Tao #47 by Lao Tzu Without crossing your welcome mat, You can tour London and Peking; Without drawing the curtain, The Milky Way spills in your lap. The farther out, the less within-- Therefore, sit still and be wise. Point out the truth though you are blind, And accomplishments will fall at your feet! Hey diddle diddle, The cat and the fiddle-- And Sandy ran away with the moon! My house, I say. But hark to the sunny doves That make my roof the arena of their loves ~~Robt. Louis Stevenson
Nailing his windows shut, I help my neighbor Lift the plywood. The old blue storm-sign Gets spray-painted over in red: Get lost
I have never liked to travel, having a dislike of the confusion of new scenes, but I find myself hamstrung at home as well with a deep sense of offended opprobrium at the repetitiousness of the local rituals of the Jersey Shore–beginning with Bar A and ending with the not-quite-naked strip joints like Untouchables that used to line Highway 35 up toward South Amboy.
Too lazy to travel, I wait for the busy weather To come knocking.
Despite this distaste for my native land, there are many quiet corners of Monmouth County that I treasure as a field mouse treasures his fluffy burrow. Indeed, it was during the occurrence of Hurricane Sandy (which changed practically the whole coastline of my state) that I first really felt the impermanence of even the big communal things that everyone is always shoving in your face–the facile fun of shore amusement parks, or the desirability of certain high-class/high-cost views of the Atlantic Ocean you can get from Rumson or Deal townships.
From the old boardwalk, I take a last look at the sea Before it changes.
My second-story garden hut contains books, some plants, and myself. I dragged the biggest plant inside–a palmtree that squats with his green mustachelike leaves poking over the balcony railing–making my knees creak unexpectedly.
Watering plants With a pointy watering can Before the hurricane. Heavy with watering, I drag the big palmtree in Out of the rain.
The newscast flickered bright in the dim room. There was a watery holocaust on the way in the form of a Halloween “Frankenstorm” with the improbably friendly name, Sandy. All of the dynamically flowing charts of the globe had blinking red arrows pointing straight to Atlantic City; a weather-woman with perfect features would follow the blinking arrows with an even, smooth, flowing motion of her arm, ending with a cute frown at the camera. I took a long stroll in the unseasonably warm evening air, noting the suddenly colorful fall leaves that had come out in the last week, returned home, did nothing for a few hours, and then went to bed as usual.
Looking out from my condo-- A bird on its slender perch Looks back. On the windowsill, Just before the autumn hurricane hits, A dead bee.
The next two days went by engaged in work and poetry. I was putting together essays and stray snippets of prose–mostly to amuse myself, but also, more simply, to offer what instruction I had to offer to anyone who thought they might profit from it. An author digs his grave with words many times before he lays down upon his final page, his spine aligned with the book’s spine, Finis printed neatly on the bottom of his left shoe. The news was just as insistent as it had been the week before, with grey pinwheel swirls of the hurricane’s progress crawling across the Caribbean. I made another cup of hot coffee and hunched into my sofa.
So carefully! My neighbor parks his truck Under the tree that will crush it. --So carefully!
My girlfriend wanted to stop by the day before the official start of the hurricane to hang out for a few hours and catch up on what each of our weeks had been like. We laughed a lot and ended up dancing around in my living room singing all the words to “Crocodile Rock” before she got too sleepy to drive home to South Jersey on just one cup of instant coffee.
Somehow the livingroom floor, Usually so reserved, really enjoyed Our dancing on it! Anxious to get home To catch the hurricane-- A quick kiss, And no rain-hat! Hurricane Sandy-- Slowly the house sucks in its breath Before the guest arrives.
Later that same night an old poet friend dropped in. We stayed up until the moon quit buying us rounds, discussing all aspects of our mutual obsession with poetry. I think the idea of a hurricane reminded us both of how poetry had come upon us when we were young–and rushed though our lives, changing everything.
Before the hurricane, Up all night laughing and drinking To poetry! After our pre-hurricane party A vulnerable stack of bottles and dishes Leans in the sink. "Storm-fear"-- There's some Robert Frost poem.... Ah! My Kindle remembers.
The next day, I woke up painfully late into a breezy overcast day. Leaves on the trees seemed to rustle for attention before falling off onto the still-green lawn. Was I getting anxious? I started pacing around the apartment in my socks, looking under stray objects that had been in the same place on the shelf for years and expecting to see–what exactly?
