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Hurricane prompts thoughts about human finitude

The night of Hurricane Fran, when we heard the first 50-year old tree splinter, I gathered up my family and bolted for the cellar. The next morning I sat in a borrowed office-like 81,000 others in Durham, we had no electricity-and got paged by an angry East Campus colleague.

She had already phoned my boss' boss' boss to demand to know why the project my staff had been working on for her hadn't been delivered that day. "Um, the hurricane," I said, feeling as though I'd caused it.

I had actually sent my employees home to patch their roofs and lick their wounds-there isn't much you can do in an office without power or phones.

Cataclysm brings out the bear in us. In the ensuing days, I watched fellow citizens slowly become greasy, rude, snarling. It was more than the inconvenience of not being able to take a shower, flush the toilet or buy a quart of cold milk. It was as if there were a devastation in our souls mirroring the one before our eyes.

We had woken up to find that what we thought would always be stable wasn't. Structures that had sheltered us for generations had been stove in overnight. Everywhere, dead trees thrust their pathetic roots in the air.

Normal life was insupportable. We were literally powerless, and we hated that.

Our response? Cling to routine. When police asked people to stay off the roads, we ignored them. With manic intensity we insisted that work must be attended, stores must be open, deadlines must be met. Was this the indomitable spirit of American enterprise and dedication to our jobs, or just a stubborn refusal to accommodate an even more stubborn nature?

Somehow I expected that work would slow down in tacit recognition of our collective losses-trees we had loved, property we had worked hard to build or acquire, old fences and cars and wells that would never be the same. It didn't happen.

Strangely, the pace picked up as everybody gritted their teeth and pretended life was normal. We've been determined to act as though we hadn't all spent a night in terror for our lives.

Well, I feel guilty for pointing this out, but friends, life has not been normal. It's not business-as-usual, even in our insular community. Everybody's tense, impatient, worried. Thirty-seven North Carolina counties are still considered a federal disaster area. People have been displaced, left homeless, even killed. My friend Alan, who is the gentlest of men, picked up a chair this morning and slammed it against a conference table.

No wonder. I just hope we finally get tired of being angry and give up the charade that everything is fine. Could we please give ourselves permission to slow down and look at what has happened? We've been granted a vision of death, a reminder of the complexity and fragility of the vast interdependent web we've created.

Life is mutable. Things hang together. Our illusion of separation and competence is lost, and we can see that alone, no one survives.

For me, that's both scary and bracing.

Hurricane Fran brought not only grief, but this gift. She offered us a challenge and an invitation, if we could only read it aright.

I realize it runs counter to our Puritan work ethic, but I wish institutions, corporations-even universities-would give us all a day of remembrance after a major disaster. We could fly the flag at half-mast, spend a little time just sitting, write a letter to an old friend, light a candle.

Even if our personal goods and chattels escape, natural disasters deserve our attention. They ought to be acknowledged, the gods appeased with whatever rituals our devotion will permit.

I know, I know: Nobody cries for trees. Most people wouldn't use a day of mindfulness to rest or to mourn or to say goodbye to a favorite grove-they'd come to work to get a leg up on the competition, or they'd hit their chemistry textbook, or they'd spray poison around their foundation.

There has been a gaping hole torn, not just in a few thousand roofs, but in our collective psyche. At the very least, we should realize it's OK to be sad. We need a little time to honor our collective mortality.

Paul Baerman is a University employee.


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