Routine and habit are powerful forces for either maintaining or destroying everything that is comfortable and familiar in our lives — whether that comfort and familiarity is wanted and good, or the root of our very undoing.
Making it to the gym in the morning, or finding your daily fix of painkillers. Taking the time to steam your vegetables, or hitting the drive-thru for dinner. Telling someone special you love them, or picking that same old fight just to keep an old grudge alive for another day.
But here’s the thing:
Those routines and habits — for better or for worse — are all rooted in choice. In decisions. In your actions, explicit or subconscious, blatant or second-nature, when some element of power or control is in your hands.
But what happens when the power to choose, decide or act is completely stolen from you?
What happens when forces far greater than can ever be altered or controlled dictate the decision for you — rendering your habits, routines, and every ounce of comfort and familiarity totally upturned, useless, foreign, altered, destroyed?
There is chaos.
Chaos Outside, Chaos Within
Last Wednesday, I drove from Manhattan to Rhode Island. Ever since then, I’ve been feeling… stuck. And honestly, the only thing that has made me feel unstuck in the last five days is the thought of you.
Speaking with you. Corresponding with you. Sharing with you and, just as much, asking you to do the same with me — the idea of you sharing, corresponding and talking with me.
That’s one reason why I write to you today.
The other reason is because I’m not sure of what else I can do to inspire the sensation of power being back in my hands — to restore some semblance of order, decision, or even self-reliance within. I know that I need that feeling to survive: that feeling of personal power, of forward motion that stirs a sensation of internal awakening; a self-activating force that reminds me that I’m choosing myself every step of the way — not waiting to be picked.
Those are a part of my core nowadays. Without them, there is chaos within. Turmoil. The daunting and disgusting feeling of total unfulfillment; a day without soulful purpose lifting and pushing each stride of my feet. Now that I’ve tasted it, I’ll never be able to go back.
And yet, have you ever felt “stuck” after having made a major decision a reality — a long thought-out plan that finally comes to pass, and then after its done you’re left asking, “Well, now what?”
Maybe it’s just that moving on such short notice is unsettling and demands some inner look or exploration so that we might understand these new shifts in our environment — in other words, striving to make sense and order of all of the changes to everything we had known, every habit, every routine, every familiar face and scene.
Then again, for me, it may be something far simpler than that: the manner in which I had left New York City.
A Tale of Two Cities
New York to Rhode Island. Yes. I had spent the last few days in the dark.
Lower Manhattan was blackened from Hurricane Sandy. The super-storm ravaged Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey, demolishing countless hundreds of homes with a 100-year storm surge and battering winds.
On Monday, the day the storm was due to hit, I spent most of the passing hours alone in my apartment, just waiting. What a helpless feeling to await a storm. You feel the air changing. The clouds have already come. There is a sense of scrambled preparedness mixed with tempered fear upon the streets — and like a game of chicken, not one stranger you pass wishes to be the first voice of panic or worry or hesitation.
The primal fear we all have — of death — is so intimidating that we try to fight its realness. Sometimes that resistance becomes awash with an ego-driven tenacity: “To the bar! Hurricane party! I’m not preparing, this one will be a cinch!” Like a pre-teen desperate for reassurance, it’s usually the faux-brave who are indeed afraid the most, for they have the most to lose: this false sense of control, of foreverness, of immortality.
The hours pass on that Monday, and the day slowly becomes dusk.
I move from the edge of my bed and the window sill, over and over again, looking out upon a familiar view of East Houston Street, facing south into New York City.
The Freedom Tower stands in the distance — and as the storm begins to hit, I gauge its intensity from the remaining visibility of the rising tower through the clouds and rain.
Its nearly 8:30 PM now and though the storm surge has not quite struck, in moments the tale of two cities really begins.
An inaudible explosion fourteen blocks north knocks out most of the remaining electricity in Lower Manhattan. The electrical explosion is so massive that I see its flash from my window, facing south, opposite of where the explosion had even occurred:
The last light you see is that of the Freedom Tower.