What else to do? I count the handy batteries On the refrigerator shelf.
I spent the afternoon doing many things, eventually. Going to the grocery store, getting a newspaper, writing a few last minute “stay safe” emails to friends I hadn’t called in eons, watching the kids in the neighborhood play and run, answering a mistaken doorbell ring. Owners walk their dogs quickly as the wind picks up.
On my nose, A first bit of rain distracts me Out of my thoughts. Muddy children push Their wooden boats Through enlarging puddles. Just before I pick it up-- A breeze makes Hurricane Sandy's portrait fidget In the early edition.
“Clean-up in aisle four!” A clerk with a busy look ran down the aisle at the A&P pushing a mop in a wheeled bucket. Just before Hurricane Sandy hit, in the rush of moms to procure H2O for their young ones, a gallon jug of water had been spilled on the tiled floor near the nearly empty shelves. Outside the store, abandoned shopping carts piled up by Subarus as squirrels hurriedly buried a few final winter chestnuts.
Afternoon before the thunder-- For the first time No Big Wheels roar In the empty courtyard. First evening of the hurricane, The kids are unhappy Being called in to dinner.
Filling the tub with potential toilet flushes was one ritual of readiness I remembered from childhood. There was always something so big about the hollow sound of drawing cold water into the bath. It seemed such a lot of water, full to the overflow vent, causing waves of coolness to lift off an agitated surface that would eventually calm its streaky brightness into the image of your own face.
Is there any reason other than a hurricane to draw such a cold bath? Even babies and dirty puppies require tepid water. I thought of the gelid end of the doctor’s stethoscope and gave an involuntary shiver as I turned the tap shut. Almost done with my prep list!
Before the hurricane Even gets here-- A stormy heart. In the rising wind-- Pages of a book I can no longer read Flip idly. Over the shore This first night, boardwalk lights Keep their pink. Down at the marina Every guy-line receives A goodnight tug. Hearing yet again of Hurricane Sandy, A small wind licks The back of my neck.
The shared news of an on-coming storm had both myself and my neighbors chatting much more than usual. The usual recluse in his mashed-down snow cap called out: “You ready, Irish?” Then he cackled and gave a friendly wave without waiting for a reply.
As the hurricane comes on, I stick my head out the window And nod to neighbors. First hurricane evening-- Summer fans twirl idly, The windows thrown wide! Windstorm night-- The vertical blinds Shudder like icicles! The night gale is rising-- The wind has a sound Of tearing tinfoil.
Anything you really, carefully examine begins to resemble everything else you have ever examined. What they have in common is you, your process of examination. There’s the famous haiku:
Fanning myself: I watch myself wanting: Fan, move!
This is what struck me most strongly as I began my examination of the hurricane that was to engulf the entire existence of the only world I had ever lived in. Everything around me began to take on a double meaning; the Halloween candy was wrapped in enigma and revelation.
An autumn leaf Plastered to the kitchen window, Trying to get dry.
Thinking I would have the long hurry-up go-nowhere of the storm to myself, I received an unexpected phone call from an old roommate. Her name is Sunny. Ironic, huh?
Evacuation orders Unhouse thousands-- Snowflakes on damp asphalt. Last minute hurricane call-- No message except to say "Can I live with you?"
Finally, I stood staring out the window as the sun went down behind a swirl of misty grey cloud cover that had been hanging over the region for a few days already. We were all living under the overhang of Sandy’s big straw hat, and had been for some time.
An unexpected guest-- Blown into my flying scarf-- Hello, nettle-leaf! Ruminating before the storm, I find myself unavoidable: Hurry up, Sandy! Pre-hurricane trees-- Shadows enlarge and blur-- Which way will they fall?
That night, my friend moved in her cats and about 16 gallons of Evian “emergency water.” I kept waking up to scribble this or that down irritably, look out the windy window, and then pull the covers back over my head.
Rain driven in under the sill-- How the drops of water Stay wet!
Just as I was putting a towel alongside the leaking window, something in the headlights of my evacked friend’s old Pontiac caught my eye–like a green flicker of wind–as she slipped her car into an open slot.
A single grassblade Being itself: A single grassblade.
