Thursday, November 1, 2012

After the Storm

Like all of you, I’m sure, I responded to the events of this last week with a complicated parade of conflicting emotions: irritation (at first) that they were hyping this thing (I thought) way out of proportion, followed by irritation that they (whoever they were) hadn’t been explicit enough with respect to the storm’s potential to devastate, followed by a deep sense of foreboding as the winds picked up and the sky darkened (and Sandy suddenly seemed possibly like something they—a different “they” this time—hadn’t just made up to sell newspapers), followed by a certain smugness that our power hadn’t gone out, followed by a distinct sense of ill ease (sharpened by the sudden absence of smugness) when the lights did go out with a huge bang as our generator—or transformer or whatever that big metal box on the pole next to our house is—exploded and partially fell to the ground, followed by a long, dark, ominously quiet night. Followed by another. And then another after that. As I write these words, we haven’t had power for three days. We have been given no information at all when the power might return. It feels as though there is no place to turn to, no office to inquire at, no specific person to remonstrate with. And it’s getting distinctly colder out there.

None of my readers, I’m sure, needs me to deliver any baseless predictions regarding the restoration of power at Shelter Rock or in any of our neighborhoods. (I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet…and I don’t think I could find my Ouija board in our pitch-black basement anyway.) I’ve been spending my days trying to do some version of a day’s work—racing to my temporary office in the Hillcrest Jewish Center on Union Turnpike in Queens (where I have been warmly and endlessly hospitably hosted by my colleague and very good friend, Rabbi Manes Kogen, and where they have power and wi-fi access to the internet), trying to keep up with hospital visits, working with our lay leadership to figure out how we’re going to negotiate things this weekend, attempting to run a make-shift evening minyan in what was briefly the only home in the community that had power. After prayers, it’s been like hurtling back through time to great-grandpa’s day: Joan and I go home, make a fire in the fireplace, eat our soup (we have one burner that’s still working for some reason), then read by the hearth until the fire goes out, then go to bed. It was marginally romantic, briefly. (I am, however, reading a terrific book, which I hope to write to you about one of these days, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. So the evenings of reading I’ve actually liked a lot) By now, however, we’re had more than enough.

There have been some consolations. The spirit in the community—and especially the experience of seeing individuals going out of their way, including some dramatically so, to find ways to help each other—has been very moving to watch. Living through whole days without hearing a single word from the television has been almost unexpectedly soothing. Despite my carping, it turns out that snuggling up under a blanket and reading in a cold room in front of a roaring fire actually is one of life’s great pleasures. (I think I actually knew that once, possibly in a former life. But who remembered?)  Joan made the best soup too the other night on our (one) burner out of red lentils, beef, and kasha. So it really has been like traveling from the twenty-first back to the eighteenth century once the sun goes down each night, even if I have been ruining the tableau in the inglenook by reading mostly on my Kindle. What can you do? How often does any of us eat home-made soup in front of a fire?

A million years ago, a poet in old Jerusalem sat through a devastating winter storm. Not quite a hurricane, perhaps, let alone a post-tropical tornado (whatever that is exactly), but instead one of those rare but dangerous winter storms that even today has the capacity to hold Jerusalem in its paralyzing grip for a few days before things slowly return to normal. But instead of seeing a disaster, the poet saw an opportunity. God, the poet wrote, has neither time nor patience for arrogance, but instead prefers endlessly to encourage humility. And it is in that context—explicitly stated early on in the poem that we know as the 147th psalm—that the poet turns to his fellow Jerusalemites and calls upon them to be grateful to a God who makes humble the faithful by covering “the earth with snow as though it were a blanket of wool,” by scattering “frost on the ground as though it were ash,” by hurling “chunks of ice to earth as though they were mere breadcrumbs.” And then, when the poet rhetorically asks who possibly could withstand personally the cold God sends to earth, his answer is obvious and his point already clear: possessed of faith, we all can. And as it was for him in ancient Jerusalem so is it too for us: we can all withstand the cold for a bit…if we use the opportunity to feel prompted by the experience to remember how things actually are in our world of hyper-modern machinery and sundry gadgets.  For, the poet knows, God does not only send along cold and ice to the world, but healing warmth as well. “It is, after all, also God,” the poet writes thoughtfully, “Who sends a word to melt all the ice and Who sends a warm wind that makes the ice into flowing water,” just as surely “it is God Who offers divine words to Jacob and divine statutes and laws to Israel.” In other words, storms like the one he was experiencing were not just disasters in his mind, but also opportunities…to feel confidence in God’s mercy, to feel called to acts of kindness and generosity, to remember the truth about life’s simplest pleasures, and—most of all—to cultivate a sense of deep humility, one of the cardinal virtues of the virtuous life yet the hardest, he thought and I also think, to cultivate on our own.

We live in an age of unimaginable miracles. We have machines that do in seconds what scholars once spent years trying to accomplish…if they had the stamina and the income to persevere in their studies long enough to bring their research to a satisfactory conclusion. I push a few keys on my laptop and I’m suddenly talking to—and seeing—my friend in  Jerusalem (or in Paris or in London or in Vancouver) as though he were sitting on the other side of my work table. Doctors routinely undertake  procedures that even in our own lifetimes would have sounded like science fiction fantasies, and yet which have become so totally routine that people barely remember that they were once mere possibilities, let alone unattainable fantasies.  And yet…one good storm—one that comes from nowhere and goes off to nowhere after passing blithely over us while paying as much attention to the devastation wrought by its presence as most of us would give to an anthill accidentally stepped on while gardening in the backyard—one good storm is all it takes for all that progress to stop in its tracks. No cell phones. No internet. No Skype. No Facebook. No nothing…just the world as it once was. Sunlight in the daytime and darkness at night. Communication by talking rather than texting. Heat from fire rather than from electric space heaters. Entertainment not by looking at something, but by doing something: by playing the piano or reading a book, by walking around the neighborhood or knitting a scarf or making a pot of soup or darning a sock. Okay, maybe not the darning a sock part—I’m not even sure I know exactly what “darning” is—but the rest of it for sure!

Mozart somehow managed to live without electricity. So did Shakespeare. And Goethe. And Caravaggio. Not to mention Isaiah, King David, and Maimonides. So perhaps we should respond to the events of this last week not with irritation (or not solely with irritation), but with a bit of humility. Clearly, we’re not as invincible as we thought we were a week or two ago! But the world’s greatest cultural accomplishments were undertaken and accomplished in a world strangely like our post-Sandy one, or at least like our post-Sandy world will remain until they turn the power back on and Long Island enters the post-post-Sandy period. So maybe we would do better not  to spend our cold days and bleak nights wondering whom to blame for this mess, let alone whom eventually to sue for damages, but by trying instead to imagine the good we might be capable of doing now that circumstance has created the context for us selflessly to put others’ needs before our own, for us humbly to acknowledge our true relationship to the universe once we find ourselves forcibly divested of our supremely powerful (and surely only temporarily disabled) machinery, for us productively to wonder what we might create not via game boxes and virtual reality simulators but actually by writing a poem (i.e., on a piece of paper with a pencil) or by learning to sing a song or by making a pot of really, really good soup. From scratch. In the cold. Wearing gloves and a hat. And, if we can manage it, not much caring about the circumstance that led us to this instance of obligatory creativity and reveling instead in the creative process itself. If that experience itself makes us humble, then so much the better. And if the process also leads us to a bowl of truly good soup, then better still!

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