krys méndez ramírez

Surviving Sandy, Tempestuous Thoughts

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings on November 4, 2012 at 4:23 AM

Like many other New Yorkers, the past week was wrought with hardships and aggravations. I am extremely grateful to be alive, to not have suffered incredible structural damage, and to still be here to describe the experience.

That said, my focus on self-healing, meditation, and peaceful centeredness was completely swept away with the downed electrical wires that kept me without heat and power for five days. In spite of the fact that this experience afforded me an invaluable opportunity to dismiss my material possessions, to cast off unnecessary, mind-numbing distractions (vices), and keep in tune with the beauty of the world-as-it-is, I was too frazzled by stresses that surfaced like bubbles in a boiling kettle.

For one thing, I couldn’t get myself to write, being so accustomed to using a keyboard.

Secondly, the lack of heat made it uncomfortable for me to meditate, and with the exception of a single night, I fell asleep nurtured by the natural warmth of candlelight.

Thirdly, the stress of a disrupted schedule, the inability to clamp onto any work, the limited ability to travel, and the fact that I was stuck in my pseudo-suburban neighborhood with just my family for company pushed me to the limits of my patience.

I reflected largely on the intricate spatial inequalities wrought by Hurricane Sandy (living in a mixed-income, home-owning neighborhood, right north of a richer, whiter neighborhood–Howard Beach–by Jamaica Bay). I thought about who was most affected, who had the means to escape.

Fallen trees and wrecked cars were a common site throughout South Queens in Sandy’s aftermath

But what most affected me was something closer to home–feeling trapped in a space without a community, without the presence of friends I could warmly trust and confide in, share moments with while commiserating.

Even more dangerous were the irritations I experienced spending–forcibly–time with my parents as we negotiated ways to cope with the lack of electricity and heat. While there were “productive” moments, moments of dialogue and strategizing, all in all, I felt as if I was falling into an old space again. A swirl of facts, thoughts, vague dreams kept reverberating in the halls of my mind:

I’m 24… It’s been two years since I’ve returned from college…I’m still living with my parents because my health condition makes moving out too costly… I’m stuck in a job that has made me compromise so much of my integral values, and has made me dislike the things I once enjoyed… My relentless, chronic pain continues unresolved, crippling me before I ever had a chance to craft a life for myself… Where I had hope a year ago, now I’m moving about in quicksand with nothing to keep me inspired… My hopes of becoming a self-fulfilled activist and educator have been destroyed by a callous joke by the Universe…My hopes of finding love and community have been cut at the root by my heinous disease… My dreams and aspirations have have been blown away like boardwalks by the Jersey Shore… 

The thoughts kept filling the spaces of my mind the way Sandy surged through basements. I partly feel guilty because I know my situation does not represent the worst–nothing comparable to the lives lost and homes ruined forever.

Yet I was forced to face the demons of this past year: in my own way, though I was not meditating on stillness nor meditating in the present, I was meditating on the emotions, fears, and anxieties that surfaced–seemingly spontaneously–once I lost the comfort of material distractions.

I had moments where I wanted to chastise myself. I could have used the time to do real meditation, concentrating my attention on the beauty of the world before me, my life-existent… But I couldn’t. I’d close my eyes and…there it was. A vortex of indescribable loneliness. The past and the future inter-crossed like two fronts colliding to birth a tornado. I was caught in the middle, and try as much I wanted to, I couldn’t detach myself.

This past week, surviving Sandy didn’t mean surviving a wrecked home or  surviving damages to my body and health. (The wreckage is disheartening, but the efforts people are taking to survive, move on, and help others is inspirational) Sandy was memorable, not because of the lost electricity and heat, but because of how it challenged me to experience the spaces and movements and the pace of time with open eyes.

It was, instead, an experience living through mental and emotional chaos–a disruption of the day-to-day that challenged me to stay grounded…and be centered.

I can’t say I passed the test of Buddhist dharma. (Which is what? Keeping my cool? Maintaining perpetual loving-kindness?) On second thought, maybe the notion of this being a ‘test’ is a fabrication of my mind. As are the fears, anxieties, and chaotic mental intrusions that challenged me this last week.

I end this post with some sound words from Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen poet, teacher, and political thinker. In an essay about embracing the inner child within, he proceeds to talk about the pain that we confront when we allow our knots of suffering (i.e. our basement) to surface. He writes:

“When we dismantle the barrier between the basement and the living room, blocks of pain will come up and we will have to suffer a bit. Our inner child may have a lot of fear and anger stored up from being down in the basement for so long. There is no way to avoid it.

That is why the practice of mindfulness is so important. If mindfulness is not there, it is very unpleasant to have these seeds come up. But if we know how to generate the energy of mindfulness, it’s very healing to invite them up every day and embrace them…

Every time you have your internal formations a bath of mindfulness, the blocks of pain in you become lighter. So give your anger, your despair, your fear, a bath of mindfulness every day…”

Rather than doping, distracting, anesthetizing ourselves from a world that is fraught with savage inequalities and violence, perhaps the take-home message is to have courage in confronting the problems that plague us. To have courage to walk straight into the storm.

And to be mindful every step of the way.

  1. Happy you are able to continue taking refuge in the dharma. I’m moved by the sharing. Wishing you success in connecting with community and feeling like an ocean more than a drop of water. After many years practicing with Thich Nhat Hanh I have healing myself, but I’m not sure that I faced the adversity you, and so many others are living with now. May you be well, feel safe and experience freedom.

    • Thank you for those kind words, smile. I humbly admit being new to Buddhist teachings, but am quite amazed how well it aligns with my experiences and views as an activist. I look forward to practicing more mindfulness. May you continue finding peace in this world.

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