Her cats carried in and settled, we were ready for the onslaught of the storm. Mostly, we watched it swirling and nearing on the TV news. My old friend in the house (safe for the moment) played sudoku on her iPad.
Feeling scared together, NASA pics show us Our smallness. Anxious in the storm, We eat Chinese by candlelight And read our fortunes.
I had had a few last minute “Are you ready for Sandy?” conversations with other folks in the complex a little earlier in the day. Later, I would get up periodically through the night to check on the storm’s progress.
Interviewing neighbors-- They are cheerful, mostly, Under wind-blown frowns. Distracted faces pass-- Neighbors gone wandering For cell service. * * * * As night comes down, Not even my thoughts Keep pace.
In the darkness of that first night, I felt both cavalier and concerned. Time dilated in my mind, and my fingertips tingled, as if witchcraft could be conjured by their twiddling. But, of course, nothing happened. There was only the darkness of my thoughts, and the surprising softness of the air outside that I let in through windows pulled wide-open on one side of the apartment, since there was very little rain accompanying the black rush of air that came on cool as a kiss blown by a lonely Frost Giant.
The wet balcony at 3 a.m. Feels as narrow As a footstool. The railing shivers In the driven rain --So cold! Even in this wind-- The skinny neighbor on his balcony Lights up.
Once up, and wandering around my place in silent slippers, I followed my curiosity through several self-concerned revolutions of thought until I finally gave up on myself and wanted to see just what was going on in the whooshing world around me. I went down to the front door in my hand-sewn moccasins, my eyes as big and hungry as the bleak end of a vacuum hose–trying to suck in every available sight.
In the wet floodlit portico, A squirrel chewing seeds Thoughtfully. Kittens like the dark-- What fun they have, Attacking my feet! In the lightning flash-- Unlit Ikea lamps Spawn shadows. In this strange gale The wind is searching For the rain.... Rush rush rush.... Wither wither wither? --The wind! Such a gale! The kite falls off its shelf Delightedly!
There’s a lightness to all things, rightly conceived. Not a lack of seriousness, so much as a spirit of un-seriousness–a playfulness in the ever-present immanence of joy just beneath the surface. Even our most hellacious heartaches are but the base notes of a vast symphony of being, whose melody delights. Would you rather be bound to the Catherine wheel of your misery, or be able to laugh at your fragility? Old age afflicts, but a whistle’s quickness lifts the heart forever.
The mind makes mistakes. --Just so.-- We notice it. The body decays-- A face drawn in dough changes As the dough rises. Death, too, is part of this-- A broken branch falls as easily As a leaf.
Somewhere in the dark, the wind revved itself up in a series of vicious gusts–variations on a theme–wailing and whining like a hand-cranked siren. What was the wind doing, moving so awfully fast in the big dark?
Hold on roof! The sky is asking You to dance!
A nameless bird Brings nightfall, singing An unknown word. The hurricane flies-- Starlings Grip the maple tree.
That first night of the hurricane seemed both too long and too short. Experiences were heightened by their newness, and I kept trying to expect the unexpected as the “Frankenstorm” kept bringing its magnificent indifference to bear upon my weak house. Before I knew it, a soft core of light was asserting itself to the east. There was no sun particularly, but colors began to leak back into the world–the deep greenness of a pine tree, the paleness of water on a wet slate step.
Hurricane dawn-- At the edges of the street, Colors without sunlight. Walking outside, I hadn't expected this: The sky's a watercolor. Beside these pleasant marigolds Of what use Is a hurricane? Waking up after a storm night-- The wind blowing in my dreams Has been busy!
Unexpected pockets of good humor came out as I realized I might not have to put in a full day at work that Monday. I put on a pot of coffee and sat back with the Star Leger, cracking it open with a practiced flick. As a joke on the American (and NTA’s) fondness for holidays, I read that Halloween for the state of New Jersey was pushed ahead almost a full week to the following Monday. There was even some gossip about postponing the Presidential election because of the expectation of widespread power outages–and, more seriously, of canceling the New York Marathon. Ridiculous!
Halloween Hurricane-- Shingles on the lawn Spell 'boo!' NYC hurricane-- Watch out! ...Donald Trump's toupee.
