Opening another bottle Of stale hurricane water-- My life tastes sour.
No more storm, no more lights, no more phone. And no gas. Other than the increasing cold at night, brisk as a cod’s backside, there wasn’t too much difference from my usual solitudenious routine in the hurricane’s aftermath. I read books by candlelight and on my long-lasting Kindle. The transistor radio battery held out very well, and I heard from the opinionated broadcasters of New York City, and the occasional gubernatorial announcement from Christie or Cuomo. But somehow in the dark–which was far more absolute than usual–and in the united time of quiet–which held together much more solidly now that so many families had left to join relatives in Philadelphia or South Jersey–my regular “me time” began to feel like I was being haunted by ghosts of my old selves. My spirit felt erratic, half-mad–a soul on ice as Eldridge Cleaver put it.
I was lonelier than I had supposed–now that it was just me and the daylight, just me and the dark.
His many eyes sightless, The old fly stumbles-- A lonely night. Still sleepy in the grey dawn, Even after a full night practicing Staying awake! It's bearable by day, Watching people and birds hop about --This alone silence. Until the sun goes down I read, and then Label my thoughts in the dark. So cold-- Even this little flea Jumps into bed! In this silent time.... I watch icicles on the eves Lengthen. In this long darkness I force myself to enjoy A handful of cold peanuts. Last candle Of the hurricane stash-- Spent reading Basho.
I’ll mention the cold again here; it seeped into you the way water seeps into a shoe on a long, wet walk. You know it’s there. You think it’ll be fine, that you can handle it and keep your equanimity and presence of mind. But, eventually, it wears you down. If someone gives you a lift in a car with a working heater, your muscles thaw out like blocks of ice left on a rotisserie–at first wonderfully loosening as a massage, but then you disappear entirely, melted back to the constituent goo you crawled out of during earth’s primordial era. In the cold, you become no more than a frozen tooth–dead bone tied to consciousness by a roaring nerve. I began to identify with my outer jacket and loyally hand-knit scarf; I was an expression of my winter hat, of the shoes I slept in, the gloves I watched heat up instant coffee over a few broken candles. What self I did posses beyond the painful coldness I lived within, the proverbial joke fly trapped in an ice cube, lay in my mean, blue watery eyes. To see all things as your enemy is clarifying, as well as limiting. To be snapped awake from this perception against your will by the random imposition of beauty, is more vivifying than a hard slap to the chops. It’s like waking up in your coffin and smiling.
Night after night.... Silence.... Darkness.... What are streetlamps for? The storm has passed. Each night, I get more used to it-- This unplugged quiet. The wispy drapes Still shine in the moonlight-- Over my window, over me. Under the worn comforter-- Unlighted night leans in, Cold nose to nose. So long without power-- Cold fingers kneel and pray At the manual typewriter. A cold noon-- I doze Under all my winter coats. * * * * Writing haiku, I think of brushing my fingers Against your skin. Reading a used book-- On the otherwise clean page, A blood thumbprint.
Reading and writing became the masters of my life-rhythm. Not since I’d been a sickly teen, spending months at a clip laid-up in bed, had I known a solitude as complete–a strangeness, a remoteness to the active and social aspects of life. And, it was not at my choosing, which, like illness, can leave one lurching and at a loss. Others had lost their homes, their livelihoods, I merely my momentary freedom, the electric or gas power to flee from the persistence of my thoughts. I didn’t adjust well, casting about for any activity that would allow me to put a playful or pitiful interpretation on my dingy hours in the dark, the icky frozen minutes of my daytime. And yet, poor as I felt in choices, I found much to bring me directly into the path of life, the singeing and singing third rail of existing in the minute-moment. Birds especially had me laughing with their antics–and kids when I spotted them seemed perfectly content to return to 1900, or even the Middle Ages–completely happy with a bright ball or wiggly hula hoop.
With my eye on a page, I could deluge my mind with Tahitis and Mt Fugis. Confined as I was by my situation, I only felt free when I confined myself even more–damned to the gossipy rectangle of a book. Writing, too, put me right with existence, made me engage where I would wither. Where my eyes and senses reached, my words could turn a phrase that ordered the spectacle. Words helped me to execute spastic-tastic pratfalls like a comic, rather than simply stumble like a bum.