However faint and small it seems, it is that the rising emblem of resilience and liberty that shines like a nightlight amid the battering winds. It stands there, silent, regal, proud. Ever-rising. And remarkably reassuring.
Then, the tower goes black.
The night is a trying one. You think of all those who are suffering right now. Of the unthinkable power of mother nature. Every gust of wind upon your shaking windows is a threatening reminder. But before long you know you must sleep. There’s little else you can do at this point. It’s a waiting game.
And so you fall asleep with your feet to your headboard, in case the windows break; you sleep fully clothed and with a bag packed, in case you need to flee. The East River has already crested. It makes it way inland just three blocks east.
The next couple of days are something out of a movie.
You watch a city that never sleeps fall eerily silent. Blacker than night.
You watch supermarket employees throw out hundreds of pounds of produce and perishables into dumpsters and dump trucks — and ordinary people desperately dive in after it.
Blown out windows and twisted metal. Pedestrians huddle over power strips on the street. Walk dozens and dozens of blocks by foot — you feel more in control that way — as you search for food, cell-phone reception, the latest news and any bit of normalcy north of the Dark Zone, downtown.
These inconveniences are, of course, pathetically minor when compared to the devastation and loss of life that struck tens of thousands of our neighbors throughout the region. My heart is shattered for them. And, it is the unthinkable depth and tragedy of their loss that prompted the opening thoughts to this piece:
“What when forces far greater than can ever be altered or controlled dictate the decision for you — rendering your habits, routines, and every ounce of comfort and familiarity totally useless, foreign, destroyed?”
So, friend, arm yourself now with your imagination:
Let’s explore this subject as we always do: to use the power of our minds and our thoughts that dawns from our hearts to practice what decisions and actions we may take every day — to shape the reality of life that we desire to live.
You’re in the black. What’s to do? You find your power. No, not electricity: I’m talking about your power within. You need to find it again. Desperately.
Your first task is to search out a means within yourself that places some sense of order or power back into your hands — what little semblance of it you might possibly find by choice and inner commitment, in spite of the unstoppable power of nature and everything in this universe that is forever outside of our control.
You turn within. You go to your roots.
You unearth the values you strive to live by every day and bring them up to the surface — this is your saving grace. From here, from your inner values, you begin to cultivate order of disorder — and remain at peace within.
Here are three steps I took to find my power:
1.) Put the Pen in Your Hands: Shape Your Experience
My three roommates (the New York City experience had begun with one) were nowhere to be found in the storm. So when the lights went out and there was darkness, I was able to selfishly scoop up one of the few candles in our apartment and put pen to paper by candlelight:
With the pen in your hand — whether literally through writing, or figuratively through any expressive or creative means from story-telling to photography or journaling — you begin to reclaim your power by literally shaping your experience:
“Wind and sirens.
That’s all that’s left; just wind and sirens.
Even this candle grows weary. And though the minutes still pass, the night keeps getting longer and longer. Darker and darker. And then the night becomes black.
Wind and sirens. That’s all that’s left.”
Power may be out of your hands. Control may be remarkably absent.
But when you actively engage in some creative or expressive act, however minor it may seem, what you are doing is reaffirming the essence of self-reliance and the power of choice.
Through dictation, interpretation or documentation, choice is not intangible but palpable — remarkably real as you interpret and literally shape what you are experiencing into some physical form.
2.) Defy Stasis. Seek engaging activity. Seek movement that is Momentous.
By Tuesday morning, the gravity and depth of the situation was becoming remarkably real.
And in that situation of reaffirmed powerlessness — feeling like you don’t have much to give or help to offer outside of a few pieces of bread, a few bottles of water, or catching a neighbor or stranger you encounter nearby — the added feeling of “just waiting around” idly becomes absolutely torturous.
Waiting felt like death. Submission. Each hour feels agonizingly long — and so it is when there are not countless gadgets, toys and things to distract us!
That’s when you have to defy the feeling of stasis through movement.