We’d had some damage, but the newscast confirmed the worst was to come that night at eight, an unusual confluence of high tide, full moon, and the stormfall surge of the hurricane. Sandy’s big splash in the national media garnered a flurry of phone calls throughout the day–concerned voices without faces that were usually so wry and acerbic. I could hear the sunshine in the voices of my Cali friends, so many miles away, blowing me their happy hurricane kisses!
Late autumn wind-- The unsorted leaves fall Unescorted.
As the day carried on, I got used to Sandy’s rising ghostlike “Ooooo”ing, and even began to assume that nothing much would happen that second night when the “triple threat” of full moon, high tide, and storm surge landfall were all scheduled for eight o’clock.
Against the window Blue with rain.... The cat sleeps. Hurricane cypress, From exclamation point Curls to questionmark. Trees lean together, Swaying like drunks Drinking the wind! Hurricane night-- No moon for me To philosophize about.
“Blow you hurricanoes, crack your cheeks!” King Lear was being rerun on PBS this second night–whether by coincidence or plan, I don’t know. How bleakly Larry Olivier delivered the despairing king’s soul into my cossetting lair. How wild and blank the heath! How foolishly apt the wily fool! How tragic indeed that accomplished men of the world, men of power and knowhow like the royal Lear can be so deceived by their own energy and effectiveness. It is not pride, exactly, but ability well and often executed to a tee that tricks noble and the wicked equally. This world’s painted on panes of candy glass we race through like finish ribbons–congratulating ourselves on our victories while reality lies in stained-glass shards all around us.
I most like those things I don’t often hear from others–odd comments, rueful truths reluctantly revealed–and Sandy gave me plenty of that! Tragedy is a stranger to modern America–and that is a long and often un-remarked-upon blessing. Our animal minds are built to scan the horizon and see saber-toothed tigers, limb-rending dangers, and other such vicious threats that in our common communal American life are (more or less) absent. But a hurricane 1,000 miles in diameter is not to be ignored or brushed off. Sandy was a talkative disaster, and I spent many days listening to little else than her winds and her black, hushed mumblings. When the power cut out, all of the quibbling clocks finally agreed. To be thrown out of one’s century and back to one’s most lonely childhood, TV-deprived days is of a significance equal to the autumn change of leaves, the aging of one’s thoughts, the limited energy that a single organism can bring to life–which is but the boring boing and unwinding of a crimped chemical entropy clock–at best.
After all those long slow strolls-- Who knew the boardwalk Was a surfboard! In the dark The hurricane Gets louder. Invisibly, A neighbor says hello Behind his lantern. Pitch black, Howling gutter-rattler-- To bed as usual, Glasses on the nightstand. Haiku fall-- Leaves from a hidden tree I hadn't noticed. Right around midnight-- A half-dozen blown transformers Blaze black clouds sun-orange.
Now was our first time properly alone as host and guest. We each let out an involuntary “whoo-hoo” when the lights clicked off. Then there was some excited rushing about for lanterns, and the selection of the night’s candles: Scented or not? Fat and rosy, or thin as a whisper?
Stories of other hurricanes poured from us as the wind raced beyond the open screen–for it was a strangely rainless gale in our small corner of the storm. Sunny had the best tales, having lived in The Highlands for over a decade with its low-to-the-water business area and its uppity-high safe houses painted a crazy-quilt torrent of poorly-chosen colors. During one particularly fluid nor’easter, Sunny had run outside to reverse her car onto higher ground, with bread-bags and sandals on to keep her feet dry–and was nearly floated out of her driveway into the flood!
Hand-cranking the radio, DJs chuckle at the hurricane From far away. From the dead fridge, A half-frozen tropical popsicle Tastes like sunshine. Hurricane beer-- So warm and So good! Watching pipe smoke In the hurricane.... Watching pipe smoke.... Putting away my pipe, I keep my lighter out Beside the candles. For a second night, On both sides of the window --Just as dark.
Anticipation magnifies any experience. And we had been caught up in a warp speed bubble of hype about Sandy. I wondered when the couch would fly out the screendoor like a magic carpet and kidnap me up to heaven to kiss the very lips of the wind! But, despite my geared-up fancy, I found the reality of the storm a changeful enough challenge. What’s real may lack something in imaginative exultation, or excess–the piling up of improbabilities until we giggle or our eyes go wide with disbelief, but reality has a way of stretching, detail by detail, our thoughts until they match the actual matrix of things. With the lights out, I thought, no one sees our happiness. Like earthworms coring out the soil so that, unknown to their small blind minds, other roots may delve more easily, so we dive into reality–and by simply participating create more than we can imagine.