Up past midnight-- My bleary urine Is all echoey. So quiet now.... I finally notice: No wind. Tonight The only lanterns are the eyes Of a stray cat. The flea's eye Looks up piteously-- From under my thumbnail. After a long night Leaning toward the radio.... The Star-Spangled Banner! Watching cats After the hurricane's devastation-- I, too, will sleep on it. Even now-- Rainwater still hurries To the drain. Alone in the cold room The single candle flame Shivers!
I was going to waffle on here about “spiritual knowledge,” how hardship focuses the mind, but I was distracted out of my thoughts by a simple click of a light switch from the hallway. My homeless roomie is home and about to start sorting though a few big plastic storage boxes removed from her washed-out apartment. I think I should put some tea on for us in case she wants to share stories as old items rise like ghosts from her boxes–a red turtleneck with hanging arms, the watery whicker of a cubic zirconium bracelet, some dry photos fortuitously rescued–any small thing that speaks of home.
How much better to make tea than to go on prating!
Sometimes I can come off sounding more pompous than I really feel–that’s my Achilles’ heel. I’ve always been too fond of the kettledrums! Being a bit of a sorcerer’s apprentice can get you into some fine adventures, but when you trip up, everyone notices that the starry robe you are tangled up in is two sizes too large for you. That’s how it is when I think of living a spiritual life, of directing my feet the way greater feet have gone…. It’s all very much mouse-tracks lost in a dinosaur footprint!
These haiku, these little mouse-tracks, have helped me to remember my keel–though my boat be overwhelmed, the seas feisty and white. I’ll send them out to others done-in by this hurricane, or perhaps to those enchanted by the tragic magic nature has mastered. I’ll send them up my ratty mast–signal flags in the storm. Perhaps a few of them will join the sunken booty abandoned beneath the skinny bridge into Keyport, where even now a fallen Mercury engine lies, its black prop spun only by the passing current.
No matter how late I look out, At least one car creeping. Unseen In the lonely night-rain-- A white, wet snakeroot-flower. At cold midnight, I wake to the faint smell Of snow. A gnat, No matter how small-- My attention. Carrying a candle-- In an unexpected mirror, My burning face. After Sandy, This simple blue sky… Feels mistaken.
My ignorance and lack of freedom of movement left me with a very difficult personal crisis, a crisis of conscience: I knew people were suffering, but not what to do about it. Where was there a place to volunteer? How could I get there myself? One of the saddest things I saw during the blackout and the days of the odd/even rationing system for gas, were a few dogged FEMA pickup trucks rolling through our silent, storm-trashed apartment parking-lot one dusk, just as the deeper cold was coming on. They seemed like some Stephen King parody of the ice-cream man, handing out MREs and bottled water. It just felt so wrong to be taking any charity–to need any charity. Although my one neighbor did her best to persuade me to grab a few as she sent her kids running back to the idling FEMA truck for seconds, waving a red box in the air over her head and calling out “Cheez-Its!”
And so I have composed this sort of prose rosary, linked by twinkly haiku, to hold my hurricane experiences and prayers in a single loop of words. There is a hope in me that seeks restlessly for a perch–as a bird flying many days over the sea seeks landfall–that those unhoused by the hurry-up of this hurricane will also find a loop to hold them together, a warm abode for the spirit as well as a bed and roof for their bodies.
What had started out as a distraction from daily routine had been transformed–one exploding electrical transformer at a time–into a confrontation with my existential self. Who was I when the lights went out? When my world was drowning and the ship’s captain was nodded out on rum-tumblers of cuba libres, to what disastered dingy did I cling? On an horizon without an end, with myself but a dot in the matrix, what continued of my essential being? Of what our crafty, absent Creator had crafted, what of me had survived–and how did that surviving dot get on with it?
As cold as it is, Still, today, the wind is littler --Flapping this torn eyelid Of Tyvek. Deep inside the sunny rose-- A shadow, A bee. Under the grassblade's shadow A little finger of frost Persists. Winter mind-- To the frozen flower I send a butterfly. The leafblower men, Small hurricanes on their backs, Return to work.