An Equality of Joy

Only hours after the passage of Hurricane Ike, every survivor left standing in the rubble understood that far more than houses had been leveled by the storm.  The body of belief about what Ike would or would not do had been dismembered.  Spirits scoured clean of emotion lay empty and desolate as Bolivar beaches.  With possessions ravaged and dreams laid waste, incomprehension was rampant.  Victims stared toward the horizon with thoughts as scattered and broken as the plywood debris fields that seemed to stretch into infinity.

Even at the time, there were victims willing to acknowledge that human factors played a role in the devastation.  Pride kept boats at unsound moorings and families in homes that were certain to be inundated.  Unfounded trust in a last-minute turn of the storm’s path led some to reject advice from wiser and more experienced folk to pack their cars and leave.  Occasionally, simple recklessness chose to gamble on the final outcome, continuing to count cards of wind and surge as though pushing back from the table would be an option if the game seemed to be getting out of hand.

But in the end, as entire communities stood looking out across the  stunning collage of broken boards,  shattered lives and shards of memory, I heard not a word of anger or recrimination directed toward another human being.   There was astonishment, stunned silence, wounded grief and despair at the depth and the breadth of  loss.  There was frustration and anxiety that could surge into panic at the slightest provocation.   From time to time there were flashes of rage against the unfairness of life, the arbitrary nature of institutional decisions and the glacial slowness of response.  But although it probably happened, I never saw one person rage directly against another.  Viewing the carnage, everyone appeared to be in agreement: there may have been wrong decisions, inadequate preparation and less than helpful responses, but in the end it was nature which had done the damage.  Before that overwhelming power, everyone was equal.

As days passed and the recovery process began, the same sense of equality seemed to permeate the air.  In a country where race, class, gender and age, ethnicity and a certain geographic tribalism are only a few of the divisional icebergs floating through our societal sea, watching great chunks of prejudice melt and fall away is a riveting sight.  At the Yacht Club where I spent my working days after the storm, the melting began early.

The first task people faced was undoing the unbelievable tangle of boats, docks, piers and debris that had been piled up by the water’s surge.  Boat owners, club administrators, staff and workers were first on the scene, followed almost immediately by  insurance adjusters, fiberglass specialists, divers, engineers, chain-saw wielding laborers, photographers and one German videographer for Deutsche Welle.  When the barge captains and crane operators arrived,  the work began in earnest.  Boats were cut free from pilings, repaired at docks, raised from the bottom, pulled apart from one another and lifted onto trucks to be taken to boneyards or repair yards as needed.  

As the crane operators and their crews went about their work, we watched what was becoming the equivalent to a weeks-long train wreck with utter fascination.  As I said at the time, “I hope never to see anything like this again.  On the other hand, since it’s happening, I’m going to look.”  It was like watching microsurgery done with enormous machinery.  The combination of delicacy and brute force was so compelling that when the hours of preparation were over and the cranes began to lift this boat or that, everything stopped.  Black truck drivers from Dallas, white businessmen from Houston, Hispanic yard workers, carpenters, accountants, fashion designing girlfriends, aging sea captains and teenaged computer geeks – everyone stopped in their tracks to watch.  As they did, all of the normal distinctions of life – class, education, race, role – simply disappeared.  People chatted with another, laughed, poured another drink, held their breath and covered their eyes,  gasping and sighing and hugging one another as the boats swung down onto truckbeds or water.

It took some time to realize what we had witnessed in those weeks was a liminal moment.  Introduced by Van Gennep, and expanded upon by anthropologist Victor Turner,  the concept of liminality refers to moments in time when old structures have broken down and new structures have yet to be built: a condition perfectly analogous to post-hurricane life.   Sherry Turkle, author of  Life on the Screen and one of the foremost apologists for cyber-life as indeterminate liminality, says that “historically, these times of change are the time of greatest cultural creativity; everything is infused with new meanings.”  Exploring Turkle and her work for Wired Online, Pamela McCorduck adds that “liminal moments are times of tension, extreme reactions and great opportunity….(they) shimmer with new possibilities.  They are painful, tough, full of hard choices – and they provoke anxiety. But they can be exhilarating.”

Hurricane recovery, of course, is as much about  pain as possibility, and it certainly is marked by excruciatingly hard choices more often than thrills of exhilaration.  Still, there are moments.  Watching piles of debris disappear, hearing the call of a returning osprey, tasting a first hot, home-cooked meal or seeing wind-stripped trees begin to replenish their leaves – these are tokens of restoration and recovery.  They bring relief, reassurance and peace.  And then, if we are lucky, simple survival is transformed into creativity, and the exhilaration of building a new life.

It seems altogether reasonable to be thinking of post-hurricane life, Victor Turner and liminality as we move into the Season of Epiphany.  When the Magi accepted Herod’s charge to seek out and bring word of the Christ Child, those three very wise men began a pilgrimage of astonishment, anxiety and deep uncertainty.  Traveling unknown roads, they experienced the accepted verities of life slipping away, their comfortable assumptions and reasonable expectations disappearing into a darkness lit solely by the radiance of an unfamiliar star.  Stepping at last across the threshold of history, they offered their gifts, held their breath, sighed and murmured among themselves and then turned toward home, traveling by yet another unfamiliar way.

Imagining their visit in the light of tradition, I can’t help but wonder: Were the nights so empty, the visitors so few?  Or did our wise men discover the shepherds already chatting like old friends with Mary and Joseph?  Surely the innskeepers and neighbors were gathered near the stable, gossiping and toasting the star which led new tourists to their town.  No doubt a goatherd or two edged up to the crowd, flirting with the kitchen maids in hopes of a free meal.  Children being children, they must have been hanging at the windows, just as the women would have edged toward the Magi, coveting their sumptuous silks.   