Not too bad-- Alone with my thoughts Beside this candle. Without a nightlight, I reach outside my window And click on the moon. Quick, fireflies! Help me pick up This evening's heavy darkness. Such noise outside! Hurricane candles Burn silently. Sirens Through the windstorm Sound red. All night in the hurricane Words blow about loudly As trash cans.
The night came and went. What had been wished for or feared either materialized or dissipated like a snuffed candle’s smoke….
Even with all these troubles The trash man rolls through Politely at 7 a.m. Joking barefoot on the porch With cigarettes and cold coffee-- If only we knew how bad it is! Without power, Many more apartments Lift their shades. The late shrub-blossom Tips, spills onto my face-- Yesterday's hurricane. Dogs pull their owners, Picking up hurricane sticks-- Wet and happy. Trees after the storm-- Only now do I see How patiently they were waiting!
Going to view the storm damage-- On the doorknob, A single evergreen leaf. Stepping outside.... After the hurricane, only the grass Looks the same.
It turns out, just by taking a few steps beyond my door there was no end to the incidents and adventures available in my own neighborhood. Going down one street, trees had been felled by a troop of invisible lumberjacks, holding their deep roots up for the most minute inspection as if they were being robbed of their underpants. Getting near a big evergreen that had gone over, peeling back as it had fallen a sinuous line of sod along the driveway’s asphalt edge like foil peeled back to reveal a meaty lasagna, the overwhelming smell was not of mud, despite the wet (nor of lasagna, despite the image)–the smell was of fresh dry loam and mossy roots–a sunny day on a broad fairway and a clear shot to a golden layup. I was pinged back to warm June possibilities–and the busy nest of maggoty worms (or whatever they were exactly) seemed distressed to be so turned out of their summer home–and on such a prosaically rainy day too!
After the storm's destruction, My neighbor looks out from his doorway Holding a big broom. Finicky seagulls Pillage bins of spoiled meat, Discarding the lesser cuts. This reminds me of a haiku by Joso, to wit: Among blossoming cherries A woodpecker pecks-- Hunting for deadwood. The long wooden fence Torn open by the storm-- Must've been a gate In another life. Through a crack in the fence --A new shoot Of green laurel.
Crossing into Keyport, I stopped at the local WaWa, the only food outlet for miles with a generator, which allowed them to open their doors that day–cash only. The only line was for coffee, caffeine being the mental health drug of choice among adult Americans. And the line snaked through the whole building and out the door. Regular or decaffeinated? The theological debate in the line was fierce.
Waiting for hot coffee A hundred pairs of muddy shoes Face one way. People pulled To the WaWa, the wifi, the caffeine, And each other-- Black bees on a crowded sunflower.
It was in this line that I got my first dose of stories. A few shore residents had seen the actual storm surge make landfall, a green tyrant thirty feet tall, wearing a crown of white foamy thorns. Tony, a naturalized American from Costa Rica, had watched from his second story apartment window as the “tsunami” poured though, pushing boats with abandon and hitting the bay side of Ye Olde Cottage Inne, waiting for a beat of four seconds, and then bursting from the far side by the road, spilling the guts of the place out like mouthwash filled with dinner detritus, and leaving the once grand facade smiling toothlessly at the town like an idiot cousin. There were a dozen or more stories, all told with a survivor’s relish, and the hot expectation of a daily fix of coffee. When I stumbled through town a short while later, I saw what was left of the Inne; I knew I was getting close by the small flotilla of French onion soup bowls that had been sent out nearly half a mile in every direction from the destruction. Picking one of dozens up, it was still dry on the inside, and muddy on the bottom.
Where the weak reed rebounded A dragonfly hesitates-- After the hurricane. Kids touch the tacky sap-- Counting aloud the cut-open rings Of hurricane trees. Mist on the sea-- Just where the hurricane came in, Storks float home. Bright orange safety jackets Move over the wreckage in Keyport-- I feel I am helping.