Whether with team-building in an organization or just trying to build personal confidence in your own life, when you can make and measure strides (whether literally making forward steps, or figuratively cross off items on a list), you begin to build that desired confidence in a visually, quantifiably, indisputably “real” way.
And taking step towards a desired goal begins to inspire reassurance, power and confidence through tempered forward progress.
Knowing that forward movement creates positive momentum, I decided to walk.
Uptown. To my buddy’s place, 65 blocks north.
The 3+ mile jaunt with backpack in-tow was hardly a trying hike, but every step beneath my feet felt really damn good. Progressive. Momentous. The small challenge was being conquered, and that conquering feat was empowering. Better yet, with simple movement, you reaffirm those positive and powerful sensations of creation, pursuit, and choice, every single step of the way:
And, in the process of defying stasis, you realize another added benefit:
You’re amongst people — not holed up and hidden away in a dark apartment.
On the streets, you hear people talking — some is gossip and rumor, others are sharing what they experienced the night before, others are talking about where to find power and water and food around the neighborhood.
Connection. Empathy. Relatability. Togetherness. “We’re in this together.”
3.) Tell the Tale. Share the Experience. It Might Even Help People.
When I walked home that Tuesday night, the feeling of progress and measured confidence-building was completely undone.
There is emptiness and unknown. More waiting — this time, for sunrise. And though you are walking and making forward progress, any progress you might feel amid that darkness feels like treading black water.
Here you can see my view from 40th street looking south down Second Avenue, where cars and cabs descend into the Dark Zone — it’s hard to tell that hundreds of buildings line that black street:
The Dark Zone. That’s what I began to call it. Because it was not only black to light at nightfall, it was also disturbingly eerie. Empty. Primal. Thousands upon thousands of people huddled amongst themselves in unusual quiet and black.
And walking through the streets of the Dark Zone was even more eerie.
I had to reclaim my power again somehow. I thought once more to tell the tale of what I saw — surely, no one would see this writing until I could again find power and cell-phone reception. But as a journalist scribbles notes of what he witnesses, so too did I strive to take an out-of-body perspective on my experience — that it might open up the heart of another who reads it, below.
So, here for you is what I wrote that Tuesday night, walking home in the black:
“In the dark zone, there is a disturbing feeling of emptiness and lawlessness.
The only light comes in sporadic flashes like fireworks on the fourth of July, illuminating the empty silhouettes that pass you by on the street. When the firework bursts — headlights of a passing car or flashing sirens of an emergency vehicle — their eyes squint hard and so do yours, and though you could well be neighbors, in this empty darkness it is a primal, uncivil fear that grips you.
You see it in their eyes. You feel it in your gut. Uncertainty. Hesitation. Wariness. Fear.
On down the street, the fear begins to settle. You pass one storefront to see its owner selling hot food in a makeshift buffet line from the window of his restaurant, one dim lamp overhead:
You keep walking. All of a sudden, you smell flowers. By the hundreds. It’s one of the bodegas you often pass by, and this night, in spite of the darkness, its street-side shelves are fully stocked with fragrant bouquets that dress the black night with a calming peace and beauty.
Your eyes meet those a stranger, his eyes lit by the fiery butt of a glowing cigarette.
Then, you turn left down a side street blacker than the back of your closet: every shrub looks like a shadowy figure playing some sick Halloween prank.
It’s deathly quiet. No cars pass down this street.
You walk by a human looking figure dressed darkly — a large suitcase by his side. But he does not move at all. He just stands there, looking into the window of a closed coffee shop. You wait for him to turn and scream. He doesn’t. He just stands there, silent.
Your pace turns faster and the primal fear sinks deeper now. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that the two-inch folded knife hooked to your belt is now jabbing your gut with each fervent step.
Finally, your make it home.
By the white glow of your iPhone lock screen, you pass through the silent hall whose orange overhead lights had greeted you every evening those last six months. Not tonight. Tonight, every turn up the stairwell is the same: empty and black. No shadowy figures hover there, but your mind races as if you’re trapped and treading through a haunted house, waiting for something, anything, some noise or creek or groan.
