For the past 25 years, I have made the same New Year's resolution: Throw out half of what you own and spend more time with your friends. Little did I know how prescient that resolution would prove to be in 2012. Nor did I sense that before the year was out, I would receive a transformational opportunity to fully experience what it means to "let go, let God."
"Swish!" First, it broke through the back wall of the house where I was watching the Weather Channel. Ninety-mile-an-hour winds bashed tree branches against the triple-pane windows. "Glug-glug!" Mini-fountains began sprouting up near the wall. Three hours to high tide.
Ever since childhood, my dream house had been a cottage with a view of the water. I used to have a painting of one in my bedroom. When my divorce was finalized in 1993, a joint custody clause required that I live within a 50-mile radius of the Empire State Building. This led me to Long Beach, a barrier island community of some 35,000 residents about 25 miles from Manhattan. A family-oriented beach community where I never had to lock my door, it met the requirements of both the joint custody clause and my childhood. From my front garden, you can watch boats in the Reynolds Channel at the north end of the block. In 2011, when Hurricane Irene breached the seawall at the end of the block, a small river ran down the middle of the street at curb-height until the tide receded but the house was untouched.
After speaking to several first responders who advised me to put sandbags in front of the doors and hunker down, I decided that, whatever happened, I needed to see it for myself. Better to take action immediately than to worry from a remote location. Like the captain of a ship, if the house was going to float away, I was going with it.
Team coverage! This just in! During my decade in TV news, I had committed multiple egregious acts of hurricane hype. No stranger to hyperbole masquerading as news, I checked the NOAA website. The forecast called for a 24-hour rain event with two to four inches of rain. This seemed to indicate that if the house flooded during high tide, the water would quickly recede when it ebbed. This turned out to be the case.
When you think of fountains, you probably think of spas, gardens, and meditative spaces. But the gentle sound of water bubbling up as it spread triggered an eerie cognitive dissonance. Sure, the sound was refreshing. But the visuals were unforgettably disturbing, even more so because the ankle-deep water was not coming from the Reynolds Channel which was just reaching the sidewalk. A quick look out the back door revealed a four and a half foot sheet of water extending to a smaller canal about 200 yards to the west of the house.
As the flood surged to mid-calf level, my boyfriend and I began moving emergency supplies into the attic with Bogart the cat. Cat food, litter, water, blankets, first-aid kit, power bars, laptops, TV screen, and a back-up drive were lifted to safety, along with candles, lanterns, matches, and an emergency radio/lantern that operated on electricity, batteries, solar power, and a crank. My boyfriend had laughed at me when I proudly unpacked this last item, having bought it from Macy's last May as a birthday present to myself. He was not laughing now.
Nor was he laughing at the 10 gallons of water that I had stockpiled after my father appeared to me in a dream six months earlier. "Buy water," he said. "You are going to need it." My dad died in 1989, but I figured if he had gone to the trouble of showing up in a dream I needed to pay attention. Each time I went to the supermarket, I would grab a gallon of water to take home. After I had stockpiled half a dozen gallons, I was forced to admit that I had, in fact, become something of a closet prepper.
Doomsday preparation suppliers were the network sponsors of Genesis Communications Network, where I hosted The Dr. Laurie Show: Your Place to Explore the Unknown and Expect the Unexpected from 2007-2009. We ran commercials for everything from gold to meals ready-to-eat to survivalseedsinacan.com. At the time, I'd thought of survivalists as a sub-culture but in the past five years I had started to notice that the high tides were covering all the marsh grass. The seas were visibly rising. I loved living near the water but for the past few years it was looking like some day the ocean might pay me a visit.
That day had now come.
An hour and a half before high tide. Three and a half feet of water filled the entire the house. The Channel overflowed the sandbags, pushing through the front door. We were completely surrounded.