Crossing back out of Keyport, with acres of bay-blasted wreckage behind me (and acres of wind-wrestled wreckage before), I bumped into a reporter for the Star Ledger in front of Bob’s Hot Dog House. Bob’s was squished flat as a runcible tophat–only the faded red painting of a hot dog survived as the fecund marshland unrolled behind the flattened trailer. We kibitzed about the whole area, and she gave me some good details about what had happened in other areas of New Jersey, where the newspaper had sent out its fleet of note-taking snoops.
A reporter on the road Lifts stories from the locals, Shaking gloved hands as she goes. The hurricane crow Darts brilliantly about-- Dodging raindrops! In the burnt-out house --Swung wide open-- A perfect red door. Penitently, Through the flood-busted churchdoor ...A lost frog. The Long Branch beach-- An ice cream sandwich Licked clean out! Ribbon-painted boats, Piled like discarded kites Drawn by a single string. Storm-tossed boats Jump playfully as dolphins-- Over the bridge. Loud out of nowhere-- On top of an overturned boat, A wild sparrow! Their sails like moth-wings, Little boats pile up overnight-- Attracted by the full moon!
Later in the day, as I toured a tree-decimated neighborhood littered with windfall and tangles of powerlines like the discarded ribbons from Christmas packages, I was able to take a surprisingly comfortable sunshine-nap in the topmost boughs of a downed evergreen tree. When I woke up from my doze, I discovered that I had been joined by a stray cat curled up near my feet. Good news always finds a friend, as they say.
After so much hurricane worry-- Sleep seeps in anyway, at noon, Under my eyelids. Following the disaster, Muddy footprints track back To my doorstep. Broken spines, These chainsawed cherrytrees-- Bones of the hurricane. Whole streets, houses too, Painted very minutely With mud brushes. All this mud! And still no butterfly ....Nope....Not yet. * * * * The refreshing cool Of the water coming in Washes the feet Of the water going out. ~~Ransetsu
The poem above and the poem below go together. Ransetsu takes the common conceit that “all things change,” and shows that these changes can be accepted with grace, with washing the feet of the new thing by the old thing; I think of a combo retirement-baptism party. In Ransetsu’s verse, both the thing coming and the thing going are water–again the common conceit that “all things are one thing.” I think his would be a great poem to carve at the cool water intake of a nuclear plant. The second poem plays with a similar element of graceful acceptance of the changes the hurricane has made.
Taking careful pains to wash Hurricane tchotchkes in a puddle, I place them back in the mud. Clearing the debris-- Children hold fallen shingles And look up. Still there-- Under a storm-tossed shingle-- The dewy grass. Grateful enough to make it through, The whole sky looks Like one color. Every town window reflects A world at sunset-- Destroyed. Walking home at sunset, The ruined town turns gold a moment As the wind dies. Eh, not much scarier Than dying-- This gigantic storm.
Entering The Highlands had a sort of purgatorial air, with police officers standing by road-flares reflected in the still-fresh puddles, waving cars away from a scene that looked like Godzilla had just finished shooting a Tokyo travelogue. We parked some distance from the town and had to make our way downhill toward Sunny’s neighborhood rather carefully. Live power lines still sparked here and there, and many buildings were surrounded with jagged triangles of broken glass from their busted-out windows. The Post Office, I remember particularly, was filled with undelivered bales of soggy junk mail, and the door was bending out of its frame like a playing card bowed between a dealer’s fingers.
The Post Office flooded-out-- Rainbow-finned mail Noses the bowed glass.
Workers passed through, already handing out MREs (meals ready to eat) to local homeowners whose food supplies had been rendered inedible by flood and mud. Boats tilted on front lawns, geese paddled down the middle of streets; many notable incongruities were on view as we worked our way toward Sunny’s small shotgun-style house located less than 100 feet from the ocean. We went in through her kitchen, and I helped myself to a few perishables out of the fridge while Sunny assessed the situation with her avuncular landlord–an importunately chipper Irishman named Mike.
Even with no power, Chocolate pudding Stays chocolaty. Heading south-- In a conveniently flooded backyard, Geese float a few hours. Deep in the overflow, An overturned birdhouse Warbles bubbles. Stoplights out-- The ripped-down street sign By the overturned trike. Seems like all the hurricane rains Have left the Atlantic Ocean Just as it was. Where the flood has been, Mud and destruction. --An unattended child Picks her nose.