Today the crowd has grown, humanity pressing in like watchers on a dock, fascinated to see the effects of divine power surging through human history, sweeping away every outworn certainty, every tired assumption about how life must be.   Shepherds, kings and goatherds have been joined by teachers and doctors, rappers and refugees, CEOs, media critics, grocery store clerks, waitresses, construction workers, lawyers, farmers, poets, addicts and prisoners.  Above the crowds laughing and sighing in the stable darkness, the unfamiliar star still shimmers its exhilarating light and unutterable joy floods across the plain.  Touched by that light and washed by that  joy, every unhappy reality of life becomes a little epiphany:  a revelation that no matter how hard the season, no matter how destructive the storm, the equalities of sorrow always will be overcome by an equality of joy.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T.S.Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

 

 
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5 thoughts on “An Equality of Joy

  1. There is a hope with each new year and season that there will be a replacement of hate, greed, and personal gain with sharing and balancing that enables each life form to revive, grow, and survive through another cycle.

    Daniel,

    You mention cycles, and I remember reading once that true progress never is a straight line. It’s more like a spiral, where we keep coming back to the same place, over and over, but at a deeper level. There’s change, it just isn’t always the constant forward motion we’ve been conditioned to accept.

    I wonder sometimes if our open frontier, vast wildernesses and historic ability to just pick up and move on to another new place haven’t shaped our collective unconscious in some unhappy ways. We’re past the time where simply building and paving and bulldozing land for no good reason should be acceptable, but it just keeps happening. And here on the coast, there are more than a few places where families are grieving the loss of their homes while developers stand in the shadows, saying things like, “They’ll never be able to move back here. We’ll finally have a chance to build some decent homes”. That would be “decent”, as in, “big, expensive and overbuilt”. Sometimes greed and the lust for personal gain make survival and growth a little difficult.

    Thank goodness for the good people – and critters – who do surround us, and the open spaces, and the snow and the stars!

    Linda

  2. We lived on the water when I was a child. We survived two hurricanes. Our home was severely damaged, and we were without power and water for weeks.

    I can recall the stress this caused for my parents, but my brother and I thought it was high adventure. Because of the extensive damage to our house, a neighbor offered to let me stay with their family. I can remember my father refusing. I couldn’t understand why, but in later years I understood the human need to keep your family together under difficult circumstances.

    I was only four years old during the first hurricane, but I have detailed memories of it. I’ve always believed that I remember it because my mother was so distressed as the trees fell on our house – one after another. I will never forget her horror. My heart goes out to those who have to work their way back, knowing it will never be exactly the same again.

    As always, a wonderful, and insightful post, Linda.

    Bella,

    Children are impressionable, and storms can make quite an impression. I’m not surprised you remember things so clearly. I’m not surprised by your father’s response, either. Even at the time during Ike, I was amazed at the number of phone calls and messages flying about as people contacted one another just to ask, “Where are you? Did you evacuate? Have you gone back? What’s left?” Being able to see the family gathered around would have been a great comfort.

    You’re exactly right that things never will be exactly the same again. The blessing in that, of course, is that sometimes they can be better.

    Thanks so much for the kind words – and for your own always interesting site!

    Linda

  3. Dear Linda

    Congratulations on a wonderful piece of writing – it is so good to be reminded in a way which is both inspiring and hopeful that the great polarities of light and dark are woven together in every aspect of human experience. I am not at all surprised that you were given an award. You deserve it.

    Best wishes Anne Whitaker

    Anne,

    How nice of you to come by, and to reinforce my own conviction that “both/and” is a truer and more satisfying approach to life than “either/or”. Moments of unbearable light or unutterable darkness never are pure – one way or another, they always are tempered. I suspect that’s a good thing for us – what I’ve known of darkness and light suggest that either, in their pure form, would be unbearable.

    Best wishes for the new year. I’m looking forward to exploring your site as we move forward.

    Linda

  4. Linda, this is so very moving. Your observations about the hurricane alone would offer a thought provoking post, but your skill and the complexity of thought required to integrate the hurricane and the Magi is really remarkable.

    There is one company that makes creche figures — wooden (probably resin, given the mass marketing, but with that appearance). I think it’s something like Fontanini. Anyway, when you visit Christmas shops that carry this line in full, you’ll see it all set up, and it is so much more than shepherds and Magi — you’ll see milkmaids, children, peddlers. In reading your words and thoughts on that, well, it was like a lightbulb! Duh! Of course this wasn’t a one-night event; things happened for days. People had lives. And it’s fascinating to think of that — and then, how that translates today. Splendid.

    Jeanie,

    This is one of the more difficult pieces I’ve written. Although the analogy between the watchers at the yacht club and the shepherds and Magi at the stable came to me in a flash, it took a good bit of thought, research and rewriting to make the connection coherent and readable.

    Your comment – people had lives – is so important. It’s a bit of an irony that the very point of the incarnation, God embedding into human life and history, is so often celebrated by freezing particular moments in time and dismissing the historical context. I’ve always loved the good-humored observation that time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once – and its possible corollary that writing is the Muses’ way of keeping us from saying everything at once!

    My thanks for your visit, and best wishes for the new year.

    Linda

  5. This post reminds me that humans have more in common than we have points of differences.

    Your focus on renewal in the whole cycle of life rings well at this time of year. It finds an answering chord with me, especially that metaphor of life being a spiral. The sudden drive to measure up my life, which I guess was what my last post was about in a vague sort of way, must be a place everyone comes to again and again.

    Oh, I see what you’ve done with Arte Y Pico and I am delighted to be placed in such a distinguished position! And I’m being genuine, you are one serious essayist.

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