"Guess we're not leaving now," I shrugged. Crash! Gurgle! The refrigerator crashed onto its side, floating near the back door. The washing machine and a 10-foot leather couch were floating, too. Titanic! In my own home! The flood was churning up books, manuscripts, potted plants, firewood, a loveseat, and antique wooden chairs. A legal bookcase. Wet clumps of paper towels and toilet paper smeared against the walls. Catching a whiff of natural gas, I called the gas company, only to have the phone go dead before I finished tapping out the emergency phone number. The smell dissipated, thanks to emergency shut-down valves in the water heater, furnace, and stove.
For nearly two decades, the little house had provided a place of safety and refuge to hundreds of individuals who came for therapy and support after life-shattering events. In the quiet of my back office, I had written three books and several hundred articles for magazines and the New York Times, Times of London, the Huffington Post. A decade had been lived here as a single mom and friends from around the world had come for vacations. It was all being taken, right in front of my eyes.
A strong wave pushed me from behind. Pulling myself up, I gripped the aluminum staircase to the attic and turned. A force far greater than I could comprehend was at work. My history and life as I knew it was washed out from under me. Although I expected to feel shock and sorrow, in one sparkling moment an oceanic wave of tranquility washed over me from head to toe. My spirit released. What was gone was meant to be gone. What was over was meant to be over. An unmistakable spiritual presence was totally in charge. All I had to do was let go and Spirit would do whatever it meant to do. It was my choice and my privilege to be here at this moment, bearing witness to all this.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a world-class worrier. But in this instant, there was nothing for me to worry about. Oddly, my worries were being lifted from my shoulders. A message whispered to my soul assured me that the tranquility of my home would not be lost. It was now imbued in me and I would carry it wherever I went. The words of a Brazilian prayer came back: "Let there be peace in the ocean. Let there be peace in my soul."
We spent the night in the attic, watching the flood slowly creep up the attic stairs. It stopped at the fourth step, right around the time that we lost our transmission from CBS News on the emergency radio. We managed to sleep for a few hours, awakening at dawn to find a thick film of dirty grease and raw sewage coating the tile floor, the walls, and every item in the house. Apparently the main sewage pump had broken during the storm. The toxic smell of human feces made us cover our noses and mouths as we went into the street where our neighbors were gathered, pointing cell phones at the sky as if , somehow, that would help to catch a signal. What were we supposed to do without power, phone service, or clean water? We were cut off from the rest of the world. Helpless. Confused. Yesterday's normal was completely gone.
Unnerving? Yes. But that deep sense of calm from the night before was still present. Curious about what my new world would be like, I gathered as many things as I could find that were not contaminated and left for a month-long sojourn as a FEMA displaced person. Along the way, I found that I had managed to pack 15 pairs of socks and no underwear. How did that happen? Along the way, I bought a really ugly purple suitcase in which I lugged everything I owned: a laptop, computer backup, financial documents, jewelry, safe deposit keys. I figured that people would look at the purple suitcase and think, "Anyone who has such lousy taste in luggage couldn't possibly have anything worth stealing." From the looks of pity that I got from fellow passengers waiting at baggage claim, the strategy worked.
In the coming month, as I traveled from the ruins of my home to my daughter's apartment in Washington, DC to my brother's home in Dallas, and to a friend's basement in Brooklyn. When I charged my cell phone to call FEMA from a Starbucks in Park Slope, I yearned to go home, then realized with a shock that I had no home.
Walking through my old neighborhood, I realized that it had been a long time since I had hung out with lifelong friends. In some cases, years had slipped by without stopping for coffee or having dinner. In keeping busy, I had missed out on a lot of laughter. For years on end, I had failed to keep my new year's resolution.
My friend John Tarrant, a Zen master and author, says, "A friend helps you move. A real friend helps you move the body." In this case, the body was mine. By taking every "thing" away, Hurricane Sandy carried me into the arms of my real friends and my true family. I could not have wished for anything more beautiful. Which is why I made the same New Year's resolution for 2013. Less stuff, more friends. It took Hurricane Sandy to bring it home to me.