After those fifty steps up, you enter your apartment. You’ve made it. You’re home.
But what was home for the last half year will no longer be home come tomorrow. This home shall disappear as quickly as the lights: in a violent, silent flash.”
That home was due to disappear, because that next morning I was moving out of New York City.
Most of my belongings had been moved into storage nearby. I decided in the beginning of October to take some time away from the Big apple. In just a few months, I have grown to love the city and living there is an incredible experience. But recently, I have been feeling like another “something” is bound to occur, and is waiting for my movement.
And so, I decided just a few weeks ago to move on short notice, and to see what “something” unfolds.
And what a task it is to relocate from a major amid a major emergency. I woke up just before dawn. And from my window was more of the same. Blackness, except for the flashing lights of a single police vehicle:
That day would be another long one.
A 3-hour wait and 100+ person line to rent a car (even with pre-made reservations) in Midtown after a 40-block walk to get there. Moving a few hundred pounds of stuff down four flights of stairs (my storage space was powerless and closed) before a 2-hour drive through Manhattan traffic and another 3-hour drive back to Rhode Island.
But you have to keep every inconvenience in perspective along the way.
That — just as much as any action, decision or choice — is a part of what keeps you in power, in control of yourself, present and grounded and able to act accordingly to the ever-changing situation around you.
Whether a hurricane, a national emergency, a hangnail or a heartbreak… remember that.
Some concluding thank you’s (and reminders).
1.) Thank you, neighborhood shops, for providing us with a little taste of normalcy:
Big businesses and corporate storefronts shut down after Hurricane Sandy, but neighborhood cafes and coffee shops — such as PEELS on Bowery, pictured above — and restaurants like pizzerias with gas-fired ovens served the public with smiles. Supplies were small and limited as owners and managers ushered-in foods and drinks in ice-bins, heat-applied buffet trays and served hot coffee from canteens.
2.) Always remember, no matter where you are or what you’re going through, that somewhere there are others who are suffering far, far worse than you:
Men and women trekked miles uptown by foot to recharge their phones, attempt to contact loved ones and desperately try to figure out travel plans out of Manhattan. This, a minor inconvenience as not far away, hundreds of homes in New Jersey, Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island were washed away, burned down or otherwise destroyed by high tides and violent winds.
3.) Remember to smile when you can:
A hungry squirrel investigates an interesting looking shopping cart in Washington Square Park left behind by a pedestrian during the storm.
4.) Thank you to the NYPD, FDNY, emergency services personnel, electrical workers, and the thankless workers and store employees who worked around the clock to keep order, to clean up, and to help begin to bring everything back to normal:
Employees of Trader Joe’s on 14th street clean up their powerless store, throwing out boxes upon boxes of spoiled perishables and produce into a dump drunk, on right. All across Lower Manhattan, employees and volunteers help to clean up the mess after the storm. In the foreground, a man sweeps melted ice cream into storm drains.
The power of choice is in your hands right now, too.
You can pick up your phone and to easily donate a few dollars to help ordinary people — neighbors, friends, family — who have lost their homes, peace of mind, comfort, basic necessities we take for granted.Text REDCROSS to 90999 to instantly donate $10 to the American Red Cross for disaster relief as the Red Cross is still continually helping to provide desperately needed water, shelter, clothing, blankets and hot food to those in need across New Jersey, Staten Island and Long Island and elsewhere.
Your power is always there for the choosing.
Don’t wait to be picked. Don’t hope to be chosen.
Choose yourself. Choose your power. Do it right now — it’s easy. Say it aloud. “I choose myself.” Choose to do what you can, where you can, as best you can. That’s all any of us can ever hope for. Together, our efforts can unite to make a great symphony of giving, compassion, hope, and healing.
As always, thank you.
And I hope to hear from you very soon — drop me a line and say hello.