There was a kind of homely beauty in the slovenliness of the neighborhood–an ugly uncle who lets his toenails grow, but who looks you in the eye when he shakes your hand hello. The people of the town, freed from their usual duties, and taking up new, more urgent tasks, seemed to have more than a few moments of unexpected contemplation foisted upon them–like refugees who notice the delightful fragrance of the pine-tree air freshener in the rescue truck that escapes the notice of the truck driver who hung it from the rearview mirror in the first place. To be a stranger at home is the essence of poetry; and these flooded-out folks found themselves reluctantly rushed into their usual streets which had suddenly taken on the scary characteristics of Dante’s infernal stanzas. Even the birds, having the somewhat officious appearance of housing inspectors, looked twice from the mezzanine of an intact rain-gutter before returning to their storm-struck nests.
From an intact rain-gutter, Birds eye their storm-beaten nests Hanging on broken branches. Returned to her drowned house, My old friend cries hard tears-- Flood after flood. Nobody says much-- Carrying the washed-away porch steps Back to where the porch had been. Holding a busted broom, The older lady fits it carefully Into an overloaded trashcan. Visiting with my friend-- Cheerfully she points out where The sea has visited her kitchen! All across the flooded floor Galaxies spin and swirl.... --Fresh mud! You can see here How this big tree and the power line Played jump rope! In the flooded street, Sewer lids quietly become Bubbling fountains.
There were many picturesque scenes to be viewed when walking through the newly configured town, the sidewalks squealing under your shoes. Here, a teenage girl pecked quick at her phone, annoyed at her lack of incoming texts. Just across the way from her, and still wild about the hurricane, skinned-kneed kids screamed and stomped in every puddle. Their spirits were as whirly as the leaves blowing down the broken streets. At the occassional functioning filling station, long lines of mendicants stood carrying red gas cans; a whole tiered class system arose between those who tended small electric generators in their basements and those who did not–or could not. Charles Dickens would have understood the social implications of these equations of capability and suffering. It was a most sad case, again, to contemplate in the increasing cold of the late evening–however purely the stars shined down.
The gardener goes by With his wheelbarrow Full of shingles! With a wet broom We sweep the flotsam From the car roof. A tilted hat Perched atop the rubble-- The roof of a house! My homeless friend, After so many dull nights together, I am finally glad Of your company.
The next morning after our visit to her muddied and messed-up home, Sunny drove off to storm-battered Staten Island for what turned out to be several unexpected days of work and sleepovers. I kept expecting her back after that first night, and that expectation whetted my sense of isolation, of being cut-off and incommunicado with the others of my world with whom I had formed fragile loyalties.
For the next few unplugged days and overcast nights, only the radio spoke to me. It was, frankly, quite surprising–I was often better informed concerning the status of the overall recovery effort than my few remaining neighbors, who had family and friends stuck in the nearby buildings with whom to talk.
Governor Chris Christie At the disaster press gaggle, Yelling encouragements! Geraldo on the radio Outdoes The sirens. Once again, the moon Swims over the sea, Confusing the tiny fish Hatched during the hurricane. Clear night after Sandy-- Once again I can feel the moon Against my skin. After the disaster.... We shrug Back into our lives.
Under this moon, the fuchsia orchid Grows slowly pale until I dream Only of it.
Now that the crisis is past, the orchid, which had been so perfectly pink–and poised as a butterfly over the evening candles of the hurricane–has dropped all her blossoms at once in a crumpled heap, a Salvation Army supply of donated petticoats, haphazard and bright as a flock of sleeping flamingoes. This beautiful companion of my solitude has now left me only its two broad green leaves, thick as elephant ears, and an ugly stick stem stripped of blossoms, embarrassed-seeming as a wet cat. I tried to laugh a bit at my sentimental attachment to this minuscule bit of life, but found myself instead staring at the fallen flowers for quite some time in silence, hoping they would speak to me.
What was I turning into in my frozen solitude?
To examine in my cold hands This old dented cup, First I must pour out These contents....
