude boosts mental and physical health, and I find that it assuages loneliness, too. When I feel as if life is serving me up a bounty of blessings, I feel “companioned” by a benevolent force.

“So often what blocks people from their greater potential is that they don’t appreciate what they have so far,” says spiritual teacher Carolyn Myss. I think that’s because a focus on lack is akin to wearing super dark shades all the time. We won’t even recognize our good if we’re clouded with negativity, and we sure won’t be motivated to strive for better. Think about a closed fist versus an upturned palm – which is more likely to receive?

Author and astrologer Rob Brezsny takes the concept a little further in his book Pronoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. Brezsny explains that pronoia is the antidote for paranoia and “a mode of training your senses and intellect so you’re able to perceive the fact that life always gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.”

Sometimes it takes me awhile to see that life is giving me what I need when it’s not giving me what I want. That’s when I have to flip into “Well, it could’ve been worse,” or “I guess there’s something I’m meant to learn here.” Believe me, I don’t go from angry to accepting in 60 seconds, but I do find that life is just gentler when I reach for things to appreciate in difficult times.

“Gratitude is a real practice in my mind, as valid as yoga or Zen meditation or Sufi dancing,” says Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, adding that it begins with a sense of surprise for all that is given, rather than an air of entitlement. “It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us joyful,” he says.

Speaking of joy, I invite you to spend ten minutes watching Loius Schwartzberg and his gorgeous film about the power of gratitude. Then, in the words of German theologian Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

Thank you. I’m grateful for your readership.