Friday, January 3, 2014

In Case of Emergency

“If there’s a fire, I want you all to lose your shit and just totally freak out!” said the fantastic emcee at The Slutcracker a few weeks ago. “And then, I want you to pull your shit together, and get out of here and make sure everyone else gets out of here too. Because sluts[1] take care of each other!”

It was, without a doubt, the best safety message I have ever heard. Usually they just say:"remain calm and make for the nearest exit.” If a building is burning around me, I am highly unlikely to remain beatifically calm. I am actually quite good in crises—I can triage and prioritize and cope and problem solve with the best of them—but there will be at least a few seconds of freaking out. Even if it’s just deep on the inside where I’m panicking.

No one has ever given me permission to freak my shit in a potential crisis before. Or at least, that primary reaction has never before been acknowledged and accepted as part of the show. And I’ve been trained in emergency medical response. But the words go deeper than just funny permissiveness—part two of the instruction acknowledges that even slutty chickens who lose their heads can get it back together and become capable heroes, keeping calm and carrying on.

Recently, I was utterly awed by the ways in which people respond to the real and potential minor crises of living. I thought back to The Slutcracker safety debriefing[2], and how it’s a much more realistic and viable approach to any emergency.

Some friends and I hiked up one of my favorite trails a few days before New Years. It was snowy and beautiful, and as soon as we came above treeline, everyone was ecstatic, and freezing cold. The wind seemed to come from almost everywhere and the blowing snow found its way into the gaps between mittens and scarves and hands and faces. There was a good slick of ice under the snow, and even with foot traction, there were some slips and slides along the trail. Coming up the last bit towards Mount Jackson was particularly exciting—the wind had picked up and was blowing sharp icy wind into our faces, making it hard to keep an eye on where the trail actually went along the fairly bald summit. Being buffeted by wind, not fully trusting if it would be rock or ice underfoot, and only having a vague summer memory of where the summit and the trail went, I was starting to edge into “lose your shit” territory.[3]

Fortunately, my friends are among the greatest and most capable and trustworthy people on earth. I do not mind to be afraid with them. And it turned out that we were all freaking out a little, or at the very least, recognizing that we were in conditions that could get bad pretty quickly. So we huddled together, talked it over, and made a plan to turn around if we didn’t find the new trail in two minutes.

When we stood up, the trail sign and a little cairn were ten feet away.

We hiked down, giddy for a bit with how raw and awesome and utterly gorgeous it had been in the wind, and how relieved we were to have not gone on blindly without talking to each other.

The next day, my sister, a friend and I all got stymied by the deep and falling snow on an unplowed dirt road, trying to get to my sister’s home. When this became truly and obviously impossible, we ran inside, gathered a few things for the night, and drove to another friend’s house. Only one car got lodged in a snowbank, but we managed to push it out without breaking either backs or engines. I came away from the whole experience with a buoyed faith in the practical power of capability in trumping perceived emergencies.

I cannot say enough how beautiful I find capability. The grit and grace of knowing, or of determining what needs to be done with a minimum of dithering and a maximum of daring to believe in a solution, and then executing the task at hand with both joyful confidence and grinning, grim practicality—this is how we respond to the changes of the world. And it is unparalleled joy to find yourself able in such times. Your car is in the snowbank? We’ll push like Sisyphus for you. Your way is unplowed? Come to my house. The trail is unseen? Duck down, come together, and make a plan. Lost your hope in the melee? Borrow mine and we'll look for yours together.

We’ll do well to let go of any expectation of the world remaining the same. We’ll do better, we’ll do best, to instead trust in the ever increasing constancy of our various capabilities. And to surround ourselves with a diversity of talents. This will mean admitting fear and turning back, rather than steaming forward as expected. This will mean work and discomfort and best laid plans going far awry. This will also mean unexpected delight and comfort and adventure as we go along.

I try not to think too much about the particulars of the impending crises of the world, or the ones that are already lapping at our doorsteps. I get mired in the darkness so deep I cannot contemplate a solution that is possible. But the news is daily, hourly, minutely blaring emergency warnings at us all. It is very scary, so we don’t like to talk about it. It is overwhelming and no one has the answer[4]. What no one is saying is: “In case of fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake, civil war, famine, plague, blizzard, locusts, all engulfing economic disparity, corporate ownership of government, mass and minor extinctions, and/or any of the unspecified multitudes of scourges upon the world you so love, PLEASE FREAK OUT! And then, when you’re done, pull yourself together and let’s help each other through this thing.”

Personally, I’m nearing the end of how much I either can or need to freak out. I admit that I’m scared, that I’m not sure where the emergency exits or survival gear or carbon emission extinguishers are as we’re stumbling around in the darkness. But, I know that everyone is more capable and resilient than we’re usually given credit for, that we’re all a little bit the lost kitten in a tree and a little bit the fireman. I think we all need to both be rescued and to rescue. Being freaked out, this doesn’t mean that you cannot be, that you are not already a brave and capable member of the Save the World Club.

If anything, admitting you’re freaked out is your membership card.


[1] “Slut” was here being used as a term of ultimate endearment, recognizing and applauding the audience for joyfully venturing out of normalized boundaries. The Slutcracker is, after all, a burlesque show that tweaks a Christmas tradition into a celebration of human bodies enjoying the heck out of themselves and each other.
[2] Pun entirely intended.
[3] And yet, under the minor key freak-out mode there is often the sweetest sense of ecstasy for being alive in such a situation. I love to feel small and humble and mortal at times and a little mountain snow storm can be a beautiful answer to that hunger.
[4] To the best of my knowledge, there is no single answer. No one, not even Bill McKibben or the Pope, can tell us one true solution to make it all right again. The best we’ve got—and I do believe it is the best—is for everyone to share the potluck of what they’re doing and what they’d like to see. We can all pick and chose and learn what works—bring what you can and eat what you’d like!

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