Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Weathering the Storm

I venture outside for the first time in many hours. I follow the stream of Hudson Heights neighbors heading mid-morning towards the park, many with young kids, some with dogs, all breathing a collective sigh of relief while exploring the aftermath of "Tropical Storm Irene," now downgraded from a hurricane.

At first, it's a trickle of brave adventurers. Shortly after waking up, I open the window and look out onto the sidewalk one flight below. A woman and two toddlers in yellow raincoats are standing along with their dog. I hear her say to another woman who approaches, "we had to get out. It's so stuffy and hot inside." Then she turns to her kids and says, "well, I don't know. Let's wait until your dad gets up." They move on. I'm left wondering what was the question?

Now, arriving at the corner, I turn to go down stairs, which enter Ft. Tryon Park. I stop. A fallen tree covers the stairs and blocks entry. Suddenly, a man in a bright yellow jacket emerges through the fallen branches and undaunted, continues up the steps and walks past me out onto the street. Amazed, I stand still considering options. Just then, I see a man and a young girl, who I imagine is his daughter turn towards the stairs. They stop in front of me looking down at the debris below. I hear him say, "I guess we won't go that way." They turn around. The three of us make eye contact to acknowledge mutual assessment of the situation. Then they turn towards the street and keep going. I follow.

The previous evening, I call George, our co-op's board president, and propose to offer an indoor Potluck Tea Party in the building's lobby the next day. "We might be feeling cooped-up by tomorrow," I say, "and I have all the supplies to do this." I invite him to visit to get a taste of the party. George asks, "how much notice do you need?" I say, "oh, I don't know, a couple of hours?" He says, "ok, I'll call you in the morning. Let's see what happens with the storm." "Sounds good," I reply.

The previous night at TenRen Tea in Manhattan's chinatown, I am making smiley heartflower cards with a little girl age 4. Her dad Derrick, who manages the shop, stops by and says that at home, "she calls you auntie." I smile, feeling a surge of warmth in my chest, and looking up, see her mom smiling from across the room.

After giving away our cards to Derrick's coworkers and some customers, she and her parents head home. Now only three people remain. Anna, who is closing the shop, another customer, and myself. I sit and sip. Before long, with minutes to go until closing time, I pick up my bag, say goodbye to Anna, and head for the door. Then, I suddenly get a spark of inspiration. I ask her, "is there time to buy some tea?" She smiles and nods her head, "yes, of course." We head over to the other side of the store. "Jasmine, please."

She brings down a huge tin of loose leaf tea and pulls off the cover. "How much?" she asks. Unsure, I say, "I want to make tea for my neighbors." She suggests, "half a pound?" I reply, "perfect." This kind of intuitive connection between us is one of the many marvels of being "tea friends." Within minutes, I say goodbye as we wish one another safety through the hurricane, and head for home.

Earlier that day, I call the shop from work. I ask to speak with Cindy. Hong Kong transplant and mother of five, Cindy and her family live near Coney Island. This is a part of town designated for evacuation. She and her husband walk nightly on the beach. We promise each other that "one day soon" we will walk together over the Brooklyn bridge. An avid gardener, she often brings flowers to the teashop, even placing a delicate arrangement in the bathroom using a tiny paper cup and a moistened paper towel as a vase. Today, I ask Cindy if her family needs somewhere to stay. She thanks me, then says they'll be staying with her daughter.

I'm relieved to hear this. It's been quite a week.

Three days earlier, I step into my primary care doctor's waiting room to get checked out for mild chest congestion and a sore throat, which I've been nursing for a few days. I check in with the receptionist. She seems a bit distracted. I notice a woman next to me rapidly pushing buttons on her cellphone. She looks distressed. I say hello. She says, "I just heard we had an earthquake. The center is in Richmond, Virginia. My aunt lives there. I'm trying to reach her." I say, "I hope she's ok." She says, "thanks" and puts the phone to her ear. I turn to the receptionist, asking if she felt the quake. She nods yes like she's in shock. I pull out my Blackberry and go online. One site reports, "Quake registers as 5.8 at 1:51pm."

I post on my Facebook wall:

"an earthquake?... was on subway, didn't feel it. heard epicenter in Richmond, VA"

My friend Vivian, an eco-lawyer and consultant, replies within minutes:

"Yep...epicenter less than 50 miles from us here in VA." She adds, "we're ok. got a bit of a mess to cleanup and the dog is freaked out."

She states the time it happens being shortly before 2pm.

Less than an hour earlier, I check the red light display indicating the time as the #6 train pulls into the 23rd street station. 1:53pm. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don't want to be late for my 2:15 appointment. I step onto the platform, then walk upstairs to the street. From there, I head to the doctor's office.

Now in his reception room, I feel a resonance in my body, a subtle inner quake, that connects to another day approaching. 9/11. The tenth anniversary.

After my check-up, just before leaving the doctor's office, I check my phone for email and see a message from my friend Nic in Portland, OR. He writes, "we sent Classon on her way. I buried her."

Fifteen years earlier, Nic and a wandering puppy find each other on a street in Brooklyn named Classon. She barks. He responds. Now, he shares a poem. I read the first few lines:

Tears of love, for Classon,
soft, brown eyes
gazing gently
across the bedroom floor
rapt with mine
held together
by the warm embrace of love.

I feel tears in my eyes and on my cheek. Three months back, visiting Nic and Annie, his wife and also my close friend, I kneel down to hold Classon. I am leaving for the airport. This is goodbye. I gaze into her eyes. I feel her heartbeat. I'm aware that this is likely the last time we'll breathe together. The warmth we share comforts as tears moisten my face and hers.

