Derechos and Hurricanes, Mountains and Fragility
I arrived in Virgina in July just as the derecho hit. Unlike a tornado, which twists and spins, a derecho is a straight-line wall of fast-moving wind, exceeding hurricane force. I had never heard of it. Advancing across several states, this windstorm flattened houses, tore down power lines, and uprooted trees that had spread their roots through the soil for a century.
The power went off the night I arrived for my month-long residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Ten trees were lost. The staff lost power and water and their homes suffered damage. I didn’t comprehend that it would be a very long time before we’d get lights and air conditioning again. We had water, hot and cold. How bad could it be? A generator kept the kitchen refrigerator going and the heroic staff served three meals a day. The record heat wave with its hundred-degree weather was bad, but it couldn’t last more than a few days, right? Every morning hope sprang anew and every night, as the stars emerged, hope died in sweat-soaked slumber.
As electricity was restored little by little, day by day, throughout the surrounding area, VCCA remained dark for the next ten (10!) days. I had not brought a flashlight even though their website advises all residents to bring one. Luckily they had lots of big old-school flashlights, essential even during the day in the dark windowless toilets.
To leave would have been to forfeit the experience and miss out on making friends with the incredible talented people who also chose to stay. There were so many fantastic people, so many acts of kindness and courage and hilarity that I thought I’d be a fool to escape. In the mornings, I worked on my novel until my laptop battery lost power. After lunch, several of us would load up power strips, laptops, phones and other devices and drive to Starbucks in Lynchburg to recharge. As APCO repaired lines and power was revived ever closer, we drove to Madison Heights then to Amherst, where the church opened their doors, giving twenty-four hour access to electricity, air-conditioning, water and food.
One evening we all sat around in the dark reciting poems we’d committed to memory. A few evenings, people shared their work by flashlight. Every afternoon, except for the rare rainy ones, a group of us gathered at the lake to swim to the dam and back, and then practice yoga on the dock before dinner. It was a ritual that made the hardship easier to endure. Did I mention the dedicated, VCCA staff who cleared trees and cleaned up and lifted our spirits for days on end even as their own homes lacked power? Barbara and David were tireless and infinitely patient. Mike didn’t sleep for several nights. When Craig and Sheila finally got their power and water back, they opened their home for three nights in a row, serving dinner to seventeen VCCA residents, welcoming those who wanted to sleep over.
Then the power came on. With the power came the immense privilege of turning on a light switch to banish the dark night and pushing a button to switch on cool air. My gratitude and the sense of how fragile we all are, how impermanent and vulnerable our amenities, and how unprepared I was to simply accept a situation I could not change, was so enormous, I thought I could embody it for the rest of my life. I may not have chosen the experience but I didn’t regret for a second having it thrust upon me.
Cut ahead several weeks to early September. Tony and I embarked on a long-planned trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. For several days we slept in a tent and couldn’t shower. A small portable communal toilet grew slightly more disgusting each day. But we’d prepared. I’d acquired a headlamp with bright LED illumination. We’d psyched ourselves, practiced the mountainous hike by climbing and descending 22 flights of steps in my apartment building several times at a go. This was exhilarating. It was wondrous. Incredible. I’m full of adjectives that only seem to diminish the aliveness and singularity of the journey, which is why pictures must suffice. The mountains around Cusco, the apus, a word that means “protector”, were considered gods by the Incas and they are truly god-like in their vast majesty, sometimes enfolded in clouds, sometimes crystal-clear with glaciers gleaming and rocky features in high detail, always huge and present.
Our fellow pilgrims on the trek were as awestruck as we were, also open and friendly and hardy and curious. Over the course of the journey there was a marriage proposal, a birthday, a reunion, physical hardship and utter euphoria. We entered Machu Picchu through the sun gate together, the dream team. I fell in love with Peru, especially the intelligent, funny, compassionate guides, Darwin and Saul, and the hardworking crew of porters without whom we could not have done it. Those porters carried twenty-five kilos of equipment on their backs, running up and down the steep uneven rocks of the Inca trail with such sure-footed agility, they seemed superhuman. So here again we have to bow down in gratitude.
Cut ahead several weeks later to Hurricane Sandy blowing in from the southeast with dire predictions, warnings and unprecedented evacuations and shut-downs. Amidst frightening gusts of wind and construction debris swirling through the courtyard outside our window, we lost power. But this time, I held no illusion about the magical abilities of power companies to turn it all back on quickly. In our dark apartment, we lit candles and walked around like miners with our headlamps. We heated water that we fetched from buckets in the basement to wash our faces. The staff of our building proved themselves so dedicated and hardworking and caring, they reaffirmed my faith in basic human kindness. I hiked up to the 19th floor to check on a neighbor only to discover that the building staff had been to see her several times with food and water.
Our good friend, Lydia, offered her apartment, even letting us bring our cats. She was going to Ohio to campaign for Obama. (Yay!!!) Unlike my sojourn at VCCA, we decamped from the hardship of the power-free zone, to the upper west side where we lived out of suitcases. Now we’re home, with the power restored as the temperature dips and Athena roared in. Once again, we’re privileged and blessed and ever fragile. Good fortune is arbitrary. Staten Island, New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and other areas around the east coast are suffering still, not just power outages but wreckage from flooding, irreparable damage, houses gone, cars destroyed, gasoline shortages and cold weather.
There’s no lesson I can formulate from these three intense yet singular experiences, though my mind is always trying to create the “moral of the story.” Perhaps the idea is only to recognize how flimsy our shelter can be, and to turn on the lights and the heat and the water with gratitude. Much of the world has no such privilege. We may not always have it ourselves.
Photos of Peru