As Hurricane Sandy made its way up the East Coast, its approach was handled the way most major storm warnings are handled in New York. People stocked up on supplies while joking about the ridiculousness of stocking up on so many supplies.
It’s kind of a tradition. The storms that always almost hit New York cause more panic than actual damage. After so many near misses you develop a kind of passive skepticism that anything really bad is going to happen.
It's strange. New York has had three major catastrophic events in the events in the last 11 years, none of which were preventable. And each time I've been slightly closer to the epicenter of them than the one before, without ever being in the middle of it, and thankfully and so incredibly fortunately, without being harmed by any of it.
During 9/11 I was in my fifth week of school in Arizona.
When the Blackout happened I was waiting for a train on Long Island.
And for Sandy I was in my apartment, my heated, powered apartment, curled up on the couch watching movies and playing board games on my iPad.
We turned on the TV every other hour or so to check on the status of the storm, and make fun of the weather people standing in floodwaters, trying desperately not to be blown away.
Honestly I am almost disgusted by the leisure with which we were able to ride out the storm.
As the storm hit the city we found ourselves watching news coverage that looked like Katrina, but that was minutes away. It was both scary and tragic and yet so strangely surreal at the same time.
The storm passed. The rain subsided. The winds eventually died down. And I emerged from my apartment, the streets around my home looked pretty close to normal. But as I walked around my neighborhood, every other block we passed had decades old tree split at the base, lying on somebody’s home.
The storm had hit even closer than I’d realized and yet, I had been virtually unaffected.
It was around that time I started feeling guilty.
Part of that guilt stemmed from not being physically able to help with the tragedy, not being able to shelter friends, or help with relieve efforts. And so I did what I could do at the time.
I gave money to the Red Cross.
I wanted it to help but also I felt like it was also out of guilt. How could I honestly not give more? What amount would make me feel like living as cushy a lifestyle as I do was not some sort of an undeserved fortune?
I was so grateful for being so fortunate and so lucky, but those words had started to grow a kind of mold in my mind. Stagnant words that sit there, seemingly fresh at first, but eventually, becoming green with age.
Surely there had to be more to gratitude than just saying it over and over again.
And that is when I thought of my gratitude book. Each night I wrote down things I was grateful for like heat, water, and food. Things that I try not to take for granted but almost always do. I realized that I was at that moment trying to get more out of this word gratitude than mere awareness.
I think that is what I find so interesting. How this word gratitude, the word grateful went from being, in my mind, a state of being, to a state of doing. I have started to see it not as an emotion that you experience in passing, or something that you try to hold on to, but rather something you really practice.
So that’s what my gratitude book is, maybe that’s what my Red Cross donation was. I’d like to do more but I don't really know how to do it.
I worked in non-profit for a while and learned how easy it is to trick yourself into believing that you are doing something worthwhile. That wearing the mantle of donor, or giver, can make you feel like something you are not.
And so I'm trying to figure it out, and to figure it out in a way that works for me. Something tangible, and real. Something that I can actually be aware of while I’m experiencing it.
I'm trying to be more communicative of my appreciation of my friends, I'm trying to be more present with them, I'm trying to actually toast to something as opposed to just clinking glasses, I'm trying to make it an action, an activity. Something I do.
I'm not always so good about following through on the things in my life I want to spend more time doing. Usually it is months of thought, followed by months of verbalizing, followed by sometimes-eventual action. But this time it feels different. Awareness is a scary kind of knowledge.
I saw Kurt Vonnegut give an interview on PBS once towards the end of his life. And while I’ve been unable to find the exact interview online, a quote he said in it has stuck with me. I will paraphrase:
People say all the time after some sort of event that it really put things into focus. That means that the rest of the time, your life is completely out of focus. There is something very wrong with that.
I agree with him. I’m not looking for things to be brought into focus, but maybe just to have that focus tightened a bit more, or to have the angle shifted entirely.
Either way I believe finding new ways to be grateful, as a verb, will help with that.