October 27th, 2010
Seven Weeks After the Fire
Last night at dinner, my friend Sandy Hockenbury was telling me about the effects of stress on the human body. “Intense bursts of short-term stress are actually good for the brain,” she explained to us as we sat eating Mexican food, “But prolonged, ongoing stress, like in people who have lived through trauma…” she said, looking over at me. I looked at her and said, “I know! I know,” exasperated but laughing. “I’m a mess! My adrenals are probably shot!” “Yes,” she said, “They probably are.” And then the flan arrived, and it was sweet and smooth, and I stopped worrying about my immune system, my adrenals, my stress levels – for there are moments of sweetness in every catastrophe.
Yesterday the housekeeping staff came to clean my cottage for me, for free. They don’t normally do that for long-term residents, but they just decided they wanted to help me – that girl with the little dog who lost her house and everything she had in the Fire. They arrived like an army of angels with their mops and buckets and brooms and spray bottles, and I started to cry when I saw them walking up the steps. How can people be so good, so kind? How can this world be filled with such terrible news each day, when quiet miracles like this one are happening all around us? I dried my tears and put Nellie in the car and went and did errands while they cleaned.
And when I came home, the cottage was sparkling, and in the bathroom were fresh towels. They had folded them into little triangles, like in a hotel, and had left me cute little soaps and shampoo. I ran my hand over the towels – so sweet, this gift of their time.
Generosity is our nature as humans – I have come to believe this lately. We have to give and give and give – to our friends, our families – and when they are taken care of, we give to strangers. What is it about us that compels us to do this? Biology, natural selection, some intrinsic connection to each other? What are these webs, these golden threads, that connect us all? How is it that when one strand is broken, we all rush in to help it mend?
Tonight I walked the few blocks up to the Laundromat to do a bunch of wash. I have not been in a Laundromat since I was in my twenties, and it was ten o’clock at night and I was exhausted. As I loaded the small washers I thought, “Okay, I can do this. This is no big deal. Lots of people do this, it’s not so bad.” And when I came back later to move the wet clothes and towels and dog bed and dog towels and sheets to the dryer, I realized I only had enough quarters to dry two loads, and would have to take home all the towels and sheets wet.
This was kind of the last straw to a very long and difficult day, and I was so tired I just sat and put my head down on the wooden bench by the wall. I thought, This is what it’s like when your life falls apart. This is what happens when you get divorced, or your partner dies, or you lose everything in a flood, or you run out the back door while the Secret Police kick down the front door, and you flee into the night with only the clothes you have on. You end up in a strange place at night, exhausted just from getting through the day, three quarters short of a load, and you feel like you just can’t take it any more.
Now, I’m a middle-class American with an education, a job, insurance, and more privilege than you can shake a stick at. Some day I will get to go home again, unlike real refugees, who have to run from Death Squads and wait for decades to go home, and often never get back there at all. My life compared to theirs is a walk in the park – I know this. But you know, it’s all relative, and people have killed themselves over less.
Walter, my eighty-something, up-the-hill neighbor on Sugarloaf, survived the Holocaust. He said that compared to Auschwitz, losing his house in the fire was No Big Deal. That doesn’t mean we’re both not in pain, and suffering – It just means our experiences are different, and of different orders of magnitude. Some people endure great hardship with grace and wisdom. Some people sink into bitterness and never emerge. And some decide to just check out from This Life, and see what’s on the Other Side.
People hesitate to talk about their troubles around me, because what I’m going through right now makes their own worries pale in comparison. I tell them it’s not a Pain Contest. We’re not all competing for the big Who Has the Worst Life award. We all have our own problems, and Life sends each of us those little Trouble Trolls that come and kick us in the shins and leave us hopping around in pain. Sometimes they just leave us bruised; sometimes they can take us out completely, and leave us writhing in the dust, unable to breathe. Some of us fall, and never get up. And some of us have friends who come over, extend their hand, and quietly get us back on our feet – dusty and battered, but standing once again.
And that was me in the Laundromat tonight. I didn’t think I had the strength to get up – I thought I might as well just stay there, with my head resting on the wood, watching the dryers spin, for the rest of my life.
And then my cell phone rang.
It was a friend, calling to see how I was doing. “What are you up to right now?” she asked. I said, “Um… I’m kind of lying here, watching the laundry.” Then I said, “I don’t think I can do this. Can I please just go home now? Can I be done with all this? Can I please just have my house and my washer and dryer and my old life back? I’m a grownup, I’m not twenty anymore, and I don’t even know how to have the right amount of QUARTERS,” and then I started to cry.
My friend said gently, “What about those plastic hangers you bought at Target? Do you still have those?” “Yes,” I sniffed. “Well, just take the wet stuff and hang it up in the bathroom. And you know what?” she said, “You can also say Screw It and just leave it all there wet. Let the mice eat it!” and then we laughed and laughed.
I picked my head up and dried my tears and told her I loved her, and that now I was alright. It’s just my Daily Meltdown, I said, and somehow I always manage to get through it. I hung up the phone and looked at the wet laundry and squinted. “Okay,” I said to the pile of sheets and towels. “I have been through worse, and I am certainly not going to be defeated by YOU.” And I plopped it all in the plastic basket, and took it back to the cottage, and when it was all hung up in the little bathroom, I smiled. I did the laundry. Another small miracle.
Annie Dillard, in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” So I will try to be there. I will keep showing up for this roller coaster of a life that I have right now. I will do the laundry, and eat the flan, and cherish the Armies of Angels that keep appearing, unbidden, at my door. It is not a Pain Contest, I tell myself. I am not winning, and I am not losing. I am just walking through it, one step at a time.
Sending You Love, and Wishes for Sweet Dreams,