Seeing light in the dark

Hurricane Sandy kicked our asses--hard too. Frankenstorm lived up to its name as it left devastation in its tracks--110 people dead, hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and millions without power. A week after being pummeled by this freak storm, thousands in the northeast are still without electricity or heat and many, too many, are trying to figuring out how to begin rebuilding their lives. The financial losses caused by Hurricane Sandy are in the billions. This storm had ramifications far beyond the states it touched. (Hello Presidential election!)

The City that never sleeps was forced to turn off the lights. In the scheme of things, the monster storm that caused so much mayhem and devastation, left me, a downtown Manhattanite, unscathed. I lost power, heat, and water for a week. Yes, I was a bit of a refugee sleeping, eating, and bathing in friends homes. But as the Spanish saying goes, no paso nada. The brilliant photograph above by Iwan Baan and this week's New York Magazine cover brilliantly captures the darkness that I lived for five days. But, oh, was I surrounded by light. Let me explain...

My Internet gone and shoddy telephone service left me very much disconnected and in this darkness and I was able to experience a new side of not just my city, but my neighbors and fellow New Yorkers.

Below 34th Street, when the sun went down, it was both eerily creepy and wondrous. Magic realism at is best. Walking around my neighborhood in Chelsea and the Village I looked up and saw something I never, ever see: brilliant stars. It was scary too, as a woman walking in the dark in City streets, there is a sense of vulnerability that overcame me. But the light of the moon in all it's incandescent beauty was a sight to see and all the fear was forgotten. At one point, I just stood in a corner, engulfed by darkness that you only get to experience in the woods, and I heard the sound of quiet. It was a sensual experience. I wished that I had the ability of poetry so that I could compose an ode to this other New York that I was living.

One of the things that I discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was that there is nothing like living in the dark to force someone to see the light.

Hurricane Sandy compelled New Yorkers who would normally not talk to each other to drop their gadgets, tough guard, game face, and everyday hustle to assist and talk to each other.  It also forced everyone to be present, in their own company and face themselves. I met so many amazing people and more than that--I bonded with total strangers, all day long. I was not alone. I overheard interactions and witnessed these connections and conversations everywhere I walked. I knew we were being given a gift even if it was sent to us under extremely harsh circumstances.

As the "powerless" gathered around bakeries, community centers and stores that had generator power to charge phones, tablets,  laptops, we were also recharging our spirits. Whether we realized it or not, those fleeting conversations, about all sorts of things, politics, education, fashion, art, gasoline, our less fortunate neighbors on Staten Island, the Rockaways, New Jersey, or the discomfort of doing the number two in a toilet that didn't flush-- these conversations and connections were nourishing parts of us that so many did not even know were hungry.

Everyone was gabby and that was weird. The storm blew open people who normally don't have time for small talk. I know this because as a journalist, in New York, people simply don't like talking too much. They got no time for that. You get the essentials. It takes skills to get a New Yorker to stop and chat. They are busy making money, chasing dreams, protecting themselves from intrusion and you are lucky if you get a smile, let alone a chat. This way of life is not normal to people in other parts of the country and the world where everyone small talks in cafes, parks, corners but not in the heart of Manhattan. Here, its the hustle and bustle of a metropolis that has to keep churning and talking small talk with strangers is simply not part of the nomenclature. But this storm was a game changer. Left with no choice --we had to surrender to the essentials: connecting with each other and in many cases and for the first time in a long time, to ourselves.

One new friend shared how she could not remember the last time she sat on her couch and listened to music in the candlelight. Her deceased father had given her a small transistor radio that she'd never opened. Her father she said, came to visit her in her dreams the night she used the radio, something he hadn't done since his death a year earlier.

Another new friend shared how his mother, visiting from Hong Kong, was forced to stay longer. Son and mother were given a few more days to be with each other, even if she complained that she had to take third world baths in a first world country! Another buddy opened his tapas restaurant against all odds, Barraca, with a generator bought from across town. He served delicious meals in candle light. His staff carpooled, biked, walked to make it to work. At night, a projector played movies on the side of the refrigerated truck that also contained its food, :Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," finished the night.

Ingenuity reigned. Generosity too.

Friends opened their homes for showers, warm meals, sleep overs, or just to talk. Volunteers helped in recovery efforts. Yes, people looted, but a lot more loved.  These kinds of disasters also have a way of forcing us to readjust our lives, whether we are ready or willing.

I saw a tree upended, it's deep roots naked for all to see--what was underground, was now above. And so it happens with a crisis, if you allow it: you can see deep your roots the things that you hardly ever see when things are going well or buried. These moments can serve as a way to learn to let go of the things that do not matter and cherish the ones that do. To examine your world, your friends and relationships with a new set of eyes in raw, even, pure light. Transformation happens in revelation if you let it. People rise or fall during these times, their character, where they are in their life journey, shows itself. And you make choices with new information about how you want to live your life.

Being quiet and dark, disconnected from anyone, without phone service, or cable, Internet, in the middle of New York City in the wee hours, I felt vulnerable but not debilitating vulnerable-- good vulnerable-- it was profoundly empowering too. I thought I needed a hurricane husband at the beginning of the storm, and I realized that I had me. I also have an awesome best friend.

I know that I am not alone in my experience of knowing that this hurricane was also in a strange way, a gift. As rumors started flying that the power was going back, some of my new friends were a little misty. They were nostalgic already because life would soon be returning to normal. And normal is not really normal. Could it be that as much as light as we have everyday, this light and power is the thing that is keeping us in the dark?