Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Different Stories Lead to Different Existences

When a hurricane hits and destroys a block of houses, everyone is a victim of the storm. We didn't create the storm and we are not responsible for the losses we have suffered.

The loss and suffering require emotional processing. We need to experience the feelings that have been evoked in us by the losses and there will no doubt be suffering. In the aftermath of a sudden and unwished for upending of our lives, we will very likely be sad, angry, and scared. Each of these emotions has a meaning and purpose and requires certain responses on our part for healthy resolution (see my website at http://www.supportforchange.com/ the sections on feelings for a fuller discussion of emotions and health).

The loss of a home requires changes in many of our thought structures as well. It changes our finances, our sense of security and safety, our expectations about the future, and might call into question our judgment and planning. It may erode the foundation that our sense of meaning is built upon. The need for readjustments of our inner expectations, attitudes, and beliefs also requires resolution and our sense of purpose.

Following a major upheavel such as losing one's house to a storm, there will be major individual differences in how long this kind of processing and resolution will take. Also people require different amounts of external support for these processes and different people may have available different amounts of external support.

These factors determine how long it takes for people to move out of victimhood. Healthy people do move from being victims, and do not continue to define their lives in terms of the losses that they have had. Some people recover quickly and some people take a long time and some people get "stuck" and remain victims for the rest of their lives.

The people who first got on the cell phone and started sifting through debris in the hour after they arrived at the site of their destoyed home, were starting to move out of victimhood very quickly. (Probably even before their mourning was complete. Hopefully, they would also make time to experience and resolve their feelings about the loss, even as they continued to cope with the injury).

The people who were still sitting in their lawn chairs in front of the rubble of their former home ten years later, had apparently made a decision at some point to make victimhood the defining aspect of their existence.

Presumably if we asked the people who rebuilt their houses (or even the ones who sold their lots and moved away and renewed their lives somewhere else) and the people remaining in the lawn chairs to tell their life stories, they would read very differently.

For example: .......in 1982 we were living on this block when hurricane Isabel hit. You wouldn't believe the devestation. We'd only finished our house five years before and we really loved it. When we returned after the storm, I just couldn't believe what I saw. The house was leveled, just a pile of junk and everything we owned had been torn apart or blown away. At first glance, it looked like there wasn't anything left. At first I thought my life was over and that the loss was just too great to be endured. Then I noticed that there was a small iron table that had been in my mother's house that was sticking up out of the debris and I was curious. I went over and felt like I had to dig it out of the pile of rubble and when I discovered that it was intact, I realized I wasn't going to let this storm destory my life. I told Joan to get on the phone and call our insurance agent and I started digging to see what else I could find. It was a really hard few months, but we knew we could make it. We had to fight the insurance company to get enough money to rebuild and we could only afford to build a smaller house than the one we had. In the end, we came to see even that as a blessing, because we ended up with more yard space and when we got back on our feet, we were able to put in a small pool. We still miss our Florida room sometimes, but we are really glad to have the pool. It was a terrible ordeal, but we survived it and I think it made us closer as a couple--we worked together, we shared the pain and the joy of rebuilding our lives.

For example... in 1982 we were living on this block when hurricane Isabel hit. It destroyed our home and wrecked our lives. We lost everything and we've never been able to have a real life since. The insurance company didn't want to pay to rebuild the house and we spent years fighting the bastards, but they never would give us a fair settlement. By the time they wrote us a check, we owed most of it to the damn lawyers and there wasn't enough to build a decent house. So we just stay in a trailer that my cousin owns and pay a little rent from what we got from the insurance company. Most days we just come over and sit in the yard and remember wht we used to have and what we were planning for our future. All that is gone now, we've got nothing and it looks like we never will. Life is so unfair. We know people over in Citrustown just a few miles away that didn't even get any damage from the wind when that storm hit us. Those lucky dogs have a beautiful house and are still living just the way they always wanted. We deserved to have a good life just as much as they did.


On Monday, September 25, 1989 hurricane Isabel hit Southeast Florida. The 3700 block of Orchid Lane in Edenville was destroyed--63 homes reduced to piles of rubble.

When the homeowners, who had been evacuated before the storm made landfall, were permitted back into the neighborhood on Thursday, September 28th, they were accompanied by Loni Rogers, reporter from the Miami Coronet. She witnessed the shock, the disbelief, the first signs of overwhelming grief that was sweeping over the members of the 57 families that returned to that block of Orchid Lane (6 families did not return until sometime during the weeks after the storm--they had been warned of the devastation and delyed facing it for various reasons).

