From Panic to Peace: finding calm in the face of a storm

On September 5th when I went to the South Miami Target they were already out of water, batteries and many of the other “necessities for your hurricane preparedness kit”. They had a lot of sardines. At that point I was still feeling okay, there was a good chance in the predictions that Hurricane Irma would track to the east. On September 6th I helped my in-laws put on their hurricane shutters and got an enormous headache that night, probably from dehydration.

1 of 18 hurricane shutters

I also had my first panic attack with pounding  heart, nausea and dizziness. We were planning to stay in our house. It was built in 1950 and has a strong hip roof (an actual type of roof, not a roof that practices yoga nor one that is up on all the latest trends) and flexible accordion shutters that lock and are built to withstand extreme wind and impact from flying debris. However, we also have a yard full of trees including an amazing  Live Oak tree that was planted when the house was built. It’s right outside our son’s bedroom. I began to run through worst case scenarios and it wasn’t pretty.

Our 67 year old Live Oak tree and the corner of our house

By the 7th the panic was getting the best of me. I had a dream about escaping with nothing but my antique brown suitcase and my rainbow tie dye bathing suit. My journal entry that morning included the following under Thoughts to Clear – “I am going to die in the upcoming hurricane. ” I closed most of our shutters and locked them. The house was dark inside.

Accordion Shutters

Calls from anxious family members and friends increased my feelings of fear. I convinced my husband that we should go to his parents’ house for the storm, taking the dog, cats, food, and water. Although my in-laws are in a potential flood zone they didn’t have any huge trees over their house. My husband came home from work at lunchtime to put up plywood shutters on the two small windows at the rear of the house that didn’t have accordion shutters. I spent the afternoon taking all of our pictures off the walls and wrapping them in heavy black plastic and duct tape. What would I miss the most if it were lost? Our pictures, my journals, the scrapbooks my mother-in-law has made for my son and husband, my great-grandfather’s fiddle. I tried not to keep checking the storm track on the NOAA website but it was like an addiction. I wanted to know what was happening even though I had no control over it. The storm kept growing larger and had decimated the areas it had already hit.

In the late afternoon I took a break and checked my email. There was a message from Shiloh Sophia, about Whispering to Hurricanes. It wasn’t written only to me, it was to all of her subscribers, but it felt as if it had been written just for me. I read it and cried and went out to sit under the Live Oak tree, perhaps for the last time, and told her how much I loved her. I thanked her for sheltering our house from sun and rain, for being a home to animals and orchids, for making so many acorns last year for the squirrels, for being the site of my “sit spot”, an outdoor meditation practice that I have been doing for many months. I prayed for her to make it through the storm. I curled up between her roots and felt loved and held. I found peace.

My sit spot and where I found peace

The 5:00 advisory from NOAA announced the storm was shifting, not to the east, but to the west. While this meant devastation to the Florida Keys and much of the west coast of Florida, it also meant that we would not receive a direct hit in Miami as had been predicted. We breathed a tentative sigh of relief. It was our 9th family anniversary. We had adopted our son in China on this date in 2008. We didn’t celebrate although we did find a moment to take a family portrait on the love seat, with all of us sweaty and exhausted from preparing for the storm. We spent that night in our house. My journal entry included a gratitude list of all that I am grateful for. It was a long list.

The next morning the track continued to go west. I went back to my in-laws to retrieve the dog’s crate and food, my son’s food and some gin.  I helped my father-in-law cut down the awning over their porch so it wouldn’t pull off part of the roof. The storm wasn’t due until the following day but already there were strong gusts of wind and rainstorms as the outer bands from Irma swirled towards us. The power was out when I returned home. Throughout the day the wind and rain increased. I found myself looking at the things around us with a new sense of appreciation but also a realization of impermanence. What happens to those people who have no warning, in an earthquake, a fire, a flood that you don’t see coming?  What would you try to save?

Sunday morning, September 10th, Irma continued west and we had a normal breakfast. We have a gas stove that can be lit with a lighter and a small generator that kept our freezer humming along and our cell phones and computers operating.

A marvelous invention!

We were able to communicate with our loved ones and reassure them that we were safe. The tropical storm force winds whipped leaves and branches from the trees,  and snapped some trees at the trunk.  Hard rain came in bands and we were happy we had reinforced the front door with sand bags, a tarp, and our large TV cabinet. My relief at having dodged the worst of the storm shifted to sorrow for those who were being hit hardest. I worried about our greyhound who was afraid to go out in the rain and wind.  Each time the rain stopped and I opened the back door to look outside, the landscape had changed. More palm fronds on the ground, another small tree down, our neighbor’s wild almond tree snapped in half and lying in the back yard. Finally, around 6 p.m. the storm lessened and we were able to get Magi outside to relieve himself. It had been 22 hours since he’d last gone!

I checked on our neighbors’ friends who were expecting a baby and staying next door, broke out the gin, and started cooking dinner. We had made it. “It’s good to alive” as my husband posted later that night. And amended “to be alive.”

On September 11th, the anniversary of the terrorists attacks on the U.S, we walked outside to an altered landscape. The sound of chainsaws filled the air and we realized how lucky we were after seeing other homes that didn’t fare as well as ours.

A neighbor’s poinciana tree that snapped in the wind

We checked in with friends and neighbors, offering ice and cold drinks. We rescued two of our neighbors’ five koi that had made it through the night without a working aerator.

Our neighbors’ fish, enjoying the bubbler in our pond

People we had formerly only waved at now stopped by to offer gasoline for our generator. Disaster can bring out the best in people. On our 10th day without electricity we are now accustomed to cold showers, cooking on the gas grill and walking around with a headlight.  The streets are mostly clear and school is scheduled to reopen tomorrow after more than a week of being closed.  Clean up continues and there are power companies from all over the U.S. and Canada restoring electricity to Florida. Many of our neighbors now have power and I’m editing this post and adding photos from the comfort of one of their air conditioned houses.  Soon I’ll go back home and I know I won’t remain in a peaceful state for the entire day. Bands of frustration, impatience, and anger will be interspersed with moments of sincere appreciation for little comforts like ice in a glass of water, enjoyment of the fact that I have a house to return to, the feel of a fan blowing on my skin, and connection and love for my family. I don’t expect to stay in a state of bliss but I’m a lot more aware of when I’m happy. Watching the stars at night, seeing the breeze blow through the branches of the Live Oak and taking clean laundry off the clothesline are all opportunities for experiencing peace and joy.May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you love and be loved.

p.s. We are now tracking Tropical Storm Maria and won’t put the generator away, even if power is restored!


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