We put words on top of everything–as if the whole world were just a shelf for our words. After a big catastrophe, everybody has to talk about it to everybody else–to sort it out into little cubes, little syllables, of understanding. I saw this all over the place after the hurricane had blown through, wrecking houses, trucks, and lives. And I am worse than most–I felt compelled to write this booklet. That’s how desperate I am to keep from seeing what’s right before my eyes!
Basho has a poem that puts me in mind of this problem of living and seeing and talking. Somehow, his poem feels like a moment of “eureka!”, a resolution to the difficulty, and at the same time an invitation to more troubles, more genuine experience, more reality than the mote before us.
Through spring mist, Without its name I see The shapeless hill. ~~Basho Post-storm afternoon-- Is anything all that different? Even sniffing, The dogs can't tell. The next day, an old man Draws transformer explosions Excitedly in the air. After hurricane Sandy, We huddle together ….As if to ask.... Behind the rain-snail, His snail-trail widens Into flood plain.
Nature’s storms unweave our homes; time and illness unweave our bodies. Where will we go to make ourselves whole when all the world must come to the same undoing? Is a snail without his shell still a snail? There’s a well-known haiku that touches on this evanescence of appearances, but seems to affirm strongly that there is a bigger reality behind the appearances we accept–even if we’ve only accepted them for a moment, the duration of a play.
Outside the theater–
The kabuki mask is smaller
Than the actor’s face.
Perspective plays an important role in what we call real or unreal. I am not a confident Buddhist, and hesitate to believe that all we see is “unreal.” But, I do like to stay loose like a big league pitcher, and am always peering about for unusual perspectives that can open up and let a moment be more itself, less of a thought in the mind, less of an inherited opinion or precept.
No room for recycling-- The trash bin is full Of houses! So many twigs! Birds must be wanting to build More luxurious nests. Days after the hurricane, My little palmtree still sits Windless behind a window. With the hurricane gone, There returns the pattern Of my shadow.
As I had stood in my round-heeled sneakers a few days before, watching the sea whoosh back and forth sludgy and brown against the broken shoreline below Sunny’s small house, I had felt smaller than I ever remembered feeling outside of childhood. From higher up by the highway, I looked around The Highlands and thought of Ozymandius and his “trunkless legs of stone.” My identity was sucked out of me by the reconfigured context of the surrounding disaster–my individual voice was no more than the autumn wind into which it went. Even the sea herself, though vast and changeful, had been, in the distant past, a desert on the very shore where she had raged that day. Give up the names you call yourself, oh brother snail, oh animal man!
This unbelievable flood-- Even so, There's a dryness in it. Standing at the ocean's edge, I....-- The wind of autumn. Where the beach was, There's a wet, sour smell --Over there.
I made it into the Cranford office for a single day on what turned out to be my last tank of gas for a week. Most of the others there were dealing with some version of my same circumstances–sometimes with small children. This one had a fireplace to face in the darkness, that one had a gas stove they kept roiling vats of water upon sending steam into cold rooms; a few had packed up the entire family to move in with in-laws. One co-worker, still roughly unshaven himself, mentioned that as soon as their freezer went out, they moved all of the good meat up to his mother-in-law’s house in Bergen County. I was intrigued by the number and variety of impromptu arrangements everyone had made, and it reminded me of the woman who left her cats floating on an air mattress with a dish of dry food and water! The cats survived fine, their paws only wetted by their careful cleaning licks. I felt surprisingly unself-conscious in my curiosity about everyone else.
After the hurricane, Everyone wants to be back at work To discuss it. Gazing thoughtfully At my scraggly co-workers-- I, too, scratch my stubble. In the sparse light, My hurricane beard comes in Quite white! * * * * The silent orchid In my cold apartment Keeps trying To teach me.
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.
Knowing how way leads on to way, How time hesitates, but never stays, I pause to acknowledge what had me play, --Beyond the ache of loneliness--in the grey stormy day.
I have never been a fan of the small art of texting. Hovering bumbling over awkward keys, tapping out an oblique morse code, three times on the five key to get a J, three6sforanO, two5sforaK, andtwo3sforanE. It just seemed like a joke to me.
But my dear friend, CPH, who knew about the possibility of a major power outage, suggested that I keep my peeps updated throughout whatever the next days entailed by texting haiku to the universe. The jittery mouse-steps of this tapped-out trail lie in your hands.
GGB Nov. 25th, 2012, my birthday