On that Thursday morning, Loni watched as each family approached the lot on which their home had existed and watched as they surveyd the bits and pieces of roof, walls, furniture, appliance, family pictures, rugs, twisted bicycles, mangled small sailboats, soggy bits of clothing. It appeared that everyone had lost almost everything.

The tableau that Loni saw an hour after the residents returned to the neighborhood mostly consisted of men, women and children sitting on the grass, or perhaps on a box or lawn chair. These people were generally staring at the ruins of what had been their houses and their lives, glassy eyed, sometimes tearful, speaking little or in hushed tones. A few people were standing or more frequently slowing circling near their homesites, also with somewht vacant stares and frequently with tears streaming down their faces.

Loni noticed in her first glance, that at one site, a woman was on a cell phone, speaking with apparent intensity and her husband was within the perimeter of the foundation of what had been their residence, and he seemed to be pulling out objects and sorting them into two piles.

Three hours later, when Loni returned to the 3700 block of Orchid Lane after surveying the general neighborhood in Edenville, she saw that what she had observed the couple doing at one fallen house, was now being repeated in various ways at 5 or 6 houses. At those former residences, people were talking on phones, sifting through debris, making piles, apparently to move from the site, to save, to discard. She noticed that some of these people were crying, even moaning as they encountered elements of their previous lives which had to be related to and reacted to in entirely new ways.

At the other home sites where families had returned, there was still mostly inactivity--people staring, people sitting, people wandering in a daze. There were more tears than before, and at some sites people were comforting one another. In some places, families seemed to be meeting near the boundaries of their lots and sharing their shocked disbelief with their neighbors and offering consolation to one another.

Loni went back to her office and filed her story, which appeared on the front page of the Coronet on Friday morning. She returned to Orchid Lane about mid-day and she saw greatly increased activity, in various stages at various homesites. In front of several lots, there were many cars and service vans--from insurance companies, building contractors, utility companies. Back hoes, loaders and even dump trucks were at one former house, already taking away some of the ruined house and unsalvageable contents. At other sites, people were just beginning the process of sorting through their wreckage and triaging their possessions from out of the chaos.

There were still lots where people were sitting, more of them on lawn chairs today, but some still on the grass, or wandering aimlessly about, still glassy eyed and unfocused in perception and inactive or aimless.

Loni filed a f0llow up story and the next day was assigned to write about a restaurant that had been badly damaged by the storm, but was now serving some of its customers using several propane powered camping stoves.

Two weeks later, Loni returned to Orchid Lane, and saw that there were signs of progress and recovery at probably 2/3 of the 63 destroyed home sites, in various stages. On two of the lots, the old houses had been totally cleared away and constructions machinery was excavating for new foundations.

There were still perhaps 15 sites, where little seemed to have happened and where one or two or more people were just sitting, usually in lawn chairs, perhaps talking among themselves, with little sign of movement or direction.

Loni went on to other stories and mostly forgot about Edenville and Orchid Lane. 10 years later, a friend of hers moved to Edenville and invited Loni and her husband to come for a barbecue on Sunday afternoon. When Loni drove past the small center of the town she remembered Orchid Lane and decided to swing by and see how the 3700 block had fared.

As their car approached the place where Loni had witnessed the aftermath of the storm and people's reaction to it, she was amazed. There was new houses all around, gardens and flowers as typical of this semi tropical climate, the usual evidences of outdoor life for adults and children--barbecue grills, bicycles, scooters, an occassional small sail boat or Kayak. It was hard to believe that this was the place where so much had been utterly destroyed and taken away.

Loni noticed one lot, where even from some distance, it was apparent that there was not a house. She drove closer and she recognized the couple sitting in two lawn chairs, in front of their former home, that still was a pile of rubble, little changed from the Thursday after the storm, only slightly more decayed and unsightly. Edith and John were sitting in their lawn chairs, an ice chest between them and he was drinking a beer, she a diet Coke.

Loni, got out of her car and approached the couple and when she asked them what had happened to their house, maintaining an assumed reportorial ignorance, Edith said, "Oh, we are victims of that Hurricane, it destroyed our lives." John added, "Yes, Isabel took everything from us. We have nothing left. We were ruined."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

We are, in part, Who we Say we are.

Our Human Existence is made up of the stories we tell about ourselves.

Our experience is strongly influenced by the stories we make up about our lives.

This Blog is intended to support myself and others in the effort to create valuable written answers to the question, "WHO AM I?".

As part of this support, the Blog will contain a fuller explanation of why I think writing autobiographical material is important and how it can be useful.

The blog will also provide some guidelines, both theoretical and practical, for people wanting to write stories about themselves.

I will also publish here some stories about myself as examples of the kind of writing that might prove useful.