At the end of my week in town I’d stopped remember to eat and my brain was like a broken screen door swinging in the wind. My last team that arrived to help me help flood victims, instead were spending most of their energy keeping me from keeling over. One of these volunteers kindly and firmly forced me to rest and just to make sure I did she lay down next to me.
She was a friend of a friend, and I’d only met her that day.
Now we were napping together.
While we lay there I said, “Tell me about your life.”
She started telling me where she worked and what her interests were.
I said, “You know I’m not listening.”
She stroked my hair and responded, “I know. That’s fine. I’m just talking quietly so you can rest your mind and bones.”
I’d returned the next morning after my meeting with the Governor to this small town in Vermont where water had washed away homes and filled hopes with mud.
While the team I came with—four out-of-state Vermonters—got to work on crews, reorganizing the information board, and coming up with strategy I could offer to help keep doors (literally) open, I stood there on the steps of the town hall. When people came with a question or wanting to volunteer I did my best to send them in a useful direction.
During that morning as I saw the chaos and extreme defensiveness all around me I repeatedly thought, “This isn’t going to work. I’m not sure they are going to be able to keep these doors open and I’m not sure, even if they do, they are going to want our help. People need help all over Vermont and maybe we should go somewhere else.”
But more powerful than what I was thinking was the force that had a hold on me, which if it had a voice might have said:
“You just stand here and look for opportunity.
Be an opportunity for this town.
Make whatever small gestures you can to keep people focused on what is possible. Do not get bogged down by what seems impossible.
Trust that opportunities are everywhere if you look for them, are open to them, and absolutely do not focus on impediments, frustrations, or personal slights.”
Looking for opportunity means realizing everyone is a resource however obstinate, recalcitrant, inefficient, inept, inert, traumatized, limited, or lame they seem to be. Help channel their energy in the right direction and—Voila! We move forward, work gets done, needs get met.
By the end of the day new connections were being made, awkward grace was establishing itself, and community leaders and the town selectman were beginning to work together.
I (through the art of just the right amount of agreeing, flirting, and apologizing applied at all the opportune moments) had been granted the job of volunteer coordinator for the town.
A man approached me nervous and embarrassed to ask for help. His family had lost all their belongings in the flood and they were staying with friends. He had five children, one a new baby girl. He said he needed a pair of steel towed boots and without them he couldn’t go back to work.
My heart, filled with moonlight and exhaustion, was slipping over the cliff. He was crying, but trying not to. He said something was caught in his eyes as he rubbed them with his worn hands.
We (local residents, volunteers from out of town) were getting a lot done—we got this man boots—we made sure people had volunteers where they needed them, we made sure folks came with their trucks to haul debris, and we made sure people moved out of wet uninhabitable trailers into safer temporary living situations.
Every roadblock and opposition that arose I saw as the reality of the moment but not the condition of the future and I was fierce about this.
The town hall had no cell phone service and only one landline and it couldn’t call out of state and it didn’t have an answering machine. When it became clear we wouldn’t be getting an emergency cell tower or additional phones we all became skilled at walking apparently in circles in the parking lot looking for that one two foot area of cell reception.
A woman came to me three or four days after I arrived and said, “I saw you speak at the community meeting and I see how you are organizing things here. My town is also struggling. I was just wondering if you have a manual on disaster relief response?”
I smiled, “Oh you mean the manual titled, Get Sh** Done?”
I don’t think it has been written yet. But if I was going to write it I’d title the first chapter,
“Don’t Look for Leaders, Become One”
and another, “Inefficient Disaster Response is Better Than No Disaster Response”
and the final chapter would be “Don’t Ask Permission. Apologize Later.”
When our team left after that week the doors to the town hall were open and the community (led by a local woman who should be sainted), with no help from the town manager, but growing help from the selectman, were running the relief operation and all the most dire emergency needs were met.
But there was a new emergency on my hands.
My capacity to function had diminished to the point where all I could do was sit in a car and weep. I’d been working seventeen, eighteen hour days attempting to coordinate ten hundred details, listening and loving residents, basking in the most amazing volunteers showing up to help everyday. Friends had been helping me tirelessly from afar always just a phone call or text away day or night.
I had the sure team, the dream fleet, the sweet things.
One woman said to me a few days in, “Where are you finding these people? Everyday another crew of amazing leaders shows up. I’ve lived in this state for many years and run state wide coalitions and I never could have brought in this many skilled volunteers on this short notice.”
I replied, “Artists. I know artists. They know how to organize, empathize, and accessorize. Notice their fashionable muck boots. And they are ferocious about following their friends into harms way.”
Finally, later that day, these volunteers put me to bed. I couldn’t drive my own car—too tired, weepy, and achy—so one of them drove it for me while another drove me in her car to the house of a woman I’d met ten years before and then run into again at the local school.
It took about four of them totally focused on the job to tuck me in. They left me little love notes and snacks in every pocket and folder I came with to make sure I didn’t diminish to nothing due to dehydrated flood exhaustion.
Pema Chödrön writes, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
In a dream I am in a house raging down a sinking river. I jump out onto the bank and start to climb a hill sure that flood victims need my help. At the top of a hill is a monastery of some kind. They’ve been hit hard by the storm. Bodies are being pulled out of buildings. I go to offer help but first I am given a slip of paper to fill out and a room number and then I am taken to an outside tent with great pots of rice and beans to eat.
Shocked, I realize I’m not taking care of them, they are taking care of me.
My Vermont Irene Story—The Series
Introduction: Oh My Water-logged Love, My Home, My Heart: Vermont
Stay tuned for part 5 of My Vermont Irene Story.
Vermont still needs leaders! Go to: www.vtresponse.com.
To offer your financial assistance to recovery efforts please consider making a donation to the Farmer Emergency Fund.
To find out more about how Vermont is recovering from Tropical Storm Irene go to VT DIGGER.