Tag Archives: recovery

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.


When the Going Gets Tough, Go Easy on Yourself

I’ve had a rough couple of months as some major bummers have rattled my faith, dashed a few hopes and driven me to big, fat tears. However unique my circumstances, I know I’m not alone. A glance at the news reveals countless people grappling with crumbling economies, joblessness, violence and bullies of all kinds as we Americans head toward a pivotal presidential election. Lately, even our peanut butter and painkillers are tainted.

Sometimes, it’s just all too much.

“People are just hunkering down and they seem to be on overload,” says a colleague in California who, like me, experienced a sharp decline in business this fall. “We just need to get this election and this 2012 thing over! In the meantime, I’m giving myself a break. My husband and I went to a lovely mountain town last weekend and I sucked it up like a dry sponge.”

A weekend in the country is one way to escape, but how else can we soothe our sagging spirits when the going gets tough? First, it helps to acknowledge our true feelings, says spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra.

“Just telling yourself to ‘be positive’ isn’t much help, because moods can have a life of their own,” he writes in a recent article, “But the most satisfying project you will ever undertake…is to discover how to build a sense of happiness that no one can take away from you…”

Fiery orange maple leaves

An infusion of joy from Mama Nature.

“Building happiness” looks different for everyone. For me today, it was making a pot of chunky vegetable soup, baking some apple crisp and photographing the luminous orange leaves outside my door. Creativity heals and boosts morale, writes poet Sharon Olds. “Writing or making anything—a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake—has self-respect in it,” she says. “You’re working. You’re trying. You’re not lying down on the ground, having given up.”

Hearing from friends about their own challenges also gives me comfort during difficult times, as does sharing my pain with those who can really listen, including God. I asked some of my friends to share what they reach for when the stuff hits the fan, and I heard about favorite TV shows that distract and songs that uplift or validate feelings. “I turn on music that makes me cry,” says one pal, while a former co-worker says “I run, with Pearl Jam on my iPod. Nobody knows my pain like Eddie (Vedder).”

Comfort foods made many people’s lists (I’ve personally cooked bushels of mashed potatoes, lately, well buttered), and a former student tells me that she has a collection of “comfort books” for tough times. “They’re not especially enlightening—Peter Wimsey mysteries, Jane Austen’s novels, a sci-fi series I love and Harry Potter,” she reports, “but re-reading them is like visiting old, well-loved friends or cousins…works to remind me of who I am and what I love and that the world can be all right.”

I give myself lots of space when I’m hurting, deliberately keeping my schedule open. One trip I do make time for is the library, which feels like a refuge of goodness and stability as the calm librarians scan my books and DVDs. Getting there via good old-fashioned walks, sans headphones, also shifts my mood by putting me outside, where nature and other people pull me out of my mental melodramas.

My sister-in-law says, “I recommend volunteering when life’s been tough. My neighbors and I just met to plan our monthly meal for the local homeless shelter, and I feel so much better realizing that my own life is so sweet.” Clearing clutter for donations is another mood-booster, since having unwanted stuff around can weigh us down psychically. One former student purges her closets and bookshelves when she’s feeling down, occasionally rewarding herself with champagne and a nice dinner. “And I must admit, I get a little buzz on, which I also enjoy,” she adds.

Yes, I’ve reached for Merlot instead of mindfulness at times to get that “What, me worry?” sensation. It’s not a good long-term strategy.

A local colleague allows herself brief pity parties when things go badly, before taking a deep breath and reaching for something better. “My absolute favorite is to pick up one of my puppy’s toys and play with him,” she says. “He’s never too tired, moody or distracted by anything other than what’s happening in the moment. I feel the joy of his spirit while we play.”

I like this idea, too, from a yogi friend. “Sometimes I just hang my head over the edge of a bed or couch,” she says. “It’s an easy way to be upside down to get blood and nutrients flowing to the brain.” I tried this and it made my head feel kind of shiny inside. Others tell me that they dance or drum to shift their energy when life disappoints.

Mira Kirshenbaum, a psychotherapist and author of Everything Happens for a Reason, writes that big events in our lives, good and bad, help us to learn, grow and renew ourselves. The trick is to trust that process when we’re in the midst of big events that feel like big heartbreaks. Perhaps learning that we can adapt and survive is enough sometimes.

Meanwhile, there’s always cinema therapy. I recently treated myself to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which one of the main characters repeats, “In India we have a saying, that everything will be all right in the end. So, if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.”

Now that’s an idea I can embrace right now.