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Good Night, Irene

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 12:53 PM Comments (6)
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Irene packed a punch, to be sure. Some 42 people up and down the eastern seaboard died as a result of the hurricane, and millions of folks were affected by property damage, sustained loss of power, severe flooding and interrupted daily living.

I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s hardships, least of all their personal tragedies. Thanks be to God, we had no catastrophes in southern Connecticut.

Inconvenienced? Sure. We’re still without power, stumbling around to find things in the dark, finding ways to keep our food from going bad, having to go out from the home office to find a place with power and an internet connection…

But that’s the extent of our “suffering.” We have had merely a taste — a sip — of the cup that too many people have had to drink this year and in the past: the death and destruction left in the wake of tornados in Alabama and other parts of the south and Midwest in April; the months-on-end drought in Texas this summer; the loss of life and home in wildfires in the Southwest; the months of living without power or having to shack up in a shelter in the wake of Hurricane Katrina…

And overseas, seeing everything swept away by a tsunami or having to leave the land you love because of a leaking nuclear power plant. Not to mention the famine in certain parts of Africa, earthquakes in China and elsewhere.

So we’ve really been spared, compared to the way nature has impacted other people in the world. We have nothing to complain about.

In fact, we’ve been blessed. In a variety of ways:

The storm swept through out area early before dawn on Sunday, and yet we were still able to drive to Mass at midday, since our way was not blocked by downed trees. We and another family and a couple of other folks were the only ones at Mass. Not to pat ourselves on the back or anything… we were just grateful to have a church nearby that was open, a priest who was there, willing to celebrate Mass in spite of the conditions, which prevented the priest who normally has to travel from a nearby city for that particular Mass. We were reminded that in some parts of the world, a Sunday Mass can actually be a rare event—dependent on a distantly located traveling priest who visits your area when he can.

We had to figure out the best way to manage our food in storage: the leftovers that had to be used up first; the meats and fish and sauces and vegetables that were in the deep freezer in the garage; the bags of ice that needed to be stacked strategically along with the defrosting foodstuffs. We had to reheat things on the stove and light the propane burners with a match, since the automatic igniter depended on the house current. We had to reach out to a neighbor with a generator so we could plug in our blender for a few minutes — and spend half an hour in neighborly conversation. We had to take care not to leave candles burning unattended.

And yet we got to have dinner by candlelight.

On Monday, I had to go to a local café that had power and Wi-Fi so I could access the Internet and email and keep up with the daily production schedule of the Register, especially this week, since we’re about to finish another issue of our biweekly print edition. Because my wife and I had one of our cars in an auto body shop at the time the hurricane hit, we had to learn to get along with one car, to compromise and get rides from each other, to give up some of our independence and rediscover dependence on one another.

In the café, we spoke to neighbors and strangers we normally wouldn’t take the time to chat with. There were lots of people there charging up their laptops and cell phones and other electronic devices and checking email, and as we sipped our coffees, we compared notes and expressed our concern. We looked out for one another when someone needed an electrical outlet.

Since the Register was acquired by EWTN and is now officially headquartered in Alabama, many of us staff members now work at home. That, of course, can be somewhat isolating. No amount of technology, video conferencing or even telephone calls can replace the experience of working together in a common office — something we still had in southern Connecticut just one year ago. Going to the café to work brought me into such an environment again.

The next day, however, I went to the public library, which also has free Wi-Fi. I haven’t spent so much time in a library since college days. The Internet age has sort of made libraries obsolete. Or so I thought. Sure, there were other local residents coming in seeking electrical outlets and trying to do their online banking or check their email or whatever. But there were also people coming in to look for a book. Yes! People still read books — bound paper volumes with words printed with ink. Not just older people who may not be computer literate or have a Kindle, not just retired folks with lots of time on their hands — young people doing research for school papers, middle-aged people seeking a good read, people interested in reading the volumes in the local history section.

I had assumed that Google and Wikipedia have become the main tools for students’ research and people satisfying their curiosity, but apparently not, thank God.

I rediscovered that a library is not only a repository of books (and videos and DVDs and books on tape and musical CDs) but also a place of discovery. From the bulletin board, I learned that American poet laureate emeritus Donald Hall, one of whose books I used at some point in college, is a native of my town. And he will be here at our public library next month for a weekend-long tribute to him. There was a display of his collections of poetry on a stand near the public computers, and while I was waiting for my wife to check her email before she gave me a ride home, I picked up one of Hall’s books and just began reading at random. What a joy and a pleasure to just read poetry, on a printed page.

That’s the kind of wonder and joy of learning I knew so many years ago, before cable TV and the internet made it possible to stay home and get all the information you need through a wire coming into your house.

The winds of the hurricane left our area with clear, cloudless skies and sunny, dry days. Because the storm came at the beginning of the lunar month, the nighttime skies were not only clear, they were moon-less. Since so much of the town was without electricity, there was a minimum of light pollution, so the sky was darker and starrier than it’s been in, well, many moons. I haven’t seen the Milky Way in years. I lay down outside and gazed upward, reminding myself of where we are in relation to our solar system, our galaxy and the universe, how those stars are about the same size as our sun and how their light travels through space for millions or billions of years.

And the good God created all of this. How small and insignificant I am in comparison to the vastness of creation, and yet my faith tells me I am individually created by God and therefore of infinite, inestimable value.

Another night, we sat together outside around a fire pit and prayed the Rosary. We invited our nephews over to marvel at the nighttime sky. They never lost power in their neighborhood, so they had too much light pollution at night.

Oh, and did I mention that we weren’t able to turn on the television? In spite of missing our favorite programs on EWTN, it was a joy to be able to leave off the TV.

So thank you, Irene, for disrupting our lives just a little bit and nudging us out of our comfortable existence. Thank you for reminding us of what life was once like before certain technological advances. For helping us to put our lives and problems in perspective and helping us to rediscover ourselves and one another.

Good night, Irene.

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About John Burger

John Burger
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John Burger came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University and has taught in China and France.