Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Socks and Underwear, Perspective and Solutions

A man I met in Biloxi, Mississippi in 2005 told me, gravely, that in times of disaster, people always needed more socks and underwear, that those little things did more than anything else to “make a body feel human again.” I thought of him this morning with my nose prickling and my fists clenching as I read news and saw photos of damaging tornados and floods.

Hurricane Katrina was eight and a half years ago. The puppy I adopted down there now eats senior citizen dog food and naps a lot. But, in some ways, time doesn't seem to have passed at all. I hear a lot about disaster preparedness, but not as much about prevention. I’ve tried on and off and with moderate success to talk and write about what I experienced for the few months I worked with Hands On Disaster Relief in Biloxi. Once, in grad school, my attempt came back marked with the comments that “you don’t seem to have reflective distance on this yet.”

I doubt I ever will. Reflective distance seems to imply that I should have come to some sort of peace and perspective about disasters, that I should be able to get beyond the horror and find the silver linings, the lessons, that it is time, past time, to pack up the pieces of my broken heart and carry on. Until these disasters stop, I’m not going to have reflective distance and my perspective on the impacts and truth of climate change will always be more passionate than scientific. Knowing the causes of such events, knowing my role in these causes, peace is hard to come by.

The news today is full of tornados and flooding in the South, along the Gulf Coast. Washed out roads, flattened houses, debris that were treasures all scattered to the winds, carried away on strange currents. I find myself just as passionate angry and afraid as I ever have been—like all disaster footage, these seem like just another replay of stock photos of disasters.

We’re seeing these images more and more often, as our confused lifestyles exacerbate natural cycles and systems. Lost coastlines, fracking-caused earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes, temperatures that vary like a demon is playing roulette, floods and droughts in disparate lands as if the water got lost like airline luggage…all of these images and news stories have become as ubiquitous and ignored as the wars and military operations that we are—as a country if not as individuals—engaged in. I’m almost more appalled by our cultural coma about these horrors as the reality of the horrors themselves.

I’m pretty sure that to the people who have lost their houses, who cannot find their loved ones, that this is all too real, like a nightmare with no dawn.

Here is a piece of my journal from my time in Biloxi: “I am taking a break from the real world where you can change your socks and underwear, where your food comes from the grocery store, if not your garden, not from the Salvation Army truck touring your neighborhood three times a day…Hands On has been concentrating their efforts in East Biloxi, Mississippi, where an alternate reality has, out of emergency and necessity, become the norm. Those mundane daily activities mentioned above have become visceral needs. Tears, hugs, and blessings tumble out of the survivors when they receive a blanket, when someone takes the time to listen to their story, when a crew of workers guts their house down to bare joists. There are people who have lost everything, family, friends, house,'s all gone. Homes, entire neighborhoods are reduced to piles of rubble that more resemble graveyards than anything else…The residue of interrupted lives, the teddy bears in the muddy streets, the cracked and moldy photo albums, the bowling trophies, the sofas, beds, all of it, lies in the streets.

The water lines vary from house to house, but usually the storm surge (not a flood, there is a difference as more and more people are being told by the insurance companies as they try to collect flood insurance and rebuild their homes and lives) crept up past the doorknobs, nearly to the ceiling on the first story in many other cases. Hearing the stories on the news of people riding out the storm in their attics, I had foolishly imagined something like the New England farmhouse attics, something dusty and probably leaking, but certainly big enough to settle in comfortably for a few days. I had imagined windows. I have yet to see a house with anything more than a crawl space beneath the ridgepole. There are no windows, no way out except down into the house, or, during the hurricane, down into the water rising around the house. One man I spoke to stayed in his attic, and could hear, but do nothing for his neighbors crying for help in their attic. They all died, except for one. The man I spoke with had pulled his last neighbor out of the eaves of the house after the water went down. “

When I saw the pictures of the tornado and flooding, all of this came back as if it were yesterday. It could well be tomorrow in too many places.

The saying goes that “if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” I’m furiously trying to be more one than the other, because it makes it hard to sleep at night when I think that the ways in which I live my life—how my food is kept cold, how I type this on my own computer and post it to the internet for anyone else to read from whatever device their heart desires, how I don’t really know where or how most of my clothes were made—are contributing to the sorts of “natural” disasters which continue to pepper the globe like buckshot.

By continuing to live as if nothing is wrong, or as if we do not know what to do, we are making many things much worse. We are remaining the problem, when solutions are as clear as what we do upon waking each morning. How we live is killing the planet, devastating the lives of our fellow humans and countless other living things with big news-footage disasters and smaller untold stories of loss.

Certainly, we are not enough as individuals to change it—our own lives are drops in the bucket of the bigger changes that need to happen. I believe that our personal choices and actions and ways of being can lead the charge, can open hearts to change.

So, how do we live?

As best and simply and with as much kind awareness as we can, always striving for a better. And, send socks and underwear to disaster stricken areas.    

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