You guys, I had this whole piece ready to go about the cereal. And then Sandy hit. And I just couldn’t fathom posting a bit about breakfast cereal as a wildly destructive storm was bearing down on the place I was born. My whole family was in the storm’s path and I was worried for days about them. They’re all fine now. They lost power for a few days there, but they were all safe, and their property was not destroyed. There were others, though, who suffered. Suffered huge. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about them. I couldn’t sit and write about cereal if I tried.
I’ve been working on what I want to say here for days now. It’s been a crazy two weeks of emotional ups and downs: worry, then relief…endless energy to help, then frustration with red tape… helplessness, and then a renewed sense of urgency and hope … it’s been difficult to distill this down into one piece.
The stories that have been coming out of the New York/New Jersey area have been story enough. What can I add, really? A firefighter from Breezy Point was called to the scene- HIS OWN HOME- and because the winds were whipping around at 70 mph, he had to just stand there and watch HIS WHOLE NEIGHBORHOOD burn to the ground. A woman’s only two sons were yanked out of her arms by storm surge and carried away by the water. A woman called a tree-removal company to remove the tree that had fallen on her roof, but the repairmen accidentally cut a power line, triggering an electrical fire, and her whole house burned to the ground in front of her.
Okay, okay. Reality check: there are enormously good things happening, too. There are people volunteering, and corporations donating money and goods, and millions of dollars being raised for the Red Cross by citizens like you and me all over the country.
Since the storm, I’ve been using the words there (New Jersey) and here (Seattle) interchangeably. I’ve mixed up us and them. Tragedy does that to transplants: it wakes the sleeping giant of our origins. It confuses the psyche about our sense of place. I am at once the thing I was and the thing I have become. I exist in two places at once, emotionally. I have been straddling my blue collar roots and my white collar future for some time now, even without the hurricane. Nothing makes this dual existence more crazy-making than watching my childhood stomping grounds being violently dismantled.
It’s hard not to sound overly dramatic about all this. I’m trying to keep this all in perspective. I think the thing that most people from New Jersey can’t get their heads around is this: it happened here, in my state, to us. I mean, it’s not like New Jersey isn’t familiar with extreme weather. New Jersey was one of the original thirteen colonies, y’all. It’s been populated by transplanted Europeans for two hundred years. And it’s a coastal state. Somehow, in the two hundred or so years it’s been part of a Union, Jerseyans have managed to hold it all together, hurricane season after hurricane season, Nor’easter after Nor’easter. So the fact that an enormous, iconic roller coaster sits twisted and placid in the Atlantic Ocean, that thousands of pounds of sand have been displaced, that whole cars are falling into sinkholes formed by receding water… it all seems surreal. Surreal in the way that all disaster in the United States always seems. I can’t believe this is happening here, my mom said. Not because she doesn’t know how to prepare for a storm. And not because she doesn’t know what it’s like to recover from one, either. Not because East Coasters haven’t experienced tragedy or loss in their lives. Not because we can’t imagine other people’s tragedies. I think it’s because of the scale, the enormity of it. And because New Jersey, especially, is brimming with people who live there for a taste of hope and the American Dream. This kind of destruction seems wholly incongruent with the regular pace of life there. When 8.8 million people live elbow to elbow, a particular kind of symbiosis develops, one so tight and complete it seems almost impervious to disruption. I think destruction on this scale is almost too much for the mind to take in at once. Miles of coastline. Thousands of homes. Millions of people. How does a city like New York not have power? How can whole towns be wiped off a map in a night? How can a few hundred years of infrastructure be wrecked in a few hours?
If you’re like me, with a sometimes crippling sensitivity to suffering worldwide, you practically go nuts with worry when disasters happen. You feel EVERY SINGLE ONE of those hearts breaking over their loss. You feel that Homeric pull towards the place you are from and you want to be there. You want to paddle the canoe, pilot the plain, shovel coal into the furnace of the train, anything to get you to where you need to be to be helpful. You are fueled by one part adrenaline and one part blind devotion.
I struggle with wanting to wave away this overarching sentimentality. I go to this place of thinking: those are resort towns, built mostly for recreation. And if you’re going to live on the coast, you have to accept a certain level of upheaval by storms. I mean, if Disneyland goes down, you just build another one, right? Well, thanks to reality TV and our love of stereotypes, it’s easy for me to believe that the only people who come to the shore are goons and vacationers. The truth is that people live down there, too, year round. And those people had modest homes they’d owned for decades, full of family memories and knickknacks. And those homes were destroyed right alongside the roller coaster and the soft-serve joint. Those homeowners deserve my sentimentality. They deserve my help. Loss is loss.
You know who else I’m thinking about right now? The victims of Hurricane Katrina, and of the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami in Indonesia. I’m thinking of everyone who has to rebuild after natural disasters. I’m wondering about what the transplants of those areas were thinking when they saw the places of their birth come undone.
Know what else I’ve been thinking about? Numbers. I’ve decided that it’s all about the numbers. We can get through this because the numbers are in our favor.
I haven’t lived there in more than a decade, but I want to give back. I think it’s because New Jersey cultivates in its ilk a peculiar mix of pride and revulsion for the place. We can’t help but agree with an outsider’s classification of the place as aggressive and loud, but we also defend New Jersey’s honor with the fervor of recent converts. This mix of push and pull- it’s part of an equation, really. The addition of sudden tragedy to a certain amount of amnesia about the past, over enough time and distance, yields love and concern.
So now it’s a numbers game. There are, quite literally, millions of us NOT living in Jersey anymore, but who feel that yank on our heartstrings when anyone mentions the place. And the numbers game really works in our favor in the wake of a disaster. We have new friends, new communities, whole new cities we can ask for help now. I’m extremely lucky because I’m in a position to reach out to my community, as I’m sure lots of native Jersey kids are.
In the weeks since the hurricane, I’ve called on my fellow Seattlites to help with relief and the response has been overwhelming - so much so I can hardly keep up. It’s been a huge lesson for me. Here’s what I now know: when you have a dream, you have to make BIG room in your life for that dream. Then you have to make EXTRA room in your life for all the people and places that want to prop you up. Your dream is always bigger than the box you want to keep it in.
I’m asking anyone who can to donate to the Red Cross. And if you live in New Jersey, and have the means and the time, consider putting on a pair of work gloves and volunteering to remove debris, or to work at a shelter for a few hours. Take a moment to consider what it would be like to lose your house and everything in it. Now imagine doing that in the freezing cold. With your children in tow. With your neighbors all in the same dire straits.
Consider the hope it would give you to witness the kindness of strangers. Consider the hope it gives the world to see prodigal sons and daughters returning to restore a sense of place for those still there. It’s a numbers game. If each of us with capable hands helps those who are overwhelmed by their circumstances, the world heals. Not just from hurricanes, but from everything. We produce one more person, one more family able to empathize, able to help another person, able to help another family.
Think of it.