On the small screen of my iPhone, the Weather Channel app showed an aerial shot of the before and after damage from the hurricane known as Irma. Even at such a small scale, the wreckage of homes and the debris thrown everywhere was obvious. That’s what 125-150 mph winds will do.
Here in Illinois, we’ll likely get the remnants of Irma in the form of a Westward-Ho rainstorm. The drops of rain will be big and the leftover winds may buffet our homes, but there will likely be little damage.
I once went out to run in the remnants of a hurricane that came north from Texas a few years ago. It was like running in a comedy. There were literal rivers of water gushing down the streets. Raindrops as big as ping pong balls splattered on my hat and shirt. People honked their horns and waved at the stupid runner trying to make headway against warm, strong winds and more water than the skies had a right to own.
We have also had tornadoes in our part of the country that destroyed homes with strong winds. Some people lost everything in those storms. Imagine walking up to the cement frame of your basement and finding all of your house gone. All of it. Along with it went those family photos, memories, and keepsakes that can never be replaced. Vanished.
The loss in those situations is not just monetary. A part of life gets ripped away as well. Yet people invariably find that material loss, whether by fire or wind or water or mudslide, is just that. Stuff.
I recall a day that I lost nearly everything I valued. Coming off a job in Admissions at my alma mater, I had packed up all my important stuff in my Plymouth Arrow and detoured north to Minneapolis with a plan to visit my girlfriend. She was due back in town from her parent’s place on Saturday, but I arrived on a Friday night and arranged to stay with some friends from college. So I settled down for a night of sleeping on the couch and waited until morning.
The next morning I rose early and went to out get my shaving kit from the car. All around the vehicle was a wide debris path of my personal belongings. Everything I owned was scattered across the parking lot. There were key things missing as well. I’d been robbed.
The thieves smashed the driver’s side front window and threw open the doors. They must have been like a band of raccoons around a garbage can, picking through things they did not want to find things they could keep or sell.
So I lost the Olympus OM-1 camera that my father and mother had given me for college graduation the year before. Gone. Also missing was the jacket portion of the Frank Shorter running suit (orange with light blue sleeves) for which I’d saved up $90 one summer to buy in advance of my senior year in college cross country and track. That suit felt like the height of luxury after years of training in boxy track pants and old cotton sweats. All I had left was the orange nylon pants, and that’s hardly a consolation.
But the thing that I really feared losing was a deerskin art portfolio that my girlfriend’s parents had given me for graduation. I knew that it was expensive. I also knew that they were fairly materialistic people, and losing that gift would not be received well.
Sure enough, my girlfriend was livid with me about that portfolio. She seemed to care more about that damn thing than she did about how I was feeling after having been robbed. That hurt.
Six months later, we’d broken up. She quickly moved on to marry the man she’d met in the Twin Cities. By all reports has led a happy life all these years. So that was all meant to be.
Perhaps it was also meant to be that I learned that day what it was like to lose things of material importance and spiritual importance. Surely it was stupid to leave a car jammed with possessions in a parking lot next to a set of railroads tracks in the urban environs of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. That was naive. Stupid. And unsuspecting.
At that stage in life, I was fearful of many things that don’t really matter, yet ignorantly unafraid of some that do.
It’s like that with so much in life. Getting robbed and at the same time realizing that the woman I loved was likely leaving for greener pastures was clear evidence of how often the security we think we own is an illusion. Millions of people learn that lesson every time a major disaster hits somewhere in America. Life tectonics, I call it.
Yet we learn from characters in the Pearl Buck story the Big Wave, how Japanese families choose to settle on the beach again after a monster wave washes away their entire community and with it, entire generations. The reviewer on NPR puts it this way:
“Pearl Buck wrote her children’s book The Big Wave because, she said, during World War II, she saw that many children “were not used to the idea of death. They thought that death comes only to old people. But during the war they learned that death comes also to the young, if we allow it.” And so she wrote a story about how two boys, a fisherman’s son and a farmer’s son, “learned to live in the presence of death, as indeed we all do, young and old.” She wanted to “help other children not be afraid of death, because life is stronger than death. Life goes on and on, whatever happens.” She wanted them to understand that it’s through facing life and its dangers that one learns not only to be brave, but also to appreciate life’s joys.
I think of the young man that I was standing stricken with grief and shock in that parking lot in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It was hard to imagine such a thing as that robbery was possible. All my stuff was tossed naked into the world. And the losses. I loved that camera. That running suit. That deerskin portfolio. And I loved that woman for as long as she was mine.
But losing things you love is an important lesson in how to appreciate and focus on the things you still have, and can do. Which is why every step I take now as a runner, every pedal stroke as a cyclist and every bend and pull of the arm means something a little different. It’s everything I have, and yet nothing at all.
Zen philosophy teaches that even the most precious possessions are nothing to covet in terms of ownership. The famous example of a zen master treating a crystal goblet as an everyday object is most telling: “I imagine it already broken. Therefore it cannot cause me grief if it goes that path.”
“I imagine it already broken. Therefore it cannot cause me grief if it goes that path.”
What an ethereal existence. What a purposeful way to live. I feel lighter just thinking about it. Faster too. Let it go.