Now, arriving at the Subway, I get on the train. I pause for a few mindful breaths, reconnecting with our last day together. I pull out my cell. By the time I get to my stop, I have written a poem, the first lines being:

Eyes filled with tears
and gratitude
for your life

All during that ride, I sense a subtle shift in kindness among fellow riders. Maybe we're all shaken up a bit, each in a different way, each reconnecting with what matters most.

The next day, I go on Facebook and see a post about the quake by Brock, a new Facebook "friend" who lives in San Jose. We meet through a mutual friend. I post a comment, sharing that a Boston pal reports feeling the quake, saying that the fault line is less broken-up on the east coast so it can be felt over greater distances. Brock responds, "Yes. . . was listening to several experts from UC Davis and UC Berkeley discuss this last night...Check this out:" and shares a link to a Scientific American article on the earthquake.

The article quotes Peggy Hellweg, a research seismologist at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory in California. She says that in the Eastern United States,

"what you've got there is gorgeous bedrock and ... the waves propagate beautifully."

Brock later responds to my comment on her remarks, "I know, completely consumed by their area of concentration with little regard to peoples actual fears. Kinda' funny to me too."

That Friday, with Hurricane Irene projected to arrive the following night, I finish up at work, and just before shutting down the computer, I go on Facebook. The same friend encourages,

"This weekend may remind us as to how short life is and how little we actually do control. Live well and love deep!"

I'm overwhelmed with a mix of awe, nervous anticipation, and gratitude. Tears blur my view of the screen. I shut down the computer, turn off the lights in the office, and head for the elevator.

The following night, at home with all mass transit shutdown, I look out the window awaiting with everyone the arrival of a hurricane. The streets are empty of people. I step outside for a last breath in the open air as rain falls lightly. Just as I'm heading back inside, the rain falls substantially heavier, making the dark sky seem ominous. Suddenly, I spot something small, white, and furry swaying low down on the sidewalk and heading towards the curb. Before thinking, I am simply aware. I now make out the small critter's black body and sizeable white-streaked tail. "Skunk," my thinking self registers.

Then thinking stops. Unafraid, my sole inclination is to join in a delicate dance of creatures in the night. I hear the rain falling as we both get increasingly drenched. Quickly enough, the skunk slides under a parked car as I keep going and soon re-enter the building. Our instincts similiar. Shelter from the storm.

Silence saturates the humid night as rain keeps falling and the wind begins to pick up. I sit at what seems a safe distance from the window and listen. A serenely vibrant flow washes over me.

Two days prior, in the early morning just before dawn, I'm meditating in a room within earshot of the cracked-open window. I hear one woman calling to another outside. She speaks with a Carribean accent. "What's that?" With agitation and urgency, another woman says, "stay away from that skunk." (Pause) "it's a dangerous animal and you don't want to get close." "Oh, ok," responds the first woman. The second one then cautions, "Go around it. Here." They move on. I sit in silence. Within minutes, my nose registers an unmistakable scent. With no label for it, I'm captivated by its familiarity. Then a thought, "skunk. . ."

That Sunday morning, after storm Irene blows through, I hear the phone ring. It's George, "looks like the storm has passed so I don't see a strong need for this party. But if you want to, go ahead. And thanks. It's nice of you to offer."

I say, "Thanks. It's my pleasure." then hang up the phone and head outside. Locating a suitable entrance to the park, I venture in and walk downhill and towards neighboring Inwood Park. Afterwards, heading back uphill, I stop for a moment and pull out my cell to call a friend, Paul, who lives in Inwood. I tell him about the party possibility and ask if he wants to help. He is eager to join in the fun and happy to hike uphill through the park. "Great!" I say and hang up. Arriving back home, I head for the kitchen and turn on the gas as a blue flame goes to work on a big pot of water. It has been sitting here since last night as a recommended reserve of potable drinking water.

Later that afternoon, Paul and I are standing in the lobby. The elevator door opens and a mess o' kids spill out. Minutes earlier, as we're setting up, a neighbor comes down and asks, "hey, is it ok if I bring ten kids down? And cheese and crackers?" We smile. I say, "Sure!"

As the kids dig in to the munchies, she shows us a special treat: dinosaur-shaped brownies. Soon, another neighbor arrives with more treats.

Offering everyone small cups of iced jasmine tea, and with colorful markers and paper nearby, we ask:

"How do you say 'whew!' in . . .?"

The responses are colorfully chaotic, contributed mostly by the kids. One toddler is having a good time tossing markers into the shopping cart used to transport the tea. Paul plays along, retrieving the markers and encouraging him, gesturing as if to say, "Score!"

More neighbors arrive, through the front door, through the side door by the mailroom, and also the stairs and elevator. The party is in full swing. Sitting beside a toddler who's drawing, I look up to check out who's here. "Wanna give her a hug?" one mom asks two young girls beside her. One must be her daughter, I register. They laugh and embrace with a natural ease. Their moms smile. I notice their eyes, which convey a shared understanding of the preciousness of the moment. I feel a warmth in my chest spreading out. The sensation is simultaneously calming and vibrant.

Hours later, walking alone in the park as sunset arrives, I walk across a large grassy field to a lookout point over the Hudson. The wind has picked up speed and intensity. I see leaves and branches swaying wildly in nearby Maple and Oak trees as a flood of sound fills my ears and spills out. The sky is awash in a deep reddish-orange glow. I snap a photo with my cell and post it on Facebook, adding these words,

"She sings a skysong. . ."

Then I turn and walk back across the grassy field onto the open road beside it. I move at a brisk pace, heading home.